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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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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