Tag Archives: Middlemarch

My Writing Heroes

I reckon that the 300th post on the Bookword blog merits a celebration. That’s why I decided to write about my writerly heroes, an unashamed self-indulgence. Regular readers of the blog will not be at all surprised to find that I have chosen nearly all women as my writing heroes.

Why are these writers heroes?

After I had chosen my short list of heroes, I reflected on what they had in common.

  • They have all lived some of their lives in adversity.
  • They have all used writing to communicate important values.
  • They are all writers who share their understanding of the world, through fiction, but also through polemic, performance or other writerly activities.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

John Opie's portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft

John Opie’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft lived at a time when women were not expected to have a view on matters outside the home, and nor were they equipped to have a life in the public sphere. She had to support her family from an early age. She set up a school for girls in Newington Green in north London, was employed as a governess to a wealthy family in Ireland, and then decided to earn a living through her writing.

She held radical views, not just about women but about how society should be run and the French Revolution. She was intrepid, travelling to Lisbon alone to support a friend who died, and then going to live in revolutionary Paris. To support her lover Imlay, who had lost some merchandise in a shady deal, she travelled to several Scandinavian countries with their baby daughter, on his behalf.

American edition of Vindication

American edition of Vindication

She was a woman of principle, and passions. She gave birth to Fanny Imlay (later Godwin) in France. Back in England she met up again with the foremost political philosopher of the day, William Godwin. She died in childbirth. Their child was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley).

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote and wrote; reviews for journals, reports of what she saw in France, letters, novels, and polemic writing including her most famous book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

She has been called the original suffragette, but this description is not appropriate. She was a feminist, she did believe that women should have political power, but she was not especially focused on the right to vote. Hers was a more encompassing vision.

George Eliot (1819 – 1880)

Portrait of Mary Ann Evans at 30 by Francoise D’Albert Durade via WikiCommons

Portrait of Mary Ann Evans at 30 by Francoise D’Albert Durade via WikiCommons

Mary Ann Evans used the pen name George Eliot. She wrote novels, poems and was a journalist and translator. She was also, notoriously, a common law wife, that is she lived with George Henry Lewis without being married to him for 20 years.

She too was a prolific writer and today is best known for her novels, including Middlemarch (one of my desert island books), The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner. Just typing the titles makes me want to reread another of her novels.

There are a few other personal connections that mean very little, but are pleasing to note. Middlemarch was reputedly based on Coventry, where I was born and where I worked for 15 years. In London, my daughter happily attended George Eliot Infants School. I remember writing a history essay for my first degree about Middlemarch and feminism.

Write to Life Writers

My third writerly heroes are the writers at Freedom from Torture: the Write to Life group.

254 FFTlogo

These are people who have suffered torture in their own country, and as part of their recovery attend the Write to Life group. Some readers will know I am currently raising money for Freedom from Torture, and if you want to know more check out the The Challenge page on this website.

Jade in Lost and Found

Jade in Lost and Found

Recently some of these guys performed at the Roundhouse in London in their play with music called Lost and Found. You can read my account of this event here.

Sheila Hayman, who runs the group says:

It’s a lyrical, funny, surprising narrative about six survivors’ journeys to London; not the gloomy and overdone tales of crowded dinghies and miserable hostels you’ve heard before, but the violin buried when the Ayatollahs banned music, or the African song unwittingly sung to the occupants of a British Library reading room; the piano at St Pancras bringing a Cuban moment to a grey London, and the stranger who stopped to chat, and saved a life.

All these stories are linked by music; music remembered, and the original music they inspired. And the whole thing has been binaurally recorded so you can put on your headphones and travel with the stories.

On the site are videos and the individual numbers to browse, and the whole album to download for your journey to work, or wherever.

You can find the download of Lost and Found on the Freedom from Torture site here.

And …

I hope you enjoyed my selection of heroes. I would love to know who you would pick for your 300th post.

