Novella a Day in May 2019 #30

Sleepless Nights – Elizabeth Hardwick (1979) 151 pages

Sleepless Nights is a fictional autobiography, told by a woman with the same name as the author. It begins:

“It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today. Every morning the blue clock and the crocheted bedspread with its pink and blue and grey squares and diamonds. How nice it is – this production of a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home.”

The distorted memory means the reminiscences, memories and life story are like the crochet blanket: a series of separate pieces that come together to form a whole. So what we have are memories that dart back and forth across the woman’s life, a memory from marriage prompting a memory from childhood, prompting a memory of a neighbour, interspersed with a letter to a friend, prompting a memory of a bohemian young lifestyle in New York…

It is very cleverly written. It feels more coherent than I expected when I began the novella, and it effectively conveys the way memory works: we don’t sit and remember the beginning of our lives, working through sequentially to the current day.

“I like to remember the patience of old spinsters, some that looked like sea captains with their clear blue eyes, hair of soft, snowy whiteness, dazzling cheerfulness. Solitary music teachers, themselves bred on toil, leading the young by way of pain and discipline to their own honourable impasse, teaching in that way the scales of disappointment.”

I sat and read this straight through, but you could also just dip in for a paragraph and out again. Hardwick is master of the astonishing image:

“It has happened that someone I do not know is staying in the apartment with me. One of those charitable actions insisted upon by a friend. The stranger, thin as the elegant crane outside the window, casts a shadow because she has arrived when I was thinking about the transformations of memory. She fills the space with both the old and the new twilight, the space reserved for thoughts of my mother.”

Sleepless Nights has been published by NYRB Classics, always a reliable choice. I read it in an old VMC edition, which told me it was hailed as a literary masterpiece. I think if I was being super-picky, this might be my slight reservation. Its hugely impressive as a piece of writing but it didn’t fully move me. This is obviously a very personal thing, but for me to love a book I need strong characterisation. The narrator remained slightly enigmatic: she emerged to a degree from her memories but often she was in the shadows of them, the light cast on other people.

While enjoying a somewhat grim, dingy time as a young woman in New York, there are memories of seeing Billie Holliday live. Hardwick captures her talent, the tragedy, glamour and grit of her life very effectively. While she doesn’t shy away from what addiction did to the singer, she allows her some beautiful images too.

“Her whole life had taken place in the dark. The spotlight shone down on the black, hushed circle in a café, the moon slowly slid through the clouds. Night – working, smiling, in make up, in long silky dresses, singing over and over, again and again. The aim of it all is just to be drifting off to sleep when the first rays of the sun’s brightness begin to threaten the theatrical eyelids.”

And so to end, here is Lady Day herself:

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Novella a Day in May 2019 #28

Familiar Passions – Nina Bawden (1979) 160 pages

Trigger warning: this post mentions rape and sexual assault

Like Eudora Welty who I wrote about yesterday, it was last year’s NADIM that saw me finally pick up one of Nina Bawden’s novels (for adults, despite the fact I’d loved her as a child). Devil by the Sea was truly unsettling and I was keen to read more. The lovely Ali over at heavenali had sent me this novella with another which I won in her giveaway, and its confirmed my childhood view that Bawden is a brilliant writer 😊

Familiar Passions begins with James telling Bridie, his much younger wife of 13 years, that he wants to leave her.

“After a brief interval he went on speaking flatly, in a measured voice, like a chairman reading a company report. ‘There are a couple of things I feel I ought to say. To sum things up. One is, that considered as a parental team, we haven’t done too badly. Adrian’s defection from the middle class norm, though disappointing, is not unusual for the times we live in.”

James is repugnant. At first he seems cold and self-serving, but its worse than that. The night they split up, Bridie wakes to find James raping her.

“She did not know she was afraid of James. If she had been told she would have laughed.”

Although James has suggested she stay on as a housekeeper so he has a nice home to return to in the UK while he works abroad (!) Bridie decides she is getting out.

“ ‘You don’t have to stay, you know,’ as if consoling a scared child.

