“Live fully, live passionately, live disastrously. Let’s live, you and I, as none have ever lived before.” (Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, 1918)

Happy Valentine’s Day! And for those who are single (such as myself), console yourself that we don’t have to go to an overpriced, overcrowded restaurant to have our meal interrupted by tired-looking pushers of sad hothouse roses in buckets whilst couples around us try and hide their mutual disdain for one another as their relationships teeter on the brink of collapse under the pressure of meeting the impossible standards of commercially appropriated romantic love 😉

As I said, Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

*fans self*

For Valentine’s Day I thought I’d look at two novels concerned with romantic love. A brief foray through my TBR and I struggled to find anything that showed it in a positive light, which says much about my reading tastes. I quickly abandoned that idea and instead I’ve picked 2 novels written by a famous couple, Violet Trefusis and Vita Sackville-West. They met when Violet was ten and Vita was twelve; four years later Violet confessed her love, but life events separated them. They both went on to marry men but continued their relationship, although they did eventually split up. They stayed in touch and remained warm towards each other. Violet is ‘Sasha’ in Orlando, Woolf’s love letter to Vita.

Firstly, Hunt the Slipper by Violet Trefusis (1937).

Nigel lives with his sensible horticulturist sister Molly in their lovely home in Bath. He likes the finer things in life and prides himself on his good taste. Trying to get out of a visit to meet Caroline, the new wife of a neighbour, he gives Molly the following reason regarding Caroline’s family:

“You can’t imagine what they’ve done to their Elizabethan home. I once lunched there years ago; it looked as if Christabel Pankhurst and d’Annunzio had set up house together. Tea-cups and tracts battled for supremacy with peacocks feathers and leopard skins. It was so alarming that I fled.”

However, he goes, and the meeting is not a success. Caroline is miserable in her marriage to Anthony, a man who:

“never tired of dressing her up in the family jewels, of draping her in old-fashioned stuffs. She was his favourite recreation, his most valued asset. He did not particularly care about women, except as part of a decorative scheme.”

She is offhand to Nigel, who is used to women falling for his middle-aged charms, and he is distinctly unimpressed.  However, when they meet in Paris, Caroline has changed. She is in love with someone nearer her own age, Melo. Her taste in men is pretty questionable:

“Melo was a martyr to snobbishness, as a nursemaid is martyr to corns. Apart from physical attraction, Caroline led to the Royal Enclosure, stalking in Scotland, Noel Coward first-nights. In short, to the negligently luxurious life of the British aristocracy.”

Needless to say, this cad breaks her heart, and she turns to Nigel for solace. At this point he falls in love with her, but Caroline remains indifferent.

“He did not suspect that by one of Love’s infallible ricochets she was behaving to him as Melo had behaved to her. Her cruelty was Melo’s legacy, her indifference to him was out of revenge for Melo’s indifference to her. Love passed from one to the other, furtive, unseizable, like the slipper in ‘Hunt the Slipper.’”

There follows a period whereby they both travel, narrowly missing each other in various European destinations, Nigel writing effusive, desperate letters and Caroline sending intermittent, controlled replies. However, slowly, Caroline’s feeling change.

“You’re a terrible hoarder, aren’t you? Is possessiveness quite the same thing as jealousy, I wonder? Funny I should have fallen prey to two ‘collectors’. A[nthony] respects his possessions, whereas you love and tyrannize yours.”

Hunt the Slipper is a slim novel (180 pages) and the short length works well – Caroline and Nigel are both quite selfish. I didn’t wholly dislike them, but nor did I have a great deal of sympathy for them beyond that of realising we’re all flawed human beings and we all need love. Also the hunting of the slipper – love being always just out of reach – could have got tedious but as it is the plotting remains tight. Hunt the Slipper is a witty, sparky novel which gently mocks British insularity, snobbery in all forms, and self-delusion. Trefusis doesn’t judge her characters harshly and so neither do we. She dramatizes in the most ordinary way the conflicts of a cosy routine life against one of passion and unpredictability and doesn’t offer any trite answers as to which will bring most happiness.

Secondly, Family History by Vita Sackville-West (1932).

Beautiful widow Evelyn Jarrold lives an undemanding life, financially well-off with her own flat in London and her son heir to her late husband’s industrial family fortune.

“Evelyn Jarrold was not a woman who questioned the established order of the civilised world. She was not stupid, but, in such matters, simply acquiescent.”

However, she meets Miles Vane-Merrick – also rich, part of the landowning classes, but (shock!) left-leaning – and he turns everything upside down.

“The total absence of ideas amongst the younger Jarrolds, their perpetual heavy banter which passed for wit, the limitations of their interests, their intolerance, their narrow-mindedness, all appeared insufferable to her now in contrast with Miles’ alertness and gaiety.”

He is fifteen years younger than she, and Sackville-West uses their passionate affair to highlight the enormous changes happening in interwar Britain. Evelyn is only 39 but compared to 25 year old Miles she is from a different era. Her friends dress for dinner, the women don’t work, the men snooze through Lords debates before supporting the Tories. Miles and his friends are concerned with new world order, welfare of workers, the women earn money and they talk late into the night.

“Would she ever turn round on the whole of her acquaintance, and in a moment of harshness send them all packing? She knew that the necessary harshness lurked somewhere within her; in fact, she was rather frightened of it.”