Related posts

Dear Jade, Sept 2013

Souvenirs, May 2016

Mary Wollestonecraft, a Romantic Outlaw, March 2016

Desert Island Books, February 2013

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The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s first novel The Voyage Out was published in 1915. She was 33 years old and had already been writing professionally for 11 years, and married for three. The publication was delayed by episodes of mental illness. Some of the characters and situations came from her life, but this is not autobiography. The novel does, however, include themes and even characters to which she returned in later writing. And already she was deliberately breaking with the traditions of novel-writing.

240 Voyage Out

The story

Rachel is 24, and on her father’s boat from London to South America, via Portugal. Also on board are her aunt and uncle, Helen, and Ambrose. They are joined for a while by the Dalloways, Clarissa and Richard. Rachel is young, naïve, has been sheltered and rather badly educated. The Dalloways seem very sophisticated to Rachel and it is Mr Dalloway’s rather clumsy kiss that is the impetus to Helen’s offer to take her under her wing for their extended stay in the fictional English colony of Santa Marina.

Ambrose, Helen and Rachel install themselves in a villa and gradually meet many more English people, guests at the local hotel. These include the immensely clever and very ugly St John Hirst (Lytton Strachey) and his friend Terence Hewet. There are tea parties, a ball, a picnic, and an expedition up river. Rachel and Terrance fall in love and become engaged before Rachel catches a fever and dies.

The themes

The title suggests that Rachel will learn and mature, that it is her voyage. She is, in Helen’s words ‘an unlicked girl’ (19), and in Hewet’s, ‘young, inexperienced and inquisitive’ (p183). Her earlier, closeted life behind her, Rachel wants more for herself than many young women would aspire to:

…she wanted many more things than the love of one human being – the sea, the sky. She turned again and looked at the distant blue, which was so smooth and serene where the sky met the sea; she could not possibly want only one human being. (307)

Rachel’s development is influenced by books, social interactions, especially with people more educated than her, and the example of others such as her aunt. And she is shaped by experiences, such as Mr Dalloway’s kiss, and the Anglican service in the hotel.

The novel is concerned with more people than Rachel, although the story largely follows her. It looks at how other characters deal with the people around them, and the interactions between them; and how people respond to the big things in life, including falling in love and dying.

Readers are asked to consider what it means to be young, to grow up, to be a woman, to fall in love and be married. The novel is also concerned with the distances between people, how they see the same events differently. For example, the world of women is hidden from men, Terence explains.

‘But the lives of women of forty, of unmarried women, of working women, of women who keep shops and bring up children, of women like your aunts or Mrs Thornbury or Miss Allan – one knows nothing whatever about them. They wont tell you. Either they wont tell you or they’ve got a way of treating men. It’s the man’s view that is represented, you see.’ (215)

This novel has some similarities to Middlemarch by George Eliot. A strong, but rather innocent young woman wants to make the most of her life. Others are shown in contrast to Rachel (Dorothea) and their actions are understood within the complexity of their social circle, circumscribed by the imagined English colony of Santa Marina (or the town of Middlemarch).

240 Voyage Out 1st ed 1915

The writing

There are also some important differences from the traditional Victorian novel, even if there is a large cast, and the novel is quite lengthy. Most significant is that the perspective is constantly shifting from person to person. Virginia Woolf is pointing to the relativity of human perception, showing how we experience the world differently depending upon whom we are with, who is influencing us.

I remember when I first read this book I wondered when the action or focus of the book would take shape. But it never did. Now on rereading I can see that Virginia Woolf was mirroring life. So little of it is clear, so much is influenced by context – people and place. The use of free indirect style, as the extracts show, makes these shifts evident.

