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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One Year’s Time by Angela Milne

Girls have always been told that their duty is to ‘get a man’, and to do so they must please him by putting him first in everything. The main character in One Year’s Time is Liza Brett, a single young woman, living in London in the 1930s, and not interested in acquiring a husband. She meets and falls in love with Walter. As their relationship progresses, they plan to spend the summer together and Liza reassures Walter:

‘… it would be rather nice to be a fallen woman. I think sin is lovely.’ (45)

The reader is presented with the development of their relationship over twelve months. We see her giving way to him in small and large matters, her growing wish for marriage and their ultimate unhappiness.

One Year’s Time

Time dominates this novel, as the title suggests. But this is not referring to the time in which they are living, for although there is a fleeting reference to a coming war, the geopolitical context does not feature. Rather it’s about how the main character spends her time in trivial and unimportant activities: at first in an office for a company whose function is never revealed; then during a rural retreat she spends her days in domestic pursuits, playing at being a wife and a housewife; the days of her summer holiday are counted down until she can return to Walter and London; this pattern intensifies through their year together. 

When Walter says he will go abroad without her, she spends the remainder of the summer with her aunt’s family. On his return he takes up a live-in job at a prep school to earn more money to finish his training, and she hardly sees him. The relationship ends in her flat (which she has reclaimed) a year after it started. He wants his freedom. She had wanted him to propose marriage.

Walter’s selfishness is gradually revealed. He calls her ‘ducky’, which even accounting for changing idioms over time, sounds disrespectful. He has a habit of flicking her neck. When they rent a cottage in the countryside they find there are two beds.

She turned over and saw the back of Walter’s head in the next bed, which was a few inches higher than hers, and a good deal softer. Walter had said ‘I’ll have the camp-bed, ducky. I can sleep on floors, and it wouldn’t be much harder.’
Liza had said, ‘No darling, I’ll have it. You’re bigger and you kick more.’ And now, whenever she saw the beds, she thought, Walter’s got the best bed. Yes, that sort of unselfishness was only cowardice, and selfishness, in equal proportions, no, cowardice and selfishness were two words for the same thing. (92) 

It is not entirely clear from this passage whether Liza sees her generosity to Walter as cowardice and a form of selfishness. Walter’s selfishness is not in doubt. The dysfunctionality of their relationship is beginning to be revealed.

Walter’s selfishness becomes more and more evident as he persuades Liza that it would be best if he left her to her own devices for the rest of the summer while he went abroad, and ultimately that he will not marry her because it would cramp his freedom. 

At last, the reader thinks, when she tells him some truths in their final quarrel. It begins when she says that she wanted ‘something beautiful’ from their relationship. Walter replies,

‘And what do you think I wanted?’
‘The same as I did.’ She was swept with a wave of anger. ‘And someone to cook your dinners, and iron your suits. Yes, I know that’s a lie. I know all about unselfishness being selfish. Everything I say comes back on me. It always does.’ (260)

Up to now she has met his anger with fear and backs down, and even now she nearly caves in again, but recovers enough to assert herself. 

‘Some people are wise and don’t mind growing up. You’re not wise. You’re – you’re nothing but an escapist.’ And she was very frightened indeed. She had said something he didn’t want to know about himself.
Walter moved. She heard him stand up, and waited with a sinking misery, for his voice. It came.
‘All right. Now we are throwing the china.’
‘Oh, darling.’ She turned round for the first time. ‘I didn’t mean it. I don’t want you to be anything you aren’t. Only I can’t bear this any longer. Say yes or no, and we’ll get married, or we’ll never see each other again.’ (262)

Finally, thinks the reader, finally you have stood up for yourself, finally you have said what you will and won’t put up with. It is painful for them both, for despite the abusiveness of the relationship, to which she contributed by giving in all the time, they loved each other.

One Year’s Time is not about whether it is wrong to ‘live in sin’, or undesirable to be described as a ‘Batchelor Girl’. It is about forming grown-up relationships. While Walter has neglected her, Liza has met David, and it is obvious that he is a better match for her, although he has gone to America to work for a couple of months. 

Although the reader hears a great deal of Liza’s inner voice, as these extracts indicate, this novel is narrated in the third person, but the point of view never leaves Liza. We read about her excitement at the start of the relationship, and the dilemmas of having to pretend to be married when ‘living in sin’ is a public statement. We see her rationalising the need to endure absence, and the counting down of days and even hours until she might see Walter again. 

Angela Milne had flair in her writing. I noticed as I typed out the quotations featuring the couple’s interactions, how skilfully she creates gaps in their exchanges, beats in the scene. Angela Milne only wrote one novel, using her literary talent for shorter pieces in Punch and reviews in the ObserverOne Year’s Time was published in 1942, during the Second World War. Angela Milne undertook war work in the Women’s Land Army and the Ministry of Information. Later she married and had two children. She lived until 1990.

I read this novel after reading about it on JacquiWine’s Journal. She welcomed this new addition to the British Library Women Writers’ series in January 2024. 

