Monthly Archives: February 2017

What is Fiction for?

As I continue to worry about the world in which we live, I have been asking the question more and more frequently, what is fiction for? What can fiction do to enhance the chances of improving how we live? In the last couple of months I have written about the need to counter some expressions of xenophobia, narrowness, hatred and racism. Here is something to which fiction can contribute.

Lady with book by Vanessa Bell

I do not want to detract from the purpose of escapism and entertainment for which fiction is well suited and does a grand job. However, when I read fiction I usually want more than this. Escapism, entertainment and a good story are not enough in my reading. I’m with Susan Sontag who said that writers have moral purpose.

So what is fiction for beyond escapism and entertainment?

I go back to some writers to find what they think they are doing, what is their moral purpose. There seem to be at least three related functions:

  1. Experiencing new territories
  2. Building hope
  3. Building empathy

Here is Margaret Drabble in the Paris Review in 1978 in reply to the question, What would you say is the function of the novel?

I don’t think it’s to teach, but I don’t think it’s simply to entertain, either. It’s to explore new territory. To extend one’s knowledge of the world. And to illumine what one sees in it. That’s a fairly moral concept, isn’t it?

And Neil Gaiman, in a lecture for the Reading Agency called Why our Future Depends on Libraries: reading and daydreaming in 2013 also uses a spatial metaphor. Fiction’s first value is to be the gateway to reading for children, he says.

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. … You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

Like Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark, Neil Gaiman believes that fiction has an important role in building hope, by showing readers that the world can be different. He goes on:

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

THE WORLD DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS. THINGS CAN BE DIFFERENT.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontented.

Salley Vickers is a novelist who has also trained as a psychoanalyst. She wrote Miss Garnett’s Angel in 2000. She enlarges on the function of fiction:

Reading is not merely a diversion or distraction from present pain; it is also an enlarging of our universe, our sympathies, wisdom and experience.

President Obama told the NY Times about his reading practices, including reading novels, in January this year.

And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.

Some fiction has political purposes. I think of three books about war that changed my perceptions: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Dispatches by Michael Herr. Empathy can be an important impetus to political action.

In a post about a collection called A Country of Refuge I suggested that writers should be doing the following:

  • Tell the stories
  • Tell the stories of individuals
  • Keeping imagination alive to help people understand the stories
  • Keeping imagination alive to tell stories of different futures

An in a post about How Bookish people can have Hope in Dark Days I wrote this.

In order to keep hope alive we need to tell the stories of action, alternatives, truth when it is obscured. … We also need to tell stories of how it could be. Hope opens us up to the possibilities that we can work towards. Here bookish people, as well as the press, have a very significant role to play. There are both histories and fictions. History reminds us how far we have come and how. Fiction stretches the imagination, the future possibilities for humans.

Fiction, then, is important to keep in mind the possibilities of other ways in which the world can be, to face us with some unpalatable truths and above all to develop empathy, without which we are surely doomed. But we are not doomed! We have fiction and can write more fiction. Read! Write! Eat the fairy fruit!

Any thoughts?

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Refugee Tales edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus

This collection of stories relates naturally to my challenge: they connect writing, and walking and refugees. The framework is adapted from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, with a real walk and real stories told each night. The walk took place in June 2015 and took a route from Dover to Crawley via Canterbury. At any time between 80 and 150 people were on the walk.

The purpose of the Refugee Tales project is to change the language used about refugees,

That by the oldest action

Which is listening to tales

That other people tell

Of others

Told by other

We set out to make a language

That opens politics

Establishes belonging

Where a person dwells. (Prologue pv)

And of course, to change the language is to change the meaning of refugees’ lives.

The collection was produced by the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group with stories and other contributions from writers such as Ali Smith, Chris Cleave, Marina Lewycka, Jade Amoli-Jackson, Patience Agbabi.

Refugee Tales

So we have a prologue and a series of stories, modelled on Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The Migrant’s Tale, The Lorry Driver’s Tale, The Arriver’s Tale, The Detainee’s Tale and so on. So many different stories, underlining the fact that we are all implicated in the experiences of refugees in this country.

The writers are retelling stories, experiences of people who often are unable to retell such stories in public places.

