Top posts about women’s novels on Bookword

Here are the top 6 posts featuring novels by women from my blog in the last year. I notice that half of them refer to an Elizabeth. Half were written before the Second World War. The exceptions are Elizabeth is Missing, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and The Stone Angel. These three are also from the older women in fiction series:

  1. The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen
  2. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
  3. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence
  4. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
  5. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  6. The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby

Enjoy reading the posts again, or for the first time. Links are included.

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

Last September

Do you keep a cache of chocolates after Christmas, so that you can savour again the pleasures of treating yourself? The novels of Elizabeth Bowen are like that. She is a novelist I am glad to have come across late in my reading career. I picked up a copy of The Last September recently in an Oxfam second-hand shop and in February 2013 it came to the top of my reading pile. Read more …

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Not a conventional heroine, Mrs Palfrey is a genteel widow, needing to live somewhere, not invited and not minded to share a home with her daughter in Scotland. She moves into the Claremont Hotel on the Cromwell Road in London, joining a small group of elderly residents. Upon this group Mrs Palfrey practices a deceit. Having fallen in the street, she is rescued by Ludo, a young writer. Her grandson Desmond has failed to visit her at the Claremont. Ludo, who is also lonely and attracted by the adventure of play-acting agrees to stand in as Mrs Palfrey’s grandson. Mrs Palfrey achieves a grandson and a visitor and establishes her status among the residents. One of the charms of the novel is how Mrs Palfrey and Ludo cope with the risks and difficulties that this deception gives rise to, including a visit by le vrai Desmond. Read more …

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

25 Stone Angel

The Stone Angel is narrated by Hagar Shipley, intended to be current when it was published in 1964. Her story is framed by her situation: an old woman, cared for by her less favourite son and his wife, and becoming increasingly ill, forgetful and always a handful. ‘A holy terror’ is her son’s description. The reader must agree. It is the picture of her decline in old age that most shocks, even now. The dilemmas for Hagar, her son and daughter-in-law, the medical staff and others who come into contact with her, cannot not be resolved. It’s a powerful portrayal, not without humour affection or sharp pain. Read more …

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Maud is old and becoming very forgetful, suffering from dementia. She is the narrator, which is an ambitious aspect of the novel: the ultimate unreliable narrator? At the start of the novel she lives on her own, cared for by her daughter Helen and a professional carer. Her forgetfulness is evident from the first chapter when she buys yet more tinned peaches to cover her memory lapse in the local shop. Her condition worsens as the novel progresses. She tries to find her friend Elizabeth and unravel the mystery of what happened to her sister 70 years before. Read more …

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

209 To_the_Lighthouse

Before the First World War the Ramsay family is holidaying on Skye. The youngest boy James (5) wants to go to the lighthouse the next day, but weather makes the expedition doubtful. The family and house guests, including the painter Lily Briscoe, go about their activities, walking on the beach, listening to the great Mr Ramsay and reading to James. Mrs Ramsay presides over a dinner party. Ten years go by, and the house is neglected. Mrs Ramsay and two of her children die, a marriage turns sour, everyone gets older and the Great War engulfs Europe. Many of the original house party return to Skye. Lily Briscoe sets about completing her painting and Mr Ramsay sails with his two youngest children to the lighthouse. It is not the story that carries the reader on but the impressions, responses, and insights of her characters. Read more …

The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby

The Land of Green Ginger is the name of a street in Hull, briefly glimpsed by Joanna when she was a child. Its intriguing name represents her ambitions for a life in a different place, for travel, excitement and exoticism. Joanna is an attractive heroine and a very flawed one. Her attraction comes from her otherworldliness, and her desire for more than life has offered her. And indeed this belief carries her through to the novel’s conclusion. Read more …

137 LofGG cover

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Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen

I was browsing the shelves for anything as yet unread by Elizabeth Bowen and found not one but two old fashioned penguin copies of Friends and Relations. The novel was not known to me, but the writer is, and I have found her to be remarkable, whatever I have read of hers.

264 F&F penguin

The story

The novel opens with the wedding of Edward and Laurel. We are in the years after the Great War. This brilliant opening scene introduces the reader to all the characters, pegs them for their little foibles and faults. And it is entertaining and perceptive. Here is the bride and the father waiting for the ceremonies to begin.

Her clothes were all packed; she was buttoned into an old blazer of Janet’s and did not look like to-day’s bride. From half-past ten till noon she and Colonel Studdart, shut into the morning-room, played demon patience. Her life here was over, his at a standstill; there was nothing for them to do. (7)

This is typical of Elizabeth Bowen’s ability to present her characters through their actions.

Within weeks Janet (Laurel’s sister) marries Rodney. For a few days it seems as though the second wedding will not take place for there is an alarm. Edward’s mother, Lady Elfrida brought social opprobrium upon herself when she had an affair with Considine, and then did not marry him. Rodney is Considine’s nephew and heir. Edward refuses to meet the uncle. Although the marriage does go ahead, it is not before Janet quarrels with her brother-in-law, Edward.

‘But Edward, we really cannot quarrel. Please … Do think of what is convenient: we are relations for life. I mean, we shall stay with each other, shan’t we, at Christmas and everything? It would be impossible for Laurel and me to be divided. For as long as we live, I suppose about fifty years, we shall all always be meeting and talking over arrangements. At least, that is how we have been brought up. You must see what families are; it’s possible to be so ordinary; it’s possible not to say such a lot. …’ (46)

It seems that they are talking about his mother’s indiscretion, but this attitude of finding what is convenient, of being ordinary and not speaking of things is how they will live their lives, despite her love for him, and later his for her.

