Miss Mole by EH Young for her birthday

A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. That’s the kind of title that catches my attention. The post by Jane on beyondedenrock blog was about celebrating birthdays of the more neglected women writers, so I decided to join in, in an ad hoc way. Here’s my first offering – some thoughts about EH Young’s novel Miss Mole to celebrate her birthday. She was born on 21st March in 1880, and this novel was published in 1930. This is a revision of my original post from June 2015.

Emily Hilda Young by Howard Coster 1932. National Portrait Gallery (22909) used under Creative Commons Agreement

Miss Mole by EH Young

Miss Mole is an unlikely heroine, especially for the 1930s. She is not very young, pretty, innocent or socially well placed. At the start of the novel she seems to delight in being less than straightforward and we wonder what will become of her over the next 288 pages. But she quickly captivates us and we are charmed by her resilience and resourcefulness.

The novel is set in Radstowe, modelled on Bristol. Although Miss Mole loves the city, she was brought up on a farm, and now must find her living among people who have tight rules about what is appropriate behaviour, especially for women.

The Story

We meet Miss Mole as she is about to be dismissed from her position as a lady’s companion. She has more or less engineered the dismissal, as she is bored and unhappy to be reduced to living at the beck and call of an old woman with restricted interests. Miss Mole does not like to be demeaned.

Hannah Mole has a cousin, Lilla Spenser-Smith who is anxious that her relationship with a mere domestic should not be known, and so finds Miss Mole a position as a housekeeper with a non-conformist widower, the Reverend Corder, and his children. The family would be called dysfunctional today. After some initial difficulties, Hannah finds ways to gain the trust of the children and to help them through their difficulties. Her position as a housekeeper provides her with the opportunity to do good within the Corder household.

The reader gradually understands that Hannah hides a secret, unknown even to Lilla. It is a secret such that if it were revealed she could not be employed as a domestic servant, and she would be ostracised in Radstowe. The tension of the novel increases as the revelation of this secret creeps closer, threatening to undermine her work within the Corder family.

Hannah understands how people judge others and make mistakes. Her secret results from her own mistaken judgement.

’Not the thing itself, but its shadow,’ she murmured, as she saw her own shadow going before her, and she nodded as though she had solved a problem. She judged herself by the shadow she chose to project for her own pleasure and it was her business in life – and one in which she usually failed – to make other people accept her creation. Yes, she failed, she failed! They would not look at the beautiful, the valuable Hannah Mole: they saw the substance and disapproved of it and she did not blame them: it was what she would have done herself and in one case when she had concentrated on the fine shadow presented to her, she had been mistaken. (9)

Miss Mole

Hannah Mole is not quite 40, a single woman with great independence of spirit, not always apparent to people she meets. She is described in the first chapter in this way.

She stood on the pavement, a thin shabby figure, so insignificant in her old hat and coat, so forgetful of herself in the enjoyment of the scene, that she might have been wearing a cloak of invisibility … (10)

We are soon made aware of Hannah’s resourcefulness, playfulness and creativity. We discover that she is a woman of integrity. In the first chapter she helps prevent a suicide. She is quiet about this event although it brings her into contact with people who appreciate her: Mrs Gibson who provides temporary lodgings and friendship, Mr Blenkinsop who is struck by her liveliness of spirit. Much of the pleasure of this novel derives from her approach to life, and especially her psychological insights into the Corder family. She is not without faults, getting locked into a battle with the Rev Corder, which she realises she has undertaken in order to score points.

Like many women of her age, situation and time she has a struggle to survive and time is not on her side. As she walks at night towards her new position in the Corder household she is visited by a brief moment of fear.

What was to become of herself? Age was creeping on her all the time and she had saved nothing, she would soon be told that she was too old for this post or that, and, for a second, fear took hold of her with a cold hand and the whispering of the dead leaves warned her that, like them, she would soon be swept into the gutter and no one would ask where she had gone, and her fear changed into a craving that there would be at least one person to whom her disappearance would be a calamity. ‘No one!’ the leaves whispered maliciously, while a little gust of laughter came from the bushes, and at that, Hannah paused and looked disdainfully in their direction. She was not to be laughed at! She was not to be laughed at and she refused to be frightened. (51)

The Style

EH Young’s style in Miss Mole reflects Hannah’s lack of clarity at the beginning and her increasing sense of herself and her own integrity. Episodes, fragments of memories, scraps of information are given to us in small pieces. We do not quite understand that Hannah has saved a life between stepping out to buy a reel of cotton and meeting with her cousin Lilla in the first chapter.

This mode of telling the story reflects Hannah’s character. While she is resourceful and lively, she has to guard herself, and her past, to live a little like the mole after which she is named. She is a complex character and develops through the novel so that by the final chapters we are aware of her true value.

The Themes

The book deals with the nature of morality and the contrast between received morality, socially accepted behaviour and Miss Mole’s integrity. She does good to so many. She knows that they would reject her if they learned about her secret, and so she is a challenge to the restrictive teachings of the church, the social attitudes of Lilla and Lilla’s social set.

EH Young herself had an unusual domestic arrangement – a ménage a trois. She kept this secret for 40 years. She knew something of the tensions between secrecy and truth, appearances and integrity.

