A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson

It’s great to find that a book blog can have influence. Dean Street Press have collaborated with Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow blog to republish lesser known British women novelists and memoirists of the Twentieth Century. Dean Street Press says

The Years 1910 – 1960 were an unprecedented and prolific era for female authors, documenting – eloquently, humorously, poignantly (or frequently all of the above) – the social change, upheaval and evolving gender roles of a volatile era.


I have been sent two of the series to review by the publisher. Here are my thoughts on A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson.

The author

Rachel Ferguson (1892-1957) was a suffragette and after the First World War published 12 novels among other works. Furrowed Middlebrow is republishing three: Evenfield (1942) and A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936) and A Footman for the Peacock (1940). She wrote for Punch magazine.

291-fergusonGiven it is published under the middlebrow banner one should not expect great literary experiences from this novel. One might expect, indeed, that given the time of its publication, this novel would be intended as a diversion from the significant national events. But what you get is not that either. The author reveals the attitudes of the fading landed classes and their circumstances in the 1930s. Barely recovered from the Great War they appear to be sleep walking into the next. Of course, readers today have the benefit of hindsight, not least into the social upheavals accelerated by the conflict. These upheavals included the demise of the large country house such as Delaye, the centre of this story.

The story

At one level, it is a mystery or even a ghost story concerning the footman and the peacock. This aspect of the novel rather takes over towards the final pages as the local vicar and the youngest daughter of Delaye inquire into past events. This mystery rather distracts from the reactions to war that has just been declared.

The Roundelay family is a large one and they live in a very large house, Delaye, but they and the house have all seen better times. The house is in a poor state of repair and the gardens neglected. The peacock is the only survivor of a more glamorous past. The family has very little money, no car for example. Yet they maintain the superior attitudes of their class. For example, they have to make complicated arrangements with tradesmen so that orders can be delivered, passing from bike to bus to cart to van. They are energetic in resisting the consequences of the declaration of war. The bother of attending to the blackout of their many windows is superseded by the threat of evacuees billeted upon them.

The characters

For a short book there are rather a lot of characters. The family include Edmund, his wife Evelyn and their three children: Angela who is frequently sent to live with relatives, Margaret down to earth and running the guides and their brother Stacey who studies land maintenance. In addition three of Edmund’s five sisters and a cousin are also resident. In such a household the servants are worked hard since members of the family cannot even make themselves a cup of tea: cook, housemaid and the dependable Musgrave the butler. The ancient family nurse no longer has all her marbles and still occupies an uneasy place between family and servants.

The characters provide plenty of entertainment. Nursie throws her dinner tray out of the window, angry that she has not been served enough meat. She unwittingly protects the family from the billeting officer. Two of the sisters do not talk to each other. They enact a pantomime of ignoring each other every evening as they descend to dinner.

The self-absorption of the Roundelay family, their efforts to maintain their past social position and their ignoble response to the worsening situation in Europe and to the outbreak of war are robustly held up to criticism here.

One can’t help wondering how typical their reactions were, however. Few people would have welcomed evacuees, despite the fears of bombardment. People do leave necessary arrangements to the last minute, causing shortages of blackout material, and this seems to be human nature. People are unrealistic and draw on their experience, I this case of the previous hostilities, when the Home Front was spared the horror of the trenches.

The dreadful fate of the running footman, (a servant who ran in front of the coach to clear its way of obstacles and people) sits awkwardly beside all this realism. He died in 1792 and is reincarnated in the peacock. A rather arcane and sinister running song has been learned by Evelyn, the lady of Delaye, who appears not to notice that the quarry is not animal, but human.

Male Peacock by Alex Pronove (alexcooper1) via Wikicommons

Male Peacock by Alex Pronove (alexcooper1) via Wikicommons

The character of the bird is rather unpleasant and malign. He has a dreadful shriek. He is not afraid to peck and wound people who do things he doesn’t like. And Angela observes him in the moonlight, perhaps in communication with the enemy.

Round the corner from the shrubbery the peacock swept, taking the stage as she watched: Slowly, deliberately – or were peacocks always leisured in the process? – he displayed himself and paraded the lawn, sometimes pausing to look at up at the sky.

Waiting? Listening? The exact word elided her until it came with an impact of incredulity and a dismay that was not lessened by her own self-ridicule.

Guiding. No. Signalling. (139)

The peacock’s only friend is the servant girl, one of a long line from the same village family.

Her writing

I experienced Rachel Ferguson’s writing much as I might have been struck by a 6th former, bright, clever, sparkling wit, but not yet polished. This novel has so many irrelevant byways that I was irritated at times because they blunted the criticism of the unpatriotic attitudes. We get the BBC, the tabloid press, a mysterious village called Rohan, the history of the Roudelay family, people’s reactions to the last war. It’s all very merry, but also tiresome.

Yet there is charm and the novel captures that time when uncertainty descended upon the rural population. War was an unknown quantity and social mores could be expected to change, but no one knew in what way.

291-brontesDespite my reservations about this novel it’s a grand project to reissue women’s writing from the past. We note that both Persephone Books and Virago Modern Classics have republished Rachel Ferguson’s novels.


A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson; first published in 1940 and reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow Books in 2016. 206pp

Related Posts

Furrowed Middlebrow is the blog of Scott in California, who reviewed this book back in September 2013, when the new imprint was just a distant ambition. Here is that review.

