Monthly Archives: November 2018

Into the Mountain by Charlotte Peacock

Not many weeks ago I blogged about The Living Mountain  by Nan Shepherd. This was a book I had wanted to read for sometime. Then our book group decided to read this biography of Nan Shepherd for our November meeting. I imagined she was an intrepid and relentless walker and explorer of hills before I read the story of her life. I was glad to find out that she was this and so much more.

Into the Mountain: a life of Nan Shepherd  by Charlotte Peacock

She lived a long life: born in 1893 and dying in 1981. Her life was an interesting one, not least because she lived near Aberdeen all that time. She travelled and had friends in other places, especially in Scotland. By using bus and rail she ranged widely from her home in Cults. When her parents first moved there it was a village, but it is now a suburb of Aberdeen.

She was educated during the First World War at Aberdeen University, and went on to teach literature at the Teacher Training Centre. Her life was much involved with writing, and with Scottish writing in particular. She wrote three novels all set in northeast Scotland.

  • The Quarry Wood (1928)
  • The Weatherhouse (1930) and
  • A Pass in the Grampians (1933)

She also wrote poetry, publishing a collection called In the Cairngorms  in 1934. She corresponded and spent time with many Scottish literary figures, and was herself considered an influential modernist writer of the Scottish renaissance.

Towards the end of the Second World War she completed The Living Mountain, her description of her explorations of the Cairngorms. She sought advice, and approached one or two publishers, but it was not considered saleable, and it was not published until 1977 when the public mood had changed. Recent success has been attributed to Robert Macfarlane’s responses to the book in The Wild Places  (2012).

Nan Shepherd was a feminist. She is known to have been the lover of the philosopher John Macmurray, who married one of her school friends. She lived with her parents until they died, and never married. She adopted a daughter, Sheila.

Writing the biography

This was a tough book to read. The subject and the impending Book Group discussion kept me at it. But it was hard.

In part the book was a prisoner of too much research. Every possible connection seems to have been traced. One can admire this, but would like a little discrimination in the use of the research. It also contained 1112 endnotes, and (a bit of a bugbear this) while some of them were simply references, others contained information such as the disputes about the resurrection of Scots language and dialect. There was no way to tell which was which from the body of the text, and no way I was going to check 1112 notes.

Even more, it lacked a good dose of hard editing. If Charlotte Peacock had been writing in my university class I would have written SO WHAT? frequently on her drafts. We were served up with lots of information, but the connection to Nan Shepherd was not always clear.

For example the opening paragraph of the chapter 1936-43 begins with an announcement of the abdication, and a recording a visit to Aberdeen by the new King where he left his duties to his brother in favour of meeting Mrs Wallis Simpson. The connection to Nan Shepherd is not made.

Another example: the opening chapter is called 1941. It concerns a meeting with another writer on a train. But why this episode was used as the introductory chapter is not clear.

And the lack of explanation was especially true of the many references to the many people in her life. It was hard to know the significance of the person unless reminded by the author.

And further, her personal life was hardly revealed by this long biography. Instead the writer has used the characters from her novels to presume Nan Shepherd’s reactions. Adopting a child, losing a brother, her attitude to the First and Second World Wars, none of this made its way into the text. She was indeed a private person, and perhaps this information is not available.

Despite all this the subject is important. She has been recognised in Scotland by her appearance on the £5 note.

And, according to Erland Clouston, who knew her when he was a child and is her literary executor, she teaches us to see what we haven’t noticed before. This is a valuable skill for a writer.

Into the Mountain: a life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock. Published in2017 by Galileo Publishers. 393pp

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The Story of the Conchie Road

In May 2017 I was walking on Dartmoor. I was on a clear track into Princetown from the east, with views of the prison and the tv mast.

I had walked across the open moor, through the remains of Whiteworks, an old tin mine, across Foxton Mire – a quaker to use the phrase adopted by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I was promised a cist called the Crock of Gold. And then I checked the directions for the walk

Turn left … and climb gently, heading straight for the TV mast in the distance. The path later gives way to a better-surfaced gritty track, the result of the hard labour of conscientious objectors during the First World War; the war ended before the track could be completed. … [From Dartmoor Walks, Pathfinder Guide, walk 24).

My interest was immediately aroused. What were conscientious objectors doing on Dartmoor and why were they building unfinished roads? I began my researches. This post is the history of a short story and how that walk in May 2017 took me and my writing to places I would never have predicted.