Miss Mole by EH Young (first published in 1930) republished in 1984 as Virago Modern Classic with an introduction by Sally Beauman. 288pp

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A Tribute to Ursula le Guin

Ursula le Guin died on 23rd January 2018. We lost two inspirations on that day. Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpeter, also died. Hugh Masekela was my sound track in the ‘90s. In exile he played his accessible and lively jazz. I heard him once at the Town and Country Club in London and again at the Free Nelson Mandela Concert in Hyde Park in June 2008. Remember Bring him back home (Nelson Mandela) and Soweto Blues? Both involved in the struggles for freedom and equality.

Humanity of Ursula le Guin

The South African Hugh Masekela and the American writer Ursula Le Guin shared a belief in the power of the imagination, and also the determination not to compromise democratic principles. Masekela endured the traumas of apartheid and exile.

Ursula Le Guin endured treatment as an outsider, as an “other”. As a woman at Radcliffe in the 1940s she was not quite at Harvard. As a woman writer she was treated with disdain and was ignored. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy she was dismissed. Yet she held onto her ambitions and her determination and has written powerfully about voice, ageing, beauty, death, women writers and the publishing industry. In her tribute Margaret Atwood praised Ursula Le Guin’s thought experiment. I salute her long career fighting against exclusion and discrimination.

Ursula le Guin the storyteller

Her narrative talents are evident in all her fiction. Many, like me, have been attracted to her novels for young people, in particular The Earthsea novels, and gloried in the stories well told. There are important moral ideas in these novels, about growing up, responsibility, self-awareness and the power of language.

I would recommend the Earthsea Trilogy to anyone who has not read them, as well as her many books and short stories for adults.

Ursula le Guin’s approach

In an interview with John Wray in the Paris Review from 2013 she reveals her essential interest as a writer.

I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches. …


What it is that draws you to this “trying on” of other existences?


Oh, intellectual energy and curiosity, I suppose. An inborn interest in various and alternative ways of doing things and thinking about them.

That could be part of what led me to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one. And, in a deeper sense, what led me to write fiction, maybe. A novelist is always “trying on” other people.

We can read this playfulness as she tries out various ideas about what society might be like if one element was different. One example that appeals to me is The Left Hand of Darkness which explores what a society might be like that is not founded upon gender distinctions. The Dispossessed plays with ideas about anarchy and Natasha Walter, writer and activist, recently picked it as her life-changing book.

I suspect that searching for one answer was a common masculine approach to writing in the mid-20th century and one reason why she was marginalised. Her work was described as science fiction or fantasy, labels used to marginalise the writing. Yet it was precisely her ability to open up questions, to consider other possibilities, other lives, to challenge ‘othering’ and discrimination that appealed to me when I first met her writing.

Ursula le Guin on writing

In addition to her fiction Ursula Le Guin has written many essays, and provided some guidance for storywriters. Steering the Craft (1998) has the subtitle Exercises and discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator and the Mutinous Crew. In this book she provides many insights for writers and writing groups, including the importance of sound and rhythm in writing. She quotes Virginia Woolf often, explaining

I find her thought and work wonderful in itself, useful to anyone thinking about how to write. The rhythm of Woolf’s prose is to my ear the subtlest and strongest in English fiction. (47)

I have referred to her wonderful essays in Words are my Matter in previous blogposts, especially her ideas on imagination and how it is not the same as creativity and why writers need it and how to develop it in two posts: A Writer trains her Imagination and Imagination and The Operating Instructions.

Ursula Le Guin has referred to the instrumental view of learning and literacy summed up in this way: ‘Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions’. She ends by endorsing the central significance of literature.

The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we are visiting, life. (6 Words are My Matter)

She has plenty more to say in these issues about a range of topics.

Some Playfulness

I love her way of spiking some worn-out arguments, like the use of the generic pronoun “he” to include “she”. It doesn’t.

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter…

That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon.

This is from another collection of essays: The Wave in the Mind (another quote from VW). She writes well on ageing too:

I know what worries me most when I look in the mirror and see the old woman with no waist. It’s not that I’ve lost my beauty — I never had enough to carry on about. It’s that that woman doesn’t look like me. She isn’t who I thought I was.

This is another example of her ability to magically combine playfulness, imagination and seriousness. I wish I had read that essay when we were writing about ageing.

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

I will miss both formative influences – Ursula Le Guin’s and Hugh Masekela’s. You won’t be surprised to learn that I have been listening to his music while I have been writing this post. Thank goodness we have their recordings and books to return to.

Some references

I must remind readers of the BrainPickings blog which present writers’ ideas so well.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

The Wave in the Mind: talks and essays on the writer, the reader and the imagination by Ursula Le Guin (2004) published by Shambhala Publications

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin first published in 1969. I have an edition published by Orbit in 1992. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

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Another look at A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Reading non-fiction by women for the Decades Project brings me to a classic. For March I planned to consider a book published between 1920-29, so here is Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Virginia Woolf wrote two papers for two Cambridge women’s colleges in October 1928, and combined them into the six chapters of this short book. She starts in this way:

But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction – what has that got to do with a room of one’s own? (5)

She made the connection on the next page with this famous line:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. (6)

The 1920s and A Room of One’s Own

In the first decade of last century the only nonfiction by a woman that I could find were Gertrude Jekyll’s gardening books. Eight years of suffragette activity, the Great War, ten years of votes for some women and peacetime progress came between A Room of One’s Own and Emmeline Pankhurst’s autobiography My Own Story. By 1928 the impediments to women’s fiction had been removed, claims Virginia Woolf with her tongue in her cheek: the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good.

