“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” (H. G. Wells)

Happy Valentine’s Day! Whether you are single or romantically attached, I wish you all a day filled with the greatest love of all:

Last year on Valentine’s Day I looked at novels by a famous couple: Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis and I thought I’d do it again this year. I’ve picked Rebecca West and HG Wells, who must have been a formidably intellectual couple; I for one would have been terrified to go to theirs for dinner. They had an affair for ten years (one of many for Wells, done with his wife’s knowledge) and a son together; they were friends until Wells died.

Firstly, The Thinking Reed (1936) by Rebecca West. Set in 1928, Isabelle is two years younger than the century and widowed after her beloved husband Roy dies in a plane crash. She is an American in France:

“Her competent, steely mind never rested. She had not troubled with abstract thought since she left the Sorbonne, but she liked to bring everything that happened to her under the clarifying power of the intellect.”

At the start of the novel she is having an affair with Andre de Verviers “He was an idiot, but his body did not know it”, a shallow man who likes his women to be goddesses to worship, not real in any way. Isabelle knows she must be rid of him:

“the generic woman in her who loved the generic man in him should have endless opportunities to betray the individual woman in her who loathed the individual man in him”

I thought that was a really unflinching summary of the end of their love affair, and West continues with this clearsighted view throughout the novel. Isabelle ends up marrying Marc Sallafranque, in a strange situation which arises from her trying to save face in front of the man she wants to be with, the cold Laurence Vernon. Thankfully these convoluted machinations soon stop, as she realises she does actually love Marc.

“ ‘He looks the funniest thing in the world, but inside he has a lot of the goodness and sweetness of Roy.’ She paused, because she had suddenly felt a click in her brain, as if these words which she had spoken for a false purpose had coincided with the truth.”

What follows is a simply plotted novel which tracks Isabelle and Marc’s marriage from Isabelle’s point of view, over the next few years. That’s not to say it is pedestrian, because West is a sophisticated writer of considerable intellect, and so what she creates is a careful character study of a woman and her relationship, with plenty of opportunity for wider social commentary:

“every inch of a woman’s life as she lived it struck her as astonishing, either because nothing like what she was experiencing had ever been recorded, or because it had been recorded only falsely and superficially, with lacuna where real poignancy lay.”

I love that about the lacuna. There’s centuries of women’s history lost in those places.

For me The Thinking Reed could have been shorter, but then I think that about anything over 200 pages 😊 In fact, I wonder if the fact that it dragged a bit in places was part of West’s art. It was a portrait of a marriage, and Isabelle was bored at times in it, so at times the narrative became a bit pedestrian too. If so, it was an audacious choice for a writer.

There was also plenty of humour in The Thinking Reed, more than I’ve noticed in the other novels by West that I’ve read. This ranged from the witty:

 “ ‘I am not yet twenty-eight, and this man will be my third husband and fourth lover.’ She was aware however, that in making this objection she was insincerely subscribing to the fiction that sexual relations, while obviously offering certain satisfactions, are so inherently disagreeable that persons of fine taste, especially women, are obliged to treat them with the remote precaution which they apply to garlic […] but Isabelle knew quite well that she did not find sexual relations disagreeable.”

To the downright bitchy, especially where fine society is concerned:

“she had in all her life never stopped talking long enough to give anyone time to approach her with any proposition regarding sexual irregularity”

All in all I enjoyed The Thinking Reed. Sadly I don’t think the skewering of the idle rich has dated at all and the two main characters were believable individuals who had a clearly loving but tricky relationship. The ending was surprising and touching, without being sentimental.

Secondly, Ann Veronica by HG Wells (1909) and one of the few male authors published as a Virago Modern Classic. Wells’ titular heroine is 21, beautiful, and feeling utterly stifled at the start of the twentieth century.

“She wanted to live. She was vehemently impatient—she did not clearly know for what—to do, to be, to experience. And experience was slow in coming. All the world about her seemed to be—how can one put it?—in wrappers, like a house when people leave it in the summer. The blinds were all drawn, the sunlight kept out, one could not tell what colours these gray swathings hid. She wanted to know.”