One Year’s Time by Angela Milne, first published in 1942. Re-issued in the British Library Women Writers in 2023. 275pp

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Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote seven novels, each one very different. You may have read Lolly Willowes, a curious but engaging story about a single woman who escapes dependence on her family by becoming a witch, published in 1926. Summer Will Show was her fourth, published in 1936 when the dangers in Europe could not be ignored. 

The novels that I have read by STW are all concerned with the lives of women, often in communities of women. The teachings of the established church are challenged, as are the accepted attitudes to women. They have included lyrical descriptions of landscapes and women’s love.  The Corner that Held Them (1948) was set in a nunnery during the time of the Black Death in the C14th. The main character in Summer Will Show is a rich English woman who travels to France and gets caught up in the 1848 revolution and involved with communists.

Summer Will Show

I cannot trace the origin of the title, but this verse is quoted at the start of the novel:

Winter will shake, Spring will try,
Summer will show if you live or die.

Sophie Willoughby has been abandoned by her husband in 1847, and he now lives in France with his mistress Minna. At home, trying not to be shamed by her husband, Sophie has to endure the death of her two children, and in her mourning takes on the fancy of conceiving another child. She follows Frederick to Paris, meets Minna, becomes involved in the 1848 revolution and falls under Minna’s spell. 

Sophie becomes a revolutionary, sharing the excitement and poverty of the activists, collecting lead to make bullets, distributing Communist tracts, talking, and exploring the poorer side of Paris. The story follows her as she evades reconciliation with her husband, who cuts off her financial resources, and learns to love Minna. Taken prisoner at the barricades, Sophie is spared execution because she is ‘a lady’. She refuses her rich relative’s offer of support and will continue to live in rebellion.

This brief summary does no justice to the writing of the novel. The richest passages are the descriptive scenes: the landscape of her country house, Blandamer, in England, the scenery as she is travelling to France, and the streets of unfashionable Paris. Perhaps the most vivid scene is at the barricades. This is the moment before the climax of the story, when both Sophie and Minna are behind the barricades, supporting the insurrectionists.

This barricade was not holding out so well as the other [in the next street], or maybe the time of fighting went more swiftly than the time of waiting. Yet, when the assailants rushed it, the hand-to-hand fighting revived a fierceness that the failing ammunition had belied, and for a minute or two it seemed as though they might be driven back. Then, in the street running parallel, the sound of cannonading burst out, and as though this jarred the rhythm of fighting here, there was a wavering, a pause, and like a swarm of bees the Gardes Mobiles came over, yelling and jeering. (291)

The story itself is revealed in a way which put me in mind of the magician who pulls out and endless rope of knotted, coloured handkerchiefs from his sleeve. The reader can never predict what will happen, will be carried along by the excitement of events, especially in Paris. We are privy to Sophie’s doubts and emotions and see her struggling for integrity. 

Despite her upbringing Sophie is able to challenge the accepted modes of behaviour and beliefs about society and about women in particular. This is why she ends up defending the revolutionaries’ barricades. While still in England, mourning her two children, she considers one possible future.

For everything would go on, and she with it, broken on the wheeling year. Next summer would come, and she would walk in the silent garden, her empty heart stuffed up like an old rathole with insignificant cares, her ambition for seemliness and prosperity driving her on to oversee the pruning of trees, the trimming of hedges, the tillage of her lands, the increase of her stock. Urged and directed by her will, everything would go on, though to no end. The balsams would bloom, and she would be proud of them.
If I were a man, she thought I would plunge into dissipation. (58-9)

And the most poignant passage is spoken by a modest Frenchman, M Martin, who addresses the National Guard firing squad, while they await a priest to administer to those awaiting execution. He muses first on the effect of the delay, but then turns to the similarity between the firing squad and their victims. 

‘For you, who are here to execute us, it is probably more tedious, certainly more embarrassing [to wait]. For this break in the common routine, it lets in a draught of cold air, it gives inconvenient leisure in which to reflect on this odd business of killing one’s fellow men, one’s country-men, and people of the same class as oneself, at a word of command. For after all, you and we have much more in common than you and your officer, you and the ruling class whose orders your officer orders you to carry out.  … And if you reflect on it, you will see that you and they are constantly at war with each other, and have been during all your lives and the lives of your forefathers. But as it is a war in which, so far, they have always won, you have failed to notice that it is a war.’ (297)

This is a very rich novel, full of action, drama, unexpected events, and lively and interesting characters.

Sylvia Townsend Warner

Born in 1893 and living until 1978, Sylvia Townsend Warner was well known to other writers of the time, including, for example, TF Powys, and David Garnett. For most of that time she lived in Dorset with her ‘lifelong companion’ the poet Valentine Ackland. They had a tempestuous relationship but were fiercely loyal to each other. For more details of this relationship see: Valentine Ackland: a transgressive life by Frances Bingham, published in 2021 by Handheld Press. The couple went to Spain in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, with the Red Cross. They were members of the Communist Party.

I reviewed The Corner that Held Them in August 2020. You can find the post on the blog here. That same year I enjoyed a short story called Sweethearts and Wives by STW in the collection of war-time stories called Wave me Goodbye. That post can be found here.