Alas Poor Lady has been reissued by Persephone Press, and is described on their website here.

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Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes

At its best fiction takes us to places we might never go, introduces us to people we may never meet, and to situations we would avoid in the normal course of our lives. I have never been to The Jungle, the refugee camp in Calais, but through the medium of these eight short stories I have a better understanding of the place and its effects.


The writers were commissioned to give voice to the refugees through these stories, having listened to people who associated with The Jungle.

I commissioned Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes to go to the Calais refugee camps to distil stories into a work of fiction about escape, hope and aspiration. On another level, however, these stories also take seriously the fears of people who want to close their borders. It’s that dialogue that isn’t happening in real life. A work of art can bridge that gap. Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press.

This is the second post in my challenge series, to raise money for Freedom from Torture.

Everyone has a story

The stories are told from different points of view, and mostly in present tense. Some narrators are refugees, others include a wannabe smuggler, a volunteer, a foster parent in the Calais area, an asylum seeker in Bradford learning English from a volunteer teacher.

Everyone is touched, and for most people the experiences are not enriching. Refugees trying to get across the Channel to the UK respond to the impossible circumstances with skills they have learned along the way: lying, dissembling, stealing, exploiting. The circumstances can bring out generosity, support, connectedness, even shared humour but everyone involved wants something from the Jungle.

Calais overview via WikiCommons January 2016 by Malachy Browne

Calais overview via WikiCommons January 2016 by Malachy Browne

There are the young men, looking for a truck they can climb into; the police whose job it is to prevent them; the smugglers who earn money by facilitating transport; the volunteers who get to feel good; the young women who desperately need money and respond in the way women have throughout the ages; the groups who support each other for a while, but get splintered when one of them gives up or achieves a crossing; there are the truck drivers, the volunteers

From Counting Down, the opening story:

GPS tells me it’s eleven minutes. I don’t think that’s right. It’s too short. How can you cross a border, go from one country to another, and be there in eleven minutes? It took us two weeks to get here.

The others laugh because I say I want them to call me Obama. We are sitting down by a tree to plan the eleven minutes.

‘Why not Clinton?’ Calculate says. ‘At least it would sound like you got some action.’

I don’t know what he means; I know some boys who are called Clinton, back at home, in Sudan. It’s nothing special. But Calculate is old. Normally I wait for him to speak. (9)

Jungle Books via WikiCommons January 2016 by Katja Ulbert

Jungle Books via WikiCommons January 2016 by Katja Ulbert

From Oranges in the River:

This shabby truck will be stopped for sure. Jan has been on several like it. They’re easy to open and easy to hide in, so the police and the border guards always stop them. But Jan must take every opportunity. His parents sold their property for him to get this far, their insurance for old age is gone, so he can’t flag, he can’t fear, he can’t fail – he must push on. Plus, of course, he must stay on the safe side of the smuggler who drove him here and who wouldn’t take kindly to his refusing. And after all, he reminds himself, Walat made it. (135)

Breach reminds us that each migrant has their own story, and that many others are invested in her/his passage across Europe; that many countries are implicated; that the journey before crossing to the UK is fraught with difficulties, danger and is expensive. Life after arrival is frequently very difficult as well.

The bigger picture

The stories cumulatively ask questions about the effects of migration, which are broadly raw and undesirable. And we come to see that those who make the decisions and take the actions that result in the collection of migrants in a place like The Jungle, are far, far away from the consequences of their decisions.

Calais demolitions and police via WikiCommons March 2016 Amirah Breen

Calais demolitions and police via WikiCommons March 2016 Amirah Breen

These stories are imaginatively written, and do not duck the issues, nor romanticise or demonise. We are shown what people do when they are forced into seeking refuge. We see the way lives, relationships, everything is interrupted while basic needs such as shelter, food and clothing occupy so much time. The lives of the migrants are focussed on the next stage of their journey: Jan, the character who hides in the truck in Oranges in the River quoted above says,

All these nights waiting for trucks or waiting in trucks or running away from trucks. (138)

And even when he has arrived in the UK, in Bolton, Algahli reflects:

Here they are nameless; it doesn’t matter what they call themselves, they disappear and dissolve. Here it is muteness. It doesn’t have a name. (143)

Never Really home, he texts his friend still in Calais.

And those that would rather the refugees went away, where are they?

Complexity has crept up on us. And answers are not being proposed. The human suffering continues, Even if President Hollande succeeds in his proposal to close the Jungle and disperse the residents, people will still want to get to the UK, the people who have got this far will still be in Europe.

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes. Commissioned and published by Peirene in 2016. 155 pp. 50p from each purchase of Breach will go to Counterpoint Arts.

254 FFTlogo

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom From Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the second post in the series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

Please help me reach a third of my target by making a donation.

October walk

The ridge north of Pewsey

The ridge north of Pewsey

The second walk was in the Vale of Pewsey, about 15km (9 miles). I was pleased to walk with my friend Sarah, meeting at the railway station and walking north across the valley to a ridge, along the ridge in a horseshoe and the descending to cross the valley to meet the Kennet and Avon Canal and return to the station. It was a beautiful day and we could see for miles.

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page. Please be generous.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Souvenirs in May 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

Peirene Press, from whom Beach can be ordered.