She is the youngest in her family, and lives at home with her aunt and overbearing father. Wells is careful to make her father a monster though; rather he shows that Mr Stanley is as he is because so far the world has never challenged him to be otherwise. But this is a time of first-wave feminism, and he badly needs to catch up:

“He was a man who in all things classified without nuance, and for him there were in the matter of age just two feminine classes and no more—girls and women. The distinction lay chiefly in the right to pat their heads.”

Ann Veronica is friends with the liberal minded Widgett family and they open her mind to ideas of socialism and votes for women. Ann Veronica also wants to study biology at Imperial College, of which her father disapproves.

Early in the novel, she runs away from her suburban home with the help of the Widgetts, and finds lodgings in London. It is her naivety which enables her to do this. She has no idea the real risk she is taking, what is required in practical terms, or how she will be judged as a single woman alone in the city.

Although she learns quickly, she also takes a loan from a man who believes he has bought a right to her body, a fact which Ann Veronica remains oblivious to for an extraordinarily long time. Somehow, she survives in London and carries on her studies, at which point she falls in love with her married instructor, Mr Capes.

Ann Veronica was written at a very specific time. Suffragism was on the rise, World War I was yet to happen. Wells supported the idea of the New Woman, conveying through his young romantic heroine how constricted women are at this moment in time, and the forces for change that are being exerted. As Ann Veronica’s friend Hetty Widgett observes:

“The practical trouble is our ages. They used to marry us off at seventeen, rush us into things before we had time to protest. They don’t now. Heaven knows why! They don’t marry most of us off now until high up in the twenties. And the age gets higher. We have to hang about in the interval. There’s a great gulf opened, and nobody’s got any plans what to do with us. So the world is choked with waste and waiting daughters. Hanging about! And they start thinking and asking questions, and begin to be neither one thing nor the other. We’re partly human beings and partly females in suspense.”

Wells makes Ann Veronica intelligent, but she is not swept along by any one idea. This is a clever approach, because if Ann Veronica became an ardent Fabian, or suffragist, or bohemian, the story would become weighed down by polemic. Instead Wells is able to introduce all these approaches without the novel becoming tediously didactic.

“It did begin to fall into place together. She became more and more alive, not so much to a system of ideas as to a big diffused impulse toward change, to a great discontent with and criticism of life as it is lived, to a clamorous confusion of ideas for reconstruction—reconstruction of the methods of business, of economic development, of the rules of property, of the status of children, of the clothing and feeding and teaching of everyone” 

What Ann Veronica is swept along by – and the reason I think the novel was so scandalous on publication – is sexual desire.

“And as she sat on her bed that night, musing and half-undressed, she began to run one hand down her arm and scrutinize the soft flow of muscle under her skin. She thought of the marvellous beauty of skin, and all the delightfulness of living texture. On the back of her arm she found the faintest down of hair in the world. “Etherialised monkey,” she said. She held out her arm straight before her, and turned her hand this way and that.

‘Why should one pretend?’ she whispered. ‘Why should one pretend?’

‘Think of all the beauty in the world that is covered up and overlaid.’”

Ann Veronica grows up a lot in the course of the novel and begins to understand how her own wants will have to be negotiated within societal constraints. She also learns when she will need to conform and when she will need to go her own way, even when the price is a high one.

“A woman wants a proper alliance with a man, a man who is better stuff than herself. She wants that and needs it more than anything else in the world. It may not be just, it may not be fair, but things are so. It isn’t law, nor custom, nor masculine violence settled that. It is just how things happen to be. She wants to be free—she wants to be legally and economically free, so as not to be subject to the wrong man; but only God, who made the world, can alter things to prevent her being slave to the right one.”

Although the character of Ann Veronica is somewhat idealised, I still really enjoyed the novel. The story flows along and is immensely readable. I’ve actually never read Wells before and on the strength of this I’m encouraged to try his more famous novels, despite not being much of a sci-fi reader.

“Am I becoming reasonable or am I being tamed?

I’m simply discovering that life is many-sided and complex and puzzling. I thought one had only to take it by the throat.

