Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Emigrants by WG Sebald

Is it a novel? Is it a memoir? Is it a collection of biographies? No, it’s The Emigrants by WG Sebald whose writing seems to generate such questions. One of the most frequent is – in what category does his writing fit? Is it fiction or not? I’m not going to get diverted into addressing that question.

30 Emigrants

The Emigrants has four sections of unequal length. Each section carries the name of one emigrant: Dr Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth and Max Ferber. There is a fifth story, contained within the final section. Max Ferber’s mother wrote a memoir of her childhood, which makes her the fifth emigrant. The narrator is himself an emigrant (in reality as well as in the fiction). In these accounts the narrator tells us of his connections with the five emigrants and what he has been told about them: his neighbour Dr Selwyn, Paul Bereyter was his primary school teacher in the village of S, Ambros Adelwarth a member of his family who went to the States, and Max Ferber a painter met during a lonely period in Manchester.

The novel explores themes of loss, displacement, memory and especially of what remains of people, of their lives, of their words. With his own premature death in a car accident in 2001, we can ask such questions also about WG Sebald.

His manner of writing generates another set of questions. Why does he write in very long sentences, and make extensive use of reported speech and reported text? My friend Rose, who recommended Sebald’s writing to me a couple of years ago (thank you so much Rose) spoke of the tension this creates as she reads. And it is carefully crafted so that the reader trusts the author to carry them to the end of the paragraph, or the section, or even the book. Somehow Sebald balances this tension with an apparent ‘take it or leave it’ manner, and by very little differentiation of tone or pace. The reader has the sense that every detail has been carefully chosen.

Then there are those fuzzy black and white photographs, usually relating to the topic on the page, but they might not. What are they for? The Emigrants, for example, opens with a photo of a tree in a churchyard, on the same page that he refers to house he (or a man he refers to as himself) was looking for in the village of Hingham. Sebald constantly presents us with information that may or may not be accurate. For example, there is a market town called Hingham in Norfolk, but picture does not quite match the description in the text. I love this playfulness. One sentence jumped out at me

Clara had bought a house one afternoon on the spur of the moment.

I was especially piqued by this achievement of Clara’s as I am in the middle of house buying. It became a catch phrase last week when I asked my daughter to buy a house for me one afternoon. (She did). But the aside about Clara is an example that Sebald knows that his reader will experience house buying as a very involving experience, but he is writing about something else.

Another question is why is he so highly regarded? Susan Sontag had an answer even before Austerlitz had been published in 2001.

Is literary greatness still possible? Given the implacable devolution of literary ambition, and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects, what would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of WG Sebald. (A Mind in Mourning, reprinted in Where the Stress Falls, first published in TLS, February 2000).

Not tepid, glib, or the senselessly cruel then. But what are his qualities? Why should you read this author, who in any case was writing in German, even if he was living in England. She points out that his books are all about travel, journeys, provoked by a curiosity about a life, or in the wake of some crisis, and as a quest. She reminds us that a journey is often a revisiting, as in the last of the four stories in The Emigrants.

Sebald described his work as ‘documentary fiction’, according to Mark O’Connell in the New Yorker.

Reading him is a wonderfully disorienting experience, not least because of the odd, invigorating uncertainty as to what it is, precisely, we are reading.

Apart from the reference to Clara, I have not yet quoted from The Emigrants. In part, this is because it is hard to pick out a section, so relentlessly do the sentences and paragraphs move along. Here’s the ending of the first section, which refers to a friend of Dr Selwyn, an alpine guide who had disappeared in 1914. Enjoy the flow of the first sentence!

Three quarters of an hour late, not wanting to miss the landscape around Lake Geneva, which never fails to astound me as it opens out, I was just laying aside a Lausanne paper I’d bought in Zurich when my eye was caught by a report that said the remains of the Bernese alpine guide Johannes Naegli, missing since summer 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier, seventy-two years later. And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots. [A clipping of a relevant newspaper illustrates the previous page].

So why do I think Sebald should be read? Here are my five reasons.

  1. He treats the reader as intelligent and as someone who can do some work.
  2. He writes about Europe, the Europe with which I am familiar, its history, beliefs, monuments, and how these things affected people’s lives.
  3. He is innovative, playful and interesting (especially in the details, the objects he presents to the reader).
  4. He says something important about what we used to call the ‘human condition’, about memory, loss, displacement and how we have lived.
  5. He writes beautifully, with rhythm, tension and movement.

30 WG Sebald2

So what’s left for me and Sebald?

I still have Vertigo to read. And he wrote poems that have also been published: Across the Land and the Water, published in 2011.

His essays A Place in the Country were published by Penguin in early May 2013, about influences upon his ideas. At the moment only available in hardback, but no doubt a paperback edition will follow.

I have a ticket for Patience (After Sebald), a film by Grant Lee at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival on Sunday 9th June 2013.

And when I am stranded on my desert island I will have Austerlitz to re-read.

His influence continues through his students. For example, Richard Skinner’s blog has a post that records Sebald’s writing tips: a great collection. Here’s a selection of three:

There has to be a libidinous delight in finding things and stuffing them in your pocket.

