Although I wouldn’t describe Nina Bawden as a comfort read – she is far too sharply observant for that – it was with some relief that I started A Nice Change, after the traumas of The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles yesterday. A middle-class comedy of manners amongst holidaymakers in Greece sounded free of serious consequence and therefore just the ticket.
The story opens with solicitor Amy arriving in Athens airport with her husband Tom, a Labour MP, who has spotted his ex-mistress Portia heading to the same hotel as them:
“What the hell is she doing here? What the hell can he do? Amy has booked (a package deal, paid in advance) this reportedly comfortable hotel entirely for his benefit. She hates lying around pools, or on beaches, is bored by rich food as she is bored by rich people, likes to keep on the move when she travels. But he has just had a small but humiliating operation that made bicycling around Brittany, their earlier, energetic plan for this summer fortnight, out of the question.”
Despite being a philandering politician, Tom isn’t especially despicable. He’s not especially likable either. He’s just a middle-aged man worried about his waistline, dissatisfied at work but feeling too old to start anything new. He’s recognisable and ordinary, rather than a moustache-twirling villain.
“He could never again think of himself as an honest man. (There is a certain enjoyment in this self-abasement that he acknowledges occasionally, even though most of the time he prefers to see it as a decent humility.)”
Amy, on the other hand, seems quite a decent and caring person.
“Now it is only with Tom that she feels these physical characteristics to be shameful, disabling. With other people (more often with women than men) she is unselfconscious, competent, kindly, a good listener, even a good talker, on rare occasions quite witty. Well, cheery, anyway, she corrects herself.”
She is aware of Tom’s affair and knows it is over. She doesn’t want to know any details, so Tom spends the holiday worrying that Amy will discover who Portia is. Tom’s charming father arrives too, adding to his concerns.
Alongside these domestic woes are the other guests: Mr and Mrs Boot, an older couple who refer to each other as Mother and Daddy belying Mr Boot’s somewhat less-than-paternal traits; lovely young doctor Prudence Honey (ha!) awaiting the arrival of her extrovert grandmother; grieving widower Philip; and some mysterious elderly female twins, who Amy thinks look vaguely familiar…
Bawden is a great social observer, but never harshly judgemental:
“Connection thus established, they nod, and smile, and make various other small facial gestures to express friendly intentions towards each other and amused dismay at the suddenly crowded bar; every seat taken and not even much standing room since several of the newcomers have crutches or zimmer frames which they deploy cunningly to give them extra floor space.”
Although it’s a novella, Bawden handles all the characters expertly and none felt under-explored to me. There are various mysteries around the guests which gradually come to light without feeling contrived, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Hotel Parthenon.
The story opens with James Fenton and his wife Edna taking their usual Sunday stroll along Albert Embankment. A picture of middle-class contentment, but you know that this being du Maurier, anything remotely safe and familiar is about to be undermined.
And it is. Passing a nanny “pushing a pram containing identical twins with round faces like Dutch cheeses”, his wife mentions arranging dinner with their friends, and among all this domesticity Fenton suddenly feels entirely disassociated. He could kill someone.
“‘They don’t know,’ he thought, ‘those people inside, how one gesture of mine, now, at this minute, might alter their world. A knock on the door, and someone answers – a woman yawning, an old man in carpet slippers, a child sent by its parents in irritation; and according to what I will, what I decide, their whole future will be decided. Faces smashed in. Sudden murder. Theft. Fire.’ It was as simple as that.”
He decides he will murder someone entirely at random. In order to undertake his nefarious plan, he takes a room in a seedy flat, sublet by Madame Kaufman, a woman worn down by life, living with her small son Johnnie.
To justify his taking of the room he claims to be a painter, and goes as far as buying canvases and oils. At this point, his plan starts to go awry…
Everything that I love about du Maurier was in this story. The creepily destabilising of the familiar; the resolute ordinariness of evil; the sense that anything could happen and that whatever it is would be horribly believable. There was also some humour in the portrayal of the deeply unpleasant James Fenton:
“If there was one thing he could not stand it was a woman who argued, a woman who was self-assertive, a woman who nagged, a woman who stood upon her rights. Because of course they were not made for that. They were intended by their Creator to be pliable, and accommodating, and gentle, and meek. The trouble was that they were so seldom like that in reality.”
The end of the story completely reframed all that had gone before – du Maurier is certainly a writer that keeps her readers on their toes.
I’m really looking forward to finishing the collection once I’ve stopped consuming novellas at quite such a rapid rate. Many thanks Ali, for hosting this wonderful event, and a very happy birthday to you!
The Squire is a novella I have two copies of – one in Persephone edition and one in VMC. Sometimes I wonder if having several copies of the same books in different editions is the sign of a problem – but I suspect readers of this blog are the wrong people to ask 😀
The Persephone edition has smaller print so meets my novella criteria at coming it at under 200 pages (the VMC is 270 pages but much larger print and wide margins). Either way, it’s a quick read!
The squire of the title is the privileged middle-class lady of Manor House, wife of a “Bombay merchant” who is away in India on business (aka ripping off traders in the name of white imperialism) while she awaits the birth of her fifth child.
“Drifting towards the birth of her baby with a simple and enchanted excitement she walked in radiance like a bride.”
The novel covers the last few hours before the birth, and after. This is a life of ease, albeit with servant worries and a best friend more concerned with her latest love affair. The squire drifts through it all:
“She who had once been thirsty and gay, square-shouldered, fair and military, strutting about life for the spoil, was thickened now, vigorous, leonine, occupied with her house, her nursery, her servants, her knot of lives, antagonistic and loving.”
The setting is resolutely domestic. There are no concerns for the squire outside of this sphere. Reading it now, the order, predictability and comfort struck me as particularly poignant, as we know that in just over a year the world would change irrevocably. It’s unlikely the squire’s staff of seven for her family of six would still be in place once war was declared. But for now:
“The last curtain was drawn, the parlourmaid had gone and the hall was empty. It smelt of greenery and flowers and polish, very still, folded for its evening, waiting for its night.”