The Conchie Road or the Road to Nowhere

My researches turned up information about COs (conscientious objectors) and about the project to build the road. About 1000 COs were housed in Dartmoor Prison buildings, renamed Princetown Work Centre after conscription was introduced in 1916. Men who refused to join the armed forces faced a tribunal and some were granted exemptions. They had religious or political objections. The COs on Dartmoor were required to do work ‘of national importance’. There was a plan to develop the Prince of Wales’s land on Dartmoor, and the road was intended to service these farms.

The land was very poor, even when drained by the COs, and even today is very thin. It was not a project with much prospect of success and the road was nicknamed ’the road to nowhere’.

Sometimes ideas are presented to writers. The nickname of the road to nowhere nicely stood for the experience of COs in 1916 through to the years after the war. The metaphorical Conchie Road was a hard one and I wrote a short story about Sam Skelton, a political CO, who was sent to Dartmoor, who worked on the road, and who found very little respect after the war. I called it The Conchie Road.

Devon Remembers Heritage Project

I recently wrote a post about the Devon Remembers Heritage Project. It involved ordinary people (that is, not historians) and supported about 30 research projects into how the war affected life in Devon 1914-18. One of these concerned COs from Devon. I went to a presentation about the research into the men who refused to fight. Many, many of them were Friends, and the Exeter Meeting hosted the event. You can find the previous post Devon Voices from WW1 here.

Many of the Quaker COs joined the ambulance brigades and served at the front; others refused to support the war in any way and were sent to work camps, including Princetown.

I offered my story to the Heritage Project and it is included in the archives.

Article in Devon Life

I found that many local people knew nothing about the road, or about the presence of COs on Dartmoor during the First World War. I was keen to share the outcomes of my research and the pleasure of the walk so I submitted an article to Devon Life. It was published in April 2018 under the title Pacifists’ Pathway. It presented the history of the road and the COs and recommended walkers to try it out. I took pictures of the road in December to accompany the article, having persuaded my sister to join me on a very slushy walk.

The Plaque for The Conchie Road

On November 3rdthis year I attended the ceremony honouring the COs in Princetown. We began with a vigil outside the Dartmoor Information Centre, and then walked to the point on the Conchie Road where a plaque was unveiled. It was organised by Friends. It was also attended by Simon Dell, historian of Dartmoor, who wrote the book The Dartmoor Conchies.

As we stood in silence during the vigil in Princetown a long line of soldiers, weighed down with equipment, bearing arms, faces blackened, filed past the circle of silence. It seemed very inappropriate.

At the plaque it was drizzling, cows had assembled under the trees, and we could see walkers on the path. I had been asked to read some of my story. It was a strange experience to read the passage where Sam and his mates are sent to build the road, grumbling at the waste of their energies and to read it in the place it was set, in the rain, with an audience of cows and Friends.

We also heard from the daughter of a CO, also a Friend. Her father had met and fallen in love with his wife in Princetown. He never spoke of his experiences as a CO, she told us.

2018 Exeter Short Story Prize

A few days after the ceremony I was thrilled and very proud to discover that my story had been shortlisted for the 2018 Exeter Short Story Prize.

The Dartmoor Conchies (Dartmoor Prison’s Conscientious Objectors of The Great War) by Simon Dell, published in 2017 by the Dartmoor Company.

Update May 2019

You can read the story in Better Fetch A Chair,  the collection of my short stories published in December 2018.

And if you want to obtain a copy for the special reduced price of £5 (p&p included) you can either email me (lodgecm@gmail.com) or DM me on twitter @lodge_c and I will send you details.

Better Fetch A Chair  by Caroline Lodge, published by Bookword in 2018. 142pp. Cover price is £8.99 but available for £5.

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The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

In December 2003 Joan Didion’s husband died of a heart attack. She had been married to John Gregory Dunne for forty years and had worked closely with him during that time. They had a daughter who was critically ill in hospital in New York. They had just been to visit her.

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.(3)

And so began Joan Didion’s year of magical thinking.

The Decades Project on Bookword has arrived at the 2000s. The project featured non-fiction by women from each decade from the start of the 20thCentury until 2009. The Year of Magical Thinking  was published in 2005.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Joan Didion is a novelist and journalist. As a writer she finds her way to her subject through the experiences of the individual, in this book her reactions to her husband’s death was the focus.

