Monthly Archives: February 2019

Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton

Light, charming, frothy, amusing … Guard Your Daughters is all these, but it is also a novel with a dark undertow. The five daughters of the Harvey family are amusing, witty and creative, but there are clues from the first page that something is awry. This is the opening paragraph.

I’m very fond of my new friends, but I do get angry when they tell me how dull life must have been before I came to London. We were queer, and restricted, and we used to fret and grumble, but the one thing our sort of family doesn’t suffer from is boredom. (1)

Note the ‘queer, and restricted’ and ‘our sort of family’ and you are set the task of wondering what is it about this family. 

Persephone endpapers from printed cotton designed by Susie Cooper, 1953

Guard Your Daughtersby Diana Tutton

This is a dysfunctional middle-class family living in genteel poverty, imposed by the father it turns out, in a rural area away from London. Rationing is still in force, and there are signs that the family lived at one time in more comfort, with a car, a telephone, a maintained tennis court and servants. 

The reader in presented early on with the details of restrictions on visitors and the social life of the four daughters who still live at home. The father is a very successful novelist, who writes minutely plotted detective fiction. So where has the money gone?

Pandora, the eldest daughter has recently married and in her new home in London has some perspective on the Harvey household, and in particular on the lack of education for the youngest girl.  She tells Morgan (the narrator)

“I realize now that we’re an odd sort of family.”

“Well of course we are.”

“But I mean – Oh, Morgan, I dowant you all to get married too!”

“Five of us? I doubt if even Mrs. Bennet managed as well as that, unless she fell back on a few parsons to help out. However, dearest, we’ll do our best.” (16)

This is not the only reference to Pride and Prejudice, and Guard Your Daughters  is by no means a rewriting of that classic. Note the affection between the sisters; Morgan’s pride in the oddness of the family; Pandora’s desire to get them out.  In Greek myth Pandora had a box that she opened and all kinds of evils escaped into the world. 

Four daughters are still at home: Thisbe (20), Morgan (19), Cressida (18) and Teresa (15). Thisbe is a poet. Morgan plays the piano – to a mediocre standard it transpires. Cressida is the most conventional, runs a small market garden business and is the best cook. Teresa is overweight, uneducated and indulged by all.

Their mother is known to be nervy, needing special care (and soup) and frequently withdraws to her bed. Their father has only one rule in the house: do not upset your mother.

The plot moves slowly: a series of events gradually accumulate in the climax. Many of the incidents are very amusing. A young man is invited to supper, but the household does not eat supper so something has to be concocted. 

We went into the larder and examined Mother’s soup. There was a jugful, meant to last her for two days, and we instantly tipped it into a saucepan and began to add to it anything we could lay our hands on – the gravy from an old stew, some vegetable water saved by thrifty Cressida, the last spoonful of Bovril and some powdered potato. It tasted quite good but there wasn’t nearly enough for eight of us. In the end we decided to use the little soup pots, and to give the full mixture only to Father, Mother and Gregory. The rest of us would have a drop or two and fill up with hot water and gravy browning. (55-56)

They decide to mark the bowls containing the full soup with a fragment of lettuce leaf.

Many of the episodes are amusing and some are pitiful, some both. Sometimes their unconventionality and naivety is charming. But they have been inculcated with the belief that they are special, in particular in their attractiveness to men. The cocktail party is an excruciating scene, as the matronly hostess wears the same dress as Thisbe and the sisters make gaffe after faux pas in ignorance. 

The girls have great loyalty to each other, lending each other clothes, educating Teresa, piling into the bathroom to chatter at the end of the day. The scenes accumulate, becoming more disturbing until the shocking denouement. 

While they are amusing, witty, welcoming, the daughters are without sound judgment, having been failed by their parents. (Again we can nod to the inadequate parenting skills of Mr and Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.) I found this to be a convincing and disturbing novel about the dangers that lurk in families. Diana Tutton wrote two more novels, and both featured inappropriate relationships.

You can find many more reviews of Guard Your Daughters on book blogs. Some are enthusiastic and others critical. Many of them make comparisons with I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I think the family is akin to the Bretton family at Quayles in The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor.

Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton first published in 1953 and reissued by Persephone in 2017. 262pp

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The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Secrets, a house with hundreds of rooms, a boy who can charm animals, another boy who has tantrums in the night, and a robin who shows you the entrance to a walled garden. These are some of the ingredients of this much-loved children’s classic. It can also be read as a description of that necessary transition from tyrant to socially engaged individual that every child must undergo. And this story includes two little tyrants.

