Tag Archives: Jane Austen

Walking in Four Novels

Writing and walking work together very well. I explored some connections for writers in a recent blogpost: Steps to Improve Your Writing. Here I explore four novels to consider how walking features in them.

Few characters walk in novels to get from A to B or for the good of their health. These aspects of walking do not contribute to interesting plots. Instead, some characters walk to escape, such as the woman in white, Rosaleen along the Green Road, or Harold Fry. Some characters need to walk to be connected to other people, the history in their surroundings, or their memories. Frequently by walking, characters assert their independence, as in the case of Elizabeth Bennet.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

279 The_woman_in_white_Cover_1890

Who can forget the first meeting with the woman in white? The narrator has visited his mother in Hampstead and is returning on foot at night to London. He is, indeed, walking from A (Hampstead) to B (back to London). The stage is set: dark, isolated and already a bit weird.

I had now arrived at that particular point on my walk where four roads met – the road to Hampstead, along which I returned; the road to Finchley; the road to West End; and the road back to London. I had mechanically tuned in this latter direction, and was strolling along the lonely high-road – idly wondering, I remember, what the Cumberland young ladies would look like – when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my young body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.

I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening around the handle of my stick.

There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road – there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven – stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her. (23-4)

It is dramatic and weird. Who would not read on to find out the mystery of the pointing Woman in white?

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, (1860), I used the Penguin Classic edition.

The Green Road by Anne Enright

231 Gr Rd cover

In the second novel, Rosaleen also takes a night walk. This walk shapes a dramatic scene, towards the end of the novel, as if it will lead to a reconciliation or final departure. It is late on Christmas Day, in west Ireland near the Flaggy Shore. Rosaleen, an older woman, leaves her disconnected family for a solitary walk she has taken many times along the Green Road. It is cold and dark and she is plagued first by the wind and then by reflections on her life.

She had been waiting, all her life, for something that never happened and she could not bear the suspense any longer. (259)

Like many walkers, she responds to the elemental atmosphere.

Rosaleen spread her arms wide and flung her face up.

‘Hah!’ she said.

In the middle of nowhere, on Christmas Day, when no one was out, not one person was walking the roads.

‘Hah!’

Old women were not given to shouting. Rosaleen did not know if she still could, or if your voice went slack like the rest of you, when you got old.

‘Oh, don’t mind me!’ she said. She roared it. She stuck her fists down straight by her sides. ‘Don’t mind me!’ (260)

She is walking along the Green Road in response to her fractured family, the loss of her husband, her advancing years.

This is why Rosaleen had come up here, to this wild place. She had come to cleanse herself of forgetfulness and of fury. To shout it loud and leave it behind. To fling it away from herself. (265)

Rosaleen gets into trouble in the dark and the cold and her family must find her. It should lead to reconciliation. This novel is highly recommended, by the way, for many other qualities too.

The Green Road by Anne Enright (2015), published by Vintage and winner of several prizes including the Man Booker Prize. My full review can be read here.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

136 Pride & Prej

Elizabeth Bennet is a walker, energetic and undeterred by poor weather. Her walks are associated with key plot moments in Pride and Prejudice. She walks to Netherfield Park to take care of her sick sister, Jane. The reactions of those in residence reveal a great deal about each of them, as well as about Elizabeth. Mrs Hurst, Bingley’s sister, makes the following comment.

‘To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ancles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.’

‘It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing,’ said Bingley.

‘I am afraid, Mr Darcy,’ observed Miss Bingley, in half a whisper, ‘that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes.’

‘Not at all,’ he replied; ‘they were brightened by the exercise.’ (82)

Elizabeth walks a great deal in the grounds of Rosings and here is met by Darcy the day following his disastrous proposal and he must give her a letter. She next meets Darcy accidentally when she is walking in the grounds of his great house, Pemberley. And finally Darcy and Elizabeth ‘get it together’ on another walk near her own home. As Willoughby says, in his cheerful way, ‘Mr Bennet, have you no more lanes in which Lizzy may lose her way again today?’ (383)

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, published in 1813. Edition used: Penguin English Library.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

279 Harold Fry

The fourth novel is structured by Harold Fry’s walk, He is an older man, retired, who has lost his energy, emotionally and physically. Harold receives a message to say that an old friend he lost touch with is dying. He sets off from his home in Kingsbridge, Devon to post a letter to her, but just keeps on walking, and after 87 days arrives in Berwick-upon-Tweed. He walks 624 miles and along the way, as is the case with pilgrimages, he meets other people and has adventures which help him understand his life and other people. He is reconciled with his wife and learns a great deal about himself including his own resilience.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce published by Black Swan in 2012.

Some other novels that feature walking

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, compared to her short story Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

The Long Walk by Stephen King

Over to You …

Can you recommend other novels that feature walking?

 

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Sisters in Fiction

Why do fiction writers so often use sisters in their novels? Is it because sisters usually have good relationships, certainly long ones, and allow authors to explore a variety of themes: growing up, marital prospects, contrasting experiences, enduring relationships or rivalries. Here are some thoughts on sisterly novels.

What little girls must learn? Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Everybody’s favourite gives us the lessons that must be learned about how little girls turn into grown ups. Who doesn’t identify with Jo Marsh, and who doesn’t yearn for the simplicities of 19th Century New England childhoods? We learn that sisters must grow up right, and that more than two of them ensures terrible trouble for the family.

The marriage market: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Five sisters, again a problem for their parents, and here specifically in the meat market that was an un-moneyed middle class Georgian England search for husbands. How will the sisters get their men? They are beautiful (Jane), intelligent and with bright eyes (Elizabeth), wanton (Lydia), boring (Mary) and stay-at-home (Kitty).

The delights of this novel include the mutually supportive relationship between Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, and the satisfaction in them both getting nice (rich) husbands.

Contrasts: 1. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Fiction is full of examples of sisters who grow up differently in the same household. The convenient contrast allows authors to look at the effects of birth order: the older having more responsibility than younger sisters. That is certainly true of the saintly Eleanor who is thwarted by Marianne’s gullibility in Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen’s novels are full of contrasting sisters: Anne and her sisters, (patient, selfish and grasping) in Persuasion, and the play-acting rivals Maria and Julia Bartram in Mansfield Park.

Contrasts: 2. Easter Parade by Richard Yates

248 Easter Parade Cover

 

Richard Yates took the contrast between two sisters’ lives from before the war to the 60s to tell a sad story of alcoholism and marriage failure.

Sarah, the older sister, quickly settles for the most classy man her mother finds for her. He turns out not to be classy, and also turns out to be a wife beater. His attitudes are typical blue collar American despite his English education.

Emily, the younger sister, chooses lots of men, and also ends up lost, without success and unemployed. Only her nephew, who is an ordained minister, seems to offer any hope or understanding. Everyone else has been consumed by drink.

Easter Parade Richard Yates (1976) Published by Everyman 188pp

For a very good review check out Jacquiwine’s Journal on Easter Parade.