There is some lovely characterisation in The Squire. My particular favourites were her son Boniface, who determinedly stays in his own world, refusing to pander to his mother’s feelings by saying he missed her when he didn’t; and Pratt the butler, grumpy and unyielding, but also very fond of his mistress:
“Pratt bent his tall figure over the library fire, fire-tongs in hand…Only the firelight lit his trousers. The lights on the circuit had fused. The circuit involved the squire’s bedroom above, the staircase and landing outside. He heard her calling for a candle. He stood still (a dignified, black figure, holding the fire-tongs) because his smouldering nature was accustomed to save itself by inaction. Let her mend her fuse.”
Thankfully for the squire, the more accommodating live-in midwife arrives, swelling her staff to eight. The midwife and the squire have known each other for years and speak intimately and frankly, as you’d expect considering what they have been through together:
“ ‘As I grow older I come to consider men…husbands of women, husbands of mothers…as hindrances to my work.’
‘You wouldn’t get your work without them.’”
The Squire was considered very frank for the time, apparently HG Wells, despite his liberal views, was shocked at Bagnold’s use of the word nipple 😀 What surprised me as a twenty-first century reader was the squire’s alcohol consumption (port in gravy, sherries before dinner) and the readiness of the doctor to prescribe a “quarter of morphia” to a woman who has just given birth as he considers her over-excited. Later, after the squire has breastfed, she observes “the morphia still drifting about her like evaporating wool” so presumably the newborn has just had a dose of controlled drugs too – eek.
The Squire is beautifully written and very readable, capturing a particular experience of motherhood and birth at a very specific time.
The opening line of Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead may have usurped The Crow Road* to become my favourite beginning to a novel ever:
“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows.”
Thus the scene is set for an unsettling domestic tale where nothing can be taken for granted.
The Willoweed family live in an English village where the river has just flooded in June. Then follows pages of dead animals, which I was prepared for, having read Jacqui’s wonderful review but I was exceedingly relieved when it ended (unfortunately there was also a horrible cat death later). Much as I could have done without the litany of death, it sets the tone for the darkness that follows.
In 1911 Emma, Dennis and Hattie live with their father Ebin and their grandmother who rules with a rod of iron. She is permanently furious, which Ebin attributes as follows:
“It’s all this cleaning, I suppose; but she can’t expect me to help; my hands are my best feature, and they would be ruined.”
Ebin does very little apart from make vague overtures towards his children’s schooling and sleep with the baker’s wife.
“‘Father makes me hate men,’ thought Emma as she pumped water into a bucket.”
This is not an idyllic pre-war rose-tinted existence. Money is tight, relationships are tense, there is sexual deceit, violent undercurrents that threaten to overwhelm, and macabre power games. Grandmother Willoweed treats the servants horribly, but Old Ives the handyman is a match for her:
“They always exchanged birthday gifts, and each was determined to outlive the other.”
Their lives are disrupted by a mysterious illness that sweeps through the village. People kill themselves following horrific delusions. By the time the cause of the illness has been identified, tragedy has touched the family and violence has ensued. As the title tells us, lives will have changed irrevocably one way or another.
I don’t want to say much more as the joy of reading Barbara Comyns is being so unsettled as to have no idea which way she is going to take you. There’s no-one like her; her view is so singular, so disturbing and yet so compelling. I found Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead brutal and horrifying, and also funny and enchanting. I couldn’t look away.
The novel picks up precisely where The Sugar House left off, with Clara and Archie having decided to separate. Clara moves back to her parents’ house to live with them and her grandmother in West Kensington. As she packs up her old life, she feels disassociated:
“She had the odd impression that it was not she who was stripping hangers and throwing armfuls of clothes into suitcases but some callous, efficient stranger. She herself was lying on the unmade bed, staring blankly at the cracks in the sugar-pink ceiling.”
This sense of disassociation deepens and broadens throughout the novel. When Clara announces to her mother “It’s a great relief not to have any feelings. I’m certainly not going to risk getting involved with anyone again.”
The reader of course knows what will happen. She attends a party with her friend Clive Heron (an intriguing character, my personal theory is he works for MI5) and falls instantly in love with the dashing soldier Richard Crayshaw.
What follows is such a clever exploration of someone slowly – then suddenly – unravelling. Clara stops eating and sleeping, she has a “strange sense of heightened perception” ever since she danced with Richard. She believes they communicate telepathically, a belief supported by others, but then she thinks the photographs of dead soldiers in her father’s study are speaking to her. She has gone from no feeling:
“Null and void. Null and void. She sat staring at the roses on her bedroom wall-paper, saying the words over and over again until she was half hypnotised.”
To too much feeling. At first her mania is disguised by being in love – plenty of people feel heightened and have reduced appetite and problems sleeping in the excitement of new romance. Certainly that is what Clara’s mother Isabel believes.
But gradually the reader begins to realise that Clara is really quite unwell. As Beyond the Glass is told from Clara’s perspective this takes some time, but it dawns us through others’ responses to her. In this way it is reminiscent of Wish Her Safe at Home, another excellent novel about severe mental illness.
Eventually she is ‘certified’ – made an in-patient at a public mental health hospital. The descriptions of the environment and the practices make me wonder how on earth anyone would have a hope of ever becoming well again. Thankfully mental health services, though chronically underfunded, are very different now.
I was so impressed with how White conveyed Clara’s disorientation and confusion, without making the narrative confusing and disorienting at all:
“Time behaved in the most extraordinary way. Sometimes it went at tremendous pace, as when she saw the leaves of the creeper unfurl before her eyes like a slow motion film, or the nurses, instead of walking along the passage, sped by as fast as cars. Yet often, it seemed to take her several hours to lift a spoon from her plate to her mouth.”
During her deep distress there are also echoes of events that occurred earlier in the narrative, particularly in The Sugar House, showing with the lightest of touches that her severe ill health has been building for a while:
“Since her marriage she had had an increasing sense of unreality, as if her existence had been broken off like the reel of a film.”