And the tone is welcoming

And the tone is celebratory

And the tone is courteous

And the tone is real

And every step sets out a demand

And every demand is urgent

And what we call for

Is an end

To this inhuman discourse. (x)

Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims. Copper engraving by William Blake, with additions in watercolour by the artist 1810–20. In the collection of the Morgan Library via WkiCommons

I am going to pick out two of the fourteen Tales.

The Lorry Driver’s Tale by Chris Cleave.

This tale made deepest impression on me. Chris Cleave’s capacity to surprise as a story teller is evident in his novels: I was shocked by The Other Hand, and surprised by aspects of the less convincing Gold. This tale begins when a leftie journalist joins the narrator in his cab a hundred kilometres away from Calais. The opening paragraphs set the scene, the cab driver as common man, sporting a UKIP decal on his rig.

We learn about the practicalities of dodging the illegal migrants.

If immigration is a horror film then Calais is the scene where the zombies are massing. (26)

The leftie journalist is doing an article on the burning social issue of immigration, although he is mostly a restaurant reviewer. He serves to show us how ignorant we liberal lefties are, ignorant of what happens in the ports and the areas around them, what it means to try to drive to the UK with no illegal passengers.

All is not quite as it seems, however. Our lorry driver has a lyrical streak.

At the end of the Customs queue I stopped the lorry and it made those hissing sighing noises – as though it was powered by sadness under unbelievable pressure. (32)

The tale manages to tell us a great deal about what it means for some humans to risk everything to stowaway, and what it does to others who are required to stop them. It is a profoundly moral tale.

The Appellant’s Tale

Portrait of Chaucer as a Canterbury pilgrim, Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. The Tale of Melibee. Early 15th Century via WkiCommons

The Appellant’s Tale was told to David Herd near Crawley. It tells of the appalling experiences of a man from Nigeria, who had been living and working legally in the UK for 30 years. But incompetence and lying in the UK Border Agency resulted in the most appalling sequence of events, a nightmare when he was detained as an illegal immigrant. He was only saved from deportation by someone’s accidental failure to dispose of a black plastic sack containing his essential papers.

This Tale is long, and slow, and reflects both what happened to the man and the way in which he speaks. It is narrated in the present tense and the second person. The reader feels appalled that someone can suffer so many awful injustices in this country, that immigration practices do not have the legal safeguards, for example to defend against lies. The UK Border Agency come out badly from this tale. So does detention and deportation.

… the question of indefinite detention, a cornerstone of UK immigration policy, has remained almost entirely absent from the debate. The principal intention of Refugee Tales was to help communicate the scandalous reality of detention and post-detention existence to a wider audience and in the process to demand that such indefinite detention ends. (From the Afterword p143)

The purpose of the collection is to alter the discourse around refugees, to make English ‘sweet again’, as in Chaucer’s time, sweet so that we can listen, write it down, make stories, so that people cannot say, we didn’t know.

My blog/walk challenge has similar purposes, to draw attention to the responses to the immigration crisis, and to tell human stories.

Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus. Published by Comma Press in 2016. 150pp Profits go to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugee Help

My walk and challenge.

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

At the time of writing I have achieved 60% of my target. Please help me reach my full target which is £1800 by making a donation.

February walk

The Good Name Walk, February 2017

February’s walk could be called the ‘good name walk’. It was a beautiful but muddy day in the second half of February, for a circular walk that started at my front door, took in Coombe Fishacres, Tanyard Lane, Trigwell Lane, Ipplepen Road, Aptor Lane, Butterball Copse and Berry Pomeroy Castle. Round here, lane means very muddy track! The walk was about 12.5km (7.5 miles).

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

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

A Country of Refuge Ed by Lucy Popescu, walk number 5 in January 2017.

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

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

… in March

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O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

O Pioneers! is a wholesome version of the American Dream: set in Nebraska, and showing that hard work and order can produce food from the ground and money in your pocket. The distinctive feature of O Pioneers! is that the creator of this wealth is a woman, Alexandra Bergson. She is such a contrast to Lily Bart in The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in the previous decade!

This is my second review in the Decades Project. More details below.

What a difference!