The difficulty is, then what would she do? Evelyn is jealous and possessive, but this may not just be temperament, it may be because she has little else to occupy her mind. Miles carries on at his work (politics, running his estate, writing his book) and loves her around this. She does nothing but wait for him to find time for her.

“Love and the woman were insufficient for an active mind, Love and the man, however, were all-too-sufficient for a starved heart and unoccupied mind, Miles learnt it, to his cost; Evelyn never learnt it, to hers.”

Sackville-West does not shy away from the weakness in her characters. Evelyn can be controlling, vain, and overly concerned regarding middle-class mores. While Miles may protest “Instinct makes me reactionary, reason makes me progressive.”, the fact that he’s also given to statements such as “I like women to be idle and decorative.” means he’s not that progressive. He’s self-centred and doesn’t ever seem to take an action that doesn’t suit him entirely. Despite the fact that people constantly refer to him as brilliant and the great hope for the country, I found him weak. One of Evelyn’s relatives is pithily described by Sackville-West thus:

 “She had not preserved her virginity for forty-five years without revealing the fact in every phrase and gesture. A practising Christian, she was packed with a virtuous complaisance and not one ounce of charity.”

However, by the time Miles announces that the best thing that could happen to this woman was for her to be raped, he’d lost me entirely.  Misogynistic pig.

So it says something for Sackville-West’s writing that the fact that I really couldn’t stand one of the characters did not put me off the novel at all. Family History is an intriguing way to explore and make personal the upheavals of the first part of the twentieth-century in Britain. Apparently it didn’t do well on release and was considered one of her lesser works, but I found it thought-provoking and entertaining. The ending genuinely moved me. But most of all, Sackville-West’s wit is an absolute delight. For this reason, I’ll finish with a few choice bon mots:

[On the British upper classes] “The standard of looks was amazing; they had the distinction and beauty of thoroughbred animals. The young men were as elegant as greyhounds, the young women coloured as a herbaceous border. What did it matter […]that those sleek heads contained no more brains than a greyhound’s?”

“Who ever went to Eton to be educated?”

“The icy wind, whipping, biting, brought a certain exhilaration. Discomforts that one need not necessarily endure, always do induce a certain exhilaration. Hence the perennial charm of picnics.”

To end, just to prove I’m not really an embittered cynic, here’s a sweet duet between a pioneering new wave icon and a banjo-playing frog:

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“I think Isambard Kingdom Brunel would be a good chap to have supper with. Anyone who builds a railway and then builds a steamship when he gets to Bristol and can’t go any further must be a good chap.” (Fergus Henderson)

This week I’ll be briefly visiting the beautiful city of Bristol for work, so in preparation I’ve read 2 books by EH Young, who fictionalised Bristol as Radstowe throughout her novels.

EH Young’s world is one of genteel middle-class, and at first I wasn’t sure The Misses Mallett (1922) was for me. The descriptions of the beauty of Radstowe were somewhat overblown, and I wondered if it was going to be clumsy Austen-lite. I’m pleased to say I was completely wrong. The Misses Mallet is acutely observed and Young’s characterisation is excellent. Those who people her world are complex, not always likable but always so believable.

Caroline and Sophia are elderly unmarried Mallet sisters who spend their days reliving past glories, which may not be exactly as Caroline remembers:

“ ‘And men like what they fear,’ Caroline added.

‘Yes dear,’ Sophia said, A natural flush appeared round the delicate dabs of rouge. She hoped she might be forgiven for her tender deceits. Those young men in white waistcoats had often laughed at Caroline rather than her wit; she was, as Sophia had shrinkingly divined, as often as not their butt, and dear Caroline had never known it; she must never know it, never know it.”

The elderly Miss Malletts are comically but fondly drawn, with their frills and lace, their make-up which doesn’t hide their age, Caroline’s mistaken belief that she is wordly, and their constant self-mythologising. Rose, their younger step-sister, is different:

“restraint and a love of danger lived together in her nature and these two qualities were fed by the position in which she found herself, nor would she have had the position changed. It supplied her with the emotion she had wanted. She had the privilege of feeling deeply and dangerously yet of preserving her pride.”

She is in love with Francis Sales, but realised it too late and he married another. As Young details above, this arrested love affair quite suits her. Sales’ wife is housebound in constant pain since a fall from a horse that she believes Rose engineered. They are locked in a co-dependent, vindictive relationship bound up in what has not been said, in blame and in guilt.

Yet overall the lives of the Misses Malletts are calm and routine.

“the Mallets did not criticise their actions or analyse their minds”

This all changes with the arrival of Henrietta, their young orphaned niece.

“the Mallets don’t marry, Henrietta. Look at us, as happy as the day is long, with all the fun and none of the trouble. We’re terrible flirts, Sophia and I. Rose is different, but at least she isn’t married. The three Miss Malletts of Nelson Lodge! Now there are four of us, and you must keep up our reputation.”

But Henrietta may not be quite so ready to adopt the Miss Mallett way of life. She also falls for Francis Sales, whilst being courted by the socially awkward Charles Batty:

“He was plain; he was getting bald; his trousers bagged; his socks wrinkled like concertinas; his comparative self-assurance was quite unjustified.”

What follows is a novel written with great lightness of touch, but it is the excellent characterisation that stops it being cosy or sentimental. It is a world that has passed, but it is a world that is fully realised and Young shows that it, and the people in it, can still be recognised and understood. The Misses Mallett, and those who surround them, will stay with me a long time.