Penguin Modern Classic cover: Nude Seated on a Red Armchair (1897) by Felix Valloton, from the Musée de Grenoble, France.

Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner, first published in 1936. I used the edition from Penguin Modern Classics (2020)310pp

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Yes to Life by Viktor E Frankl

We all have dark days. Some people have continuous dark days. Among the worst of all dark days was imprisonment in a concentration camp during the Second World War. And yet we have been given such thoughtful reasons for dignity and hope by two of those prisoners. Primo Levi gave us If this is a ManIf not Now, When?The Periodic Table, as well as poetry and essays. I quoted from his poem, Girl of Pompeii, when I wrote about my visit to the ancient city, buried in a volcanic eruption. Here are some lines, referencing Anne Frank, ‘who wrote of her youth without tomorrows’.

Nothing is left of your far-removed sister,
The Dutch girl imprisoned by four walls
Who wrote of her youth without tomorrows.
Her silent ash was scattered by the wind,
Her brief life shut in a crumpled notebook
[From The Girl Child of Pompeii, translated from the Italian by Ruth Feldman]

Primo Levi was Italian, while Viktor E Frankl came from Vienna. He too addressed the question of how a person can survive ‘without tomorrows’. Perhaps his most famous book, published in German in 1946, was Man’s Search for Meaning. The original English title was From Death Camp to Existentialism, but the revised title speaks more directly to a reader.

Recently I read another collection of writings by Viktor E Frankl, also with an irresistible title: Yes to Life in Spite of Everything. The ‘everything’ that we have to put up with may not be as overwhelming as the experiences of Jewish people and others in Europe during the Holocaust. But I do often wonder what is the point of continuing, and why one should say yes to life, in our troubled times. I’m sure many other people do too.

Yes to Life in spite of Everything

The title of this book comes from a song composed for the prisoners of Buchenwald to sing when they were exhausted from their hard labour and from the smallness of their rations. They were forced to sing this song.

Whatever our future may hold:
We still want to say ‘yes’ to life,
Because one day the time will come – 
Then we will be free!  (3)

Some prisoners, no doubt, found hope in the words of this song, but Frankl has taken it with its evil origins and reclaimed it to explore that existential question about survival.

Liberated from a labour camp, and returned to his work as a psychiatrist, Frankl gave three lectures in 1946 at the adult institute of Ottakring, in Vienna. He had been liberated for just 9 months. The lectures form the basis of this book.

Auschwitz

Much of this short book is given over to reminding the people of Vienna what the policy of euthanasia meant in the Third Reich. And an even stronger theme, the topic of suicide, permeates the book. Frankl argues strongly that it is not an appropriate response to hopelessness. 

Here he summarises his three main approaches for saying yes to life in this way.:

We have already heard that the fulfilment of meaning is possible in three main directions: human beings are able to give meaning to their existence, firstly, by doing something, by acting, by creating, – by bringing a work into being; secondly, by experiencing something – nature, art – or loving people; and thirdly, human beings are able to find meaning even where value in life is not possible for them in either the first or second way – namely, precisely when they take a stance towards the intolerable, fated, inevitable and unavoidable limitation of their possibilities; how they adapt to this limitation, react towards it, how they accept this fate. (68, emphasis added) 

Frankl expanded his ideas shortly after writing Yes to Life, in Man’s Search for Meaning from which this paragraph stood out for me.

Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for every individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or other destiny. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. [85, from Man’s Search for Meaning]

You must excuse the sexist language. I am sure that, as was common at that time but unacceptable now, Frankl included women when he wrote ‘men’.

I have been trying to apply the ‘three directions’ in my own life, pretty depressed by the state of things as I am. In particular, I have been noting the natural world as we advance into spring. One of my projects is to be more aware of bird song, since I frequently take walks in our local woodlands, on Dartmoor and feed the wild birds in my garden. I have learned to identify the ubiquitous robin and can usually identify the wren by its whirring final bars. Gulls and pigeons have never given me any problems. I discover, from my app, that invisible visitors to my garden a couple of days ago included robins, blue tits, wrens, chiffchaffs, dunnocks, greenfinches, firecrests and goldfinches. The app also identified the song of a Great Kisadee, a bird native to central and south America. I need to turn on my location control! But recently a flutter of long-tailed tits passed through. On a walk with a friend yesterday, in the woods on the site of an iron age fort, we came across clusters of primroses, the first bluebells and those delicate and unassuming woodland flowers, wood anemones. 

I am not being so simplistic as to suggest that noting birds and flowers are any kind of mental health solution. I am reporting that I read Frankl and it has sharpened my pleasure in those living things.

See also Bookword in Naples (May 2022)

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl, first published in German in 1946.

Yes to Life in spite of Everything by Viktor E Frankl, first published in German in 2019. The English translation from the German by Joelle Young was published in 2020 by Penguin. It contains an Introduction by Daniel Goleman. 143pp.

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Kate Hardy by DE Stevenson

When Covid ‘ended’ I thought it would be a little like VE Day, wild celebrations followed by renewed hope and planning. How wrong I was. It has never ended in the way that VE Day ended World War Two in Britain and instead has been followed by an absence of hope and planning. 

