Category Archives: The Decade project

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner

We have reached the 1980s in the Decades Project. This month’s choice is a prize-winning novel. I read Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner when it was first published in 1984 and went on to read most of Anita Brookner’s 24 novels, She died last year. Hotel Du Lac explores the question asked by the main character, Edith Hope, ‘what behaviour most becomes a woman’?

In this novel marriage is not the answer for Edith Hope. We can note that her circumstances are very different from Lily Bart who featured in the first novel in the decade project: The House of Mirth. Lily had no means of support unless she married, but Edith in Hotel Du Lac has choices, including marriage, which she rejects.

The Story

Edith Hope, a writer of romantic fiction, has been dispatched by her friends to the hotel in Switzerland. Her friends want her to reflect on her disgraceful behaviour and come back more grown up and responsible. For her own part she is determined not to change, but to sit out her exile writing her next novel. She is 39, it is the end of the season and there are only a few guests left in the hotel.

In the hotel she meets Mrs Pusey and her daughter Jennifer, both of whom trade on good looks and extreme wealth to indulge their selfishness. We know this from their shopping expeditions and the attention they demand from everyone. Then there is Monica who is about Edith’s age, and a very tall and willowy woman with an annoying dog. She is at the hotel to sort out her eating problems for she must make herself fit to conceive the heir her husband wishes for. Old Madame de Bonneuil is parked in the hotel during the season for the convenience of her son’s wife, who does not want the deaf old lady at home. The old lady bears this exile in silence, although he is the only thing of interest in her life.

Into this mix of people comes Phillip Neville, a perspicacious man, who sees in Edith the opportunity to acquire a wife so that he is not embarrassed by the loss of his previous wife. His proposal is about as unacceptable as Mr Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. It’s all about him and his knowledge that marriage provides what society thinks women want. There is an irony for Edith writes about traditional romantic ideas in her novels.

It emerges that before she arrived at the hotel, Edith had accepted a proposal from a very kind, gentle but very boring man, and whom she lets down at the last minute.

Despite these examples and choices Edith returns to the secret love affair that has dominated her life for years. She has understood more about the choices available to women, and although changed by her time at the hotel she chooses to return.

The novel

One of the strengths of Anita Brookner’s writing is her description of places. Here is the opening:

From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey. It was to be supposed that beyond the grey garden, which seemed to sprout nothing but the stiffish leaves of some unfamiliar plant, lay the vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore, and beyond that, in imagination only, yet verified by the brochure, the peak of Dent d’Oche, on which snow might already be slightly and silently falling. (7)

She has complete control of that very long second sentence, and follows it with another even longer sentence that describes the small town in which the hotel is to be found. A few paragraphs further on Edith, newly arrived at the hotel, contemplates her room.

Turning her back on the toneless expanse beyond the window, she contemplated the room, which was the colour of over-cooked veal: veal-coloured carpet and curtains, high, narrow bed with veal-coloured counterpane, small austere table with a correct chair placed tightly underneath it, a narrow, costive wardrobe, and, at a very great height above her head, a tiny brass chandelier, which, she knew, would eventually twinkle drearily with eight weak bulbs. (9)

Anita Brookner is famous for her controlled prose, but she includes humour and daring, for example when she in describes the bedroom as veal coloured.

She also sketches characters with deftness, so that even if they are mysterious, or something is not yet explained, one sees the individual emerge. Here is Madame de Bonneuil taking tea in the salon.

The pug-faced lady was eating grimly, her legs wide apart, crumbs falling unnoticed on to her lap. (17)

Again humour lurks underneath Anita Brookner’s sentences. Frequently it is her choice of words: the slightly and silently falling snow, the costive wardrobe, the veal, eating grimly. And here is Monica with the coffee pot: she poured it out largely and carelessly. (70)

There are advantages to containing the action of a novel within a hotel, and it is a device used by other writers. I blogged about this in a post called Five Novels set in Hotels: here.