Secondly, William which came 3 years after The Misses Mallett. I found the descriptive writing in this a lot more restrained and so I wonder if either 3 years saw the maturing of EH Young’s writing style, or if she was actually having a sly dig at purple prose romances in The Misses Mallett and I missed the pastiche. Either way, William is brilliantly written and was her most successful novel. It is primarily a character study of the titular man, a self-made shipping magnate.

“William Nesbitt had no yearnings for the sea: he had had enough of it in his youth, but the thought of it was always with him and would have been with him even if his business had not compelled him to constant communication with it; and the fact that it lay down there beyond the river and out of sight, was like the presence of a woman, still beautiful, whom he loved no longer with desire, but with knowledge, understanding and satisfaction.”

William is someone who life has treated well, and he has an affection for it:

“Life was interesting, a great adventure, enlivened by countless minor episodes. It was difficult to believe anybody could find it dull. Every personality was more or less of an excitement to him – Kate, Janet, Lydia, the captains of his ships, the clerks in his office, the ships themselves, the very gulls swooping for garbage in the river, cutting the air with wings like swords.”

However, although he has worked hard and continues to do so, he has never really been tested. This is about to change. One of his five children, his daughter Lydia, leaves her husband to live with her lover. The post-war times are a-changing, and William finds himself in opposition to his wife as they cope with the fallout. William finds he is able to love his children unconditionally. His affection for life is undiminished and expanded.

“ ‘I’ve told you Kate, we can’t have them as we want them. We’re lucky to have them as they are.’”

His wife on the other hand, is outraged at Lydia’s unconventional choice and becomes embittered as she realises she holds absolutely no power to change the situation.

“He had lived with her for nearly forty years, not deceiving himself into the belief of perfect union, but in accord, with humour, with much happiness, and now, in the face of first trouble, he had lost touch with her, as though his consort were only for smooth waters.”

William is a rich novel despite not being overly long (a good thing to my way of thinking). Once again, EH Young displays excellent characterisation and psychological insight, not only towards her main protagonist but also the characters of his wife and their children. There is sadness in the novel, with Kate’s moral rigidity causing her deep pain and William’s realisation that although his marriage is basically happy “He had missed ecstasy”. However, it is not a sad novel. Rather it captures the human impact of societal change and it does so without preaching, showing how both human beings and love endure. EH Young challenges the institution of marriage (she lived in a ménage a trois for many years) whilst also showing its advantages:

“‘There’s a great deal of humbug about marriage… and a forced loyalty is the devil. And if Oliver couldn’t hold Lydia by love, why should he hold her by law?’”

It is a testament to EH Young’s writing that while society has moved on to an extent that the central dilemma no longer exists, William remains a deeply moving and compelling novel.

These were my first two novels by EH Young and I’m already a huge fan. In this year of my book buying ban, I’m pleased to find I have 4 more of her novels in the TBR mountain (it’s this kind of excess which has led to the aforementioned ban); I’ll definitely be reading them soon.

To end, a band that named themselves after their home town near Bristol:

“Shut up, I’m having a rhetorical conversation!” (Max Bialystock, The Producers, 1968)

This my contribution to the 1968 Club, running this week and hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. Do join in!

Firstly, The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf (trans. Christopher Middleton). This is the story of Christa’s life, told from the point of view of a schoolfriend who becomes reacquainted with Christa before leukaemia cuts her life short. The opening paragraph captures the concerns of the novel- the impossibility of ever truly knowing another person, and the fallacy of ever trying to capture them in order to portray them to others:

“The quest for her: in the thought of her. And of the attempt to be oneself. She speaks of this in her diaries, which we have, on the loose manuscript pages that have been found, and between the lines of those letters of hers that are known to me. I must forget my memory of Christa T – that is what these documents have taught me.  Memory puts a deceptive colour on things.”

Christa is an enigma. She is self-contained but within that is a resistance; having survived Hitler’s Germany she doesn’t readily conform to East Germany’s strictures:

“she was always tall, and thin, until the last years, after she’d had children. So there she was, walking along in front, stalking head-in-the-air along the curb, and suddenly she put a rolled newspaper in her mouth and let go with a shout: HOOOHAAHOOO – something like that. She blew her trumpet and the off-duty sergeants and corporals of the local defense corps stopped and stared and shook their heads at her.”

This is a watershed moment for the narrator, the point at which she notices Christa and begins to acknowledge her wonder at her friend. However, while Christa is compelling, she also lives a life that is completely ordinary. She grows up, gets married, has children, and works as a teacher.

“Christa T lived strenuously even when she seemed lackadaisical; that ought to be attested, though the point here cannot be attested, though the point here cannot be to justify her…she didn’t attempt to escape from it all, as many people were starting to do in those years. When her name was called: “Christa T!” – she stood up and went and did what was expected of her.”

Despite this, the quest is not one that can be fulfilled – at the end we are in the position of the narrator in that we don’t know who Christa T is either. This is Christa’s final resistance: she conformed exactly how she was supposed to under Nazism and communism, and yet the state, her friends, and the readers of her story cannot box her in.

“There it is again, the language of her sketches, there her voice is heard again.  Yet it will eventually have to stop; the moment is coming where the voice fails, and it can’t be interrupted. Some details pass me by, while I anticipate the end.”