The third post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in mid-November


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The Squire by Enid Bagnold (a second visit)

The Squire deserves to be widely read, for although dated in its setting, the theme of the competent woman is relevant still. The main character is about to become a mother for the fifth time at the start of the novel, but maternity is set in the context of other responsibilities. Although sensually involved in her confinement motherhood is not her destiny.

A version of this post appeared on Bookword in July 2014. The Squire was first published just before the Second World War in 1938, and republished by Virago in 1987 and Persephone Books in 2013.


The Main Character

The Squire is a curious title. It jars our class-consciousness, being more associated with the beery form of address, as in ‘Same again Squire?’ And it jars with the feminist consciousness of language, including titles. In Enid Bagnold’s novel the Squire is the main character, and a woman who is managing a large household, the manor house set in a rural village beside the sea.

She who had once been thirsty and gay, square-shouldered, fair and military, strutting about life for spoil, was thickened now, vigorous, leonine, occupied with her house, her nursery, her servants, her knot of human lives, antagonistic or loving. Twelve years married to a Bombay merchant and nearly five times a mother, she was well accustomed to her husband’s long absences, and to her own supreme command. (11)

She has seven staff in the house, two in the kitchen, four children and the birth of her fifth child is imminent. The story unfolds gently. We observe the Squire as she passes through the day’s precedings; during and following her confinement, dealing with domestic problems, finding a cook, managing the lazy butler, spending time with her four children, and conversing with her friend Caroline. The main event is the arrival of the Midwife, a woman of strong opinions. The novel ends with the baby safely born, the Squire taking up the running of the household again after her confinement, the departure of the Midwife and the imminent return of the Squire’s husband.

A plot of contrasts

There is little plot. Events happen: the Squire has to deal with the departure of the cook, an intrusive window cleaner, her butler’s holiday and drunken replacement, her children and a weekly letter to her absent husband on an extended business trip to Bombay. The Squire manages all with serenity.

Caroline, her friend from her more socialite past, is still interested in sex-love. She cannot believe that the Squire does not miss the wilder life of her younger days and the capricious attentions of men but is content with her situation. The contrast between these two is one of the strongest of the novel.

The principles of the midwife are a contrast to ideas current in the late 1930s. The Midwife and the Squire are in tune about how birth should be organised. The midwife would like to ‘palisade’ mothers, creating a secluded and calm environment, and a place for a newborn to emerge and form their character in the first days of life. Eventually mother and newborn son will be integrated into the teeming household.

110 Squire cover

A New Woman writes

Enid Bagnold was ‘an authentic New Woman of dash and speed,’ according to Margaret Drabble. In The Squire she presents maternity as a great satisfaction in her life, but challenges the idea that marriage and motherhood are a woman’s destiny, the high point of her life, and towards which her youthful efforts should be expended. Much of the Squire’s ruminations are to do with the future, when the children no longer need her, and indeed what happens to them after her death.

Such explicitness about childbirth and maternity was rare and waiting to be challenged as this book does. According to Anna Sebba, in the introduction to the Persephone edition, Enid Bagnold once said that

If a man had a child and he was also a writer we should have heard a lot about it. (xv)


The writing is ‘intense and passionate’ with ‘sensuous descriptions’ (Margaret Drabble again). A particular charm of this book is the portraits of the children, two in particular. First, little oddball Boniface. He is not the normal rumbustious male child, and his quirky take on the world and delicate relationship with the Squire are delightful. Lucy is the only daughter, and she is both insightful and caring of others, especially of Boniface. The intimacy of Lucy and her mother is delicately drawn.

… Lucy came in and hung over the writing table.

‘What are you doing?’ said the Squire dipping her pen in the ink.


‘Why are you here?’

‘To talk to you.’

‘What about?’


They smiled at each other. (168)

There is much to enjoy in this lovely and pioneering book. We are looking inside a closed and beautiful world. It is not sentimental, but robustly romantic (Anna Sebba).

The Squire by Enid Bagnold, published by Persephone in 2013, with an introduction by Anna Sebba. The glorious endpapers for The Squire are Magnolia, a design for cotton and rayon from 1936.

110 endpaper

Related links

Persephone Books suggests it is the only novel ever written about having a baby. Is this true? Do you know of other books? Is this the focus of this book? What do you think?

Margaret Drabble’s assessment can be found here, written in 2008 on the occasion of the revival of her play The Chalk Garden at the Donmar Warehouse.

The Squire was reviewed enthusiastically by Heavenali in April. You can link to her review here.

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A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman

With such a name, how could you go wrong? Marvellous Ways is an 89-year old woman, living in a caravan in an isolated creek in Cornwall in 1947. The author, Sarah Winman, did very well with When God was a Rabbit, so we are in the region of popular fiction. How do older women appear in popular fiction? The clue is in the title!

This is the 23rd post in the series looking at older women in fiction on this blog. You can find previous posts by clicking on the category: older women in fiction.

288-yr-of-mw-coverThe Story

This is the story of Francis Drake, a soldier deeply damaged by his experiences of the Second World War. That he did not prevent a rape by fellow soldiers is haunting him. He returns to London in 1947 to search for his childhood friend, Missy. He finds her and falls in love and thinks his future can be with her. But she disappears into the River Thames before his eyes.

