Monthly Archives: June 2018

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ

What happens when you are 50, mother of 12 children, still coping with the humiliation of the second wife and then widowed? Mariana Bâ was writing in French, and her novel is set in Senegal in the 1970s. Published in 1979 it still speaks to us about the position of women, the legacy of colonialism and the subjection and exploitation of women allowed by an interpretation of Islam and cultural traditions.

Every month I read and comment on a book by a woman in translation, usually works of fiction.So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ is a short novel, translated by ModupéBodé-Thomas.

A summary of So Long a Letter

The novel is framed as a letter, written by Ramatoulaye, who is 50 and has just been widowed. Like her creator, she lives in Senegal and is well educated. She writes her letter to her long-time friend Aissatou. The friend left Senegal to live as an independent woman in the US when her husband took a second wife.

The husband of Ramatoulaye had also taken a second wife, the friend of their oldest daughter. Like Aissatou, Ramatoulaye refuses to be cowed by these events although her husband abandons her and her twelve children. She had decided to stay in Senegal as his first wife. On his death, in the Islamic tradition, it is revealed that he spent his wealth on his new wife’s family. The letter begins as the widow tries to understand the events of her adulthood, including her marriage which took place against the wishes of her family. Some of the most delightful parts of this novel are the descriptions of happy times, with their husbands holidaying on the coast.

Ramatoulaye refuses the offers of marriage that come her way as a widow, instead waits for her 40 days of mourning and seclusion to be over, and to be able to meet with her old friend.

The novel ends on a note of optimism, implying that these two women will support each other from the effects of polygamy and the patriarchy of their society.

Feminism in So Long a Letter

Mariama Bâ(1929-1981) was born in Dakar, Senegal, and brought up by her grandparents after the early death of her mother. They planned to educate her only to primary school level. Her father persuaded them to let her continue her education. She trained as a teacher and was employed in the classroom from 1947 – 1959, after which she became a school inspector. She had nine children and divorced her husband, a Senegal politician and minister.

Mariama Bâ was a feminist activist in Senegal until her early death in 1981.  Senegal achieved independence in April 1960 and the novel is full of the tensions between the old and new ways, African ways vs the European, traditional vs modern.

In So Long a Letter Ramatoulaye’s husband had worked as a lawyer for the trade union movement and she had been pleased to support his work, bear him 12 children, run his household and hold down her own job. But when he became older and obsessed with a younger woman he indulged himself by taking a second wife.

Whereas a woman draws from the passing years the force of her devotion, despite the ageing of her companion, a man, on the other hand, restricts his field of tenderness. His egoistic eye looks over his partner’s shoulder. He compares what he had with what he no longer has, what he has with what he could have. (41)

She reminds her friend Aissatou of the painful experience of being rejected for a younger wife. The pain is personal and no more bearable for being sanctioned under Islamic custom and the laws of Senegal. It is still legal in Senegal and in 57 other countries. Neither of these women accepted their situation, and one imagines that together they will represent a considerable force for change.

Mariama Bâ makes it clear that the new wife also looses a great deal in accepting her position, not least the pleasures of being young and in an equal partnership.

The women’s situations are not just problems of Africa or of Islam or of polygamy. Older women are often made to feel inadequate in the face of younger rivals in every culture – the toxic combination of ageism and sexism.

For Ramatoulaye being a mother is also important and when one of her own children finds herself in trouble she looses no time in deciding to support rather than reject her.

And also, one is a mother in order to understand the inexplicable. One is a mother to lighten the darkness. One is a mother to shield when lightening streaks the night, when thunder shakes the earth, when mud bogs one down. One is a mother in order to love without beginning or end. (82-83)

She does not need to spell out that her husband, the father of their 12 children, has not provided this unconditional and enduring love.