The words came unbidden, without conscious thought, but as soon as she had spoken them she understood why she had addressed herself like this, as if she were someone younger and weaker than she was. It was the only way she could force herself to act.”

Bridie never seems a victim in this. She is still young – only 32 – having married James at 19, when he was a widower and raised his two children, as well as having a daughter together. She has no work experience and worries how she will get on in the world, but she is a good mother and her step-children both like her, probably more than they like their horrible father.

“The children’s faces sustained and calmed her. It came to her with the force of something she had always known but only now acknowledged, that they were the only reason she had stayed so long; their pictures, the only thing she would take with her.”

Bridie goes home to her parents. They adopted her as a baby and she has no idea about her biological parents. Her father Martin is a psychologist, her mother Muff was a nurse.

“She had always orchestrated her emotions in this way to get and keep her mother’s sympathy; softening down the discord of her coarser feelings and playing up the tender sounds that pleased her mother’s ear. Perhaps Muff’s liking for a sweet, clear tune was what was called bringing out the best in people. But it wasn’t bringing out the best in her, Bridie began to feel. Only something that, although not altogether false, was never quite the truth.”

Bridie housesits for a patient of her father’s, in Islington which is portrayed as rather rough and down at heel – how times have changed! She gradually adapts to and starts to enjoy her new life, but the ending of her marriage prompts her to find out about her birth and origins. In doing so, she uncovers way more than she ever bargained for…

Familiar Passions is a pacey novella but it never feels overplotted. The betrayals and revelations that emerge are the type that can exist in any family. It’s very much of its time – particularly in Bridie’s attitude to being raped (and later sexually assaulted) and her awareness of how few options she has.There is anger here for sure, about the limited roles and choices for women, but it never overwhelms the narrative or characterisation.

Familiar Passions is resolutely unsentimental about families but also shows how valuable they can be: how destructive but also how nurturing, in their own unique and deeply flawed ways. Ultimately it’s a hopeful novel, about realising who you are and finding your own way; bound up as both those things will be in who you have been in the past and where you have come from.

Novella a Day in May 2019 #27

The Optimist’s Daughter – Eudora Welty (1972) 180 pages

Last year’s Novella a Day in May introduced me to Eudora Welty, when I read and loved The Ponder Heart. I was very happy to revisit her again this year, with her Pulitzer Prize winning novella, The Optimist’s Daughter.

This isn’t as comic as The Ponder Heart. Instead it’s a quiet study of people experiencing the immediate aftermath of grief. Laurel lives in Chicago, but travels back to New Orleans at the time of Mardi Gras, to be with her father who is having eye surgery.

“At the sting in her eyes, she remembered for him there must be no tears in his, and she reached to put her hand into his open hand and press it gently.”

She is an only child and her mother died several years ago. Her father, Judge McKelva, remarried after 10 years, a much younger woman named Fay. Fay is completely self-centred and unable to see beyond her own needs. She can’t believe that the older man she married has the audacity to be ill and frail.

“ ‘All on my birthday. Nobody told me this was going to happen to me!’ Fay cried, before she slammed her door.”

Spoiler: the Judge dies, and Laurel and Fay return to Mississippi to see him buried. Here, Laurel rediscovers the compassion and care of a community who have known her for her entire life. (This being Welty the cast of characters includes someone named Miss Tennyson Bullock). She moves around the home she once knew and remembers her mother and father.

“In her need tonight Laurel would have been willing to wish her mother and father dragged back to any torment of living because that torment was something they had known together, through each other. She wanted them with her to share her grief as she had been the sharer of theirs. She sat and thought of only one thing, of her mother holding and holding onto their hands, her own and her father’s holding onto her mother’s, long after there was nothing more to be said.”

The Optimist’s Daughter is a gentle tale, about memory, loss, love, community and pain. It’s about how our experience of these is unique to us. It’s a novella full of images around sight, and it shows how seeing clearly demonstrates the need to be kind to ourselves and others.

I’m fast becoming a huge Welty fan.

