Category Archives: Reading

Why use real people in fiction?

So why do writers use real people as characters in their novels? Doesn’t the choice of real people as characters limit the writer’s creativity? Perhaps the author wishes to correct a settled view of the character, or offer an alternative interpretation to the established version of events as in Burial Rites (see below). Perhaps the discipline of keeping to what is known about a person, limiting to some extent the creation of the character, allows freedoms elsewhere in the writing? It may be that people’s actions and motivations, being the stuff of fiction, are more vivid when they are drawn from life.

I seem to have read a number of fictions based on historical events or people recently. So here are some thoughts on factual fictions (or is it fictional facts? – no it isn’t!), some reviews and mentions of other novels.

Writing about real people

For the writer it may be that it is useful that the storyline is already established. But there are some challenges. Not least, the outcome may constitute a spoiler. Or not. I was pleased, as a reader, that I knew Agnes’s fate in Burial Rites. Knowing that she was to be executed focused my mind on the changing relationships as her fate approached, which I believe was Hannah Kent’s intention.

A danger lies in the writer’s attachment to all that research. Some writers appear to include everything. Some writers wear their research lightly. Hilary Mantel appears to be in complete command of all her material, even when her interpretation counters some established ideas. I think of the righteousness of Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall, for example. She presents a very different view from what I learned in my A Level classes, or to Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. Research is a very seductive part of writing. Writing on the booksbywomen blog Anna Mazzola reflects on writing her novel The Unseeing and advises:

Work out what to research, and know when to stop.

She spent a year researching London and criminal justice in the 19th century and the murder at the centre of the plot.

In retrospect, I should have mapped out the plot and deduced from that which questions I needed to answer in order to write the book.

Perhaps her most useful advice comes in her recommendation

Recognise that the history is not the story.

The job of the fiction writer is not to be a historian or biographer but to provide ‘a wider sense of what people’s lives might have been like in a particular era: to fear, to love, to escape, to survive’.

So here are some recommendations.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent

This unsettling novel is based on the true story of Agnes, executed for her part in two murders in Iceland in 1829.

The novel focuses on the period leading up to her execution when Agnes is billeted on a farm. We read about the responses of the family, neighbours and the priest she has asked to help her prepare. The everyday interaction with Agnes as well as her muted behaviour and then the retelling of her life story help gradually shift attitudes towards her.

In some ways it is a feminist novel. Hannah Kent has interpreted Agnes as a strong and independent woman who does not fit the norms of Icelandic society. In Burial Rites she stands up to male abuse to herself and a younger girl, and this eventually leads to the death of her tormentor. The younger girl is pardoned, being pretty and somewhat simple.

The details of Icelandic life fit well with what I have read, and the harsh realities of the law and the hierarchy of the island (subject to distant Danish rule) are well evoked. The writing is vivid and moving.

Recommended by Morag in a comment on the post Bookword in Iceland.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, published by Picador (2013) 355pp

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson

Jill Dawson has made her writing career writing about real people. The Great Lover features Rupert Brooke during his years at Cambridge and in Tahiti. Other historical figures make an appearance, including Lady Ottoline Morrell and Virginia Wolf. The girl whom Rupert thinks he loves attended Bedales School, known for naked swimming and free lessons.

It was a Richard and Judy summer read, which must have brought Jill Dawson and Rupert Brooke to the attention of many readers who had not known them before. The story zips along, through endless pre-war sunny days, endless glimpses from afar and endless self-examination by the main characters.

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson, published by Sceptre (2009)

Other fictions based on real people by Jill Dawson include Fred and Edie (2000) and The Crime Fighter (2016), which I recently reviewed, here.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

Magda is the wife of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. The novella’s narrative captures different moments in her life. We meet her first as a girl, for example, in a convent, where the endemic cruelty of the sisters and the other girls is designed to promote conformity. The sections are filtered through different women: Magda herself in the convent, later it is her mother, her daughter’s diary, her own imagination of what it her life will be like after the war, and a more detached narrator.

We get a sense that abuse rattles down the generations, reinforced through institutions especially the Catholic Church and National Socialists, which is presented as a religion. It’s a vivid, and raw account of what it meant to be a child in pre-war Germany, as it was collapsing in 1945, and it meant to be one of the favoured ones in that distorted society.