The recurring images of mirrors and glass as barriers reminded me of Plath’s The Bell Jar. Like The Bell Jar, this novel is based on the personal experiences of the author.
“She had an instantaneous vision of herself as someone forever outside, forever looking through glass at the bright human world which had no place for her and where the mere sight of her produced terror.”
Beyond the Glass ends on a note of hope, and faith, drawing on the Catholic thread that runs through all four novels. At times Clara’s Catholicism is more strongly felt in the story than at others, reflecting the character’s experience of her faith. I’m not religious but I felt the focus on this theme ended the novel and the series perfectly.
It’s so impressive that all the novels in the quartet are distinct and stand individually, while also developing across the sequence a fully realised portrait of Clara, and her family.
I’ve really enjoyed immersing myself in Clara’s life and I’m going to miss her (and her much-maligned mother, a great piece of characterisation). I wish Antonia White had continued writing her story.
“Something told her that, when they saw her again, they would know as well as she did that she no longer belonged to the world beyond the glass.”
To end, I finished my previous 1954 Club post with a filmed musical, so here’s another. The film of The Pajama Game is from 1957 but the Broadway show first appeared in 1954:
This week I’m looking at two novels by Antonia White, prompted by the pending arrival of next week’s 1954 Club, hosted by Simon and Kaggsy. When I looked at the TBR for 1954 novels, one that I had was Beyond the Glass. However, it’s the final novel in a quartet, and I hadn’t read the middle two…
It’s been six years since I read Frost in May and I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to pick up Antonia White again, because I really enjoyed that first instalment. Frost in May was written in 1933, and White didn’t continue the story again until 1950, going on to write the last two in the quartet in 1952 and 1954.
The Lost Traveller (1950) sees Nanda from Frost in May renamed Clara and returning to her childhood home in West Kensington to attend the funeral of her paternal grandfather. Her father is bereft, but in 1914 emotions were to be controlled absolutely:
“Suddenly he was touched by an old fear of which he had never spoken to anyone, the fear that one day he might lose all control of his mind. Against that there was only one weapon; his obstinate will.”
Mr Batchelor is a teacher who harbours academic ambitions for Clara. His feckless wife Isabel wants Clara to be beautiful. She is both of these things, but not to the extent that either of her parents would like. The complex family relationships are brilliantly portrayed by White: the mismatched parents, the passive aggressive power struggles between Isabel and her mother-in-law (“Mrs Batchelor’s face … assumed a look of patient malice.”) and in the middle of it all, adolescent Clara.
“At home, to be silent was taken for a sign one was sulking.”
After her mother is ill with the mysterious women’s problems that were always so common and yet so unspoken, Clara’s father can no longer pay her school fees (the NHS was over 30 years away) and so she has to leave Catholic boarding school to attend a local Protestant school. She’s actually quite happy there, and makes two friends, although neither of them are Catholic, to the concern of her convert parents.
“Isabel, who would never have come to such a decision on her own, was willing to follow him. Catholicism seemed to her a poetical and aristocratic religion.”
Clara’s religion plays a large part in The Lost Traveller, as she tries to establish what it means for her as a young adult, away from the structures of her convent school.
Of course, with the year being 1914, readers know what the family is about to live through. However, when war breaks out, the only person it really affects is Mr Batchelor, as he sees the population of his old boys steadily wiped out.
“If only he could have gone to the front with them, he would have been completely happy.”
Although Clara prides herself on not being as vacuous as her mother, in some ways she is just as self-focussed and oblivious:
“Since she had nobody at the front in love with her and was too young to be a nurse or W.A.A.C, Clara refused to take any interest in the progress of the war.”
So while the war takes place somewhere else, Clara struggles with her sense of self, trying to work out who she is and how to manage the tumultuous feelings of teenage life in a family where so much goes unspoken. Her father is devout, strict, and given to tempers. Clara adores him and yet there is distance between them:
“Why couldn’t he understand without being told that there was nothing she would not do, cut her hair off, hold her hand to the fire, if it would bring any comfort? Why couldn’t he realise that the one impossible thing was to speak?”
Meanwhile her mother is struggling with her life choices – or lack thereof – and is drawn to one of her husband’s colleagues, Reynaud Callaghan, who encourages her romantic fancies.
“‘But I love Versailles,’ she went on dreamily. ‘I had an ancestress at the court of Louis XVI. I should have adored that life. Those exquisite clothes and the balls by candlelight and the masquerades by moonlight.’”
Isabel is great creation: vain, shallow, a snob, and yet in many ways she sees more clearly than anyone else. She tries to talk to Clara about childbirth and sex, but Clara stops her. Clara’s naivete about both is astonishing yet believable.
An opportunity comes up for Clara to be a governess for six months to an aristocratic Catholic family, which her family are keen she take up. I found her charge thoroughly unpleasant – an over-privileged, spoilt, entitled little brat. The type that grows up to run the country 😉
It’s there that Clara meets Archie Hughes-Follett, injured in the line of duty. He will come to play a much larger role in her life in The Sugar House.
“When she considered her vanity and duplicity and how little her beliefs influenced her behaviour, she began to wonder whether she might not be insensibly growing into a hypocrite.”
The Sugar House (1952) picks up Clara’s story six years later in 1920. She is an actress, having paid for her drama tuition herself with money made from working in a government office. She doesn’t seem wholly committed to her profession, but she is to her older lover Stephen Tye.
Needless to say, the reader may not be quite so enamoured of a man given to pronouncements such as: “‘No female novelist is worth reading,’ said Stephen. ‘Women can’t write novels any more than they can write poems.’” He then wheels out the tired old misogynist cliché that Branwell wrote Wuthering Heights. Sigh…
Thankfully we don’t have to endure this awful man for too long, as he ends up on a different tour to Clara. I thought the touring life was wonderfully evoked by White:
“Though towns changed, landlady’s sitting-rooms remained the same. There were always round tables with red or green serge cloths, aspidistras, photographs of seaside towns in plush frames and, in lucky weeks, a tinny, yellow-keyed piano.”
