Monthly Archives: July 2019

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

This might have been a morality tale, a warning of the dreadful things that happen when your marriage turns sour, or when you consider committing suicide. But this is written by Edith Wharton, when her own disastrous marriage was at an end and she had fallen in love with Morton Fullerton and was living in Europe. The year was 1911, and society still found it easy to condemn people who found it hard to remain committed to a bad marriage. Edith Wharton was independently wealthy enough to afford a separation. She writes about people who did not have the means to do anything but stay married.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

The story is set up by an unnamed narrator who is intrigued by what happened to Ethan Frome. The ‘author’ is in the well-named Starkfield, a small town in Massachusetts. 

It was there that, several years ago, I saw him for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but a ruin of a man. It was not so much his great height that marked him, for the “natives” were easily singled out by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed; it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of lameness checking every step like the jerk of a chain. There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man and was surprised to hear he was not more that fifty-two. (11)

The narrator is informed that 

“He’s looked that way ever since he had his smash-up; and that’s twenty-four years ago come next February”. (11)

If you are the kind of person who does not want to know how a story ends then perhaps you can just take my recommendation to get acquainted with this book and leave the post here. For others, who do not find their enjoyment spoiled by revealing the story but have other reading interests, please read on.

The ‘smash-up’ is not quite the climax of the story. It begins twenty-four years before the time of the Author’s Introductory Note. Ethan Frome is struggling, as are all the inhabitants of Starkfield, to make a living out of his farm. He inherited it from his parents, and more or less inherited his wife too. His mother was nursed by a cousin, Zenobia, known as Zeena, and Ethan marries her when her nursing duties are over. She is an unappealing woman, although she had been kind enough as a nurse. She is a hypochondriac and a complainer and would have liked to live a more glamorous and stylish life. But although Ethan had hoped to provide this, they are trapped by the smallness of the farm’s income. 

Zeena has a cousin, Mattie Silver, who comes to live with them for she has nowhere else to go.

Zeena took the view that Mattie was bound to make the best of Starkfield since she hadn’t any other place to go; but this did not strike Ethan as conclusive. Zeena, at any rate, did not apply the principle in her own case. (39)

In this novella, both men and women are trapped by social conventions. With no one to provide a roof for her, and with little to recommend her as a servant, Mattie is one step away from prostitution. She must act as an unpaid servant for the Fromes to justify living with them.

Both Ethan and Mattie live lives of drudgery and both suffer from the effects of Zeena’s apparent ill health. Even more, Zeena wishes to hold her head up in Starkfield society, meagre though it is.

Both living in their own lonely worlds, Ethan falls for Mattie, and she for him. When Zeena goes away overnight to consult a doctor the pair enjoy a cosy evening and between them a bond grows. When she returns Zeena ratchets up the tension.

“I’ve got complications,” she said.

Ethan knew the word for one of exceptional import. Almost everybody in the neighbourhood had “troubles”, frankly localised and specified; but only the chosen had “complications”. To have them was in itself a distinction, though it was also, in most cases, a death-warrant. People struggled on for years with “troubles”, but they almost always succumbed to “complications”. (65)

Zeena plans to eject Mattie, and Ethan becomes desperate. Mattie will have to make her own way in the city, which means prostitution. The two feel they have no escape except to toboggan into a tree at speed, killing them both. They set off as if for her train and stop to find the sledge. Then comes the smash-up.

Instead of dying, the lovers are badly wounded. Mattie is confined to a wheelchair and Ethan suffered dreadful injuries. Zeena did not succumb to her complications, and instead the trio live together, tied to each other and to the town where the author meets them after a quarter of a century.

I think Edith Wharton was writing about the damage done by being trapped in a loveless marriage. Ethan and Zeena have very little economic power, but are tied by social convention, and any affection has evaporated between them. 

Edith Wharton had endured twenty-four years of a dreadful marriage with a man who was mentally unstable and who embezzled her money to set up his mistress. The ideas and development of the novella occurred at the time she was leaving him and developing her own passionate affair with Morton Fullerton.

Although Ethan Frome lives in a very different social milieu to Edith Wharton or to the characters in House of Mirth  the themes of the necessity of marriage for women, and of the restrictions of marriage and of marriage conventions are not so far away.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton was first published in 1911. I used the Virago Modern Classic edition from 1991. (103pp). I bought it for £1 second hand in a National Trust bookshop at Dinefwr while in Wales recently.

You can find The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1906) here

A film of Ethan Frome was released in 1993, with Liam Neeson in the title role and also starring Patiricia Arquette and Joan Allen.


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A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin

I cannot remember how I came across this tale of wizards and dragons. It must have been soon after it was published, and it made a great impression on me. I was already an adult, but I found the metaphor of naming to be very powerful. In the ancient lore, Ursula Le Guin tells us, being able to speak someone’s true name means having power over them. Giving your true name is an indication of trust.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin was published in 1968. It is the seventh post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. 

