The Rector’s Daughter by FM Mayor 

How were a certain class of single women to achieve the satisfaction of a life well lived? This is the central question of the novel, published by the Hogarth Press in 1924. It is not that Mary Jocelyn is unable to attract a husband. She meets at least two men who considered her suitable. But she is not beautiful or appealing in the usual way and has profound beliefs that mean she feels a duty to care for her father, a widower, while he is still alive. The man she falls in love with becomes attracted to a more lively and more beautiful young woman and she is passed over. What is her life to be?

The Rector’s Daughter

Here is the inauspicious opening paragraph of The Rector’s Daughter. It describes the place where the main character, Mary Jocelyn, lives. The reader can see that this is not a place of drama.

Dedmayne is an insignificant village in the Eastern counties. There were no motor buses in the days of which I write, and Cayley, the nearest station, was six miles off. Dedmayne was ashamed of this, because without a station the most interesting feature for a picture postcard was not available. There was no great house with park or garden to give character to the village. Progress had laid hold of it fifty years before, and pulled down and rebuilt the church, the Rectory, and most of the cottages. Part of Redmayne was even ugly; there was a bit of straight flat road near the church, with low dusty hedges, treeless turnip fields, and corrugated iron roofs of barns which might rank with Canada. Dedmayne was on the way to nowhere; it was not troubled by motors or bicycles, except native bicycles. The grimy ‘Blue Boar’ did not induce anyone to strop for tea. Artists and weekend Londoners wanted something more picturesque. Still, being damp, it was bound to have certain charms; the trunks were mossy, and the walls mouldy. There were also those tall bowery trees in the hedgerows, and little pleasant risings in the meadows, which are so common in England one forgets to notice them. (1)

We are not to expect much from Mary’s home either. The Rector, Canon Jocelyn, is a man who is very happy to be in such a backwater as he can pursue his literary interests (Virgil and St Augustine) and be little disturbed by change. Mary, while popular with the villagers, is unlikely to cause much disturbance to her father or to Dedmayne.

Her uninteresting hair, dragged severely back, displayed a forehead lined too early. Her complexion was a dullish hue, not much lighter than her hair. She had her father’s beautiful eyes, and hid them with glasses. She was dowdily dressed, but she had many companions in the neighbourhood, from labourers’ wives to the ladies of the big houses, to share her dowdiness. It was not observed; she was as much a part of her village as its homely hawthorns. (3)

The first 35 years of Mary’s life have produced loss and sadness, even before the narrative begins. Her brothers have emigrated (to Canada), and her older sister Ruth is described as an ‘imbecile’. Their mother died young, and Ruth was sent away. Their Aunt Lottie cared for them for some time, and then Ruth returned home requiring constant care by Mary. When Ruth dies Mary is left alone with her father.

He feels but does not express affection for his daughter, which adds to her isolation. She turns to books.

In October, as regularly as the leaves fell, she began the winter habit of reading her favourite novels for an hour before dinner, finding in Trollope, Miss Yonge, Miss Austen, and Mrs Gaskell friends so dear and familiar that they peopled her loneliness. (17)

Canon Jocelyn is a fine figure of a Victorian father. It does not occur to him to express emotions, such as at the loss of his wife or older daughter, or to complement Mary on her attempts to distinguish herself. She begins a reading group in the parish, but it fails. She sends samples of her writing to a publisher, but they are rejected. His response is not to comfort her for her disappointments but to suggest she is less ambitious.

Mary is appreciated. She has a close relationship with the faithful Cook. While she is away with Aunt Lottie at Broadstairs, Cook reveals that her father missed her care very much, but he wasn’t able to say this. And while at Broadstairs she captures the attention of Mr. Maltby, who is regarded as a great bore by the other guests in the boarding-house. She becomes friends again with Dora, who had previously lived in the Dedmayne area. And then a new vicar comes to the parish of Lanchester, Mr Herbert, and Mary and he fall in love. They are well suited, both quiet people, serious and responsible. But Mr Herbert goes away briefly to Buxton for his health and meets and becomes engaged to the. More glamorous Kathy Hollings. 

Poor Mary, she must endure the return of Mr Herbert and all the celebrations consequent on his marriage. She had previously met and been rudely ignored by Kathy and now she had to defer to her as a bride. Following the wedding Mary devotes herself to her father, and to her friendship with Dora. It emerges that Kathy and Mr Herbert are not well suited, and Kathy’s friends enjoy rather wild outings and holidays, not appropriate for a clergyman’s wife. Kathy goes to the French Riviera with her cousin and nearly runs off with an unsuitable young man. 

While she is absent, Mr Herbert is lonely and afraid that his wife’s affections are not strong and he becomes more consumed by his mistake in passing over Mary. One day the Canon asks Mary to visit Mr Herbert on a literary matter. Emotions run high and Mary burst into tears at Mr Herbert’s unhappiness.

He put his hand on her shoulder, and said, ‘Don’t Mary, don’t cry.’ Their eyes met. Before they knew what was happening he kissed her. (172)

They both have strong reactions to the kiss, seeing it as marital transgression. And they both resolve not to see each other again. But when Kathy returns from her ill-judged stay in Monte Carlo, badly disfigured by botched dental treatment, Mary is asked by Kathy’s aunt to help her. She does so and continues to support Kathy through a pregnancy and the birth of twins. 

The Herberts are reconciled and they are grateful to Mary. After her father’s death Mary goes to live with Aunt Lottie in Croydon and is valued in her new social circle for her qualities. 

FM Mayor shows how Mary had to rely on tiny crumbs of comfort because her father or Mr Herbert were the focus of her life: a brief kind word, a voluntary interruption to routine, a saved note arranging an appointment, one kiss. This is the small fare of single women dependent upon men. She never escapes them, even after her father’s death and she has moved away from Dedmayne.