Clara often finds herself sharing rooms with fellow actor Maidie, who is at once much more devout and much more worldly than Clara. Religion is not such a strong theme throughout The Sugar House as it was in The Lost Traveller, but it is there as a constant.
When things fall apart with Stephen – as the reader knows they inevitably will – Clara returns to the security of what she knows: home, and Archie. He loves her, and unlike Stephen he respects her writing:
“I didn’t think even you could write anything which got me so much.”
However, he is conflicted and confused. He has the same childlike quality he had in The Lost Traveller, but his self-medicating with alcohol has worsened:
“Often he had sulked like a schoolboy but never had she seen him in this mood of aggressive bitterness.”
Clara doesn’t love him, but she marries him. Although Maidie has helped Clara to become less naïve, she is still hopelessly ignorant and to a modern reader the whole thing is doomed to failure. Probably to 1950s readers too, as this is Clara on her wedding day:
“She wondered if he had really expected her to run away. Her will was too paralysed even to formulate the wish.”
The titular house is their first married home, as Clara is desperate to leave the stifling atmosphere of her parents’ house. She finds a place in Chelsea, the portrayal of which is amusing for twenty-first century readers. Now it is one of the most expensive parts of London, but apparently in the 1920s it was bohemian and considerably less salubrious. This does not go down well with her upright father:
“ ‘No doubt you fill the place with short-haired women and long-haired men. Archie has all my sympathy if he prefers the public house.”
Interestingly, what draws Clara to this atmosphere is the evidence of people working. Artists wander the streets with the tools of their trade tucked under the arms, and Clara realises she is desperate to write:
“Oh, God, don’t let me be just a messy amateur.”
However, her increasingly stressful married life where Archie fritters away money and drinks heavily means that she finds it hard to focus on work. The house, with its distempered walls that look like sugar icing, cramped rooms and two untidy people living it, begins to oppress her almost as much as her parents’ house.
“Once this sense of non-existence was so acute that she ran from the basement to the sitting room full of mirrors almost expecting to find nothing reflected in them.”
Eventually things reach a breaking point, at once dramatic and understated, entirely believable and very sad. I wouldn’t normally read books by the same author so close together, but I’m glad I did here. I’ve felt very much submerged into Clara’s world and completely involved in her story.
“Yet here, as there, she found herself both accepted and a little apart. She was beginning to wonder if there were any place where she did perfectly fit in”
All being well, Beyond the Glass next week!
(I should mention there is antisemitism expressed in both novels, particularly The Lost Traveller. However, the characters stating such views are never portrayed as admirable. I think writing in the 1950s, White was reminding a contemporary readership who would have had the holocaust in recent living memory, of the pervasiveness of racism in society).
To end, a song that sums up Clara and Archie’s situation pretty well:
After bookish travels (sadly not actual travels) to Ireland and Wales in March, I thought I would start April with a visit to Scotland. As with actual travels, things did not go entirely plan…
I have piles of Scottish authors in the TBR but my initial choices did not work out. The first novel I chose was excellent but brutal, so I just wanted to leave it behind at the end and not blog about it. My second choice I thought was safe; an established and accomplished author. Unfortunately I chose a novel she wrote at age 21, before she realised that sentences need a coherent structure. I got so sick of re-reading to try and work out which pronoun referred to which character that it was a rare DNF for me.
Given my reading pace is so slow at the moment, I then panicked and chose a novella and a short story to try and get something read. Thankfully these turned out to be enjoyable reads 😊
Firstly, Edinburgh-born Muriel Spark’s final novel, The Finishing School (2005). The titular institution is College Sunrise, on the shores of Lake Geneva, run by Rowland and Nina Mahler, although by Rowland in name only:
“To conserve his literary strength, as he put it, he left nearly all the office work to Nina who spoke good French and was dealing with the bureaucratic side of the school and with the parents, employing a kind of impressive carelessness.”
Feckless Rowland is thrown of kilter by the arrival of Chris Wiley at the school:
“His own sense of security was so strong as to be unnoticeable. He knew himself. He felt his talent. It was all a question of time and exercise. Because he was himself unusual, Chris perceived everyone else to be so.”
Chris is writing a novel about Mary Queen of Scots, unhindered by the actual facts of what happened. Although Rowland is tutor to the young artistic students, Chris keeps his writing progress secret, fully aware that this stokes Rowland’s obsession with him.
In this short novel, the other pupils and staff at the school are sketched in lightly but enjoyably, such as Mary: “her ambition was to open a village shop and sell ceramics and transparent scarves”.
Not a great deal happens, but the tension builds as Rowland becomes more fixated on Chris, and the two end up in a co-dependent relationship, as Chris observes:
“I need his jealousy. His intense jealousy. I can’t work without it.”
This being Spark, I couldn’t guess which way the novel would end as she mixes the very dark with a lightness of touch:
“ ‘Too much individualism,’ thought Rowland. ‘He is impeding me. I wish he could peacefully die in his sleep.’”
I wouldn’t say The Finishing School was Spark at the height of her powers – I found it a diverting read and an enjoyable one, but for me, Spark at her best is breath-taking, almost shocking. If you’re already a fan, there’s still much to enjoy here though. The askance view of human relationships, the morbid alongside the comic, the skewering of pretentious writers, and the arresting non-sequiturs.
Secondly, Until Such Times by Inverness-born writer Jessie Kesson (1985), which I had as part of the anthology Infinite Riches: Virago Modern Classics Short Stories (ed. Lynn Knight, 1993). It was a pretty good match for Spark although I didn’t plan it as such, with some darkly comic characterisation and a very unnerving ending.
The bairn is taken to live with her Grandmother and Aunt Edith:
“But you weren’t here to stay forever! Your Aunt Ailsa had promised you that. You was only here to stay… ‘Until Such Times’, Aunt Ailsa had said on the day she took you to Grandmother’s house…”
We join her with the house in a vague state of uproar trying to prepare for a visit from Aunt Millie and Cousin Alice. There is a suggestion that the visitors are respectable and admirable, whereas the bairn and Aunt Ailsa are somehow disreputable.