Drake has a letter for a doctor from his son, who did not survive the war. In search of the doctor, he comes to the creek in Cornwall where Marvellous Ways lives. Marvellous has been waiting for him, she tells him. She cherishes him and restores him to health, both physical and mental. Into their lives comes Peace Rundle, who has been taught how to bake bread by Wilfred Gently. She too is restored by the relationships in the creek, and finds contentment and love living nearby. These characters are all oddities, seeking a life out of the mainstream, different, regarded by others as best with a bit of distance.

It turns out … well everyone is connected to everyone else in this story. And they all need to be a and a little more forgiving and a little kinder to themselves and to each other.

Gillian Creek by Jonathan Billinger, March 2007 via WikiCommons

Gillian Creek by Jonathan Billinger, March 2007 via WikiCommons

The Old Woman

Marvellous lives up to her name. She is just what everyone’s granny should be, the ideal older woman: a little eccentric, very wise and all-seeing. And she is patient, waiting on her mooring stone, for what? For a man of course. As she waited for the return of Paper Jack, the love of her life, so she waits for Francis Drake.

Well, this is whimsical, magical, a bit of a fairy story, and Marvellous Ways owes quite a bit to the popular image of the little old, odd, cronky woman. She is, however, independent, experienced, a raconteur, skilled in the arts of healing, and capable of reflection on her past life and her present. She is more like a white witch than a grumpy old sod. Mostly she manages her ageing but as she nears her death she reflects on her life.

And it simply didn’t make sense. Who she was then and who she was now. Just. Didn’t. Make. Sense. (250)

Marvellous is 89, and very wise. She has loved (two men and a woman) and learned the craft of midwifery, and to live alone in her caravan beside the creek. She believes she is the daughter of a mermaid, a black woman brought by her father to Cornwall. She has the gift of foresight, knowing when important people will come, their troubles and how to cure them. It is an unrealistic but strong version of an older woman.

Upper reaches of Gillian Creek by Rod Aliday, July 2008 via WikiCommons

Upper reaches of Gillian Creek by Rod Aliday, July 2008 via WikiCommons

The writing

Rich in imagery, this is a feel-good book to curl up with. It owes something to magical realism. Here are the opening paragraphs of A Year of Marvellous Ways.

So here she was, old now, standing by the roadside waiting.

Ever since she had entered her ninetieth year Marvellous Ways spent a good part of her day waiting, and not for death as you might assume, given her age. She wasn’t sure what she was waiting for because the image was incomplete. It was a sense, that’s all, something that had come to her on the tail feather of a dream – one of Jack Paper’s dreams, God rest his soul – and it had flown over the landscape of sleep just before light and she hadn’t been able to grasp that tail feather and pull it back before it disappeared over the horizon and disintegrated in the heat of a rising sun. But she had known its message: Wait, for it is coming. (3)

There are many stories in this novel. Every character has an interesting name and a back-story and, like a spider graph, they are all somehow linked to Marvellous Ways. It turns out … how many times does the reader find that it turns out?

A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman, published by Tinder Press in 2015. 314pp

Related posts

A review on Girl with her Head in a Book blog has some pertinent observations, including this: ‘the question of how one recovers from past trauma hovers over the novel but never quite takes root’.

A more enthusiastic review comes from Savidge Reads. He enjoyed When God was a Rabbit as well.

A Year of Marvellous Ways was chosen for Richard and Judy’s WH Smith Book Club in 2016.

The previous post in the older women in fiction series was The Door by Magda Szabo, translated by Len Rix.

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26 Steps: Walking and Writing (2)

Writing and walking are closely connected for some writers. I explored some connections in a blogpost in August: Steps to Improve Your Writing. In this post I explore a project in which I participated which explicitly links writing and walking. It was an homage to John Buchan and his novel The 39 steps.


26 Steps in 62 words

In March I agreed to contribute to a project called 26 steps, part of an on-going collective writing programme, hosted on the 26 steps website. Writers undertook a walk, wrote about it, drew a sketch map and added a B&W photo. The walks were linked by the letters of the alphabet: the first walk was from a place beginning with A to another beginning with B, then the 2nd writer walked from a place beginning with B to another starting with C and so on. My route was Stoke Fleming to Torcross: S-T. The distance was about six miles and followed a section of the South West Coastal Path. I usually plan circular walks, so this required organising a taxi from Torcross to Stoke Fleming so that I could rejoin my car at the end of the walk. My plans were not helped by storm damage to the sea wall at Torcross just before the scheduled walk in March, and by several stormy days.

Version 2

Walking and writing are not things you can do simultaneously. But I always carry my notebook. And my camera. And my map. I finally chose a day when the clouds were high, there was a chance of sun and I was a couple of weeks into a fitness programme.

St F to Torcross

Slapton Sands

The route took me along Slapton Sands. It is impossible to live in the South West and not know that something happened at Slapton Sands, an event that was rarely spoken about immediately after it happened, and only exposed by the campaigning a local resident, Ken Small. He finally obtained permission to dig up an M4 Sherman tank that had been buried in the sand and it was placed in Torcross car park in 1984, a memorial to the men who died on Slapton Sands.


The story begins in the 1940s when the US joined the war effort, and plans were made for the invasion of the Normandy coast. Elaborate plans to persuade Hitler and his generals that the invasion would happen nearer the Straits of Dover were successful. There were decoys to distract attention from the huge number of troops and equipment being moved to the South West coast, ready to cross to the beaches of Normandy.