It wasn’t a deliberate choice to consider the contrasts between Lily Bart and The House of Mirth and Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers! but they are telling. The earlier novel was set in New York and Europe, an eastward-looking novel. O Pioneers! takes place in Nebraska, part of the westward settlement of the North American interior. Willa Cather’s family had travelled from Virginia to Nebraska to build their lives there, beginning as farmers.

In O Pioneers! the Bergsons do not have money. They have come from Sweden to Nebraska and the land they cultivate has never been worked before. Alexandra is a capable young woman, and her father recognises her ability to manage the farm before his early death. She continues his work, caring for her three brothers, and developing the farm. After an initial struggle she does very well, through a combinations of research, investment and experimentation. She is able to provide the two oldest boys with their own farms, a university education to the youngest boy and a home and employment to an assortment of other people. She is well regarded in their community.

Unlike Lily, Alexandra hardly considers marriage, and certainly does not see it as a necessity or as her destiny.

She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries. Even as a girl she had looked upon men as work-fellows. She had grown up in serious times. (112)

One of the most poignant scenes involves the two older brothers, Oscar and Lou, who warn Alexandra against marrying Carl, a childhood friend who has returned to stay with her. By this time Alexandra has built up a large and thriving ranch, employing several people. Oscar says, ‘people have begun to talk’. Lou tells her,

‘You ought to think a little about your family. You’re making us all ridiculous.’

‘How am I?’

‘People are beginning to say you want to marry the fellow.’ …

Oscar rose. ‘Yes’, he broke in, ‘everybody’s laughing to see you get took in; at your age, too. Everybody knows he’s nearly five years younger than you, and is after your money. Why, Alexandra, you are forty years old!’ (91-2)

Alexandra has nothing more to do with these brothers after this. It’s refreshing to read a novel from 100 years ago suggesting that a women’s marriage is not the business of the male members of her family. She does eventually marry Carl, on her own terms.

Other features of O Pioneers!

The novel includes a double murder of a pair of lovers. A strange aspect of the plot is that Alexandra visits the murderer in prison, and vows to use her influence to get him pardoned. The introduction to my edition suggests that Alexandra has a ‘rage for order’ and the lovers had disrupted the order of the community. The text suggests an additional reason for her response: she likes to do things, make things better. She loved both the victims, but she cannot do anything for them, but she pities the wronged husband and believes she can do something for him.

The characters in the novel are sharply drawn. Alexandra herself comes across as a vivid and energetic pioneer. She is in sharp contrast to Marie, the Bohemian (that is she came from Bohemia – provenance is important to pioneers) who is attractive, lively and always cheerful. Alexandra’s brothers are cautious, resentful, not models of pioneer spirit.

One character, Ivar, suffers fits of some kind, and keeps himself away from the community, living in an adapted cave, and reading the Bible. He has a particular ability with horses. Ivar comes to live with Alexandra when he gets too old to look after himself, an indication of her generous and tolerant spirit.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather in 1912 via WikiCommons

I have indicated that this novel draws on Willa Cather’s own experience. She described the writing of this, her second novel, in 1931, using a rural analogy.

I began to write a book entirely for myself, a story about some Scandinavians and Bohemians who had been neighbours of ours when I lived on a ranch in Nebraska, when I was eight or nine years old. … Here there was no arranging or ‘inventing’; everything was spontaneous and took its own place, right or wrong. This was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding. (170: from My First Novels)

Born in 1873, Willa Cather adopted her first name from an uncle who died in the Civil War. Her most significant relationships were with women, living with Edith Lewis from 1907 until her death in 1947. She had an active life as a journalist, writing novels, including My Antonia, editing magazines, and traveling in Europe, Canada and the US. Her talents were acknowledged in her lifetime. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923, for example.

O Pioneers! By Willa Cather. First published in 1913. Edition used in this review is by Oxford World Classics. 179 pp

The Decade Project

My library encourages reading with a Reading Passport. It is stamped each time you complete a book from a different decade. I like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I will read one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1910s in February and so on and to review them here.

Previous posts in the Project

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905.

The next decade: 1920s

I plan to read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie for March’s choice. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades.

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Bookword in Iceland

Reading and travelling are both experiences of visiting new worlds. I like combining them and set about finding bookish connections when I’m on the move. I went to Iceland in February. Not my idea, but my brother is celebrating what people call a ‘big birthday’ and I said I would go with him. He hoped to see the Northern Lights. I’m up for such things, especially when I get to visit a new place. Here are some bookish reflections on my brief time in Iceland.