It hasn’t GOT a throat!”

To end, my favourite Prince Charming… well, it *is* Valentine’s Day after all 😊

“Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” (Cary Grant)

Happy (belated) Valentine’s Day!  In my post for Valentine’s Day last year (which was also late…) I pointed out that St Valentine is the patron saint for bee keepers, plague, epilepsy and against fainting, as well as for lovers.  Last year I wrote on bee-keeping and plague  but this year I’m going to be more romantic and tell you about the man in my life.  He’s always been there, but these last few weeks it’s like I’m seeing him with new eyes; now I’m obsessed and we spend hours together every day.  The title quote may have given it away: he’s Cary Grant.

Let me explain.  For my last paper before finals (FINALS!  I’ve just broken out in a cold sweat….) we were given some optional papers to choose from, and I chose Film Criticism.  We’ve been looking at Hollywood Golden Age, a genre Cary Grant sits astride like a tanned, debonair, mid-Atlantic-accented colossus.  Having watched soooooo many of films again (and again, and again) I have a new-found appreciation for this actor with his exquisite comic timing.  It’s not that I didn’t like him before, I just took him for (ahem) granted.  This is how good he is: I had to analyse a scene from a film, and I chose something from Bringing Up Baby.  It was 3 minutes 39 seconds long.  I spent an entire day watching and re-watching the scene.  Think about how many 3 minutes and 39 seconds there are in a day.  That’s how many times I watched it. At the end of  the day I was still laughing at his performance.  The man is a genius.  In the spirit of Valentine’s Day here he is with long-term boyfriend totally-platonic-friend-who-he-just-happened-to-live-with-for-twelve-years, Randolph Scott.

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(Image from http://blogs.villagevoice.com/dailymusto/2010/09/cary_grant_and.php)

What a ridiculously good looking pair.  Anyway, I thought for this post I would look at two of his favourite novels.  According to IMDB he was a voracious reader.  Do you think I can find out what he liked to read?  Google, thou hast failed me.  (Probably now I’ll be told that it’s really well-known that he loved Moby Dick or something, but I couldn’t find it). So instead I’ve chosen a James Bond novel as apparently the character was partly modelled on him and he was considered for the role in Dr No, and a short story by a writer who like Archie Leach was famous under a pseudonym.

Firstly, Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (1953).  I’ll be honest, I went into this novel with very low expectations.  Even the most avid Fleming fan will tell you that some of the novels are absolute bilge; apparently the quality of the Bond novels varies widely.  This was the first Bond novel written and the first one I’d read, and I was pleasantly surprised.  OK, Fleming isn’t a grand literary genius, but I doubt he ever proclaimed himself as such.  Casino Royale is a decently written spy story.  It’s quite different to the film, although similarities remain.   I was expecting a flashy, superficial story but it’s a bit more reflective than that.  It opens:

“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.  Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”

Bond has been sent to Royale-le-Eaux to take down a Russian spy, Le Chiffre, by bankrupting him at gambling.  This being the Cold War, of course the baddies are Russian, and there’s also the rather sinister SMERSH, a Russian covert group whose name means “death to spies” lurking in the background.  That’s the very simple premise of the story.  Along the way there are lingering descriptions of clothes, cars and food (Fleming was clearly something of a gourmand), but the presentation of Bond is more complex than I was expecting.  I don’t think the reader is supposed to wholly like him or trust him:

“His last action was to slip his right hand under the pillow until it rested under the butt of the .38 Colt […] Then he slept, with the warmth and humour of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal and cold.”

Bond is more human than in the films (he vomits in the gory aftermath of an explosion). He’s also damaged and flawed, more in keeping with the later filmic representations.  Very much of its time, however, is the misogyny:

“These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work.  Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men.”

As well as this general sexism, there’s also a worryingly easy conflation of sex with violence:

“Bond saw luck as a woman, to be softly wooed or brutally ravaged, never pandered to or pursued.”