Contrasts 3: They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

248 Dorothy Whipple

I haven’t read this yet, but the Persephone catalogue describes it as ‘A 1943 novel by this superb writer, contrasting three different marriages’. Dorothy Whipple has a good eye for family relationships. See my review of Greenbanks.

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published by Persephone.

Loyalty: Housekeeping (1980) by Marilynne Robinson

This novel defies description. The sisters, Ruthie and Lucille, live in a weird and rather isolated environment, called Fishbone, in the American Mid-West. They are orphans and a succession of relatives fails to look after them. Finally, their aunt cares for them until the younger sister breaks away. The scene of the flooded house lives in my memory.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, published in the UK by Faber & Faber 224pp.

Long-lasting: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

The central mystery of this successful novel is Maud’s attempt to find out what happened to her sister since she disappeared at the end of the war. She pursues the clues, despite the passage of time and her own fading mental powers.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014) published by Penguin Books. 275pp

For more on this novel see the post in the older women in fiction series.

Rivalry: The Looking Glass Sisters by Gohril Gabrielsen.

248 Lglass Sisters cover

The unrelenting horror of this story of a co-dependent relationship turned worse and more destructive by the page is a contrast to the other novels mentioned here.

The story is set in the remote far north of Norway. Two sisters live in a house, their parents have died. They are middle aged but the narrator recalls their earlier lives. She is younger and disabled, having lost the use of her legs in childhood, an outcome she partly blames on her sister for not alerting her parents to her worsening illness. The younger sister riles and deliberately provokes and annoys her older carer. The situation is changed by the arrival of Johan, and his inability to cope with the invalid and the invalid’s jealousy of her sister. The situation declines and declines and in the end everything is terrible.

The Looking-Glass Sisters Peirene (2008) 183pp

Translated from the Norwegian by John Irons

Sisters in fiction always a happy ending?

Sisters are doing it themselves!

On the whole, sisterhood is good in fiction, as in life. It is not surprising that the second wave of feminism took to calling all women sisters.

But there is ambivalence in these novels (and perhaps life). The relationship is not always easy. In novels, especially from the 19th century it seems that there is always a fear that one woman’s marriage/achievements will spell another’s poverty.

Over to you

Have you any suggestions about why sisters appear so often in novels? What other fictional sisters would you recommend?

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A little rant about … Spoiler Alerts

This post is about spoiler alerts, what they mean and why they are so common. I am asking whether we need them. Are we in danger of saying that the story and its surprises are the most important thing about reading a novel. Really?

The donkey dies in the end

I cheered when I read this by David Rain.

Think of the phrase ‘spoiler alert’, so common in discussions of films, television series and even, nowadays, novels. What kind of work is ‘spoiled’ – used up, made redundant – once its surface narrative is known? A classic story can be told again and again. Shakespeare is never read for the last time; nor is Jane Austen. In Platero and I, we ‘spoil’ nothing by saying that the donkey dies in the end.

He was recommending Juan Ramon Jimenez’s novel Platero and I in Slightly Foxed (No 46, Summer 2015).

Recently I saw a spoiler alert on a blogpost about Mrs Dalloway. If Virginia Woolf were alive today she’d be turning in her grave! Now I ask you, would your pleasure in Pride and Prejudice be reduced if you knew that Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy get it together? Or that Jane Eyre is able to say of Mr Rochester, ‘Reader, I married him,’ and you already knew? Or even that in Rebecca, Maxim … no I’ll leave that one.

Cartoon from Amy Lynch tweet 28.5.15

Cartoon from Amy Lynch tweet 28.5.15

The surface narrative is not the novel. Although the surface narrative may be the film, I’m not sure about that. But perhaps the reason why films of good novels are so popular may be connected to this primacy of the narrative. Here’s a link to the blogpost on novels that are ‘major motion pictures’.

A and B Readers and Writers?

Anthony Burgess divided writers into two kinds:

A writers are story tellers.

B writers are users of language.

For B writers prose is foremost and without it ‘you are reduced to what are merely secondary interests: story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form,’ according to Marin Amis in The Art of Fiction, 1998, Paris Review interview. Hmmm

Could we apply the same categories to readers?

A readers focus on the story.

B readers look at how writers express ideas.

If this division works I would say that A Readers dominate the blogosphere with their spoiler alerts.

But although I would say I am more of a B reader, the novel is nothing without those things: story, plot, characterisation etc. I’m sure there are exceptions, some experimental French novelist of the last century probably.

While novel reading is about the pleasure of the story, a great deal of that pleasure comes from how the writer writes. The writing presents and supports elements of the story. Literary fiction is about the art of the writer to tell us the story in a skilful way. For readers the manner or style of the telling is part of the experience.

And novels need tension to carry the reader to the end, but the tension doesn’t have to be about what on earth will happen? Whodunnits use the tension of clues and McGuffins to draw the reader on. Thriller readers want the hero to escape, with one enormous bound. That’s why it may be important not to reveal the plot twist in Rebecca, but reader she (not Rebecca, who was at the bottom …) got her man.

45 catch-22

Some novels aren’t written for suspense, for what happens. Reading can simply be watching the protagonist come to terms with the events. This is one of the strengths of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, who in scene after scene, character after character convinces us of the many absurdities of war. Perhaps the writer is suggesting that nothing much gets resolved in the story: see The Green Road by Anne Enright for example, reviewed recently on this blog.

I know of one reader who always turned to the last page. She wanted to read the novel without the surprises that the story might bring, to know the outcomes so she could see how they got there.

To spoil or not?

225 S&S coverSometimes it seems important not to reveal the plot. For example, I did sidestep reviewing Sugar and Snails, by Anne Goodwin. The significant reveal is designed to get the reader to think about their assumptions. I love a novel that makes you think, but I didn’t feel I could review the novel without discussing what is revealed. Anne Goodwin’s own discussion of spoilers can be found on her blog, Do spoilers Spoil? We are all Completely Beside Ourselves. Anne quotes some research about spoilers (that weren’t) and readers of short stories. They preferred them spoiled!

I took a different line when I reviewed at We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, where the central issue of the novel is disclosed on p77. Again, it challenges the reader: what were you assuming? And says, now you know THAT look at what it does to my story.

But on the whole I want fewer spoiler alerts.

BTW

Slightly Foxed is a quarterly and subscription details can be found on their website.

Over to You

We have energetic debates about spoiler alerts in one of my reading groups. Where do you stand?

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On the tricky topic of titles

Titles – they are very difficult to get right – for a short story, a blog post, our book, the chapters in our book, my draft novel, the writing group’s anthology. The title has to do so much work that it requires hours of discussion, days of rumination and much experimentation.

101 RWA coverEileen and I rejected many, many titles for our book on retirement: The Golden Hours, How to Retire with Dignity, Retiring Now, Not your usual Retirement Guide. Our working title up to the point where we were about to hand over the manuscript was The New Retiring Book. It was our editor and publisher that found the right title: Retiring with Attitude. It says exactly what’s in the tin.