A novel about the single woman

Edith Hope (novelists get to decide the names of their characters) chooses the single life, not because she is desperate – she has rejected two offers of marriage. It is because she is honest and this novel celebrates the quiet courage of the single woman, as do so many of Anita’s Brookner’s novels. For more on this idea see the appreciation by Christina Patterson: Anita Brookner’s subversive message – the courage of the single life deserves respect.

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner (1984) Penguin.184 pp. Booker Prize Winner in 1984

Note: A tv adaptation was made of the novel in 1986 by the BBC.

The Decades Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.

Previous posts in the Project

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, published in 1975

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, published in 1969

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1990s

I will be reading The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx (published in 1993) in October for the decade of the 1980s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 2000s (November) and 2010s (December).

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Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi

Bookword has reached the 1970s in the Decades Project with this novel from Egypt. I read Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi when it was first published in English in the 1980s. Like many readers I was shocked by the brutality and suffering in Firdaus’s story. It took its place among the important literature of the so-called second feminist wave.

In the project we have moved from Anglo-centric literature to a novel in translation and originally written in Arabic.

The Story

Woman at Point Zero is introduced as a true story, and framed by a psychiatrist’s visit to a woman’s prison where Firdaus is awaiting execution. The psychiatrist, requests an interview with the condemned woman, but she is refused until her last night. She summons the doctor and tells her story.

Firdaus was born with two disadvantages: being a female and to parents who lived in poverty. She lives her whole life on the margins. She is orphaned while still young, and then taken by her uncle to Cairo where he sends her to primary school. On his marriage she boards at secondary school, which she loves. But on graduating she is married off to an old man, a relative of her uncle’s wife. The old man is one in a long line of men who treat her badly, exploiting her sexually, forcing her into domestic servitude and beating her on any excuse. She runs away and is rescued by the next abuser, and the pattern continues until she is rescued and groomed by a madame.

She leaves this comfortable life when she understands that she is as exploited by the woman as by the men, sets herself up as a prostitute, and for the first time knows financial independence and wealth. But the life still depends upon men, so she gives it up to work in an office, but is betrayed again by a man she fell in love with and who only wanted to exploit her sexually for free, she returns to prostitution.

But this is threatened by a gangster who offers her protection, from his own violence. She kills him. She has reached the point where there is nothing, point zero. Her freedom is to die.

Why Firdaus’s story matters

Her story is recognizable in the lives of all women, despite the novel being set in Egypt, despite being written 40 years ago, and despite her career choice. The abuse is recognizable in our own society today. Women still suffer from violent abuse, and we still struggle with residual beliefs that women’s role is to service men.

At the time it was published in English Woman at Point Zero reinforced everything that the second wave of feminism was uncovering. It was passed around and discussed widely in my circle.

Towards the end of her account Firdaus tells us about the bleak prospects for women to escape persecution.

All women are victims of deception. Men impose deception on women and punish them for being deceived, force them down to the lowest level and punish them for falling so low, bind them in marriage and then chastise them with menial service for life, or insults, or blows.

Now I realized that the least deluded of all women was the prostitute. That marriage was the system built on the cruellest suffering of women. (117-8)

Her feminism is best understood as a criticism of capitalism, supported by Islam in parts of the world.

Nawal el Saadawi

Nawal el Saadawi by Mansour Nasiri via WikiCommons

Born in 1931 at 86 Nawal el Saadawi is still alive, and still speaking out. She was trained in medicine and psychiatry and Firdaus’s story is based on the life of a woman she visited in prison. Nawal el Saadawi worked for improved help for women in Egypt, as Director General for Public Health Education. Women who stand out often become enemies of prominent men and in 1981 she herself was arrested and imprisoned by Sadat’s regime. She was released after his assassination later that year. She worked for a time in the US but has returned to Egypt where she is still in the public eye, for example she was among the protestors in Tahrir Square in 2011.