It took me a while to get into. Writers are told that their protagonist has to want something, even if it’s only a glass of water. (Who said that?) But it is not at all clear that Rachel is the protagonist. The novel opens with a scene in which Helen is sobbing because she is leaving her children for the extended stay in South America. Is Helen to be the main character? And what Rachel wants hardly becomes clear, indeed is not really awoken until Mr Dalloway’s kiss, on p73. But although hard to get into, soon it wouldn’t leave me.

The narrative moved slowly, but with many episodes, through the voyage, the sojourn in Santa Marina and then the conclusion of the English families’ holidays. Rachel’s death clouds their visit, especially for Terence, but other hotel guests move on, return home, refuse proposals, take up causes and so forth.

I loved her descriptive prose from the outset. An example is the storm, experienced in this way:

Their sensations were the sensations of potatoes in a sack on a galloping horse. (68)

Virginia Woolf had been on a voyage to Portugal in 1905. Without that trip she could hardly have described that moment when the ship moves off:

Now a tremor ran through the table, and a light outside swerved. At the same time an electric bell rang sharply again and again.

‘We’re off,’ said Ridley.

A slight but perceptible wave seemed to roll beneath the floor; then it sank; then another came, more perceptible. Lights slid right across the uncurtained window. The ship gave a loud melancholy moan.

‘We’re off!’ said Mr Pepper. Other ships, as sad as she, answered her outside on the river. The chuckling and hissing of water could be plainly heard and the ship heaved so that the steward bringing plates had to balance himself as he drew the curtain. There was a pause. (11-12)

Occasionally I felt that the events moved too slowly, that moving from person to person meant we were given more of their lives than we wanted. But overall I was very pleased to have reread The Voyage Out as part of #Woolfalong: see Heavenali’s blog.

Virginia and Leonard on their wedding day: 23 July 1912

Virginia and Leonard on their wedding day: 23 July 1912

 

In an earlier blogpost for the same series I explored To The Lighthouse.

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf was first published in 1915. I used the Penguin Modern Classic edition (1970) in this review. 380 pp

 

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Reading is good for you

There is a simple and inexpensive treatment that reduces symptoms of depression and the risk of dementia, improves wellbeing throughout life increases empathy, improves relationships with others and makes you happy. It’s freely available to everyone, at least while public libraries still exist. To make the treatment effective the only necessary pre-condition is enjoyment:

With reading so good for you this statement, from the Reading Agency is a little shocking:

In the UK, reading levels are low among people of all ages: most children do not read on a daily basis and almost a third of adults don’t read for pleasure. (August 2015)

I think again of the young woman in the bookshop I reported on in a recent post: ‘I’ve never bought a book in my life’.

Old Woman Reading by Sandor Galimberti 1907 via WikiCommons.

Old Woman Reading by Sandor Galimberti 1907 via WikiCommons.

Reading is good for you

In the summer the Reading Agency published the report The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment. It brought together findings from 51 research papers to conclude that reading does us good.

Reading helps you understand the world

Barack Obama was talking to novelist Marilyn Robinson when he described how reading made him a better citizen, which was about

being comfortable with the notion that the world is complex and full of greys, but there is still truth to be found …And the notion that its positive to connect with someone else though they be very different to you. (From The Guardian 30.10.15)

The President is a best selling writer himself. The importance of fiction for politicians was wittily demonstrated by Yann Martel in his book What are you Reading Mr Harper? and explored in a recent blogpost here.

The Reading Agency report indicates that reading is helpful to all readers in developing and understanding of other people and cultures and thereby helps develop empathy.

Reading helps you understand yourself better

If reading develops empathy, we should not be surprised that reading helps us understand ourselves as well, helps with developing out identities. Fiction, in particular, helps you see the world and yourself in it, in new ways, opens up possibilities.

Reading helps your cognitive functions

This is just another way of saying that reading keeps you mentally active, increases your knowledge, provokes you with conundrums and mysteries, expands your vocabulary, encourages your creativity, helps you become a better writer.