The second section describes a week in May, ten years later, when Edward and Laurel’s two children are staying with Janet and Rodney. There is a socially difficulty as Janet and Rodney live with Considine’s in his house. They decide to invite Lady Elfrida to join them, believing that after ten years Edward cannot still object and Lady Elfrida and Considine are now good friends. But Edward does object, and he arrives to remove the children. His action is the occasion for him and Janet to acknowledge their mutual love.

The third section is called Wednesday, and takes place the following week, when everything comes together. Janet admits to Edward that she engineered the meeting and marriage with Rodney to be more connected to him. Janet and Edward see the impossibility of being together more than as in-laws. They settle for being ordinary, for not saying such a lot. Briefly, others mistakenly think they have gone off together. As readers we see what the reaction would have been if the lovers had decided to be together in an unbearably difficult social situation.

The main theme

The question that dominates the novel is what to do about love that is passionate, but outside and a betrayal of marriage? Lady Elfrida became a social outcast through her affair with Considine, especially as she did not marry him. Elizabeth Bowen makes it clear that their love was genuine, but has now changed to affection. Her son Edward is considered sensitive as a result of his mother’s behaviour. But in adult life he realises that he loves his sister-in-law Janet. What should they do once they have acknowledged it? Elizabeth Bowen herself came to a different conclusion from Janet and Edward, in her own life. She drew on her affair in the novel The Heat of the Day.

264 F&R new cover

Theodora

Theodora is a great creation, a kind of wild child in the first section, and then a mould-breaking adult, one of the surplus women of the inter-war years. Like Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen was very good at children in her writing. The House in Paris revealed her expertise. Theodora is some kind of relation, and brazenly out of step with her parents.

The Thirdmans were shockingly out of it. They had brought their girl, Theodora, for whom at each introduction they joyously turned. But she was never beside them. (11)

Theodora meets the bridesmaids on the lawn playing clock golf.

Their four little pink satin shoes were green-stained. There would be trouble, Theodora noted with pleasure. She was fifteen and, except for the bridesmaids, the youngest present. Every allowance made for her unfortunate age, her appearance was not engaging. She was spectacled, large-boned and awkwardly anxious to make an impression. (11)

Theodora fails to make an impression on anyone at the wedding. Ten years later she lives with a school friend, frequently spends time at Considine’s house, and visits Laurel and Edward in London. She cannot fail to make an impression as an outspoken adult. She provides light relief in the novel, but also reveals what happens to those who don’t fit in society in the inter-war years.

Recommended

264 Elizabeth_BowenElizabeth Bowen is skilled at communicating a great deal in a short space. She is also able to show the drama of small events, moments in domestic time, which have resonances down the years.

Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen, published in 1931. My copy was published on that cheap brown wartime paper by Penguin in 1946. Price one shilling. 151pp

Related posts

Books Snob’s blog review of Friends and Relations, in which she is pleased to have become acquainted with Elizabeth Bowen.

I have reviewed the following on Bookword blog:

The Last September

Two Elizabeths, two first novels (At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen)

The Heat of the Day

The House in Paris

 

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Ageing: it is not ‘them and us’, it is all ‘us’

There are three authors of New Age of Ageing. I am one. I asked the other two to reflect on what writing the book meant to each of them. Eileen has gone on holiday, so her reflections will appear in July. Marianne writes about three things:

  1. Her own learning, particularly how writing the book had clarified her thoughts about the ageing process and its implications for all of us.
  2. Writing the book also made her face up to her own attitudes, anxieties and concerns about ageing
  3. She also thought about the process of writing which was unusual as it involved collaboration between three of us and had to be fitted into everyone’s already busy schedules

This is what Marianne Coleman wrote for Bookword blog:

261 Marianne

  1. Clarifying my thoughts

What about the ageing process? Most importantly there are all the implications arising from longer life expectancy and also there are changing and more youthful attitudes amongst older people. Both of these mean the following:

We need to think differently about ourselves, recognise that the balance of age groups is changing and then do some adjusting.

We have to make sure that old people are properly provided for to live a dignified and useful life, but also see that they are the most tremendous resource and that life in older age can be fun and exciting.

We need to drop our stereotypes around ageing, most of which revolve around decline and the end of a useful life.

The change in attitudes means having more flexibility about employing people, and recognising that older people contribute massively as volunteers in the charity sector and in supporting each other and their families.

Above all we need to recognise that older people are not separate or different from the rest of the population. It is not ‘them and us’, it is all ‘us’.

It is not “them and us”, it is all “us”.

There are too many people who preach an opposite message of division between the generations even blaming older people for the economic and social problems of today. Constructive and clear sighted attitudes to older people, not blame, will help not only those who are old now, but those who will be old in 10, 20 or 50 years’ time. We need a new mind-set about ageing.

  1. My own attitudes to ageing

What about my own attitudes anxieties and concerns about ageing? I am the product of my time, belonging to a generation growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and our generation does not so willingly accept the stereotypes and expectations that are associated with ageing. Many of us see ageing differently now that we are those older people. Researching for and writing the book has given me even more of a perspective to stand back and see the changes relating to ageing in progress, and to recognise for example that beauty is not just in youth but also in maturity and decline. Dropping any lurking stereotypes about age, I have become less judgmental in the ways that I look at people of all ages. I can’t pretend that I have no anxieties about getting older. In common with the people we interviewed I am concerned about health issues and how they might impact on me and when.

