Tag Archives: Margaret Drabble

Reading Death and Looking it in the Eye

Talking about death, thinking about death, reading about death, these are not morbid activities. Indeed, since the only certainties in life are death and taxes, (Benjamin Franklin, 1817) we may as well find out what we can about it. Perhaps we might find it easier to approach our own end if we consider what others say. As reading is my way into understanding the world and my life, it’s books I have gone to.

I belong to a group of wonderful women, originally eight of us, but Diana died a few years ago. Our group has been meeting for more than 12 years, exploring choices and possibilities in our lives, originally for retirement, but more recently about ageing and death. Some months ago we met to discuss our ideal death. Many of us referred to books in our contributions. I report on these before adding the results of further investigations.

The group’s recommendations

These books prompted us to think about death, good deaths, ideal deaths, and guided us in thinking about what we still needed to think about in relation to death. It was a session that contained as much laughter, as much encouragement and support, and as much help to look at our personal challenges as we always find from our group.

Salley Vickers Miss Garnett’s Angel

Ann Cleves Cold Earth

We know that we cannot easily choose how we die, but these two novels described the quiet and unexpected deaths of characters who were unaware that they were going to die. One of our members hoped for this kind of death. Having one’s things is order was considered part of this ideal death.

Max Porter Grief is the thing with feathers

This is a remarkable book, recommended by one group member who was asking the question ‘ideal for whom?’ reminding us that death affects more than the person who dies.

Another member frequently recommends poetry and she proposed the following:

Neil Astley Soul Food

Mary Oliver Wild Geese

Ruth Padel 52 ways of looking at a poem

In addition she recommended a book by Mark Doty, Dog Years, written by an American poet and telling of his experiences of deaths of partner and dogs.

We talked about people who choose suicide or assisted dying. Another reader mentioned Sweet Caress by William Boyd as it depicts the main character planning suicide but called back to life by suddenly realising she is thinking about what to have for breakfast next morning.

My own contribution was to read Canon Henry Scott-Holland’s Death is Nothing at All, frequently read at funerals.

Death is nothing at all.

It does not count.

I have only slipped away into the next room.

Nothing has happened. …

I told the group that it irritates me because it promotes the idea that separation at death is not permanent. But on rereading I had also found that it captures the idea that the dead remain with us, having influenced our lives and we can hear their voices and still think about them.

We also mentioned in our discussion these three writers and their books.

Diana Athill Somewhere towards the End and Alive Alive Oh

Terry Pratchett Shaking Hands with Death. Lecture on You Tube here.

Jenny Diski In Gratitude.

Books to read

Since then, and because I promised the group a list of books on the topic of death, I have noted these.

Before I say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie was published by Penguin Books in 1998. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ruth Picardie described the progress of her illness in a series of articles in the Observer. They are collected here together with emails to and from friends, and a foreword and afterword by her sister and husband.

Dying: a Memoir by Cory Taylor. Her memoir on dying is ‘a remarkable gift’ according to three of her friends, writing in the Guardian.

Margaret Drabble wrote The Dark Flood Rises. It is a novel about several older people who are trying to live well in their final years. She spoke about death in October 2016, in an article entitled I am not afraid of death. I worry about living.

Katie Roiphe has written The Violet Hour: great writers at the end, published in 2016 by Virago. She writes a piece in the Guardian about her own experiences, and those of great writers. It is moving.

A Reckoning is a novel by May Sarton. Laura is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and on learning this decides to make a good death on her own terms. This intention is thwarted by her increasing dependency upon others, but she finds much to be pleased with in her final weeks.

The novelist Helen Dunmore has recently been diagnosed with cancer and wrote about mortality and legacy in the Guardian in March 2017: Facing Mortality and What we leave behind.

Another resource

Dying Matters website, strapline ‘Let’s talk about it’. This is an organisation that aims to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement and to make plans for the end of life. Their site is a gateway to information and sources of support.

So let’s read about it, talk about it, plan for it. What do you think?

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What is Fiction for?

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

Lady with book by Vanessa Bell

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

So what is fiction for beyond escapism and entertainment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any thoughts?

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Is Age a Barrier to Good Writing?

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

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

Ageism in society

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

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

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

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

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

Late starters

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

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

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

Keeping on

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

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

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

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

It’s not age, stoopid, it’s sex!

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

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

Related posts

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

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

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

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The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

I grew up with Margaret Drabble’s novels, keeping step as she pushed the boundaries with A Summer Bird Cage and The Millstone, looking at the lives of intelligent young women in the 60s. The Dark Flood Rises is her 20th novel and still she is asking questions that concern me, and people of my age. This novel is about growing older and facing death in the 21st Century.

The title is taken from DH Lawrence’s The Ship of Death.

Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul

Has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.

302-dark-flood-cover

This is the 24th in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog. You can see the complete list of reviews and readers recommendations on the page About the Older Women in Fiction Series at the top of the blog.