Slapton Sands were selected for rehearsals because its coastal bar resembled ‘Utah’ Beach. The local inhabitants moved out. On Slapton Sands there is a granite stone, put up by the United States Army Authorities. It has a long inscription thanking the people of the villages in the area who moved out of their homes and farms to make way for the troops in order that rehearsals could take place.

Version 2

A tragedy

On 27th April 1944 a rehearsal went very badly wrong, resulting in the deaths of 946 American servicemen by ‘friendly’ fire. Signals had not been coordinated to the same frequency. Some ships were delayed and the information was not received by some participants. Men, large numbers of men were killed by their own allies.

Among the missing were ten BIGOTs, officers who knew the details of the invasion plans. Until all these were accounted for it was impossible to be confident that the plans hadn’t fallen into German hands. Until all ten were accounted for, the Normandy Landings were at risk.


The armed forces do not celebrate their mistakes, and after 1944 other events captured people’s attention, such as the end of the war in Europe and the final stages of the war in Japan. For these reasons, it seems, the whole incident was ‘conveniently forgotten’ in the words of Ken Small.

It is impossible to walk along the Sands without this knowledge, of the war, the preparations, the Normandy Landings and the cover-ups. Not much of it reflects well on humans. The story is present even while people enjoy the beach, watch the wild fowl on the freshwater lake that lies behind the Sands, fish, bathe and go naked on the naturists’ beach.

I tried to capture all this in my 62-word description of the walk. This is what I wrote:

Stoke Fleming to Torcross

Sea is constant, caressing the sand, careless of leaping dogs, naturists, anglers, the granite monument of gratitude from US forces, walkers, sea wall, and Operation Tiger in 1944, when almost a thousand men were rehearsing and killed by friendly fire, jeopardising the D-Day landings. The Allies went to Normandy and I walk along the sands in sun, liberty and knowledge of this.

Related website

You can find all the contributions – A-Z – to the 26 steps project on the website here together with other projects undertaken by the group.

There have been several fictionalised accounts of the events. Among them are:

The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips by Michael Morpurgo, adapted as the play 946.

The Night of the Fox by Jack Higgins

An episode of Foyle’s War called All Clear (2008) also drew on these events.


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Filed under Books and Walking, Writing, Writing and Walking

International Translation Day 2016

International Translation Day occurs every year on 30th September. It was established to celebrate the work of translators in publishing. In the UK the British Library is hosting a day of seminars on translation-related topics. Wish I could be there.


We need events that focus on books in translation because they do not form a very large part of our reading diet. Not much is published, not much is read. Only 4% of fiction published in the UK is in translation.

In a post in March, on this blog, called Books in Translation I said

Only 11% of my fiction reading was in translation last year. I need to do something.

When I checked the last 50 books read, ten were translations: that’s 20% and an improvement. Here are some recommendations to encourage you to read more in translation.

  1. The Man I became by Peter Verhelst published by Peirene Press

Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer.


A novella, a fable in which the gradual transition from ape to man brings insight into the human situation. Told in the voice of the main character, it explores how humans treat animals and other people whom they consider inferior. And it looks at how humans treat the world as a whole, and especially the belief that we can remake and exploit it and animals.

  1. Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila published by Jacaranda

Translated from the French by Roland Glasser


Winner of the Pen Translates Award from English Pen. Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

Set in the DCR, kind of, the novel follows the fortunes of the writer Lucien who comes to the city to stay with his old friend Requiem and make his life and living as a writer. Requiem and Lucien are unlikely friends, indeed their relationship falls apart. Requiem is a crook and a wheeler-dealer; Lucien remains true to his wife and to his calling until the end. As he struggles to make his name, he meets a publisher, who sets up a disastrous first reading of his work in the bar called Tram 83, or simply Tram. Lucien has better success when the Diva organises a performance.

The society is hugely corrupt and poverty-stricken. The city is in the dying days of a gold rush. Violence, sex and greed are everywhere. Women appear to play very little part in the action in the city, until it is revealed that they have power (The Diva) and money (Lucien’s admirer Christelle) and promote good things.

The story is told with long sentences, much dialogue, repetition and lists. I liked its power to evoke jazz. It’s vivid, full of vitality and has what publishers like to call ‘edge’.

  1. A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa published by Vintage

Translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn.


Shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

As a young girl in Portugal, Ludovica was raped and became reclusive, looked after by her sister. When her sister marries Orlando, Ludo and Odete go to live with him in Angola, but almost immediately the war of liberation breaks out. Orlando and Odete disappear. Ludo barricades herself in their 11th floor flat and does not emerge for 28 years, viewing the changes in Luanda from her balcony. She lives off provisions already in the flat and her own ingenuity. For example, she attracts pigeons with diamonds that Orlando had hidden, but when she finds one with a message she lets it go.

We follow a number of characters whose stories come together with the discovery of Ludo by a young boy, the diamonds and the settlement of old scores. It’s a surreal story.

And more …

286-fathers_daughterHer Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun published by Peirene

Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

I’m reserving my comments for a themed exploration of post-war novels in November.

Vertigo by WG Sebald published by Vintage

Translated from the German by Michael Hulse.