There were two people in the world she wanted – her father and Mr Herbert. Nothing besides existed for her. She had felt beyond the verge of feeling: at present she could feel no more. (294)

The Rector’s Daughter by FM Mayor, first published in 1924 and reissued by Persephone Books in 2021 with a new preface by Victoria Gray. 313pp

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Women’s Prize for Fiction 2024

… and the winner is 

Brotherless Night by V V Ganeshananthan

And you should know that the inaugural women’s prize for Non-Fiction has been won by Doppelganger by Naomi Klein.

The 6 shortlisted fiction titles in 2024:

The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright

Brotherless Night by V V Ganeshananthan

Restless Dolly Maunder by Kate Grenville

Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad

Soldier, Sailor by Claire Kilroy

River East, River West by Aube Rey Lescur

29 years of the Women’s Prize

Here are forty-three (that’s 43) brilliant books, all written by women, from the longlist for this year and all the previous winners. I have included links to the books I have reviewed on Bookword Blog. 

The 16 long-listed books in 2024

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize

I have included links to the books I have reviewed on Bookword Blog. 

Barbara Kingsolver: Demon Copperhead (2023)

Ruth Ozeki: The Book of Form & Emptiness (2022)

Susanna Clarke: Piranesi (2021)

Maggie O’FarrellHamnet (2020)

Tayari Jones: An American Marriage (2019)

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire  (2018)

Naomi Alderman: The Power (2017)

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (2016)

Ali Smith: How to be Both (2015)

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014)

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Marilynne Robinson: Home (2009)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)

Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004)

Valerie Martin: Property (2003)

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto (2002)

Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection (2001)

Linda Grant: When I Lived in Modern Times (2000)

Suzanne Berne: A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999)

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party (1998)

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces (1997) 

Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter (1996)

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Persuasion in Bath

I have recently been enjoying Bath and its connections with culture, not least with books. I have visited twice this spring and begin to feel I know the city even if it is 100 miles away from where I live in Devon. In April I attended the first Persephone Festival; a couple of weeks ago I joined some members of the Jane Austen Society SouthWest Branch in a brief tour of the city and its connections to Jane Austen and her novels. In preparation for that second visit I reread Persuasion, a novel that reaches its climax in the city.

Persuasion

Persuasion was published after Jane Austen’s death in 1817. Some commentators believe that she was too ill to complete the editing of the text before she died. Perhaps we will never know if she planned to revise it further, but we do have evidence of some revision in the cancelled chapter. In 1818 Persuasion was published in the form we have now, and some editions include that chapter.

The Bath location occurs in the final nine chapters of the novel, with 91 pages that make up 42% of the short narrative. The main character, Anne Elliot, is the daughter of a very vain, snobbish and imprudent baronet, who has had to rent out their home in Kellynch to live in Bath. Some eight years previously Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth had fallen in love and were ready to announce their engagement, when Anne was persuaded by her dead mother’s closest friend, Lady Russell, to break off the engagement. 

Anne is thoughtful, unselfish and forgiving. Neither her father nor her elder sister, Elizabeth, take any notice of Anne and her state of mind. She is not consulted about the move to Bath, for example. Her younger sister, Mary, lives close to Kellynch Hall in Uppercross and entertains a belief that she is being passed over and neglected by everyone. Anne spends a few weeks with Mary and her family before she goes to Bath, and the warmth and appreciation for Anne are a contrast to the indifference of her own father and sister. Into this situation Captain Wentworth returns, now enriched by his exploits in the navy. He is in search of a wife and seems to be drawn to Mary’s lively and sociable sisters-in-law: Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove.

There are four locations in this novel: Kellynch Hall, Uppercross, Lyme Regis and Bath. They represent four locations which increasingly connect Anne to the wider world. In Kellynch life is restricted by snobbery and unkindness; Uppercross has a close family of enthusiastic and warm people; Lyme Regis adds several friends who are involved in the navy; Bath is a place of fashion and transactional social relations. At each step she comes closer to Captain Wentworth.

On my recent trip to Bath I learned a great deal about the social situation in the fashionable city. For a start, we learned at the architectural museum that it had gone beyond its most fashionable era by the time Jane Austen was writing. But its conventions and social activities remained even if the more socially privileged were seeking other places to indulge themselves, such as the continent, seaside resorts and so forth. The function of the Lower and Upper Assembly Rooms, the regular weekly events which included concerts, theatre presentations, balls and taking the waters, all this was still in place. Jane Austen lived in Bath for a while and knew all this. Moreover, many of her readers would have known all this too.

On this tour I learned about the precision with which Jane Austen locates her characters, and how she does this for the express purpose of telling the reader something of her characters. Sir Walter, that snob, reveals the social standing of the novel’s characters, as well as his attitude through his observations on their residences. For example he has some ‘severe’ words for Anne when he discovers that she has been visiting an old school friend in Westgate-buildings.

‘Westgate-buildings!’ said he; ‘and who is Miss Anne Elliot to be visiting in Westgate-buildings? – A Mrs Smith. A widow Mrs Smith, – and who was her husband? One of the five thousand Mr Smiths whose names are met with every where. And what is her attraction? That she is old and sickly. – Upon my word. Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste! Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you.’ (141-142)

Sir Walter is disgusted by the part of town in which Mrs Smith lives, by her ill health, by her common name, by her widowhood. His judgment is not sound. We learn that Mrs Smith is not old at all, but a former school friend of Anne’s and therefore about her age. 

If they did not know this already, the information that Sir Walter had accommodated himself in Camden-place would have shown readers his weakness. Jane Austen describes the choice in this way:

Sir Walter had taken a very good house in Camden-place, a lofty, dignified situation, such as becomes a man of consequence, and both he and Elizabeth were settled there, much to their satisfaction. (125)

Camden-place was a terrace at the northern end of Bath, built in 1788, on subsiding land: half the buildings collapsed in the 1880s. The baronet was not only on unstable financial grounds when he moved to Bath.