Despite those contrasts, both experiences affected every person in the population. Covid was a universal experience of fear and restriction and adjustments. I am fascinated by the post-war period, partly because of the contrasts with the aftermath of Covid, but also because I grew up in the shadow of the war. The Second World War engulfed Europe for six years, and was a time of general mobilisation, restrictions, and shared effort to win as well as fear, danger, and death. The relief when it was over was well expressed by the euphoria of VE Day. Communal effort had led to insights about how people wanted the country to be changed after the war.

This novel was first published in 1947 and is set in the immediate time following the end of the war. DE Stevenson shows some of the things that had changed and sets a romance against the backdrop of those first post-war months.

Kate Hardy

Kate Hardy is an independent young woman, a novelist, who has spent the war in a flat in London, giving shelter to her sister and niece when they were bombed out. With the war over she decides to move to the country and buys a house in the village of Old Quinings, on a whim, certainly sight unseen. 

The house is the Dower House on the estate of Richard Morven, and it became empty when his mother died. The question of housing, sharing houses, what is appropriate and proper decorum related to staying in other people’s houses, and so forth, runs through this novel. Kate has the money to attend to the defects in the house, but there are rules about the use of materials, employment and so forth that continued after the war and made life complicated.

Kate Hardy is from the class that expects to have servants and people to fix things for her. She brings loyal Martha Body from London, and employs Mrs Stack, from the village, to help with the heavy work. A man to sort out the garden presents himself, but Mr Seagar, who runs the carpentry business, finds it hard to provide the service he would like, and furthermore he is obliged to take back men who served in the war which causes staffing issues. 

Richard, the lord of the manor, is quite taken with Kate because she is independent and speaks her mind. The reader believes they might end up together. She is the author of three best-selling novels, ‘adventure stories with a difference’, and wants to work on the fourth in peace and quiet in the country. Richard has read these books and admires the hero, Stephen Slade. Although she publishes her books under a male pseudonym, Kate represents a kind of ‘new woman’, who makes her own decisions, is independent and not necessarily looking for marriage. In contrast, Kate’s sister and niece are very selfish, and expect other people to look out for them, including Kate. 

Mrs Stark’s son Walter has just returned from 7 years in the East. He has served with distinction in the army and learned how to fit in with his fellow officers, despite his modest background. Now he is back, he is much resented by the men in the carpentry firm. Back at home he finds it hard to fit in. Some war experiences changed the old relationships, and produced resentments.

And the question is – how will this assorted group of characters arrange themselves in this new post-war world. The events of the first few months of Kate’s residence in Old Quinings provide the answer, but not without some rather nasty events which link to witchcraft and Kate’s gardener and include poison pen letters.

As the story unfolds, we see many contrasts in those post-war years: town/country; tradition/modern; parenting styles in US/UK; open-/closed-mindedness and so forth. Some things are never questioned, however: class system, supported by land ownership in particular. Some episodes in the novel arise from class consciousness.

An enjoyable, but not deeply significant novel by a prolific author – I counted 50 novels in the listings. It was an easy read, with no great dilemmas or insights.

For another and more enthusiastic review, see the blog of Northern Reader in September 2023. She particularly praises the well-drawn characters.

Kate Hardy by DE Stevenson, first published in 1947. Republished by the Dean Street Press in 2022. 192pp 

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About Uncle by Rebecca Gisler 

Reading fiction from other countries and especially in other languages frequently presents the readers with worlds with surreal aspects. Fiction in English seems rooted in the world I live in day-to-day. People respond when spoken to, react to events and reach some kind of conclusion. Quite often all of this, or some of it, is absent in fiction written in other languages.

About Uncle is the first novel by Swiss author Rebecca Gisler, who writes in German and French. There are grotesque and increasingly bizarre aspects to this short novel, which she refers to as ‘a certain magic and power in the atmosphere’. It is set on the coast of Brittany in a house in an isolated hamlet. Rebecca Gisler writes:

It’s a place that exists and that I know very well. There’s a certain magic and power in the atmosphere: the winds, the bay, the rocks, the animals. But it’s also a place that represents a reality, which can be found in many places as soon as you get away from the big cities: people repressed by society, living away from it all. [From a letter to readers by Rebecca Gisler, sent to Peirene subscribers]

About Uncle

The Uncle is central to the novel. It is narrated by his niece on whom he becomes increasingly dependent. Here is the opening sentence.