So what is the work of the title?

  1. Announcing the genre and subject

212 Fl B coverThe title is assisted by the cover design in indicating the book’s genre to the purchaser/reader as well as what the book is about and whether it’s the kind of book they want to buy/read. It helps if it is memorable for recommendations, word of mouth and requests in bookstores. You know, that book about the butterflies: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. There is a whole book about this: Weird Things Customers say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. Check out Jen Campbell’s website here for more stories (such as ‘Have you got a signed copy of Shakespeare’s plays?’)

2. Invitation

The title can also entice or invite the reader. It might imply a question: The Aftermath (by Rhidian Brook) of what? The Secret of the Gorge (Malcolm Saville). So what is the secret? asks the title.

Or it might be intriguing like these examples: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor, The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker.

3. Directing the reader’s attention

Pride and Prejudice might have been called The Bennet Sisters or How to get your Husband. But that would have been to misdirect attention. Jane Austen knew a thing or two about what impedes good relationships. She originally had First Impressions in mind but when she revised the book the title went further.

Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller) is such a good title it has become a figure of speech. It directs the reader to the madness and illogicality of war that binds everyone.

4. Snagging the blog reader’s attention

There is particular art to getting the right title for a blog post. Like in a bookshop it needs to capture attention, but in a very brief time. Apparently 8 out of 10 users will read the title, only 2 out of 10 will read the content. Guidance for bloggers abounds and I will add to the advice in a post next month, but here’s a teaser: it’s about questions and numbers and dire warnings!

It’s hard getting the right title

Every book I have ever been involved in publishing (all non-fiction) has involved much agony and hours of discussion about the title, jokey titles, working titles, disparaging titles and anti-titles until the point where the right one arrives. Or perhaps that’s just one right one among several.

I recall a very creative lunch when Eileen and I brain stormed the most silly and excellent ideas for the chapter titles in Retiring with Attitude. We quickly found Retirement ain’t what it used to be and went on to This is your rainy day. It felt very creative in a way that endless chapter revisions did not.

Until a month ago the book I am currently involved in writing (there are three authors) was called Ageing Now. We persuaded the publisher that this was a working title when we negotiated the contract, and we have become increasingly aware of its limitations as we have engaged with the writing: it doesn’t say much about the book; it’s too vague about content, readership, and purpose. We have a better one now. WATCH THIS SPACE!

And not having a title says something too, gives the reader more work to do. One of the writers in my writing group recently read a poem with no title and we had a lively discussion about that: what it did to the listener to have no title, did it need one, what the title might be, why she had not given it one. Thanks to the group for the discussion.

And some that got away

212 1984 coverTrimalchio in West Egg by F. Scott Fitzgerald became The Great Gatsby.

Strangers from within by William Golding became Lord of the Flies.

The Mute by Carson McCullers became The Heart is a lonely Hunter.

The Last Man in Europe by George Orwell became 1984.

At This Point in Time by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward became All the president’s Men.

These come from a blog by Anne R. Allen in a post called 10 Tips for Choosing the Right Title in the E-Age.

Can you spot the Alternate Titles in the quiz on The Reading Room blog?

 

How do you go about finding or creating the titles for your writings?

 

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Fallen Women

It’s an old story. It’s women’s story. To tell it is a feminist act. The fallen woman was seduced, became pregnant and faced the consequences alone. Abandoned by her seducer and by her family many of these women left their babies and committed suicide, often by drowning.

G>F Watts Found Drowned c1848-1850 Watts Gallery. Used with permission

GF Watts Found Drowned c1848-1850 © Watts Gallery. Used with permission

The Fallen Woman Exhibition

The inspiration for this post comes from an exhibition The Fallen Woman at the Foundling Museum, London. Established by Thomas Coram, supported by Hogarth and Handel, the Foundling Hospital took in babies from 1741.

The exhibition explores what led mothers to leave their babies at the Foundling Hospital, and draws on the petitions the mothers made to the hospital committee to persuade them to take in their children. A sound installation by Steve Lewinson uses the words of women, found in the petitions, in a moving addition to the paintings. The paintings are by men and largely show the shame the women had to endure, the rejection and the suicides.

Fallen Women in Fiction

Fear of becoming a fallen woman has haunted novels since the genre became established. As the term suggests it refers to a woman who had some respectability but lost it through sexual relations – ‘criminal conversations’ as they were referred to in the petitions. The title of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (1850) says it all. In the Victorian era the prospects for a fallen woman were assumed to be prostitution, disease and death. There was, of course, no such thing as a fallen man.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

A character who seemed destined to fall is Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. So keen is she to get a husband, so enthralled by Wickham that she runs off to London with him. The family’s concern is entirely to get him to marry her, to save the family from public shame. It is Darcy, as a kindness to Elizabeth, who uses his wealth to persuade Wickham to do the right thing. His own sister, Georgiana, was almost seduced by Wickham. Lydia is a wild and silly girl. She has absorbed her mother’s obsession to marry off her daughters, and on her return home, safely married, wastes no time to show off her wedding ring to the neighbours. Elizabeth Bennet comments to Lydia, ’I do not particularly like your method of getting husbands.’

136 Pride & PrejIn contrast, Charlotte Lucas accepts the awful Mr Collins’s proposal. Elizabeth is shocked by the prospect of her dear friend marrying such an ass. Charlotte makes it clear that her future depends upon her having an establishment of her own, and this was only possible through marriage.

‘I only ask a comfortable home; and considering Mr Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.’

Women of a certain class were so entirely dependent upon finding a husband, any husband, that Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr Collins makes some sense. Lydia risked everything by her escapade with Wickham.

A fallen woman, Jane Austen reminds us, can bring social opprobrium not only upon herself but also upon her family. This explains the rejection of the fallen woman by her own parents. I found The Outcast by Richard Redgrave to be the most shocking thing in the exhibition. The father’s dramatic and incontrovertible gesture was echoed by another father who gave evidence to the committee at the Hospital:

He had rather been dead than have to deal with his daughter’s disgrace.

The Outcast by Richard Redgrave 1851 © Royal Academy Photographer John Hammond. Used with permission

The Outcast by Richard Redgrave 1851 © Royal Academy Photographer John Hammond. Used with permission

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

Jane Eyre had no family to consider, but she refuses to fall. Mr Rochester and Jane are in the church for their wedding when it is revealed that he already has a wife. To the humiliation of being publically unable to marry him, Mr Rochester adds a proposal: ‘you shall be my wife – both virtually and nominally and I shall keep to you so long as you and I live’. But Jane rejects the status he offers. ‘Mr Rochester, I will not be yours.’ The narrator (Jane herself) makes it clear just how hard it was for her to leave him. Her resolve is strengthened by the apparition of her mother. ‘My daughter, flee temptation.’ And off she goes to other adventures.