Early in the novel Firdaus, still a child, suffers genital cutting. The practice of genital mutilation has only recently been taken seriously in this country and appears to be acceptable in other parts of the world. Nawal el Saadawi is one of the most distinguished voices in the campaigns against FGM.

Her second novel was published in1976 God Dies by the Nile, and her study of Arabic women, The Hidden Face of Eve, a year later. In 2016 she explained how hard it was to get her voice heard she says this:

The colonial capitalist powers are mainly English- or French-speaking … I am still ignored by big literary powers in the world, because I write in Arabic, and also because I am critical of the colonial, capitalist, racist, patriarchal mind set of the super-powers. [quotation from Wikipedia, from an article in the New African]

Woman at Point Zero takes its place in my plans to read more Women in Translation (#WIT) as well as in the Decades Project.

Woman at Point Zero Nawal el Saadawi, first published in 1975 and in translation by Zed Books in 1983. 142 pp

Translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata, her third husband.

The Decades Project

The idea for the Decades Project originated in my library’s Reading Passport scheme. I have adapted it by selecting a book from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it on this blog.

Reading passport 315

Previous posts in the Project

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, published in 1969

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1970s

I have not yet decided what to read in September for the decade of the 1980s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1990s (October) and 2000s (November).

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

Last month, June, in my Decades Project I reached the 1950s and the first book from Africa: The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing. This month we have reached the 1960s. Fiction, serious fiction, moved beyond our atmosphere to use the idea of life on other planets. The Left Hand of Darkness is one of Ursula LeGuin’s best known and celebrated novels. In it she takes us into a fictional world where strangers are aliens, technology determines much of life, and no practices, including our deeply embedded gender relations, can be considered as fixed.

The Left Hand of Darkness

I came to read this novel following my pleasure in The Earthsea Trilogy. In these children’s books among the adventures and dragons was the importance of knowing the names of things. Being able to name an object or person or being gives you power over them. Think of the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin from the Brothers Grimm. Indeed the power of naming is akin to the power of writing. To write is to have power over something, to understand it, to manipulate it, to tell alternative version of it.

The Left Hand of Darkness felt like an important book when I first read it, probably in the ‘70s. In particular the idea of a society not dominated by gender difference felt timely. In 1976 Marge Piercy published Woman on the Edge of Time, which explored the same territory of the gender neutral. It is indeed a challenging idea. The novel goes yet further and considers human relations across many other boundaries, some of which are taken-for-granted assumptions. And in the end it proposes the possibilities of loving relationships between peoples and individuals despite huge differences and difficulties. It is as relevant now as it was when it was published in 1969.

The Story of The Left Hand of Darkness

Gently Ai is an envoy from the Ekumen, a loose affiliation of planets all occupied by humans. He has come to the appropriately named planet Winter to test out the possibility of extending the Ekuman arrangement with the agreement of the peoples of this planet. Winter is cut off from other planets by distance, and the humans have developed a different reproductive cycle. They have also not developed flight.

Gently Ai is black, male, about 30 and regarded as a pervert for his sexual characteristics. His cause is taken up by Estraven, the Prime Minister of one of the countries on this planet, but it is not clear whether Ai can trust him. Social practices make it hard for them to play the nuanced game of diplomacy and in a political coup they are both exiled to the neighbouring country. Here with different, but also challenging social practices and more political machinations Ai is imprisoned. Estraven rescues him and they undertake a long winter trek across uninhabited regions of ice, volcanic eruptions, rocky mountains and glaciers. They return to Estraven’s country and Gently Ai’s and the Ekumen’s mission is successful, although Estraven dies in the escape.

The two men develop a friendship as they cross the icy wastes. Their differences are huge: Ai is a man like those from Earth who must not show fear and must not cry. Estraven is skilled in diplomacy and not offending; he also has skills in survival. The two countries have very different ways of going about governance, but these ways fail to protect them from power-hungry people, and political manoeuvring. The different attitudes to the Envoy, to hospitality, trust, criminals, belief in the possibility of things being other (imagination?) are all explored.