Sir Walter is ready to fawn upon his Irish relations, Lady Dalrymple and her daughter, Miss Carteret. They had taken a house in the newest part of Bath, off Great Poultney Street in Laura-place. The hotel we stayed in was in a house off Laura- Place, and very close to the delightful Henrietta Park. Lady Dalrymple’s lodgings were the most fashionable and newest among all the characters, as fitting her social status.

Sir Walter’s tenants, Admiral and Lady Croft, also come to Bath, primarily for the Admiral’s health. Again we read more about the social standing of these characters, and the snobbism of Sir Walter, through his observations.

The Crofts had placed themselves in lodgings in Gay-street, perfectly to Sir Walter’s satisfaction. He was not at all ashamed of the acquaintance. And did, in fact, think and talk a great deal more about the Admiral, than the Admiral ever thought or talked about him. (150)

Jane Austen lived for a while at 25 Gay-street. She knew what she was writing about.

The White Hart, where the Musgraves are staying, is the scene of the tense letter-writing scene, in which Captain Wentworth finally admits that he still loves Anne. Their reunion takes place soon after – where else but in Union-street?

Our walking tour of Bath took us to many places that were significant in Jane Austen’s life, and to many of the streets and meeting places mentioned in Persuasion as well as in Northanger Abbey. We also noted film locations, but my interest has been in how the writer used locations in Bath within those final 9 chapters of Persuasion.

I am indebted to Hazel Jones, the tour leader and secretary of the Jane Austen Society SouthWest Branch, for her skills in organising and leading this tour. Her knowledge of Bath and Jane Austen were impressive and invaluable. I also learned from her that before my next visit to Bath I will reread Northanger Abbey as its early chapters are set in Bath.

Persuasion by Jane Austen, first published in 1818. I used an edition published by Pan Books in 1969, now its pages are yellow at the edges and the glue is giving out on the spine. It has an inappropriate cover too. 

Related Posts on Bookword Blog

In the society of Jane Austen – December 2019

Pursuing Jane Austen – June 2019

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Remembering Alice Munro

Some time ago, more than a decade ago, I attended a fiction writing course. We were asked to bring the first page or so of some fiction we admired. I chose the first page of a short story by Alice Munro, called The Love of a Good Woman (1998).

For the last couple of decades, there has been a museum in Walley, dedicated to preserving photos and butter churns and horse harnesses and an old dentist’s chair and a cumbersome apple peeler and such curiosities as the pretty little porcelain-and-glass insulators that were used on telegraph poles.
Also there is a red box, which has the letters D.M. WILLENS, OPTOMETRIST printed on it, and a note beside it, saying, “This box of optometrist’s instruments thought not very old has considerable local significance, since it belonged to Mr D.M. Willems, who drowned in the Peregrine River, 1951. It escaped the catastrophe and was found, presumably by the anonymous donor, who dispatched it to be a feature of our collection.” (3)

There are so many questions raised by these two paragraphs. Why did Mr Willens drown? What was the catastrophe? Did anyone else drown in the river in 1951? Is there anything in this museum that is more dramatic than insulators, butter churns and Mr Willens’s optometry box? Does this rural setting have a secret? Will the anonymous donor make an appearance in the story? 

We were asked to re-write the passage using our own words, but following the pattern of the sentences, the rhythms, the clauses of the original. Both choosing the opening passage and the re-writing exercise underscored Alice Munro’s excellence as a writer.

This month, it was announced that she had died in the town where she had lived in Ontario, Canada. Although she had not written anything much for a decade it was still a sad moment to reflect on the passing of one of Canada’s great writers. She comes from the same era as Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, and did much to put Canadian women on the literary map. 

So I went back to my considerable collection of her published works and reread some of her short stories and remembered why I loved them, and why she so inspires me as I struggle with my own short stories. 

Alice Munro. Picture credit: Edward MacDowell: Medal acceptance speech in 2006 via Wiki Commons

Alice Munro

She was born in July 1931 and died at the age of 92 in May 2024. She had been writing since she was a teenager and had been recognised for her work. She was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2009 for her lifetime’s work. And in 2013 she won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Most of her work is set in rural Ontario where she lived.

Her first story was published when she 19 in 1950 while she was at college. The following year she married James Munro. They moved to Vancouver and remained together until they divorced in 1972. Those twenty years of marriage produced two children, and Alice Munro said she found it hard to write while also being the model 1950s and 1960s housewife and mother. 

After her marriage ended and responsibilities for her daughters were reduced, she wrote many stories, often producing a collection every four years or so, and others were printed in literary journals such as The New Yorker. She also taught at universities in Ontario. 

Her themes were attractive to readers from the ‘70s onwards: girls growing up in rural settings; the limiting of women through contemporary attitudes and customs; relationships; marriage; death; aging and the counter-culture of the 1960s.

The short stories of Alice Munro

When I began reading her stories in the 1980s, I was impressed with how complete and well-crafted they were. She clearly loved the genre, never needing to expand into longer fiction. Readers often observed that she managed to get as much into a story as any novelist writing in the longer form. She had a grasp of the least words required to provide the reader with the details they needed to understand a character or place. (See the description of the museum contents above, which tells you all you need to know about the kind of place that Walley is.) Here is a good example of a description of a person.

My mother prayed on her knees at midday, at night, and first thing in the morning. Every day opened up to her to have God’s will done in it. Every night she totted up what she’d done and said and thought, to see how it squared with Him. That kind of life is dreary, people think, but they are missing the point. For one thing, such a life can never be boring. And nothing can happen to you that you can’t make use of. Even if you are racked by troubles, and sick and poor and ugly, you’ve got your soul to carry through life like treasure on a platter. Going upstairs after the noon meal, my mother would be full of energy and expectation, seriously smiling. (4)

In case you think her mother was too dour the next paragraph makes her quite human.