When I first read Jane Eyre in the 1960s I could not understand why she did not follow her heart and take Mr Rochester’s suggestion. Being with the one you loved was more important than anything, I believed. Since then I better understand the control exerted by the church and social norms, controls on women.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles: a pure woman faithfully presented by Thomas Hardy (1902)

Tess famously becomes the ‘victim of seduction’ by Alec D’Urbeville. She lives in seclusion through her pregnancy and the baby survives only a short time. She reveals her past when she marries Angel Clare but he finds it unacceptable, despite his own ‘criminal conversation’ and what follows is Tess’s inevitable descent into abandonment and ultimately murder. This novel depends upon a double standard: men can be excused a fling, even rape, but a woman is fatally blighted. As I said, no such thing as a fallen man.

The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks (1960)

207 cover LShapedRoomSet in the late 1950s this novel considered the fate of the mother of a child born out of marriage. Jane Graham is cast out by her father when she reveals that she is pregnant and experiences hardship in finding a room and coping with a small child. She is helped by the other boarders in the house she found, misfits themselves. The book was considered shocking perhaps because it did not treat marriage as the conclusion of a woman’s story. An unhappy love affair resulted in a baby instead.

 

The Millstone by Margaret Drabble (1965)

207 Millstone coverThis novel was also very successful and shocking. A one-night stand results in pregnancy. Although advised by her older, married sister to get an abortion (still illegal) or to put the baby up for adoption Rosamund Stacey decides to have the baby. She finds support from a friend who needs accommodation and will provide childcare in exchange. Her difficulties are indicated by the title of the novel.

The fallen woman haunts many other novels: George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Adam Bede (1859), Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Bowles (1969). Other genres come to mind. The Inspector Called by J B Priestly, a play in which one element in the victim’s abuse is the seduction, exploitation and abandonment by the young man of the family. Traviata (1853) the opera by Verdi, based on La Dame aux Camelias by Dumas. One of the most beautiful arias is sung by Germont’s father who pleads to Violetta to give up his son. Their liaison is damaging his daughter’s chances of marriage. There are more examples.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

And then there is Mary Wollstonecraft, not a character in a novel but a writer herself. She refused to fall. Most often remembered as a key figure in feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft should have been a fallen woman. She had two children, both conceived out of wedlock. The first, Fanny Imlay, was the result of her liaison with Gilbert Imlay. When he made it clear that their relationship was over she threw herself off Putney Bridge into the Thames. This was a popular method of suicide, classic behaviour of a fallen woman. Mary, her biographers agree, was in despair at her rejection, not haunted by shame. She was rescued. Painters used the dramatic visual impact of suicide to push home the awful destiny of the fallen woman. Cruikshank blamed drink and one of his etchings shows ‘a destitute woman throws herself from a bridge, her life ruined by alcoholism’ (1848).

Mary recovered and went on to meet and fall in love with William Godwin, the renowned philosopher. They married before their child was born. Mary died in childbirth. The press reported her death as an appropriate end for such a dissolute woman.

The baby survived. She was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who later married Percy Bysshe Shelley and wrote Frankenstein.

The exhibition

The Fallen Woman continues at the Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ until 3rd January 2016. It was curated by Professor Lynda Nead, author of social histories of the Victorian period, including Myths of Sexuality, Representation of Women in Victorian Britain. To write this post I used the exhibition guide, including articles by Lynda Nead and Margaret Reynolds. I am also grateful for permission to use the images from the exhibition and to Hannah Thomas at the Museum for assistance with them.

Do you have any examples of the fallen woman to add?

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Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

There are no sweet old ladies in Quartet in Autumn. Barbara Pym takes an unflinching look at two women and two men as they end their working lives, and face their futures in London in the late 1970s. All four are single. All four have small lives. Barbara Pym herself knew what it meant to be overlooked in later life, when her publisher turned down a novel because it was not adequately commercial. 204 4tet in Autumn cover

The Story of Quartet in Autumn

The four share an office and have jobs that are utterly dispensable. We never find out what their jobs are or the nature of the business in which they work. Whatever it is, computers will replace them. We are introduced to the foursome through their lunchtime habits and learn something of the smallness of their lives as they contemplate the prospects for their summer holidays. Their plans show that their connections to the world outside the office are almost non-existent. Edwin has his church activities, and Letty her widowed school friend with whom she will live when she retires. Marcia always spends her leave at home.

Change moves slowly through their lives. The women retire and Letty’s plans to join her friend fall apart because Marjorie becomes engaged. Letty moves out of her room to avoid the noise of her new landlord’s Pentecostal church. Edwin and Norman miss the women as they wait for their own retirement but still take their time to invite them to lunch.

In retirement Marcia retreats into her house, continuing to neglect it, the garden and her self. She has recently undergone surgery and the focus of her life is her visits to the surgeon, Mr Strong. Her death brings together the other three for only the second time since the women retired.

Ultimately Letty learns that her friend has been jilted and would like her to revive their plans of cohabiting. She has a choice of where to live for the first time and understands that this makes her significant in the lives of other.

In many ways Quartet in Autumn is a dismal story, as no one seems to care about these older people (see also Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont). But the final words of the novel are ‘life still held infinite possibilities for change’. 204 B Pym writer Gerson_cropped_op_298x311

The older women in Quartet in Autumn

Letty Crowe

Single women need to be ‘drearily splendid’. Barbara Pym was reflecting on her own situation when she used this phrase. Letty could be described as ‘drearily splendid’ as she comes to understand how little she matters to anyone in her old age. Her only family connection is a cousin she has not seen for years and who lives in the West Country. She has invested in her friendship with Marjorie and is deflated but not defeated by Marjorie’s plans to remarry.

She is discerning, is concerned for others and has spirit. She sets about making the best of everything with good cheer. Her new landlady is less than welcoming on her arrival but by the end of the novel the two women have developed a kind of friendship, based on sharing the kitchen and watching tv together.

204 B PymIt is Letty who will do best in this quartet, for she has created a situation where change is possible and it about her story that Barbara Pym makes that final observation that her ‘life still held infinite possibilities for change’.

Marcia Ivory

Marcia is a more troubling older women. She is ill and somewhat odd. Her oddness is represented by her cherished milk bottle collection kept in her garden shed. Marcia troubles the voluntary social worker who has decided to take her on. Janice, a do-gooder, is determined to get Marcia to eat better and to become more connected to the other older people of the neighbourhood. She is unable to understand Marcia’s resistance.

Marcia is inscrutable to the reader as well. She is a little like the old woman seen by Letty early in the novel who slumped on the tube and when approached by a friendly young woman was roundly told to ‘Fuck Off!’ We steer clear of such people, aware that they don’t invite or need our friendliness, and we don’t want to catch their eye in case they engage us in some crazy and embarrassing talk. We want to believe that someone else is looking out for them.