The Quest for Christa T is fragmentary and non-linear, yet it still manages to be a satisfying whole. It is a subtle, beautifully written novel which allows for the reader’s intelligence to find their own meaning. But don’t just take my word for it, take David Bowie’s: The Quest for Christa T was one of his 100 must-read books.

Secondly, the short story collection Tigers are Better-Looking by Jean Rhys, which features two collections, the first 8 stores collected under the titular tale, the last 9 printed from The Left Bank, originally published in 1927. The rest of The Left Bank stories were judged by Rhys to be too weak to merit republication. Surprisingly though, these were my favourite part of Tigers are Better-Looking. While I enjoyed the first selection of stories, I felt they weren’t as strong as Sleep It Off Lady, her final collection of short stories published 8 years after this, which I had greatly enjoyed. While The Left Bank stories are essentially sketches, I thought they had real verve so I’ll concentrate on this section. When read all together they give a wonderful sense of a particular city at a particular time. Rhys captures people with artful description:

Illusion “Miss Bruce was quite an old inhabitant of the Quarter […] one thought of her as a shining example of what character and training – British character and training – can do. After seven years in Paris she appeared utterly untouched, utterly unaffected, by anything hectic, slightly exotic or unwholesome. Going on all the time all round her were the cult of beauty and the worship of physical love: she just looked at her surroundings in her healthy, sensible way, and then dismissed them from her thoughts”

And she is equally adept at capturing relationships, such as that between a painter and ex-prostitute in Tea with an Artist:

“And then I remembered the way in which she had touched his cheek with her big hands. There was in that movement knowledge, and a certain sureness: as it were the ghost of a time when her business in life had been the consoling of men.”

Rhys often drew on her own life and there are certainly stories here that will be familiar to anyone who has read her work: depression and poverty in Hunger, the life she knew as a shop model in Mannequin, but she also broadens her gaze. There is a touching portrait of an old man and child in From a French Prison, a tragic love affair in La Grosse Fifi quite different from the dinginess and malaise that characterises the affairs she normally writes about.The longest story is Vienne, and here is where the shadow of war begins to loom over the Europe she has been portraying. A young couple, too sad to be Bright Young Things, desperately traverse the continent without quite understanding the danger, but knowing they must reach safety.

“We drank a still wine, sweetish, at dinner. It went to my head and again I could tell myself that my existence was a dream. After all it mattered very little where we went. Warsaw, London…London, Warsaw…..Words! Quite without the tremendous significance I had given them.”

I don’t think Tigers Are Better Looking is Rhys at her best, but there is still so much to enjoy in this collection, flashes of brilliance even when the stories aren’t as strong. She’s a wonderful writer and reading this has encouraged me to dig out the remaining novels of hers that I have yet to read.

To end, the UK number one this week in 1968. All together now: la, la, la, la, la, laaaaaaaaaa….

“It is better to break one’s heart than to do nothing with it.” (Margaret Kennedy)

This is my very, very late contribution to Margaret Kennedy Day, which is hosted by Jane over at Beyond Eden Rock. It took place on 20 June but Jane very kindly said that latecomers were welcome 🙂 Do head over to Jane’s blog to check out the other, more timely, contributions to Margaret Kennedy Day 2017!

Firstly, The Constant Nymph (1924).  This was a bestseller in its day (more than any other novel in the 1920s), adapted for stage and screen but fell into obscurity somewhat until Virago republished it in 1983.  In all honesty, I’m still working out how I feel about it. To me it was an odd novel, well-written and psychologically astute, but a strange, unsettling tale and tonally difficult to place. I do think my struggles with it show its worth though – better to be a challenging novel than one easily dismissed.  (I felt very uncomfortable that a grown man was sexually interested in the fourteen-year old nymph of the title, but Kennedy deals with this carefully so I’ll leave this to one side for the rest of the discussion, along with the anti-Semitic opinions voiced by various characters which were just horrible).

Albert Sanger is an unpleasant, selfish composer living in the Austrian Alps with his “Circus”: his most recent mistress, children by 3 different women, and assorted hangers-on. Amongst the rabble, fourteen-year old Tessa is quiet and steady and knows herself to be different:

“Living in a family of artists she had come to regard this implacable thing which took them as a great misfortune. Oddly enough it had missed her out; alone of the tribe she was safe from it. She did not believe that she would ever be driven to these monstrous creative efforts.”

When Sanger unexpectedly dies, leaving his huge family destitute, the Circus are split up. Tessa’s cousin Florence arrives on a mercy mission to rescue three of her relatives. Unfortunately for Tessa, this brings Florence into the orbit of Lewis, an aforementioned hanger-on, who Kennedy doesn’t even try to make appealing, and with whom Tessa has been in love since she was a child. Florence and Lewis fall in love, although there is a good mix of ambivalence in there too. Having proposed to Florence in a church, Lewis reflects:

“Once outside in the sunlight and traffic he could hardly make out how it had happened. The thing was absurd, unforeseen and unreasonable. But irrevocable now, and, on the whole, very pleasant. He was betrothed. Also he was very thirsty…”

Tessa is inconsolable, and yet the melodrama is tempered with humour and everyday considerations amongst the high-flown feelings:

 “the tears poured down her face…until she conceived the idea of trying to water a primula with them. Immediately the flood was dried, after the manner of tears when a practical use has been found for them.