One night I woke up convinced the Uncle had escaped through the hole in the toilet, and when I opened the door and found that Uncle had indeed escaped through the hole in the toilet, and the floor tiles were scattered with toilet-paper confetti and hundreds of white feathers, as if someone had been having a pillow fight, and the toilet bowl and the walls were stippled with hairs and all sorts of excretions and looking at the little porcelain hole I told myself, It can’t have been easy for Uncle, and I wondered what I could do to get him out of there, after all Uncle must weigh a good two hundred pounds, and the first thing I did was take the toilet brush and shove it as far as I could down the hole, through the pool of stagnant brown water at the bottom, and I churned with the brush but it didn‘t do any good, Uncle might already have reached the septic tank, as I churned the murky water sloshed onto the floor, carrying various repellent substances along with it, and I slipped and slid and my knees sank into the muck, and it felt almost like walking in the bay just after the tide had gone out, when it’s all sludge and stench. (3-4)

Immediately one can see that this writer is not going to spare the reader’s sensibilities. Furthermore she has complete control of this (and other) long sentences. Here it has the effect of carrying the reader further into the rather unsavoury world of Uncle, passing from the niece’s ridiculous idea that Uncle had escaped down the toilet to the very unpleasant state of the bathroom floor, where she finds herself ‘drenched to the elbows in filth’. The characters are anonymous, except for being known by their family relationships, which adds another layer of oddity. Yet there is also a kind of matter-of-factness about the paragraph above. She takes the toilet brush and churns it, and wonders if Uncle has travelled through the pipes to the septic tank. As if uncles do that sort of thing all the time.

Rebecca Gisler reports that she wrote a good deal of this novel during the pandemic, and I certainly recognise the oddity and grotesqueness of life at that time, in a reality that was separate from other people’s. But as she says, it is not a pandemic novel.

This is a novel that does not shrink from the embodied aspects of the characters, in particular of Uncle. He is grossly overweight …

Uncle sits with his stomach crammed between him and the table, and Uncle’s stomach is so fat that it doesn’t seem like a part of his body, it’s like a package he’s carrying, or a pet … (9)

… and he has some bizarre table manners, peppers his omelette until it is ‘evenly coated with a layer of grey dust’ (8) and no one will sit opposite him …

… because eating across from Uncle means consenting to share his food, I mean consenting to the torrents of spit he shares with your face. (12)

The house seems occupied by people who have no meaningful work or agency, although the nephew does leave and their mother (Uncle’s sister) returns to Switzerland. The niece and nephew are employed working on computers to translate the contents of food for animals and maintain a website with extraordinary merchandise, supplying pets. Uncle has been laid off from his gardening job because of ill health.

Uncle becomes seriously ill and must go to hospital. They find their way there, and what they see is described in a very long sentence, and this is its beginning:

And some of those people on the way out of the hospital had cats or dogs on leashes, and others were pressing Guinea pigs or ferrets to their breasts, and Guinea pigs were squeaking anxiously, as if they had just gone through a rough time, and still others had budgies in cages and a woman in a wheelchair was carrying a parrot on her right arm, and we observed that fauna in silence for ten full minutes before my brother made up his mind to ask if we were sure we were in the right place, and Uncle said Yes yes, he knew this hospital well, he’d taken his uncle the Druid there three or four times before he died at the foot of his bed, but Uncle’s answer was drowned out by a bellow… (93) 

And a yak has become trapped in the hospital door, as they do. Uncle recovers enough to return home, and life continues in its strange way.

Translation

Rebecca Gisler writes interesting notes about translation and writing in different languages.

When I started to write, I wrote in German. Then I moved to Paris, where I started writing in French and to read a lot of French poetry. […] The translation (from German) to French, which is my mother tongue and more a family and oral language, contributed a great deal to the way this novel is written. In the beginning I felt much less comfortable writing in French compared to German, and this experimental language attempt gave rise to a character that reflected its own instability: the uncle. French language, perhaps because I use it more naively, has helped me to free myself from the narrative with which I associated German.

About Uncle by Rebecca Gisler, first published as D’oncle in 2021 and in English by Peirene in 2024. 143pp. Translated from the French by Jordon Stump. Winner of Swiss Literature Prize 2022.

The link for Peirene Press subscription is here.

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Rallying the Older Women Writers

Something rather wonderful happened last week. It was Thursday, Leap Year Day. As usual I had tweeted (yes on X) about The Sleeping Beauty which was the post featured before this one. Sometimes I post a second tweet, hoping it is topical and will bring readers to the articles in the archive of this blog. I looked back through my archives, found what was on the blog on the previous Leap Year Day, in 2020. It was a few weeks before the lockdowns began. We were beginning to get very worried about Covid-19. But my post had a different theme.

It was called 

Let’s have more older women writers

You can read the article here.

It was itself referring to an earlier post from 2016. In 2020 I continued the theme of discrimination against older women writers began my comments with a little provocation.

Martin Amis, in his provocative way, made the following comment about older female writers: You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70.

I used this quotation in my tweet.

The Response

I’ve got a modest following on my blog and on twitter, so I was quite unprepared for what happened. It was unprecedented. Within 24 hours it had been liked 44 times, retweeted 16 times and I had gained 21 new twitter followers. In addition older women writers had added their comments. In that same time period, ten writers provided information about when they published their first book (all older than 57), many were on their second book and more had published several. It’s never too late, said one; I’m 65 and still going, said another; and another reported that she was 64 and on her 9th book. A publisher reported that they were about to publish a novel by an older woman and took no account of age.

I was pleased that one woman in her 50s said that she had been doubting her capacity to write but was encouraged by the Bookword post. Referring to the picture another commented that I would read whatever she’s writing. Martin Amis was correctly outed as the writer of the statement about women disintegrating after 70.