Reading SF often feels like overcoming hurdles. I was able to get through the issues of different naming systems, words invented for the planets and for the technological paraphernalia, to get to the heart of the story. And I was moved again on this rereading.

Ursula LeGuin

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

The author was the daughter of two eminent anthropologists, and this interest in peoples and how they arrange their lives is evident in all her fiction. She has also written about writing (Steering the Craft), and her book reviews have appeared in the Observer. LeGuin is never one to waste a good idea, she added to the Earthsea Trilogy: Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. The Left Hand of Darkness is the first of the Hainish Cycle.

I am planning to explore her ideas about imagination next month, using the essay called The Operating Instructions. It can be found in her recent collection Words are my Matter (2016).

Cover of First Edition

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

The Decades Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.

Previous posts in the Project

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1970s

I have decided to read Woman at Point Zero (1975) by Nawal El Saadawi in August for the decade of the 1970s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1980s and 1990s.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

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The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

Reading a novel from each decade shows up the sudden changes in literary practices. One such moment occurred when Doris Lessing’s novel The Grass is Singing arrived on the literary scene of post-war London. Published in 1950 it was like nothing that had come before. Doris Lessing had recently arrived from Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. She brought with her Peter, her youngest child, and the manuscript of this novel. Her writing was tough and implicitly political. It was a new kind of novel, new in terms of location, material and treatment. Doris Lessing went on to forge a long career in fiction until she died in November 2014. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007.

It is for these reasons that I have chosen The Grass is Singing for the 1950s in my Decades Project (see below).

The novel The Grass is Singing

The opening chapter poses the question: why did these people behave in the way they did? There was a murder, why wasn’t more pity shown for the victim? Of for her husband, who has gone out of his mind? What did the murder reveal about relations between the natives and the white farmers? This is not a whodunit. Moses, the houseboy confesses when the native police arrive.

In this first chapter we are introduced to the characters, the location (a small farm in Southern Rhodesia), and the attitudes of local white people through the eyes of the newly arrived manager Tony Marston, a young man who is due to take over the management of the farm. Charlie Slatter, who runs the neighbouring farm very profitably and Sergeant Denham appear to be warning him about his reactions to the murder and this alerts the reader to relationships that will be unfamiliar.

From the second chapter the narration becomes more omniscient as Doris Lessing begins to chart the early life, marriage and disintegration of Mary Turner, the victim. Mary had an impoverished and unhappy childhood, but was able to escape to Salisbury (now Harare) where she was happy with a job in an office, accommodation in a hostel and an active social life without intimacy. She was not looking for marriage or children until she overheard her friends suggesting that there is something wrong with her. From this moment she latches onto the idea of marriage and when Dick Turner appears in her life they quickly decide to marry.

She moves out to Dick’s farm where it quickly becomes apparent that she is out of place and that she has mistaken ideas about marriage. And so does Dick. He is a farmer, but has no success. Her role is to manage the house, by managing the houseboy, a native. Brought up with no contact with natives and having absorbed the white population’s distain and fears, Mary is incapable of being decent towards them. Indeed, while supervising the field workers during a bout of Dick’s malaria, she strikes one of the workers when he dared to ask for a break for water. This is Moses who later comes to work in the kitchen.

Doris Lessing leads us towards the eventual breakdown between Mary and Dick, and the disintegration of both Turners.

Reading the novel

Reading this novel for the third time I am struck again by how tough a read it is. Mary’s response to words overheard, to her marriage, to the poverty of the farm, to the heat and the other conditions of life on the veldt, these are described in harsh detail. One can only be disappointed in her inability to see more clearly and to extricate herself from her difficulties. So often she just sits vacantly. The men who turn up at the scene of the murder believe that Mary had ‘let the side down.’