Reviewed on this blog: this is the link

The Vegetarian by Han Kang published by Portobello

Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Reviewed on this blog back in April. Here is the link. This novel went on to win the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum

Translated from the German by Basil Creighton, included in a themed review of novels set in hotels.

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift

Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch, featured on a post in August.

The Door by Magda Szabo

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix, the 22nd novel featured in my Older Women in Fiction series.

English PEN has been promoting translated writing for some time. You can find out what they do for writers in translation at the English Pen website.

Twitter-types will have enjoyed #WITMonth, women in translation month, in August, which revealed lots more books in translation by women.

Over to you

Tell us which s novels in translation would you recommend from your recent reading?

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Lost and Found in Exile

What is the experience of life in exile, as a refugee, as a survivor of torture? Six writers and three musicians took to the stage to tell us at the Roundhouse, in London, for a performance of Lost and Found. Tickets were sold out. When they came to the end of their show applause was prolonged, the audience rose to its feet: we had all been moved by the stories.



The cast, Uganda, Jade, Alex, Prossy, Neda and Faryad, are members of the Write to Life creative writing group at Freedom from Torture. Their stories reflect the deep losses experienced when they were forced to flee to another country. Music is lost: a violin buried stands for the destruction of beauty in Iran; a Ugandan song recovered in and unintentionally sung to the occupants of the British Library Reading Room; the ubiquity of dance music in Cuba; the sadness of Kurdish songs.

I was cut in half in exile, always trying to find my other half.

The search for what is lost may not be successful. Life in a new country may not be good. It takes years to recover from torture and it is more difficult in this disbelieving climate.


Music can express the loss of dignity, self-respect, physical integrity through flight, exile and torture. Waiting for my Number was an amusing song. But it is not a good experience for those who must queue to report to the authorities at Lunar House, Croydon. It is mostly about waiting for their number. A stateless person, seeking asylum, reduced to a number by the system. No one is only a number!


Some things are found, sometimes through the kindness of strangers. With nothing to live for, it seemed, Jade was ready to step in front of a car in Greenwich and end it all. She was saved by a passer-by and made a permanent friend.

After three and a half years of imprisonment in an unknown place, another member of the cast escaped hoping to reach London. She found she was already there.

A family, alive and well, was rediscovered in his Ugandan homeland, his mother able to speak on the phone, everyone changed after 20 years.

The Writers Group, Write to Life, at Freedom From Torture, has a therapeutic purpose. Writers rediscover their voices, their sense of self, their dignity and can tell us, who are more fortunate, about what torture and exile means.

The six writers had told their stories to Christine Bacon who brought these stories together in a script. Music and lyrics were added by Ana Silvera and performed by her and Alice Zawadka and Will Roberts.


My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom From Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and a blogpost. This is the first post in the monthly series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

285-walkSeptember walk had a literary connection. Agatha Christie lived at Greenway, Devon. She too was lost and found at one point in her life. I walked on Thursday 15th September, a circular route, from Broadsands to Greenway on the River Dart, and then back along The John Musgrave Trail and SW Coast Path. 13kms (8 miles).

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page. Please be generous.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Souvenirs and Writing Home April 2013

Dear Jade September 2013

Souvenirs May 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture


The next post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in mid-October


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Festival of Writing

What do you get if you put 400 writers, agents, editors and creative writing teachers together? Lots of talk, lots of notebooks, lots of focused people. This was my experience of the Festival of Writing at York University this September.

What can a festival of writing give to a writer? I don’t mean a literature festival, but a writing festival? The Writers’ Workshop, who organised the Festival of Writing 2016 in York in September say they aimed to do three things given that writing is hard and solitary.

  1. help improve your writing
  2. help you meet the industry
  3. give you an amazing time

I went along mostly to finds ways to improve my writing, but it was also interesting and useful to meet others engaged in the business of book production and of writing fiction.


What did I learn?

I learned a great deal more about the publishing industry, how the fiction landscape is changing as ebooks and self-publishing have grown. It can sometimes feel that the industry is in opposition to the writer, but of course agents and publishers need good writers, and we heard about plenty of good relationship. Most writers, I suspect, still feel we are somehow on the outside, looking for the magic formula that will allow us entry. Or if not some magic, some helpful guidance and tools that give us the chance of entry.

With a strapline from here to publication, the event went some way to demystifying a process which otherwise can seem like the quest of romantic medieval fiction: an epic journey with riddles and tests, ensnarements, false directions and yet no promise of attaining the goal.

Experiment, Learn, Bounce!

Experiment, Learn, Bounce! was CL Taylor’s message to us and it has merit. She described her very successful career as a fiction writer and extracted these points for us.

  • Experiment and be bold within and across different genres.
  • Learn from it all, learn from feedback, critiques, how-to books and from other published books.
  • And don’t give up, bounce back from rejection, you would miss out if you crumpled.

More than once writers were congratulated on completing the first draft of their novel, not many people in the world have done it. Perhaps they people know something that we don’t?

And perhaps we should be adding Celebrate! to CL Taylor’s imperatives. Celebrate every achievement, because writing is so hard.



There were 40 workshops on offer; everything from ‘First 100 Word Challenge’ to ‘How to Attract an Agent’. My own choices reflected my intentions to improve the first draft of my novel. I went to workshops that focused on specific aspects of the craft of fiction. All six workshops were interesting and useful, and I brought away some ideas and notes for action. Some were better learning experiences than others. It seems a misnomer to refer to a one-hour monologue as a workshop, for example.