May I remind you that there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; that after 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 – which is a whole nine years ago – she was given a vote? May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now? When you reflect upon these immense privileges and the length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning five hundred a year in one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good. Moreover, the economists are telling us that Mrs Seton has had too many children. You must, of course, go on bearing children, but, so they say, in twos and threes, not in tens and twelves. (111)

What struck me as I read this essay for the third time was Virginia Woolf ‘s description of how deep the impediments were entrenched in English society. It is a blast against exclusiveness – ‘how unpleasant it is to be locked out’ (25).

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is not gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my min. (76)

The novelist and A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf brings her skills as a novelist to make the case that women’s lack of financial independence has been an underlying cause of the failure to produce fiction in the past. She follows an imaginary young woman, Mary Seton, on an day in Oxbridge, dining first at a man’s college, where she has been denied entry to the library and shouted at for being on the grass. Then she is entertained to supper at a women’s college, altogether a more meagre affair. She visits the British Museum (meaning the Library) where she looks for books on men and women. The books on women are all written by men. Men, she observes, had also taken it upon themselves to define what women could write about – and certainly they could not write critically of men. Some of her quotations of men writing about women make your eyes water.

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. (37)

I think of all those women speaking out in the #MeToo campaign about how they were abused by men. We can understand the abusive behaviour as serving to magnify a man’s natural size.

She invents a sister for Shakespeare and shows how, despite Judith’s talents being equal to her brother’s, she would not have been able to succeed in the theatre in the 17th century. In her lyrically argued prose, Virginia Woolf explores the state of mind women necessary to write fiction. Having been required to attend to a restricted sphere, the new art form of the novel provided the opportunity to use their understanding of human interactions. She notes three of the first novelists used male names: Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte and George Eliot. She also pointed out that a writer’s ideas and artistry depends upon what has already been written.

The core of her argument is that women need financial independence and privacy. Since 1928 it has become very clear that the problems for women are deeper than £500 a year (or its equivalent) and a room of one’s own with a key. Deeper even than the pram in the hallway. We must still struggle against male patriarchy especially now we have come to understand how it is bolstered by physical abuse and sexual violence.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. First published in 1928. I used my falling apart Penguin Modern Classics edition. 112 pp

The Decades Project

In 2017 I considered one novel by a woman each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). For 2018 I decided to find non-fiction by women for each decade. For next month I am hoping to find my copy of Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1933). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are the links to the first two books in the Decades Project:

Ms Jekyll and her Garden (1900-9) and

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914)

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Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

Choosing a novel by a woman in translation is not an easy task, as I have complained before. There are few reviews in newspapers or on blogs. I find recommendations in lists by other readers, and from organisations that support translations. I notice that animals feature in several titles (see the polar bear), and since it is several months since I read anything translated from Chinese, this is my choice for this month’s women in translation post.

Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin was translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie.

The story of Notes of a Crocodile

Set in Taipei in the last years of the 1990s, the central character is a young woman, finding it hard to understand her sexual identity within her group of friends. Lazi falls for a young woman, a student who is a few years older than her. Shui Ling is an obsession for the narrator. Their relationship blows hot and cold and Lazi is confused both by her feelings and by Shui Ling’s reactions.

Her other friends are also finding their way in the difficult time. Meng Sheng is a charismatic young man, challenging, wayward and rich. He and his partner Chu Kuang are both experimenting with their sexuality. These two young men reappear in her life from time to time, often high on drugs or inebriated. And two young women friends are also finding it hard to maintain their intense friendship. The affectionate Tun Tun and her companion Zhi Rou. Finally, Lazi meets a woman, Xiao Fan, who cares for her, but is herself so damaged that a painful split is inevitable. Without apparent studying, Lazi graduates, celebrates alone, but having learned about her desires and the raw places her desires take her to.

The structure of Notes of a Crocodile

The novel is presented as a mash-up of diary entries, fantasies or short stories on the subject of crocodiles or notes. The innovative post-modern style partly explains Qiu Miaojin’s cult status. The crocodile elements of the novel provide a different beat to the painful narrative of Lazi’s life. The crocodile is trying to pass as a human. In crocodile world, the media are in a frenzy to discover crocodiles, and everything about them. Lazi’s crocodile has been living a lonely life, believing s/he (it is hard to ascertain the gender of crocodiles apparently) is alone in the world. But about half way through the novel the crocodile finds an ad from the Crocodile Club for a Christmas Eve gathering.

When the crocodile discovered the ad, it was so excited that it didn’t sleep for days. It had never occurred to the crocodile that there were other crocodiles, and what’s more they had already formed a club! Could that possibly mean there was a place to go and others to talk to? As it sucked on the corners of its comforter, giant teardrops welled up in its eye. (139)

The crocodile theme relates to how LGBT people were seen in Taiwan in the late 1990s. The country was not long out of martial rule. Heterosexuality had been the only acceptable form of human sexual behaviour. But the LGBT people were demanding recognition and rights. The playful argument of pro- and anti-croc reveals the basic level of the discussion.