‘What I do worry about is living’

Margaret Drabble wrote about death and approaching death in an article in the Guardian in October just before the publication of this novel. She referred to ‘the delusion of an afterlife’, no longer shared by many, if it ever was. But we still ‘struggle with the meaning of death’, she suggests. And she has this to add about increased longevity, faced by many of us.

Through our mortal ingenuity, we are reaching a biological phase when we are beginning to fear old age and longevity more than we fear death. We can no longer look forward to the possibility of a sudden, unexpected, merciful release, or falling asleep in bed reading a book (as my mother did), or ceasing on the midnight with no pain. Nor can we make plans to celebrate our departure as a grand culmination of our life’s endeavours, with gracious and grateful and possibly public farewell. That’s because we know that officious folk are going to strive to keep us alive for as long as they possibly can, until we can no longer enjoy anything. Just to prove that hey can. [Guardian 29th October 2016]

I disagree with much of this, believing we should celebrate increased longevity and take advantage of it in others as well as in ourselves. Indeed I have co-written about this and published a book on it this year. (The New Age of Ageing).

But increased longevity does mean paying more attention to that period we call old age. ‘What I do worry about is living,’ says Margaret Drabble. I agree with her. This is new territory, and as the author has said, (in the Paris Review in 1978) it is the function of fiction to explore it, and she has made an accessible approach with The Dark Flood Rises.

A summary

Fran and older people connected to her, and some younger ones, look at death. Fran is in her 70s but fit, caring for her bedbound ex-husband by preparing and delivering meals for him. Her son Christopher lost his partner suddenly in the Canaries. He returns there and is befriended by two gay men, Bennett Carpenter renown but sinking slowly into genteel disability, and Ivor increasingly acting as Bennett’s carer rather than his partner. They are trapped by European economics, and the failure to invest when they had capital. Fran’s daughter Poppet is concerned about the death of the earth. Two of Fran’s older female friends face and then undergo death.

Fran

It is Fran’s story with which the novel opens and to which we return at frequent intervals. She is doing ageing very well: she has a no-nonsense approach to it, keeps healthy and active, even undertaking paid work advising on meeting the housing needs of the elderly. This is a good device for some discrete observations about how these needs are widely neglected. Fran is determined not to become a burden on others, in fact to remain useful. She is, we can see, doing all the right things. This does not make her happy (see below for the opening paragraph).

Margaret Drabble is not afraid to enumerate the physical aspects of the ageing body. Or to refer to those things that are no longer problematic. There is a kind of tongue in cheek pleasure in the writing about these, for example the dream Fran has about Tampax. She has driven to a hotel the day before and in the morning she puts her reaction to the dream in order.

… she wonders whether it had sprung from the redness of the meal of the night before, or from her motorway thoughts about Macbeth, or from some new and about-to-be-apprehended aspect of time and the ageing experience.

For ageing is, says Fran to herself gamely as she presses the lift button to go down to her breakfast, a fascinating journey into the unknown. Or that’s one rather good way of looking at it. The thin flow was the blood of life, not of death, reminding her that she is still the same woman, she who once had been the bleeding girl. (20)

The writing

The novel is not divided into chapters, but into short segments. And it is written in the present tense. Here are the opening sentences of the novel, from Fran’s point of view.

She has often suspected that her last words to herself and in the world will prove to be ‘You bloody old fool’ or, perhaps, depending on the mood of the day or the time of the night, ‘you fucking idiot’. As the speeding car hits the tree, or the unserviced boiler explodes, or the smoke and flames fill the hallway, or the grip on the high guttering gives way, those will be her last words. She isn’t to know for sure that it will be so, but she suspects it. In her latter years, she’s become deeply interested in the phrase ‘Call no man happy until he is dead’. Or no woman come to that. ‘Call no woman happy until she is dead.’ (1)

The present tense narration brings a curious slow but immediate impact. It reminds us that these people live alongside us, are us. Time moves onwards, but we can linger in this time of life. The prose has a slightly superior tone, which may be intended to represent the mindset of this group of older people.

The novel does not stay with Fran, but roams among the other characters as they pass their days in the shadow of death’s approach. We see the preoccupations of Fran’s women friends, her ex-husband Claude, Bennett and Ivor trapped in the Canaries and attend a hospital bed and a funeral or two.

43 Wreath & Hide

There are many erudite references in The Dark Flood Rises. One I especially enjoyed was to Elizabeth Taylor, and her novel A Wreath of Roses. Margaret Drabble is very well read and her well-educated cast of characters have various interests which enable her to refer to many other writers and what they said about ageing and dying.

There is a great deal of humour, and pathos, in the doings of these characters. There is selflessness and selfishness, affluence and poverty, friendship and admiration. Some of these people have been very eminent in their professional lives in earlier times. Bennett Carpenter is a notable historian of Spain. Claude was a highly regarded surgeon. Some of the older people are immersing themselves in rather narrow interests. For example, Jo develops a researcher’s interest in novels about marriage to the DWS (deceased wife’s sister). Claude wants to listen to endless Maria Callas, while cuddling his carer. Many of these old people are lonely, have lost partners and are fearful of intruding upon their children’s lives.

