Monthly Archives: December 2018

The Second Year of the Decades Project

Eleven books, chosen from each of the decades from 1900 onwards, all nonfiction, all by women. That’s what the Decades Project has meant in 2018.

Young Woman with book Aleksandr Deineka 1934

The decade’s list

Here are the books I chose for 2018, with dates and links to the posts:

Home and Garden  by Gertrude Jekyll (1900)

My Own Story  by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914)

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)

Testament of Youth  by Vera Brittain  (1933)

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947)

French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David (1951)

Silent Spring  by Rachel Carson (1962)

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (1971)

The March of Folly by Barbara W Tuchman (1984)

Vagina Monologues  by Eve Ensler (1994)

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)

The variety

I am very pleased to have found such variety: memoir, cookery, theatre piece, polemic, and history. The choices reflect women’s wide involvement over the century, and also their influence. Some choices have been avowedly domestic, others about big historical events, or dangers. Several have a very personal focus, but all have something to say to us as we leave 2018.

The book I most enjoyed reading …

… was undoubtedly Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962). I had heard of it, about its impact upon people’s understanding of the ecology of the world, her warning about the indiscriminate use of pesticides, her fears for the planet. I had not expected it to be so lyrical, and I was truly shocked by the contents.

I had not predicted, for example, such pleasure from reading about soil and worms:

The soil exists in a state of constant change, taking part in cycles that have no beginning and no end. New materials are constantly being contributed as rocks disintegrate, as organic matter decays, and as nitrogen and other gases are brought down from the skies. At the same time other materials are being taken away, borrowed for temporary use by living creatures. Subtle and vastly important chemical changes are constantly in progress, converting elements derived from air and water into forms suitable for use by plants. In all these changes living organisms are active agents. (62)

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was first published in 1962. I used the Penguin Modern Classic edition. 323pp

The book I reacted least well to …

… was The March of Folly by Barbara W Tuchman. It had made an impact upon me when I had first read it, and I assumed that it would illuminate some of the ridiculousness of the current Brexit crisis. But the arguments seemed a little circular this time around. Nevertheless, the idea that policy-makers do crazy and foolish things still has traction.

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W Tuchman published in 1984. I read Abacus edition published in 1985. 559pp

The books I was most pleased to read …

… were Testament of Youth  by Vera Brittain and 84 Charing Cross Road  by Helene Hanff. They were both rereads, the first a book that had convinced me of the importance of history as told by women. I liked the second because it reveals the deep friendships created through a shared love of books, and by two charming people.

Testament of Youthby Vera Brittain, first published in 1933. I used the edition published by Fontana in 1979. 661pp

84 Charing Cross Roadby Helene Hanff, first published by Andre Deutsch in 1971. I read the paperback edition published by sphere. 230pp

A theme that emerged …

… was of the increased influence of women in a widening range of spheres as the 20thcentury rolled out. The first book is about gardening, but in the second decade Mrs Pankhurst’s account of the suffragette campaign indicated change. Some of the most important nonfiction writing of the century came from women, including Virginia Woolf, Vera Brittain, Anne Frank, Rachel Carson, Joan Didion.

The Decades Project in 2018:

I enjoyed seeking out and reading nonfiction for 2018. The project maintained the wildcard element in my reading and blog. Next year I plan to follow the same pattern, but to read children’s literature and feature a book once a month. I have already anticipated rereading some of my favourites from my own childhood, but also those from my daughter’s and grandsons’. Watch this space.

Suggestions for this new series are always welcome.

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The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

A birthday is a good time to remember a neglected author, especially one of the many neglected women authors. Rebecca West was born on 21stDecember 1892. She was progressive, radical in her early life, and her first novel, The Return of the Soldier, was considered quite risky. It was published in the last year of the First World War. It is an unusual criticism of the harm that war can do.

Rebecca West herself had not lived her life as she a girl of her class was expected to. She had been a suffragette before the war and was a feminist and journalist. A provocative article calling HG Wells an  ‘Old Maid among novelists’ led to their meeting, a long affair and a son born in 1914. She supported herself through her writing.

Jane on beyondedenrock blog posted A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authorsand I support her suggestion that we celebrate birthdays of the more neglected women writers.