Marcia is not cut off entirely from the world. She had perceived Norman’s lack of any resources to deal with life while they worked together. It is her kind bequest that releases him from his retirement difficulties and makes choice and change possible for him.

204 My cover 4inAMarcia herself is neglected, avoided and abandoned as many older people are. She is a stark reminder of what it means to be alone, old and overlooked. There are more Marcias today than there were in the 1970s.

Barbara Pym and her Writing

The darker themes of Quartet in Autumn do not obscure Barbara Pym’s close and humorous observations of the small but significant moments in life, which skill brings inevitable comparison with Jane Austen. She admired her and studied her technique. And like Elizabeth Taylor she has an undeserved reputation for being rather twee, but they both are quiet and perceptive in their observations of the social interactions.

Here is a delightful example that tells the reader and Letty everything about Father Lydell, Marjorie’s fiance who has come to the country for his health. When they are introduced Letty asks if the country is doing him good.

‘I’ve had diarrhoea all this week,’ came the disconcerting reply.

There was a momentary – perhaps no more than a split second’s – pause, but if the women had been temporarily taken aback, they were by no means at a loss.

‘Diarrhoea,’ Letty repeated, in a clear thoughtful tone. She was never certain how to spell the word, but felt that such a trivial admission was lacking in proper seriousness so she said no more.

‘Strong drink would do you more good than the eternal round of parish cups of tea,’ Marjorie suggested boldly. ‘Brandy, perhaps.’ (34-5)

In the 1970s there was much talk about ensuring that less fortunate members of society should not ‘fall through the net’. All four people will fall through the social net, even if they do not need the services of the welfare state. Barbara Pym describes here a general attitude towards older people as they came to retire:

If the two women feared that the coming of this date might give some clue to their ages, it was not an occasion for embarrassment because nobody else had been in the least interested, both of them having long ago reached ages beyond any kind of speculation. Each would be given a small golden handshake, but the state would provide for their basic needs which could not be all that great. Elderly women did not need much to eat, warmth was more necessary than food, and people like Letty and Marcia probably either had either private means or savings, a nest-egg in the post office or a building society. It was comforting to think on these lines, and even if they had nothing extra, the social services were so much better now, there was no need for anyone to starve or freeze. And if governments failed in their duties there were always the media – continual goadings on television programmes, upsetting articles in the Sunday papers and disturbing pictures in the colour supplements. There was no need to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory. (86)

This passage draws attention to assumptions about older women: their uninteresting social lives, their needs, their financial circumstances and that other people would look out for them. Older people are perceived as ‘other people’ even today. In this passage Barbara Pym makes it impossible to accept this prevailing view by showing us life from their perspectives. By referring to the continual horror stories in the media she warns us that we do need to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory, and indeed the two men who have not yet retired. 204 B Pym + cat

Barbara Pym knew what it was to be neglected. Famously her reputation was resurrected when Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil both nominated her as the most under-rated author in 1977 in the TLS. Quartet in Autumn was published later that year. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Related posts

This is the 17th review in the series on older women in fiction. You can find them by clicking on the relevant category or by going to the page on the older women in fiction series.

An appreciation of Barbara Pym’s novels on the centenary of her birth by Philip Henscher was published in the Telegraph in June 2013

From the LA Review of Books 16th July 2015 by Mayotte, A Nice Hobby like Knitting surveys Barbara Pym’s career and novels.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym, first published in 1977 by Pan/Picador 186pp

 

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Women and Fiction

Dispirited? Moi? Well yes, a little. It seems that women’s works will always, always be neglected in favour of men’s. Despite excellent fiction written by women, despite the situation being exposed again and again and despite our best efforts. I am dispirited.

In the lists

200 Middlemarch coverTake the Telegraph’s list of 100 novels everyone should read, for example. Good start – first on the list is Middlemarch by George Eliot. There are, count them, another 18 novels written by women in the list. There is, of course, Charlotte and Emily Bronte. Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen and on through Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Shelley to Harper Lee. I wouldn’t actually disagree with any of the 100 novels, they should all be read. And more too. People should read. But 19% is not a good representation of women’s writing in a list with that title.

Bit of a girly cover?

Bit of a girly cover?

Same again in the list of 100 best novels written in English from Robert McCrum, published in the Guardian in August 2015. 22% books were by women. Emma by Jane Austen was #7 on the list and the first by a woman. The list was criticised for its lack of diversity (including women, people of colour, the Irish). Readers added another 15, of which 6 were by women.

If the proportion of women rises above 17% in Hollywood crowds people believe that women are in the majority, according to Caroline Criados-Perez author of Do it like a Woman. In lists of fiction the threshold appears to be about about 20-25%.

Perhaps the problem is the lists. The idea of the 100 best in fiction is subjective, and reflects the compilers’ tastes, prejudices, knowledge, experiences. Guess who compiles the lists!

The Vida Count

Research is undertaken annually by VIDA Women in Literary Arts and can now show the picture of women writers in a number of categories in leading literary journals over 5 years.

The 2014 VIDA count tells a vital story about the lack of parity in the literary arts. In addition to surfacing the barriers women face in the literary space, the research shows that the obstacles are compounded for women of color. Women Authors and the Media.

VIDA looks at the journals and counts, by gender, its reviewers, the authors reviewed and the bylines of its journalists. Here are the charts for two UK based journals: Granta, which does comparatively well and the TLS, which does not. The men are in red, the women in blue.

200 Granta Overall1

200 LRB Overall6

And here is a particularly depressing chart if you are a woman author trying to get attention for your books from New York Review of Books. At least it improved at the last count.

200 NYRB Authors-Reviewed6

More than numbers

And it’s more than numbers. Meg Wolitzer wrote about the women’s fiction question in the New York Times in an article called The Second Shelf: on rules of literary fiction for men and women.

She uses the term ‘women’s fiction’ to refer to literature written by women, but acknowledges that it is used to describe

a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets its sights almost exclusively on women readers and might well find a big, ready-made audience.

All fiction by women gets lumped into this category, especially by some men, as ‘one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them,’ she argues. She looks at reviewing, Amazon categories, book jackets, book length, the gender of the main characters which all indicate to readers what one might call the gender of the book. And that there are exceptions (prize winning books by women for example) does not indicate an approaching literary idyll. As poet and literary critic Katha Pollitt says

For every one woman, there’s room for three men.

The eminent historian Mary Beard has shown how women in public spaces have always been silenced by men, from Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey onwards. Her LRB lecture was called The Public Voice of Women.

Here are more exposes of how women writers are treated.

16 things sexist male writers say by Christine Stoddard in Huffington Post 29.7.15

Gendered travel writing How not to be Elizabeth Gilbert by Jessa Crispin in Boston Review 20.7.15 ‘Men go on adventures, women on journeys of self-discovery’

Women know your place by Tracy Kuhn on Women Writers, Women’s Books 3.7.15

Women in Translation Month Biblibio 21.5.15 who followed up the introductory post with 31 daily posts in August.