The narrative moves back and forth, showing the reader more than the bairn understands about her family situation and expertly drawing the dynamics between Grandmother, Aunt and child. The tension for a child living in a strict household and the manipulations and judgements of the Aunt (who is somehow unwell but never quite clear how; she is referred to by an old-fashioned term no longer used) was so well evoked.
At only 11 pages long, Kesson shows all that can be achieved in a short story: well-drawn characters, social commentary, narrative tension and a recognisable world. The final sentence was a perfect ending. I thought Until Such Times was really impressive and I’ll definitely look out for more of Kesson’s work.
To end, a Scottish treat for my mother, who is a big fan:
This is a contribution to Reading Wales 2022 aka the Dewithon, hosted by the lovely Paula over at Book Jotter. My VMC pile is reaching ridiculous proportions so I googled “Wales Virago” and was delighted to find that there were two authors I could take off the TBR for this year’s Dewithon.
Firstly, I chose Penelope Mortimer, as I’d enjoyed Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting and The Pumpkin Eater a great deal, finding her writing spiky and incisive. Mortimer was born in Rhyl, Flintshire and My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof (1967) was her sixth novel.
Muriel Rowbridge is a journalist on a trip to Canada, the only woman in a group of men, warned by her editor:
“Don’t go wandering off in one of your Virginia Woolf fits.”
She is very much the outsider, wanting to focus on her writing while the rest of her group view it as a bit of a jolly:
“they were pleased with themselves, thawing toward each other, throwing out remarks about wives, children, secretaries, which were immediately understood, as though they were giving a particular handshake or flicking back their lapels for identification.”
This is the working world of the 1960s, which we’re all familiar with from Mad Men at least. Her colleagues think it’s totally acceptable to comment on what she’s wearing and the attractiveness of her legs. Thankfully Muriel doesn’t spend much time with them, or indeed much time working. The trip is a time of reflection and recuperation for her, as she recovers from a mastectomy for breast cancer.
“How to deal with it, except with vague attempts at courage and acceptance, she had no idea.”
Although Penelope Mortimer did have lung cancer later in life, I’m not sure she had personal experience of breast cancer at this point. But I thought this was a sensitive exploration of a woman working out who she is after a life-changing experience. Muriel isn’t remotely self-pitying, but she does need to find self-compassion.
”the anger against herself raged brightly, a clear fire. She had never felt this anger before; she could never remember feeling it before. It was enlivening, making her very defined and sharp, as though she had become a weapon.”
She had left her married lover Ramsey when she was diagnosed, and he is back with his wife Flora, a situation neither Ramsey and Flora are sure they want. This led to some of the pithy observations on relationships between the sexes that I expect from Mortimer:
“Between us, he said, he was being eaten alive. If this was so, I don’t know why we were both starving.”
While in Canada, she meets Robert: “what had been an indeterminate distance between their hands, knees, faces, was now measured exactly: they were accessible to each other.”
While she feels ambivalent about their relationship, the sex does lead her towards a new acceptance of her changed body.
“She leant against the lift wall and slowly remembered the night; then realised that this was the first time she had woken, and dressed, without any sense of mourning.”
Amongst the sexist or paternalistic colleagues; the self-centred married lover; and the surgeon who possibly took an entire breast when a lumpectomy would suffice without considering what it would mean for Muriel, Robert is a reminder of what can be positive in male/female relationships. This doesn’t necessarily mean that its happily ever after either… Mortimer is determinedly realistic.
I didn’t think My Friend Says Its Bullet-Proof was quite as strong as the other two Mortimers I’ve read, but it was an interesting examination of the choices available to women in the late 1960s. It questions how to navigate independence in a world that marginalises and objectifies you both professionally and personally.
Secondly, a new-to-me author despite the vast number of novels she wrote; Rhoda Broughton, who was born in Denbighshire. Belinda (1883) was written roughly in the middle of her career, and my edition tells me she was alongside Mary Braddon as ‘Queen of the Circulating Library’.
Belinda is a satire, but that double-edged royal appellation did make me wonder if it was always read as such. Maybe I’m doing the fare of circulating libraries down, but I would have thought a tale of simpering Victorian virgin lovers was more typical of their stock than a satire of such stories. Regardless, if you read it straightforwardly as a romance because that’s what you were looking for, or as a satire because you were sick of such stories, Belinda would deliver.
The titular heroine is in Germany with her feckless, charming sister Sarah at the start of the novel:
“Away they go to Moritzburg, when the noon sun is warm and high; away they go, handsome, gay, and chaperoneless. There is no reason why their grandmother, who is a perfectly able-bodied old lady, should not escort them; but as she is sixty-five years of age, has no expectation of meeting a lover, and is quite indifferent to spring tints and German Schlosses, she wisely chooses to stay at home.”
Sarah is hugely popular with young men and is on her seventh fiancée. Belinda is unpopular, except with student David Rivers (aptly named, as he’s totally wet). The sisters wonder if Belinda’s nose is behind her lack of societal success:
“It is not case of measurement,’ says Sarah gravely; ‘I have seen noses several hands higher that were not nearly so alarming. It is a case of feeling; somehow yours makes them feel small. Take my word for it,’ with a shrewd look, ‘the one thing that they never can either forgive or forget is to feel small’”
It isn’t Belinda’s nose, unsurprisingly; it’s her fairly dull personality and her social awkwardness, matched only by that of her love interest:
“Is it her fault that all strong emotion with her translates itself into a cold, hard voice, and a chill set face? With other women it translates itself into dimples and pink blushes and lowered eyes. Ah! but do they feel as she does? Sarah, for instance. When do men ever leave Sarah’s company with the down- faced, baffled, white look with which Rivers has more than once quitted hers? Preening themselves rather; with sleeked feathers and cosseted vanity.”