So …

I found So Long a Letter was a quick and easy read. I learned a great deal about feminism and women in Senegal and West Africa. I was surprised and shocked to find that polygamy is still legal in the world. I was impressed by Mariama Bâ’s feminism, and saddened that her life was cut short. At least we have this and one other posthumous novel, Scarlet Song, which I have not yet read. Copies are easy to find so I recommend you read this short book, if you haven’t already.

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâwas published in French in 1979, and in English in 1980. Originally published as Une si longue lettre, it was translated by ModupéBodé-Thomas. I read the edition published by Virago in its New Fiction series in 1982. 90pp

First winner of the Noma Award for publishing in Africa.

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

The Winterlingsby Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.

Memoirs of a Polar Bearby Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Love by Hanne Østavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken

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Elizabeth David’s books in the Kitchen

We have reached the 1950s in the Decades Project featuring non-fiction by women from each decade of the 20thCentury. In the 1950s the effects of the Second World War still dominated women’s lives. In peacetime they were encouraged to return to the domestic sphere, give back their jobs to the men, and to have babies – this was the time of the Baby Boom. But this was also a time of austerity, rationing and recovery.

Into this drab, domestic world came Elizabeth David with A Book of Mediterranean Food  (1950) followed by French Country Cooking (1951) and then many, many more books that helped change eating and shopping habits up to today.

Elizabeth David

Elizabeth David lived a rather racy life in her youth. Born into a wealthy English family in 1913, she grew up as something of a rebel. She studied art in Paris in the 1930s and spent some time as an actress. When war came she left Paris in a boat with a married man, narrowly escaping capture by the Germans. She spent most of the war in Cairo, running an information library, and met her husband there.

After the war she returned to England, and to her husband, and began her distinguished publishing career. Her innovations included a rather loose style for her recipes, indeed someone has said you should read her cookery books as you read short stories. Although criticised for presenting impossible recipes she claimed to have tested every one herself.

She is chiefly remembered today for introducing some colourful, flavoursome but unknown or uncommon foods into the drab and dreary kitchen of her readers. Ignoring austerity and rationing and the scarcity of some of her ingredients she recommended Mediterranean vegetables and fruit, new methods of cooking, and wove stories of markets, her experiences of the cuisines of families with whom she stayed, and brief explanations of cooking processes.

Her ideas benefited from the end of rationing and the growing habit of taking holidays on the continent, experiencing the French markets (see below) and restaurants for example. While she initially influenced those with money, eventually the foods she advocated found their way into supermarkets and high streets.

La Roche-Posay, July 2009

Some examples from her books

Rouen market:

Outside the vegetable stalls are piled high with Breton artichokes, perfectly round with tightly closed leaves; long, clean, shining leeks; and fluffy green-white cauliflowers. At the next stall an old country woman is displaying carefully bunched salad herbs, chives, chervil, sorrel, radishes and lettuces. So far, it could well be the central market of any one of a score of French towns. But when you get to the dairy stalls, then you know you could only be in the astonishingly productive province of Normandy, where you buy the butter of Isigny and of Gournay carved off a great block, where bowls of thick white cream and the cheeses of Camembert, Livarot, Neufchatel, Pont l’Eveque, Rouy, Isigny, and a dozen other districts ooze with all the richness of the Norman pastures. (31, French Provincial Cooking  – 1960)

I know this scene. I was in Rouen market in early June. This passage was written in the late 1950s. I was visiting sixty years later in 2018.