Reading helps you feel better: bibliotherapy

The New Yorker published an article called Can Reading Make you Happy? by Ceridwen Dovey in January 2015. The answer is yes, and you can read the piece here. She had experienced bibliotherapy suggested by one of the authors of The Reading Cure.

223 novel cure coverThe Reading Cure: and A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin is a handbook to keep with your other home cures, according to the writers. This book has a book for every condition, every ailment. Of course I checked up on one or two and selected one or two of their suggestions.

Noisy neighbours – well their dogs? Try some audio books, read by top class readers: Middlemarch by George Eliot read by Juliet Stevenson; The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, read by Alan Rickman.

Being Seventy-Something? (I’m not, but it’s not far off). Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym; Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Procrastinating? The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Partner snoring? They recommended some soothing books but I’d recommend any book, the edge brought sharply into contact with the shoulder, enough to get them to change their position.

And let’s not forget that books help us relax, calm us, take us far away from our own struggles.

Libraries

223 Peanuts librarySo if reading is such a good thing, why, oh why, are so many councils closing libraries? (Yes, yes, I know that so-called austerity means difficult choices for councils, pitting beds for old people and holes in the roads against free and available books). We really need to keep on at the people who suggest library cuts. One way is to support National Library Day on Saturday 6th February 2016. Details on the Reading Agency’s website.

Sources for this post

The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, a literature review for The Reading Agency, June 2015. Conducted by BOP Consulting funded by the Peter Sowerby Foundation. Also available from the Reading Agency’s website.

Reading for pleasure builds empathy and improves wellbeing from The Reading Agency (August 2015)

5 Ways Reading Can Improve Your Life by Leila Cruickshank, on Scottish Book Trust website (November 2015)

The Power of Reading from Norah Colvin’s blog in August 2015.

The Reading Cure: and A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Published in 2015 by Canongate. 460pp

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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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A little outburst about favourite books and authors

As far as books are concerned I don’t do favourites. I couldn’t tell you about my favourite book and I don’t have a favourite author. The very concept of ‘favourite’ makes me churn. I risk being thought pedantic, again, but read my 5 reasons about why I dislike the idea so much and see if you agree.

171 heart.svg

  1. The idea of favourites is more appropriately applied to colours or animals or even numbers when you are six years old and trying to understand the vast and various world in which you find yourself.
  2. A favourite is claimed as if it were a personal whim – almost random and certainly something to be proud of. It’s to do with making a statement about one-self, not about the qualities of the books/authors. ‘I don’t know why, but I just love anything by John Smith.’ You’ve heard that kind of thing?
  3. To have a favourite book or author is to approach it with a lack of discernment, judgement and it values sameness above all. What does one expect from a favourite except the same again? As a child I read every Enid Blyton book going. Judith Lovell was ill and had left her entire collection in our dorm while she recovered in Dar es Salaam. We devoured them until we began to realise they were so much the same that they bored us. Formulaic was not a word we used at the time, but that’s what we thought of them. We invented a workshop where Enid Blyton gave the ideas to elves and they concocted books to her recipes. And then we gave up reading Enid Blyton and moved on to Malcolm Saville. That’s what you hope to get from favourites – more of the same.

    Blyton Bookshelf by Blytonite at en.wikipedia

    Blyton Bookshelf by Blytonite at en.wikipedia

  4. Having favourites is encouraged by Twitter, with its ‘favourite’ button. I expect lots of twits (as a friend calls us), use it to save the tweet for later, as I do. It’s as easy as ‘like’ on FaceBook. Which leads to difficult verbs such as ‘unfavourite’, ‘unlike’ or the dreaded (and dreadful) ‘unfriend’.
  5. 171 star.svgOn the other hand, to say ‘one of my favourites’ is okay. I don’t think I’m being inconsistent here. One of my favourite novelists is Anne Tyler, but there are so many good writers it would be silly to say she was the one above all others, especially as her many books are of variable quality. Yes really. All good, and some very good indeed. And one of my favourite books is Pride and Prejudice, another is H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and another A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman and Middlemarch by George Eliot and … One of my favourites means this is a book/author I recommend.