Truly obnoxious and offensive. But in Fleming’s defence I would say that he seems more emotionally intelligent than his protagonist and we’re not supposed to see Bond as a role model in this sense.  There’s also a good dose of humour in the novel which encourages us not to take Bond entirely as seriously as he takes himself:

 “Englishmen are so odd.  They are like a nest of Chinese boxes.  It takes a very long time to get to the centre of them.  When one gets there the result is unrewarding, but the process is instructive and entertaining.”

So, Casino Royale was better than I expected.  It’s attitudes to women and Eastern Europeans are dated and offensive but as I said, I don’t get the sense the novel fully endorsed the attitude of its protagonist.  It’s a quick, light read (although the descriptions of gambling dragged a bit in places) and for me it was good introduction to the Bond novels.

Secondly, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1867) by Mark Twain. What an irresistible title.  Twain was a fairly prolific short story writer, but this was only the second one he wrote.  You can read the full text of it here. It really is a very short tale, and shows how much can be done in so limited a space by an accomplished writer.  It opens:

In compliance with the request of a friend of mine, who wrote me from the East, I called on good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler, and inquired after my friend’s friend, Leonidas W. Smiley, as requested to do, and I hereunto append the result. I have a lurking suspicion that Leonidas W. Smiley is a myth; that my friend never knew such a personage; and that he only conjectured that, if I asked old Wheeler about him, it would remind him of his infamous Jim Smiley, and he would go to work and bore me nearly to death with some infernal reminiscence of him as long and tedious as it should be useless to me. If that was the design, it certainly succeeded.

As you can see, Twain’s humour is at the forefront (if you hadn’t already guessed by the title) and the mix of the ridiculous (“Leonidas W Smiley is a myth”) and the dry (“as long and tedious as it should be useless”) makes the story hugely entertaining.  It’s certainly a confident writer who tells a tale he says will be tedious, and Twain does this not once but twice: “Simon Wheeler backed me into a corner and blockaded me there with his chair, and then sat me down and reeled off the monotonous narrative which follows this paragraph.”  Simon Wheeler’s story of a gambling addict (Jim Smiley) who will bet on anything is directly reported, and he has one of the distinctive Southern voices Twain is so famed for, such as when he’s recounting how Jim trains the titular frog:

“He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal’klated to edercate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump. And you bet you he did learn him, too. He’d give him a little punch behind, and the next minute you’d see that frog whirling in the air like a doughnut see him turn one summerset, or may be a couple, if he got a good start, and come down flat-footed and all right, like a cat.”

There are some lovely touches in this story.  I particularly liked the line: “Smiley said all a frog wanted was education” and the fact that the frog is endowed with the decidedly un-froggy full name of “Dan’l Webster”. A quick read that children and adults will enjoy.

To end, here is a clip from The Philadelphia Story, and just possibly the most charming 3 minutes and 46 seconds ever committed to celluloid.  Apparently the bit where Cary Grant says “excuse me” was ad-libbed & that’s why he & James Stewart are trying not to laugh. Enjoy!

“One can no more approach people without love than one can approach bees without care. Such is the quality of bees” (Leo Tolstoy)

Happy Valentine’s Day!  I’m late as usual, but I hope you spent the day feeling loved/with loved ones, whether it was with a romantic partner, friends, family or simply re-reading David Gandy by Dolce and Gabanna (don’t judge me).  For those of you feeling a bit unloved, may I suggest a dog? There are loads that need rescuing, and they will provide unconditional adoration and support.  Picking up excrement in public with a hand clothed in a plastic bag is a small price to pay in return (note: this only applies to dogs.  If a human being offers you adoration in return for picking up their poo, it’s totally not worth it.  Unless you enjoy that sort of thing, in which case, Congrats! You’ve found your soulmate). Anyhow, in much the same way that this post seems to have been hijacked by doggy-do, Valentine’s Day has been hijacked by romance.  According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, as well as being the patron saint of affianced couples, happy marriages and love, St Valentine is also the saint for bee keepers, plague, epilepsy and against fainting (it’s about time someone took a stand against impromptu unconsciousness).  So for this Valentine’s post I’m going to look at a play featuring a bee-keeper and a novel about the plague – who needs love?  (Not me, I’ve got David Gandy by Dolce and Gabanna).