But over all this is the shocking brutality of the racist society in which she lived. What Mary had done was have a relationship with a native. It was a very distorting and unhealthy relationship but

[Tony Marston, the recent arrival] would see the thing clearly and understand that it was ‘white civilization’ fighting to defend itself that had been implicit in the attitude of Charlie Slatter and the Sergeant, ‘white civilization’ which will never, never admit that a white person, and most particularly, a white woman, can have a human relationship, whether for good or for evil, with a black person. For once it admits that, it crashes, and nothing can save it. So, above all, it cannot afford failures, such as the Turners’ failure. (26)

And for ‘white civilization’ read justification for colonization, or for exploitation of the African population, or repeated abuses of human rights.

Doris Lessing seems to be telling us that we are all tainted by this idea of ‘white civilization’, even the poorest of the whites, the most incapable of the white population, and certainly the abused black people, they are all damaged by society based on racism.

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, first published in 1950 by Michael Joseph ltd. I used the edition from Flamingo (1994) 206pp

The Decades Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.

Previous posts in the Project

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1960s

I have decided to read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin in July for the 1960s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1970s and 1980s.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

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They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

The title of this novel implies something unsaid: They were sisters … but they were so different, … they never knew, … you wouldn’t know it. Dorothy Whipple’s novel takes the first idea, they were so different, but also emphasises the family connections between them, their contrasting marriages and the influence of the sisters on each other’s lives.

The novel is set in the 1930s, as war was approaching. She wrote it during the first years of the war, and it was published in 1943. The publisher was concerned about the length of the book in times of shortage of paper. But her readers enjoyed the setting in the years before the war. Persephone Books has republished many of Dorothy Whipple’s novels and I used their lovely edition for this post. I have reached the 1940s in the Decades Project.

The Story

The sisters come from a large family of three brothers and three sisters. The two older brothers are despatched early on, and the youngest brother only reappears at a funeral. Dorothy Whipple wants to focus on the three sisters: Lucy, Charlotte and Vera.

Lucy is the oldest, who on their mother’s early death takes on the responsibility of bringing up the other two girls, giving up her place at university. In time the three girls get married. Charlotte’s husband is a practical joker turned bully. His youthful larks lead the older brothers to drink, very bad behaviour and their banishment to the colonies. Geoffrey’s behaviour to his wife and three children is abusive. Over time Charlotte takes the line of least resistance, drinks, takes drugs and eventually dies young and broken. They have three children: Margaret, who becomes her father’s favourite, which is a bit yucky. Stephen runs away at 16 and Judith who is her aunt’s favourite and rather ignored by parents, finds an eventual escape.

Vera, the second sister, is a stunning beauty and always has people doing things for her. She chooses a steady, decent man to marry who she thinks she can count on to provide her with the money and tolerance she wants. As their marriage weakens she proceeds to ignore him, and her two children Sarah and Meriel. When Brian has had enough he goes to America and she has to live on much less money, and on her fading looks.

Lucy marries a slightly awkward older man, but he has respect for her and down to earth opinions. She tries to rescue her sisters, but in the end rescues their daughters.

The action takes place over 20+ years, and covers all three sisters and their families. Sometimes there are jumps of a year or more in the narrative. At each crisis Lucy dashes to help, to provide guidance to the children, while the other sister is too immersed in her own life to offer help.

Dorothy Whipple

Although the approaching war barely intrudes upon this novel Lucy represents a version of what was worth fighting for: decency, doing things for others, helping those you love, providing assistance to the needy. She has a Christian faith to support this, although this is not a prominent theme.

The two monsters of the novel together with the many weak characters represent dangers to this simple morality. Geoffrey is hideously cruel, have himself been ignored and abandoned in his childhood. The episode with the dog is heart breaking. His mastery over his family reminds us of the power that men and fathers wielded even into the post-war years. His behaviour can be represented to the world as for the good of the family, although Dorothy Whipple makes it clear that he only thinks of himself.