What to do?

189 Do it coverCaroline Criados-Perez (Do it like a Woman) ascribes male domination to the male default. This is the attitude that women are the exceptions, men the norm. Only exceptional novels make the lists, are reviewed, are published. We must expose it, show it up for what it is and for how it deprives everyone.

Go on counting, and go on publishing the figures. Go VIDA!

Follow the example of #Readwomen, not necessarily to read women only but to be conscious of the proportion of women writers and take some corrective action if necessary. I posted about #Readwomen in June 2014. It was my 100th post on Bookword.

159 BWPFF 2015 logoTake account of the long and short lists from the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction. It is likely that we will need a women’s prize for the foreseeable future. I wrote a post about the need for such a prize in 2013 called Who or what are literary prizes for?

Promote specific initiatives, such as Women in Translation Month. This twitter focus -#WITmonth – brought many great translated works of fiction to readers’ attention. My contribution was The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

Bookword includes a series that highlights older women in fiction, nearly all written by women. I believe that we need to see images, read books, watch plays and films about those who are less visible in our world than white, middle-aged, males or beautiful young people.

Talk about the obstacles, and praise the breakthroughs and advances. Publishers, editors, list compilers, bookstore buyers, judges panels – they all need to be aware of the bias towards male writers, and be prepared to justify it when they continue it. And they need to know about all the great novels by women and how we want to read them.

And it matters because …?

Because the job of fiction is to take people to worlds that are other than their own, worlds elsewhere, show different perspectives, understandings, experiences. Reducing access to the 51%’s other worlds makes no sense.

175 Womenppower symbolThis is my 200th blog post. It matters to me and it should matter to everyone who enjoys great fiction (which should be everyone, but that’s for another post!). So I shall stop focusing on the dispiritedness and go forth again, into the struggle.

Is there some action you can propose to promote women’s fiction?

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Stitching up our rights

I expected to be interested in the Magna Carta Exhibition at the British Library. You can’t take the history degree out of the girl. But I didn’t expect to be moved, to be so moved. This was my response to Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta embroidery currently on display alongside the main exhibition. Another crossover arts piece and like Woolf Works it begins with words.

The Magna Carta

If you didn’t know that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, 800 years ago, you must have been out of the country. The media loves a round-numbered anniversary and so do museums and governments. The original Magna Carta was signed by King John under duress from his barons who were objecting to his arbitrary justice and tyrannical rule. The document was basically a peace treaty and it represented John’s acquiescence to the demands of his barons. It was promptly annulled by the Pope. The settlement with the barons had lasted less than three months.

More important than John’s immediate struggle with his barons, the Magna Carta came to stand for the guarantee of rights for people all over the world. Initially, of course it was only men the barons who mattered. In subsequent struggles with the monarchy the clauses were revised and the document rewritten, so there are now many versions. The idea of a guarantee of rights was taken up by other British men (The Chartist movement), by women (The Suffragettes), by the French Revolutionaries and by those subjected to colonial rule, in C18th US and elsewhere. Nelson Mandela referred to it and to British justice in his famous and final speech at the Rivonia Trial in 1964: ‘…I am prepared to die.’

Only three of the original clauses are still in force. The rights of the Church and of the City of London featured in the original Magna Carta as the first and ninth clauses respectively. Individual freedoms were placed much lower. But here is the essence of subsequent claims to individual legal rights:

Clause 29: NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right. (From Wikipedia entry accessed 10.6.15)

Note we are talking about free men – not about women at all. The number of freemen in the C13th was limited and women didn’t get a look in until much, much later (ie C20th).

181 Votes for W Magna C

Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery)

I have long enjoyed Cornelia Parker’s work, especially Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View aka the Exploding Shed (1991), and also the witty and alternative items she submitted to the Turner Prize in 1997.

I like how she makes us look at something in a different way, shows us the underbelly of her subjects, and involves others in the production: steamroller operators, Royal Artillery explosives experts and so on. She is inventive and inviting.

181 ContributorsThe finished Magna Carta embroidery is 13 meters long. In this form it recalls the Bayeux Tapestry, albeit is laid on a table and not displayed on a wall. Its creation was a joint enterprise of people involved with the legal and penal systems of our country – prisoners, judges, lawyers, civil liberties campaigners, MPs – as well as professional embroiderers.

It is not the document itself that is embroidered, but a wikipedia page. A nice touch to indicate the wikiness of the treatment of the Magna Carta over the centuries, constantly updated by users.

Here is why I was so moved:

  1. The aesthetic pleasure of the embroidery itself. The detail of the embroidered text and wiki images are a pleasure in themselves. Who can deny the skill of the embroiderers who have reproduced the postage stamp images from the webpage? They are objects of great beauty and skill. And even the underside gives great pleasure. The photographs in the British Library pack include many of the underside. 181 word
  2. The democratic nature of the enterprise, celebrating the combined efforts of many to secure the rights and freedoms of the people of the UK and beyond. Magna Carta is about our rights in law. Every conceivable person – nearly 200 people – associated with the law that you have heard of stitched a word or more. There are famous prisoners and many referred to only by their first names, mostly men. Julian Assange, Moazzam Begg (formerly held in Gitmo), judges, QCs (Michael Mansfield QC, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC), Gareth Pierce (solicitor), campaigners and other relevant stitchers: Jon Snow (broadcaster), Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia), MPs, Alan Rusbridger (former editor of the Guardian) and Edward Snowden.
  3. The work was created by and realises the principles of freedom, collaboration, creativity and democracy.
  4. Our Human Rights Act is in danger. The new government threatens to repeal and replace the legislation. The outcomes are not likely to enhance our freedoms or further the principles of universal entitlement to rights.
  5. Needlework is a political act in Magna Carta (An Embroidery). Exploring how traditional and female crafts can be political acts has always interested and excited me. The Suffragettes used “An Army of Banners” to draw attention to its claims. (The blog Woman and her Sphere has an interesting post about the Artists’ Suffrage League: here.) And a large data base of banners and banner designs were collected by the Women’s Library and can be viewed here. Think of all those Trades Unions’ banners. There is a good tradition of subversive quilting as well. 181 huddersfield-banner
  6. Words have power. Ideas have power. Words, and embroidery (and ballet) carry ideas. Although the Suffragettes found words did not get attention fast enough!

181 WSPU banner

And a late and much admired addition to the Suffragette banners in this post is this one designed by Mary Lowndes:

Used with permission: From LSE Library’s collections, TWL.1998.32

Used with permission: From LSE Library’s collections, TWL.1998.32

Thanks to Eileen (my co-author) for discussing the experience with me and giving shape to some of the blog. Mistakes are mine, of course.

I shall be at Eye of the Needle: Art, Stitch, Partnerships and Protest on Monday 13th July at the British Library. See you there?

MAGNA CARTA Law, Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1st September 2015.

