Tag Archives: Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The cover of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is outstanding. I would probably have read it because of the cover alone. But last year The Essex Serpent and its cover took Twitter by storm. And it has been the centre of attention since as it racked up the awards:

  • Waterstones Book of the Year 2016
  • Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award
  • Long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize
  • Long-listed for the Wellcome Book Prize
  • Long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize
  • British Book Awards Fiction Book and overall Book of the Year in May 2017.

And it is now out in paperback.

The Story

The story is set in London and Essex, of course, in 1893, and spans twelve months. We begin as Cora Seabourne is widowed. The marriage has been abusive, so there is relief as well as grief. In his last days he had been attended by the brilliant surgeon, Luke Garrett. Nicknamed The Imp for his unusual appearance, Luke has few social skills, few friends, but total confidence in his medical abilities and falls for Cora.

Cora also has a son of about 7. Francis is also distant, and perhaps has a compulsive obsessive disorder. His main support is Martha, Cora’s companion.

Cora inherits enough money for an independent life, and she decides to follow Mary Anning in pursuit of palaeontology, but in Essex rather than Dorset. This is the era when religious faith was challenged by Darwin’s ideas. In the Essex village of Aldwinter the vicar, William Ransome, is struggling with a population who believe that strange goings-on are God’s punishment for their failings. There is a belief in an Essex Serpent, who lives in Blackwater Estuary, in the liminal space between river and sea. There are reports of strange sightings, unexplained disappearances, sickness and dark shapes in the water …

Cora and William are attracted to each other by their lively interest in the world and explanations of how life is. Their story runs alongside the unravelling of the mysteries of the Serpent.

A gothic style?

Genre is not my strong point, but I have frequently read that The Essex Serpent is gothic and it does have a dark mystery or two and an unseen monster, and many characters, many of whom don’t fit well into Victorian society, odd balls, radicals, misfits, and a beautiful woman wracked with TB.

The mysterious, mythical and malign Essex Serpent is attractive to many of the people in the novel, being in some cases the receptacle of their fears. The characters are suitably complex, not sure what they want or believe, or able to dispense with alternative beliefs that contradict each other.

Not everything works out as one might expect. For example, marriage is not considered by Cora or Martha as the next desirable step in life. Martha has socialist ideas, and sees marriage as a form of prison. Cora is enjoying an unconventional life allowed by independence in widowhood.

And sexual love, while present, is not the main motivation of the various relationships in this novel. Rather, friendship between men, women, adults and children is the most positive force, along with a sense of community.

This novel has a great deal to do with rationalism and superstition. While they are in opposition some of the time, it is also clear that they are not exclusive, and one human can entertain both simultaneously.

What I liked about The Essex Serpent

The cover, designed by Peter Dyer, with acknowledgement to William Morris.

The rich cast of characters, some rural and some enjoying the privileges of Victorian wealth. It must have been an exciting time for medicine, geology, palaeontology and socialist ideas.

I love it that the women in this novel are not sweet and swoony.

I liked the way that life moved through these people and left them with more understanding.

And I enjoyed the setting: the landscape of coastal Essex, the estuary, the natural life, the sounds and sights that unfold throughout the year. Essex is an underrated county. Here we are in June as Cora takes a walk:

Essex has her bride’s gown on: there’s cow parsley frothing by the road and daisies on the common, and the hawthorn’s dressed in white; wheat and barley fatten in the fields, and bindweed decks the hedges. (230)

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, first published in 2016 by Serpent’s Tail. Now available in paperback. 418pp

 

Related posts

Booksnob reviewed The Essex Serpent in July 2016. She had some criticisms of the sub-plotting, but generally thought it was a marvellous read.

Helen Parry reviewing for ShinyNewBooks was similarly enthusiastic.

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

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

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

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

Virginia Wolf suggested that in 1928 the impediments to women’s fiction were removed, but I detect a slight tongue in cheek: the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good.

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

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

283 Room VBell's cover

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

A Room of One’s Own.

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

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

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

283 RooOO cover

It’s better now …

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

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

… but not a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

And …

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf in 1927

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

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

Related posts

My previous contributions to the #Woolfalong include:

To the Lighthouse in January

The Voyage Out in March

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street in May

Orlando in July

 

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

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

I like this novel. And I like Olive Kitteridge. I am so pleased to have found this book and this writer. Elizabeth Strout was included on the Baileys Women’s Fiction longlist in 2014 with The Burgess Boys, and was longlisted this year with My Name is Lucy Barton, but I didn’t pay attention. So now I am looking forward to reading more of her fiction.

259 Olive K UK cover

The Novel

The framing of this novel is unusual – thirteen short stories, in which Olive Kitteridge plays a role, often quite a minor one. All the stories are about the people of Crosby in Maine, where Olive was a math teacher in the local school, and her husband a pharmacist – so both are well known.

The themes of the novel concern the community and people’s places within it. Elizabeth Strout writes on her website that,

It is not “good” or “bad” that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfections of our lives.