Every sentence taken by itself should mean something.

Lots of things resolve themselves just by being in the drawer for a while.

And as always, let’s pay tribute to the translator of The Emigrants, in this case it is Michael Hulse.


Reminder: the next readalong, (book group choice) is Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys for the end of July.


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Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd

This is a charming book even if it is a morality tale. It uses a Rip Van Winkle device – marooned for four years on a desert island, Barbara Euphan Todd brings back her 39-year old protagonist, Miss Ranskill, to see the world she left in 1939. It has been turned upside down by the Second World War. Miss Ranskill Comes Home was first published in 1946, and although it was reviewed favourably both in Britain and in America, it more or less disappeared until Persephone Books republished it in 2008.


The story begins with Nona Ranskill digging a grave for her desert island companion, the Carpenter, who died of a heart attack. The story follows her from her rescue by a naval convoy, her first encounters with daily life in England and a meeting with her former school friend to reunion with her sister. Miss Ranskill is startled by significant changes, in topics of conversation and vocabulary, the necessity of coupons to buy clothes and food, the need for blackout and the daily concerns of middle class women. Readers were being invited to look again at things they took for granted and to reassess their reactions. Miss Ranskill’s adjustments to this new life and her challenges to some of the idiocy she meets are the focus of the second half of the novel.

The housing shortage, for example, compels Nona and her sister to live with Mrs Phillips.

Mrs Phillips loomed large in the cottage, the village and the nearby town. She had, so she frequently hinted, blue blood in her veins. Certainly some of it showed through the skin of her nose, which was of an aquamarine tint in chilly weather. Her politics were blue and rather bleak; so, though she admitted with generous gesture that the Russians were wonderful, she always added, ‘It seemed strange now to think how we talked about “poor brave little Finland”.’ For some time Miss Ranskill, uninformed in recent history, was very perplexed by the statement.

Mrs Phillips’ outlook was Red, White and Blue. She stood stout and stalwart for thin red lines, for British Possessions coloured red, for white feathers (to be given to all men not in uniform), and for true blue of every shade. She believed in the flogging of boys and coloured persons, the shooting of shirkers, the quashing of Jews, the Feudal System, cold baths for invalids, the abolition of hot-water bottles, and (rather curiously) the torture of Adolf Hitler. She softened to horses and she adored dogs, whom she addressed in baby-talk.

These two paragraphs capture the opinionated and prejudiced behaviour and opinions of many middle class people in Britain in the middle years of last century. They also refer to the swift realignment of enemies as friends and vice versa (see the references to Russia and Finland). Mrs Phillips represents the attitudes that are a particular target for Barbara Euphan Todd, along with the women with their smug busy committee work and for their self-adopted stance as moral arbiters of all kinds – their interference forever justified by the war.

As the novel progresses a critique of the class system becomes clearer. What use were class barriers on the desert island? Individual respect and resourcefulness were of more assistance in helping Miss Ranskill and the Carpenter to survive. On her return Miss Ranskill experiences a misplaced and slightly prurient interest in propriety (what was Miss Ranskill’s relationship to the Carpenter on the island? Did he manage to restrain himself, despite being of a lower class?)

The Carpenter is actually a kind of Christ figure, forever speaking to Miss Ranskill in her mind. The author was a committed Christian, the daughter of a country parson. It is the Carpenter’s philosophy that brings them through their four years on the island, and sustains Miss Ranskill on her return to England. She tells the Carpenter’s widow that she owes him a debt. ‘I don’t mean a money debt: he taught me things I shall never forget.’

And so I came to see that Barbara Euphan Todd was showing the parallels between survival on a desert island, and on an island isolated against a powerful enemy. She poses questions about people’s duty to other citizens, to the young, to the future. The novel was published the year following the end of the war in Europe, and one of its central themes is a warning about the post-war experiences for servicemen and children.

Through the words of a magistrate she expresses her fears for the young. He suggests that it is hard for them to see the difference between war and murder.

‘Remember another thing, these boys are too young to remember peace conditions properly. Four years, more now, is a long time in a child’s life. The best people in the country, the disciplined younger people are mostly out of the country. All their examples are gone and their fathers are away. Old fogies like myself can’t do a great deal of good though we try our best. Yet these children must be saved or the war will be a mockery and we shall have bred a race of hooligans who will menace peace as the Germans have menaced it.’

Barbara Euphan Todd also referred to the difficulties experienced by ex-servicemen after the first war. Miss Ranskill Comes Home was a plea to people to look up from the detail of the war, the dreariness of accommodation shortages, and the long hours of hard work to consider what they valued about life in Britain.

But if this seems rather heavy, I am misleading you, as it is a very readable book. The narrative is strong, the humour never far away, a litter of kittens is thrown in to soften the terrors of an air raid, and babies are born and children are rescued.

Barbara Euphan Todd wrote the Worzel Gummidge series, which I enjoyed as a child. In that series she used the device of a scarecrow to comment on silly adult behaviour, rules and attitudes; a character who both shares and is different from the people in his/her community – like Miss Ranskill – and this allows the author to remind her readers of an important thing or two.