She was saved at a camp meeting when she was fourteen. […] She could tell stories about what went on at those meetings, the singing and hollering and wildness. She told about one old man getting up and shouting, “Come down, O Lord, come down among us now! Come down through the roof and I’ll pay for the shingles!” (4)

This is from an unusual story, The Progress of Love (1987), in that it’s told in the first person. It is also a good example of a skill she developed in which she moved the narrative within a story between periods of time. Another example of this is in Lichen, from the same collection, where a formerly married couple remember each other as they were. The husband realises that he is still bound to her through a long, shared past as he remembers a moment when he betrayed their marriage. The blending of different time periods is something Alice Munro excels in.

I love writing and reading short stories. Alice Munro is without peer in this genre. If you haven’t yet read any of her short stories, I encourage you to start now.

Related posts about Short Stories on Bookword

Short Stories – More Treats (July 2023)

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine (March 2021)

Even more praise for short stories (September 2021)

More Praise for Short Stories (January 2017)

Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor (June 2016)

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston (November 2020)

There’s No Story There by Inez Holden (March 2021)

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10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

When a member of our book group suggested this novel for us to read in 2024, I was enthusiastic. I had very much enjoyed The Architect’s Apprentice (2014) and admired the scope of The Island of Missing Trees (2022). 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was published in (2019) and had received good reviews. The book includes references to sexual abuse, and the life of a sex worker. For this Elif Shafak was investigated by the Turkish authorities. She lives in exile from Turkey.

I admire her writing for its lavishness and for its inventiveness. The Architect’s Apprentice is one of the richest works of fiction I have ever read, featuring an elephant, the building of some of the greatest architectural masterpieces of the Ottoman Empire, life in the harem, and the travels of the apprentice. The Island of Missing Trees featured a fig tree from Cyprus that was transplanted to North London, and which contributed to the narrative about the divisions in Cyprus’ past. I wouldn’t say that it was entirely successful, but it was interesting.

In 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World the main character has been murdered, but before her brain stops functioning it is recalling life events through smell and taste, and this is a device to learn about Leila’s life. Richness of descriptions and innovation are combined.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World has been described as a love letter to Istanbul. More accurately, it’s a love letter to the outcasts, underdogs and misfits of Istanbul. Leila has been murdered, and her recollection of her life in the last 10 minutes and 38 seconds reveals that she had five friends, all misfits in Istanbul, as she is. In the second half of the book, the friends come together to reclaim Leila’s body, and then to give her the burial they believe she should have. Murder and funerals might seem to be sombre subjects, but there is plenty of merriment and celebration in this novel.

In many ways it is a book of lists: the 10 minutes before her brain activity ceased, her five friends, and the many descriptions of places and events in her life. Leila’s life began with salt, for example, and later, when her brother was born, with goat stew. We follow her as a rebellious young woman in Turkey in the 50s and 60s. She suffers sexual abuse by a member of her family and to cover this up her family plan a wedding to her cousin. She runs away to the capital and becomes a prostitute. This life is no easier, and she remembers an incident with sulphuric acid. On a happier note she also finds her five friends and has a brief but happy marriage with a communist student. 

We do not understand her murder until the second part of the novel, where we also meet the coroner who espouses the theory that the brain continues after the heart has stopped beating. And perhaps more important that the activity of her brain, the novel describes how the significance of Leila, or anyone, on her friends and family also lives on after death. This is an exploration of death within a community, a city, a family, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World.

And Elif Shafak tells a good story, even if the Turkish authorities did not like it. Leila’s life story is rich with detail of her family in the city of Van, where her birth mother had to give up her title of mother to her husband’s first wife. Where to be a girl was a definite disadvantage, especially in terms of education, arranged marriage, abuse and so-called ‘honour killings’ (where there is no honour at all). In Istanbul, the lives of a prostitute, and of the other misfits, are vividly described, with all the risks and abuse that the friends must endure. The events take place for the most part from the 1960s, when Istanbul was changing very rapidly, including as a result of the opening of the bridge over the Bosphorus in 1973.

Here is an example of how she uses lists, and of an excellent description of a character, Bitter Ma, the madam of the brothel in which Leila works:

The new madam was a woman of ample proportions, resolute gait, and rouged cheeks that sagged like flaps of staked leather. She had a tendency to address every man who walked in, whether a regular or not, as ‘my pasha’. Every few weeks she visited a hair-dressing salon named Split Ends where she had her hair dyed a different shade of blonde. Her wide-set, protuberant eyes gave her an expression of permeant surprise, although she rarely was. A web of broken capillaries fanned out across her mighty nose, like streams threading their way down a mountainside. No-one knew her real name, Both the prostitutes and the punters called her ‘Sweet Ma’ to her face and ‘Bitter Ma’ behind her back. She was all right as far as madams went, but she had a tendency to do everything to excess: she smoked too much, swore too much, shouted too much and was simply too much of a presence in their lives – a veritable maximum dose. (47)

All members of our reading group enjoyed this novel, some for the second time, and it produced a lively discussion about Istanbul, Turkey, death and reading other novels by Elif Shafak.

Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a Turkish-British writer, born in 1971. She writes in Turkish and English. She has published 11 works of fiction, some in English. She lives in London, and has lived in many other countries, including being brought up in Turkey. She says she carries Istanbul in her soul, and many of her books feature the city, as this one does. I admire her ability to tell a strong story through some well-drawn characters, and to innovate with some interesting narrative tropes, such as a talking tree.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak, published in 2019. I used the edition from Penguin 312pp. Shortlisted for Booker Prize 2019

I have reviewed two other novels by Elif Shafak on Bookword blog:

The Architect’s Apprentice in April 2023,

and The Island of Missing Trees in August 2022 

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Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman

It feels, doesn’t it, like the worst of times. And that things are getting still worse. Here is another view:

The reality is exactly the opposite. Over the last several decades, extreme poverty, victims of war, child mortality, crime, famine, child labour, deaths in natural disasters and the number of plane crashes have all plummeted. We’re living in the richest, safest, healthiest era ever. (13)

Rutger Bregman, the Dutch author of Humankind, goes on to say ask why we don’t realise this.