Cover: detail from The Other Room by Vanessa Bell

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

The wife and cousin (Kitty and Jenny) of the soldier, Chris, wait for their hero to return and for the war to end. In anticipation they have spent time and money of the house he redesigned. They have made it beautiful for his return. Kitty herself is a beautiful woman, very conscious of her social value and of the persuasive powers of her beauty.

The novel is narrated by Jenny, Chris’s cousin, and she is in love with this man whom she has known since childhood. She lives with Kitty and believes that she shares Kitty’s values: the importance of behaving properly, and the value of beautiful things and surroundings. As they wait, a little anxious for they have not heard from Chris for a couple of weeks, Jenny reflects on the money they have spent on the garden and the furnishings of Baldry Court.

I was sure that we were preserved from the reproach of luxury because we had made a fine place for Chris, one little part of the world that was, so far as surfaces could make it so, good enough for his amazing goodness. (16)

Notice the word ‘surface’, for eventually both Jenny and Chris, but not Kitty, would see the life they had created and were preserving for Chris was just that – a surface. Underneath there was a vacuum.

As they are waiting news comes from a strange woman, lower class, not wearing beautiful clothes and her body not well preserved. Jenny and Kitty are revolted by the poverty and careworn appearance of Mrs Grey. This is Margaret who Chris had loved 15 years before. She tells Kitty and Jenny that Chris has amnesia.

The soldier is sent back from the war. He has forgotten Kitty, the remodelled house, the war – everything of the last few years. In talking to Jenny he reveals that he only feels comfortable around Margaret and she agrees to come and be with him, even though she too is now married.

The situation is difficult. Kitty, used to getting her own way, finds herself replaced by Margaret in Chris’s affections, who comes to share her days with Chris. It is not spelled out precisely how intimate they become, but Kitty finds it more and more intolerable. Jenny, on the other hand, finds herself increasingly respecting Margaret and her relationship with Chris.

Eventually, Margaret sees that the way to ‘cure’ the soldier is to remind him of his dead son. Here is a dilemma: to bring back his memory will mean he has to return to the front, and he will loose the happy state into which he has entered with Margaret.

It is also clear that it is more than the war that has caused his amnesia: his life with Kitty is all on the surface. The reader sees that relationships which are all about servicing and pleasing the men are flawed.

In the final scene Kitty asks Jenny to watch from the house for his return after Margaret has forced Chris to see the truth and regain his memory. Jenny sees him approach the house across the lawn.

He wore a dreadful decent smile; I knew how his voice would resolutely lift in greeting us. He walked not loose limbed like a boy, as he had done that very afternoon, but with the soldier’s hard tread upon the heel. It recalled to me that, bad as we were, we were not yet the worst circumstance of his return. …

“Jenny, Jenny! How does he look?”

“Oh …” How could I say it? “Every inch a soldier.”

She crept behind me to the window, peered over my shoulder and saw.

I heard her suck her breath with satisfaction. “He’s cured!” she whispered with satisfaction. “He’s cured!” she whispered slowly. “He’s cured!” (187-8)

It is a victory for appearance, surface, doing things because others say they are right, ignoring your own heart. And the warning that Chris must return to the front suggests that the war is itself an attack on deeper, more decent ways of loving and being.

Rebecca West lived a long and productive life. She died in 1983 aged 90. She had written and published a great deal of fiction, non-fiction and journalism.

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca Westwas first published in 1918. I read the edition by Virago Classics (1980) which has an introduction by Victoria Glendining. 188pp It has been reissued with a striking new cover.

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A Month in the Country by JL Carr

This is a novel I had some awareness of, but had never read, never put it in my tbr pile. But when the commemorations for the end of the First World War were taking place last month it appeared on several reading lists. How can I have missed it, ignored it for so long? It’s a jewel and was recognised as such when it was first published in 1980 when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

It’s not just a novel about the damage of war. It is more about the value of having one or two really good experiences in life, about restorative processes and having good times in the past to draw on. If like me you have not taken much notice of it I recommend that you do now.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A Month in the Country is set in the 1920s, in a village called Oxgodby, somewhere up north. The narrator is Tom Birkin, a young man, physically damaged and mentally strained during the First World War and recently abandoned by his wife. He has come to the village to restore a mural in the parish church. It is a task he does not relish because he expects the villagers to be unfriendly and the mural to be a disappointment.