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about life itself. (7)

Except, of course, none of it makes any sense; it is ‘the very opposite of meaning’ as she says later and hence this is her year of magical thinking.

Some examples of magical thinking: she cleared out his clothes as she knows one should but she could not give away his shoes. He would need them when he returned, even though she knows he is dead.

She believes that John’s death was her fault, and that it was his fault, and that she should have prevented her daughter’s illness, that she can fix all of this if she knew what to do.

She researches online, as a good journalist, seeks for what she should have done differently for her husband and instructs medical staff as a result of her knowledge.

She had worked very closely with John Gregory Dunne in their 40 years of marriage, and must find a way to write without him by her side. It is more difficult that she can imagine.

Time, especially anniversaries, takes on special significance, as do familiar places, and these carry her down into what she calls a vortex. Even the title of the book, the book’s subject matter, is shaped by a time limit, an anniversary.

I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account.

Nor did I want to finish the year.

The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place.

I look for resolution and find none. …

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.

I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. (224-6)

Death, grief and mourning

This was my second reading of her book. I had the same experience as ten years ago, that is I couldn’t stop reading it. But on re-reading I could see how she made this account so compelling. She writes with a kind of sparseness and with great precision. And she provides the voice of reason commenting on her ‘magical thinking’ and with a complete focus on herself, her husband and her daughter.

Her insights are stronger for this. For example she differentiates between grief and mourning; grief being passive, what happens. Mourning is the process of dealing with grief, and requires attention. It takes her some time to get to the mourning. And this book is part of that attention.

And here is her observation on grief and its effects:

Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself. (189)

It is for such insights and for the strength of her writing that Robert McCrum placed this book second on his Guardian list of best 100 nonfiction books. Joan Didion adapted the book for the stage and the piece was directed by David Hare with Vanessa Redgrave in 2007.

The Year of Magical Thinkingby Joan Didion (2005). UK edition by Harper Perennial 227pp

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 for the Decades Project I featured non-fiction by women having focused on novels in 2017. I selected one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc) and will review the Project in December.

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

The Vagina Monologuesby Eve Ensler (1998)

The March of Follyby Barbara W Tuchman (1984)

84 Charing Cross Roadby Helene Hanff (1971)

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Devon Voices in World War One

There has been an abundance of tributes to those who made sacrifices during the First World War to coincide with the centenary of the Armistice on 11thNovember. In this post I draw attention to a local project that focuses on the everyday impact of that war upon Devon; and acknowledges the 11,000 local people who died in the hostilities.

There is a bookish connection.

Devon Remembers Heritage Project

We honour and remember the fallen soldiers, airmen, seamen and medical staff who gave their lives in the First World War. Our dominant image of the war is of the infantryman, in the trenches on the Western Front, with his round helmet. Somewhere in this picture there will be poppies.

We must also remember the effects of the war on other people. I have been admiring the Devon Remembers Heritage Project. It has involved ordinary people (that is, not historians), supporting their research into how the war affected life in Devon 1914-18. There have been about 30 projects. In addition there has been an arts programme, some events and other notable outcomes, such as an exhibition and a book. I like the idea of citizen history

Devon During the First World War

Many of the projects have been written up in the book Devon During the First World War. Sadly this book will only have a single print run, but it is available from Devon Libraries.

Devon is predominately rural and projects have explored farming and food production, including in-shore fisheries. The German blockade made it important for Britain to develop more home grown produce, and Devon people responded by finding all kinds of nooks and crannies for their allotments. In-shore fisheries were affected immediately by restrictions but Stephen Reynolds, who had come to live in Devon, worked tirelessly to ensure the work continued and the fish were harvested and fishermen did not loose their livelihood.

Exeter became a hospital centre for the South, taking wounded men from the trains via Southampton, who were cared for in no less than eight hospitals in the city. Some of those affected by shell shock were cared for at Seale-Hayne. Ordinary households in Exeter provided accommodation for the sick and wounded and they received treatment at the local clinics.

Plymouth has always had a central role in defending the country and in maintaining the naval fleet. Some very young midshipmen from Dartmouth were involved in action, sometimes fatally.

Industries all over Devon were affected by the shortage of labour and materials, and filling the gap meant that women and young people were recruited into new roles. An addition the refugee population, especially from Belgium, was welcomed by local people.