For more on the context of Notes of a Crocodile, see the comments by Ari Larissa Heinrich in Consider the Crocodile: Qiu Miaojin’s Lesbian Bestiary, in the LA Review of Books.

Reading Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

I did not find Notes of a Crocodile an easy read in part because there were so few connections to my experience. Qiu Miaojin (1969 – 1995) was Chinese, from Taiwan. The story she recounts was about the university years of her characters. She was a lesbian, writing about the lesbian experience in Taipei at that time.

The experience recalled my lack connection I experienced when I read Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami – all angsty, endless picking over the smallest of interactions, and appealing to another readership. Qiu Miaojin references Murakami on the first page, and later tells us Lazi took a copy of Norwegian Wood as she flees from another break up with Shui Ling.

The intensity of the failing relationships became wearing. So did her attempts to change her life, undertaken in the knowledge that she would fail.

For my entire life, I had been inherently attracted to women. That desire, regardless of whether it was realized, had long tormented me. Desire and torment were two opposing forces constantly chafing me, inside and out. I knew full well that my change of diet was futile. I was a prisoner of my own nature, and one with no recourse. This time, however I was determined to liberate myself. (182-3)

Sadly Qiu Miaojin committed suicide when she was only 26. Notes of a Crocodile was published posthumously. She gained something of a cult following. I do not expect to pick up her other novel, Last word from Montmartre, very soon.

Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin New York Review Books (1994) 242pp

Translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

The Winterlings by Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, translation from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Next month (April) I plan to read Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan.

Over to you

Do you have any recommendations of novels by women in translation?

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On Being a Good Reader

I was approaching 50 when I decided to return to university full-time to study for an MA. It was one of the best decisions of my life. I loved it! I loved the time I had to read and the freedom to choose what to read. I loved the library. I loved reading books and articles, following trails of references, browsing among the journals, discussing what I had read with my fellow students. I was impressed by the librarian and she has since become a very good friend. I learned the pleasures of reading, following an idea, chasing up more ideas, being a serious reader.

One of the things I love about blogging is the research that it necessitates: for images, biographical details, finding obscure facts and quirky opinions. I recaptured some of the earlier pleasure of studying when I came upon the idea of the good reader and decided to follow it up. It necessitated reserving a library book!

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

I had enjoyed Howards End is on the Landing, so was pleased when my sister gave me a copy of Jacob’s Room. She said it was ‘a bit like a blog only all at once’, which is good description. I found myself taking notes of things to follow up, especially related to Muriel Spark, who’s centenary is this year, and I have already joined in a readalong with a review of Memento Mori.

She also reflected on Vladimir Nabokov’s literary criticism, and his description of a good reader. Here are her thoughts:

A good reader pays attention to everything. The surface of the prose. The structure of the book. The tense. The point of view. Perhaps to those even before the characters. Then comes the setting. The story can often come last. (145)

For many, many readers the statement that ‘the story can often come last’ would be incomprehensible. It will not surprise you that for Susan Hill a good reader often rereads.

Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov’s comments had influenced Susan Hill, so I decided to look them up. This required a library reservation, which always makes me feel like a serious reader! It’s a big heavy book, fetched from Exeter Library Stack (whatever that means). Big heavy books also make me feel like a serious reader. I can be so facile.

Susan Hill’s reference was to Nabokov’s introductory lecture: Good Readers and Good Writers. What does Nabokov say makes a good reader? Well, he identifies first those who approach reading to support their emotions, to recall their own past, to identify with the characters. This, he says, is reading of a ‘comparatively lowly kind’ (4). His good reader, on the other hand, approaches the book with the willingness and the imagination to enter the world created by the writer.

We ought to remain a little aloof and take pleasure in this aloofness while at the same time we keenly enjoy – passionately enjoy, enjoy with tears and shivers – the inner weave of a given masterpiece. … The best temperament for a reader to have, or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one. (4-5)

And he remarks on the necessity of rereading to be a good reader, to appreciate the three facets of a good writer: magic, story and lesson. In the lectures he goes on to show how this is done by Charles Dickens in Bleak House and Jane Austen in Mansfield Park among others.

A good reader?

It seems that the good reader is one who pays attention to more than the story in a book, who pays attention to how the story is told. For many people this is more than they want from their reading, and that does not make them bad readers of course.

I think in the terms of the two writers referred to here, who are also prolific readers, I do not count as a very good reader. But I am working on it. And I intend to go on by studying the world-building of writers (and paying attention to it in my own writing) and I plan to do more rereading.

New Book by Harold Harvey 1920

And I think I will still leave space to read for the story, for comfort and also to read with that lowly kind of imagination that means I am an emotional reader in Nabokov’s terms.

I will also practice being aloof. Writers need loofs. (Old joke).


Jacob’s Room is Full of Books: a year of reading by Susan Hill (2017) Profile Books. A gift from a sister.

Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov edited by Fredson Bowers (1980) Weidenfeld and Nicolson. The library book.


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Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

It sometimes seems that everyone else has known about a great writer long before I discover her. This was true of Elizabeth Strout. When Olive Kitteridge was recommended to me for the older women in fiction series on Bookword it seemed that everyone else had already read the book. Everybody who hadn’t read it had seen the tv series, and vice versa and some had absorbed both. I was just catching up.