So, do you agree with me – fixing on favourite authors and books does not encourage bold readers?

 

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South Riding by Winifred Holtby

Mrs Featherstone occupied the corner chair in our staffroom, a specially imported armchair unlike the institutional ones provided for the rest of us. I was frightened of her at first, then in awe, then respectful and finally missed her when she retired. She sat throughout the lunch hour, and if children needed to speak to her they were allowed to enter. The rest of us had to speak to children at the door. Mrs Featherstone let it be understood that in her day colouring hair with henna (as I did) was a sign of loose morals. She also told us that before the war she had been required to give up teaching when she married. And she and her husband had bought their first house for £60. No-one, staff, students, headteacher was able to get anything passed Mrs Featherstone. This was in the first days of my teaching career in the 1970s.

164 cover S RidingMrs Beddows, from South Riding, seems to me to be very like Mrs Featherstone. She is the 13th in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog.

Mrs Beddows

Alderman Mrs Beddows is 72 and like all the main characters in South Riding a rounded character. She is married to a man so mean that her own generosity is a form of repentance. She uses their social advantage to benefit the community through serving on the Council. In addition to the tedious work of inspecting cash-strapped mental hospitals, interviewing for a new headmistress of the grammar school and the countless committee meetings, Mrs Beddows also manages to dispense charity and find jobs and other solutions to the many difficulties of the inhabitants of her area.

Here is how Winifred Holtby describes her at the opening of the novel

She was a plump sturdy little woman, whose rounded features looked as though they had been battered blunt by wear and weather in sixty years or more of hard experience. But so cheerful, so lively, so frank was the intelligence which beaned benevolently from her bright spaniel-coloured eyes, that sometimes she looked as young as the girl she still, in her secret dreams, felt herself to be. Her clothes were a compromise between her spiritual and chronological ages. She wore day-to-day a dignified and beautifully designed black gown of heavy dull material; but she had crowned this with a velvet toque plastered with purple pansies. She carried a large bag embroidered with raffia work and had pinned on her rounded bosom the first crimson rose out of her husband’s garden. Actually, she was seventy-two years old, a farmer’s daughter, and had lived in South Riding all her life. (4-5)

There is a great deal of affection in this description. The character may well have been inspired by Winifred Holtby’s own mother.

In both her public and private life Mrs Beddows is loyal. She never complains about her husband’s freeloading and generously provides a home for her neighbour’s daughter. She loves this neighbour, Robert Carne, who is a gentleman farmer finding it hard to keep his farm viable. Not only is agriculture a difficult economic prospect but Carne has the expense of supporting his wife in an asylum.

Mrs Beddows also supports the innovative Sarah Burton, appointed to provide a better education for the girls of the area. Miss Burton attempts to improve the school in the face of lack of interest in girls’ education, weak and inappropriate teaching staff, inadequate buildings and depressed and troubled social backgrounds. She too is supported by Mrs Beddows.

164 S R green coverWinifred Holtby has given us a portrait of an active woman of the county, finding satisfaction and pleasure in being useful to the community. Mrs Beddows is not waiting for death, although aware of her age. ‘The consciousness of her three-score-years-and-ten arose and smote her. There was so much to do that she must leave undone.’ (335) This is her reaction to a tour of the mental hospital. There is an echo here of Winifred Holtby’s own mortality. She knew she was terminally ill with Bright’s Disease, even as she wrote South Riding.

South Riding

Mrs Beddows is only one of the strong characters in this novel, which is broad-ranging enough to have been compared to Middlemarch in its scope. South Riding is a fictional county. It always intrigued me as a child that while we had North, West and East Ridings of Yorkshire, there was no South Riding. And the idea of a Riding conjured up people on horses marking out the boundaries.