It’s simple. Because the news is about the exceptional, and the more exceptional an event is – be it a terrorist attack, violent uprising, or natural disaster – the bigger its newsworthiness. (13)

And it’s because we are susceptible to negativity bias and increasingly to availability bias and come to assume that the exceptional we are being told about is common. And in his book, Rutger Bregman goes on to challenge the myth that humans are but a small step from anarchy and violence, and basically selfish animals.

Humankind: a hopeful history

The pessimistic view of humans is exemplified in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In that fiction, some schoolboys are marooned on a desert island, and after some weeks, when the survivors are rescued, violence has broken out, some boys have died and the survivors have developed a system of rules and beliefs based on humiliation and terror. 

And, you may be asking, if humans are kind and sociable as Rutger Bregman claims, how did Auschwitz ever take place, or the murder of so many women and children in Gaza in the last few months? And I am sure you can think of many other occasions when humans have behaved very badly.

This is a hopeful history, and Rutger Bregman traces back the success of the evolution of homo sapiens to the development of kind communities. He reports a very long history of communal hunter-gathering, but the harmony was threatened when humans began to settle on farms and to create towns. This brought competition for land, from such competitions so many harms in the world arise.

But in small and local communities, he argues, the basic urge to kindness and community spirit holds good. The further you are from conflict the less you care about other humans. He finds a real-life example of boys being marooned on an island and finds that they survived without the conflict of Golding’s imagination. 

The story of the real-life shipwreck of six boys who survived over a year in harmony on a Pacific island of Ata in the 1960s is not well known. Their rescuer, Captain Warner wrote,

‘the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.’ [quoted on p32]

The idea that humans are brutish and need rules to control them, a Hobbesian outlook, underpins how many institutions work. Rutger Bregman considers how the world might look, if our social institutions were based on more cooperative principles, in particular, schools, prisons and our governance. He finds examples where innovations have taken place: a school in the Netherlands, the prison system in Norway, a democratic local government in Venezuela. And he reminds us about the Danish under German occupation in October 1943 and their response to the plan to arrest and deport all Jewish citizens. It was defeated by the actions of thousands of Danish citizens who ensured that Jewish citizens escaped, often by small boats to Sweden. Rather than pitched into chaos and panic, the London Blitz produced resilience, helpfulness and camaraderie, known as the Blitz Spirit. While this upbeat approach was not universal, the bombing did not reduce the British population to panic and chaos. (Sadly, the example of this reaction did not stop the Allies using the same tactic on German towns and cities at the end of the war. The German population was not cowed either. The exceptionalism of the British response proves to be another myth.)

Rutger Bregman is not providing a prescription for individual lives, partly because it is not disputed that towards our immediate neighbours humans are for the most part compassionate, caring and generous. Rather Rutger Bregman considers that social institutions based on trust, generosity and friendliness may be more successful and cheaper for society than our current models, especially for prisons and schools. 

But here are three warnings:

  1. The opposing theory that humans are prevented by a very thin veneer from being violent and selfish is like a hydra. ’Veneer theory is a zombie that just keeps coming back’ (19).
  2. To stand up for human goodness is to take a stand against the powers that be, and you will be seen as threatening, subversive, seditious and a communist (where such a theory has a bad name).
  3. To stand up for human goodness will also produce accusations of naivety, ridicule, lack of common sense. 

Advocating more positive views of humans and their behaviour is not, however, doomed to fail. It is the right time.

The reasons for hope, by contrast [to the doomsayers], are always provisional. Nothing has gone wrong – yet. You haven’t been cheated – yet. An idealist can be right her whole life and still be dismissed as naïve. This book is intended to change that. Because what seems unreasonable, unrealistic and impossible today can turn out to be inevitable tomorrow.
It’s time for a new realism. It’s time for a new view of humankind. (20)

Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman, published in 2020 by Bloomsbury. Translated from the Dutch by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore. 467pp

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Doreen by Barbara Noble

War is no place for children. Before the Second World War plans were made to evacuate children from major targets of air raids and evacuation began soon after war was declared in September 1939. The air raids did not start until September the following year by which time many children had returned to the cities. But when the Blitz got going, in the Autumn of 1940, parents had difficult decisions to make. 

This novel considers the theme of separation, children from adults, but also adults from their children. And a second theme is the influence of class. Decisions by Mrs Rawlings and her former husband are influenced by class differences. Inner city folk took the brunt of the bombings, while the more affluent as well as the country poor lived in relative safety.

This novel, published in 1946, describes the rawness and attrition of those early war years when London and other cities were subjected to bombs, and when children and parents were often separated.

Doreen 

Mrs Rawlings is a proud woman, a single mother with a 9-year-old daughter Doreen. When the first call is made for Doreen to be evacuated out of London, she refuses to let her go. Mrs Rawlings cannot imagine living without her daughter, but as the raids intensify and the consequent damage persists, a chance opportunity presents itself. Mrs Rawlings works as a cleaner and a conversation with Helen, a secretary in the same offices, produces the suggestion of a private arrangement. Doreen is sent to live in the country with Helen’s brother and his wife, the Osbornes. 

Francie Osborne has been very unhappy that she and her husband have not had children, and the arrival of Doreen into their house brings the opportunity to care for a child. Mr Osborne has asthma and so has been excused combat duties. He works as a solicitor. He too finds Doreen a very acceptable companion and enjoys teasing her and encouraging her confidence while engaged together in gardening and countryside walks.