Rice

I wish I knew who was the genius who first grasped the fact that Piedmontese rice was ideally suited to slow cooking and that its particular qualities would be best appreciated in what has become the famous Milanese risotto. (123, Italian Food  – 1954)

PETITS SOUFFLES AUX COURGETTES Miniature Courgette Soufflés

… I first had these little soufflés at a lorry drivers’ restaurant about three miles from the Pont du Gard. NB Bookword recommends these as ideal for gardeners suffering those courgettes gluts.(234-5 French Provincial Cooking)

POTAGE BONNE FEMME

This old-fashioned French soup is the cheapest and one of the nicest of all vegetable soups. 1 lb potatoes, 3 carrots, 2 large leeks, 1.5 oz butter, 2 pints water, seasoning. To finish a little cream, parsley, or chervil when available. (198, French Provincial Cooking)

Although she died in 1992 her recipes and descriptions are still valued. My copy of French Provincial Cooking  (1960) needs a stout elastic band to keep the pages together. My first copy was given away as a duplicate when I was married. The current one is in fact my second copy. In 2013 the Guardian ran a feature in which chefs and food writers chose their favourite Elizabeth David recipes,  and explained how they worked. Her books are still in print.

There are currently nine books by Elizabeth David published by Penguin Books, including all the ones mentioned in this post.

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 I am featuring non-fiction by women for each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:

Another look at A Room of One’s Ownby Virginia Woolf(1928)

Testament of Youthby Vera Brittain(1933)

The Diary of a Young Girlby Anne Frank(1947)

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Child refugees and The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

I offer you child refugees to think about for Refugee Week(18th– 24thJune 2018). I start with a children’s book: The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. It was first published in 1956, written in his summer holidays by a school teacher in Sussex. It is set in Europe, mostly after the end of the Second World War, when millions were displaced, trying to find a place to live or to return home. The characters are based on real people, who travel through a real landscape. The reader, young and old, understands that the war created a terrible situation for the Balicki family from Poland, and they were fortunate to survive and be reunited.

The Quest of The Silver Sword

I read this children’s book very soon after it was published. It made a lasting impression on me, and I gladly reread it for this post 60 years later. The story follows a family who were separated in Warsaw during the war by the Nazis. The father, a school teacher, was arrested for a small act of disrespect to Hitler, but escaped from the prison camp; the mother was sent as slave labour to Germany, and the three children survived in the cellars and forests of Warsaw until the end of the war. When the city was liberated by the Red Army, the three children made their way from Warsaw to Switzerland, along with another stray child and his animals (at times he has a chicken, dog and chimpanzee from Berlin Zoo). This was the time – after the war – when chaos and devastation was everywhere in Europe and millions of displaced people were trying to get somewhere else. War is terrible and destructive and creates refugees of people of all ages.

The family and Jan are connected by the sword of the title, a paperknife, originally given to Mrs Balicki by her husband. The older daughter, Ruth, a teenager, leads the children. She is a natural teacher, a resourceful problem-solver and able to take command and care of the younger ones. Edek has TB, and for a while had also served as slave labour, but at the end of the war was liberated to a prison camp. Bronia is the youngest and then there is Jan, the wild boy whose fate is tied up with theirs and the silver sword.

This is a classic quest, with near escapes, disasters and a great deal of kindliness from individuals: Red Army soldiers, Germans (the farmers), British and US soldiers, and the refugee organisations set up to help the many, many refugees with their journey and with tracing family members. Against all the odds, capture, betrayal, hunger, tiredness, illness, orders to return to Poland, and travelling by foot, lorry, and even canoes, they are all reunited in Switzerland.

At the time of its publication it was, apparently, suggested that children should not be exposed to the distress in the story. Perhaps the adults had not yet recovered from their distress from the war that had ended only 10 years earlier. Despite this it was soon adapted for a BBC TV series in 1957 and later also for the radio and there have been stage versions too. Puffin Books, the children’s section of Penguin Books, republished it in paperback in 1960. It has remained popular with children.

Child refugees

Ian Serraillier makes much of the sympathy that young people easily evoke, encouraging people to share meagre supplies, or to bend a rule or two, even to provide life-saving footwear, canoes and accommodation. Child refugees should be a phrase we never read. But in Refugee Week we must not ignore them.

Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee was drowned aged 3 on 2ndSeptember 2015. You will remember him and the picture of him washed up on a Turkish beach. Like many thousands of refugees, displaced by war, he drowned crossing the Mediterranean trying to reach Greece. The situation briefly became clear – everyone agreed that something had to be done. But it wasn’t and refugees, including children, continue to make the dangerous crossing, to drown, or to find no welcome in Europe, or to face the ‘hostile environment’ in the UK.

Did You See Me? is a short story of 329 words by Kit de Waal. It is dedicated to Alan Kurdi, ‘the boy on the shore’. You can find it in a recently published anthology of the experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers: A Country to Call Home, edited by Lucy Popescu.

Did you see me in Kobane, running through the square? Did you hear my father’s shout? We were laughing, my brother and I, and my father came lumbering after us, his arms outstretched. ‘You’re too far away! I cannot catch you!’ (43)

Every refugee is an Alan Kurdi, or a child of the Balicki family. You and I and children we know have escaped this fate only by the accident of our births.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, first published in 1956 by Jonathan Cape. US title Escape from Warsaw. Puffin Books in 1960. The edition I read was from Red Fox and includes an afterword by the author’s daughter. 192pp

A Country to Call Home, an anthology of the experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers edited by Lucy Popescu, published by Unbound in 2018. 241pp

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Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Elmet is a hidden place and a place to hide. According to Ted Hughes it was the last independent Celtic kingdom in England and still exists in the vale of York, ‘a ‘badlands’, a sanctuary for refugees from the law’. Into this dark and foreboding kingdom Fiona Mozley places the action of this novel.

For the reader to want to find out what happens to her characters she must make them sympathetic and surround them in mystery and only gradually reveal their past and make known their qualities and fears.

The characters

Daniel (14) is the narrator, brother of Cathy (15) and the younger child of Daddy. We meet him first as he sets off searching for someone. We return to his search periodically. It takes us into the world we inhabit. He is still trying to find her. The search, identified by italics, is necessary to save Daniel’s life and for the reader to understand the events described. We come to see that it takes place after the events of the narrative

In the main plot the family are close-knit. We meet them as Daddy is building a house for them in the woods. We learn that Daddy is a huge and solitary man, who does not like company, except for his two children. And we learn that he is handy with his fists. It soon emerges that he is extremely strong and that he is a man with a great deal of anger. And he has a strong desire for things to be done right.

Cathy is more ephemeral, with a fierce independence, like a hare.

When she darted I could barely see her but when she stopped for a moment she was the stillest thing for miles around. Stiller than the oaks and pines. Stiller even than the rocks and pylons. Stiller than the railway tracks. (5)

The family is close-knit, but motherless. They do not talk much. But they live together peaceably and with love.

And then there is Mr Price, the smooth, wealthy dangerous nemesis of Daddy. He is of our world, a landowner and landlord, a driver of range rovers, and a man who can afford to buy the law and the muscle to enforce his will.

The tensions are set: the commercial against the natural world, money against brawn and even, later on, guile against scheming and female against rapacious male.

The mysteries

There are many mysteries in the plot of Elmet. Why have this damaged family built their house and decided to live in the liminal copse? What happened to their mother? How will the children be raised? What is there between Price and Daddy that will result in death?

The narrative carries us forward, pulling back the corners of the darkness to reveal the answers to our questions. But only just enough is revealed to make us think that Daniel and Cathy and Daddy remain in great danger. And the plot moves relentlessly to its climax.

Descriptions

There are two scenes of great violence in this novel. Daddy is a huge man who has earned his living by fighting and intimidating people. He has given up being the muscle for the rich. Indeed he organises resistance to the hated and exploitative local landlords. Price offers the family and neighbours a deal if Daddy will fight an unknown opponent, and this takes place in a clearing in the woods, out of the sight of the law. The description, told from Daniel’s point of view, is carefully handled but brutal. There is blood and teeth, but nothing that isn’t justified by the context of the novel.