Magda is an interesting mix of historical fact and imaginative exploration. I understood something more about how Bavarians and Catholics became such keen advocates of National Socialism, how women were abused by the ideas of fascism, and how women are forced to use their sexuality to make anything of themselves, especially in times of crisis and chaos.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel Salt Publishing (2013) 103pp

Recent reviews on this blog:

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor In this novel the main character is the actor Molly Allgood.

Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien A searing look at how charming and seductive evil can be, hiding in plain sight, even if he is the Beast of Bosnia.

Other fictions that I am tempted by …

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (Shostakovich) (2016)

Or have read in the past.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Margaret Yourcenar (1951). The Emperor writes a letter to his successor towards the end of his life.

Summer in February by Jonathan Smith (1995); a circle of painters in Cornwall, three of whom create a doomed love triangle. Laura Knight, Harold Knight, Alfred Munnings among them.

Tom and Will by Matthew Plampin (2015). A novel based on a possible episode in the lives of two young painters JMW Turner and Tom Girtin.

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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

This is my third post in the Decades Project, and we are into the 1920s. This classic whodunit was published in 1926. The genre was already established. Hercule Poirot had appeared in two previous novels. He solves the mystery of who killed Roger Ackroyd despite protesting that he wanted to retire. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was voted best crime novel ever in 2013 by the Crime Writer’s Association.

We are a decade on from O Pioneers! and oh so far away. This is cosy, unchanging rural England, where people are putting The Great War behind them and where people still know their place.

The story of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

We have many characters with the motivation to kill Roger Ackroyd, and many activities designed to throw the reader off the trail of the killer. There is a little back story: Roger Ackroyd, who is very rich, was about to marry a widow Mrs Ferrars. Mrs Ferrars was being blackmailed because she poisoned her brutish husband. She commits suicide, but has written to Roger Ackroyd to tell him who the blackmailer is.

On the point of revealing the identity of Mrs Ferrars’s blackmailer, Roger Ackroyd is found dead and her letter is missing. There is a nephew who benefits from his death; his sister’s daughter whose smallest bills he was in the habit of scrutinising; a creepy housekeeper with a secret she will hide at all costs; a manservant who creeps about; a housemaid who is not what she seems; a male secretary who may be greedy; a big game hunter, likewise; and a mysterious stranger seen at the house around the time of the murder. Our narrator is the village doctor Dr Sheppard, who has access to all households. What he doesn’t know his sister Caroline is sure to discover and gossip about. These two are able to keep the reader well informed.

Who is to solve the mystery? Poirot has retired to King’s Abbot in Devon, hoping to grow vegetable marrows and stay out of the limelight. His friend, Captain Hastings is in the Argentine so it falls to Dr Sheppard to act as Poirot’s sidekick and to ask the questions we want answered.

No spoilers here. But the ending has the requisite clever twist.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie in 1925

Born in Torquay in 1890, Agatha Christie has probably sold more novels than any other writer – 2bn copies. She lived in interesting times. She met and married her husband in 1914. He went off to the war in the newly formed Royal Flying Corps and she signed up as a VAD nurse. After the war she continued her reading and writing, and in the year that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published she disappeared for six days. Her marriage was in difficulties. Divorced in 1928, she got remarried 2 years later to an archaeologist, Sir Max Mallowan. Already familiar with Cairo she frequently accompanied him on his expeditions. Egypt and the Middle East form the background to many of her novels. During the Second World War she worked in a pharmacy in London. She lived until 1976, aged 85.

She had written 66 detective novels and 14 collections of short stories. They have, of course, been adapted for tv and film.

Greenway House in Devon was Agatha Christie’s holiday home, and it was from here that Allen Lane was travelling when he had the idea for Penguin paperbacks. Greenway House is now a National Trust property.

My reflections

It’s a very long time since I read a detective novel, and it was interesting to notice the plotting. Although I enjoyed reading this classic murder-mystery it has not converted me to an enthusiasm for the genre.

As a historical artefact it was interesting. It is set in the 1920s, when vacuum cleaners were a new fangled idea, but the novel celebrates continuity of the village community in rural England. John Major’s vicar’s wives are cycling past warm beer on the village green in the background. It’s not like that now, and I wonder how much was disappearing even then. The decades have brought changes here in rural Devon just as surely as in New York and Nebraska (the locations of the two previous novels in this series).

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. First published in 1926. I read the Penguin 1948 edition, a gift from my sister. 250pp

The Decade Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport 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 am reading one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1920s in February and so on and review them here.