One side benefit of researching and writing the book has been the opportunity to give some thought to death. Although we were interviewing older people about their attitudes to ageing it was surprising how little the topic of death came up. It seems that people avoid thinking about it and sometimes never discuss anything about it even near the very end of life. In one of the chapters I did write about death and what was said in interviews and in particular reading Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal made me realise how important it is to be more open about this final stage of life and to talk to your family and close friends about what might be important to you at the end.

  1. Writing together

What about the process of writing? The best thing was the times that the three of us worked together to construct the outline of the book and then to fine tune it and finally to comment on drafts of chapters. This process only worked because we know and trust each other and have respect for what each of us says. Working together was creative and it was exciting to take an idea and expand it or make links that I had not seen before. The feedback on individual chapters was invaluable. It is very reassuring to be able to try out ideas and test them on your fellow authors. I wrote in a previous blog about the importance of feedback on drafts.

Not one but two books

Overall I can honestly say that writing the book was an enjoyable experience. But I am glad to take a rest, particularly as circumstances meant that at the same time that I was collaborating on this book I was also collaborating on a book on a completely different topic. That book is called Leading for Equality: Making Schools Fairer where my co-author is Jacky Lumby. I managed the process of writing two books at the same time by some careful timetabling and taking one chapter (of whichever book) at a time and seeing each chapter as a separate project. There were also times when there was a lull in the progress of one book as fellow authors had to turn their attention to other projects too. Writing two at the same time was challenging but very rewarding. The books are very different but both have fairness and social justice at their heart so the move from one book to another did not jar.

One problem now is that all the administration associated with book production (editor’s queries, questions about marketing the books, proofs etc.) is all arriving together. Still just take one thing at a time …

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman. To be published by Policy Press on 7th September 2016.

243 New Age cover

Related posts:

We are writing monthly posts about the stages from bright ideas to publishing our book. Earlier posts include

Getting feedback to improve our writing (May 2016)

First Catch Your Publisher (April 2016)

One Book, Three Authors (March 2016)

Writers’ Residential (February 2016)

 

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Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor

I have commented on all Elizabeth Taylor’s novels on this blog. Just click on the category: Elizabeth Taylor’s Novels. She wrote twelve novels for adults and Mossy Trotter for children. She always did children really well.

Finally I have finished her collected short stories, a large volume of 626 pages, 4.5 cms, 65 stories. I’ve been reading these stories on and off for three or more years, usually if I wake in the night or when I am not ready to start a new book. Each story is a drop of Elizabeth Taylor’s art.

260 ET Sh Sts

The Collection

Elizabeth Taylor was writing these stories between 1944 and 1973, at the same time as her novels. Most of her short stories have been published, primarily in The New Yorker (especially between 1948 and 1965). Others appeared in Cornhill Magazine, McCall’s and Vogue.

The themes and settings will be familiar to readers of Elizabeth Taylor‘s novels. Many of the stories are set in the suburbs of London (men frequently travel up to town by train every day) and gardens are important. Some have children, marriages, or other relationships that have grit in the oyster. Some of the characters are very sad, lonely or deluded. One or two stories are located abroad, on holiday for example in France or in Tunisia. Here are some thoughts about four stories.

The Thames Spread Out (December 1959, published in The New Yorker)

This is the story of Rose, an isolated and not very happy young woman, ‘kept’ by a married man in a rented house on the Thames. Gilbert pays the rent and gives her some pocket money. He visits every Friday, and sometimes, when his wife goes to see her sister, spends a week with Rose.

The Thames floods and cuts Rose off from her usual routines. Letters are delivered by boat and boy scouts offer to get her shopping for her, but she forgets to ask for peroxide. Everything begins to look more and more strange as the water rises.

A swan had come in through the front door. Looking austere and suspicious, he turned his head about, circled aloofly, and returned to the garden. (334)

The disruption leads her to spend an evening drinking with two young men, her neighbours, who come and fetch her in their boat. In the morning, the waters receding, she realises how confined she is, and takes off.

I love the image of the swan circling near the staircase. Aloofly. What a great word! Many of Elizabeth Taylor’s plots include a slight change that shifts perspectives. The spreading out of the Thames helps Rose see the possibilities of her life differently and abandon the dreary Gilbert.

260 ET

Crepes Flambees

This is a tale about how Harry and Rose (not the same Rose) return to Tunisia to recapture the excitement of a previous holiday when they befriended the people in a local bar, above all the patron, Habib. Returning four years later they find that everything has changed. The bar has closed and Habib, when they find him, tells them he is now a respected chef in a local tourist hotel. The reader comes to see, long before Harry and Rose do, that Habib wants to present them with what they want to see, and the truth is less satisfactory. They blunder about in his life, his job, the hotel, his family, his friends. The differences between the lives of the tourists and the Tunisians are painfully revealed, even if Harry and Rose have good motives for befriending Habib. Elizabeth Taylor portrays both the pleasures of foreign holidays and the difficulties for any tourists who try to break down barriers with the locals.

Mice and Birds and Boy (February 1963, published in The New Yorker)

This is a sad story. A young boy visits an old and isolated lady. William himself is a bit of a loner, not much liked by other children. His curiosity about Mrs May’s early life develops into a nice friendship, but she becomes dependent upon him. He grows up and begins to move away from her. She is left more bereft than before. Elizabeth Taylor’s writing about children is always excellent. She knows what children think about, what takes their interest, and how they change.

Their estrangement grows.