The child and the foster parents quickly become very fond of each other. But Mrs Rawlings, who visits for Christmas, is worried that Doreen is becoming too familiar wigth the middle-class ways of the household. She eats with the family, for example, instead of in the kitchen and she has her own bedroom. Mrs Rawlings is afraid that the child will not be satisfied with their home when she returns. She is also jealous of the affection between Francie and Doreen.

Doreen’s emotional response to her arrival at the Osborne’s house is very well described. I remember the horror of being sent away to boarding school, at the same age as Doreen. Everything was strange. She gradually relaxes, encouraged by her foster parents, but the confidence she begins to show is the very thing to fuel her mother’s fears.

Everything comes to a head when Doreen’s father, hitherto a murky and an unknown person in Doreen’s life, arrives at the foster home. He shares his former wife’s anxiety, and he confronts the child with his fears. 

“You don’t take long to settle down, do you?” he said curtly. “Well, I reckon it is all a bit different to what you’ve been used to – posh house, maid to open the door, everything cushy. It seems to me your mother made a big mistake in sending you down here. You get too used to living soft and next thing you’ll be thinking home’s not good enough.”
Doreen began to cry, silently, her face puckered, her heart sore. She understood perfectly well that she was being accused of disloyalty, and no scolding could have hurt her as much as that reproach. (125)

Mr Rawlings’s subsequent actions create chaos and eventually trigger a resolution of sorts.

We see a world where children are used by adults: Mrs Rawlings is single, lonely, isolated from the world with nothing to enjoy in life but Doreen; Francie really wanted a child; Geoffrey felt guilty that Francie had no child and was happy that he supported his wife with their foster daughter; Mr Rawlings wants revenge upon his former wife and for the snobbish treatment, as he sees it, with which he was greeted by Geoffrey Osborne. All these adults have reasons for making decisions about Doreen in which she has no say. As a result her life is put in danger in London, and she has to react to intense and conflicting adult emotions.

The writing is very immediate and accessible. The air raids and their effects are vividly described, and since Barbara Noble lived in London during the war we can assume she was writing from experience.

When they arrived at the darkened frontage of the hotel, Geoffrey pressed the Night Bell, expecting to be let in by a sleepy, grumbling porter. But the lounge hall seemed full of people, wide awake, fully clothed and trailing blankets. The receptionist booked them a room rather grudgingly but without demur. Geoffrey felt that everyone was staring at them, as if the place were not a hotel but a private club. There was curious atmosphere abroad, a kind of solidarity which shut out strangers. From scraps of conversation overheard, he gathered that the raid had been a sharp one, mostly concentrated on the West End. (137)

Barbara Noble is excellent at describing the small things in a scene which give sense to the bigger picture as this example shows. And the understanding of the child’s experience is very poignant and powerful.

Doreen by Barbara Noble, first published in 1946. Reissued by Persephone in 2005, with a preface by Jessica Mann. 238pp

Also on Bookword Blog by Barbara Noble: The House Opposite, reviewed in March 2021.

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Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden 

It is a great time to be reading Irish writers at the moment. I’m looking forward to reading The Wren, The Wrenby Anne Enright. It is my suggestion for our reading group later this year and has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. Our group has enjoyed The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan (2022) as well as Claire Keegan’s short fiction. Deirdre Madden was not familiar to me until I read a review on Jacquiwine’s blog earlier this year. I am pleased to say that the author has written seven other novels which I expect to sample because I enjoyed this novel a great deal.

Molly Fox’s Birthday

Molly Fox’s Birthday unwinds over one day, Midsummer’s Day, in the early years of this century, possibly in 2006. There are no chapter divisions, very little dialogue, to break the momentum, only occasional gaps in the lines. It is told in the first person, but we never learn the narrator’s name. 

She is a friend of the actor Molly Fox and is staying in her flat in Dublin. She wakes in Molly’s flat, notices her belongings, remembers their shared past, meets her neighbours, brother and friends, and as the day moves on, she tries to understand how well she knows Molly and these other people and what people reveal to each other.

Our narrator is a playwright and she has planned to work on her new play during the time she is staying in Dublin. The novel explores how people perform themselves, how their interior and exterior selves match or are mismatched, and how they are seen and remembered by others. 

Molly and the narrator meet when the narrator’s first play is being performed, and both their careers take off at this point. They have been friends ever since, but the writer puzzles over how well she knows Molly, even after 20 years. For example, the day is Molly’s birthday, but the actor never celebrates it and it is only late in the novel we realise why this is. The writer has assumed wrongly it is because Molly does not want to damage her career by revealing her true age. 

They have a mutual friend, Andrew, who is a TV art pundit and has taken on a very different presentation of himself since his student days. The writer watches one of his programmes, and later he turns up himself and reveals an episode which the writer had known nothing of, although she knows about his marriage and fatherhood. She also considers how the murder of his brother in the Troubles impacted upon Andrew’s life. 

Molly’s brother Fergus calls on her during the day. She realises that he is not as Molly has presented him, and that she has never met him without Molly being present. She had understood him to be very dependent upon Molly, his mental health being severely damaged and spending time in and out of mental institutions. After talking with him her view alters.

This new Fergus was a man of wisdom and acute moral knowledge. He had had the courage and insight to inspect his own life more closely than most would dare to do, and he had compassion and forgiveness for those who had hurt him. […] It didn’t matter that his life, in social terms, was not a success. To expect someone to gain a mature perspective on their troubled life, as he had, and to also expect them to have worked out to their advantage all those other things such as property, relationships and career that we mistakenly confuse with life itself – that would have been unreasonable. What he had achieved seemed to me more precious by far. (155-6)

She spends time thinking about her own brother, who is Catholic priest, and who seems to be the person nearest her own interests in her family, despite her lack of religion. And so it goes on. The paragraph quoted above is characteristic of the writer’s musings.

The writer finds it harder and harder to settle down to work and instead she surrenders to the quest to understand her friends and their family. Towards the end of the day she decides that it won’t be a play she writes, it will be a novel – implying this novel.