Despite being a short novel the characters he meets are all well-rounded people, with their own difficulties and histories. Some are less easy to like, such as the vicar who seems to be unable to see beyond the mundane. He is concerned that Tom’s contract is correctly observed and has little respect for the old boiler that heats the church.

In contrast is Kathy Ellerbeck. Tom is befriended by this child of about 14, the stationmaster’s daughter and who has complete understanding of herself and her village, a love of music and the knowledge of how to relate to Tom.

Then there is Moon, a kind of amateur archaeologist, also damaged during the war, who lives in a tent visible from Tom’s church tower. They strike up a friendship. And the vicar’s wife and the stationmaster and and and …

These are not pastiche yokels like in Cold Comfort Farm, rather they challenge Tom’s sense that companionship will be restricted in a village or by northerners.

He begins the novel in retreat, living alone in the church tower, with few possessions, and an expectation of being treated as an outsider. Instead he finds the month becomes idyllic as he is accepted warmly, admired for his skill and he even falls for the vicar’s wife. Their welcome into the village has a restorative effect on him.

He also encounters and admires great workmanship. It starts with the church boiler but he quickly develops great respect for the artist who created the mural. And later he visits an organ shop in Rippon where there is more to admire.

And the rural landscape, the late summer countryside rituals, the long golden late summer evenings, these also work some kind of magic. Until it is time to leave.

A Month in the Country  is very short, too short for anything as definite as chapters. Almost all the narrative relates to the month of the title, there is very little about what preceded this time, or what followed. We learn that Tom was conscripted into the army and had been an Advance Signaller while in action, a role from which few returned. We also find that he did not follow up any connection he made during that month, or revisit the village. He has been writing this account from the perspective of an old man. This is how the novel finishes.

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the field, a bed on the belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

All this happened so long ago. And I never returned, never wrote, never met anyone who might have given me news of Oxgodby. So in my memory, it stays as I left it, a sealed room furnished by the past, airless, still, ink long dry on a put-down pen.

But this was something I knew nothing of as I closed the gate and set off across the meadow. (104)

His account of the month in Oxgodby reminds us of the variousness of humans, how we cast people as outsiders for physical deformity, religion, sexuality, place of origin. Beyond those barriers connection, recovery and love can be found.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr, first published in 1980. I read the Penguin Modern Classic edition published in 2000, with an introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald. 104pp

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The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe

On the day that Eva Carroll receives her first pension payment she leaves home. This is not unique behaviour for an older women in this series: Lady Slane, left home, when her husband (a Very Great Man) died in All Passion Spentby Vita Sackville-West. We are in the late 1960s when 65-year old Eva closes the door on her living but arthritic husband of forty years and a house in a nice part of Montreal. But the price of her freedom is high. Like Lady Slane, she confounds the wishes and understanding of her own offspring.

The Book of Eve is the 36thin the series about older women in fiction. You can find a list of all the previous posts with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe

The story is set in Montreal. Eva leaves her comfortable life and her husband of 40 years when she receives her first pension cheque. The marriage has been unhappy for some time, especially since her husband Burt became arthritic, demanding and penny-pinching. She strikes a defiant note from her first paragraph:

The real surprise – to me anyway – was not really what I did, but how I felt afterwards. Shocked, of course. But not guilty. You may say, and be right, that the very least a woman can be is shocked when she walks out on a sick and blameless husband after forty years. But to feel no guilt at all – feel nothing, in fact, but simple relief and pleasure – that did seem odd, to say the least. How annoying for God (not to mention Adam), after all, if Eve had just walked out of Eden without waiting to be evicted, and left behind her pangs of guilt, as it were, with her leaf apron? (1)

Eva goes to live in a down-at-heel area, finding a couple of rooms in the basement of a boarding house. She finds herself having to cope with almost no money and learns to live more frugally. She also develops an ability to find things on the street, which she then sells to the local pawnshop. She discovers the pleasures of the library and of reading whenever she wants.

She learns the pleasures and then the challenges of living on her own. Her son, who has a family of his own, cannot believe that she will not return to her husband, that she is not just making a point.

Her life had been so circumscribed by her husband’s demands that she had no friends. Now the other residents in the boarding house provide some community for her, along with a local cat.