This is the story of a rural community in the 1930s, suffering during the depression years, with its inter-relationships, and ambitious people, and inhabitants trying to survive in the hostile economic climate. The community of the South Riding stands for the country in those dire days. Many people were still suffering from the effects of the First World War. Building the Land Fit for Heroes promised by Lloyd George was proving harder than anyone had imagined.

Despite the hardships, the members of the community do support each other, and this spirit may have been evident during the war that was to come within a few years.

Portrait of Winifred Holtby By Jburlinson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Winifred Holtby By Jburlinson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

While South Riding is a campaigning novel it does not read like one. It is admirable in its scope and for the careful plotting. It was the final achievement of Winifred Holtby, who died before its publication (March 1936) at the age of 39.

Relevant links:

Reviews on the Age of Uncertainty

And on Booksnob

Review of Land of Green Ginger on this blog.

Winifred Holtby was also a poet. I referred to her in a post about women poets of the First World War.

 

South Riding by Winifred Holtby, published by Virago Modern Classics since 1988, first published in 1938. 515 pp

 

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Books by women that changed my life

Guess which book written by a woman was voted the most influential! Following the announcement of the winner of the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize this year (Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing) the organisers launched a campaign to find novels ‘that have impacted, shaped or changed readers lives’. The top 20 were reported in the Guardian in July.

136 Mockingbird coverTop of the list was To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. I suspect that some of its influence is due to the 1962 film of the book, starring Gregory Peck. It’s also a book that is often on the school curriculum, despite Michael Gove’s attempts to promote British fiction over all others. (For readers outside the UK, Gove was the Conservative Secretary of State for Education until recently.)

The top 10 most influential books in the Baileys’s poll:

  1. To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  4. Harry Potter by JK Rowling
  5. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  6. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  9. I Captured the Castle by Dodie Smith

136 Pride & PrejI loved To Kill a Mocking Bird when I read it. But it is not my first choice for the ten most influential books. Indeed my choices are very different from the full list of 20.

My list of 10 most influential books by women:

Some of these I have mentioned before in a post called Ten books that made me think. That list included books by men, but this list is confined to women. It is #Readwomen2014 after all.

These are in chronological order, rather than reflecting any hierarchy of influence.

  • What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge: a manual for growing up a good girl, now rejected!
  • The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff: perhaps the source of my enduring love of history and the reason it was the focus of my first degree.
  • Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden: adolescence anticipated.
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: nothing to be said except it is #6 on the Baileys’s list.
  • Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy: a world where gender was not predominant fed into my growing feminism.
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot: another classic and #16 on the list.
  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing: more feminism.
  • The Women’s Room by Marilyn French: yet more feminism.
  • Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G Heilbrun: see my post about this one, here.

49 Golden nbook

What I like about this topic is that it bypasses any notion of favourite. What would be on your list of influential books by women?

 

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A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

I found it hard to get into this novel for a chapter or two because there are a daunting number of characters and it is not immediately clear who is going to be most significant. When I had worked out the main characters I found this an engaging novel, a wonderful evocation of a group of people who lived in the same space looking out onto the harbour of the title. Elizabeth Taylor starts by following the fishing fleet out of the harbour and then introducing a visitor, one who claims to have a particular view of the harbour, as a painter. These quick shifts of perspective are typical of this novel.

A model for the harbour community is likely to have been Whitby where Elizabeth Taylor spent the final years of the war. But this harbour town, Newby, is close enough to London to visit in a day. It is somewhat eclipsed by the more racy New Town, just around the headland. The novel is set in the period in which it was written – 1946. War is over, workmen are rolling up the barbed wire fortifications, but the war is only present in the material drabness of the lives of the characters.