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Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson

Books are sometimes objects of beauty in their own right. The novellas published by Peirene are beautifully produced, as well as being well-chosen examples of European literature. Mr Darwin’s Gardener was first published in Finnish in 2009. Kristina Carlson is a noted Finnish writer, winner of the Finlandia Prize and Finland’s State prize for Literature. She also writes children’s literature.

This is not a novel that has a strong narrative, rather it builds through many voices a picture of life in the village of Downe in Kent, where Darwin lived as an old man. He died in 1882, so perhaps it’s a winter in the late 1870s.

28. darwin gardener

Mr Darwin’s Gardener has been described as postmodern. If this means that it is unconventional I’ll go with that. The author is not an omniscient presence, and the voices and point of view belong to several members of the village, shifting between them as they comment on matters of concern to the villagers. In order to understand how to read this novel I found the reference to Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood very helpful. But in no sense is this similar to Under Milk Wood, mostly because it’s not a play for radio and you don’t hear Richard Burton in your head.

Thomas Davies, the gardener of the title, is present throughout a great deal of the book. His grief at the death of his wife is a challenge to himself and to the village. But in one section he is not even mentioned. This is the curious incident of rough justice meted out to the philandering and light-fingered former verger, Daniel Lewis, who unwisely returns to the village.

Carlson’s novel manages to evoke the communal beliefs about death, misdemeanours, charity, new scientific knowledge, as well as the cycles of nature on which all life is based.

I found it hard to follow the individual villagers, especially as it took a little while to work out what the book required from the reader. I reread it with a notebook and pen to get to grips with the various characters and their relationships. This second reading produced a layer of individual characterisation that was delightful and unexpected. Kristina Calrlson  beautifully evokes a village steeped in its own practices and beliefs, where things change slowly, where the reader had to pay attention to shifts in the text, to references to events beyond the village. Slight tensions were revealed between mother and daughter, as were the weakness of a husband before his wife and the rest of the community, the drunkenness of the doctor and the fearfulness of the schoolmaster.

I also enjoyed the many small details of the animal life in the village:

A brown hare leaps over the stubbly field at the edge of the forest, stops, stands erect. Another brown hare stops, and a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth, and a seventh. They stand tall on their hind legs, some twenty yards apart, ears straight, bodies immobile.

The wind blows from the field into the forest. Two crows fly after a goshawk. The crows circle the hawk, and when the hawk breaks its flight to hover, the crows catch up with it. The hawk beats the air with its wings and flies high above the crows.

When the cat jumps over a fallen tree trunk, a rotten branch, sunk into the wet grass, cracks. In the blink of an eye, the brown hares spring into a run: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. They hop into the forest, and the hawk, gliding high above, sees a field underneath. Green, pointed shoots appear from the soil between pale-brown dry stubble. (p118-9)

And she’s good on smells as well.

The verger opens the church doors. The smell shoots out: bean farts, rotten teeth, skin and hair and wet woollen clothes. Poverty, mingled with the aromas of the swells: talcum, starch and eau de cologne. The smell of the service evaporates in the rain. Innes the vicar draws air into his lungs as he stops at the top of the steps to greet the church folk. God bless you. (p21-22)

This extract is a good example of how Carlson moves within a paragraph to introduce a character and their speech, or thoughts.

And here’s an example of profound observation, in this instance it is the thoughts of old Hannah Hamilton, confined to a wheelchair, who observes the inconsolable Thomas Davies.

Perhaps he plans to take the children with him. Then there would be no one left to grieve.

I know that death is not what a suicide really wants; in fact, he wants his old life back. But you cannot reverse time as if it were a horse. As I grow older and older, I begin to forget things. Evil deeds disappear, and the good ones fade after five minutes. (p12)

And I loved the section which begins ‘We are talking in the saloon bar of the Anchor …’ (p74). What follows is four and a bit pages of the views of the villagers, often as non-sequiturs, or mundane or profane, even profound. The conversation in any pub bar might sound like this today.

I marvel at the job of translation by Fleur Jeremiah and Emily Jeremiah. Here is a link to Emily writing on translation and about the challenges it poses.

The design of the Peirene series by Sacha Davison Lunt is a strong element in their attraction. Mr Darwin’s Gardener has a delightful drawing of an apple in cross-section and a bee by Giulia Morselli. The paper is a pleasure to touch, and the typeface clear, unfussy. I initially subscribed for a year, but after receiving the first two novellas I have signed up for another two years.


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Those strong older women in fiction

What do you make of the responses to my challenge to identify more strong older women in fiction? I issued the challenge when reviewing Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor and repeated it after reviewing Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel. The responses are interesting, and although they tell us a little more about age and gender in fiction, the responses only confirm my suspicions – that there are not many more examples. See what you think of the list.