And I want to mention that the story references population movements too, especially across the Mediterranean and especially the treacherous, desperate voyages that see the end of so many lives as people escape violence.

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble, published by Canongate in 2016. 326 pp

Related posts

Margaret Drabble’s article in the Guardian, ‘I’m not afraid of death. I worry about living’ October 2016.

My review of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses.

The previous post in the older woman in fiction series was A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman.

 

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The Squire by Enid Bagnold (a second visit)

The Squire deserves to be widely read, for although dated in its setting, the theme of the competent woman is relevant still. The main character is about to become a mother for the fifth time at the start of the novel, but maternity is set in the context of other responsibilities. Although sensually involved in her confinement motherhood is not her destiny.

A version of this post appeared on Bookword in July 2014. The Squire was first published just before the Second World War in 1938, and republished by Virago in 1987 and Persephone Books in 2013.

289-virago-squire

The Main Character

The Squire is a curious title. It jars our class-consciousness, being more associated with the beery form of address, as in ‘Same again Squire?’ And it jars with the feminist consciousness of language, including titles. In Enid Bagnold’s novel the Squire is the main character, and a woman who is managing a large household, the manor house set in a rural village beside the sea.

She who had once been thirsty and gay, square-shouldered, fair and military, strutting about life for spoil, was thickened now, vigorous, leonine, occupied with her house, her nursery, her servants, her knot of human lives, antagonistic or loving. Twelve years married to a Bombay merchant and nearly five times a mother, she was well accustomed to her husband’s long absences, and to her own supreme command. (11)

She has seven staff in the house, two in the kitchen, four children and the birth of her fifth child is imminent. The story unfolds gently. We observe the Squire as she passes through the day’s precedings; during and following her confinement, dealing with domestic problems, finding a cook, managing the lazy butler, spending time with her four children, and conversing with her friend Caroline. The main event is the arrival of the Midwife, a woman of strong opinions. The novel ends with the baby safely born, the Squire taking up the running of the household again after her confinement, the departure of the Midwife and the imminent return of the Squire’s husband.

A plot of contrasts

There is little plot. Events happen: the Squire has to deal with the departure of the cook, an intrusive window cleaner, her butler’s holiday and drunken replacement, her children and a weekly letter to her absent husband on an extended business trip to Bombay. The Squire manages all with serenity.

Caroline, her friend from her more socialite past, is still interested in sex-love. She cannot believe that the Squire does not miss the wilder life of her younger days and the capricious attentions of men but is content with her situation. The contrast between these two is one of the strongest of the novel.

The principles of the midwife are a contrast to ideas current in the late 1930s. The Midwife and the Squire are in tune about how birth should be organised. The midwife would like to ‘palisade’ mothers, creating a secluded and calm environment, and a place for a newborn to emerge and form their character in the first days of life. Eventually mother and newborn son will be integrated into the teeming household.

110 Squire cover

A New Woman writes

Enid Bagnold was ‘an authentic New Woman of dash and speed,’ according to Margaret Drabble. In The Squire she presents maternity as a great satisfaction in her life, but challenges the idea that marriage and motherhood are a woman’s destiny, the high point of her life, and towards which her youthful efforts should be expended. Much of the Squire’s ruminations are to do with the future, when the children no longer need her, and indeed what happens to them after her death.

Such explicitness about childbirth and maternity was rare and waiting to be challenged as this book does. According to Anna Sebba, in the introduction to the Persephone edition, Enid Bagnold once said that

If a man had a child and he was also a writer we should have heard a lot about it. (xv)

289-enid-bagnold

The writing is ‘intense and passionate’ with ‘sensuous descriptions’ (Margaret Drabble again). A particular charm of this book is the portraits of the children, two in particular. First, little oddball Boniface. He is not the normal rumbustious male child, and his quirky take on the world and delicate relationship with the Squire are delightful. Lucy is the only daughter, and she is both insightful and caring of others, especially of Boniface. The intimacy of Lucy and her mother is delicately drawn.

… Lucy came in and hung over the writing table.

‘What are you doing?’ said the Squire dipping her pen in the ink.

‘Nothing.’

‘Why are you here?’

‘To talk to you.’

‘What about?’

‘Nothing.’

They smiled at each other. (168)

There is much to enjoy in this lovely and pioneering book. We are looking inside a closed and beautiful world. It is not sentimental, but robustly romantic (Anna Sebba).

The Squire by Enid Bagnold, published by Persephone in 2013, with an introduction by Anna Sebba. The glorious endpapers for The Squire are Magnolia, a design for cotton and rayon from 1936.

110 endpaper

Related links

Persephone Books suggests it is the only novel ever written about having a baby. Is this true? Do you know of other books? Is this the focus of this book? What do you think?

Margaret Drabble’s assessment can be found here, written in 2008 on the occasion of the revival of her play The Chalk Garden at the Donmar Warehouse.

The Squire was reviewed enthusiastically by Heavenali in April. You can link to her review here.

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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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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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