‘And it would have been interesting,’ said Paulina sorrowfully, ‘to see if it would have made any difference to the primula.’”

The novel follows the love triangle back in England, as Tessa and her siblings try and adjust from their free-living Bohemian lifestyle to the strictures of an English boarding school, and Lewis and Florence’s marriage begins to disintegrate. Even Florence’s father sees how ill-matched they are:

“Lewis was a fool! If he had married little Tessa she would have made a man of him, whereas mated with Florence he was nothing but a calamity.”

The characterisation is excellent: Lewis is a distinctly unheroic, petulant protagonist and completely believable as a musician who struggles against his own shortcomings to realise his talent. Florence is complex; initially sweet-natured and gradually challenging our sympathies as she deals with her jealousy by being vicious to the blameless Tessa. Although Tessa is in many ways an archetypal faithful virgin, Kennedy stops her being emblematic by the gentle humour poked at the earnestness of adolescence.

The novel is also not wholly a romance, but also a consideration of art and how to create it, how to pursue it, the value we attach to it and the various ways in which it is consumed. This is done with a lightness of touch and Kennedy never lets the broader themes get in the way of the plot:

“Music, with all these people, came first; that was why they talked about it as if nobody else had any right to it. Once Florence had liked them all too well; now she understood them better she was frightened of them.”

The Constant Nymph is an intriguing novel, and I suspect one that I won’t entirely work out my feelings for until I re-read it. It’s certainly impressive, and Kennedy’s talent, for me, was never in doubt.

“She tilted her face up and they kissed, a clinging embrace that was more like a farewell than a greeting. To her than instant brought a pang, a dim echo of times past; to him, an apprehension of change, a foreshadowing of loss and grief to come.”

The Constant Nymph was made into a film four times. Here is the trailer for the 1943 version with the lovely Joan Fontaine as Tessa:

Secondly, Together and Apart (1936).

This sat more comfortably with me than The Constant Nymph and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Yet again, Kennedy manages to populate a novel with not very likeable people, but they are so wholly believable that the fascination is in witnessing their interactions and how situations play out.

Betsy has a privileged, comfortable life married to Alec. For reasons which are never entirely clear, she asks him for a divorce. She doesn’t care about his long-running affair, but feels she wants more from life and Alec is in her way:

“Now she was thirty-seven and she had never known real happiness. She had been cheated. Life had left her always hungry, always craving something and unable to put a name to it. She was perpetually craving for something that never happened. She looked forward to events, they happened, they were past and it was if nothing at all had happened.”

From my twenty-first century perspective I would say Betsy needs a job, and something beyond herself to think about…

Alec is, as he admits himself, an incredibly weak person who is steered by others, and so he grants the divorce despite not really wanting it, and promptly begins an affair with the children’s nanny. What follows is a brilliant study of the fallout of this everyday sadness on the couple, their new partners, their children and their friends. It is set in a time when divorce was becoming more common but still unusual, when attitudes were markedly different to today:

“Every petty grievance is raked up, even to little things that must have been forgiven and forgotten years ago. In 1920 he pushed her and she fell downstairs. Good heavens! One push is surely allowed in every marriage. I nearly told her that I once knocked you out with a hot water bottle.”

The children are spoilt, but also suffer, and Kennedy is brilliant at showing how the divorce causes their son Kenneth to unravel:

“He accepted nothing and pitied himself hysterically. He felt a grudge against the world because it had turned out to be a less pleasant place than he supposed.”

While their daughter Eliza grows up too quickly, forced into a domestic role she isn’t quite ready for.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say everything works out in the end. Which is not to say things work out perfectly. Lives are messy and Together and Apart shows how much of that mess is of our own making, but how we are myopic regarding our own situations and so clear-sighted regarding others. Once again, there are piercing, but sympathetic psychological insights:

“His body was always betraying him like this. It would not take fences which his soul so easily could have cleared.”

And some beautifully phrased observations, like young Kenneth and his friend on the beach:

“Even in bathing suits they had certain clerkly traits, a forward hitch of the shoulders as though long scholars gowns should have been streaming behind them in the salt wind.”

Margaret Kennedy is such an astute, funny and profound writer. I’m grateful to Jane for introducing me to her 🙂 And next Margaret Kennedy Day I’ll try and be on time!

To end, continuing the theme from last week of strange 80s spin-off pop groups (The Jam/The Style Council, now The Specials/Fun Boy Three), here is a wonderfully cynical take on marriage set to a tango:

 

“All great novels are great fairytales.” (Vladimir Nabokov)

Last week the news included a feature with Jeanette Winterson talking to children about fairytales and ways in which these narratives might be rewritten.

I think Jeanette would approve of my upbringing. I have a clear memory of a bedtime story told to me by my mother when I was aged about four: a girl with the same name as me was offered the opportunity to swop places with a princess. She did so, and didn’t like it because all she did was shake hands with people for the whole day and she had to keep her clothes clean rather than running about with her friends getting as mucky as she liked. This was around the same time as Charles and Diana getting married, and while the world went princess mad, my mother told me “He doesn’t love her, you know.” Safe to say by that tender age I thought being a princess vastly overrated.

Pretty as a princess: bored, bored, booorrrred......