Strangers in Iceland

In 2009 Sarah Moss went to live in Iceland with her partner and children. She had a contract for a year with the University of Reykjavik. 2009 was the year following Kreppa, the Icelandic term for the financial crash. Kreppa ended the years of silly and false money-making in Iceland. People were suffering.

Sarah Moss is a novelist, author of Night Waking (2011) and The Tidal Zone (2016), both excellent novels published by Granta. The book she wrote about her time in Iceland is categorized as ‘travel’. It is not like any travel book I have read. It is more of a what-I-noticed-when-we-lived-in-Iceland-for-a-year kind of book. It is called Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland. I recommend it even if you are not planning a visit.

From Names for the Sea I got the impression that Icelandic people may look and behave like other Western people, but actually they are very different. Icelandic people have sense of themselves as distinct, and what it means to be Icelandic, and a pride in their country and culture. They like the perception that theirs is the safest country in the world (1.1 murders a year are committed on average. Sadly, the week before we visited, Birna, a young girl was murdered. There were searches and a vigil and a man from Greenland has been arrested.)

Our sense of Iceland, as tourists, was that we should not be stressed. They had everything covered. Coaches and minibuses crisscrossed Reykjavik, fetching tourists from hotels and taking them on tours, information always provided about the arrangements. Even when our minibus broke down on the way back to the airport, a substitute was quickly fetched, and we proceeded with very little problem, delay or stress.

During her residence Sarah Moss found food banks, half finished blocks of flats and a poor exchange rate. We did not see the first two, but it was not cheap if you kept calculating the cost of things in £££s.

‘Icelanders knit everywhere,’ said Sarah Moss (281). The only person I saw knitting was a woman in the wool shop I visited, who demonstrated the way in which they hold their needles and wool. Icelandic sweaters and other necessary warm garments are widely available. I bought some yarn – how could I not?

I also learned from Sarah Moss that Icelanders take a coat with them all year round. In February this was not really in doubt. But in Reykjavik, we had rain and wind and the worst combination of these I have experienced this winter. But the temperature during the day never dropped below freezing. Out of the city it was another story.

Independent People

And now I am wading through Halldor Laxness’s novel Independent People. It’s a long story (more than 500 pages), an epic, about Bjartur a farmer in the desolate countryside, who is determined to become independent, who sees independence as the ultimate goal of all his labours. And labour he does, against the elements, bad fortune, hapless neighbours, the death of his first wife and a determined child. And Bjartur pays the price for his stubbornness.

Set in the early twentieth century, but describing life as it had been lived for many centuries, Laxness spares no detail of the crofters’ lives. Meetings of the men, coffee, rounding up sheep, falling into the Glacier River, the governance, relationships with neighbours … it’s all here. Especially the snow and the coffee.

Pingvellar National Park

What, I wondered, is the value of independence in an environment where cooperation and collaboration are clearly more likely to achieve desired outcomes?

Halldor Laxness, 1906 – 1998, published his novel in 1934-5. He produced other novels and translations, and wrote for the theatre. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.

Halldor Laxness 1955

Other bookish things

I need to reconnect with the Icelandic Sagas. The shops offered a hefty and attractive Penguin edition, but it seemed crazy to add such an object to our suitcase and to pay the Icelandic price. Iceland was only settled from 870. People had lived there before, but not successfully. The inhospitable landscape and climate would put off most folks. This is the stuff of good stories.

One of the many, many tours offered to tourists was The Game of Thrones Tour. We swam in the Blue Lagoon instead.

Our hotel had a bookshelf for guests. Prominent in the collection was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, one of President Obama’s recommendations, and one of mine.

I’m not a fan of Nordic-noir, or whatever genre in which you would include Icelandic thrillers. There are plenty.

Go to Iceland! It’s another country; they do things differently there.

Book details

Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss (2012) Granta 358pp

Independent People by Halldor Laxness (1934-5). Translated from the Icelandic by James Anderson Thompson and first published in 1946, in translation. Available in the Vintage edition. 544pp

And go to TripFiction’s website to find other location-based fiction.

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Is Age a Barrier to Good Writing?