I have never had such a response to a tweet, and the readership of the 2020 Leap Year post immediately exceeded 100 on that day.

So why this response?

In 2020 the article I placed on Bookword blog did not have this response, so I have been wondering why the tweet and the blog post appealed to so many people in 2024. I’d be glad of your thoughts on this.

I’ve been tweeting for more than 10 years, and I have noticed that some of my tweets get a great deal more traction than others. These tend to be the ones that ask a question that people want to answer. I think the provocation about women over 70 was enough to get some people to check it out.

The 2020 post (Let’s have more older women writers) did not reach many people when it was first published. Some things might have changed since then. For example, four more years’ worth of women have entered the demographic of ‘older women’. Each new cohort are better educated and possibly have a feistier attitude, are more ready to stand up for themselves than their older colleagues. And those who responded to the tweet with their own experiences were all 65 years old or younger. 

Perhaps there are more older women writing and publishing and perhaps creating a market for fiction by older women. Older women have more money, more disposable income and form a growing market for books (and films and tv series) about older women. Some of the writers who responded with their published record will be including older women characters.

Women are living longer. Well, they were, up to 2020. I’m not sure whether this group is still enjoying increased longevity. Sadly, the neglect of the NHS and the cost of living and other factors in the last four years are causing the death rate to rise. Many of the women who are living longer continue to write for longer too.

It is interesting that the possibility of double discrimination – ageism combined sexism – has provoked this affirming response. What do you think?

Silly old Martin Amis, indeed.

On the related theme of older women characters in fiction, remember that this blog has 70 posts in the series Older Women in Fiction. You can find the full list here. It also includes recommendation from readers. Please feel free to add your suggestions. 

And you might be interested in a book for which I was a co-author: The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman, published by Policy Press in 2016. You can read about it here.

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The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

Two novels by Elizabeth Taylor focus on thoroughly unlikeable characters: Angel and The Soul of Kindness. Both titles are freighted with irony. Angel is a monster, and Flora is monstrously selfish. As a result these novels are not comfortable to read, although full of acute observations.

Of her other novels I find The Sleeping Beauty the least enjoyable. I think it is because the main character, Vinny, appears to be what in my childhood was called a spiv. The novel was published in 1953, just when I was learning to avoid spivs! But actually, Vinny is the Prince Charming of this novel, in the unlikely role of the prince charming who awakens a sleeping beauty.

The Sleeping Beauty

We first meet Vinny, who has come to Seething, a town on the coast, to bring consolation to Isabella whose husband has been drowned. Vinny seems to be an accomplished consoler, ready with words, patient in the presence of tears, and altogether useful to the bereaved. Here are the opening lines of the novel.

“There’s Vinny going in with the wreaths,” Isabella had once said.
Now that her own time to be consoled had come, she was glad of him. The wreaths she had mentioned were a figure of speech – her way of associating Vinny with condolences and gloom; for disaster could always bring him to a scene. He went with sympathy professional in its skill; yet adept and exquisite. (1)

Isabella speaks of him as inevitable, and he appreciates the description. I am not sure why Vinny appears to me to be a spiv. Perhaps it’s the name. Or that he appears at this difficult time for Isabella and her adolescent son Laurence, ready to exploit the new widow. 

But it is not Isabella who is the sleeping beauty. In fact she is a silly woman. Rather, gazing out of the window while Isabella cries, Vinny spots the Tillotson family on their way up the cliff to their holiday guest house. Close behind them are a child and a woman.

It was too dark to see the woman’s face, but he was certain, from her walk, that it was beautiful. She went on slowly and dreamily along the shore. Beautiful women do not need to hurry. Then she turned and paused, looking back: the girl came nearer to her, and together they crossed the sands and began to climb the rustic steps, the private way up to the house above, where a light or two was switched on in upstairs rooms. (7-8)

Vinny is captivated by this woman, Emily. He discovers that she is the sister of the Rose who runs the guest house. She suffered badly in a road accident and was now protected from the world by Rose. The child, Philly, is Rose’s mentally challenged daughter who is cared for by Emily. Vinny brings his mother, Mrs Tumulty, to stay in the guest house so that he can form a closer relationship with Emily.

Vinny’s mother, Mrs Tumulty, is a larger-than-life character and much that the reader needs to know about her is captured by Elizabeth Taylor on her arrival at the guest house:

Vinny and the gardener brought in the most curious weather-beaten luggage – an old leather hat-box; a round-topped trunk with labels of countries which no longer existed, hotels which had been shelled in 1916 and never risen again; a Gladstone-bag; a wicker hamper. There were also Mrs Tumulty’s bird-watching glasses and a black japanned box in which she collected fungi; for she was a great naturalist. (52)

Vinny faces the many challenges to a satisfactory outcome with Emily, not the least of which is that he is already married. His wife is another great character, described in this way:

To say that Vinny’s wife was not above telling a lie – and she would not have been his wife at all if that had been so – would be to underestimate her inventiveness. She had in fact a great distaste for the truth and was for ever tidying it up or turning her back on it. …Vinny’s desertion she had disposed of by moving to a new place and saying he was dead. She even changed Vinny himself into a Fighter Pilot and gave him a D.F.C with bar. (109)

Laurence thinks that Vinny is in Seething for his mother. He is an awkward young man, in the army and often on his way back to Aldershot. He too is awakening, into manhood and love, but he does not make things easy for Vinny.