The truth was that he could hardly remember how he had liked to go to see her. Then he had tired of her stories about her childhood, grew bored with her photographs, became embarrassed by her and realised, in an adult way, that the little house was filthy. One afternoon, on his way home from school, he had seen her coming out of the butcher’s shop ahead of him and slackened his pace, almost walked backwards not to overtake her. (419)

Hotel du Commerce (Winter 1965/6, published in the Cornhill Magazine)

This story is only 8 pages long, and follows a couple from their arrival during the evening in the small and disappointing French hotel on their honeymoon through to breakfast the next morning. The reader becomes aware that their marriage is doomed to unhappiness, revealed by their reactions to the rowing couple in the room next door.

She lay on her side, well away from him on the very edge of the bed, facing the horrible patterned curtains, her mouth so stiff, her eyes full of tears. He made an attempt to draw her close, but she became rigid, her limbs were iron. (547)

In her stories human failings are not catastrophic, but they do cause hurt, sadness or regret. Many have very poignant characters who do not thrive in life. Others seize their chances. Always there is a little nugget of truth of perceptiveness in each story.

260 Elizabeth_Taylor_(novelist)Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor, published by Virago in 2012. 626pp

 

Related posts

Two Elizabeths, two First Novels. This post comments on At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, alongside The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. This was the first in the older women in fiction series. It is one of the most read posts on Bookword blog.

183 Mossy Totter ET cover

Mossy Trotter by Elizabeth Taylor: her children’s book.

The Other Elizabeth Taylor, looking at Elizabeth Taylor’s biography by Nicola Beauman.

 

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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

I like this novel. And I like Olive Kitteridge. I am so pleased to have found this book and this writer. Elizabeth Strout was included on the Baileys Women’s Fiction longlist in 2014 with The Burgess Boys, and was longlisted this year with My Name is Lucy Barton, but I didn’t pay attention. So now I am looking forward to reading more of her fiction.

259 Olive K UK cover

The Novel

The framing of this novel is unusual – thirteen short stories, in which Olive Kitteridge plays a role, often quite a minor one. All the stories are about the people of Crosby in Maine, where Olive was a math teacher in the local school, and her husband a pharmacist – so both are well known.

The themes of the novel concern the community and people’s places within it. Elizabeth Strout writes on her website that,

It is not “good” or “bad” that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfections of our lives.

Murkiness of human experience, that’s a good phrase. And that’s what we get in Olive Kitteridge. We meet all kinds of people, some of whom have made a success of their lives, others just seem to be getting along, not always happily. Some are in agony, others have lived through bereavement or infidelity and made their accommodation to the discomforts and the murkiness of their lives.

As the stories progress we find that a clearer picture of Olive emerges, as a woman who knew most of people who live in Crosby, who endured her husband’s passion for another, younger woman, disappointments with her son who married and moved away, her husband’s severe stroke, and finally widowhood.

Through the stories the threads that connect the lives of the community are revealed. We see the longevity of some marriages, the rural rather closed community on the coast of Maine, the importance of small acts, the significance of social events – funerals, weddings, visits, eating donuts. Elizabeth Strout shows us broken social skills and people not coping. She shows us the warmth that communities can bring when they help people.

259 Strout

Elizabeth Strout has a very clear and sparse way of writing. She shows us what is and what is not said. And in the background the landscape of Maine is always present, the rocky coastline, the light from the sea.

The older woman, Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge is in her 70s, and she is not altogether happy about her physical appearance. Her she is, taking a moment for herself at her son’s wedding.

Olive is a big person. She knows this about herself, but she wasn’t always big, and it still seems something to get used to. It’s true she has always been tall and felt clumsy, but the business of being big showed up with age: her ankles puffed out, her shoulders rolled up behind her neck, and her wrists and hands seem to become the size of a man’s. Olive minds – of course she does; sometimes, privately, she minds very much. But at this stage of the game she is not about to abandon the comfort of food, and that means right now she probably looks like a fat dozing seal wrapped in some kind of gauze bandage. (62)

She is not especially wise or heroic, comforting or generous. She is not an attractive woman. Elizabeth Strout frequently refers to her size. But Olive is perceptive, and sometimes knows exactly what to say and do for other people, although with her own son she seems less surefooted.

Here she is sitting with Marlene, a not very bright but sweet and gentle woman who has just learned that her husband may have been unfaithful with her cousin, Kerry. This little scene is played out at the gathering following his funeral. They are watching Kerry sleep.

For a while neither woman speaks, then Marlene says pleasantly, “I’ve been thinking about killing Kerry.” She raises a hand from her lap and exposes a small paring knife lying on her green flowered dress.

“Oh,” says Olive.

Marlene bends over the sleeping Kerry and touches the woman’s bare neck. “Isn’t this some major vein?” she asks, and puts the knife flat against Kerry’s neck, even poking slightly at the vague throbbing of the pulse there.

“Yuh. Okay. Might want to be a little careful there.” Olive sits forward.

In a moment Marlene sighs, sits back. “Okay, here.” And she hands the paring knife to Olive.

“Do better with a pillow,” Olive tells her. “Cut her throat, there’s going to be a lot of blood.”

A sudden, soft, deep eruption of a giggle comes from Marlene. “Never thought of a pillow.” (177)

And Olive knows when not to say what is in her mind. But the reader gets her reaction. Earlier in the same story Olive is waiting to go to Marlene’s house to help Molly Collins prepare for the funeral guests.

Molly Collins, standing next to Olive Kitteridge, both of them waiting along with the rest, has just looked around behind her at that side of the grocery store, and with a deep sigh says, “Such a nice woman. It isn’t right.”