As you can see from the quote above, Broughton uses Belinda to poke fun at romantic mores, the silliness of them and the uselessness of them. She demonstrates how those who cannot master the light-hearted conventions end up tied in knots.
“‘And you were — and you were — one of the heavenly host up there!’ ends the young man, baldly and stammering. But love is no brightener of the wits.
One of the heavenly host?’ repeats she, justly infuriated at this stale comparison. ‘An angel, in short! Must I always be an angel, or a goddess? If anyone knew how sick I am of being a goddess! I declare I should be thankful to be called a Fury or even a Ghoul, for a change!’
So saying, she turns her shoulder peevishly to him; and leaving the garden, begins to walk quickly along the road by the water, as if to make up for her late loitering. He keeps pace with her, dumb in snubbed contrition, stupefied by love and, unhappily for himself, fully conscious of it; burningly aware of the hopeless flatness of his last simile, and rendered by his situation quite incapable of redeeming it by any brighter sally.”
The course of true love inevitably does not run smooth for the young lovers – ‘twas ever thus. However, Belinda’s understandable frustration with Victorian female conventions leads her to make some very questionable choices. For those of you who have read Middlemarch, these questionable choices will be most familiar. I don’t know what Oxford Rector Mark Pattison did to the women writers of late Victorian society but whatever it was, he really, really annoyed them. He provided the model for Casaubon in Middlemarch and here he is rendered as Professor Forth:
“She had known that she did not love him, but she had not known that he wore carpet slippers in the drawing-room.”
Belinda is well-paced and witty, but I think I would have like the satire to be slightly more explicitly evoked. At one point there seemed a never-ending round of cheeks blushing, lips whitening, words stumbling… and a pretty major suspension of my disbelief that Belinda and Rivers could really be in love, given they had barely spoken to each other but only mumbled vaguely while experiencing various body temperature changes.
I would have liked a slightly sharper authorial voice, or more scenes with witty, pragmatic Sarah and the frankly reprehensible grandmother, with whom I could only agree when she observed:
“Belinda is too everything, except amusing.”
I did enjoy Belinda though, and there was broad comedy too, including some nice scenes with pug dogs, and with social bull-in-a-china-shop Miss Watson:
“I shall certainly mention it to his mother. Lady Marion, when next I meet her,’ says Miss Watson resolutely; I do not think it would be acting a friend’s part not to do so. I do not actually know her, but there is a sort of connection between us; I was at school for six months once at Brussels with a cousin of hers, and there is no doubt that there is something uncommonly louche about it.’”
To end, the BAFTAs earlier this month featured a performance from an 85 year-old Welsh singer/legend:
I’ve not done too badly with contributing to November’s plethora of reading events, despite my snail-like reading speed. Unfortunately I’m not going to manage a #MARM post, but I did find a short novel by an Australian author to squeeze in, so here on the final day of the month is my hastily written contribution to AusReadingMonth hosted by Brona at This Reading Life. At 204 pages it is just a teeny bit too long to count for #NovNov though…
I went into Bobbin Up by Dorothy Hewett (1958) with quite low expectations, set by the author herself 😀 In her introduction to my 1985 VMC edition, she explains “looking back on the 36-year-old Communist who wrote Bobbin Up, I am embarrassed by at her proselytising, stubborn blindness, this Antipodean Alice in Wonderland who had a protracted love affair with an idealised working class.”
However, she also acknowledges: “Sometimes sentimental, sometimes didactic, sometimes clumsy and overwritten Bobbin Up was the work of a still young writer struggling to find her own style and voice. Its form, which was criticised at the time as too episodic, seems to me to suit the subject perfectly”
As a middle-class woman who chose to work in a factory and then write about it, I was put in mind of Nell Dunn. While both authors are open to accusations of class tourism and exploitation, I think they wrote with the best of intentions, attempting to shine a light on ignored and marginalised female workers. The novels are sixty or so years old, and these days we understand allyship differently.
These disclaimers out the way, I really enjoyed Bobbin Up. I thought it was stronger than Hewett suggested and was a compassionate portrait of the lives of women on low incomes in 1950s Sydney. Although she sets in the fictional Jumbuck Woollen Mills, the frequent references to songs playing on the radio and the sputnik gliding overhead root it firmly in a specific time.
Hewett captures the work environment in broad strokes before focussing in on particular workers:
“Women came in from everywhere, laughing and chiacking down the long, slippery aisles between the rovers, spinners, and winders. Relief healed their aching backs, relief loosened their tongues, they ran and pushed and scurried, jamming into the washroom, five minutes to change and scrub up and catch the bus to Redfern, Marrickville, Paddo, Woollahra and all points north, south, east and west.”
Their lives are hard and the women’s bodies are broken by tough, unrelenting work.
“Violet McHendry, forty-five, sharped tongued, hard as nails, was always fighting a losing battle with life in the grey, warped, weatherboard semi in Maddox Lane. But she still kept, until the day she died over her washtubs, ten years later, that peculiar girlishness, that grace of face and voice, that has nothing to do with time.”
The best time they can hope for is when they are young, still fit and might have some energy to enjoy the times when they’re not at work.
“[Beth] passed proudly and yet compassionately, conscious of her youth and motherhood. The old men stared after her, jealous of the radiance they could never share again, loafing on borrowed time, unwanted, under the dapple of poplar trees.”
There is domestic violence, self-medicating with alcohol, sixteen-year-olds being told they’ll be raped if they ‘lead men on’. But also some tender relationships, resilience and hope.
“Upstairs Lil had a view. Across the crooked slate and corrugated iron roofs of Waterloo and Redfern the Housing Commission flats stood out like a dream of luxury amidst green lawns. The sunlight slanted golden against their solid brick walls, a rainbow of mist from their water sprinklers circled them with enchantment.”
For Nell, the committed communist (presumably based on Hewitt, and she does seem to make her the most self-critical character), the hope is for a better society:
“Everything fell into place like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, and the best part of it was she knew she had always been right. There was something more than the narrow, bitter, cranky world she’d been reared in. There was another world to be built, here on earth, based on the kind of brotherhood and selflessness and energy she’d seen displayed long ago in the strike in the textile mills.”