The Writers’ Workshop is able to call upon some very experienced people in the business of helping people improve their writing. It seemed that most people attending the workshop were stimulated and challenged by their workshop experiences.

My mistake

I made a major mistake by not preparing well enough for this conference – distracted by the publication of The New Age of Ageing and other activities. I missed the information about booking one-to-one sessions and sending in my work-in-progress for feedback from an agent and an editor. Silly me! For many people present this was a really important part of attending. I know this because they were slack-jawed if I admitted that I had missed out.

Some specific things

Did you know that there is a genre called Reading Group Fiction? New to me.

It seems that post-it notes and coloured pens might be the best aid to rewriting for some of us. This does not just apply to the stationery junkies amongst us. As they are small, cheap and moveable, everything a first draft is not, post-its are a good way of visualising aspects of the novel, such as plot threads, and being able to see where rewrites are needed. Thanks Julie Cohen for the workshop on that: we did some post-it activities.

I enjoyed the generosity of the publishing community and the wannabe published writers. People were friendly, exchanged contact details, recommended books, noted successes, and bought each other drinks. Back in my writing attic I am aware of how hard it is for writers in their everyday lives to maintain the sense of community.


But …

Half way through the weekend I lost my confidence and it all became a bit of a nightmare. I was confronted, like the hill walker who reaches the brow of the hill only to find there another one beyond, the further you go the more you can see there is to do. The consequence of knowing more about what needs revision is understanding there is more and more to do than I ever imagined. I am not convinced I can do it. I find that Neil Gaiman has expressed this rather more succinctly: ‘chasing the horizon’.

Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

[From the workshop Writing Tips: Rules are made to be broken by Laura Williams.]

I am hoping that this nightmare of lost confidence will soon pass, and that the practical suggestions together with the understanding I gained about different aspects of the writer’s craft, will help me through.

But here’s another useful piece of advice from Carl Sandburg which can apply to life as well as writing:

Beware of advice – even this.

Related posts and websites

During the weekend I tweeted the connection to a post I wrote in July, the 7th in a series on revising my novel. It was called Revising the novel again (and again). A few people read the post, one saying she was glad to find she was not alone.

Here’s the link to the website of The Writers’ Workshop, organisers of the Festival.

This is the 8th in the series on revising my novel, following an on-line course back in 2015, also run by The Writers’ Workshop. Previous posts were:

My purposes for the on-line course #1 January 2015

Progress On-line course: my learning #2 January 2015

Progress On-line course: post course plans #3 February 2015

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot March 2015

On-Line Writing Course #5 Deadlines August 2015

What I write about when I am not writing fiction April 2016


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Filed under Books, Learning, My novel, Writing

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

You know the most famous line from Virginia Woolf’s essay:

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

I sigh with satisfaction when I open one of my copies of this essay. It was published in 1928, between Orlando and The Waves. In this post I ask what has changed after 88 years.

Virginia Wolf suggested that in 1928 the impediments to women’s fiction were removed, but I detect a slight tongue in 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)

Have the gains in women’s fiction been as expected?

283 Room VBell's cover

This is my fifth contribution to the #Woolfalong hosted by Heavenali on her blog.

A Room of One’s Own.

The essay originated in talks given by Virginia Woolf at Girton College, Cambridge and Newnham College, Oxford in 1928 and she wrote more on the topic of women and fiction in Three Guineas, published in 1938.

In six chapters, just over 100 pages, Virginia Woolf describes what she found when she researched the question of women and fiction, and what was known about women’s lives. She does this through the fictional account by Mary Seton of some days in Oxbridge and London as she prepares for the lectures. She uses the device of a fictional sister for William Shakespeare, Judith, who ends up drowning herself in the Thames for daring to follow in her brother’s path. She builds a picture of the many influences that kept women from writing or publishing. And she considers why those four great novelists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were able to write, noting that three of them used male names: Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte and George Eliot.

The core of her argument is that women needed money and their own room, to provide freedom from want and anxiety, and the necessary privacy. She was also keen to point out that a writer’s ideas and artistry depends upon what has already been written.

283 RooOO cover

It’s better now …

Some things are better now for women in fiction. We no longer think it strange that some women can earn a living, even a fortune, through their skills as writers: JK Rowling, EL James, Suzanne Collins, Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins. Nor are we surprised that women are shortlisted and win some of the most prestigious literary prizes; or hold positions as Professors of Literature or of Creative Writing, or run publishing houses.

People who express sexist opinions can expect to be challenged. It is no longer acceptable to keep women off the lawns, out of libraries, out of colleges or the professions. At least not in the UK.

… but not a lot.

But things have not improved as much as might have been hoped after nearly a century of the vote (1918), and 41 years of the Sex Discrimination Act (1975). And indeed since the publication of many, many volumes of fiction by women since the first novels, such as Evelina by Fanny Burney (1778).

But oh dear, how entrenched is the view that women’s fiction is of less value than male fiction! That’s why we still need Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize. And oh dear, how deeply embedded is the idea that Virginia Woolf expressed in A Room of One’s Own:

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)

And still we do not find it strange that books by women are not published, read or reviewed in the same proportion as men’s books. I need only refer you to the VIDA statistics reporting the disparity in gender of reviewers and authorship of works reviewed. These figures have been compiled for several years, to show how bad the situation is, and how slowly it is improving. The most recent count (2015) can be found here.