This is the second post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project 

The Secret Garden

The story starts in India where Mary is growing up as the neglected spoiled child of rich parents. A cholera epidemic results in the ten-year-old being orphaned and she is brought to her uncle’s house Misselthwaite in Yorkshire. Her temper tantrums and sour and sullen nature make little headway against the Yorkshire servants who have the care of this sad girl. She is starved of companionship, but kindly treated by Martha, a young village girl engaged to look after her. It is Martha who tells the child about the garden, much loved by her uncle’s dead wife, now locked up and the key buried.

In her wanderings around the great house Martha meets the gruff gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, and his sidekick the robin. And the robin helps her find the key and the door behind the ivy that leads to the secret garden.

Mary also meets Dickon, Martha’s brother, who is a kind of naturalist, before such a term was known. He has an affinity with animals and birds and knows how to grow plants. Martha and Dickon become friends and begin to care for the garden in secret.

On wet days Mary explores Misselthwaite where she finds another neglected and motherless child whom she befriends.

‘Oh, what a queer house this is!’ Mary said. ‘What a queer house. Everything is a kind of secret. Rooms are locked up and gardens are locked up – and you! Have you been locked up?’ (139)

Both have been used to getting their own way. Both are rather sickly and not used to fresh air or exercise, indeed Colin is afraid that he is a cripple and will not go where people can see him.

With the help of Martha, her brother Dickon and the wise advice of their mother the children learn to thrive. Through a combination of fresh air, gardening, looking out for each other and playing they become nicer children. The book begins with Mary, but it ends with a focus on Colin.

‘That’s fresh air,’ she said. ‘Lie on your back and draw in long breaths of it.’ By Charles Robinson

Growing up in Edwardian England

The story is about the damage done to children by neglect, especially by their parents. It is also about the damage that an unchecked and rampant imagination based on fear can do. And about the power of the mind over such fears – Colin’s fear that he will become a hunchback leads him to lie in his room and have hysterics every now and again. But when he sets his mind to strengthening his body he is soon as healthy as any other ten-year-old boy. This is the final paragraph of the book:

Across the lawn came the Master of Misselthwaite [Colin’s father], and he looked as many of them had never seen him. And by his side, with his head up in the air and his eyes full of laughter, walked as strongly and steadily as any boy in Yorkshire – Master Colin! (318)

But the children, Colin and Mary, are privileged, and their advantages over the cottage children, Martha and Dickon, are not explored. Both privileged children have been used to commanding servants, in Mary’s case they are referred to as ‘blacks’.  The shift of focus from Mary to Colin leaving her future unresolved, while his is assured, is worrisome. These points suggests that Frances Hodgson Burnett shared the racist, classist and gender assumptions of her day.

Frances Hodgson Burnett

Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in Manchester in 1849 and lived in America and England until she died in 1924. She had gone to the States when her father died leaving the family without income. She began to write to support the family when she was 18 and continued to write for the rest of her life. She began to write for children in 1879 after a meeting with Louisa May Alcott. 

She bought a house in Kent, Great Maytham Hall, and it is said that she was inspired by the walled garden there to write this classic. She wrote the novel while she lived there.

The novel has been adapted for film, television and the stage. And there is a statue in Central Park, NY, that features Mary and Dickon. It is called the Burnett fountain.

Burnett fountain, Central Park

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first published in 1911. I used the Everyman Children’s Classic (1993) illustrated by Charles Robinson (brother of Heath Robinson). It’s a lovely edition and was given to me by my daughter Anna when she knew I was seeking a copy. 320pp

The Decade Project in 2019

This is the third year of my Decades Project. This year I am exploring changing aspects of children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a choice from 1920-1929. I plan to read a novel by Angela Brazil. Suggestions for further decades are welcome.

Here’s the link to the first book in the 2019 Decades Project focusing on children’s literature, which was 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

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Imagine a Society of Readers

Reading is good for you. We know this. But imagine if it were national policy to promote reading with the aim of creating a Society of Readers. What would it look like? What are the policy implications of such a vision?

A Society of Readers (2018)

The Reading Agency commissioned the report A Society of Readers from Demos. You can find the full document on the DEMOS site or on the Reading Agency site here.

What are the major social challenges facing our society in the future and how can reading help? These are the questions that the report sets out to investigate and using research (you know, experts) has provided some interesting and inexpensive policy proposals.

The challenges: 

loneliness, especially amongst the growing number of old people

mental health problems

dementia

lack of social mobility

The research findings:

There is evidence on which to build the knowledge that reading has an important part to play in tackling each of these challenges. Reading wards off loneliness, especially where it is accompanied by opportunities for discussion of books, in groups or with reading buddies. The report celebrates book-based social contact.