Such a novel, focused on the question of how we know people, depends upon the depiction of the characters, rather than the narrative drive. Deirdre Madden manages this very well. The characters are distinct, they change, they influence each other in an authentic manner. 

§§§

Recommended by Jacquiwine in her blog in March 2024. Her praise for the novel encouraged me to read it.

Simon on his blog called Stuck in a Book also has high praise for this novel (December 2019).

It is interesting that this book appears to have rested on people’s bookshelves for some time, and yet still impresses.

Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden, published in 2008 by Faber. I used the paperback edition published in 2013. 221pp

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The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

I had not heard of this novel, but a member of our reading group recommended it for our 2024 list. When we discussed it last week, we all agreed that the story was well-told, and we had a good discussion about Åsta’s decision when she was given the opportunity to return home. We discussed how little we knew of the Barbary pirates, and how entrenched slavery seems to be in human commerce. We agreed The Sealwoman’s Gift was an excellent choice for a book group. 

The Sealwoman’s Gift

The story of Åsta and her family’s capture is based on real and recorded events. The family are living in the Westman Islands south of Iceland in 1627. They live a meagre life in an inhospitable environment. Åsta has two daughters, one living away, and a son and she is in the final stages of another pregnancy. Her husband, Ólafur, is a Lutheran priest, fierce in his determination that he and his parishioners will get to heaven by leading a good life. Suddenly the raiders arrive and remove four hundred people, adults and children, and load them onto their ships. Others are killed. It was known as the ‘Turkish Raid’ although the raiders are Barbary pirates, and the family is taken to Algiers.

It is also documented that Ólafur returned to beg the King of Denmark, who ruled Iceland, for the ransom demanded by the raiders. The king refused to see Ólafur, and it was many years before he agreed to support raising funds to pay for the return of the Icelandic captives. Most of the novel is concerned with what happened to Åsta and the others in the nine years of their captivity.

In the Author’s Note, Sally Magnusson makes it clear that she intended to recreate in an imaginative manner the lives of the women, giving their ordeal some substance. Women’s stories are often neglected. She succeeds, beginning with the birth of Åsta’s baby on board the ship that carries them to Algiers. This scene makes for hard reading, for Åsta is in the hold with the other captives. When they arrive, they wait in the square.

There is a flutter of red silk as the Ottoman governor of Algiers, exercising his historical right to choose for himself an eight of every group of new slaves, pads from one man to another, considering his options. (89-90)

The pasha chooses Åsta’s older son, Egill. It is clear that Egill is to be treated as a rent boy and who knows what the pasha will do with him when he tires of him. Åsta is distraught. The rest of the family are bought by Cilleby, a distinguished member of one of the town’s elite families. He has been persuaded that they are valuable, and that Ólafur is the man to negotiate the payment for their release. His first wife has asked him to buy a slave who can sew. 

So Åsta joins the harem in Cilleby’s household and Ólafur leaves for Copenhagen to negotiate with the king of Denmark. Åsta finds sewing hard, but her two children, the baby and Marta, soon endear themselves to the women of the household and she begins to learn the language. There are other European slaves in the household, and Anna, one of the Icelandic women who was taken in the same raid, marries a Muslim trader and she brings news and gossip.j

The years pass, and little news is forthcoming from Denmark, or from Ólafur. Åsta is forced to make a life for herself in her new situation. She joins the story-tellers in the harem, retelling sagas which enchanted her in her days in Iceland. Soon Cilleby asks for her to tell him these stories, and their relationship develops. He is not familiar with women of spirit who will not automatically obey him. 

One sad episode concerns the letter that Åsta wrote to Ólafur. She took it to a ship to hope that it would finally find him. This is what she says about the mixture of peoples in Algiers.

I have also found out that the people we were wont to call Turks are by no means all Turks. It is true that the highest people are most often from Turkey – they are also called Ottomans – but others, like the family of our high and mighty Ali Pitterling Cilleby, are Moors from Spain. Then there are Berbers, native to this land, and Jews. And besides the slaves, there are European renegades with their new Arabic names who are here to make money and stride about as if they own the place, which many of them do. (I19)

The letter, with others, is given to a sailor, with some money, but as she watches the boat leave the harbour she sees ‘a flock of white birds flies upwards, rising from the deck and then fluttering one by one to the water’. (125) Ólafur will not get his letter.

A businessman from Amsterdam arrives, after many years, with instructions to buy back the hostages. Money has been raised among the Icelandic population. To be qualified to return the captives must still follow the Lutheran faith, which excludes many of the young people. Others have settled to their new life, such as Anna, or set up in business themselves, and they do not choose to return. Some have disappeared. Åsta faces a dilemma, for she will leave her all three children behind if she chooses to return.

The cultural and religious contrasts between Iceland and Algiers are well explored, including the Icelanders’ responses to captivity. Strict Lutheran beliefs are challenged by Islamic observances and customs. The north African climate is so much less trying than the harshness of Iceland and the Westman islands. Women are treated differently in the two cultures, but in neither society do they have rights, and in neither can they control which dilemmas and decisions they must face. This is a story full of details and twists in the tradition of the Icelandic sagas.

There is a love story, but The Sealwoman’s Gift is a first and foremost a woman’s story, a wife and mother, experiencing loss and separation and cast into extraordinary circumstances. 

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson, published in 2018 by Two Roads. 367pp

There are four posts on Bookword blog featuring Iceland and its books. Here are the posts with links.

Bookword in Iceland (February 2017)

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, also based on historical evidence and rather grim. (March 2017)

And the Wind Sees All by Gudmundur Andi Thorsson (November 2018)

Quake by Audor Jónsdóttir (March 2022)

The photographs are from my trip to Iceland in February 2017.