I did read Olive Kitteridge and included it in the older women in fiction series in June 2016, and then I read My Name is Lucy Barton in March 2017, also reviewed on the blog. Now I am catching up again.

Anything is Possible

As with Olive Kitteridge, Anything is Possible is a series of connected short stories. Such a structure makes possible details from a variety of perspectives, and unexpected connections between incidents and characters. In this novel, the connection is the town of Amgash, Illinois. Lucy Barton grew up here, in utter poverty.

Anything is Possible references her previous book, My Name is Lucy Barton, but it also stands alone. Lucy Barton is a character in one story, Sister, and is mentioned by several characters in others. Her brother Pete is featured in two stories.

What emerges from these stories is pain, hidden and overt: pain from extreme poverty in childhood, from experiences in Vietnam, from hiding homosexuality, from maintaining a veneer or trying to escape.

Anything is Possible requires the reader to look into what is not said, to the silences, the gaps. As the New Yorker reviewer Ariel Levy observed, ‘withholding is important to Strout.’ Her characters find it almost impossible to express their emotions.

Here’s a passage from the story Sister, about Lucy Barton’s return to Amgash, to see her brother Pete. Their sister Vicky joins them. Each of the three has prepared their appearance, and each of the three feel that they got it wrong. I notice that the concrete details – the couch, the attempt to cross her legs, the lipstick, the lack of lipstick – show the reader the awkwardness of this reunion, within each character but also between the three of them. Just before this point Pete has noticed that Vicky has become fat (‘He had known this without knowing it’ 160). We are looking through his eyes.

Vicky dropped her pocketbook onto the floor and then sat down on the couch as far away from Lucy as she could. But Vicky was big so she couldn’t get that far away, the couch was not very large. Vicky sat, her almost-all-white hair cut short, with a fringe around it, as though it had been cut with a bowl on her head; she tried to hoist a knee up over the other, but she was too big, and so she sat on the end of the couch, and to Pete she looked like someone in a wheelchair he had seen in Carlisle when he went to get his hair cut, an older woman, huge, who was sitting in a motorized wheelchair that she drove around.

But then he saw: Vicky had on lipstick.

Across her mouth, curving on her upper lip and across her plump bottom lip, was an orangey–red coating of lipstick. Pete could not remember seeing Vicky wear any lipstick before. When Pete looked at Lucy, he saw that she had no lipstick on and he felt a tiny shudder go through him, as though his soul had toothache. (161-2)

Each of the stories reveals the conflicts between people and within people, and does it through their dialogue, the details of their actions or their observations and through strong imagery, like the soul with toothache. Another reviewer, Elizabeth Day in the Guardian, referred to Elizabeth Strout’s skill at understatement and how well she shows the reader the conflict between ‘private desire and public obligation’.

This is the lot of small towns. There is deep loneliness for the characters in the small town, and for some an irresistible urge to leave, as Lucy Barton did, as Elizabeth Strout herself did. She grew up in a small town, Brunswick, Maine, and is now able to return with insight. Lucy Barton told the story of her ache to leave Amgash in My Name is Lucy Barton. Anything is Possible tells the stories of the inhabitants who know there is something beyond the town, something other that Lucy found, but are not able to escape.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout, published by Penguin in 2017. 254 pp


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My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst was written as Europe approached war in 1913-1914 and published as the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) ceased their campaigning. The WSPU were familiarly known as suffragettes, distinguishing them from the less militant suffragists. It is my choice in the Decades Project for 1910-1919 on this blog.

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst wrote her story before she knew the outcome of the struggle to gain votes for women. Raised in a radical family, married to a man who promoted women’s suffrage, like many others she was frustrated by the lack of progress, despite many years of suffragist campaigning. She writes about the reasons for establishing the WSPU in 1906.

This, then, was the situation: the government all-powerful and consistently hostile; the rank and file of legislators impotent; the country apathetic; the women divided in their interests. The Women’s Social and Political Union was established to meet this situation, and to overcome it. (53)

She launched the WSPU with her daughters Sylvia and Christabel. They determined to draw attention to the cause by any means necessary until victory was achieved. In her account she relates how it was necessary to increase the pressure as they were successively knocked back. They began with peaceful demonstrations and other activities to publicise their demand for Votes for Women, such as unfurling banners at election meetings and asking ‘when will there be votes for women?’ and making speeches in as many places as possible. The campaign was aimed at recruitment of activists and at discomforting cabinet members who were resisting their demands. They were frequently thrown out of meetings. Hostility, including violent reactions, was common.

As franchise reform was repeatedly postponed by Liberal governments the WSPU took to opposing Liberal candidates in by-elections and general elections. The government’s response became more determined. Women were arrested, charged and imprisoned. Police were instructed to manhandle the demonstrators as they marched towards Parliament on Black Friday 1910.

Ernestine Mills at the entrance to Parliament November 1910.

The suffragettes aimed to cause as much difficulty as possible for the authorities, so in prison they campaigned for political prisoner status, refused to follow prison regulations, including going on hunger strike. The official response was brutal: force feeding and later the Cat and Mouse Act.