Dorothy Whipple

The other monster is Vera, who is so beautiful that every door is opened to her, all difficulty smoothed out of her way, all misdemeanours forgiven, until she becomes middle-aged. She treats her husband with flagrant unkindness, and when he leaves her, looks round for another admirer. Her nemesis is age, and she is forced to face her weaknesses when her niece replaces her in her young man’s attentions. Vera is too weak to give up the young man and they run away to a life of more unhappiness in South Africa.

Lucy and, through her influence, two of her nieces counter these examples of selfishness. She has no children of her own, but provides guidance for her sisters, who cannot follow it, and for the next generation who can. This is the final paragraph of the novel:

Her sisters had been like two fair ships with no hand on the wheel; one had foundered and gone down, the other was racing before the wind, headed for disaster. Lucy, grieving that she had not been able to help or save them, never thought – she had no idea – that she herself had been the beacon to bring their children to harbour. (445)

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, first published in 1943. I used the Persephone edition from 2015. It has an excellent Afterword by Celia Brayfield. 455pp

A film was made of They Were Sisters in 1945, starring James Mason as Geoffrey, Phyllis Calvert as Lucy, Anne Crawford as Vera and Dulcie Gray as Charlotte.

The Decades Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.

Previous posts in the Project

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1950s

I have not yet decided what to read from the 1950s in June. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1960s and 1970s.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (1)

These are the famous opening words of the fourth novel in my Decades Project, and we are into the 1930s. It’s the era of the talkies, threats of European war, the country house and its hierarchical servants. We have moved from the cosy village whodunit of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, set in an unchanging village society in Devon to a large house in the next county. Cornwall is the setting for this psychological-romantic thriller.

The Story

A young girl, (we never know her name) is plucked from nothing. She narrates the story of her marriage to Maxim de Winter and the brief period when they lived at Manderley. From her dream in the first chapter we know that something bad happened here and that she no longer lives in the beautiful house. And from the second chapter we learn that she is still devoted to her husband, Maxim de Winter, but they live a solitary life in continental hotels. ‘Manderley is no more’.

The narrator met Maxim in Monte Carlo while she was employed as a companion to the most awful Mrs Van Hopper. Her employer is a snob, who sees the narrator as a nothing. Indeed, the narrator looses no opportunity to tell us she is poor, unremarkable to look at with lank hair and a flat chest, and with awkward social manners resulting from shyness. Maxim is 42 but despite the difference in their ages they enjoy each other’s company while Mrs Van Hopper is ill.

Maxim rescues the girl from her employer, marries her and takes back to Manderley. In her new home everything serves to emphasise the young bride’s differences to the previous Mrs de Winter, who died about 9 months earlier in a boating accident.

The most sharply drawn character is Mrs Danvers, the Manderley housekeeper. Our heroine is disempowered by Mrs Danvers, the expectations of their social group, and the unfamiliarity of a large country house. In her mind she builds the picture of Maxim’s previous idyllic marriage, and lives in her mousey way under Rebecca’s spell, increasingly believing that Maxim does not love her and is still in love with Rebecca.

When Rebecca’s boat is recovered, her noxious cousin and lover raises the possibility that Maxim murdered her. Maxim tells his new bride what actually happened and that he loathed Rebecca and loves his new bride. Eventually the tensions are allayed when it became clear that Rebecca was gravely ill and engineered her own death.

Reading the story the reader is caught up with the naivety of the young bride, feeling her gaucheness, her uncertainty about her new life, the pernicious influence of Mrs Danvers, and her inability to understand Maxim’s behaviour towards her. It is a kind of Jane Eyre, Cinderella, or imposter syndrome story. The poor wee little girl gets her man and his wealth in the end.

There is an alternative way of looking at this story, and readers who wish to retain the idea that Rebecca is a lovely romantic novel should read no further.

Menabilly House, Fowey, Cornwall, in 1920s – the inspiration for Manderley. via WikiComons

What Daphne du Maurier asks us to believe in Rebecca

The romantic view of Rebecca asks the reader to accept the following more cynical and less romantic reading might lead one to asks how the author gets us to accept the following:

Maxim is a neglectful and unkind older man who picks an innocent young woman to marry. Maxim is a man of the world, and at 42 on a few weeks’ acquaintance marries a gauche girl with very little polish or anything else to recommend her. He gives her very little help in her new responsibilities at Manderley. This is left the agent Frank Crawley.