Olive Kitteridge, who is big-boned and taller by a head than Molly, reaches into her handbag for her sunglasses, and once she has them on, she squints hard at Molly Collins, because it seems such a stupid thing to say. Stupid – this assumption people have, that things should somehow be right. But she finally answers, “She’s a nice woman, it’s true,” turning and looking across the road at the budded forsythia near grange hall. (164)

In case you think Olive is impervious to life’s difficulties, here she is responding to another comment by Molly. Olive’s husband Henry has suffered a stroke and is completely incapacitated. Olive goes to talk to him every day in the local hospital.

“Is Henry able to understand, then?” Molly asks a few minutes later.

For Olive this is like someone has swung a lobster buoy and slammed her in the breastbone. But she answers simply, “Some days, I think so, yes.” (165)

What we learn about Olive is that Henry kept her grounded. And when he suffers a stroke, and later dies, she finds herself ‘out of life. This phrase recurs, referring to the importance of social connections, meaningful ones, to make an older person’s life worth living.

In the final story Olive does make a connection, with a man who voted for George W Bush, to her horror. But she is learning to compromise, to see that this new relationship might offer her something in an otherwise bleak life. Jack’s need for her ‘had given her a place in the world’. (269)

259 Olive K US cover

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, first published in 2008. Published in the UK by Simon & Schuster 270pp. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The Older Women in Fiction Series.

This post is the 21st in my Older Women in Fiction series. Recent posts include

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

And still the most popular of all the posts is Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

The next in the series will appear in August, a Hungarian novel: The Door by Magda Szabo.

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The winner of Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize 2016

The winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 was announced on Wednesday 8th June.

The winner is:

Lisa McInerney        The Glorious Heresies

258 Gl Heresies cover

Congratulations. It’s on the tbr pile.

The Shadow Panel’s winner, on Writes of Woman blog was A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, not shortlisted by the official panel.

258 God in ruins

The shortlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize was:

258 Bailey's shortlist

The Baileys Longlist for Women’s Fiction 2016:

  • Kate Atkinson: A God in Ruins
  • Shirley Barrett: Rush Oh!
  • Cynthia Bond: Ruby
  • Geraldine Brooks: The Secret Chord
  • Becky Chambers: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
  • Jackie Copleton: A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding
  • Rachel Elliott: Whispers Through a Megaphone
  • Anne Enright: The Green Road
  • Petina Gappah: The Book of Memory
  • Vesna Goldsworthy: Gorsky
  • Clio Gray: The Anatomist’s Dream
  • Melissa Harrison: At Hawthorn Time
  • Attica Locke: Pleasantville
  • Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies
  • Elizabeth McKenzie: The Portable Veblen
  • Sara Nović: Girl at War
  • Julia Rochester: The House at the Edge of the World
  • Hannah Rothschild: The Improbability of Love
  • Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton
  • Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life

 

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More bookish things in the Cevennes

At the end of May I went walking in the Cevennes region of France. The area’s most famous literary connection is with Modestine, the donkey. The previous post looked at Robert Louis Stevenson and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. Now I consider three other books connected with the area.

Le Rozier

  1. Village of Secrets: defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead

The Cevennes lies in the southern part of le massif central. Northeast of Robert Louis Stevenson’s route lies the large plateau Viverais-Lignon where the villages, farms and forests are frequently cut off in winter and require effort to reach at other times of year. It is high, remote and isolated. It also has clean, restorative air and, long before the Second World War, had been a place for the French to improve their health during the summer months, especially children.

257 VofS cover

During the time of Vichy government and the occupation of France hundreds, perhaps thousands of people fled from the German occupiers to the plateau. First it was the Spanish refugees from the Civil War in Spain; then the foreign Jewish families who had escaped to France and needed to hide from the occupying German forces when France was defeated; then it was the French Jewish families, who had been assured of the protection of the Vichy government and then betrayed; later on, the Service de Travail Obligatoire (STO) introduced national service for the French to work in Germany and many people went into hiding to avoid the STO; and the Maquis, the local resistance movement also found cover on the plateau. Most of these people survived the war.

La Causse Mejean

The book tells the reader what happened, but also asks the question, what was it about the people of the plateau that enabled them to successfully defy the demands of the occupiers and to shelter these fugatives?

The geography of the plateau made it excellent for hiding.

The bravery of individuals and the determination of the organisations that hid those in danger, especially the Jewish children, was another feature.

There was a history of Protestant resistance, stretching back to the bloody wars of religion in the 18th Century, described in some detail by Robert Louis Stevenson in his book of 1879. Some of the pastors were pacifists, all dedicated to assistance. Two sects, offshoots of Plymouth Brethren, were present on the plateau, austere and with an entrenched privacy and resistance to asking questions. Even some of the local police turned a blind eye to the hidden children.

It’s an important story, but was not an easy book to write, Caroline Moorehead tells us in an article Caroline Moorehead on Village of Secrets: ‘I received warnings’. The warnings came from a group who wished to preserve the story of the heroism of a single man, whereas she celebrates the efforts and commitment of the whole community. It was not a story of a single hero. There was no monopoly on goodness, she explains.

And as a footnote, Albert Camus spent two winters on the plateau, writing La Peste.

Village of Secrets: defying the Nazis in Vichy France. Caroline Moorehead (2014) published by Vintage. 374 pp. Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

  1. Trespass by Rose Tremain

257 Trespass cover

This novel was shortlisted for Man Booker Prize in 2011. I read it when it was published and these comments are from my notes.