Novella a Day in May 2019 #17

Crimson – Niviaq Korneliussen (2014, trans. Anna Halager, 2018) 175 pages

I think Crimson might be the first ever literature I’ve read by a Greenlandic author, and as such its  another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Unfortunately, I think I might be a bit too old for this novella. My twenties were a lot of fun and a lot of stress; I have colleagues in their twenties and I enjoy their company but I’ve absolutely no desire to recapture or relive that time. So Crimson’s tales of five Greenlandic twentysomethings getting drunk, sleeping around, falling in and out of love and desperately trying to work out who they are held my attention, but didn’t really engage me beyond that.

Each section focuses on a different character. Fia is repulsed by her boyfriend’s penis and dumps him, but it is only when she sees Sara that she admits she is attracted to women.

“ ‘It’s over’ were my final words.

Then, just like that, I was free.

But the word ‘free’ didn’t bring with it ‘relief’.”

Instead Fia finds herself in the bewildering situation of living temporarily with her brother’s best friend, and trying to manage her feelings for Sara, who has a partner.

Inuk is Fia’s brother. He feels stifled by his home and flees to Denmark after his affair with a famous married man is exposed:

“Greenland is not my home. I feel sorry for Greenlanders. I’m ashamed of being a Greenlander. But I’m a Greenlander. I can’t laugh with Danes.

[…]

I’m terribly homesick but I don’t know what sort of home I’m longing for.”

Arnaq is Inuk’s best friend and Fia’s flatmate. She’s relentlessly social and struggling:

“My chapped lips are the colour of red wine, My hair is still partying. My makeup is smeared all over my face and I have huge bags under my eyes. My body is trying so hard to stay alive that I can’t concentrate on my polluted mind. I drink what’s left of the Coke, lie down on my bed and take out my mobile to check the time.”

Ivik is Sara’s partner and struggling with gender identity. Their story includes graphics of phone screens, showing how the drama of young lives is often played out by technology. But this prosaic language exists alongside the poetic as Ivik works out what they need:

“The sun brightens my eyes, which have only seen the world in black for a long, long time. I can smell the previously frozen earth melting. The warm breeze sounds like a song.”

Finally Sara, partner of Ivik and lust-object of Fia, tells her tale and brings the stories together. Sections of her narrative end with meaningless hashtags which was really annoying, e.g. #dontgotogether or #1#2. If the hashtags had been witty or expanding the perpsective this could have worked better.

Sara, who until this point has been somewhat idealised through the eyes of others, is shown to have her own problems, with feelings of dirtiness and unworthiness. Her sister has just had a baby and Sara notices the obsession with gender that this involves. It’s also a very modern birth announcement via Facebook, where Sara stalks Fia:

“She finally changed her profile picture. I’m unable to see all her photos because we’re not friends on Facebook, so I gaze at her new profile picture for quite a while. I catch myself smiling. I hover over ‘Add friend’ for a long time. No, if she was really interested, she would have sent a friend request. I log off. Go to Google. Google knows everything.”

I only write about books I recommend and it’s undoubtedly great to hear a young Greenlandic voice. Korneliussen was only 24 when she wrote this and she translated it herself into Danish. The writing sometimes seemed to me naïve and bit clunky, but as I said, I’m probably not the target audience for this novella. I’m grateful to Virago for giving English-speaking readers this opportunity to hear her, even if the subject matter bored me slightly. I’d definitely still be interested to see what Korneliussen writes in future.

To end, the title comes from the Joan Jett classic which means a lot to Fia and Sara:

“A fo ben, bid bont”/“If you want to be a leader, be a bridge” (Welsh proverb)

If only traditional Welsh wisdom would reach current leaders, who seem determined to build walls both literal and metaphorical rather than bridges at the moment… *sigh*

Politics aside, let’s get back to books, lovely books. This is my contribution to Dewithon 19, the Welsh readathon for March 2019, hosted by Paula at Book Jotter – do join in!

(Image from Book Jotter)

Firstly, Winter Sonata by Dorothy Edwards (1928), who was born in Glamorgan in 1903. This was her only novel after she tragically died by suicide when she was 31, six years after its publication.