From Mrs Pankhurst’s account one learns the meaning of this brutality for individual women. They continued, devising more and more ingenious ways to thwart the authorities, and adopted tactics of guerrilla groups to keep going as leaders were picked off. Following the failure of the Conciliation Act in 1910 they escalated the campaign to include damage to property. Golf courses were damaged, empty houses set alight, post boxes burned, windows broken.

Mrs Pankhurst is voluble about the sexist double standard in treatment of political activists. Women were harshly treated by the justice system for advocating the same actions as the Irish Nationalists, although the WSPU did not go as far as taking lives. The men were allowed to get away with these crimes. The women were repeatedly arrested and imprisoned, released if on hunger strike, rearrested after a few days of recovery, and the organisation of the WSPU, including its weekly newspaper, was disrupted.

Arrest of Mrs Pankhurst in 1910


One learns of the determination of members of the WSPU, and especially of Mrs Pankhurst’s single mindedness. I think she was an unpleasant woman. Those who were not with her were considered her enemies. Certain that her ends and methods were right, she allowed no democracy within the WSPU.

Her arch nemesis was the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith. She spares none of her vitriol as she charts his political chicanery. Lloyd George and Churchill are not far behind.

Many at the time felt that the WSPU had set back the cause of women’s suffrage. She did not agree. Reflecting on the achievements of their campaign in 1914 she has this to say.

… It must be plain to every disinterested reader that militancy never set the cause of suffrage back, but on the contrary, set it forward at least half a century. When I remember how that same House of Commons, a few years ago, treated the mention of women’s suffrage with scorn and contempt, how they permitted the most insulting things to be said of the women who were begging for their political freedom, and how, with indecent laughter and coarse jokes they allowed suffrage bills to be talked out, I cannot but marvel at the change our militancy so quickly brought about. (326)

And what did happen to Votes for Women?

In February 1918, even before the war had ended the coalition government passed the Representation of the People’s Act which enfranchised more men (on residency qualifications) and some women: those over 30 with property or married to men with property or graduates voting in a university town. 8.4 million women gained the vote, about 43% of the electorate.

War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides. It has made it, I think, impossible that ever again, at all events in the lifetime of the present generation, there should be a revival of the old class feeling which was responsible for so much, and, among other things, for the exclusion for a period, of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise. (George Cave, Con, Home Secretary. From Hansard)

The government that introduced this legislation contained many ministers who had vigorously opposed women’s suffrage before the war. Women had to wait until 1928 to gain the vote on the same terms as men.

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914) Vintage 327pp

See also No Surrender by Constance Maud a novel by a suffragette published in 1911, republished by Persephone Books.

In March the Decades Project choice is A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, published in 1929.

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Photo Credit.  Ernestine Mills, artist and suffragist, is on the ground with gloved hands over her face. The man in top hat intervening in her behalf is Mills’s husband, Dr. Herbert Mills. Beyond the scrum of police, protesters, and spectators lies an entrance to Parliament. Daily Mirror 19 November 1910 via WikiCommons.

Photo credit: Arrest of Mrs P Nationaal Archief on VisualHunt.com / No known copyright restrictions


Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

On Routine and Discipline for Writers

It seems that we hold very firm ideas about writers and writing in our heads. It’s a cultural stereotype. It involves a man (see stats on publishing women writers) who is white and who shuts himself away at regular times in the day to sharpen his pencils and write his 1000 words. Say John Steinbeck (see Journal of a Novel).

And alongside this stereotype people just want to write rules for writers and for writing. There are 43 million rules for writers and 78 million rules for writing thrown up by a Google search. It seems that many people know the right way to write and to be a writer. They can’t all be writers, but they have an influence over what writers believe.

puppet writer

Let’s challenge all of this, and remember there are as many ways of writing as there are writers.

Exclusive assumptions about writers

We wouldn’t need the specialist prizes and lists if it was as easy for women, people of colour and of other minorities to be published as it is for white men.

And if there were a proven way to set about writing, we wouldn’t need those weekly columns about My Writing Day. We wouldn’t be endlessly interested in Roald Dahl’s hut, or JK Rowling at work in a café, or Jane Austen’s tiny writing table with easy to cover writing arrangements. Or a room of our own.

Jane Austen’s writing desk

Discipline and Routine

It is very common among beginner writers on courses to hear about the need for routine and for discipline. Writers, it is assumed, must be disciplined and must write every day, at the same time. In fact those two ideas – routine and discipline – have elided.

So I went looking for advice on routine and discipline among my how-to-write books. Guess what? I didn’t find any.


And I’m pleased because I hate the moral tone of this pseudo-guidance. Finger wagging. You are a weak person if you don’t meet your daily quota. You have failed if you did not write every morning this week. You should always have your day’s writing goal ready. This is the path to success and to moral worth.

Phooey. Here are some helpful ideas for writers from various sources about discipline and routine.

The Commitment to Write

Dorothea Brande wrote Becoming a Writer in the 1930s but it has not dated, except in its references to typewriters. She is very strong on the point that if you have made a commitment to writing, you should write. Even if it is difficult. Others refer to this as turning up at the page much as one turns up at the office. She says this:

Now this is very important, and can hardy be emphasized too strongly: you have decided to write at four o’clock, and at four o’clock write you must! No excuses can be given. … Your agreement is a debt of honor, and must be scrupulously discharged; you have given yourself your word and there is no retracting it. (77)

I admit this has moral overtones, mostly about what is due to yourself as a writer. Dorothea Brande recognised that it sometimes doesn’t feel like a good time to write, but her prescription is to write anyway:

However halting or perfunctory the writing is, write. (77)

Discipline can be a good thing

Judy Reeves in Writing Alone, Writing Together reminds us that discipline has good aspects. The word comes from the Latin for learning and teaching and is reflected in disciple – a follower. She also points out that we need some discipline as writers in order to achieve our goals, such as the completion of a 300-page novel. (She is an American.)