I should have asked a clearer question, at least have clarified what I meant by ‘older women’. Some respondents assumed I meant older than them I think. So the suggestions included the mother in Oranges are not the only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson. I meant 55+ but the differences suggest how fast old/older is being redefined at the moment. John Humphreys described Mary Beard (later 50s) as old in the debate on older women presenters on TV recently. I find it hard to think of Mary Beard as old chronologically or in attitude. The debate was about TV presenters, so perhaps he was referring to appearance, where white hair = old.

And these suggestions prompt another thought about ‘older women in fiction’: that is that women in fiction appear older if they are strong characters. It plays into the stereotype of cantankerous, opinionated, awkward, or ‘ornery’ to use a North American word.

Two genres of fiction (I think they are both genres) are also interesting here: older women sleuths of the Miss Marple (Agatha Christie) variety. Beatrice Stubbs (created by Jill J Marsh) is another example. I love the idea of being retired and growing courgettes in Devon (not least because I plan to be growing courgettes in Devon very soon). And what this genre suggests is that older women can also conjure up good problem-solving skills, wisdom and other sleuthing qualities. They are level-headed and often see more clearly than others in the community.

And the other not-quite-genre-more-plot-framing-device is the old woman at the end of her life, looking back – as Hagar Shipley does in The Stone Angel, or Daisy Goodwill Flett in The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shield. (Should we read anything into the repeated use of stone?)

And then several people remembered, from Virginia Woolf’s novels, Mrs Dalloway and Mrs Ramsey.

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So here’s the list of suggestions so far. I can’t answer for all the items on this list as I have not read all of them, so would welcome any comments.

Penelope Lively        Heatwave

Penelope Lively        Moon Tiger

Alice Walker             The Colour Purple (Celie)

Alice Walker             Possessing the Secret of Joy (Tashi)

Margaret Atwood    The Blind Assasin (Iris)

David Mitchell          Ghostwritten (Chinese woman and Irish scientists)

Ian McEwan              Atonement (Bryony)

Siri Hustvedt             The Summer without Men

Dorothy Whipple     Greenbanks

Salley Vickers           Miss Garnett’s Angel

Salley Vickers           Dancing Backwards

Agatha Christie        Miss Marple series

Deborah Moggach   The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Linda Gillard             (characters in 40+ bracket)

J R Tolkein                 Lord of the Rings (Galadriel)

Jill J Marsh                Beatrice Stubbs series

Carol Sheld               Stone Diaries (Daisy Goodwin Flett)

Barbara Pym             (various)

Mary Wesley              (various)

Joanna Trollope        (various)

Elizabeth Taylor       Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Virginia Woolf          Mrs Dalloway

Virginia Woolf         To the Lighthouse (Mrs Ramsey)

Special thanks to Triskele Books on Facebook, Reading Agency, Women Writers and Virginia Moffat on Twitter.

Thank you to everyone else who responded, or wracked their brains in response to my challenge. Please do add more, comment on the items in the list, challenge, observe anything about this challenge – find the strongly portrayed older* women in fiction.


* I mean 55+ but feel free to comment on this too!


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Top 5 library book crimes.

Libraries are under attack. Not just from this thing they call austerity but also from readers. I’ve quoted before from a very charming and poignant novel in a previous post about libraries in danger: Sophie Divry’s The Library of Unrequited Love. Damage Limitation. That’s how the French librarian narrator describes her mission, limiting the damage readers do – men readers in particular, apparently.

I don’t always manage it. They do stupid things all the time. Inevitably. They put books back in the wrong place, they steal them, they muddle them up, they dog-ear them. Some people even tear out pages. Imagine, tearing out pages when photocopies are only seven centimes a shot! It’s men that do that, every time. And underlining like crazy, that’s always men as well. Men just have to make their mark on a book, put in their corrections, their opinions. You see the pathetic comments they write in the margin: ‘Yes!’, ‘No!!!’, ‘Ridiculous’, ‘Very Good’, ‘O.T.T.’, ‘Wrong’. It’s forbidden to write on the books, that’s in the Library Rules. (p22)

Despite her railing at the person (a man I think) who had a sleepover in the stacks for which she is responsible, Sophie Divry’s librarian has very positive views about libraries and their value.

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I share this strong belief in the importance of libraries. I also find myself incensed (as well as inconvenienced from time to time) by the activities of my fellow library book borrowers. Here are my five things not to do to library books:

  1. Mark them. People, don’t underline your favourite bits with pen or pencil, and forbear from using a highlighter. It is not your book, and the rest of us do not want to know what you found useful, interesting, noteworthy about this book. Do not write your shopping list on the end pages, or your to do list on the title page. Do not add anything to the writers’ text.
  2. Damage them. It won’t stay open? Don’t crack the spine by bending the covers backwards. My shoulders don’t meet behind my back either. If necessary peer between the pages. Don’t damage them in any way. Don’t tear out pages you want to keep. Photocopiers were invented for you to copy pages. Don’t prop up your wobbly table by placing it under the leg, turn down the page corner to mark your place, drop it in the bath or throw it at your disgraced lover or partner.
  3. Leave important things between the pages when you return them. Never again will you see that bank note, dry cleaner’s receipt, oyster card, railway, concert or winning lottery ticket, love letter, Indian Takeaway flyer, business card. The compromising photographs, however, will reappear.
  4. Collect your toenail clippings in the open pages. More respect to other readers please.
  5. Forget to return them.