It is possible to assist someone suffering from mental health difficulties, especially among the young, through reading material. Shelf Help in schools and libraries is becoming more common. You may have heard of poetry pharmacies, prescriptions for reading as aspects of non-medical interventions. You might be familiar with the handbook The Novel Cure: an A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin.

Reading promotes empathy and is an excellent reason for encouraging reading in schools, and a love of reading among the young. It is the basis of Neil Gaiman’s eloquent plea for libraries to the Reading Agency in 2013.

There is evidence that reading helps boost performance on tests, and increases a young person’s opportunities to proceed to higher levels of education. 

The recommendations: 

It’s no exaggeration to say that reading can transform British society. (cover)

The report provides 12 recommendations for the government, all based in the research evidence and successful practices that already promote reading.

What would a society of readers look like? 

That is what we mean by a ‘society of readers’ – a society that values reading, and which is in turn sustained by the benefits that reading brings. A society that saturates itself with books for everyone at every point of life. A state that marks significant life events with the gift of reading – especially to its children. A school system where children, by and large, arrive with a love of reading that was handed down to them by their parents who were supported at various points in their life to turn to books themselves. A school system where learning continues throughout the year ensuring that disadvantaged children can engage with reading groups – surrounding themselves with books even and especially if their home environment lacks them. A society whose clinicians understand that reading can have a medicinal quality when it comes to illnesses such as anxiety, ADHD, depression and even dementia. A society where a well-resourced retraining and further education systemencourages reading beyond the classroom too. A society where workplacesmay even carve out the time to allow their employees the time to attend further reading classes and reading groups. And a society that does not forget that its ill and ill-informed not only have cognitive needs but imaginations that can still light a fire too – and where we encourage them to share these imaginations by bonding with their contemporaries over the written word. (p41)

(Note: to make this paragraph easier to navigate I put the main policy locations in bold.)

And so why …?

Why are libraries suffering so badly from the policies of austerity?  The latest figures reported by CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy) can be found in a press release from December 2018 here. The only figures that have gone up relate to volunteers and to their hours. 127 libraries closed. Spending was down by £30m and 712 full-time jobs were lost. That is in one year.

So while research and reading charities show that there are some inexpensive and beneficial policies to be promoted to help society, councils and government continue to strangle libraries. That’s why we need to imagine a Reading Society. And readers are good imaginers.

A Society of Readersby Sacha Hilhorst, Alan Lockey, Tom Speight published in 2018 by DEMOS for the Reading Agency. 

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Transit by Rachel Cusk

A few months ago I reported on my reactions to the first in Rachel Cusk’s trilogy, called Outline. I found myself appreciating that the novel was daring, experimental and challenging to the reader. I noted an absence of story, at least in the usual sense of a narrative beginning, middle and end. Yet the attentive reader is rewarded with a perspective on the world that is moving and intelligent. 

Now I have read Transitwhich shares a narrator, Faye who is a fiction writer, and also reports the stories told to Faye by the people she meets.

Transit

The title suggests the passage of people from one situation to another. The narrator herself is moving from the end of her marriage to establishing a home with her sons in London. Her house is being transformed. The stories she is told provide illustration of transition, movement, passage of all kinds: stages in life, from one country to another, the process of writing, relationships between people over time, from one marriage to the next and so on.

Faye is to a great extent the passive filter of these stories. She offers them as if to challenge the reader to find the themes, the communalities, the differences, their own meanings. But although the fiction is that the original narrators of the stories are people Faye has met more or less randomly, this is a conceit. Rachel Cusk has chosen them, crafted. This is consciously and carefully wrought writing.

Questioning the assumptions of the novel

I was intrigued by the novelist’s suggestion that ‘character does not exist anymore’. This was more than intriguing, challenging even, as my major work on my own novel at the moment is in the development of the character of one of the protagonists. 

The assertion is reported in the transcript of a conversation that appears in the New Yorker: “I don’t think character exists anymore.” A Conversation with Rachel Cusk by Alexander Schwartz (18thNovember 2018). 

What I understood from her responses to the lengthy questions about all three novels in the Outline trilogy is that she is attempting to challenge or even to violate the traditional novel and those assumptions that have been handed down from our Victorian forebears. She says that this meant she had to break her own style, which she employed in her previous novels and which have been described as conventional.

By changing the style, for example at the level of the sentence, reducing the idea of the self then ‘other things change their proportions and relationships to each other and to you.’ Her purpose is to consider what remains or appears when the assumptions of the old forms of fiction are challenged and replaced.