In Ottery St Mary, for example, the Verschoren family arrived with three children. The father had suffered a gas attack on the Front and been sent to Britain for treatment. Mrs Verschoren led the three children to safety, and they were settled in Devon. They were liked and well known in the area, and the whole family stayed on after the war. (see p43-44 Ciaran Stoker: Belgian Refugees in Devon)

Women took up roles previously denied them, and I especially warmed to the ambulance driver who was responsible for the transport of patients in Devon, as well as the maintenance of her vehicle. Sometimes her task was to return an injured soldier to his home when no more could be done to help him. (Devon Voices exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter).

Devon writers, workers, the Jewish community and Canadian lumberjacks also made a substantial contribution to the war effort in Devon and have been researched by the citizen historians.

Here is an account of a notable act of bravery by 20-year old Ella Trout in September 1917.

Ella was rowing beyond Start Point with her 10-year old nephew, Willie Trout, when she heard a loud explosion from a torpedoed ship. Ignoring the risk of a submarine surfacing, Ella rowed for more than a mile through dangerous cross-currents, arriving in time to rescue a seaman clinging to a piece of wreckage. She hauled him on board, but unable to row back again against the strong current, started to drift further out into the Channel. Fortunately a nearby fishing boat had rescued the eight other seamen from the ship. The skipper took Ella’s rescued seaman onto his boat and towed her boat to safer waters where a naval patrol boat took the crew of the sunken ship to Dartmouth. Ella was awarded the OBE for bravery. (p99-100 Tom Reeves: Lifesaving at sea)

You can find details of the Devon Remembers Heritage Project on their website here: https://www.devonremembersheritage.org

I visited the Devon Voices and the Canadians in Devon War Photographs exhibitions at RAMM, Exeter in October. Both were moving and instructive.

My own choice of object to honour those whose lives were so affected by the war is made by Clare Read, Little Burrow Designs and called We Will Remember Them.

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The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

About half a century ago I went skiing during the school holidays in the newly opened resort of Aviemore in the Cairngorms in the highlands of Scotland. I was with a group of young friends and my brother heroically drove our Bedford van the whole way from South Wales. I chiefly remember the bitter cold in the newly erected dormitories. Was there any heating in that building? And relentless damp fog. And the nightlife, which was boozy and fun. Of the Cairngorms I saw almost nothing. I have never been skiing again.

I have learned more about the Cairngorms from Nan Shepherd’s short book, The Living Mountain, than I did on that visit long ago. She writes about the fog, the mist, and the cold. And she writes about discovering the mountains at other times of year and in other weathers. And in other ways. She loved them.

The Living Mountainby Nan Shepherd

Like many people I was made aware of the existence of this book when I read Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places. I wanted to read it from that moment and now the time has arrived. My good friend Jane gave me a copy for my birthday, and my book group will discuss Nan Shepherd’s biography by Charlotte Peacock (Into the Mountain) in a few weeks.

The substance ofThe Living Mountain is twelve chapters each exploring an aspect of the Cairngorms: the plateau, water, mist, sleep, life, the senses and so on. I am amazed that a writer can so fully convey the sense of a place. The writing digs deeply into her love of the Cairngorms and her extensive experience of exploring them. She offers us more than a version of what she knows of the place. She also explains how she came to experience the mountains, how she has learned to be in the living mountain.

The title reveals her sense of the connectedness of all aspects of the mountain. It is a living thing; not just a series of summits to be conquered, not just a host for the fauna, flora and humankind. But also the geology, the topography, the weather and the deep history of the granite range. She was describing an ecosystem before the phrase was coined.

As I have indicated, her precious gift to the reader is that she teaches us that there are other ways to enjoy the mountains than to rush to the summits, or make heroic climbs. Rather, people can perceive the mountains through all their senses, and especially by sleeping and awakening in them.

Respect for the natural world, approaching it with humility and openheartedness, learning to use all the senses, sometimes just being quiet, this is what Nan Shepherd teaches us.

Once, on a night of such clear cold silence, long past midnight, lying awake outside the tent, my eyes on the plateau where an afterwash of light was lingering. I heard in the stillness a soft, an almost imperceptible thud. It was enough to make me turn my head. There on the tent pole a tawny owl stare down at me. I could just discern his shape against the sky. I stared back. He turned his head about, now one eye upon me, now the other, then melted down into the air so silently that had I not been watching him I could not have known he was gone. To have heard the movement of the midnight owl – that was rare, it was a minor triumph. (96-7)

Her writing in this book has a particular quality: it is often in the use of a very sensual and unexpected adjective in her descriptions. ‘clear, cold silence’ and ‘melted down into the air’ in the previous extract. Also::

tang of height (9) a gulf of brightness so profound that the mind stopped (12), water is speaking (22), whips of wind (37), the thin silver singing among the last trees that tell me the tits are there (68).