Pretty as a princess: bored, bored, booorrrred……

So in honour of Jeanette and my mother, this week I’m looking at novels that rework a fairytale narrative to some extent.  Firstly, a young girl living in a castle with her sister, brother, father and step-mother. Except her sister is beautiful & they love each other, and the stepmother is batty and awesome and holds the whole family together, in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1949).

“I have just remarked to Rose that our situation is really rather romantic – two girls in this strange and lonely house. She replied that she saw nothing romantic about being shut up in a crumbling ruin surrounded by a sea of mud.”

So says Cassandra Mortmain, 17-year-old narrator of her family’s trials and tribulations as they live in a castle in the 1930s with no money, as her writer father isn’t doing any writing. Her stepmother Topaz is an unusual mix of naked-communer-with-nature and grounded housewife:

“She has a very deep voice- that is, she puts one on; it is part of an arty pose, which includes painting and lute playing. But her kindness is perfectly genuine and so is her cooking.”

Two American men arrive to disrupt this picturesque but borderline-starving idyll, and what follows is a coming of age novel, as Rose plans to marry one of them and Cassandra comes to terms with her feelings about her sister, family, life, love and money.

 “Never have I felt so separate from her. And I regret to say that there were moments when my deep and loving pity for her merged into a desire to kick her very hard.”

And I really don’t think I have the words to convey how I feel about this novel. I could layer superlative upon superlative and not get close. It is a wonder.

I wish I’d read it as a teenager, because then I could have read it another ten times (minimum) by now. I wish I’d met Cassandra Mortmain years ago but at least I have her in my life now. She is witty, insightful, wise and funny.

“Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cure for depression.”

Her family are flawed and eminently loveable. The story is eccentric but not self-consciously so; it is heart-warming but not sentimental. I absolutely adored it.

“It’s going to be happy ever after, just like in fairy tales.  – And I still wouldn’t like it. oh, I’d love the clothes and the wedding. I am not so sure I should like the facts of life, but I have got over the bitter disappointment I felt when I first heard about them, and one obviously has to try them sooner or later. What I’d really hate would be the settled feeling, with nothing but happiness to look forward to.”

I Capture the Castle was adapted into a film in 2003. It can’t possibly be as good as the book but Bill Nighy means I’ll probably like Father more in the film:

Secondly, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (2012), based on various fables of snow children, particularly Arthur Ransome’s Little Daughter of the Snow. In 1920s Alaska (one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit), Jack and Mabel are homesteaders with a huge grief in their marriage: they lost a child and are unable to conceive any more. The drama in the landscape of their new home reflects their grief:

“It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.”

One night, the two of them carve a snow child, and shortly after they are visited by its embodiment:

“There was the child herself, her face a mirror of the one Jack had sculpted in the snow, her eyes like ice itself. It was fantastical and impossible, but Mabel knew it was true – she and Jack had formed her of snow and birch boughs and frosty wild grass.”

 “Jack would have spoken to her, but her eyes – the broken blue of river ice, glacial crevasses, moonlight – held him. She blinked, her blond lashes glittering with frost, and darted away.”

The child, Faina, visits them each year when it snows, and a delicate, fragile bond is formed. Mabel and Jack are respectful of her need for freedom and are careful not to swamp her with the force of their immense love:

 “like a rainbow trout in a stream, the girl sometimes flashed her true self to him. A wild thing glittering in dark water.”

Ivey writes beautifully regarding both landscape and people. She explores grief and love in its various forms with great sensitivity and never offers trite answers. The fabulism brings an unnerving quality to the story, where you are never sure what might happen. The Snow Child is always completely believable in its emotion and characterisation, alongside startling images that disconcert:

“She told no-one of the otter. Garrett would want to trap it; Faina would ask her to draw it. She refused to confine it by any means because, in some strange way, she knew it was her heart. Living, twisting muscle beneath bristly damp fur.”

To end, a fairytale that survived my childhood scepticism, and my adult cynicism too 🙂

“The 1920s were a great time for reading” (Bill Bryson)

A little while ago I wrote about Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests, her novel set in the 1920s, which I took refuge in as I was trying to grow my hair into a bob (well, it made sense at the time). Rest easy reader, I know you must have been worrying about it, but a friend proclaimed this weekend that my hair looks most definitely bob-like so I’m walking around like a fabulous flapper:

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Maybe not. But regardless, to celebrate I’m looking at two novels from the 1920s, as recommended by Sarah Waters at the end of The Paying Guests. Choosing from the list of ten was a serious business, involving shortlists, consulting with various bookish types, taking votes…. OK, I just picked the two I had on my TBR mountain 🙂

Firstly, The Judge by Rebecca West (1922) which Sarah Waters describes thusly: “Suffragism, illegitimacy, motherhood, melodrama: like lots of West’s fiction, this is sprawling, brilliant, funny – and a little bit crazy.” The story begins in Edinburgh, where Ellen, nineteen years old, beautiful and a suffragette, meets Richard Yaverland:

“For sufficient reasons he was very sensitive to the tragedies of women, and he knew it was a tragedy that such a face should surmount such a body. For her body would imprison her in soft places: she would be allowed no adventures other than love, no achievements other than births.”

Later in the story it will emerge what those sufficient reasons are, but against her better judgement Ellen falls in love with worldly, handsome Richard.