What response could there be to such bad readers? It is not good enough to suggest that we close libraries because everyone has access to on-line books nowadays. In the first place they don’t. Not everyone has access to the internet at home. If you have every been in a public library you would know that the use of the on-line facilities is part of their attraction. And not everyone wants to read the books on-line. And libraries are not just about access to books, they are also social places, although I think holding a sleepover in them may be going a little far.

Libraries are in danger. Too much silly stuff is written about them in the media. For a refreshing riposte see this piece in Huffington Post by the American librarian, Rita Meade: A librarian’s response to ‘what’s a library?’

Love libraries. Love library books. Love librarians?

Any pet hates to add to the list?

Leave a Comment

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The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

Find me some more examples of strongly drawn older female characters – that was my challenge when I reviewed Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. I only had one response – Litlove suggested Hagar Shipley, from The Stone Angel by Canadian author Margaret Laurence. Hagar Shipley was an excellent response to the challenge. But I still only have two good examples.

The Stone Angel is narrated by Hagar Shipley, intended to be current when it was published in 1964. Her story is framed by her situation: an old woman, cared for by her less favourite son and his wife, and becoming increasingly ill, forgetful and always a handful. ‘A holy terror’ is her son’s description. The reader must agree. It is the picture of her decline in old age that most shocks, even now. The dilemmas for Hagar, her son and daughter-in-law, the medical staff and others who come into contact with her, they are not able to resolve them. Nor are we. It’s a powerful portrayal, not without humour affection or sharp pain.

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Hagar’s story is told through integrated flashbacks. She was born in the small town of Manawaka in Canada, and her life was hard, but not distinguished by any exceptional misfortune. Her mother died in childbirth, she married against her father’s wishes a much less refined man and bore him two sons, before leaving him and finding her own way in life with her youngest son. In this novel children frequently disappoint their parents, do not inherit their looks or skills or abilities, are rejected, not favoured or die to be much mourned.

Hagar believes that people should be private, independent and above embarrassing displays of emotion. These views prevent her from asking for help when she needs it; telling her husband that she enjoys sex (he gives her a night off as a favour); grieving at her son’s death; or accepting that she is aging. And this is where the dilemma of aging lies. Hagar wants independence but she is not able to be independent.

In fact, in many ways Hagar has created her own difficulties, as she comes to see far, far too late. Attitudes such as hers were survival strategies, as the scene of the chaplain Mr Troy’s visit to hospital so poignantly reveals. Hagar declines the invitation to pray with him, but recognising he is doing what his role requires asks him to sing All people that on earth do dwell.

‘All right then.’ He clasps and unclasps his hands. He flushes warmly, and peeks around to see if anyone might be listening, as though he’d pass out if they were. But I perceive now that there is some fibre in him. He’ll do it even if it kills him. Good for him. I can admire that.

Then he opens his mouth and sings, and I’m the one who’s taken aback now.  He should sing always, and never speak. He should chant his sermons. The fumbling of his speech is gone. His voice is firm and secure.

And while he sings, Hagar comes to see that she has never been able simply to rejoice.

Every good joy I might have held, in my man or in any child of mine or even the plain light of morning, of walking the earth, all were forced to a standstill by some brake of proper appearances – oh, proper to whom? When did I ever speak the heart’s truth?

Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear.

The old woman and the inadequate younger man exchange a moment of understanding, and then Doris returns and fusses and the moment has passed.

While the novel illustrates the strong gender divisions between men and women in Canada (as elsewhere) at this time, these are not the main culprits in Hagar’s final situation. We also feel sorry for poor put-upon Doris, who as Hagar’s daughter-in-law has to change her bedding at night, manage an ungrateful and bitter woman, and is herself in her sixties.

While one sympathises with Hagar’s unwillingness to accept some of the patronising attitudes she meets within the healthcare system, we are also acutely aware that she is not acting in her own best interest. Here she is at a visit to the GP

Finally I’m called. Doris comes in as well, and speaks to Dr Corby as though she’d left me at home.

‘Her bowels haven’t improved one bit. She’s not had another gallbladder attack, but the other evening she threw up. She’s fallen a lot-‘

And so on and so on. Will she never stop? My meekness of a moment ago evaporates. She’s forfeited my sympathy now, meandering on like this. Why doesn’t she let me tell him? Whose symptoms are they, anyhow?

Margaret Laurence has created a very believable character in Hagar Shipley, but one that also chills us, because we see so much of ourselves in her (according to Sara Maitland afterword in the Virago Modern Classics version I read) and I agree with this. Thanks Litlove for the recommendation.

Now I repeat my challenge – please identify more fictional strongly drawn older female characters.