Arnold Nettle is a shy man and in frail health. He moves to a village where his family own the Post Office, to work there and recuperate.

“Every evening at six o’clock Arnold Nettle used to come home from the post-office and walk slowly along to his lodgings. The sun was setting and it would disappear behind the black feathery branches of the trees, leaving streaks of red in the grey sky. He went in and had his tea, and then he usually sat reading by the fire or practising a bit on his cello. Sometimes, of course, he sat simply looking into the fire, and it seemed he was a little nervous even in his own society, because often he would blush and smile shyly to himself. At ten o’clock he would put his book and his cello back in their places and fasten the window and go to bed.”

So, a simple life conveyed in a simple style. I wasn’t sure about this style at first, whether it was deliberate to convey Arnold’s thought processes and deliberately quiet life, or whether it was the inexperience of the writer. It worked well for Arnold, and it did change slightly when the story focussed on other characters. Arnold is asked by a local family to play his cello for them; Olivia and Eleanor live with their aunt, Mrs Curle, and her son George. Arnold is very much taken with Olivia.

“Olivia smiled at him too and made him sit down, He still kept the gloves firmly in his hands, but he sat down smiling at them all and asked in a comparatively loud voice, ‘Where is your cat?’ and since this was the first quite independent remark he had ever made in that house, it almost gave the rather absurd impression that he had this evening come there especially to see the cat.”

The story follows these young people and also Mr Premiss, a self-focussed cad who is friends with George, and Pauline, Arnold’s landlady’s daughter. Very little happens so this is not the novel for you if you like a strong plot, but I thought it worked effectively in capturing people and a place at a moment in time, over the course of one winter.

Ultimately though I decided the naïve style was due to Dorothy Edwards’ inexperience as a writer. There are far too many occasions on which Olivia’s eyes are described as sad, her sister’s as blue. This description is not always out of place:

“Olivia looked about her with her large, rather childlike but sad eyes. Her happy mood had gone in some way; she did not feel so full of energy. There is something, too, rather unpleasant about winter; it is cold and frozen and nothing seems to move, and yet there is no sense of rest anywhere.”

Yet far too frequent. But what really stopped me loving this novel was a feeling of detachment from the characters. For me as a reader, I don’t need to like the characters but I do need to feel involved with them in some way. Again, this may have been a stylistic choice – Olivia seems depressed, Arnold is alienated, and so creating this feeling in the reader helps capture the feelings of the characters:

“At supper he was very careful to listen to the conversation and not to get lost in his own thoughts. But even then he listened, and even took part in it, almost as though he were dreaming it all. They sat around the table like stars, and when they spoke their voices seemed to come to him from far away”

I only write about books I would recommend, and I would recommend Winter Sonata, but with some reservations. I found it an interesting novel with some beautiful writing but also a bit unsatisfying. I’ve definitely not done it justice here and in capturing a quiet desperation within ordinary lives it is restrained and accomplished. What I am sure of is that Dorothy Edwards was a talented writer and may have just been finding her feet with this. I’d certainly like to read Rhapsody, her collection of short stories. Had she lived and carried on writing, I think she could have been really successful.

Secondly, Remember Me by Trezza Azzopardi (2004) who was born in Cardiff and based the main character of this novel, Winnie, on Nora Brindle, a woman who lived on the streets of Cardiff.

“There was a panicky sort of wind about, swirling everything up from the gutter and blowing dirt in your face. Eyes full of grit; with my case and the bin liner…I was wearing my silver coat with the plastic bag in the inside pocket, and the shoes I’d got from the Salvation Army the week before. I had my case with me. I always took my case.”

Winnie is homeless but shelters in an abandoned shop that she has some previous connection to, along with some young homeless boys. They move on and she is on her own when a young woman breaks in a steals her case. Her pursuit of her things leads Winnie to remember the past, and Azzopardi moves seamlessly back and forth across time.

Winnie has been considered odd since she was a child. Her mother seems to suffer from depression, although in the first half of the twentieth century it isn’t called that. All young Winnie knows is that her frail mother is wasting away in bed, and like Winnie, she communes with the dead.