Rose, Emily’s sister, has much to lose if Emily marries Vinny: her child’s carer, her companion, someone who relied on her, the end of a period when she didn’t compete with Emily, and so forth. 

I found it hard as a reader to find much sympathy for either Emily or her suitor, Vinny. Emily is not a lively character, always a weakness in the fairy tale – the heroine is asleep! We are asked to believe in the magic of Vinny’s love, but I did not find Emily to be a very interesting or attractive character. I would have preferred to spend more time in the company of the rather spoiled Tillotson children. Elizabeth Taylor writes about children so well. In this example Betty, the children’s nursemaid, takes them down to the Regatta.

“Why are there flags on the steamer?” Benjy asked.
“It’s dressed all over for Regatta Day,” Betty said.
“How do you know that that is what it is called?” asked Constance. “Over all, I mean.”
“I happen to have a cousin in the Navy.”
“You are always boasting. I think you are getting too big for your boots.”
“It is what Nannie said you were,” her brother reminded her.
“I bet you wouldn’t have the nerve to take us on a boat,” Constance said, but casually and without optimism. Benjy looked quickly up at Betty’s face, and then away again, seeing that the idea had not had her attention. (218)

The children do not play a big part in the drama of the novel, but they are there, part of the picture at Seething.

Elizabeth Taylor

Names are always interesting in Elizabeth Taylor’s novels: Seething (the town), Mrs Tumulty (a women of chaos) and as usual a derivative of Elizabeth, in this case in the naïve nursery maid Betty.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1953. I used my copy of the Virago Modern Classic (1983) which has an introduction by Susannah Clapp. 250pp 

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Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf 

I thought I had read all the novels by Virginia Woolf and was enjoying re-reading them. But I can find no record of my reactions to Jacob’s Room, there is no entry in my reading record, begun in April 2006, and no post on Bookword blog. When I began reading it, all I could recall was that some of it was located in Scarborough, and that Jacob had died in the First World War. I had not read it before.

The ending reminded me of those paintings by Van Gogh of empty shoes, or William Nicholson’s painting of Gertrude Jekyll’s boots, which say so much about the absent wearer. Jacob’s mother is clearing his room:

‘What am I to do with these, Mr Bonamy?’
She held out a pair of Jacob’s shoes. (168)

Post card of ‘A Pair of Leather Boots’ by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889. Amsterdam.

These painters were in their way doing on their canvases what Virginia Woolf was doing in Jacob’s Room, her third novel. She was breaking away from the traditional narrative and portrait of a character. Conventional fiction showed appearance, motivation, action, consequences and so forth. Rather she was evoking a sense of Jacob, his times, and the loss of the young men in the war through glimpses of Jacob. And she was presenting these glimpses as we might experience meeting a new person: incomplete, with restricted context, mediated through others.

Jacob’s Room

In her diaries Virginia Woolf recorded that ‘I think Jacob was a necessary step for me, in working free’ [October 14th 1922]. At that time she was beginning work on Mrs Dalloway and had just decided upon the name of her shell-shocked character. In the later novel she famously used a new style of writing from the interior of her characters: sometimes called stream of consciousness.

In Jacob’s Room she is introducing a different innovation in the writing of fiction. The reader is invited to draw their portrait of Jacob from glimpses, observing how other people react to him, starting with a reference in a letter from his mother describing his behaviour on the beach in Cornwall. This is followed up by a painter who indicates to his brother, sent to find him, where Jacob is among the rocks. Finally we see him exploring rock pools and crabs. 

And so we follow Jacob through the eyes of others, growing up, going to Cambridge, later in rooms in London, on holiday in the Scilly Isles and in Greece. We meet his friends, his lovers, and see his mother becoming more and more distant from him.

Before it was published, Virginia Woolf confided in her diary that she feared people would think it was ‘mad, I suppose: a disconnected rhapsody’ [June 23rd 1922]. The idea of a rhapsody is useful. Passages are poetic, lyrical, such as the view from the boat sailing to the Scilly Isles.

Strangely enough, you could smell violets, or if violets were impossible in July, they must grow something very pungent on the mainland then. The mainland – not so very far off – you could see clefts in the cliffs, white cottages, smoke going up – wore an extraordinary look of calm, of sunny peace, as if wisdom and piety had descended upon the dwellers there. Now a cry sounded, as of a man calling pilchards in a main street. It wore an extraordinary look of piety and peace, as if old men smoked by the door, and girls stood, hands on hips, at the well, and horses stood; as if the end of the world had come, and cabbage fields and stone walls, and coast-guard stations, and, above all, the white sand bays and the waves breaking unseen by any one, rose to heaven in a kind of ecstasy. (45-6)

Some of the passages set in London are also elegiac.