At a time dominated by the cult of youth, does the age of a writer matter? It always seems that publishers are looking for the next bright young thing. I have seen it suggested that this is to ensure that they will get a return on an author likely to write several books.

Things are changing. We live in an ageing society, in which more people are living longer. It is likely that there will be more older writers in the future. In our book, The New Age of Ageing, we considered the effects of our ageing population, not just on the individual, but also on families, our communities, policy. In this post I explore on the effects on publishing.

Ageism in society

Writing about age means identifying and confronting assumptions about age. There are plenty of discriminatory practices in our society. We can start with how older people are usually seen: conservative; physically weak and declining; not interested in sex and not sexy; defined by death (all those bucket lists).

My posts reviewing fiction about older women has revealed a more nuanced set of characters, with some feisty older women (see Moon Tiger, and The Dark Flood Rises) and some respectful views of older people with Alzheimer’s (Elizabeth is Missing) as well as caricatures of the eccentric and declining.

But what about older writers? We can count on Martin Amis to say what many people think about older writers, quoted by Michele Hanson in the Guardian,

Octogenarian novelists ‘on the whole [are] no bloody good. You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70’.

Let’s look at late starters and writers who write into old age.

Late starters

Late, in the publishing world, means after 40. The most famous late starter was Mary Wesley, whose first book for adults Jumping the Queue was published when she was 70 years old. She went on to publish nine more novels and a memoir.

Dinah Jefferies, author of the best seller The Tea Planter’s Wife, published her first novel was when she was over 60. People had informed her that she wouldn’t find a publisher because of her age. Three of her novels have now been published. She told Saga Magazine in February 2016,

I read time and again that you have to be under 60 to be able to succeed at writing. All it made me think was, “I’ll show you. I’m not having that”. (Saga Magazine February 2016)

Keeping on

The list of writers who kept on writing, or who are still writing, is long and distinguished. Michele Hanson referred to Ursula Le Guin, Fay Weldon and Ruth Rendall. I add Diana Athill, Cynthia Ozick, Mary Weslely, and Elizabeth Jane Howard. And there are more.

I recently reviewed a novel by Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs. The author was 84 when she published this her 17th novel.

Margaret Drabble published The Dark Flood Rises when she was 77. It is her 19th novel.

Penelope Lively wrote Moon Tiger when she was 54. She’s still publishing at the age of 83.

It’s not age, stoopid, it’s sex!

So it is not so much age that is a bar to getting published, especially if you have a distinguished career behind you. Gender is much more of a bar to getting books published, promoted and sold. Year on year the VIDA statistics reveal the failure of literary publications to review books by women, or to employ female reviewers. The Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction was begun to help draw attention to excellent books by women.

Thank you to my co-author Eileen for suggesting the topic of this post some time ago, while we were writing The New Age of Ageing.

Related posts

Women and Fiction, for more on this theme. (September 2015)

Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers? Interview with Anne Goodwin, author of Sugar and Snails. (December 2015)

There are reviews of 25 books in older women in fiction series on this blog.

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Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

Older people, it is assumed, live lives defined by approaching death. And older women are often portrayed as eccentric and difficult. I watched the film of Alan Bennett’s book The Lady in a Van while I was reading Ghost Light. At the opening of the novel Molly Allgood appears to have a lot in common with Miss Shepherd, Maggie Smith’s character in the film.

However, Molly is 67, and very much concerned with the present, with living her life, and with pondering the life she once lived. While being almost penniless, grateful for some charity, she is not eccentric. She still finds occasional work as an actor. She started her career in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and was engaged to marry the playwright John Millington Synge. He died of Hodgkin’s Disease aged 37 in 1909. Molly was 24. She lived on for four decades.

This is the 25th in the series of reviews of older women in fiction. For others you can see the page ‘about the older women in fiction series’.

Molly Allgood

The older Molly in 1952 was 67 and living in London. London is in pretty bad shape, still full of bombsites, poverty and lodging houses. Molly is not in good health either. She has difficulty scraping together the means to live, and in the first scenes she evades a police officer who warns her against an old Irish vagrant who has been begging. She returns some empty bottles for the deposit and begs a loan and is given free food by those who look out for others.

Molly addresses herself in this self-description.