“She was not sure that she approved of love. The position of women being what it was. Men were tyrants, and they seemed to be able to make their wives ignoble. Married women were often anti-Suffragists; they were often fat; they never seemed to go out on long walks in the hills or write poetry.”

Alongside this humour and Ellen’s naivety “I will have nothing to do with any man until I am great. Then I suppose I will have to use them as pawns in my political and financial intrigues” West does have something serious to say about relationships between the sexes at that moment in time. The Judge presents detailed character studies of Ellen, Richard and his mother Marion, and how society has influenced the nature and capacity of their love. This is not a rose-tinted view of young marriage by any means.

“Perhaps something like fear would have come upon her if she had known how immense he felt with victory; how he contemplated her willingness to love him in a passion of timeless wonder, watching her journey from heaven, stepping from star to star, all the way down the dark whirling earth of his heart; and how even while he felt a solemn agony at his unworthiness he was busily contriving their immediate marriage. For there was a steely quality about his love that would have been more appropriate to some vindictive purpose.”

 The second half of the novel sees Ellen leave Edinburgh to live with Richard and his mother in the Home Counties. More emerges about the circumstances of Richard’s illegitimacy and subsequently complex family dynamics. It is at this point that the melodrama mentioned by Sarah Waters really starts to ramp up. I think it’s here that the novel may start to lose readers, but although it begins to spiral somewhat, I still thought the novel had a lot to say about women’s position and the ramifications of moral absolutes. Marion and Richard have a relationship Freud would have found great mileage in, teetering on the edge of impropriety. Ellen is understandably somewhat befuddled by this brittle woman and her weird family, but she decides they suit her:

 “The rapidity with which she had changed from the brooding thing she generally was, with her heavy eyes and her twitching hands perpetually testifying that the chords of her life had not been resolved and she was on edge to hear their final music, and the perfection with which she had assumed this bland and glossy personality at a moment’s notice, struck Ellen with wonder and admiration. She liked the way this family turned and doubled under the attack of fate. She felt glad that she was going to become one of them, just as a boy might feel proud on joining a pirate crew.”

The Judge is somewhat overblown, but I enjoyed it for that reason – sometimes it’s nice to indulge in a bit of mad melodramatics alongside the serious issues.

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Secondly, Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim (1921) which Sarah Waters describes as “a brilliant depiction of a sinister, suffocating marriage, this novel also features one of the most likeable spinster aunts in British fiction.” Sinister is right: this is a very different tale to the delightful The Enchanted April. Definitely not escapist, Vera is rather one of those novels where you want to reach into the book, yank out one of the characters and shake them until they listen to you, the older, wiser reader. Maybe I get over-involved in my reading…

Lucy Entwhistle, young and naïve, finds herself almost alone in the world after her beloved father dies. Blundering into her grief moments after the death is the older, good-looking Wemyss, also grieving a loss, as his wife has recently died in possibly murky circumstances:

“‘How good you are!’ she said to Wemyss, her red eyes filling. ‘What would I have done without you?’

‘But what would I have done without you?’ he answered; and they stared at each other, astonished at the nature of the bond between them, at its closeness, at the way it seemed almost miraculously to have been arranged that they should meet on the crest of despair and save each other.”

Vera is extremely clever, as at first we don’t like Wemyss, but like Lucy’s beloved spinster Aunt Dorothy, it’s not totally clear why: “whatever she felt about his legs she welcomed him with the utmost cordiality”. The more time he spends with Lucy, the more unpleasant he reveals himself to be – a wholly self-centred, arrogant, ignorant bully. Aunt Dorothy is wise enough to realise that if she registers her objections, it will only push Wemyss and Lucy closer together, and so she keeps quiet, though distressed, as she watches the tragedy unfold.

“His way of courting wouldn’t be – she searched about in her uneasy mind for a word, and found vegetarian. Yes; that word sufficiently indicated what she meant: it wouldn’t be vegetarian.”

Von Arnim’s lovely humour stops the tale being bleak, but it is a tense tale, increasingly so after Wemyss and Lucy marry less than a year from the death of the titular wife. The scales begin to fall from Lucy’s eyes:

“One learns a lot on a honeymoon, Lucy reflected, and one of the things she had learned was that Wemyss’s mind was always made up.”

But Lucy doesn’t realise the extent of what is going on in her marriage. We are living at a time of fourth-wave feminism, and in a post-Freudian world, so I would say Lucy is in a psychologically abusive marriage with a narcissistic, megalomaniac sadist who seeks to destroy her.  But she cannot see it.

“the mood of tender, half-asleep acquiescence in which, as she lay in his arms, he most loved her; then indeed she was his baby…You couldn’t passionately protect Vera. She was always in another room.”

Wise Vera.  There is a glimmer of hope, and that hope is the wonderful Aunt Dorothy. Never underestimate the clear-sighted spinster Wemyss, you have no idea who you’re dealing with.

Joan Hickson, the greatest Miss Marple - 5 points if you can spot the wardrobe malfunction in this picture

Joan Hickson, the greatest Miss Marple – 5 points if you can spot the wardrobe malfunction in this picture

Vera is a brilliantly written psychological study of the dangers for women in a society that seeks to position them as economically and socially dependent on men, particularly when this dependency is wrapped up in romantic notions. It made me furious and it made me sad. It also made me glad that although we have some way to go, I live where my rights as a woman are enshrined in law.