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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reviews

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

This is Elizabeth Taylor’s second novel, published in 1946, and as under-rated as all her novels. In Palladian a young girl enters the adult world. Both her parents have died and needing to support herself Cassandra Dashwood becomes a governess to Sophy, daughter of Marion (a man) owner of Cropthorne Manor. You would be right to pick up that her situation is very like Jane Eyre’s. And Cassandra is quite as ready to fall in love with Marion as Jane was with Mr Rochester.

24 Palladian  new

She has the other members of the strange household to cope with. Marion himself seems isolated with frequent neuralgia, and a gloomy disposition. He appears to have not yet overcome the loss of his beautiful wife Violet in childbirth. He pays no attention to the running of the house, and indeed its fabric is chronically neglected.

Marion’s aunt keeps house, and two of her adult children also live in the house – Margaret who announces her pregnancy almost as soon as Cassamdra arrives and whose husband is away at sea; Tom an alcoholic, who, it emerges, had also been in love with Violet.

Daphne du Maurier published Rebecca in 1938, and the story of Palladium has some similarities: the handsome but distracted leading man; a beautiful house, an innocent, naïve girl and an older woman servant who remembers the first wife. Nanny is no Mrs Danvers, however. She is not threatening, merely small-minded and a bully. As readers we know that Nanny is frequently wrong, for example when she accuses Cassandra of pilfering money (it’s Tom) and food (it’s Margaret) and a brooch (it’s a gift from Marion).

Nanny had disapproved of Violet, but she disapproved of Cassandra even more. She had always loved her boys and was not above setting the girls against one another; whether dead or alive. It delighted her to bring Cassandra to the edge of despair about Violet.

From time to time Elizabeth Taylor shifts point of view to tell us directly about a person’s motivation or thoughts. This is considered very risky by tutors on creative writing courses, but Elizabeth Taylor handles it very smoothly.

Cassandra’s arrival changes the dynamic in the house, but not as much as the fatal accident about two thirds through the novel – it’s shocking. unexpected and surprising.

We must assume, I think, that the title refers to the style of architecture, or rather the style of the façade. The house is in fact fatally crumbling. Here is how Elizabeth Taylor describes Cassandra’s first view of it.

The car slowed and turned off the road into a drive between gateposts and broken gryphons, past a mouldering lodge where some bits of washing hung limply in the drizzle. Cassandra somehow – while getting out of the car, managing her belongings, and following Margaret – received an impression of the façade and, as well as the rows of sashed windows and not quite central pediment, smaller details were snatched at and relinquished again by her commenting eye,; pieces of dismembered statuary of dark grey stucco fallen from the walls and a wrought-iron lamp at the head of the steps with its greenish glass cracked.

The house is a burden to its many inhabitants, Marion, who wants no bother, Mrs Vanburgh who is a little out of her depth, Nanny, Margaret who is waiting for the birth of her child, and Sophy and Cassandra seem imprisoned in it.  Another admirer of Elizabeth Taylor is Sarah Waters, author of The Little Stranger, where a similar house seems to be inhabited by spirits.

But the title might also refer to the attributes of those who, like the goddess Pallas Athene, acquire wisdom and knowledge. And it is Cassandra and Marion who gain them.

In the resolution, all comparisons with other novels, Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Northanger Abbey, are irrelevant. Elizabeth Taylor has gone beyond these to explore the anguished response of all the characters with their resolution fitting each one. Tom, the most self-disgusted, a man who thinks and acts dishonourably and honourably by turns, is the least resolved in the end, I feel.

One strange aspect of this novel is that there is no mention of the war, which had just finished in Europe and Far East. No-one refers to their experiences, or the changes brought by the war. Perhaps the closest she veers towards this is the scene where Cassandra is for the last time in her parental home, her father having died two weeks before. A determined local woman pays no attention to the girl in her eagerness to rent the house. The housing shortage was very real. This meeting was also the occasion for a nice detail.

‘What are all these shelves?” The woman stood in the little room and stared.

‘My father’s books.’

‘Well, we’d have to pull all that down of course. It needs repapering. They take a good foot off the room all the way round. How many books did he have then?’

‘He had two thousand,’ Cassandra said, suddenly whitening with fatigue and leaning against the door.

Books take a good foot off a room then. I hadn’t thought of books as reducing the circumference of a room. And in that exchange the woman’s crassness is confirmed as is Cassandra’s essential niceness.

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24 palladian Gr


Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reviews

NW by Zadie Smith

Londoners know their city through their own locality. Zadie Smith’s novel NW considers four people from north-west London, who try to find their way out of the council estate of their birth and to make an adult life in London. None of them succeeds. NW London includes Kilburn and Willeseden.

It’s a novel about place and how it holds you, especially people at the end of all the important lines: women, immigrants, school failures, alcoholics, drug addicts, children. There is a tired joke, which is also a truth, that people who live north of the Thames treat south of the river as terra incognita, and that south of the river folk think those who live north might be in the area marked there be dragons. It’s another take on the connections between identity and location. ‘Should have gone Dalston,’ says Nathan Bogle more than once. It jolts me as Dalston is my territory. And I know how different it is from Kilburn. NW is about the city I have lived in for over 30 years.