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) by Cornelia Parker can be seen (free) at the British Library until 24th July 2015

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) by Cornelia Parker. A pack including fold out reproduction of front and back, photographs, interviews and essays. Published by the British Library.

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Rereading books

Do you reread books? My lovely friend Eileen suggested this topic was a good one for Bookword blog. I thought she was right and with a little arm-twisting she agreed to contribute this post. We benefit from her research skills and her colourful use of pseudonyms. And she has referred to lots of great books – read or reread them!

Eileen writes about rereading books

Ladder of Years, by my favourite author Anne Tyler, was serialized on Radio 4 a few weeks ago and I thought ‘I must reread that’. I have read all her books, some more than once, and The Accidental Tourist many times. Do you have a favourite author or book that you come back to again and again? I wondered if other people are similarly addicted so I asked Caroline if she would write a blog about it. She replied ‘Why don’t you!’ (Note to self: Be careful what you ask for.)

177 Therese R coverThe book I read compulsively is Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola. I first read it when I was 20, found myself reading it again at 30, and then kept going. You probably know the story – two lovers plagued by guilt – gripping stuff!

My next most often reread book is To kill a Mockingbird – such fantastic story telling and powerful themes. I’m not keen on stories from a child’s perspective but this one’s amazing. Have you seen the film adaptation staring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch? Fabulous.

177 Atticus FinchI also admit to rereading: Madame Bovary, Cold Comfort Farm, Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre, Jude the Obscure and Far from the Madding Crowd – well anything by Hardy. And I’m planning to read H is for Hawk again soon. It’s such an exquisitely written book. Do read it if you haven’t.

In order to understand my predilection for rereading I asked 12 of my friends to consider the novels they have reread, why they do it and what they gain. I loved their enthusiastic responses and reminders of some excellent stuff.

You might want to consider your own responses before reading on? If so, Dear Reader, look away now!

The Survey results

It turns out that none of my friends reread books as often as me. Indigo was a bit indignant: ‘I have never reread a book. I don’t have the time and there are so many other books I want to read’. Would that be your reaction? About six of my 12 buddies agreed to some extent including Marigold: ‘I always feel I don’t read enough and feel like I’m wasting time if each read isn’t new’. But she often rereads poetry and short stories such as those by Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Muriel Spark and Ali Smith. And she added: ‘I have reread The Summer Book a good few times – I find it subtle, delightful and fresh each time’.116ToveJanssonSignature

Violet told me she has only ever reread one book. If you were going to pick just one which one would it be? For Violet it was Pride and Prejudice, which she would happily read again:

I read it once at school as a set text with no appreciation, watched the various films and then reread it a couple of years ago. That brought both enjoyment and a deeper appreciation of Jane Austen’s craft. The opening sentence is a total triumph and she manages to maintain her skill throughout the book.

She surprised me by saying that when she has greatly enjoyed a book she rarely reads a second one by the same author: ‘… that may seem odd. Perhaps I feel it sets the bar too high’.

The prospect of disappointment was also on Carmine’s mind: ‘If I really enjoyed something, I don’t want to read it again in case I don’t enjoy it as much’. Magenta agrees especially after her experience of rereading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet:

I picked up the first book, Justine, and it seemed so dated.  I am definitely not the 18 year old that read it in the 1960s. It just didn’t speak to me as it had done. I did not finish the first volume never mind the four. I would rather leave the good memories.

People of a certain age, like me and my mates, like to reread to gain new perspectives on books read in their youth. Carmine spoke about this in her reply saying there was bound to be things she’d missed in the first reading. The example she gave was I Know why the Caged Bird Sings. Yes, I agree. That is worth another look.

Ebony loved reading the following eclectic mix in her teens: Hundred Years of Solitude, Death in Venice and On the Road. These had made a real impression and she wondered if they still would.

Rereading them reminded me of ways of thinking and of expressing ideas that struck a chord. These books shaped my thinking and I was curious to see if I still thought they were relevant and inspiring. They were, which was reassuring.

Blanche reread Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady for a similar reason. When she first read it in 1978 she found there was much that related to her feelings: ‘Rereading was a different experience as I was not identifying with the character and so appreciated it in a new way’. Sapphire mentioned the need to reread a book straight away in order to grasp its meaning: ‘As soon as I finished The Sound and the Fury I reread it. I understood it the second time!’

Exploring far off countries and cultures was important. Jade had reread three particular books that gave her insights into places she liked or wanted to visit – A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute, Cache Lake Country by John Rowlands and Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee.

Ruby spoke about her passion for Barbara Kingsolver’s books, rereading to psych herself up for travelling. I savoured her reply:177 poisonwood B

I bought and read The Poisonwood Bible voraciously when it was first published in Blog.doc paperback in 1999, because I’m a big fan and am always impatient for her next book. I reread it before my trip to Mali in 2007, to get me in the mood for Africa. (OK, so Mali is in West Africa and The Congo is in Central Africa, but there are commonalities: we’d be travelling by pinasse on the Niger River, the women wear similar combinations of brightly coloured cottons as body and head wraps, carry their babies on their backs, sell similar goods in the markets, etc. Both countries struggle with poverty and instability.) More recently, I read it for the third time just prior to seeing Barbara Kingsolver discussing the book with John Mullan, and I now have my copy signed! It’s not an enjoyable reread but I valued and savoured it more.

And for those who write themselves there is another purpose for rereading. I was intrigued by Marigold’s comments about The Accidental Tourist. She saw somewhere that it’s the perfect structure for a novel: ‘I started reading it with an eye on the structure and just ended up enjoying the minutiae’. Caroline’s research for her blog inspires her to reread. Her recent posts include: What Katy Did, Brighton Rock, A Passage to India and Love, Again. Another writer, Sapphire, says she studies high quality novels in great detail, reexamining each paragraph and sentence to appreciate good construction.

177 I capturedLoving the style, or the lifestyle depicted in particular books came up. Scarlet said she had reread Perfume by Patrick Susskind and Memoirs of a Geisha. She likes both because they’re visceral and experiential and she becomes completely immersed. And Jade said she had reread I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith as she loved the lifestyle portrayed.

If you belong to a book club you might reread novels to prepare for the discussion as Caroline, Blanche and Magenta do. Caroline has recently reread The Awakening by Kate Chopin because someone mentioned it in a book group and so she wanted to look closely at that again. She returns to a book in order to read more carefully rather than relying on memory. She reads so much and so quickly that she doesn’t keep the story in her head for long. Blanche enjoys being a member of a book club to get her rereading. She still sees novels as a holiday luxury, despite retirement, filling her life with ‘doing’ things. Recognise that pattern? I do.

And, of course, new technology has an influence. Magenta says she now mainly reads on a Kindle and has a tendency to read quickly, almost skimming the book:

I don’t take it in fully on the first reading, so I often read a second time and then get a lot more out of it. I do that particularly with books that we are going to discuss in our book group. So that is a very pragmatic use of rereading that is done immediately rather than after a long gap.