Reading passport 315

Previous posts in the Project

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913.

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

The next decade: 1930s

I plan to read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) for April’s choice. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades.

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What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Here’s a fresh and startling, joyous and playful collection of short stories from Helen Oyeyemi. The ideas spill out, teeming onto the page so that the reader is swept along from the opening of a story to its destination, which might appear to be unconnected. And suddenly you meet a character from another story, or an idea that rocks you backwards and you have to slow down your reading. It was a delightful experience to read What is Not Yours is Not Yours.

The Short Stories

‘Bigarrure’ is a word found on p184 of these stories, defined as ‘a medley of sundry colours running together’. I was so unsettled by Helen Oyeyemi’s creativity that I wasn’t sure if the word existed and had to look it up. It does exist. And it does mean variegation or colourful mixture. And it’s a good word to use about this writer’s style: bigarrure.

As a reader you are entering uncertain territory with this collection. You are given very little guidance. Nothing on the cover or the title page announces that this is a book of short stories. There is no contents page. The nine stories (or perhaps there are 10, it’s not clear) announce themselves by their titles. This is just the beginning. The character who appears to be central turns out to be a minor player. Little indication is given of the gender of first person narrators, or indeed their ethnicity, there are few descriptions of people’s appearnaces. Locations shift. Time is unstable. The reader senses misdirection.

She is an accomplished an experienced author, so one has to accept that Helen Oyeyemi means to unsettle and challenge the reader. So you thought this, she seems to be saying, but that was not what I told you. You assumed.

The stories have some connections. Their locations vary, and are not always clear. Sometimes we are in Prague, sometimes in a fictional country, sometimes in a country that could be part of the UK. But characters reappear, often as narrator, sometimes in walk–on parts. And in every story there is a key, usually locked doors, and therefore secrets and things lost.

The genres of the stories vary, even within a story. The first one, books and roses, begins with a foundling and takes on the characteristics of a fairy story, shifts to a surrealism worthy of Leonora Carrington, then to a love story and in parts is made of letters and notes.

The collection includes a truly awful story, drownings, which begins

This happened and it didn’t happen: (125)

The story is about a tyrant who drowns people on a whim. He has drowned many, many of the citizens in the marshes.

… the marshland stretched out further and further, slowly pulling houses and cinemas, greengrocers, restaurants and concert halls down into the water. If you looked down into the swamps (which he never did) it was possible to see people untangling their limbs and hair, courteously handing each other body parts and keys, resuming residence in their homes, working out what crops they might raise and which forms of energy they could harness. (140-1)

Things work out, in a fashion, in drownings.

Yet more unsettling is presence, a strange tale about loss, and especially the loss of what you never had. An experiment is conducted by two psychologists to conjure up the son who never was.

There are puppets, a public tale of apology through social media, and other stories where ideas seem to pour out of Helen Oyeyemi’s pen.

My reactions

I was excited to read this book. It took me to places I was not expecting, shifting my understanding of the stories, doubling back and leaping to new locations or situations. For once I found the blurb quotations were accurate: strange delights, startling, dazzling, fireworks, disorientating, gothic, captivating. Like life really.

Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi

No review of her work avoids saying that Helen Oyeyemi is young, female and black. Born in 1984 she made a name for herself with prize-winning novels even before she left school. The titles of her novels indicate her love of oppositional ideas:

  • The Icarus Girl (2005)
  • The Opposite House (2007)
  • White is for Witching (2009)
  • Mr Fox (2011)
  • Boy, Snow, Bird (2014)

A little digging reveals that she is a peripatetic writer, born in Nigeria, brought up in London, studied at Cambridge, had a university residency in America, and is currently living in Prague, perhaps. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Related Posts

Lonesome Reader blog reviewed What is Not Yours is not Yours when it was first published in April 2016.

As did Stuart Evers in the Independent in March 2016.

What is Not Yours is not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi published in 2016 and available in paperback from Picador. 262pp

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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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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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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

Related posts.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell (November 2016). A Blitz memoir.

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How Bookish People can have Hope in Dark Days

Powerful malign forces are about in the world, and they work to disempower us. Yet there are also strong alternative expressions of a more positive view of human lives. While some may feel they must hide away until the danger is passed, others are seeking to find ways to give impetus to the strong humanitarian, democratic and positive currents. There are bookish things to do.