This was quite an easy read, but the story felt a little unresolved. It concerns disputed property in the south of France, and a vivid family past. A parallel story concerns a gay English woman who writes and gardens in the same area, whose brother wishes to buy a property in the area to recover his sense of self. Their stories collide badly, and little resolution is made, except by the perpetrator of the murder, who is not apprehended. This did not leave me with a sense of calm, a story ended. On the one hand satisfying revenge is had, on the other people have been plunged into grief and trauma as a result.

It’s quite a short novel, and told from a number of perspectives. Resentments, built up over long lives, are well portrayed, but it is hard to know whose story this is, and why one should care. Ultimately it feels like the rich middle class English causing rifts and damage in their new colonies.

Trespass by Rose Tremain, published by Penguin in 2011. 384pp.

Aver Amand

  1. Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne

257 Verne_-_Voyage_au_centre_de_la_Terre.djvu

And then there was Jules Verne, greeting us in the limestone caves of Aven Armand. The tour of the caves used the device of his novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth to introduce us to the fantastical stalagmites and stalactites. It was slightly dodgy as Jules Verne wrote his book before the caves were found. But the idea of great scientific discoveries being made in the 19th Century, the excitement at the new knowledge, especially about the age and development of the earth, was a point being made. Did you know that it takes a century for the stalagmites to grow 1 cm? The literary connection gave me an excuse to include a photo

257 Jules Verne

Relevant posts and websites

Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes (June 2016) on this blog.

Trip Fiction for advice on fiction related to your journeys.

Reading Guide for Trespass by Rose Tremain.

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Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes

256 RLS coverIn the autumn of 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson set off with his donkey Modestine, spending 12 days travelling in the French region of the Cevennes. This is a mountainous area north of Montpelier. They covered 120 miles together, travelling south from Le Monastier (near Le Puy) to St Jean du Gard.

Last week (May 2016) I travelled, in much more luxury but also on foot, from Ganges to Millau. This route took us further south, crossing from East to West. My companions were 13 walkers, guided by a professional tour leader, looked after by a wonderful tour manager. No donkeys, but a lonely cow, with bell joined us for an hour one day.

Walking in France

RLS was suffering from a broken heart when he set out. He was 27 years old, already a veteran traveller, and destined to go on travelling, ending his life in Samoa. He came from Scotland, son of a lighthouse builder.

RLS was also a writer, and most people first meet him as the author of Treasure Island or Kidnapped. [Pause for people to mutter Aaah Jim lad! And Black Spot!] He published his account of his trip with Modestine in the year after his journey: Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. He gave no reason for his journey, being a devotee of travel for its own sake.

Why any one should desire to visit either Luc or Cheylard is more than my much-inventing spirit can suppose. For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied by our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future? (12)

Cevennes

RLS’s present was very exacting and he experienced many ‘needs and hitches’, not least in his relationship with Modestine. Most of the time he was on his own (except for the donkey) and at night, if there was no convenient auberge, he slept under the stars. He spent one night in a Trappist monastery. Trappists take a vow of silence. As he approached, with some trepidation, he met Father Apollinaris near the monastery, Our Lady of the Snows. They walked and conversed together.

‘I must not speak to you down there,’ he said. ‘Ask for the Brother Porter, and all will be well. But try to see me as you go out again through the wood, where I may speak to you. I am charmed to have made your acquaintance.’

And then suddenly raising his arms, flapping his fingers, and crying out twice, ‘I must not speak, I must not speak!’ he ran away in front of me, and disappeared into the monastery door.

I own that this ghastly eccentricity went a good way to revive my terrors. (18)

256 Gorge

He describes the details of his adventures with wry good humour. More than once he sleeps outside, rarely disturbed by people in this remote region. One night he leaves the village of Bleymard and camps among the pines. In the night he awakes.

256 travels-with-donkey

The stars were clear, coloured, and jewel-like, but not frosty. A faint silvery vapour stood for the Milky Way. All around me the black fir-points stood upright and stock-still. By the whiteness of the pack-saddle I could see Modestine walking around and around at the length of her tether; I could hear her steadily munching at the sward; but there was not another sound save the indescribable quiet talk of the runnel over the stones. I lay lazily smoking and studying the colour of the sky, as we call the void of space, from where it showed a reddish grey behind the pines to where it showed a glossy blue-black between the stars. …

As I thus lay, between content and longing, a faint noise stole towards me through the pines. I thought, at first, it was the crowing of cocks or the barking of dogs at some very distant farm; but steadily and gradually it took articulate shape in my ears, until I became aware that a passenger was going by upon the high-road in the valley, and singing loudly as he went. There was more of goodwill than grace in his performance; but he trolled with ample lungs; and the sound of his voice took hold upon the hillside and set the air shaking in the leafy glens. (55/56)

RLS the Walker

Map of RLS's route, licensed by Creative Commons

Map of RLS’s route, licensed by Creative Commons

It struck me that RLS does not report those things that occupy most walkers: feet, especially any blisters, tired legs or knees, whether the weather will hold, the next meal, all matters physical. Rather he focuses on Modestine’s limitations, which are great. Some ascents are too steep for her. Sometimes she refuses to walk. She meets a fellow donkey and wants to socialise. RLS has to learn how to encourage, entreat and provoke Modestine to carry his luggage: a switch, a goad, whistling, and pulling. It is a constant source of anxiety to him that he must treat this animal in ways he would rather avoid. Eventually, after 12 days, they reach St Germain de Calberte, but the donkey’s physical state means she can’t continue to Alais (today called Ales) as intended. So he sells her and she is gone before he realises that he will miss her, grieve for her.