37 Harbour

Once I had established who was who, and the events of the spring and summer began to unfold, I experienced all the anticipated pleasure of reading the third of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. The main narrative concerns the divorcee Tory Foyle and her involvement with the husband of her best friend and neighbour. Beth Cazubon seems unaware of the tension between her doctor husband and her friend for she is busy completing her novel. (Surely the name Cazubon is intended to refer to Dorothea’s dusty and unrealistic husband in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. He never completes his great oeuvre, while Beth finishes her novel as A View of the Harbour comes to a close. Beth, however, is a variation of the novelist’s own name.)

A second strand follows the terrible Mrs Bracey who has spiteful and bitter words for and about everyone, and the best view of her neighbours once she has been carried up to her first floor bedroom. She it is who spots the electric charge between Tory Foyle and Robert Cazubon. She is as observant of what is not done as Henry James in Portrait of a Lady.

… the very fact of them not smiling at one another when they met was a plain endorsement of their guilt …

As the title suggests, this is a novel about what people see, don’t see, choose not to see or want to see. Bernard Hemingway is the retired seaman and would-be painter who likes to think of himself as delightfully useful to everyone, even sitting with Mrs Bracey in her final days. But what he does not see it that he is rather selfish person who damages one of his abandoned protégées (Lilly Wilson) and his stance eventually ensnares him in what the reader feels will be a doomed marriage, even if it helps the lady out of a jam. Here Elizabeth Taylor describes his self-delusion and condescension, in a way that invites us to consider what we don’t see of ourselves.

He had always had great confidence with women and a tendency to kiss them better, as he called it; only when he had gone, their fears, their anxieties returned, a little intensified, perhaps, but he, of course, would not know that, and remained buoyed up by his own goodness. (p138)

Then there is Beth Cazubon, the novelist, who is so absorbed in her writing that she does not notice her husband’s interest in Tory, nor does she perceive the anger of their daughter Prudence. Prudence is enraged by what she clearly sees happening between her father and Tory, but her lack of maturity and a kind of simpleness makes her impotent.

Mrs Bracey fears her own decay and death and treats her daughters badly as a result. This character provides much of the comedy of the novel, but the reader observes the truths of Mrs Bracey’s outrageous comments. And she is pinioned through illness, to a single perspective.

The day comes slowly to those who are ill. The night has separated them from the sleepers, who return to them like strangers from a distant land, full of clumsy preparations for living, the earth itself creaking towards the light. (p257)

So the story shifts from one person to another, sometimes the reader sees from Bertram’s point of view, then shifts to another character, Prudence, say, walking along the harbour front, or one of Mrs Bracey’s daughters, or Tory who is perhaps the most clear-sighted of all, except she is blinded by love. Subtle and quiet are two adjectives frequently used to describe Elizabeth Taylor’s style. A View of the Harbour exemplifies both.

Loneliness is a theme of this novel – nearly everyone is lonely. In their loneliness they don’t always act in their best interests, Mrs Bracey pushes her daughter away by making more and more demands upon her. Lily descends into drinks at the bar and then into a disreputable sex life. Tory has to face losing both her best friend and her lover, and will settle for a less than wise marriage.

As in her other novels the children are interesting characters. Beth’s younger daughter, Stevie, is a delightful free spirit, who moves between the characters with charm and some precocity. Tory’s son Edward writes delightful letters to his mother from school. And Elizabeth Taylor knows the physicality of young boys. This is her description of what happens when Tory visits him at his boarding school and they walk together to meet his form master.

Every boy who passed surreptitiously lunged at Edward, dug an elbow at him, crooked a knee at his behind. (p142)

She’s good at the self-doubt of adults too. Here is Beth taking up her pen to write.

‘This isn’t writing,’ she thought miserably. It’s just fiddling about with words. I’m not a great writer. Whatever I do someone else has always done it before, and better. In ten years’ time no one will remember this book, the libraries will have sold off all their grubby copies of it second-hand and the rest will have fallen to pieces, gone to dust. And, even if I were one of the great ones, who in the long run cares? People walk about in the streets and it is all the same to them if the novels of Henry James were never written. They could not easily care less. No one asks us to write. If we stop, who will implore us to go on? The only goodness that will ever come out of it is surely this moment now, wondering if “vague” will do better than “faint”. Or “faint” than “vague”, and what is to follow; putting one word alongside another, like matching silks, a sort of game.’