It has been a dreadful 18 months

Since the political scene turned toxic about 18 months ago, when the Conservatives were re-elected in the UK to continue the austerity regime, it has felt more and more hopeless to stand against the reductionist and discriminatory agendas gaining ground in democracies. Reactions to migration across the Mediterranean, the vote in favour of leaving the EU, and then the election of Trump, despite his behaviour, all this has been nearly overwhelming. Almost, but not yet overwhelming.

I take heart from some bookish people who remind us that dark days do not equate with the end of hope. Let’s start with Rebecca Solnit.

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit

This book was originally written in the dark days of 2004, but has had some later additions in 2016 in response to more dark days. It is an important book for in it Rebecca Solnit suggests that without hope we are disempowered. No defeatism here! Hope implies the possibility of a better future, not one that will arrive simply by putting one’s head down and hoping for the best, but hope that indicates that action is required.

She describes some of the improvements that we now take for granted, such as votes for women, or changes in East Timor, or attitudes to LGBT lives. She reminds us that behind the imperfect victories in these areas have been movements of people, hundreds of discussions, oppositional acts, challenges, visions of alternatives, all the slow growth of the groundswell of opinion. The hope lay with Suffragettes and other supporters of women’s votes, with those who published stories of the atrocities on East Timor, and the campaigns to promote LGBT rights.

In order to keep hope alive we need to tell the stories of action, alternatives, truth when it is obscured. For me this means not accepting the new American administration press secretary Sean Spicer’s comments to the press, designed it seems to intimidate, about the attendance at Trump’s inauguration. Rather to look for evidence. Trump appears to have declared war on the press, and it seems to me that we must support them in prosecuting their trade: finding evidence, demanding Trump’s Income Tax returns, telling, as they say, truth to power.

But further than uncovering lies and misleading information (don’t forget that bus) 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.

Rebecca Solnit points out that this is not fast or direct action.

This is a model for how indirect effect can be, how delayed, how invisible; no one is more hopeful than a writer, no one is a bigger gambler. Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience” finally found its readers in the twentieth century when it was put into practice as part of the movements that changed the world. (Thoreau’s voice was little heard in his time, but it echoed across the continent in the 1960s and has not left us since. Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Walter Benjamin, and Arthur Rimbaud, like Thoreau, achieved their greatest impact long after their deaths, long after weeds had grown over the graves of most of the bestsellers of their lifetime.)

You write your books. You scatter your seeds. Rats might eat them, or they might rot. In California some seeds lie dormant for decades because they only germinate after fire, and sometimes the burned landscape blooms most lavishly. (66-67)

Don’t be overwhelmed by ‘the defeatist perspective’, she argues. Talk about ‘both the terrible things we should engage with and the losses behind us, as well as the wins and achievements that give us confidence to endeavour to keep pursuing the possibilities.’ (142)

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit. Published by Canongate (2004 with additions 2016) 152pp

Letter from Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King

We must retell Martin Luther King’s story. In his Letter from Birmingham City Jail in April 1963, Martin Luther King noted four steps to successful nonviolent resistance. Originally a riposte to eight Alabama clergymen who accused him of being an outsider, it became a foundational text for the civil rights movement, but also for the struggle for social justice and equality everywhere. Here are three extracts:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps:

  1. collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive

  2. negotiation;

  3. self-purification; and

  4. direct action.

I was trained as a historian. Evidence, evidence, evidence. Collect the facts! Pay attention to details!

We who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

For more on this see Maria Popova’s brainpickings of March 18th 2015.

Paul Auster

The reaction of the American writer Paul Auster to Trump’s victory has been astonishment, and then asking the question what could he do, how could he live his life. He has decided to act.

I have come to the conclusion to accept something that has been offered to me again and again over the years – to become [stand for] president of PEN America. I have been vice-president, and secretary, but I’ve never wanted to take on the full burden. I’ll start early in 2018. I’m going to speak out as often as I can, otherwise I don’t think I can live with myself. From the Guardian January 2017.

He will speak out, supporting an organisation that works against freedom of expression for writers.

Bookish actions

Community of readers has plenty to do it seems to me. Reading. Retelling stories of hope and injustice. Writing stories of hope. Showing us different views of the future.

And as citizens we must support both the law and the press that currently stand in the front line between us and tyranny in both the UK and the US. The press must go on asking awkward questions, must reveal unpalatable truths, seek out and present evidence of wrong-doing, and success.

We who write must write in hope and remind readers not to despair.