The lamps of London uphold the dark as upon the points of burning bayonets. The yellow canopy sinks and swells over the great four-poster. Passengers in the mail-coaches running into London in the eighteenth century looked through leafless branches and saw it flaring beneath them. The light burns behind yellow blinds and pink blinds, and above fanlights, and down in basement windows. The street market in Soho is fierce with light. Raw meat, china mugs, and silk stockings blaze in it. Raw voices wrap themselves round the flaring gas-jets. Arms akimbo, they stand on the pavement bawling – Messrs Kettle and Wilkinson; their wives sit in the shop, furs wrapped round their necks, arms folded, eyes contemptuous. Such faces as one sees. The little man fingering the meat must have squatted before the fire in innumerable lodging-houses, and heard and seen and known so much that it seems to utter itself even volubly from dark eyes, loose lips, as he fingers the meat silently, his face sad as a poet’s, and never a sing-song. Shawled women carry babies with purple eyelids; boys stand at street corners; girls look across the road – rude illustrations, pictures in a book whose pages we turn over and over as if we should at last find what we look for. Every face, every shop, bedroom window, public-house, and dark square is a picture feverishly turned – in search of what? It is the same with books. What do we seek through millions of pages? Still hopefully turning the pages – oh, here is Jacob’s room. (92)

Such a passage, such a rich text, rich in imagery, and references, and movement! And then just at the end she reminds us that we are readers. 

It appears that Virginia Woolf modelled Jacob in part upon her much-loved brother Thoby. When their father died in 1904, she joined with her sister Vanessa and Thoby moving to a house in Gordon Square, where they entertained Thoby’s Cambridge friends. It was the start of the Bloomsbury Group. Thoby died of typhoid in 1906 after a trip to Greece. The young men of his generation bore the brunt of the First World War, and Jacob’s Room pays homage to them and that world and the people who were destroyed by the war. 

She was nervous about the reception of Jacob’s Room, as for all her novels. But she reflected in her diary after she had shown it to her husband, and most significant critic, Leonard:

There is no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice; and that it excites me so that I feel I can go ahead without praise. [July 26th 1922]

First edition cover

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, published in 1922. I used my copy of the Penguin Modern Classic edition (1965). 168pp

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Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale

As some of my friends know, I am writing a story – very slowly – that begins with a young boy leaving his mother in war time because there is not enough food for both of them. He joins the navy. This opening impressed my friend Barbara and to encourage me she lent me her copy of Mother’s Boy.

My story and the narrative of this novel have almost nothing in common beyond the separation of mother from son by war. Nevertheless I am grateful to Barbara for the loan of this novel as I have very much enjoyed reading it.

Mother’s Boy

This is a fictional account of the poet Charles Causley’s early life. Born and brought up in Launceston in Cornwall Charles was known to be close to his mother. Laura Causley was widowed when Charles was young, her husband died as a result of being wounded in WW1. While her husband was away at war, she had earned her keep by assisting her mother who did laundry. And when she died, Laura took on her mother’s business herself, and supported her son as he grew up. 

There is not much money in the family, or in the town. Charles, although he does well at school, goes into a boring local office job. He enjoys playing piano in a band and putting on amateur dramatics. As war approaches again in 1939, Charles signs up for the Navy. He becomes a coder, a new naval role which requires quick and methodical thinking, but not great eyesight.

He is not especially suited to naval life, and he suffers unrelentingly from sea sickness. The novel opens with a violent episode, and nothing else quite lives up to the drama of that scene in this novel. Some of his war is spent on naval bases, in Gibraltar and Malta and in the Far East. He finds love and sexual experience (gay), loses friends, and acquitted himself well.

Laura, at home in Launceston, notes the changes brought by the war to the town: Plymouth is bombed, evacuees are taken in, soldiers from the US are based locally and the colour bar brought by the US troops results in violence in the town. After D Day Launceston hosts some POWs. Finally Charles returns to teach at the local school and Laura keeps house for him.

The themes explored in this novel relate to the lives of British people in the early twentieth century: separation by war, expectations based on gender and class, learning tolerance of others. Evacuees bring the values of the city to rural Cornwall; other nationalities and ethnic groups must mix in too; Charles is gay and this is also something to be understood and accommodated. 

One theme, indicated by the title, which runs through this novel is the affection and regard between mother and son. After his return, Laura kept house for Charles until her death. Their regard, tested and perhaps strained during the war years, was resilient enough for them to spend her final years together. Charles Causley remained in Cornwall, a generous and popular poet until his death in 2003.

I enjoyed reading this novel as the central relationship is tenderly depicted. In addition, both characters are made vivid by the details of their lives: the routines, practices and equipment of a laundress, and the naval regime for Charles. The details of the local communities are very attractive. Some of the novel is set in Teignmouth, not far from my home. While this is a story based on the poet’s life, Mother’s Boy is definitely a novel, imagined and explored by a respectful writer. 

Thank you, Barbara, for the loan of this novel, but it rather held me up than encouraged my own story-writing!

Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale, published in 2023 by Tinder Press. 406pp 

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