Firstly, Constellations by Nick Payne (Faber & Faber 2012).  I know reading a play is secondary to seeing it performed, and also that sometimes reading plays can feel secondary to reading a novel, a form written to be read.  But I think it’s worth doing.  Theatre can be prohibitively expensive, and depends on you being able to see the performance within a set period at a location you can reach.  These factors can mean you never make it to the show.  Reading the playtext enables engagement with the art (sorry, I couldn’t think how else to phrase that, I know it sounds affected, sorry, sorry) even if you never set foot in the theatre.  I saw Constellations performed, and it was astounding.  Reading the playtext doesn’t give you Rafe Spall’s and Sally Hawkins’ brilliant comic timing and emotionally nuanced performances, nor does it show you Tom Scutt’s beautiful design.  But it does give you the characters, the plot, the language.

Marianne and Roland meet and fall in love.  They meet and never see each other again.  They meet and date.  It goes well, it goes badly. They split up.  They stay together.  Roland keeps bees and sells honey.  Marianne is a theoretical early universe cosmologist.  Which is handy, as she can explain multiverse theory as we watch all the possibilities of their relationship played out across multiple universes:

“In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes”

Scenes are played out with minute changes and big changes, and the skill of Nick Payne’s writing ensures this stays fresh.  The layering of scenes on top of each other means we end up with a great depth of understanding of the characters, seeing how the same person can react differently given only slight changes in circumstance.  It does mean however, that it’s difficult to give you a quote from the play, as the dialogue really gains meaning within the set of scenes and the play as a whole.  What I’ll give you, as it’s Valentine’s day, is part of Roland’s proposal speech (that’s not a spoiler, as its only one of the many possible outcomes…)

“…in a strange sort of way I’m jealous of the humble honey bee and their quiet elegance. If only our existence were that simple. If only we could understand why it is that we’re here and what it is that we’re meant to spend our lives doing. I am uncertain when it comes to a great many things. But there is now one thing that I am defiantly certain of….Marianne Aubele, will you marry me?”

Yes, Constellations is romantic.  But looking at all the possible outcomes means it is resolutely realistic as well, despite the unreality of watching a multiverse romance from our monoverse (is that a word?) perspective.  Throughout the different multiverses one event recurs again and again, unchanging.  This underpins all the variations and creates a dramatic tension, pulling the characters towards a single conclusion.  Even if you don’t usually read plays, I highly recommend you give the inventive and thought-provoking Constellations a shot (in at least this one of the many multiverses, you’ve got all the others in which to totally ignore me…)

Secondly, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (4th estate, 2001).  Based on the true story of the village of Eyam, it tells the story of a village that chose to quarantine itself from the outside world in 1666 when plague struck.  The narrator of the story is Anna, a young woman who loses her family and watches the village assaulted in body, mind and spirit, as the disease and its consequences takes its toll.  Everyday life in extraordinary circumstances is sensitively described, such as when Anna starts acting a midwife for the village:

“Randoll burst through the blanket-door when he heard his lusty son, and his big miner’s hand fluttered like a moth from the damp head of the babe to his wife’s flushed cheek and back again, as if he didn’t know which of them he most wanted to touch… We laughed. And, for an hour, in that season of death, we celebrated a life…But even in the midst of that joy, I knew that I would have to leave the babe nursing at his mother’s breast and return to my own cottage, silent and empty, where the only sound that would greet me would be the phantom echoes of my own boys’ infant cries.”

At the time of the plague, Britain was caught between an age of religion and an age of science, and the villagers struggle between these two forces as they try to find an explanation for what they endure.  In that year witchcraft, madness and illicit passions stalk the village while wild justice is meted out.  By the time the year ends, every inhabitant of the village is hugely, irrevocably changed.  But in the midst of the tragedies, there are miracles.

Geraldine Brooks never lets her research get in the way of the story as you sometimes find with historical novels, and the balance between historical detail and narrative drive creates a novel that is both vivid and gripping.

Bees and bubonic plague – feel the love, people……….

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