She goes on, for example, to question our assumptions about the connections between how we live our lives and what we call character. We no longer live our lives, she suggests, through the ideas of character which we inherited and have never questioned from the Victorian ideas of writers and our ancestorss. 

So what emerges from this revised form? This is a novel for the thinking reader. Not a tightly plotted novel where the conclusion must not be revealed (‘I don’t believe in suspense.’) In Transit we are again exposed to some important themes about relationships, especially between women and men, about hate, about control and responsibility, and, of course, of the purpose of a writer and of writing fiction. 

Transit by Rachel Cusk, published by Faber & Faber in 2016258pp

See also Outline by Rachel Cusk, on this blog in October 2018.

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Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

Moments of fumbling confusion contrasted with moments of startling clarity. A striking presence.This is how Etta (the Etta in old age) is described by The Canadian National newspaper as she walks across the eastern half of Canada towards the sea. What is this old woman doing?

Etta and Otto and Russell and Jamesis the 37thin the series on Bookword blog 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.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James

The story of this novel is set in two time frames, one before and during the Second World War and the second in the present day. Its centre, as Canada’s, is the prairie province of Saskatchewan. Etta is a young school teacher and Otto and Russell among her pupils. Otto is one of a very large family who live on a farm. Russell comes from the city when he is orphaned to live with his aunt and uncle on a nearby farm. He quickly becomes absorbed in Otto’s family, even when he damages his leg in a farming accident. Otto goes off to war, while Etta and Russell become close and enjoy themselves as dancing partners. When Otto returns after terrible experiences fighting in Europe he and Etta marry.

In the present Etta walks away from Otto (and Russell their neighbour) to go to the sea. 

Otto,

the letter began in blue ink.

I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry. I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.

Yours (always)

Etta. (1)

As she walks we revisit her history: her love of a sister who died in childbirth, her training as a teacher, her first job, and her growing affection for Otto and Russell. These two exchange places at school so they can take turns to attend and both take advantage of learning. We see the difficulties when the trio, Etta, Otto and Russell are separated. Otto joins the army and is sent to Europe. He and Etta keep up a correspondence. 

She travels eastwards and becomes something of a celebrity as she walks. Mostly she is alone, but James a coyote who talks, joins her for the mid-section and Bryony a journalist for the final section. The journey takes many weeks and presents many challenges to the old woman.

Etta

Etta in old age, the reader quickly finds, is tough and strong-willed. She is excellent at improvising, and resourceful, contriving to catch fish in a plastic bottle. And she is good with people and coyotes. These are excellent qualities for any person of any age and it is rare and laudable to find an older female character who embodies them. 

She is also forgetful and carries a list of people to remember, such as might be given to someone suffering from Alzheimer’s. 

There is a gap in their history after Otto’s return and the moment that Etta sets out to visit the sea. What happened in all those years? Does marriage represent the last time anything significant happens?

The writing

The book breezes along in very short sections, jumping between the three human characters and time zones. The story is told through a range of media, including lists. There are letters, recipes, internal monologues, newspaper reports and 3rdperson narration. The lists include a packing list, known people list, uses of newspapers list.

There are some magical, fantastical aspects to the plot: the talking coyote; the inter-changeability of Otto and Etta in the final pages; the telepathic communication of the three friends.

What I liked and didn’t like

Photo credit: Trevor Pritchard on Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Some of the story is vivid and other parts charming. The vivid parts included Otto in Europe, life on the prairie in the 1930s, Otto’s father’s illness. And some of the descriptions of the landscape lived in or visited by Etta are beautifully done.

But Etta appears to be described as somewhat eccentric. Older women with spirit often appear that way in novels. Eccentricity is certainly found in older people, older women, but it can be something of a caricature or cliché. This book does not escape the trap. There are several more in the older women in fiction reviews that I have noted.

And the absence of any sense of their lives from the end of the war to now is very frustrating.

But most of all I could not work out why Etta’s walk was important. I kept thinking of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry  by Rachel Joyce (2012). Harold set off to post a letter, but carried on across England to deliver it in person.

This novel ends with the separation of all three main characters Etta, Otto and Russell. What supports the blurb claim that this is ‘a tale of love over 50 years’? 

Have you read this novel? What did you think?

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper, published in 2015 by Penguin. 278pp

Recent posts in this series:

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe 

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

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Milkman by Anna Burns

It was the menace that meant I could not read this book at night. And also the density of the prose, the close discussion of the implications of every action by every person. And so it took me a great while to read.

I had noted that it was the Man Booker Prize Winner for 2018. My reading group chose it for January. And so I began, determined to read to the end. I’m so pleased I did. What an experience!