I do agree with Hewett that Bobbin Up is somewhat overwritten and clunky in places, but it wasn’t particularly torturous. Amidst the bleak subject matter, it balanced the story somewhat, without obscuring the difficulties the women face.
“You could never be lonely in Waterloo, always conscious of the myriad lives woven and interwoven with your own, breathing, battling, loving, fighting, suffering in the stifling summer dusk.”
To end, a song about the charms of women who work in factories:
Way back in the mists of time, 12-18 April to be exact, Kaggsy and Simon ran the 1936 Club. Although my reading has recovered somewhat, my blogging is still non-existent. So although I’d read two novels from the year, I failed miserably to write on them at all. This is my much belated attempt to recover lost ground…
I picked the two novels simply because they were the right year and in the TBR pile, but as it turned out they were thematically linked, both dealing with extramarital affairs. Spoiler alert: don’t do it kids, it causes misery. Yet although both novels show the pain caused by the affairs, they are not moralising or didactic. Rather, they are well-observed character studies of people looking for happiness in the wrong places.
The Weather in the Streets is Rosamond Lehmann’s sequel to Invitation to the Waltz (1932), which in an entirely unhelpful way I hope to blog on in a few weeks. I read the novels in order, but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy the second.
The Weather in the Streets continues the story of Olivia Curtis, now in her late twenties and divorced, living an impoverished bohemian existence with her cousin Etty in London. When her father is taken ill, she catches the train back to the family home and finds herself sitting opposite Rollo Spencer, who was kind to her at the titular dance in the first novel.
“He burst out laughing; and she was struck afresh by what she remembered about him years ago: the physical ease and richness flowing out through voice and gestures, a bountifulness of nature that drew one, irrespective of what he had to offer.”
I thought that was so clever, the capturing of a realisation of physical attraction alongside a foreshadowing of what will follow: “irrespective of what he had to offer”. What Rollo can offer is very little at all, given that he’s married and has entire life away from Olivia, separated by class and circumstance, that she can never be part of.
“She looked away. A bubble of tension seemed to develop and explode between them.”
This tension is acted on and the two begin to see each other. I was particularly struck by the passage describing Olivia’s feelings after they first sleep together. Throughout the novel Lehmann switches between first and third person and here we are entirely with Olivia:
‘Then it was afterwards. He said, whispering:
‘I’m your lover…’
I thought about it. I had a lover. But nothing seemed changed. It wasn’t disappointing exactly…The word is: unmomentous…Not wonderful – yet…I couldn’t quite look at him, but it was friendly and smiling. His cheek looked coarse-grained in the light of the lamp. I saw the hairs in his nostrils…I was afraid I’d been disappointing for him….Thinking: Aren’t I in love with him after all then? …We hadn’t said love once, either of us…Thinking: It’s happened too quickly, this’ll be the end…”
Depicting the ordinariness of it all is a brave move but I thought it was the strength of this novel. It’s not romantic, it’s not two people being swept away, it’s also not sordid or bitter. Its individuals who feel a connection trying to build happiness within their unsatisfactory lives, in a deeply misguided way.
The Weather in the Streets is also excellent in its depiction of the loneliness of an affair. The title is from a scene where Olivia is sat inside Rollo’s car, looking out from behind the window. This separation exists in all her relationships to an extent: she lives in a society where emotions occur out of sight and you certainly don’t impose your feelings on others by daring to discuss them or letting social mores slip for a minute. For example, when your husband might be dying:
“The lurking threats of change, of disaster, retreated before Mother’s impregnable normality. Rather pale, rather drawn and dark about the eyes, but neat, but fresh, erect, composed as ever, preoccupied with the supervision – in retrospect – of the arrival, checking up on detail with nearly all her customary minuteness and relish…Mother was being wonderful.”
The affair exacerbates the loneliness it is attempting to relieve. This is in especially sharp relief when Olivia has to experience an (illegal) abortion entirely on her own – finding the money, visiting the doctor, dealing with the aftermath.
Apparently some contemporary critics thought Rollo was a total bounder. I didn’t read it that way; I thought he was a weak man who has always done entirely what is expected of him and then wonders one day why on earth he isn’t happy. Rather than reflect on his life and try and work out who he is, he carries on doing entirely what would be expected by having an affair.
“He said more than once, ‘Darling, don’t care too much about me, will you?’
‘Don’t you want me to love you then?’ I said.
‘Yes, yes I do terribly. Only you mustn’t sort of think too much of me, will you? I’m not much good, and mind you remember it. Don’t expect a lot of me will you? I’ve never been any use to anyone…’”
It is desperately sad but Lehmann never suggests the story is a tragic one. People endure, but unfortunately so do their unmet needs for intimacy, acceptance and love.
“’Don’t be frightened.’ I did love him, then. It was what one had always longed for, never expected to have – someone appearing quietly at need, saying that – someone for oneself…”
I had less tolerance for the protagonists of Christina Stead’s The Beauties and Furies. They were vacuous and self-obsessed and I was pleased to leave them behind. It was Stead’s excellent writing that both made them so believably unbearable and kept me going to the end of the novel.
The novel opens with Elvira Western on a train to Paris, having left her husband Paul for her young student lover Oliver (the lover’s names are similar and I did wonder if for two such vain people the attraction was how they saw themselves reflected in one another…)
She sits with a lace buyer called Marpurgo, little knowing that he will manipulate how her affair plays out. He will exploit the very obvious faultlines in the relationship, but it never feels like much of a loss, as from the start Stead casts an ironic eye over the romance:
“ ‘You won’t have any more trouble – in your life! Think of that: here’s someone who loves you dearer than all the world. Put your head on my shoulder…’
It gave her a crick in the neck.”