But you’re no beauty yourself any more. Be honest – the years aren’t kind. And you feel you have submerged into fretfulness with age, hear yourself murmuring of your anxieties with the troubled watchfulness of a child in an unfathomable world. And your old woman’s voice – how did that happen? Your wheezing, brittle croakiness, distracted, muted, and you gossiping to the teacups for company. There was a day many years ago in Connemara or Kerry, when you happened upon an old rowboat that had been dumped in a bog. Crossbench crushed and buckled, rotting tiller wrenched askew, it had sunk to its oarlocks in the oozing, black peat. Often, of late, when you become aware of your voice, the image has appeared in your thoughts. (59-60)

I love the Irish rhythms of Joseph O’Connor’s writing, especially when he is writing in Molly’s voice. And I like the way her references are from her past, from her home country, strong despite her travels and residence in America and London.

After her marriage she was known as Maire O’Neill, and she is sometimes referred to in this way in Ghost Light. She bemoans the lack of parts for older women actors.

But for a woman, once she has offended by outliving the age of childbirth, the roles disappear as honeybees in winter. A jealous auld hag. An irrepressible washerwoman. Some bitch to be bested in pantomime. (30)

It sometimes feels that these are the roles assigned to all older women in life, not just actors. I note again the film of The Lady in the Van. And in some ways Molly is pathetic, or at least draws out sympathy, like when she is warned by the policeman, or in the BBC studio when her health takes a turn for the worse. As the novel progresses we learn that she is not a person to whom life has been generous.

Young Molly

John Millington Synge

In the first decade of the 20th century, in Dublin, amid the growing nationalism of the Irish, Molly met John Millington Synge at the Abbey Theatre. Both Molly and her sister Sara were struggling to escape their impoverished Catholic childhoods and to make something of themselves on the stage. Synge was an esteemed Protestant playwright, favoured by Yeats and Lady Gregory.

Molly in 1912

There were so many contrasts between them: religion, age, health, profession, but they fell in love. When she found out about it, his mother objected to their relationship. Much of their courtship was spent walking out at the weekends in places where they were not known. They steal a month away in Wicklow. He becomes notorious as the author of The Playboy of the Western World, which caused riots when it was first staged in 1907.

The story as fiction

Joseph O’Connor makes it clear that this is a work of fiction. For example, there are no surviving letters between the couple to draw on, probably no holiday in Wicklow. But the settings are authentic, and the characters of the novel are quite believable too.

The novel has an interesting structure, one that takes care to indicate that Molly did not end up as this lonely old woman because of her affair with Synge. Nor was the affair with Synge the only thing in her life as she lived for 43 years after his death – there was her acting career, her rivalry with her sister who went to Hollywood, a marriage, a son and a daughter.

Sara Allgood and Kerrigan in Playboy in 1911

The novel moves back and forth between young and old Molly, and is presented in a number of perspectives. At times Molly addresses herself, as in the extracts above. At other times we have a play script, a letter and the tenses are carefully handled, close to Molly in the present tense, using the past tense for more distance.

It is beautifully written, and its structure reflects life experienced not as a linear process, but revisiting episodes time and again.

Joseph O’Connor at Literaturhaus Cologne 2015. Hpschaefer www.reserv-art.de

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor. Published by Vintage, 2010. 246pp

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A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt

Jean Pratt was 15 when she began her diaries.

I have decided to write a journal. I mean to go on writing this for years and years, and it’ll be awfully amusing to read over later. (Saturday 18th April 1925)

She did write it for years and years, sixty-one years, until 1986. And it is awfully amusing to read it later. The version by Simon Garfield is necessarily edited, yet is still over 700 pages. But she lived long. She did not always prosper.

History

Most history, as we know it, was written by men, and about men. When I was at school our teachers tried to break away from the rote learning of dates, events involving famous men. Their approach, to try to understand what had happened, influenced my decision to read history at university. There I came in to contact with the great EP Thomson (Making of the English Working Class) and came to see that what interested me was the ordinary, the everyday.