Milkman by Anna Burns

This novel is partly an account of coming of age, or at least coming to her senses in a dangerous situation. It is narrated by a girl of 18 who lives in the 1970s in a city that seems to be Belfast, but is not named in the novel (any more than our narrator is). She appears to live in the Ardoyne area and was therefore born into a Catholic family. The streets around her home are dominated by renouncers with their own rules and kangaroo courts. The city is patrolled by armed forces from the state over the water. 

Our narrator attempts to live her life outside the complications of this place and its influences. But she comes to see that no action, including avoidance, is beyond the community’s interpretation and judgement. Her habit of walking along reading books from the 19thcentury or earlier has led her to beyond the pale.

But she has also attracted the attention of milkman, a major renouncer. She tries to avoid his attentions. But it is clear that he already knows everything about her, including her relationship with Maybe-Boyfriend, her evening classes, her family (including those who have brought shame on the community). He wants her and his attentions bring threats and the sense of being stalked.

She has also rejected the attentions of Somebody McSomebody who cannot believe that he has been rejected. And she has attracted the attention of tablet girl, a nihilist on a deadly mission.

All three represent mortal risks to the narrator, made worse by the community – including her mother – believing she is already involved with milkman. 

No one is unaffected by the situation, everybody has their own version of what is happening and what should happen. 

The way in which this works out is the stuff of the dense and tight plotting. 

The style

Two aspects of the writing are worth exploring. The absence of give names, and the use of relationships in their place, as well as the occasional riff on the significance of names in the area is notable from the opening sentence. 

The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a rat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. (1)

By not naming the city Anna Burns wants us to look beyond Belfast, and indeed the travails of our narrator are those of any young woman growing up in a place where conformity, prejudice and patriarchy are the dominant forces. More or less everywhere then.

And by identifying people through their relationships with her (the wee sisters, third brother-in-law, longest friend from primary school and so on) the lines of connection are emphasised. Family and community are the dominant connections.

The other aspect is the dense discussion, explanation, exploration of everything that happens involving running, car parts, severed cats’ heads, feminist meetings, dogs, medical treatment and so on. Being clear about the possible meanings could be the difference between rough justice and being let alone. But it is also the way young questioning people make sense of their world. And our narrator could be any young woman trying to find her way in the world.

Characters

In such a tight community where everyone is known to everyone being able to differentiate the characters is important. Some are deliberately made to share a name (the milkman and the real milkman, for example). Some are exquisitely described, especially the more sympathetic men, such as the real milkman or third brother-in-law. But the most flagrant character is Ma. At first we are disappointed in her. When the narrator explains her concerns about milkman’s attentions, Ma does not believe her version and accuses her daughter of being immoral and unwise. But later Ma comes to see her own disappointments in a new way and even to find some happiness.

Her most endearing habit is her near malapropisms. 

‘Back then,’ she’d say, meaning the olden days, meaning her days, their days, ‘even then,’ she said, ‘I never understood your father. When all was said and done, daughter, what had he  got to be psychological about?’ (84)

I laughed out loud at that and then wept at the description of Da’s depression.

Ma is broadly representative of the women of the community, who both enforce and at times challenge the rule of the renouncers, intervening to prevent some punishments. They act decisively to punish a man who transgresses their rules about their toilets in the local drinking place.

Humour

So while I was reading slowly, because of the menace in the story, I was also appreciating the humour. Some is in the turns of phrases, necessary because of the use of repetition and lists. The best must be 

… charmingly packaged, gift-wrapped potatoes … (334)

The precocious wee sisters also provide much amusement, as does the inventiveness of the language and of plot details. Here’s a wonderful colourful moment near the end, when the wee sisters join the other girls from the area and beyond in dressing up and dancing as an international ballroom dancer in the streets:

This explained the colour – for there had been an explosion of colour – plus fabric, accessories, make-up, feathers, plumes, tiaras, beads, sparkles, tassels, lace, ribbons, ruffles, layered petticoats, lipsticks, eyeshadows, even fur – I had glimpsed fringed fur – high heels too, which belonged to the little girls’ big sisters and which didn’t fit which was why periodically the little girls fell over sustaining injuries. (315)

Recommended

The themes of this book are important: tribalism, patriarchy, living in fear and explored through some very careful plotting. 

All those present at the discussion at the January reading group agreed it was an excellent book. And we know what the panel of judges for the Man Booker Prize thought. Highly recommended.

Do you have an opinion? For another perspective you can find Heavenali’s recent response here

Milkman by Anna Burns, published by Faber & Faber in 2018. 348pp

Winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

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