23 NW
I found myself feeling very tense as I read this novel; tense with the stress of city life, on the streets, buses and the tube, the perpetual movement of people, the need for wariness, the noise and language and the sucking hold of the place. Tense with keeping the right distance, getting ahead, not putting yourself in danger, looking out for your friends.

Out-of-towners know London by the underground map. Dalston is in Hackney, the only London borough with no tube line, so I understood how Felix has a different view:

He considered the tube map. It did not express his reality. The centre was not ‘Oxford Circus’ but the bright lights of Kilburn High Road. ‘Wimbledon’ was countryside, ‘Pimlico’ pure science fiction. He put his index finger over Pimlico’s blue bar. It was nowhere. Who lived there? Who even passed through it?

The four protagonists are in turn the focus on one section. All born on the Caldwell Council Estate, all students at Brayton Comprehensive School, they differ in ethnicity, and in their paths away from the Caldwell.

Leah, married to an Algerian, of Irish extraction is drifting in life, not wanting to have a child. She became pregnant but had an abortion without telling Michel. Her story is told in short numbered chapters.

Keisha/Natalie is fiercely clever and Leah’s best friend. She becomes a lawyer, a barrister, but despite attaining a middle class life puts it all at risk for sexual experimentation, which her husband can’t handle. I found that Keisha/Natalie’s section was the most readable: 182 short sections, some only a sentence, some a paragraph, some longer.

Felix is a man trying to escape his demons – alcoholism, drug abuse, women. He is mugged. The section covering his day making steps to improve his life is covered in three more discursive sections, labelled with area codes: NW6, W1, NW6 again

Rodney, a shady and dangerous but attractive man, drifts on the edges of the lowest of society. His section is brief, and covers the geographic areas of a walk he takes with Keisha/Natasha up to Archway, the suicide bridge, and back. You’d have to be as high as Keisha/Natalie to spend time with him. Or live in Dalston.

Some critics have suggested that together these four sections do not make a coherent novel, there are disjunctions between them. There is an obvious point that London is like that, the different areas do not hang together. But this is a tense and jagged city, where loyalty and love are to be found mostly – but not exclusively – among the women, the impossibility of escaping the pull of one’s past, these are reflected in the structure and the style of the novel.

Zadie Smith is rightly much praised for her dialogue. Here’s some texting dialogue. Leah contacts her friend Natalie, the lawyer.

woman next to me picking nose really getting in there
tried to call but you no answer
cant take private calls in pupil room what’s up
big news
You got cat aids?
free may sixth?
You catch cat aids may sixth? I am free if not in court. I big lawyer lasy these days innit Big lawyer lady jesus
shit typer
lady jesus I am getting married
on may
that’s great! When did this happen???
Six in registry same like u but irth actyl guests

And more conventionally, Natalie/Keisha talks with her sister, Cheryl, while holding her niece Carly.

‘Why am I being punished for making something of my life?’
‘Oh my days. Who’s punishing you Keisha? Nobody. That’s in your head. You’re paranoid , man!’
Natalie Blake could not be stopped. ‘I work hard. I came in with no reputation, nothing. I’ve built up a serious practice – do you have any idea how few –‘
‘Did you really come round here to tell me what a big woman you are these days?’
‘I came round to try and help you.’
‘But no one in here is looking for your help Keisha! This is it! I ain’t looking for you, end of.’
And now they had to transfer Carly from Natalie’s shoulder to her mother’s, a strangely delicate operation in the middle of the carnage.

I agree that her dialogue is spot on, captures the rhythms, the colloquialisms and idioms of London talk. And she is also lyrical and inventive in description. Chapter 9 reproduces google-type directions from A – B, complete with caveats. ‘These directions are for planning purposes only.’ Chapter 10 is a lyrical repeat of the journey, impressionistic, drawing on the senses, of smell, sound, sight and including a commentary on aspirations of the inhabitants. Some of it is alliterative (‘Lone Italian, loafers, lost, looking for Mayfair.’), poetic (‘Open-top, soft-top, drive-by, hip hop.’); shocking (‘Here is the school where they stabbed the headmaster.’); but it’s all London.

Overall this novel presents a bleak view of life in London, but it moves along with verve and spirit. It deals with serious matters. I read in one blog review that this is the first novel to discuss women who do not want to be mothers. I am not sure about that. But it is the first novel I have read where the skills required to be a Londoner are laid out. Perhaps that’s why it made me feel so tense when I was reading it.

I’m currently reading all the shortlisted novels for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013. This is my fourth. So much good writing by women.

23 Zadie Smith


Filed under Books, Reviews

Two Elizabeths, two first novels

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen was published in 1927 and At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor in 1945. They were written 18 years apart but I read these two first novels one after the other last week. Considering them side by side reveals some interesting points.

Both are novels defined, as their titles indicate, by a place, a building. Mrs Lippincote’s is a house, rented to Roddy and Julia Davenport towards the end of the war. Roddy is in the RAF and Julia is fascinated by living in Mrs Lippincote’s house, and among her things. The old lady eventually appears, like something from another time.