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The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett

Published in 1937, a couple of years before the outbreak of war, this story of a large family appealed greatly to me when I read it 20 years later. At that time, the life of the family did not seem so different from what I saw about me. Their outlook, their general attitude is now called Blitz spirit. I had misremembered where the Ruggles lived, fixed in my mind that it was in the East End of London, where a cheerful approach to life’s challenges prevailed, we were told. One End Street was in Otwell, a fictional town on the river Ouse.

Eve Garnett portrayed a real family, although in a somewhat idealised manner. They lived in a town, had neighbours, the parents had jobs, the children achieved variously at school. The appeal of this large and active family is enhanced by the illustrations, by the author. It was, to my mind, an ideal Puffin book, and set the standard for my reading for several years.

  

The Family from One End Street

The Ruggles family was even larger than mine with seven children. But there were two big differences, the Ruggles lived in a town and they were poor, working class. Mrs Ruggles, Rosie, took in laundry and Mr Ruggles earned a living by collecting rubbish – a dustman as we called them. The reader is introduced to all 7 children through the device of finding names for their Christenings. 

The chapter headings indicate the spirit of the book:

  • The Christenings
  • Lily Rose and the Green Silk Petticoat
  • The Gang of the Black Hand
  • The Adventure of the Parked Car
  • The Baby Show
  • What Mr Ruggles Found
  • The Perfect Day

There is a great deal of humour in these stories. For example, Lily Rose, the oldest child, decides to help her mother by doing some ironing and starts with a green silk petticoat.

She spread out the petticoat carefully, took what she thought to be the cool iron from the stove and began. She made one long sweep up and down with the iron, and oh! what was happening! The petticoat was shrinking … shrinking … shrivelling up … running away before her eyes! Smaller and smaller it grew, while Lily Rose gazed fascinated and as if rooted to the spot, her eyes and mouth round ‘o’s of horror! 
At last the shrinking seemed to stop and there it lay, the beautiful green silk petticoat, no bigger than a doll’s – too small even for William [the baby], – had he worn such things! (25)

How well Eve Garnett captures that feeling of horror when a well-intentioned child finds her actions have taken a terrible turn. Following this dreadful event, Lily Rose must own up to the owner of the petticoat, Mrs Beasley, who is one of Rosie’s best clients. For Rosie has a strong moral code that she requires her children to live by.

Not long after the episode with the petticoat, Mr Ruggles finds a great deal of money in the rubbish he has collected. It would feed all his dreams, of owning a pig, and of taking the family to the grand Cart Horse Parade in London. Honesty brings its rewards on both occasions, but the reader is treated to a dilemma familiar to young people: to own up or to hide the truth. 

Jo’s jersey

The children have adventures. The twins, Jim and John are required to have adventures when they join the Gang of the Black Hand. They both have misadventures, stowed away in a barge and a car, with some scary moments and great outcomes. Kate gets to go to the seaside with some school friends, but her precious school hat gets blown away and she tries to earn the money to replace it. Her adventure picking mushrooms, is also nearly a catastrophe. 

But her original hat is returned by a stranger, and the reader is introduced to another theme of these stories: the kindness of strangers, who frequently rescue the children and boost their material resources. Often this is in response to the resourcefulness of the children in the face of poverty: for example, Jo manages to get members of the orchestra at the local cinema to provide him with a ticket. They found him asleep in the orchestra pit, waiting for the feature to begin.

Not everyone is generous and kind. Mrs Smith-next-door-but-two makes unkind judgements one Sunday about the children’s appearances and is known by Rosie as Mrs Nosey Parker. She goes round to investigate Rosie Ruggles’s situation. 

A strange sight met her eyes when the door was opened; nothing less than Mrs Ruggles in her petticoat and jumper, her hair in curling pins, an iron I her hand, while through a mist of steam and airing clothes could be faintly seen the figure of Mr Ruggles, clothed only in pants (no better than one of them Nudists you read about, as Mrs Smith said to her husband later) busily engaged in polishing a pair of yellow-brown boots! What a spectacle for Sunday afternoon! Mrs Smith’s sympathy evaporated and righteous indignation filled her heart. (243)

The Ruggles family are preparing for a special event, the climax of this book: the Cart Horse Parade in London.

We read of a family bonded by love and pride in each other’s achievements. Everyone is disappointed when William fails to win the Grand Challenge Cup in the Baby Show. His teeth were too slow to come through, but he is awarded the title of Otwell’s Best Baby and his parents get a prize of £1 note. Kate passes the 11+ (Eleven Plus). 

Her photograph appeared in the paper, and the whole family had sardines and chocolate biscuits for tea to celebrate the event! (42)

This is the ‘30s, and free secondary education is not yet universal. Furthermore Kate will need special clothes for five years, not hand-me-downs. Her place is in jeopardy in the face of such expense, until Mr Ruggles fills in a form for a grant. His writing is not good, and in the box where he must say how many children he has the number 7 appears at first as a figure 1. It was a genuine problem for parents, especially parents of girls, how to support them in secondary school where family funds were so limited.

Eve Garnett also celebrates the ambitions and dreams of her characters, such as Kate’s ambition to continue her education. The climax to the stories is the fulfilment of the Ruggles’s wish to join Uncle Charlie in a winning cart in the Cart Horse Parade in Regent’s Park in London at Whitsun. The family have plenty of adventures that day, in the lake, arrested by a policeman for picking the flowers, and losing Jo who had swapped his designated but tight jersey for one of his father’s. It was, said Rosie, a perfect day.

The reading is easy, the stories flow, and the charm is full blown. Eve Garnett wrote a sequel, which was not published until 1956 as it had to be reassembled from a fire in her home: The Further Adventures of the Family from One End Street.

1937 Club

The 1937 Club is organised by two bloggers: Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book. Bloggers post their responses to books published in 1937 on their own blogs and these are listed on the organisers’ pages. I always enjoy identifying a book to fit the club year. 

The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett, first published in 1937. I read the Puffin Book edition from 2014. Illustrations by Eve Garnett. 304pp

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