The hero treats his wife badly. He is bound up with himself and his concerns and gives her no help in unfamiliar social engagements, the running of the house, her relationship with Mrs Danvers or, crucially, the nature of his previous marriage. He allows her to founder and she suffers.

Maxim is a murderer. He murders a woman who has just told him she is pregnant.

The narrator is especially feeble when confronting the house that has been moulded by Rebecca. She does not change the furniture, the food, the flower arrangements, acquiesces to everything Mrs Danvers or Maxim has arranged. Rather prone to imagining how things might be, she never even drams of putting her mark on the house or on Maxim’s life. I found her very feeble, always twisting her handkerchief in her fingers.

When Maxim confesses to murder his second wife hears only that he did not love Rebecca. He is a murderer. He is a wife murderer. But he loves her not Rebecca. She stands by him, excuses his crime, supports him in the efforts to pervert the course of justice.

They run away to Europe despite being exonerated. The house is destroyed by fire, probably by Mrs Danvers at the instigation of Rebecca’s foul cousin, so the De Winters go abroad and hide, desperate for news and the old rituals of Manderley. They are not happy.

Daphne du Maurier’s writing

Rebecca is a classic novel, loved by many. But it invites the reader to collude in the unassertive behaviour of the narrator and in the acceptability of a heinous crime. It is a crime even if Rebecca was a monster. (We never get to see her except through Maxim’s and Mrs Danvers’ accounts.) It is a crime even if it is suicide by enraged husband (a variation of the American suicide by police) Maxim did not know that Rebecca was ill and that she feared a slow and painful death above all else.

Perhaps we are distracted by Mrs Danvers and the other vivid characters. Mrs Van Hopper is a delight, a stupid version of Mrs Catherine de Burgh. Each of the Manderley servants, Maxim’s sister are all believable characters, and sometimes very humorous.

I got a little fed up with the endless speculations of the narrator on the possible explanations or outcomes of every situation. It’s a long novel and many of her fears could have been reduced or avoided I felt.

Hitchcock’s film

Any reading of Rebecca is influenced by the 1940 Hitchcock film starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. Hitchcock did not allow his hero to shoot Rebecca, by the way. Her death during a struggle was accidental.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) Virago Modern Classics (2003) See the afterword by Sally Beauman 441pp

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 on completion of 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.

Previous posts in the Project

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913.

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

The next decade: 1940s

I am still musing on what to read from the 1940s for May’s choice. I am tempted by They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1950s and 1960s.

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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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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.

To subscribe and receive email notification of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

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The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was writing about New York high society at the turn of the last century in The House of Mirth. Her themes, however, resonated very strongly when I first read this novel in the 70s. Lily Bart’s  gradual descent from a young woman with prospects of a beneficial marriage to a lonely death in a boarding house reveals many aspects of life: gender, privilege, reputation, selfishness, beauty.

Published in 1905 The House of Mirth is the first novel in my decade project (see below).

The story

Lily Bart is beautiful and since birth has been encouraged to have expectations based on her looks to make a good marriage and we meet her as she puts her plans into effect. Lily has no parents and a very small income. She is 29, and her options are narrowing. When the moment arrives to clinch the rich young man Lily cannot quite bring herself to go through with it. He is dull.

From this point her story traces her gradual decline from full member of the elite rich to her death in a pokey boarding house, probably by her own hand, in less than two years.

Beset by money difficulties she accepts what turns out to be a loan from her friend’s husband. Compromised by this, she is then dragged further into potential difficulties by the machinations of Bertha Dorset, who takes her off to Europe. Here Mrs Dorset abandons her and besmirches her reputation. From there she tries to become some parvenus’ social secretary, but that also compromises her, and then as persona non grata, she tries millinery but on being laid off, because the hat season depends upon the presence of high society, she finally cannot cope.