And it is her philosophical approach that may of her readers find great pleasure. Here is her final paragraph.

I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey is itself part of the technique by which the god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that takes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain. (108)

This classic study of the mountains was written at the end of the Second World War but it seems that Nan Shepherd did not believe there was a market for such a book so it was not published until much later – 1977.

Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) was a feminist, who lived all her life in North Deeside, and never married. She did adopt a child. Her life was unconventional. Having graduated from the University of Aberdeen, she taught English Literature at a teacher training college. And she wrote three novels, all based in her home area.

There is a long and very helpful introduction by Robert Macfarlane in the Canongate edition.

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherdfirst published in 1977. I used the edition from Canongate with an introduction by Robert Macfarlane. 114pp

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Flush by Virginia Woolf

Is it a biography? Is it a novel? No! It’s a dog. It’s a pedigree red cocker spaniel. Flush belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and featured in two of her poems as well as in her correspondence with Robert Browning. He is a literary dog, and Virginia Woolf wrote his biography, an innovative mixture of fiction and fact.

Flush by Virginia Woolf

Flush’s life began in about 1840 in a village with a loving mistress, who gave him to the poet Elizabeth Barrett. Flush gave up the pleasure of the countryside to live in Wimpole Street and to become devoted to his new mistress. He had to learn the life of a pampered housedog, was torn apart by jealousy of Robert Browning when he began to visit, and by the terror of being dognapped.

This is not an anthropomorphic story. Virginia Woolf does not make Flush the dog into an almost human. He has values, affections, emotions, and confusions. But these are rooted in his dog-ness. The reader’s attention is never very far from the concerns of the humans.

As well as mixing fact and fiction Virginia Woolf was exploring the world from the point of view of a dog. That meant that she had to focus on smells. Luckily the Brownings eloped to Italy, which drew from Virginia Woolf some of her most descriptive writing.

But Flush wandered off into the streets of Florence to enjoy the rapture of smell. He threaded his path through main streets and back streets, through squares and alleys, by smell. He nosed his way from smell to smell; the rough, the smooth, the dark, the golden, where they bake bread, where the women sit combing their hair, where the bird-cages are piled high on the causeway, where the wine spills itself in dark red stains on the pavement, where leather smells and harness and garlic, where cloth is beaten, where vine leaves tremble, where men sit and drink and spit and dice – he ran in and out, always with his nose to the ground, drinking in the essence; or with his nose in the air vibrating with the aroma. (86-7)

And even more than the technique of writing with her nose, the writer was looking at the world in an innovative way, and in particular using a witness to the experiences of a woman poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Flush is a guide for the reader, for example by his reaction to Elizabeth’s fearsome father who visits every evening to check that she has eaten. Having benefited from his mistress’s small appetite, Flush slinks away, leaving Elizabeth to her father’s approval. Through Flush’s story we can look at her life as a young woman under her father’s tyrannical rule, at her time as an invalid, at her growing affection for Robert Browning, and finally at their life in Italy. There is the subtle parallel between a young woman’s life and a dog’s. And Flush is a witness to the social and economic contrasts in London, cheek by jowl so to speak, the poverty that exists adjacent to Wimpole Street. This is not a silly or sweet book.

Publishing Flush

Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves (1931) was experimental and had been tough to produce. Flush was written ‘by way of a change’ (diary 23.12.32). As she worked on it she felt restricted by the imperative to complete it, ‘that abominable dog Flush’ (diary 3.1.33) wanting to get on with The Years.

She rightly predicted that in the longer term Flush would be seen as less significant than many of her other novels, describing it in her frustration as ‘that silly book’ (diary 28.4.33).

Virginia Woolf was not at all sure how Flush would be received. She was afraid that readers would react to it as if it were a sentimental book, and that her reputation would be damaged.

Flush will be out on Thursday and I shall be very much depressed, I think, by the kind of praise. They’ll say it’s “charming”, delicate, ladylike. And it will be popular. Well now I must let this slip over me without paying it any attention. I must concentrate on The Pargiters – or Here and Now. I must not let myself believe that I’m simply a ladylike prattler; for one thing it’s not true. But they’ll all say so. And I shall very much dislike the popular success of Flush .No, I must say to myself, this is a mere wisp, a veil of water; and so create, hardly, fiercely, as I feel now more able to do than ever before. (diary 2.10.33)

It has fewer devotees than To the Lighthouse, or Mrs Dalloway, or many of her other books. But it is a serious experiment and there is much joy, humour and smelliness in it.