We shall discover in time that history is made by people. It is not a series of reigns, battles, and party politics, but an unending story of events created by living people moved by emotions, ideals, passions …

We shall learn not that the Duke of Marlborough won the battle of Blenheim in 1704 and so saved Vienna from the Elector of Bavaria and the line of James II from being restored in England, but why this battle was fought. We shall ask questions back and back until we come to the motives that governed the actions of people. We shall find them – the people, crippled with jealousy and greed and fear; we shall ask why and go seeking further. (Monday 28th October 1940)

I am old enough that my childhood is now history, post war history. I am interested enough in history to want to read about those things that affected me, such as the post war years. Here is a great resource.

Jean Pratt

There is nothing especially remarkable about Jean Pratt, except her diaries. She was born in 1910, died in 1986 (aged 76). Her mother died just before the diaries begin, and her father just as the Second World War broke out. She grew up in Wembley, her father was an architect, and she had an older brother who soon went off to work abroad for the Cable and Wireless Company.

She was a woman of her time, ruefully reflecting, from time to time, that she was one of the 3 million ‘surplus women’ of her generation. She never married, although she dearly wished to. The phrase ‘surplus woman’ reflects the view of the time that a woman is only of value when married to a man. Jean argued against this position, but felt it emotionally. She also reflected on her requirement for a companionship in marriage, a man she could respect. She met few men like this.

The question of marriage. I cannot help now and then reflecting that there is much in what N. [a friend] preaches (and Joan, but with less virulence) – that marriage is not necessarily the only fulfilment for a woman. I have always found ordinary day-to-day living with someone else fearfully irksome. I enjoy my solitude and independence and take it now so much for granted that when I get these spams for ‘love’ and marriage I don’t take into account what it would be like to have to adjust myself to someone else day after day, however deeply in love I might be. I am a self centred selfish creature – it is so much easier, so much more comfortable and convenient to live alone.

And yet, and yet … No one has ever wanted (or said so at least) to live with me. That is what at forty makes me feel such a failure, that I have made such a poor show of my personal life. All my lovers slip away, as DB has done, without saying goodbye. Away they go, ghostly, unsatisfying, across the sea, to their death in a car, to study medicine, to Australia, to write plays, and that is the end. (Friday 21st October 1949)

As a young woman she took courses at London University to become and architect and then switched to journalism. She made many friends at this time, friends to whom she remained loyal until death. At the start of the war she had not yet made a career for herself, and rented a cottage in Burnham Beeches in Surrey, where she lived for the rest of her life.

To support herself during the war she took up work in High Duty Alloy Company, as well as volunteering with the Red Cross. After she tried to earn a living through writing, taking in paying guests in her cottage, and finally ran a small local bookshop, specialising in books about cats. Money problems dogged her throughout her life, although she was able to buy Wee Cottage eventually.

Burnham Beeches pond

The times

Jean Pratt lived through the most interesting of times. Society was changing, and she records her own beliefs, her explorations of new ideas, and reflects some of the contradictions and shifting attitudes of the time. Her attitude towards sex and marriage, for example, might have shocked her mother. She flirted with socialism and Fabianism before finding a roost in the Liberal Party. She sought psychoanalysis to help her with her dissatisfactions as early at 1939. She loved to have her fortune told, and believed in faith healing for a while.

The defining events of her lifetime were those of the Second World War. Just about to enter her 30s when it began, England had changed utterly by the time it ended. As early as 1934 she was trying to understand what it would mean. Remember she was an architectural student at the time.

War … war … the muttering goes on on all sides. War in the air. England’s lovely countryside devastated. No escape anywhere.

Yet supposing it happened. Bombs dropping, bombs bursting away the slums of London and Leeds, and the dirt and depression of all our big cities. Life will be lost of course, blood will flow in the streets, beauty will be desecrated. But afterwards – for it couldn’t last long this war in the air – if any of us have survived, if any of us can still pick up the torn threads of our lives and go on, what a magnificent chance for us to begin again. Given men of foresight and wisdom and sensitiveness, we have every opportunity of creating an age more golden than the Elizabethan. (Thursday 26th July 1934)

One of the charms of the diaries is that they lack hindsight. We know what happened, but as the war years dragged on those living through those times could not have known how long it would last, or what the effects would be on their lives.

It’s a long book, but is full of wit, humour, humanity and a questioning stance. Lovely. Just what the historian ordered.

A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt, edited by Simon Garfield and published by Canongate in 2015. 714pp

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