“I avoided cracks in the pavement, I crossed my fingers and touched wood, and at night, I prayed. Despite everything, the ghosts took their fill. Each day a little more of my mother was stolen. In no time at all, her eyes went hard as jet; her hair, brittle as spun sugar.”

We follow Winnie through her life: evacuation during the war, bullying at school, falling in love. She lives with her grandfather after her mother dies and her father tries to keep Winnie’s memories of her alive:

 “A handkerchief, a ribbon, a heart-shaped locket sprinkled with rust; these are objects, artefacts, proof of life. I balance his memories, all the same, storing them on top of mine, carefully leaning one against the other like a stack of playing cards. I am building a tower without bells. Later I will bring it all down, in an earthquake of my own.”

What we witness is that time and again Winnie is used by people. Azzopardi shows with a deft touch how society will judge Winnie – homeless, unloved, likely mentally ill – harshly, although she has never been vindictive or deliberately tried to hurt anyone. Meanwhile those who use her – usually male, employed, solvent – get away with it.

Remember Me isn’t remotely sentimental and Winnie never asks for pity. She is an unreliable narrator, but then everyone would be an unreliable narrator of their own life – how can it possibly be seen with any objectivity?

“Who cares about an old woman and a few bits of tat? No one, that’s who, no one on the world.”

Winnie’s life is hard, and unfair, and yet her resilience and a message of hope endures to the very end.

Following Winnie’s lead, here is a memory of my own: when I was a student in the 90s, there was the Cool Cymru music explosion, with the chart success of bands like Manic Street Preachers, Super Furry Animals, and The Stereophonics amongst many others. When Catatonia appeared on Top of the Pops to perform Mulder and Scully in 1998, I think it was the first time I’d heard an English-language pop song sung in a Welsh accent (I’m not counting Bonnie Tyler because I think she didn’t mean for her accent to slip through), much to the pleasure of my Welsh housemate at the time. Here is their lead singer Cerys Matthews performing a traditional Welsh folk song:

“Men are my hobby—if I ever got married, I’d have to give it up.” (Mae West)

My last post was about a romantically-involved couple for Valentine’s Day; this week I thought I’d look at a single person status much distrusted throughout literature: that of the spinster. Both my spinsters are inhabitants of beautiful Bristol, which I’d like to claim was down to well thought-through post-planning on my part, but was actually a total coincidence.

My first choice is the wonderful Miss Mole, titular heroine of the 1930 novel by EH Young. Hannah is in her late thirties, alone and shabby and the envy of no-one, yet she is a robust character who finds ways to survive and even enjoy life.

“She judged herself by the shadow she chose to project for her own pleasure and it was her business in life – and one in which she usually failed – to make other people accept her creation. Yes, she failed, she failed! They would not look at the beautiful, the valuable Hannah Mole: they saw the substance and disapproved of it and she did not blame them: it was what she would have done herself and in the one case where she had concentrated on the fine shadow presented to her, she had been mistaken.”

She is not delusional, rather she refuses to see herself as others see her -and why should she?

“This capacity for waiting and believing that the good things were surely approaching had served Hannah very well through a life which most people would have found dull and disappointing. She refused to see it so: it would have been treachery to herself. Her life was almost her only possession and she was as tender with it as a mother”

There is a strong streak of mischief in Hannah Mole too, and she enjoys teasing her well-to-do cousin Lilla, who finds her a job as a housekeeper to the reverend Robert Corder and his daughters Ethel and Ruth. This is not a remotely romantic set-up though. Corder is good at his job but he is also vain and self-centred, and enjoys his position in society because it means few people challenge him. Hannah sees him unblinkingly, and he does not like her.

“it would have horrified him to learn that he could not judge a clever or plain woman fairly. A clever one challenged him to combat in which he might not be the victor and a plain one roused in him a primitive antagonism. In failing to please him, a woman virtually denied her sex and became offensive to those instincts which he did his best to ignore.”

Hannah decides to improve things for his unhappy daughters, and feels a bond with his dead wife as she sets out to do so. She will manage things successfully, but in her own inimitable way:

“Hannah was not scrupulous about truth. She was not convinced of its positive value as human beings knew it, she considered it a limiting and an embarrassing convention.”