The final climax is similarly handled, so that in a scene of confusion and quick changes of power and attack, the reader follows the action and the fears of the family, together and separately. I admire Fiona Mozley’s powers of description.

I found this to be an excellent book, especially because it challenged my naïve beliefs in what is good and right, and bad and wrong and the value of the law. And my ignorance of what lies beyond and beside the comfortable life that I lead. This tension, between the orderly world and life is illustrated by Daddy’s questioning about who owns the copse in which he has built their house. And by his reaction to a legal document about its ownership. Daniel thinks his father is having trouble reading it.

He shook his head. ‘No, lad, it’s not that. I can read well enough to understand what it says. It’s idea a person can write summat on a bit of paper about a piece of land that lives and breathes, and changes and quakes and flood and dries, and that that person can use it as he will, or not at all, and that he can keep others off it, all because of a piece of paper. That’s part which means nowt to me.’ (202)

There is a hint here of older, more established law – or lore – related to the land and its use and ownership. Older even than the Celtic kingdoms.

Elmetby Fiona Mozley, published in 2017 by John Murray. 321 pp

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017

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The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

What life was there for older women, especially an older widow, in post-war England? Despite all the changes of the previous half-century and two world wars that had required women to take on more active roles outside their traditional sphere of the home, in 1951 there was no role for older women. For widows of a certain class, anyway, such as Louise.

The Winds of Heaven is the 33rdin the series on older women in fiction. You can find a list of all those previous posts and readers’ recommendations on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.

Louise in The Winds of Heaven

At the start of the novel Louise, who is about 60, has been widowed for a year or so. Her husband was a bully and put her down at every opportunity. He left her with nothing except debts and a sense of shame.

Louise has no reason to live anywhere in particular and no resources to make choices. She has three daughters and a school friend and they accommodate her in dreary rotation. Winters are spent on the Isle of Wight in Sybil’s out of season hotel. When the summer visitors arrive Louise begins another sequence of visits to her three daughters.

The daughters are all preoccupied with themselves and the difficulties they have created. Louise has three relationships that are respectful. Her oldest grandchild, Ellen (11), needs more indulgent adults in her life and she forms a strong bond with her grandmother. Her son-in-law Frank treats her with respect and is thoughtful about her situation. And Louise meets Gordon Disher in a Lyons teashop in the opening scene. She spills her tea on the lurid paperback he is reading: The Girl in the Bloodstained Bikini. It turns out that he is the author, and that like her he leads a lonely life, in his case selling beds in an Oxford Street department store.

When her winter sojourn at her friend’s Isle of Wight hotel comes to an abrupt end Louise has no one to turn to, and nowhere to stay. The final crisis and resolution follow quickly.

Feminism in The Winds of Heaven?

When the winds of Heaven blow, men are inclined to throw back their heads like horses, and stride ruggedly into gusts, pretending to be much healthier than they really are, but women tend to creep about, shrunk into their clothes, and clutching at their hats and hair. (1)

This is the opening paragraph of the novel, intended to be taken literally but the image of creeping about in the face of buffeting is apt for Louise. The wind is a recurring image in the novel. Louise certainly creeps about, not rugged but shrunk into her unsatisfactory life. With no resources she feels unable to find a way out of her situation.

Louise produces some very strong reactions among recent reviewers:

The Captive Reader found her pathetic and was disappointed in the novel.

A Corner of Cornwall saw the validity of this view but also found Louise likeable.

She Reads Novels was more enthusiastic.

But Booksnob found that Louise spoiled her reading of the novel, despite Monica Dickens’s humour, warmth and observations, because she wanted the author to suggest Louise could do with some courage and ingenuity and a be given a kick up the backside.

My own view is that Louise is very much of her age (I mean the 1950s) and class and furthermore has been subjected to abusive behaviour by her husband, neglect by her daughters and disdain by society as a whole. Her efforts at courage and ingenuity are usually failures. She is very sympathetically drawn. But I would not condone her level of passivity in older women today.