E.Taylor 1

Elizabeth Taylor does not answer her own implied question. ‘No one asks us to write.’ But I continue to be pleased that she does, as I revisit or discover her novels this year.

In July I will be reading and reviewing the fourth novel by Elizabeth Taylor: A Wreath of Roses (published in 1949).

What did you think of A View of the Harbour? Did you like it? How does it compare to her other novels?

37 Vof H

 

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Desert Island Books

It’s that old scenario, white sandy beach, a single palm tree, gulls shrieking, strings playing Sailing By and Kirsty Young asking you to choose eight books. The Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare are apparently already under the palm tree, thanks to the DIBSTUS (Desert Island Bible and Shakespeare Top Up Society).

What criteria to use? After all, millions of people are not listening to your choices, so you don’t have to answer to them, or make your choices represent important people or events in your life. But DIBSTUS will only deliver 8 more books so you do have to find some criteria or other.

It’s clear that I should choose books I want to read again and again, for all the years I will be stranded, listening to Sinatra singing My Way (also provided by DIBSTUS for all castaways)? I could go for the greatest books list. The Guardian’s 100 greatest novels of all time begins well enough with Don Quixote, and Pilgrim’s Progress, and then at #3 – just the thing on your desert island – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. There are no women writers in the top eight books in the list. Jane Austen’s Emma and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley come in at #9 and #10. They may be the greatest (longest?) novels of all time, but these top eight are worthy, harsh and actually, rather masculine. I expect DIBSTUS would approve. I’ll take a different set to my desert island.

My great-grandfather referred to reading as a conversation with the author, and I find myself asking with whom would I like to converse on my desert island? Not John Bunyan or Daniel Defoe I am sure. John Bunyan would treat every day like Sunday, and Daniel has seen it all before, after all. Been there, done that! Is there a T shirt?

So here is the list of authors with whom I would like to converse, and my pick of their books:

Jane Austen, I think I’d try to persuade Kirsty [see what I did there!] to allow me the complete works, but if she doesn’t agree I’ll take Pride and Prejudice.

Pride & Prej

Joseph Heller, Catch-22 has the kind of humour that exactly appeals to my generation, loads of characters and idiosyncrasy, full of those moments of human stupidity and situations when only laughing at the absurdity will get you through.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves. It’s about time I got to grips with this novel. She’s such an amazing and thoughtful writer, never did anything without great reflection. But I felt mostly relief when I first finished reading it. The island context would seem appropriate for a project related to the sea, and to explore the novel further.

Marge Piercy Woman on the Edge of Time for its vision of a world where gender differences are irrelevant; or Ursula le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness for a different approach to the same topic. (Help! Can’t decide!)

W.G. Sebald Austerlitz. I don’t believe I would ever tire of the inventiveness and imaginativeness of Sebald’s writing. And the tour de force of the description of Theriesenstadt deserves the familiarity a castaway’s life could provide.

George Eliot Middlemarch. I wouldn’t tire of this book either with its study of people and their relationships and the fixes they get themselves into.

Susan Coolidge, What Katy Did. I want to overthrow the teachings of this childhood favourite, with its awful insistence on self-sacrifice for girls. I might write What Katy did in 2013 to replace it. The date in the title would have to adjust according to when I get rescued.

Bookshelf DSC00106

That leaves one choice. Any suggestions? In the absence of better offers I can always take the Guardian’s #1 because I have never read it all through: Don Quixote.

Oh dear, Kirsty is asking for a last choice: just one of these books and one luxury. Reading glasses perhaps. But which book?

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