Comfort reading – ah yes! Carmine said: ‘Another reason is to be taken to a place I know is OK and comfortable, when I don’t want to be challenged, like reading Alexander McCall’s books when I want something interesting but light’. And ‘for therapy’ Caroline reads Pride and Prejudice and Catch-22.

Last was rereading by mistake – starting a novel and then remembering it had been read before.

So, do you ever reread books?

  • to be intellectually stimulated – to gain new perspectives or insights or shape your thinking
  • for emotional reasons – to immerse yourself in the warmth of the familiar, the joy of meeting old friends or the feeling a character, style or place can inspire
  • to develop your own creative skills – to study the beauty of the language, structure and plot for ideas for your own writing …
  • … or do you think rereading is a complete waste of time. Do let us know.

 

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Lady Susan by Jane Austen

I came late to Jane Austen. While everyone else was reading Pride and Prejudice for O Level I was with a group who were fast tracked, avoiding O Level English Literature, to use the time to read more. I wasn’t much impressed with the MGM 1940 film they watched of P&P: the young girls all seemed to giggle a lot and were dressed like shepherdesses. In the event I didn’t do A Level English Literature either. Jane Austen had to wait.

She had to wait until my adult reading years. I have read both P&P and Persuasion several times and her other novels at least twice. And biographies: Jane Austen, a life by Claire Tomalin and The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne. This second biography, despite its questionable title, is interestingly organised around objects in the author’s life.

170 Lady s coverBut I had never read her ‘other works’, those novels or fragments that were not published in her lifetime: Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon. And then finally I couldn’t resist the temptation of a new Jane Austen.

I needed something to clear my palate after a rather dark novel recently and so I picked up Lady Susan. It is an early work, never published in her lifetime, although she did make a fair copy as if at some point she was preparing it for publication. It is an epistolary novel, told through 41 letters and a postscript in just 60 pages.

The story

The story is somewhat racy, featuring a woman of questionable morals, a coquette. Not only is she sexually active with several men, but quite ruthless in her pursuit and use of them. Lady Susan is extremely lively and attractive and recently widowed, but she needs to leave the house of the Manwarings’ in a hurry. We learn from the opening letters that not only has she seduced Mr Manwaring but also a visitor intended for the Manwarings’ daughter. Lady Susan has plans for her own neglected daughter to marry him. She goes to stay with her deceased husband’s brother, where she is already in disfavour because some years before she tried to prevent his marriage.

For sport, and perhaps to keep her hand in, she ensures that the wife’s brother, Reginald de Courcy, becomes her intimate friend. It is testament to her powers that she succeeds in this when he already knew about her disgraceful reputation and when the mores of the time would usually prevent any intimacy between them. Her plans are ultimately thwarted, but not before we have been shown her full range of skills with men and women and her bullying cruelty to her daughter, Frederica.

Reading Lady Susan

It is a challenge to read a novel formed by letters. At first it was really hard to work out who all these people were, and their relationships. I solved my problem by making a chart. I had the same problem with Evelina, by Fanny Burney. In her introduction in the Penguin edition, Margaret Drabble suggests that epistolary novels were more popular in the late 18th early 19th centuries, for women in particular spent a great deal of time writing letters to family members and friends. Jane Austen herself was a voluminous correspondent. It’s how we know so much about her life.

Writing Lady Susan

Jane Austen's writing desk

Jane Austen’s writing desk

In the introduction Margaret Drabble discusses the limits of the epistolary form. It was also the original idea for Sense and Sensibility and you can trace this in its plot. The author must introduce to the reader the correspondents and their social circle who are known to each other, but not to the reader. For the novel to be authentic every letter writer is, to some extent, unreliable, and at least self-serving.

The first letter is from Lady Susan, and shows Jane Austen’s skill in alerting the reader to something not quite right:

My dear brother,

I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profiting by your kind invitation when we last parted of spending some weeks with you at Churchill, and therefore if quite convenient to you and Mrs Vernon to receive me at present, I shall hope within a few days to be introduced to a sister whom I have so long desired to be acquainted with. (p43, letter 1)

So why does Lady Susan need a new place to stay so urgently, and why has she not previously met her sister-in-law? The answers to both these questions are revealed in letters between different correspondents and reflect no good upon Lady Susan.

The second challenge of the form is the frequent changes of point of view. The first letter is short, the second (also from Lady Susan, but to her confidante) gives us a different view of the events. The third is from the sister-in-law to her mother (hope you are still with me) giving her account of the inconvenience of the impending visit and some background and responses to Lady Susan.

And every letter must add something to the story, move it on, reveal something about the writer, its recipient and about Lady Susan. Again, it is a remarkable skill in one so young that Jane Austen achieves this.

At the end of the novel after 41 letters, Jane Austen gives up the letters and summarises the final events. Lady Susan gets her comeuppance, the dim but rich young man she selected for her daughter.

It is also a challenge to write a novel (in any form) in which the main character is evil, difficult to like or sympathise with. There are some – Lolita by Nabokov, Money by Martin Amis for example. They are both written in the first person, which may or may not be relevant. Lady Susan is reviled by all the letter-writers, except herself and her confidante. And they get plenty of opportunity to show this. Again, it is Jane Austen’s skill to make Lady Susan a real person, rather than a cipher for badness. Nice young women in challenging circumstances are much more sympathetic characters. It is surprising that a young woman of 20 was skilled enough to make such a good job of it.

But Lady Susan does provide us with the pleasures of a bad person justifying themselves and revealing their darker side in unguarded prose. Here is Lady Susan planning her attack on her sister-in-law’s brother, Reginald de Courcy. She has been complaining to her confidante about being bored at her brother’s residence.

There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority. I have disconcerted him already with my calm reserve; and it shall be my endeavour to humble the pride of these de Courcies still lower, to convince Mrs Vernon that her sisterly cautions have been bestowed in vain, and to persuade Reginald that she has scandalously belied me. This project will serve at least to amuse me, and prevent my feeling so acutely this dreadful separation from you and all whom I love. (p52 letter 7)

But the risqué subject matter was not to the taste of the new century, according to Margaret Drabble, which might have influenced Jane Austen’s decision never to publish. The terrors of the French Revolution and anxieties of the wars with France, together with reaction to the excesses of the Georgian period resulted in a changed view of morality, the introduction of what we have come to see as Victorian attitudes. People thought it was better to hide vice, along with ankles and sex generally, rather than explore it in novels.

170 CassandraAusten-JaneAusten_(c.1810)I look forward to reading her other unpublished works.

A review can be found that considers Lady Susan alongside Jane Austen’s other novels, on Australian Whispering Gums here.

An interesting look at 2013 as a celebration of Jane Austen and associated events from the Los Angeles Review of Books in January 2014, Jane Austen, Feminist Icon by Devoney Looser.

Lady Susan by Jane Austen, in Penguin Classics series; included in the same volume are The Watsons and Sanditon. pp200

 

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