Flush the dog

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I was reminded of Flush the spaniel recently by an article in the Paris Review in October by Erin Schwartz. You can find it here. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote two poems to her dog: one To Flush, My Dog is long, twenty verses long. You can find it here. The poem extols the dog’s virtues as a friend. The other Flush or Faunus celebrates Flush’s ability to comfort his mistress when she is upset. Here’s a link. Neither poem is especially striking.

I chose to read Flush because my family has just been increased by a fast-growing cocker spaniel. When we chose the breed, I had forgotten that literary Flush was a spaniel. Our puppy is not red but we think she is beautiful all the same. Her name is Lupin. I will not be writing a novel about her.

NB: on several occasions Virginia Woolf has Flush eating grapes. I have been told in puppy classes that grapes are poison for dogs.

Red Cocker Spaniel 8th Sept 2018 by Canarian via WikiCommons

Lupin October 2018

Flush by Virginia Woolf, first published by the Hogarth Press in 1933. I read the Oxford World Classics edition. 132pp

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The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc

I decided to get hold of this strange little book after reading an article about it in the Guardian by Deborah Levy, which turned out to be the introduction to this new edition. According to Deborah Levy the novels of Violette Leduc are works of genius and also a bit peculiar. She suggests that in addition to Proust and Genet, who were challenging the received ideas about love and sexual roles, Leduc was also  ‘rearranging the social and sexual scaffolding of her time.’

I did find this novel very rewarding and also quite unsettling. These are good things to find in a novel.

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc. Translated from the French by Derek Colman.

The Lady and the Little Fox Furby Violette Leduc

The lady of the title is in her 60s and lives alone with no income, in a room in Paris under the noisy Metro line. We never learn her name, nor anything much about her previous life, nor why she is in the position she is. We intuit that she never married, has no children, never had a profession and has few, if any surviving friends.

It is the sensation of hunger, of loss of a future, or everyday connection to the rhythms of busy Parisian life that concerns the old lady of the title. (viii)

These three connected sensations occupy the short novel. Each on its own would make a sad story, but Violette Leduc’s lady suffers all three. She is weak from hunger, near the end of her life, but she is attempting to gain human warmth from going onto the streets and into the metro.

As a result, this short novel is in part a wonderful evocation of Paris, night and day, its undersides, the sounds of the streets at night, the light on the river, the metro stations, the streets. As she walks the lady comments on or speaks to everything, animate and non-animate. Memories, small incidents are savoured to give spice to her life. Here is an example of her auditory world.

One night, as a train was fleeing from winter outside her attic, a window had been opened by five or six bars of trumpet playing. Then the window closed again. The diamond winter and the glittering brass. She remembered it still in summer, in the gardens of a square, and she thought of herself as the chosen one of winter. She waited for the brazen blare of jazz again, the first night of frost, but the window would not light up. (26)

Once she is aching for a sip of orange juice and searching for oranges in the rubbish she finds an abandoned fox fur. She adopts the fox, imbuing it with life and love for her. Eventually she realises she is so poor she must sell it. But her attempts bring her contempt and rejection. She realises that the fur must stay with her, must be warmed by her.

In the loneliness and cold of the night she experiences great discomfort, as she tells her feet.

My temples, my stomach she groaned, addressing the words to her feet, two warm strangers. Her eyes were misting over, her heart was talking on her lips. To need everything when everything is finished. She no longer knew whether she was sad or whether it was hunger. (28)

Something about the lack of inhibition in an older person allows them to make observations that are considered a bit unsavoury and downright funny. The lady’s billing and cooing at the fox, for example reminds us of how women have always been expected to address foxy gentlemen.

There is a hallucinatory quality to this novel. The woman frequently addresses inanimate objects, implies that they have spirit, life, and that everything in Paris is responding to her actions. While we know that at one level this is a little delusional, we are also required to see that some of our own behaviour is similar, although we may not be as hungry as this old lady.

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc was first published in Paris in 1965. I read the Penguin European Writers edition, of 2018, with an introduction by Deborah Levy. 80pp

Translated from the French by Derek Colman

Women in translation

I have reviewed many books by women in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

People in the Roomby Norah Lange, translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle

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

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft.