Her advice is similar.

Just keep working. (10)

She admits that we may need to borrow discipline from time to time (eg commit to a group or to a fellow writer) but only so far as to create the space so that ‘the wild, free mind is set loose to roam’.

Too much discipline/routine may impede creativity

We adopt routines and develop habits precisely so we don’t have to think about these actions: cleaning teeth, washing up, putting one’s keys in the same spot and so on. But writers need to think about what they are doing. We don’t want to go on writing in the same rut because if we do we will continue to produce what we have always written.

And it may not be enough to vary writing practices, such as where and when you write, the font you use, using a pen or a keyboard, and other basic variations. More radical suggestions include taking classes, going to new places and meeting different people, changing the approach to or order of writing (eg not writing a story from start to finish).

In the Writing Group

When we discussed in our group how hard some writers were finding it to get started, other members of the group pitched in by suggesting that it’s passion, not discipline, that fuels writing. Write because you want to.

And we were reminded again of the importance of turning up to the page, of just writing.

I wrote about the un-necessity for rule for writers on this blog about a year ago: Writers, why don’t you tear up those rules?

I think we can develop our own image of the self as writer and it can be as idiosyncratic as suits us. The same goes for how we set about writing, our ’routines’. I’m all for indiscipline myself!

And, thanks for asking, the novel is coming along quite well.


Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck. Published in 1969 by Penguin Classics.

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. Published in 1934. I used the Putnam edition from 1980.

Writing Alone, Writing Together by Judy Reeves. Published by the New World Library in 2002.

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Photo credits:

Puppet writer: cuellar on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC

Admonition: Jerry Bowley on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

clock: Photo on <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re/261774″>VisualHunt</a>

Schedule: illustir on Visual Hunt / CC BY

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How it all began by Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger is a brilliant novel that takes a long life and shows the reader how it is seen as it closes. Claudia Hampton was 76 years old and had lived a distinguished and active life. She is dismissed by medical staff and a doctor who ‘glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone’. Moon Tiger was published in 1987.

Nearly a quarter of a century later Penelope Lively gives us another older woman. Charlotte in How it all began is the 31st in the older women in fiction series on Bookword. You can find others through the various links on the blog. Thanks to Susan Kavanagh for recommending this in November last year in a comment left on the Older Women in Fiction page.

The story of How it all began

Charlotte (77) is mugged, and her hip is broken. She goes to stay with her daughter Rose while she mends. This sets in motion several other stories of other people, most of whom live in London. Rose meets Anton, an eastern European immigrant, and falls in love, when he comes to learn to read English with Charlotte. Marion has to step in for Rose taking her esteemed uncle to Manchester to give a lecture. Henry is not up to it and he must seek other ways of feeding his ego. Marion texts her lover to let him know she cannot meet him as arranged and the text is discovered by his wife, who threatens to divorce him. And so on.

The two older characters, Charlotte and Henry, have different views of their lives. Henry, perhaps fuelled by gender, feels entitled to respect and attention in his old age. However he is no longer able to summon up the learning of the past, or to make any impression upon people. He tries hinting at the discovery of a hidden scandal to impress the academic world, and tries his hand at television presentation. Both endeavours fail. He needs to face the fact that the world has moved on without him.

Charlotte, on the other hand, is comfortable with her position, except for her physical difficulties resulting from the mugging. She has had and still has a good full life and feels that her achievements feed into her current occupations. She eventually returns home, a little less steady than previously, but more comfortable in the world than Henry.

Charlotte is home. Grateful to Rose and Gerry; deeply grateful to be once more her own woman. She is mobile, if precarious, and there is Elena from the Czech Republic who comes in daily to minister, to shop, to do the household chores.

Home, alone, she picks up the threads. Pain is contained, corralled, though breaking out from time to time. Friends and neighbours visit – she is not really alone – the world is all around. She lives in an insistent present. But her thoughts are often of the past. That evanescent, pervasive, slippery internal landscape known to no one else, that vast accretion of data on which you depend – without it you would not be yourself. Impossible to share, and no one else could view it anyway. The past is our ultimate privacy; we pile it up, year by year, decade by decade. It stows itself away, with its perverse random recall system. We remember in shreds, the tattered faulty contents of the mind. Life has added up to this: seventy-seven moth-eaten years. (243)

It is common to believe that older people live their lives anticipating death, or lost in memories of the past. But I think Penelope Lively has it about right. Both Charlotte and Claudia are still active people in old age.

Other themes in How it all Began

The novel is not primarily a contrast between the two old people. Rather it is a meditation on causality, chaos theory and how people build lives and take or do not take account of others. Henry and Jeremy (something of an exploiter of women) are both excessively selfish and self absorbed. Anton is somewhat romantic and honourable. The importance of story for understanding lives is well illustrated in this novel.