He tells us about his struggles with Modestine, his luggage, finding the way, meeting various characters, the history of the region (known for being a stronghold of Protestants in a bloody struggle in the previous century) and innumerable conversations about religion. ßHe notes the telegraph wires, the railway, surveyors preparing for new tracks. But other signs of mechanisation are few.

Dartmoor Donkeys

Dartmoor Donkeys

His generosity of spirit, his belief in getting along with everyone, in the pleasures of travel for the adventures it brings, and his reluctance to goad Modestine, these are the charming characteristics of this account.

My journey

My journey did not coincide with RLS and Modestine’s. I went with no purpose but to enjoy the walking, the countryside, the company, the food and wine. I began to understand Modestine’s reluctance as we struggled up steep and rocky paths, and descended more of the same. Some tracks were forbidden to car and bikes, but there was no sign of any donkeys (except perhaps that pile of poo).

No entryOur journey lay over the high plateaux, in May awash with numberless wild flowers, overseen by larks and vultures. Our views were spectacular, the pine woods quiet and fragrant, our way up the slopes serenaded by nightingales.

And …

Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson, first published in 1879. The edition I used is published by John Beaufoy Publishing ltd, Stanfords Travel Classics. 95pp

There is a useful website on Robert Louis Stevenson here.

The next post on Bookword will look at other Cevennes-related reading.

 

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Getting feedback to improve our writing

Not all feedback helps to improve writing. Have you ever-experienced killer feedback? It’s the kind of feedback that makes you feel ashamed, humiliated and as if you wanted to put away the writing for ever. Everyone I know has received it at some stage. I remember the reviewer’s comment on an article I’d submitted to an academic journal. This was the sentence that did it: If the author aspires to an academic position they should learn how to reference. It was doubly killing as a) I was already a university lecturer and b) there was nothing wrong with the referencing. Nevertheless I abandoned the article on the spot.

Yet feedback can be very helpful. The three authors of The New Age of Ageing sought out readers to provide different types of feedback, and to learn from and improve our writing by taking their comments into account. Here are our reflections on our learning from this process.

243 New Age cover

Marianne Coleman says

We have asked for and received feedback throughout the writing of the book: right at the start on the proposal; on individual chapters and on the full draft.

It was really important to get feedback on the proposal. The publisher asked us to suggest suitable people to read our initial proposal so that they got a view on the viability of the book. That feedback was positive and constructive, and we took it into account when finalising the proposal, which was the initial skeleton of the book.

Throughout the course of the writing we were getting feedback from each other. For me the best thing about having co-authors has been the process of shaping the individual chapters and the book through the wonderful discussions we had each time we met. We also gave feedback to each other on draft chapters and that was incredibly useful. Obviously this can only work when you trust each other and can be honest, open and respectful of each other’s work and feelings.

In a wide-ranging book like ours, we covered areas where we were not necessarily fully expert and it was vital that we checked our facts with people who were. Their invaluable feedback enabled us to have confidence in what we were saying, but we found that we had to use our judgment about how much of their advice and how many of their suggestions to incorporate. Sometimes the sophistication and detail of their arguments were too much for the general nature of the book and more suitable for a thorough exploration of their particular area of expertise. This meant that sometimes after incorporating expert suggestions, they were trimmed back for the final draft.

A particularly useful feedback came from one of our readers at the point where we had a nearly complete draft. She came back with some vital over-arching comments including that we had not really established the standpoint from which we were speaking. This feedback made us think hard and helped us sharpen our thoughts and message for the final version.

The most recent feedback came in the form of editor’s queries. Although these tended to be mainly about consistency of spelling, punctuation and missing references, sometimes the editor has picked up a badly expressed thought that can be refined and improved for meaning.

But that is not the final feedback. That will come from our readers!

DSC00853.JPG

Eileen Carnell writes

What we know for sure is that feedback can help authors become much better writers. But asking for, writing and getting feedback can be a tricky business. The process can be emotional and needs to be done with care. Here are 7 important points about feedback.

  1. You have to trust the readers of your work.

You need to have a good relationship and be prepared for the experience to be reciprocal. You are asking people to be generous with their time and be encouraging while providing authentic critique. Providing effective feedback is a highly skilled process. It’s about providing information, not about giving advice.

  1. All information about your writing can be useful.

Information can vary from seemingly small technical suggestions to comments about the overarching themes, consistency of arguments, important missing elements and the value of the project.

  1. Information provided is for the writer to work with.

As one reader said: ‘… just things which would have made my own reading of it easier – for you to take or leave as you feel fit,’ indicating that he knew that the writers are decision makers, not passive recipients of the comments.

  1. It can be helpful to ask readers for specific information.

We were particularly keen to know whether the voices of the three different authors were knitted together across the book and were keen to know if male readers would feel included.

  1. Getting feedback can be an emotional process.

Constructive criticism from others may feel like a criticism of the person rather than a critique of the writing as Caroline suggests when talking about ‘killer’ feedback. This may be even more the case when writing fiction.

  1. It can be helpful to get feedback from people who don’t know much about the themes or who are not experienced writers themselves.

Non-experts may ask questions that indicate that further explanation is needed, whether the writing is clear and if the argument is consistent.

  1. There are different ways of relaying information about others’ writing.

Everyday use of the term feedback (the dominant view) suggests the reader presents information to the writer – a one-way process. We describe this feedback as Gifts (see note). In other situations the nature of feedback has a social dimension, rather like Ping-Pong, where ideas are tossed back and forth and involve making connections. There are shared insights and new meanings established. Feedback here is a two-way process. The third example, our favoured kind, is what we define as Loops. Here there is an equal power dynamic in which new knowledge and concepts are created through dialogue.