The Chilli Bean Paste Clanby Yan Ge, translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman.

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Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther

I accidentally omitted this book when I wrote my recent post about fiction with titles in their titles: Books with Mrs or Miss in the title. In a rather pointless act of atonement I thought I would reread it and review it for the blog. And I was surprised that it was less about the Second World War than I had remembered. And just as charming as I remembered, a charm that captured readers and admirers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther

The short pieces from The Times newspaper were collected together and first published as Mrs Miniver in 1939. At the time, Britain was experiencing the phoney war. And the US was still holding on to its neutrality. Famously Churchill claimed that this book had ‘done more for the allies than a flotilla of battleships’, and by FDR to have hastened the entry of the US into the war.

The short blog-like pieces collected together as Mrs Miniver were originally written for periodic publication in the newspaper, and were very popular from 1937-9. It is often said that in creating Mrs Miniver Jan Struther was celebrating the ordinary in life at least as she knew it in the years towards the end of the peace and at the start of the war. And indeed the heroine does frequently refer to her everyday life – a visit to the dentist, the first day of spring, taking the children to Hampstead Heath, visiting London Zoo, social engagements with her friends. This is the everyday life of a small section of British pre-war society, a very comfortably off section. The social life consists of dinner parties and weekends in country houses; the family lives in London and also owns a cottage in Kent large enough to take in seven evacuees as well as their three children. They employ a nannie, a cook and a maid as well as Mrs Downce who looks after their weekend cottage.

Mrs Miniver, or is it Jan Struther, is aware of her privilege. In a letter to The Times, included in the Virago edition and dated December 1939, she considers the plight of the war’s biggest casualty list:

– the small bookseller, the small upholsterer, the garage proprietor, the man who sells old prints, the woman who sells home-made cakes. … the world that we are going to build up out of the revolution has got to be a world in which this kind of distress doesn’t arise. (142-143)

And she adds that in the short-term ‘people are being forced to focus all their attention on wobbly stepping-stones in order to save themselves from drowning’. One can imagine that she might have supported Beveridge’s report in 1942 and the subsequent establishment of the Welfare State.

As it is, there is no bomb damage yet, no Blitz, no defeat before Dunkirk, no real war. Some of the earlier pieces refer to the war scare of 1938, now known as the Munich Crisis. She records the relief that everyone felt when they could continue as before.

In Mrs Miniver the people from the working classes only appear in long-suffering and comic parts, like Ealing comedy extras. The dour Scottish cook Mrs Adie, or the stranded cockney Mrs Downce, or the farmers they help with the hop harvest in the autumn of 1939.

Jan Struther had a positive outlook on life, and she found herself appreciating the spirit of cooperation and new learning in the first months of the war. In a piece entitled London in August Mrs Miniver sits down on a bench next to a woman who is having difficulties learning to tie a reef knot for her First Aid class. She offers her way of thinking about the knot. And when the First Aider has left she reflects as follows:

That is one great compensation for the fantastic way in which the events of our time are forcing us to live. … almost everybody you meet is busy learning something. Whereas in ordinary times the majority of grown-up people never try to acquire any new skill at all, either mental of physical: which is why they are apt to seem, and feel, so old. (111)

She writes about the cooperative spirit she observes everywhere and hopes that

afterwards, when all the horrors are over, we shall be able to conjure up again the feelings of these first few weeks, and somehow rebuild our peacetime world so as to preserve everything of war that is worth preserving? (123, letter to The Times, September 1939)

Jan Struther

Jan Struther went to the US at the outbreak of the war, and was popular on the lecture circuit because Mrs Miniver celebrated life before the war, and by implication what was to be lost. A sentimental propaganda film, an Oscar-winner, was made by MGM from an adaptation of the collection in 1942. It starred Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon and took the viewer into the war and to the deaths that resulted from it.

The common association of Mrs Miniver with the war and especially with the Blitz is very strong, thanks to that film. Even in 1989 the Virago cover picked up the theme of the Blitz (see above).

Jan Struther’s husband became a prisoner of war for many years and their marriage did not survive his return. She made a second happy marriage with Adolf Placzek. She also wrote several well-known hymns. She died of cancer in 1953.

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther, the collection was first published in 1939. I read the Virago edition of 1989, which includes some additional letters and an Introduction by Valerie Grove. 145pp

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