That Louise is pathetic, lacks agency and is far too obliging is a condemnation of the time she lived in and its attitudes to older women. It was not easy find a role as a widow in the 1950s, especially without financial means. Is it any easier today?

Everything in Louise’s life has conspired to make her rather timid and grateful for anything. Her husband treated her badly, undermining her at every opportunity.

She had borne three daughters, to her surprise, for her husband had set his heart on a son, and Louise was in the habit of giving him everything he asked for. That she failed to give him a boy with a long conceited nose like his own to look down on the world had not helped raise his opinion of his wife’s helpfulness to society. (1-2)

In her widowhood she continues to try to do right for others, but it often goes wrong. An ill-judged remark, an inappropriate gift, helpful actions that turn out to undermine the settled order of things; such moments reinforce her sense of being unwanted and outside society.

Despite revealing Louise’s terrible fate as an older woman Monica Dickens gave her a romantic and happy-ever-after ending.

Other widows in fiction have faced similar difficulties: Louise makes reference to ‘those dismal ‘residentials’, where they farm out most widows’ (209). I think immediately of Elizabeth Taylor’s wonderful Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont in which Mrs Palfrey makes a good go of living in such a place. And Lady Shane in All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West simply ignores her children’s decisions for her when she is widowed and choses her own rather surprising path.

Monica Dickens

Monica Dickens (1915-1992) famously said that her aim in writing was ‘to entertain rather than instruct’ and hoped that readers would ‘recognise life in my books’. She was a rebel. Expelled from school, brought out as a debutante, she rejected the life mapped out for her and decided to go into service, and then into nursing. She used these experiences in One Pair of Hands (1939) and One Pair of Feet (1942). After the war she married an American and lived for much of her adult life in The States. Her great-grandfather was Charles Dickens. She was a writer all her life and had already published 10 books before The Winds of Heaven in 1955.

She is on the list of authors identified by Jane (beyondedenrock blog}: A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. Her birthday was 10thMay. Thanks to Grier for recommending this novel for the series.

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens, first published in 1955. Republished by Persephone Books in 2010. 320pp

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Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018

Announced on 6thJune, the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

As in previous years I give you the short and long lists for 2018 and all previous winners, because it’s so good to have 43 excellent books by women listed in one place!

Announced in April, the short list

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Sight by Jessie Greengrass

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Announced in March, the longlist

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Sight by Jessie Greengrass

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (will be reviewed on Bookword on 19thJune)

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize.

Naomi Alderman: The Power (2017)

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (2016)

Ali Smith: How to be Both(2015)

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

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Marilynne Robinson: Home (2009)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

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

Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

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

Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004)

Valerie Martin: Property (2003)

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto (2002)

Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection (2001)

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

Suzanne Berne: A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999)

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party (1998)

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces (1997)

Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter (1996)

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So much more than an amusing Provincial Lady – EM Delafield

It would be easy write off EM Delafield as a one-hit wonder. Her most famous work is Diary of a Provincial Lady and it is very funny and very to the point. First published in instalments in the feminist periodical Time & Tide, it has been republished by both Persephone and Virago Books.

EM Delafield is another neglected and underappreciated woman writer. She deserves more recognition especially as she wrote so much more. Consequences is also republished by Persephone Books, and the short story Holiday Group was included in the Persephone Book of Short Stories. This writer still has a great deal to say to us.

Let’s celebrate her 138thbirthday on 9thJune.

E.M. Delafield by Howard Coster. Bromide print 1930s. NPG x 10670. Used under Creative Commons Agreement, with thanks to the National Portrait Gallery.

Consequences by EM Delafield

I chose to read this book because I did not know this writer well enough. It is the earliest of her works that I have now read, published in 1919, just after the end of the First World War. This was the moment when women’s lives were changing, when expectations for women were widening. Consequences is hard to read, kept me awake at night, because the protagonist, Alex, was damaged by her family and her education. In its quiet way this is a feminist novel as well as a tragedy.