‘I am Mrs Lippincote.’

Superfluous statement.

The leghorn hat with its immense velvet bow, the tussore suit and parasol, the gold chains and watch pinned to the bosom transfixed Julia. The bosom itself intimidated, seemed unrelated to the female body, a structure, a shelf, a thing to pin watches to, hang chains upon. (At Mrs Lippincote’s)

The war has displaced her, and her appearance reminds Julia and the reader that there was a time ‘before the war’ and there will be a time ‘when the war is over’.

22 At Mrs L

The Hotel is somewhere on the Italian Riviera, a place where people with money and gentility go to occupy their time. It is out of season. Hotels provided a setting for chance encounters and disconcerting meetings.

The Honourable Mrs and Miss Pinkerton occupied two wide-balconied rooms at the end of the first floor corridor. Five times across the Hotel, each on a floor, these corridors ran – dark, thickly carpeted, panelled with bedroom doors… Mrs and Miss Pinkerton were of course on the sunny side, with their balconies from which the view could be patronized. The view was their own; they were to enjoy the spiritual, crude and half-repellent beauty of that changing curtain, so featureless but for the occasional passing ship. They barricaded themselves in from the assault of noonday behind impassable jalousies. (The Hotel)

We learn so much of the social expectations and assumptions from this description of the accommodation of Mrs and Miss Pinkerton. The violation of their bathroom is a great comic scene, one which also reveals much about the participants and more about the social positions in the Hotel. (A jalousie is a kind of louvred or slatted blind.)

22 The Hotel

In both novels the narrative is pegged, so to speak, by the places, the bricks and mortar. The narrative unfolds, scene take place outside these buildings, yet at the end of each day, events are resolved – or not – within their walls. In both places the characters move between private and public rooms, rooms where people retreat and can be on their own and others where the action is played out in the presence of an audience.

The interesting characters in both The Hotel and At Mrs Lippincote’s are non-conformists. Roddy is constantly fearful that Julia will say the wrong thing in front of his fellow officers, and is disappointed to find that he has not been able to mould Julia in their married life. She is wiser than her husband.

Roddy kissed Julia and went off to a party in the Mess – a men’s party, a ‘presence required’ party he explained leaving the house with a look of resignation. Watching him go, she was interested to see, as he turned for a second to latch the gate, the change that had come over him; gone the forbearance, and in its place geniality and a look of anticipation. (At Mrs Lippincote’s)

Roddy and Julia must each decide to accommodate their disappointment in the other in order to make a go of their marriage. It is likely, but not certain, that they will, by the close of the novel

In the Hotel the residents all live with the disappointments of love, and most settle for less than love. The Misses Pym and Fitzgerald open the novel on a quarrel; Mrs Kerr cannot remember ever having been loved; her relationship with her son Ronald is dutiful rather than loving; Mrs Duperrier is neglected by her husband who prefers to flirt with the many young ladies; and so on. Mr Lee-Mittison organises an expedition to collect anemone roots, which fizzles out as hosts and guests lose each other in the hills. There is a terrible irony to the Lee-Mittisons’ situation. The wife has a moment of clarity: ‘she felt sick at the thought of their hotel bedrooms that stretched, only interposed with the spare rooms of friends, in unbroken succession before and behind her.’ They have no roots, are perpetual travellers with no home of their own.

It is Sydney Warren who captures our interest. It is the story of Sydney’s unlikely and amourous adventure that forms the core narrative of this novel.

Sydney’s relations had been delighted that she should go abroad with her cousin Tessa. It had appeared an inspired solution to the Sydney problem. The girl passed too many of these examinations, was on the verge of a breakdown and railed so bitterly at the prospect of a year’s enforced idleness, that the breakdown seemed nearer than ever. (The Hotel)

Both Julia and Sydney are more spontaneous than rational, more innocent than the people among whom they live, more open to life’s experiences. The characters around them are shown to have more tawdry and meagre lives by contrast, built up in both novels through small, often mundane actions and scenes.

As an aside, I enjoyed the references to novels in both books. Lady Catherine de Burgh from Pride and Prejudice appears in The Hotel, as does Jude the Obscure. In At Mrs Lippincote’s conversation about the Brontes forges a link between Julia and the Wing Commander. (As well as reading, he knits socks, which is lovely detail.) Her seven-year old son ‘did not merely read books. He snuffed them up, took breaths of them in his lungs, filled his eyes with the sight of the print and his head with the sound of words.’ He is somewhat unconvincing, and the reader is relieved when he befriends Felicity and they play as children should.

What I find remarkable about these two writers is that they both already had an astonishing discernment for the slightest reactions or movements, the understated but telling observation which is fully evident in this their first novels. For example, in the extracts quoted – Julia’s observation of her husband’s change of expression; Sydney’s relations’ attitude to her.

The Elizabeths became friends, but I think they only met after the publication of the younger woman’s first novels.

I am currently re-reading Elizabeth Taylor’s novels in order of publication and continue to explore Elizabeth Bowen’s. Any recommendations?


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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor's novels