But it is not so much about leaving her husband, more about fulfilling her desire to explore life, to have some freedom, to do the things she wants. This includes, somewhat reluctantly, developing a loving and sexual relationship with a man who also sought freedom.

Constance Beresford-Howe writes in a conversational style, often omitting the noun or pronoun in a sentence. God is often referred to, as in the quotation above. Her narrative races along, in a believable way. We are meant, I think, to take this as everywoman’s story from before recorded time.

Eva Carroll

The older woman, Eva, in this novel is 65 years old. She made her appearance when ideas about women’s independence and liberation were recently being widely expressed again. There is reference to Quebec’s laws about what women were entitled to from marital property. Nothing, even if she had made a contribution, as Eva had.

The early part of the book recaptures that excitement of the late 60s, early 70s, for feminists (Women Liberals as one character calls them). Life and its opportunities seemed to be about to open out for women.

But before this happens she is finds herself very alone, and with no one to care for her. She has a grim vision of the alternative.

Who needed or cared about me now? What use was I, fat old parasite, member of the third sex now, an irrelevant and uncalled-for detail of the human race. And a swift exit had at least some dignity, unlike those horrible lingerings to be seen in nursing homes, where death is the friend who too seldom drops in. No, much better to accept it now, and go. (32)

And she meets all kinds of contradictions and challenges. Her path is not an easy one.

Constance Beresford-Howe

Constance Beresford-Howe was a prolific Canadian writer, who lived from 1922 until 2016.

She was born in Montreal where she was educated to a high level, and then taught English literature and creative writing in universities, both in Montreal and in Toronto, retiring in 1988. She came to live in Suffolk for the last 10 years of her life.

Unlike Eva, she was happily married for 56 years, and she and her husband adopted a son. She was very unflashy and unpushy about her novels, and not many of them survive in print. She wrote ten novels between 1946 and 1991. Only The Story of Eve has been in print since its publication in 1973.

Recent posts in this series:

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe, first published in 1973. I read the edition published by McClelland & Stuart in 2001. 211pp

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And the Wind Sees All by Gudmundur Andi Thorsson

Recently I seem to have become worn down by reading long and difficult books. So it was with some pleasure that I began this short Icelandic novel from Peirene Press. I enjoyed the structure, a series of stories about people in one village, translated by Bjorg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery.

It’s good to subscribe to Peirene. Periodically, that is every four months, I receive a translated novella, European, attractively produced and always interesting. This novel is from the current series: Home in Exile.

And the Wind Sees All by Gudmundur Andi Thorsson

A coastal village, Valeyri, north of Reykjavik, is the focus of this novel. The question is being asked, what makes a community?

A village is not just the movement of the surf and a life of work, the clattering of a motorboat, or dogs that lie in the sunshine with their heads on their paws. It’s not only the smell of the sea, oil, guano, life and death, the fish and the funny house names. It’s also a chronicle that moves softly through the streets, preserving an elemental image of the village created piece by piece over the course of centuries. This is us, what we are like, the people of Valeyri, we here, we. (84)

I respond warmly to the idea that a community is its shared history, written down, narrated or even never told. This idea appeals to the historian in me, and helps me understand why we look into our local and our family histories and why we commemorate events.

What this short novel gives us is a succession of stories about some of Valeyri’s inhabitants. Structurally they are linked by the image of a young woman who is wearing a distinctive blue polka dot dress and who cycles to the concert she is due to conduct in the village hall, to be performed by the local choir.

She herself is from Trnava, Slovakia and the story of how she arrived in Valeyri is only revealed towards the end of the novel, connected to someone else’s story. We briefly visit other local people, musicians, former couples, the gambling priest, the rescuers, the fixers, and the people who own and run the restaurant. The stories are intertwined.

We can see that community is shared and evolving stories, held together by shared activities, shared retelling of the histories, acts of kindness and generosity, and facing together the challenges of life in the 21stcentury.

This is an affirming novel. The publisher, Meike Ziervogel tells us why she chose it:

Reading this book was like embarking on a gentle journey – with music in my ears and wind in my hair. Yes, there is some darkness in the tales, and not every character is happy. But the story is told with such empathy that I couldn’t help but smile and forgive the flaws that make us human.