Murkiness of human experience, that’s a good phrase. And that’s what we get in Olive Kitteridge. We meet all kinds of people, some of whom have made a success of their lives, others just seem to be getting along, not always happily. Some are in agony, others have lived through bereavement or infidelity and made their accommodation to the discomforts and the murkiness of their lives.

As the stories progress we find that a clearer picture of Olive emerges, as a woman who knew most of people who live in Crosby, who endured her husband’s passion for another, younger woman, disappointments with her son who married and moved away, her husband’s severe stroke, and finally widowhood.

Through the stories the threads that connect the lives of the community are revealed. We see the longevity of some marriages, the rural rather closed community on the coast of Maine, the importance of small acts, the significance of social events – funerals, weddings, visits, eating donuts. Elizabeth Strout shows us broken social skills and people not coping. She shows us the warmth that communities can bring when they help people.

259 Strout

Elizabeth Strout has a very clear and sparse way of writing. She shows us what is and what is not said. And in the background the landscape of Maine is always present, the rocky coastline, the light from the sea.

The older woman, Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge is in her 70s, and she is not altogether happy about her physical appearance. Her she is, taking a moment for herself at her son’s wedding.

Olive is a big person. She knows this about herself, but she wasn’t always big, and it still seems something to get used to. It’s true she has always been tall and felt clumsy, but the business of being big showed up with age: her ankles puffed out, her shoulders rolled up behind her neck, and her wrists and hands seem to become the size of a man’s. Olive minds – of course she does; sometimes, privately, she minds very much. But at this stage of the game she is not about to abandon the comfort of food, and that means right now she probably looks like a fat dozing seal wrapped in some kind of gauze bandage. (62)

She is not especially wise or heroic, comforting or generous. She is not an attractive woman. Elizabeth Strout frequently refers to her size. But Olive is perceptive, and sometimes knows exactly what to say and do for other people, although with her own son she seems less surefooted.

Here she is sitting with Marlene, a not very bright but sweet and gentle woman who has just learned that her husband may have been unfaithful with her cousin, Kerry. This little scene is played out at the gathering following his funeral. They are watching Kerry sleep.

For a while neither woman speaks, then Marlene says pleasantly, “I’ve been thinking about killing Kerry.” She raises a hand from her lap and exposes a small paring knife lying on her green flowered dress.

“Oh,” says Olive.

Marlene bends over the sleeping Kerry and touches the woman’s bare neck. “Isn’t this some major vein?” she asks, and puts the knife flat against Kerry’s neck, even poking slightly at the vague throbbing of the pulse there.

“Yuh. Okay. Might want to be a little careful there.” Olive sits forward.

In a moment Marlene sighs, sits back. “Okay, here.” And she hands the paring knife to Olive.

“Do better with a pillow,” Olive tells her. “Cut her throat, there’s going to be a lot of blood.”

A sudden, soft, deep eruption of a giggle comes from Marlene. “Never thought of a pillow.” (177)

And Olive knows when not to say what is in her mind. But the reader gets her reaction. Earlier in the same story Olive is waiting to go to Marlene’s house to help Molly Collins prepare for the funeral guests.

Molly Collins, standing next to Olive Kitteridge, both of them waiting along with the rest, has just looked around behind her at that side of the grocery store, and with a deep sigh says, “Such a nice woman. It isn’t right.”

Olive Kitteridge, who is big-boned and taller by a head than Molly, reaches into her handbag for her sunglasses, and once she has them on, she squints hard at Molly Collins, because it seems such a stupid thing to say. Stupid – this assumption people have, that things should somehow be right. But she finally answers, “She’s a nice woman, it’s true,” turning and looking across the road at the budded forsythia near grange hall. (164)

In case you think Olive is impervious to life’s difficulties, here she is responding to another comment by Molly. Olive’s husband Henry has suffered a stroke and is completely incapacitated. Olive goes to talk to him every day in the local hospital.

“Is Henry able to understand, then?” Molly asks a few minutes later.

For Olive this is like someone has swung a lobster buoy and slammed her in the breastbone. But she answers simply, “Some days, I think so, yes.” (165)

What we learn about Olive is that Henry kept her grounded. And when he suffers a stroke, and later dies, she finds herself ‘out of life. This phrase recurs, referring to the importance of social connections, meaningful ones, to make an older person’s life worth living.

In the final story Olive does make a connection, with a man who voted for George W Bush, to her horror. But she is learning to compromise, to see that this new relationship might offer her something in an otherwise bleak life. Jack’s need for her ‘had given her a place in the world’. (269)

259 Olive K US cover

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, first published in 2008. Published in the UK by Simon & Schuster 270pp. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The Older Women in Fiction Series.

This post is the 21st in my Older Women in Fiction series. Recent posts include

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

And still the most popular of all the posts is Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

The next in the series will appear in August, a Hungarian novel: The Door by Magda Szabo.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reviews, short stories