255 Fbk for L cover

Caroline adds

On a writing course once, I was reminded that you cannot stand alongside everything you write and explain to the reader what they have not understood. In fact it is rare to receive comments directly about your writing. So when you get the chance, listen to the comments, take them into account and learn from them. You don’t have to agree or act on all of it. I try to remember this.

We would like to thanks the readers of the whole book who took on a huge, time-consuming task. We are very grateful for their generosity and expertise. We are also indebted to the many readers of individual chapters who made really helpful observations. Even though there were three of us writing this book getting feedback breaks the isolation of writing and it is really good to get a range of different perspectives.

Note: Askew, S & Lodge, C (2000). Gifts, Ping-Pong and Loops – linking feedback and learning, in Askew, S. (Ed) Feedback for Learning. London: Routledge.

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman. To be published by Policy Press on 7th September.

Related posts

We are writing monthly posts about the stages from bright ideas to publishing a book. Earlier posts have included

First Catch Your Publisher (April 2016)

One Book, Three Authors (March 2016)

Writers’ Residential (February 2016)

A post focussing on relationships in the feedback process is Critique Etiquette: the Ultimate Guide for Giving and Receiving Feedback by Angela Ackerman on Writers in the Storm blog in March 2015

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Souvenirs

Who doesn’t have one or two things that they keep to remind themselves of something in the past: a photograph, a pebble, an item of clothing? Those of us fortunate enough not to have a disrupted life are able to hold onto our souvenirs. For those, forced through fear of violence to flee their country, the souvenirs may be lost or less easy to understand. Tracy, a refugee and a victim of torture, said

What happened to me, the marks on my body, the memories, they are going to be my souvenirs.

FFT On My WayTracy had contributed these lines to the play Souvenirs. Living with one’s past can be unbearable, and that’s where the work of Freedom from Torture is so valuable. A group within that charity assists refugees through writing: The Write to Life group. I had a small connection with them before I left London. This is a revision of the post I wrote after I had been to see a production of their play: Souvenirs.

Souvenirs

Writing takes one to some surprising places and to meet some amazing people. Writing as therapy may sound dry and self-indulgent, but the Freedom From Torture’s Write to Life Group are lively, thoughtful and funny. They were also very welcoming when I joined them at one of their meetings. The group was established in 1997 and is co-ordinated by Sheila Hayman, assisted by a team of mentors. It supports torture survivors through writing, a therapeutic process.

254 souvenirs-frontcover

Souvenirs was based on the words of five of the group’s participants whoworked with two theatre companies: iceandfire and Tamasha Theatre Company. The writers played themselves.

Tracy said: What happened to me, the marks on my body, the memories, they are going to be my souvenirs. …I want to show people how I feel. In my struggle I did not have a voice and I want the world to know the truth. Talking, acting, writing about it, it’s another way to free myself.

‘The woman sitting in front of you…’ Jade, sitting centre stage, inescapable, speaks the first line. We, the audience, cannot escape. Her words, perhaps first spoken to Christine Bacon, the scriptwriter, are repeated several times in the short production. Jade sitting on the stage, is speaking to me, to you, to the other members of the cast.

The writer-actors tell us what we would rather not hear:

  • This country, my country, refuses asylum to some victims of torture
  • My country does not allow asylum seekers to work
  • My country treats people as if their needs for food, shelter, comfort, transport, communication with home, are irrelevant
  • Children in other countries are forced to become soldiers
  • Children can and do kill people
  • Parents leave behind their children and partners
  • Parents don’t know when or if they will see their children again
  • Refugees fear memories of torture but they are made to repeat details when they claim asylum
  • Individual acts of small kindnesses are treasured
  • Suffering does not stop when they reach the UK, and can be made worse by experiences here
  • Suffering and healing are all around us
  • Witnesses are sitting in front of us, on the stage.

Tracy says to the audience that she tells other sufferers of torture to speak out. This is part of the healing process. Another participant in the Write to Life group said, ‘talking, acting, writing about it, it’s another way to free myself.’ An audience is like a mirror in front of her, after all the horror and degradation, she is still powerfully and triumphantly alive. This is the mending power of words.

After a previous performance of Souvenirs at the Bath Literature Festival, Mohamed said:

When I saw the audience, I found myself saying it to them with my whole heart. Saying that script – it took me right back. … I want to change people’s perspective of asylum seekers – this is a kind of advocacy for people who are voiceless, which is invaluable. (from the Freedom From Torture blog)

Performing the play was an emotional experience for the participants. And also for the audience. The applause was prolonged.

Words bear witness to these things we don’t want to know. But we cannot now unknow them. We are the people in front of whom stood Jade, Mohammed, Tracy, ‘Uganda’, Hasani, and, in the revised script of the play, Conteh. Words allow us to know and to share, to change. Words lead to action. Now we know, what will we do?

‘Uganda’ said: This is the only way to speak out. It is a way to let the world know what is happening – we are alerting people to get things done.

Postscript

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

We tend to think that the crossing of the Mediterranean is the worst of the refugees’ journey to freedom. But what happens when they land, when they apply for asylum, these things can be as damaging as anything experienced up to that point. I am still ashamed now, more ashamed even, of how my country treats refugees. I continue to support Freedom from Torture.

The text of Souvenirs is available to buy from Freedom from Torture at £5.

254 FFTlogoThe original post, Souvenirs and Writing Home, was published in April 2013.

 

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