Penelope Lively’s prose is knowing, somewhat scathing about some language use, but very perceptive about London life.

You can find the post on Moon Tiger here. It was the third in the older women in fiction series. Moon Tiger won the 1987 Booker Prize.

How it all began by Penelope Lively, published by Penguin Books in 2011. 248pp

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika (2016 Cassava Press) will be my choice for April in the older women in fiction series. It features a Nigerian woman of 75 in San Francisco.

Recent posts in the older women in fiction series:

Velma Wallis Two Old Women

Tillie Olsen Tell me a Riddle

Kent Haruf Our Souls at Night

Elizabeth Von Arnim The Enchanted April

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

So how would you respond to being told to remember that you must die? With anger, acceptance, agreement, curiosity about the speaker, avoidance, denial? The characters in Memento Mori by Muriel Spark react in ways that illuminate their lives and characters. They each receive a phone call. A voice merely says

Remember you must die.

With her sharp wit, sparkling style and genial good humour Muriel Spark leads us through the final months of her many characters, drawing less attention to the mystery of who makes the calls and becoming more concerned with their reactions to the calls.

This is my first contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali. I look forward to reading more of Muriel Spark’s work in this anniversary year of her birth.

The story of Memento Mori

This novel is short, bizarre, almost macabre. Published in 1959 and set in the ‘50s in and around London, the story concerns a connected group of older people. Dame Lettie Colston (a philanthropist who behaves with no charity) has received phone calls commanding her – ‘Remember you must die’. Lettie does not wish to remember, and has reported the calls to the police. Her brother, Godfrey, says the caller must be a maniac. He is fairly detached about it until he receives his own call. His wife Charmian, a novelist, accepts the reminder. Other characters also receive the call: Alec Warner, who is researching gerontology, taking copious notes about the effects of aging on people, including himself; the poet, Percy Mannering, who can do nothing without being loud and shouty (including spending a windfall on an excessively long telegram about another poet).

In this novel the characters are living in their 70+ years as they did when they were younger – using and deceiving other people, being cruel, blaming, lying to and exploiting each other. They pursue vendettas and inheritances, try to get even, settle old scores, behave as badly as ever.

Miss Taylor, once Charmian Colston’s maid, now a resident of a hospital ward for old women (referred to as Grannies), has a theory about the calls. It will do.

‘In my belief,’ she said, ‘the author of the anonymous telephone calls is Death himself, as you might say. I don’t see, Dame Lettie, what you can do about it. If you don’t remember death, Death reminds you to do so. And if you can’t cope with the facts the next best thing is to go away for a holiday.’ (179)

Those that live as though they will never die are the most troubled by the phone calls. Every character is at the mercy of the physical manifesdtations of aging. Guy Leet, writing his memoirs, for example, is finding it hard going.

The laboriousness of the task resided in the physical, not the mental effort. His fingers worked slowly, clutched round the large barrel of his fountain pen … (185)

This is not a pleasant group of people. Miss Pettigrew is an evil, blackmailer and yet she achieves her goal of inheriting money through foul means. She has a stroke so is not able to enjoy it for long. In the end they all die, as we all do. We are reminded of this in the final pages, which list the fate of them all.

Muriel Spark

This was Muriel Spark’s third novel of the 22 she wrote. Her novels are very readable, mostly fairly short and written in a sharp style, but with depth. The focus of this novel could not be clearer, yet it is not preachy. We must acknowledge that we will die, not live as we did in our youth, when we could afford to image an endless future. Or go on holiday.

In a recent essay on her work in the Guardian Review Ali Smith quotes Muriel Spark and explains her wide reach and appeal.

Above all: “It is my first aim always to give pleasure.” This is how she described her raison d’etre as a writer, and to me she is one of the 20th-century writers most vitally, joyfully, seriously philosophically, aesthetically and politically engaged with the living materials of history, and with her own time, in a way that gives back to our time, and that will always give to readers no matter what time they’re embroiled in, whenever they read her.

Ali Smith also quotes her poem Author’s Ghosts, in which the ghosts creep back to update their texts. This is to notice that some books remain relevant. And Muriel Spark’s books have something important to say in our time, even if written more than 50 years ago, as Memento Mori. While we may live longer, on the whole, we see less of death in everyday life and we should all remember we will die.

I recently was given a copy of Jacob’s Room is full of Books by Susan Hill. She too admired Muriel Spark and makes several references to her style. Here’s an example of her wit, observation and lightness of touch from this novel. She is reporting the conversation of the Grannies in Miss Taylor’s ward and inserts this little grenade.

Mrs Reewes-Duncan, who claimed to have lived in a bungalow in former days, addressed Miss Valvona. (36)

I notice that both Ali Smith and Susan Hill are rereaders and this was my second reading of Memento Mori. I have mostly avoided rereading on the grounds that there is so much new to fill my reading hours, and I didn’t want to miss it. But now I am thinking that I don’t want to miss the pleasures that come with rereading. Expect more.


For March/April in this readalong I can choose between The Girls of Slender Means and The Mandelbaum Gate. I have copies of both. One would be a reread the other a first look. Now which to choose?

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark first published in 1959. I reread the Virago version. 226pp

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Photo Credit: Muriel Spark: thomas ford memorial library on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA



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