Alex Clare is born into an upper-class family, not especially rich, with a catholic father and is the oldest child of 5. She is required to be obedient to Nurse and her parents who hold old-fashioned views about what girls should be, do and look like. She is expected to grow up as they require, come out as a debutante, find a husband and repeat the cycle for her own daughters.

But Alex is not able to follow this trajectory. Not especially beautiful, clever, or able to see what her parents want of her she craves affection, not given at home, and when she causes her younger sister to have an accident she is sent off to a convent in Belgium to be put right. Throughout her life Alex fastens onto people as objects of desire, wanting only their affection. This brings her up against the nuns when she has a ‘pash’ for Queenie Torrance, and later she transfers affection first to Mother Gertrude and then to her sister-in-law.

She tries to get it right, but receives no guidance. Her sisters Barbara and Pamela learn to do what’s expected and embrace it with enthusiasm. Alex does not enjoy the debutante scene in London, resolves her discomfort by becoming engaged, realises that engagement to such a vapid young man would not be right, but runs off to become a nun under the influence of Mother Superior Gertrude.

After 10 years as a nun the Mother Superior is posted to South America and Alex comes to see that again her life has been fixed on the approval of one person. She revokes her vows and returns to London, but is quite incapable of managing for herself. She is 27 years old, has no understanding of what an independent life could or should be.

Endpapers fror Consequences: Thistle, a Liberty Art Fabric, Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

While one may wish that the wretched and miserable girl had taken some responsibility for her life and for changing it for the better, we are in no doubt that Alex has had no support or guidance of any worth to achieve this. It’s a searing and feminist account of a damaging upbringing. It is hard to read because one can only imagine all the many young women who were as oppressed as Alex.

Consequences by EM Delafield, first published in 1919. Republished by Persephone Books in 2006. 421pp

Holiday Group by EM Delafield

Holiday Group is short story, first published in 1926. Again we read of women’s restricted lives. The Reverend Herbert Cliff-Hay comes into a modest legacy and takes his wife and three young children on holiday. It is a holiday for everyone except his wife, who is exhausted by ensuring that her husband’s ambitions for this rest time are realised. Her name is Constance. He has no idea that it is so bad for her, and indeed EM Delafield deftly shows this, does not tell us.

The Persephone Book of Short Stories, published by Persephone Books in 2012. 427pp

Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield

In this lively, funny and well-known novel some of the same themes emerge. The protagonist, the provincial lady, has wit, perception and skill as a writer, but the life she portrays is every bit as limited as Alex’s in Consequences or Constance in the short story. Here is a middle class lady living in the provinces (Devon) whose spirit clashes with expectations of social deference and behaviour and rebels against the mundaneness of her domestic life. Here is no self-pity or sentimentality, yet she manages to convey the limits of her life with lively self-deprecation. Here are the opening paragraphs.

November 7th

Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her, and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B. makes determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed the bulb-bowls and the bag of charcoal, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa.

Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September, really or even October, is the time. Do I know that the only really reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? … (1)

Published in 1930, there were further novels in the sequence.

Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield, first published in 1930 and reissued by Persephone Books in 2014. The complete collection of Diaries has also been published by Virago Modern Classics in 1984.

EM Delafield

EM Delafield was a pen name. The writer was born Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture on 69hJune 1890. Like Alex she spent some time in a convent before the First World War. However at the start of the war she became a VAD nurse in Exeter and married Arthur Dashwood in 1919. After some years in the Malay States they settled in East Devon, in Kentisbeare. She was a prolific writer. I counted 49 works on her Wikipedia page, including many non-fiction works, such as biography, and short stories. She died before the end of the Second World War in December 1943.

Jane on beyondedenrock blog posted A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors which caught my eye. This post represents my support for her celebration of the birthdays of the more neglected women writers.

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