Paignton Library 2015

Related blog posts

Not a Bookblogger’s New Year List (January 2017)

Men Explain things to me by Rebecca Solnit (May 2015)

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit in Bookword in Alsace (May 2015)

Steps to Improve your Writing (August 2016)

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The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

Few books have unsettled me as much as The Little Red Chairs. In my reading group we agreed it was a powerful, difficult and in some ways enchanting book. The evil in the novel would be unbelievable if it weren’t based on the real story of the Beast of Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic. There is also a luminous description of a village in the West of Ireland from which the main character flees, and innumerable other stories of displacement and loss from around the world. And we all loved the anarchic, chaotic and over the top performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream in the final chapter.

The Story

There are many stories in this novel, to the extent that it could be argued that telling stories is proposed as therapeutic and healing to individuals and to communities. The story that leads the novel begins in a rural community with the arrival of a visitor. He tells them he comes from Montenegro, and without explanation he settles in their community offering himself as a kind of new age healer. Fidelma, an energetic and attractive Irish woman who longs for a baby which she is unable to conceive with her older husband, asks Dr Valdimir if he will help her conceive. He agrees and the consequences are truly terrible.

There is tension from the opening pages. Dr Vlad does not fit in this generous community, in this gentle landscape. And we have been given plenty of warnings that wicked things are going to happen.

The title: to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo, 11,541 chairs were laid out along 800 metres of Sarajevo street. 643 of them were small chairs representing the children who were killed during the 1425 days of the siege. The paragraph explaining this precedes the first section of the novel.

Sarajevo October 2010, photo by Bizntaze via Wiki Commons

Dr Validmir: Vlad is not a name to inspire confidence. He is portrayed as a dark character, always in black clothes, secretive, mysterious, untrusting, on his guard.

The dream: And if we still are unaware of the provenance of this man, Edna O’Brien gives us his dream, in which his collaborator, K, relates the terrible events of the siege of Sarajevo and the war in Bosnia.

Moju: the mute kitchen porter at the Castle Hotel reacts to the voice of Dr Vlad with complete hysteria.

The story follows Fidelma as she is violated by disappointed followers of Dr Vlad. She flees to London, and falls to the bottom of the heap as she tries to find accommodation and work, to simply survive. Small acts of kindness, different communities, havens, help restore her. Finally she goes to The Hague, where Dr Vlad is on trial. His final speech to the tribunal is chilling, as he denies every charge in an increasingly illogical and crazy manner. Fidelma is able to name him for what he is.

Reading The Little Red Chairs

There is so much in this novel, the reading group felt it could have been twice as long to do justice to the lives within it. We asked and discussed all kinds of questions. We were interested in the contamination by evil and what restores, redeems people.

The villagers watch reports of Dr Vlad’s capture on tv.

‘Well, he’s caught now . . . the worst is over,’ Mona said.

‘But the contamination has happened,’ Schoolmaster Diarmuid said and there were knowing gasps. Father Eamonn, who had not stirred from the fire, just looked across from the fire at her and shook his head, dolefully. (134)

How did Dr Vlad manage to evade capture for 13 years? Should communities be less trusting? Is there something in the man that answered their needs, not just Fidelma’s? Is that the nature of the contamination?

Small gestures, the littlest bit of trust may be required to help restore human relations. The offer of a job, accommodation, friendship, these things are of huge significance in the life of those who have descended so low, who are lost.

A Postscript

One of the strongest scenes in the novel is Dr Vlad’s defence of himself at the court in The Hague. He begins in a reasonable tone, and then ‘in vivid strophes and with blazing contempt’ he attacks the prosecution and pours contempt on every piece of evidence and every witness. The court listens in silence.

They sat politely, bludgeoned from the sheer onslaught of rhetoric and evidence. As he cited document after document, raved, ranted, repeated himself and finally, declared that Serbs did not have any intention of taking that city, that there had been no siege and that it was a delusion and invention on the enemy’s part. (264)

I write this following the inauguration of America’s new president. The vilifying of the press, the argument about numbers of attendees, the bluster, the desire for the accepted version to be what the administration wants it to be … These seem to be from the same kind of twisted minds. It is offensive to those of us trying to live with integrity. And I thank Edna O’Brien for this amazing look at a sad aspect of humanity.

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien (2015) Faber & Faber 299pp

For another review is available from Heavenali on her blog in October 2015.

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