Hannah is realistic, but also hopeful and not remotely self-pitying. We also learn early on that she is brave, rescuing a suicidal man by smashing a window. She and a fellow tenant in her boarding house, Mr Blenkinsop, conspire to improve things for the man’s family, despite appearing to communicate at cross-purposes a great deal of the time. As she makes things work out for those around her, I really wanted things to work out for Hannah too, despite a shadow from her past looming – I think I viewed her with more compassion than she allowed herself:

“The desires, the energy, the gaiety were there, but they were ruled by an ironic conception of herself”

I really enjoyed spending time with Miss Mole. It’s a gentle novel, but it also doesn’t hide away from the realities of life for single women who are no longer young and without much money in the first half of the twentieth century, and how a judgemental society limits their choices.

Secondly, a spinster who would probably have done better without much money, Rachel Waring in Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar (1982).  Rachel is in her late 40s with a boring job and a flatshare in London. Then her Great Aunt Alicia dies and leaves her a house in Bristol, and everything changes.

“And the hitherto dull, diffident, middle-aged woman who said to the taxi driver ‘Paddington please,’ felt in some respects more like a girl of seventeen setting out for exotic climes”

Rachel moves into the house and is determined to make the best of this fresh start:

“I had often discovered the secret of happiness: courage on one occasion, acceptance on another, gratitude on a third. But this time there was rightness to it – certainty, simplicity – which in the past mightn’t have seemed quite so all-embracing. Gaiety, I told myself. Vivacity. Positive thinking. I could have cheered.”

Gradually however, this vivacity spills over into something more. She becomes obsessed with the slave trade reformer Horatio Gavin who lived in her house centuries ago. She sees a portrait in a shop she believes to be him:

“I saw the portrait in the window.

I laughed out loud. I laughed right there, standing on the pavement, a spontaneous burst of laughter that was partly the effect of my ecstatic recognition of him and partly an aid to his more sober recognition of me

Wish Her Safe At Home details Rachel’s descent into serious mental illness. It is brilliantly done. Rachel begins as eccentric and gradually becomes truly unhinged. The description of seeing the portrait is a perfect example. Most of us at some point have lost our filter in public: suddenly laughing at something remembered, or saying something out loud which we didn’t mean to. There are often experiences that we believe to be serendipitous for one reason or another. But Rachel suddenly takes this experience a step further in believing the portrait recognises her.

A novel from the first-person perspective of someone who is losing their mind is a tough read. I found it really got under my skin, more than any novel I’ve read in a long time. The first-person perspective also works brilliantly in positioning the reader in a place not exactly like Rachel’s, but certainly confused and paranoid on her behalf. There is a young couple, Roger and Celia who seem to like Rachel – why? Are they after her house? Do they feel sorry for her? Are they playing her from the start? Are they completely oblivious? Rachel’s unreliable narration means we cannot be sure.

“I don’t know when the following dialogue took place. Somehow it seems cut adrift from time, like a rowboat quietly loosened from its moorings, while its occupant, entranced, oblivious to each hill or field or willow tree upon her way lies whitely gleaming in her rose embroidered silk, trailing a graceful hand and sweetly carolling beneath a canopy of green”

That passage is meant to be overblown: Rachel is such a desperate character. Her delusions are romantic and an attempt to grasp a life so far half-lived, before it is too late. There’s nothing vindictive or cruel in her, and she is so incredibly vulnerable.

“Sometimes I felt utterly convinced I had been singled out for glory.

But not always. Far more often I felt I simply didn’t stand a chance”

I’ve not remotely done justice to the power, skill and subtlety of Wish Her Safe At Home. All I can say is: read it.

To end, the trailer for the film that apparently inspired Wish Her Safe at Home. The Ghost and Mrs Muir has had a special place in my heart since childhood. In all the times I’ve seen it, it’s never occurred to me that Mrs Muir is mentally ill. Wish Her Safe at Home has made me question everything…

“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 😊