Oliver sees himself as a Marxist intellectual, although nothing he does really demonstrates either of these aspirations. Elvira’s indolence is repeatedly emphasised and she cannot join Oliver in his pursuit of ideas if she is not warm, rested and fed, such as when he takes her to see Faust:
“she had not liked it although they had a box to themselves, because she was hungry.”
Neither seem particularly invested in the affair, more the idea of the affair. Oliver sleeps with lace-maker Coromandel and actress Blanche, both a contrast to Elvira as they display a degree of self-determinism, not that he’s interested. Elvira meanwhile, seems to just potter about. It’s mentioned that she gave up a promising education, but she seems disinclined to do anything, as Elvira’s husband observes:
“he works in the archives and reads her the political news, and she does nothing at all. She sits in cafes.”
When Elvira becomes pregnant, they both know they are not able to care for a baby, but they also vacillate between keeping it or taking the same decision as Olivia in The Weather in the Streets:
“This second marriage would be even worse than the first, because she had to cope with a brilliant young man’s impatience and disappointment. She said to herself babyishly:
‘I want a baby and a comfortable home: I don’t want to be part of the intelligentsia.’”
Meanwhile Oliver ponders:
“I am sending my seed from generation unto generation, a man full of humility.”
In many ways The Beauties and Furies is a novel of ideas. The sitting around in cafes arguing about politics, psychology and society gives plenty of scope for Stead to explore issues through her characters and it really captures some of the early twentieth century concerns.
“ ‘The real thought of the middle-class woman,’ complained Elvira, ‘is the problem of economic freedom and sexual freedom: they can’t be attained at the same time. We are not free. The slave of the kitchen and bedroom.’”
What stops it being overly weighty is the high degree of scepticism shown towards Elvira and Oliver, and ultimately I read The Beauties and Furies as a satire on bohemian pretentiousness and self-delusion. I’m not sure that’s correct but certainly Stead turns a sharp eye on conceit and hubris. She can be absolutely scathing towards her characters, such as this instance of Elvira becoming distressed:
“her prolific ego, masked in pathos, had them in its tendrils.”
Ouch! Although I couldn’t love The Beauties and Furies I still found much to enjoy. The incisive, well-observed writing did whet my appetite for more Stead – I have Cotter’s England in the TBR and I’m hoping for slightly less intellectual exposition and a bit more character-driven story.
The Birds on the Trees – Nina Bawden (1970) 196 pages
The Birds on the Trees was sent to me a long while ago now, by the lovely Ali at heavanali. Ali’s a great advocate for Bawden’s writing and it was her enthusiasm that got me picking up one of my favourite childhood authors again as an adult. I’ve really enjoyed the Bawden I’ve read so far and The Birds on the Trees was no exception.
The story concerns the very ordinary middle-class Flowers family and what happens when the eldest son Toby experiences mental health problems.
He is kicked out of school for smoking drugs and returns home refusing to follow his parents wishes to attend a crammer in order to sit his Oxford entrance exam. His hair needs a cut and he’s not washing. He’s spending a lot of time dressed in a burnouse. His parents Maggie and Charles are at a complete loss as to what to do.
“Now, for the first time (their first, real crisis?) he saw what drove her was something more like fear: she raced through life as over marshy ground, fearing to stand still in case she sank in quagmire.”
This all sounds pretty mild but we never really find out what’s going on with Toby. He’s diagnosed with schizophrenia but this is questioned by a family friend and doctor, who thinks Toby has drug-induced psychosis. In a prologue we see Toby as a small child telling neighbours he’s been abandoned by his parents at Christmas, that they don’t feed him, and then later that his parents are dead. Clearly something’s wrong, but Bawden never offers trite answers as to what that might be – was Toby always unwell? Was he neglected in some way?
Very little of Toby’s speech – and never his thoughts – are provided to the reader. The Birds on the Trees is a study of a family under immense strain, but the family member who’s instigated the crisis remains remote. This is a masterstroke as it keeps us in a similar position to his family: at a loss as to why things are unravelling so considerably.
One of the rare times we hear from Toby is when he’s trying to impress potential girlfriend Hermia, and the fantasy, arrogance and pretension of what he says just brought home his youth to me:
“‘I have left school. But I haven’t made up my mind. Eventually, I expect, I shall go into something interesting and creative, like publishing or films. Or perhaps the theatre, though the standard’s so terrifying low at the moment, one would have to be careful. I mean, it would be so easy to write a play just for commercial success, one would have to watch out that one wasn’t corrupted.”
The family are distant from each other, but in a very ordinary way. Maggie and Charles take their frustrations out on each other, middle child Lucy starts stealing and youngest Greg is convinced he’s adopted. At one point Lucy attacks her aunt with grape scissors, which I again thought hinted at something deeper troubling this family, but it’s not clear. Maggie’s mother can’t see what all the fuss is about:
“ ‘I never heard of such a thing,’ Sara Evans said. ‘Taking a boy to a psychiatrist because he refuses to have his haircut!’”
I really enjoyed the portraits of the rest of the Flowers family, which were so well-observed, both psychologically – as I would expect from Bawden – and physically:
“The skin on his face was loose and baggy: he was always folding and pleating it as if it was an ill-fitting garment he happened to be wearing.”
Toby deteriorates and although fears about heroin addiction prove ill-founded, he cannot get out of bed. He is hospitalised and treated with ECT, which would be practically unheard of now. Although the treatment of Toby has dated, and to some extent the attitudes of the family, I thought this novel hadn’t dated nearly as badly as it could have done. This is because Bawden is so good at characterisation and so psychologically astute that the examination of these people under pressure, both individually and as a family, remains fresh.
I read a review from when The Birds on the Trees was nominated for the Lost Man Booker Prize that criticised the novel for being too optimistic in its ending. Maybe I’m just a miserable so-and-so but I didn’t think it was that optimistic. I thought it was one character allowing a brief moment of hope, when the reader knows things are unlikely to get any easier…
“How could you ever really understand why people behaved as they did? Oh, you could guess…but it was like trying to find your way through some intricate underworld of caverns and passages by the light of one flickering match!”