VIDA is a non-profit feminist organization committed to creating transparency around the lack of gender parity in the literary landscape and to amplifying historically-marginalized voices, including people of color; writers with disabilities; and queer, trans and gender nonconforming individuals. [from the Vida website]

And …

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf in 1927

The truth of the original idea, that income and privacy are necessary to the creative process is still evident. My previous post was about Jean Rhys, and in it I challenge the romantic idea that poverty and artistic creativity go together. You can link to it here.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, published in 1928, and in the Penguin Modern Classic edition, used in for this post, in 1945. 112 pp

Related posts

My previous contributions to the #Woolfalong include:

To the Lighthouse in January

The Voyage Out in March

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street in May

Orlando in July


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Filed under Books, Essays, Feminism, Virginia Woolf, Writing

The Romantic life of the writer Jean Rhys?

It’s such a romantic story. A novelist forgotten, rediscovered and a career reanimated and crowned with the publication of a masterpiece. Jean Rhys’s story is one of suffering, depression and penury. Proof perhaps that creativity arises from suffering.

Except, Jean Rhys’s story teaches us quite the opposite. Her suffering inhibited her creativity. This is my contribution to #ReadingRhys week from 12th-18th September.

282 #RRhys

Seeking information on ‘the late Jean Rhys’

Born in 1890 on the island of Dominica, Jean Rhys came to Europe at the age of 16, spending time in Paris and London. She led the life of a demi-mondaine, as a rich man’s mistress, a model and volunteering in a soldiers’ canteen during the First World War. After the war Ford Maddox Ford encouraged her writing and even established a temporary maison a trois to supervise.

The young Jean Rhys

The young Jean Rhys

She wrote many short stories and three successful novels before the Second World War.

  • 1927 Left Bank and other stories
  • 1928 Postures/Quartet
  • 1930 After Leaving Mr Mackenzie
  • 1934 Voyage in the Dark
  • 1939 Good Morning, Midnight [the link is to my review]

And then, as far as readers were concerned, she disappeared. I expect most people, if they thought about her at all, assumed she was dead.

What kept her from writing?

Several factors combined to work against her.

War: in England during the war she worried about the lack of news of her former husband and their daughter Maryvonne. They were both safe, but she was not able to receive news of them from Holland. The stories she did write were unsuccessful and not published. She and her second husband could not settle and moved out of London.

282 Rhys at window

Poverty: Jean Rhys seems to have had no money at any time in her life. And when her husband, Leslie, died in the late ‘40s and she married Max Hamar nothing improved. And then it got worse because Max was imprisoned for fraud. Don’t imagine romantic attics, rather see her living on the edge in almost uninhabitable bungalows in Devon.

Ineptness: ‘No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was,’ says Diana Athill in Stet. Jean was quite unable to deal with the practicalities of life. When she arrived from Domenica she had no experience of trains or hot water. Later, in a drunken state she agreed to a contract that gave away far too many rights to any adaptations of her work.

Drink and depression: her inability to cope with practical matters was compounded by her paranoia, depression and tendency to drink. She ate too little and drank too much.

Bad luck seems to follow hopeless people, perhaps explaining the idea that people creating their own luck.


Jean Rhys was finally rediscovered in the ‘50s through an advertisement from the BBC asking for information about ‘the late Jean Rhys’. They planned to broadcast an adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight.

Francis Wyndham was an admirer and an editor with Andre Deutsch and heard about her rediscovery. He helped her get some stories published, and sent her some money. Diana Athill, also an editor for Andre Deutsch, learned that she had nearly completed a new book. That was in 1957.

Jean Rhys (in hat) with Mollie Stoner, 1970s via wikicommons

Jean Rhys (in hat) with Mollie Stoner, 1970s via wikicommons

Wide Sargasso Sea was not completed for another seven years, until 1964. Her editors provided all kinds of help, but this was difficult to do when she always put a brave face on her difficulties. And at the moment when the manuscript was to be handed over to the publisher, with a few lines left to dictate to the typist, Jean Rhys had a heart attack. She had made Diana Athill promise not to publish without this final amendment. For a while her survival was in doubt, and there was a real risk that we might never have been able to read Wide Sargasso Sea. She did not complete the novel for another two years.

The struggles were not over even when she recovered, although alleviated. But she did complete a memoir called Smile Please.

What we learn

This is not a story of a troubled romantic artist, her troubles somehow enriching the creativity. Jean Rhys’s story reveals that talent is easily negated by poverty, drink and depression. There were times when she felt her brain was empty, like an automatic dispenser she had see on a tube station: This machine is EMPTY till further notice.

Creativity requires encouragement, money, good health, freedom from anxiety and time to write a novel.


Two sources were essential for this post:

Jean Rhys (Lives of Modern Women) by Carole Angier, Penguin Books 1985

282 Stet cover
Stet: an editor’s life
by Diana Athill, Granta Books 2000

This post is part of the blog reading week called #ReadingRhys co-hosted on the blogs of Jacquiwine and Solitary Reader

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Filed under Books, Reading, Writing