You can find the post Bookword in Iceland here. I never finished Independent People, by the way.

And the Wind Sees All by Gudmundur Andi Thorsson, first published in Icelandic in 2011. Translated by Bjorg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery it was published in Engllish by Peirene Press in 2018. 173pp

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Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell

I did not include Mrs Bridge when I wrote my recent post about fiction with titles in their titles: Books with Mrs or Miss in the title. Thanks to Simon Lavery for bringing it to my attention and for recommending it.

The American writer Evan S Connell has succeeded in the challenge of representing a life limited and circumscribed by convention and in which very little happens, in a way which captures the interest and the sympathy of the reader.

Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell a summary

Mrs Bridge lives in Kansas City and is married to a lawyer of considerable reputation and increasing wealth in the years after the First World War. He spends time working hard to provide his family with what they want, but depriving them of his presence. The family live in a big house in the Country Club district. It would be wrong to call Mrs Bridge a housewife as they employ ‘a young colored girl named Harriet to do the cooking and cleaning’ (6). She does very little.

It the early years she raises three children. The children grow up, and she understands them less and less and they grow away from her. She flirts with the idea of learning Spanish, does a little charity work, runs useless errands, socialises and gossips with her friends. One friend commits suicide. A birthday trip to Europe is interesting but cut short by German invasion of Poland. She finds herself bored and unable to find a way out of her situation.

The overwhelming impression of Mrs Bridgeis of a life that counts for very little, a person who is unable to make changes for herself and defers to her husband on all issues. Her one attempt to access psychiatric help is dismissed out of hand by Mr Bridge. An underlying theme is of change during her life. Mrs Bridge has some inkling of the social changes around her, but does not think them through: social, racial and gender inequalities, mental health issues, the war in Europe. Her life ends in the same inconsequential way as she lived it.

Mrs Bridge is no hero

This novel follows none of the rules that rooky novelists are nowadays encouraged to adopt. Make sure that the main character wants something strongly and battles for it throughout the novel. (Mrs Bridge wants nothing. She avoids battles.) And make the antagonist a rounded person also. (Mrs Bridge has no antagonist). Her struggle and its resolution should follow a strong narrative, with vivid scenes and a three or five act structure. (Mrs Bridge  has little narrative, and her story is not resolved in the conventional way). So how does it work?

In the first place, it is written as 117 short episodes. It started life as a short story. They build into a picture of Mrs Bridge who lives her life in short and often very insubstantial episodes: a book in a store window that raises her resentment (Theory of the Leisure Class); being a chaperone at a party; requiring her son to wear a hat; employing a chauffeur; reading the local socialite magazine …

Evan S Connell keeps us at a distance from his main character.

Her first name was India – she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. (3)

She remains estranged from her first name throughout the novel. She is always referred to as Mrs Bridge.

Evan S Connell writes in a spare style which brilliantly shows Mrs Bridge’s inability to take independent action. There is a great deal of restrained humour in the short episodes. The lines quoted above open the novel. Mrs Bridge wonders if her parents were hoping for another sort of daughter,

As a child she was often on the point of enquiring, but time passed and she never did. (3)

And another example, her first daughter is about to leave home:

Mrs Bridge tried to become indignant when Ruth announced she was going to New York, but after all it was useless to argue. (108)

It breaks many rules, but it is a small masterpiece. For another successful novel about an unremarkable life one might consider Stoner  by John Williams, published in 1965.

Evan S Connell

Evan S Connell was born in 1924 in Kansas City. Mrs Bridge was his debut novel. It has been suggested that the character wass based on his own mother, who lived a similar life to Mrs Bridge, in Kansas City. The novel was dedicated to his sister.

The publication of a debut novel at 45 years may seem quite late. Evan S Connell had enlisted as a pilot during the Second World War. He went on to write many more novels, poems and short stories including a companion novel, Mr Bridge, in 1959.  He was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in 2009. He died in 2013.

In 1990 James Ivory made the film Mr and Mrs Bridge, starring a married couple, Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman.

Simon Lavery’s comments about this novel can be found on his blog Tredynas Days: Mme Bovary of Kansas City: Evan S Connell, ‘Mrs Bridge’

Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell, first published in1959. I used the edition from Penguin Modern Classic published in 2012. 187pp

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