To end, what Lucy needs is a Lesley Gore classic cranked up to 11, sung by the perennially awesome feminist icon Joan Jett:

“But what first, Debbie, attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” (Mrs Merton/Caroline Aherne)

Caroline Aherne, actor and writer, creator of the comedic brilliance that was The Royle Family, died on Saturday.  And so 2016 continues as forerunner for the most rubbish year in recent memory. If the political situation and the death of a yet another great person this year is getting you down, I would prescribe YouTubing  Caroline’s career for some solace.

If you enjoy someone’s work, there is a consolation that they leave this behind when they are no longer around, so I thought I would look at two novelists last works which were published in their lifetimes.

Firstly, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952), fulfilling the sea-based tale requirement of the Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge hosted by Hard Book Habit. And so my inexplicable love affair with Hemingway continues. I’ve written before about how much I want to dislike Hemingway, but I just adore his writing. Like all great love affairs, we are wholly incompatible, and yet I find myself drawn back time and time again, whilst knowing I cannot change him. The Old Man and the Sea did not succeed in breaking the spell.

Hemingway, rocking a chunky knit to give his best salty old sea dog impression

Hemingway, rocking a chunky knit to give his best salty old sea dog impression

The titular old man is Santiago, a Cuban fisherman who sails in the Gulf Stream and has gone 84 days without catching a fish.

“Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same colour as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.”

Manolin, a young boy, has known the fisherman his whole life and loves him, and it is through his eyes that we first see Santiago:

“His shirt had been patched so many times that it was like the sail and the patches were faded to many different shades by the sun. The old man’s head was very old though and with his eyes closed there was no life in his face. The newspaper lay across his knees and the weight of his arm held it there in the evening breeze. He was barefooted.

The boy left him there and when he came back the old man was still asleep.

“Wake up old man,” the boy said and put his hand on one of the old man’s knees.

The old man opened his eyes and for a moment he was coming back from a long way away. Then he smiled.”

They head out to fish separately – Manolin is banned from accompanying Santiago due to his salao bad luck – and what follows is the story of Santiago’s lone sea journey. The descriptions have Hemingway’s trademark pinpoint accuracy but this exists alongside metaphorical beauty, which absolutely captures the water and the isolation of the sailor.

“The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean. He saw the phosphorescence of the Gulf weed in the water as he rowed over the part of the ocean that the fishermen called the great well because there was a sudden deep of seven hundred fathoms where all sorts of fish congregated because of the swirl the current made against the steep walls of the floor of the ocean.”

“The sea was very dark and the light made prisms in the water. The myriad flecks of the plankton were annulled now by the high sun and it was only the great deep prisms in the blue water that the old man saw now with his lines going straight down into the water that was a mile deep.”

The fisherman succeeds in hooking a “great fish” but is unable to bring it aboard, and so is towed by the marlin farther and farther out to sea, as he waits for the fish to die. I can’t say much more as it is only novella length (you can read the full text here) so I’ll just say that The Old Man and the Sea is extraordinary: fable, allegory, elegy, a meditative page-turner which I found truly moving.

“He looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now. But he could see the prisms in the deep dark water and the line stretching ahead and the strange undulation of the calm. The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.”

Secondly, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor.

Following the death of her beloved husband, Mrs Palfrey moves to the Claremont Hotel on the Cromwell Road “The porch pillars had been recently painted; there were spotted laurels in the window boxes; clean curtains – a front of emphatic respectability.” to see out her days.

“She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man and, sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.”

Mrs Palfrey and her fellow permanent residents at the hotel are desperately trying to avoid a nursing home and rub along together in a mix of boredom, gossip and barely suppressed disdain. Although Taylor is interested in aging and how to find meaning in a world that considers you finished, this isn’t a depressing novel , but rather a gentle comedy with a melancholic tinge.

“Soon, there was a soft, slapping sound as Mr Osmond shuffled a pack of cards for a game of patience: against this, the knitting sounds, and sighs, and stomach gurglings (quickly coughed over).

‘Well, another Sunday nearly gone,’ Mrs Post said quickly, to cover a little fart. She had presence of mind.”

Mrs Palfrey is a resolute soul, who refuses to feel sorry for herself. Part of the generation who lived through both World Wars, she gets on with things.

 “She felt a determination about the lilac trees. They were to be a part of her rules, her code of behaviour. Be independent; never give way to melancholy; never touch capital. And she had abided by the rules.”

On a walk around London, she has a fall and is rescued by a young man, Ludo. He is shaggy-haired, scruffily dressed, good-looking and a wannabe writer. They end up forming an unlikely friendship and the nuances, contradictions, tensions and tenderness between the two are beautifully observed. Taylor is a wonderful writer: sharp, observant, funny and real. She put me in mind of Barbara Pym, and the blurb on the back of my copy of this novel compares her to Jane Austen.  Certainly if you like those, you’ll find a lot to love here.

 “She could glimpse bed-sitting rooms – like Ludo’s some of them – where once cooks had attended ranges, rattling dampers, hooking off hot-plates, skimming stock pots, while listening to housemaids’ gossip bought from above stairs. Mrs Palfrey went slowly by, imagining those days, which were almost clearer to her than this present structure of honeycomb housing and the isolation of each cell, because they were the days that belonged to her being young, and so were the clearest of all to her.”

To end, if you think Ernest Hemingway and Elizabeth Taylor are an unlikely pairing…