‘Look at those spangles, Miss Bart, – every one of ’em sewed on crooked.’
From the original illustrations by AB Wanzell

She is frequently supported, not quite rescued, by Lawrence Selden. He falls in love with her, of course, but although he is from her set he hasn’t enough money for her. And although he is a true friend to her he does not save her from her trajectory.

As it turns out she is a good friend to him as well, having incriminating letters in her possession, which she destroys rather than bring him shame.

Lily Bart

Lily is an intelligent woman, with very advanced social skills. She can read and act upon every nuance of a situation. Her chief asset in the New York society is her beauty. She is aware of this, and presents herself accordingly.

We are twice given descriptions of her, both seen through Seldon’s eyes. In the opening chapter he comes across her at grand Central Station. He had not seen her for eleven years.

Seldon had never seen her more radiant. Her vivid head, relieved against the dull tints of the crowd, made her more conspicuous than in a ball-room, and under her dark hat and veil she regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing. (5)

The other moment occurs at a society event. Lily presents herself in a tableau as Mrs Lloyd by Joshua Reynolds, and impresses everyone present.

We learn early on that Lily had a horror of dinginess drummed into her by her mother. But she also has spirit and a certain amount of recklessness, her gambling for example, which prevents her from arranging the marriage that would secure her material future.

She has integrity and a streak of realism. Despite her damaged reputation and her financial obligations she will not become the mistress of the husbands of her friends. Nor will she resort to skulduggery despite having the means to get revenge on Bertha Dorset, her nemesis.

The themes

Lily’s story reveals the class dynamics operating in New York, but also everywhere where people believe that wealth entitles them to use other people and treat them with distain. Lily’s gradual descent through the strati of society reveal to her and to the reader just how damaging this belief in entitlement is.

Gender plays its part. More than once Lily reflects on how being a female curtails and determines what she is and is not supposed to do, and how easily an unmarried woman’s reputation can be damaged. Her friend Gerty asks Lily about the truth of the allegations against her.

Miss Bart laughed. ‘What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that is easiest to believe. In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and its convenient to be on good terms with her.’ (228)

The value of beauty is another theme. Lily has been taught to trade on her beauty, but people’s values are actually counted in money, houses and opera boxes. And Lily’s beauty will not last forever, she is already 29.

Lily is trapped by being prepared only for a life of advantaged marriage. As she seeks something a little more worthy of her intelligence and discernment she is punished and excluded. She has not been educated to become independent. She finds her skills limited and her understanding as narrow as anyone’s in her set. She is ashamed at her lack of skill and her inability to acquire it when she works in a millinery shop.

The book

This was Edith Wharton’s second novel and originally appeared as a serial in Scribner’s magazine. She was describing her own social milieu, and her book profoundly shocked many people. However, it sold very well.

The title is from Ecclesiastes 7:4. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. What a cruel word ‘mirth’ is, implying humour at the expense of others. Some translations substitute ‘pleasure’ for mirth.

In her minute observations of social interactions, the meanings of glances, or avoidances, Edith Wharton learned much from Jane Austen. She too is a close chronicler of the events she describes, and this book is not one to be skipped for the story, for the story is in these subtle manoeuvrings and Lily’s ability to read the situations but not to control them.

The novel was made into a film in 2000 starring Gillian Anderson and Dan Aykroyd.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Edition used was from Penguin Modern Classic 1979. 333pp

Jacquiwine reviewed The House of Mirth in October 2014.

The Decade Project

My library had a pile of Reading Passports. I picked one up and it inspired me. To encourage reading your Reading Passport is stamped each time you complete a book from a different decade. I don’t need a passport or a stamp, but I do like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I have decided to read one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1920s in February and so on and to review them here.

The next decade

I plan to read O Pioneers by Willa Cather for February’s choice for 1910. Please make any suggestions for subsequent decades.

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