This story concerns a young lad growing up, confronting his own weaknesses and learning how to deal with them. It is also full of adventure, friendship, ingeniousness, acts of courage and mystery. It was very popular and two more novels featuring Sparrowhawk, the great wizard, were published and collected as a trilogy by 1979. There were yet more Earthsea stories later.

A Wizard of Earthsea

Note the title, which, like the story itself, makes it possible for the reader to see themselves here. 

Sparrowhawk, true name Ged, is born on the island of Gont in the north east of the Archipelago. 

The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns on its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. (13)

Sparrowhawk’s mother died soon after his birth and his father had little interest in him. The boy had no special features until he stumbled upon a form of words that summoned goats to him, a spell.  A local witch showed him a number of other spells and he was able to confuse and confound an invading horde of Kargad warriors and so save the village. Now his powers were noticed by the local wizard who provided him with an apprenticeship until the boy decided to go to the wizard training centre far away on the island of Roke.

[There is a great deal of sailing about the seas in this novel, and I made frequent use of the map of Earthsea. It was drawn by Ruth Robbins who also designed the first cover reproduced above.]

Sparrowhawk is ambitious and proud and during his training comes to resent another high achiever called Jasper. In an effort to outdo his rival Sparrowhawk unwisely initiates a forbidden spell, calling from the depths of the earth one who has long been dead. A dreadful evil is released into the world by this act and the rest of this first story is an account of how the shadowy evil tries to hunt Sparrowhawk down, and how the young lad learns to turn and become the hunter himself and how he eventually defeats his nemesis.

No wonder that adults also enjoy this story. It celebrates what we know to be good: determination, hard work, patience, friendship and doing right by others. It identifies what we know will unbalance us, that is ourselves. For Sparrowhawk it is his pride. 

Some Themes

There are few female characters in this first story, but in other respects Ursula Le Guin promotes the importance of diversity among peoples: their languages, appearances, beliefs and rituals. Her parents were anthropologists and she had absorbed their interest in how different societies work, where their fault lines are, how communities explain human actions. Difference is not a matter for aggression. In this novel aggression and violence arise from individual human failings.  

The love of the natural world also shines through this novel. There are invented animals, vast seascapes, and islands of great beauty. Everywhere people make the best of what they find to enhance their lives. 

Wizards, witches and mages are largely beneficent people. Those who help Sparrowhawk are modest, generous, and loving. Their wisdom has a great deal in common with the philosophy of Lao Tzu: playful, apparently contradictory, and thought-provoking. The importance of balance or equilibrium features too in this story.

Only in silence the word,

only in dark the light,

only in dying life:

bright the hawk’s flight

on the empty sky.

 – The Creation of Ea  (12)

See Ursula Le Guin’s version of Lao Tzu’s philosophy.

Ursula Le Guin and the imagination

Fantasy novels did not attract me much as a child, nor yet as an adult. The same can be said of science fiction. But in her novels I have learned to enjoy the best of both, mostly because she uses imagination to explore different worlds, different, places, different ways of being and shows us a way to proceed. I recommend this book and The Left-Hand of Darkness to any adult reader. 

The conceit of naming seems to me to be very important. We need to be able to speak our fears, our hopes, our failures to deal with them. The power to name, to write, is therefore essential for a civilised world.

And it comes to me that spells are magic words, so spelling is the act of magicking words, or simply put writing is magic. 

A Wizard of Earthsea  by Ursula K Le Guin, first published in 1968. I read it in my copy of the Earthsea Trilogy published by Penguin in 1979.

Other Bookword posts on Ursula Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness  by Ursula Le Guin

A Tribute to Ursula le Guin, on her death in January 2018

Imagination and the Writer, on the necessity of training the imagination

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring 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 book from 1970-79. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

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Filed under Books, Books for children, Learning, Reading, The Decade project

Paul Torday Prize and Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

Dear @gransnet, I tweeted, you want more fiction about older women? Well look on this page and you will find links to 39 reviews and more than 40 other titles, all about older women. 

Gransnet have also noted that older women writers are not widely known. They are not alone. There is now a prize for people over 60, publishing their first novel.

So in this post I am going to bring you the 40threview of an older woman in fiction and a little something about older writers.

The Paul Torday Memorial Prize

Paul Torday (1946 – 2013) published his first novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, aged 60. The family decided to set up the Torday Prize in his memory, celebrating first novels by authors aged 60 and over. The prize is £1000. It is one of the Society of Authors awards.

Judged in 2019 by Anita Sethi, Mark Lawson and Kate Mosse, here is the short list:

Sealskin  by Su Bristow (Orenda Books). You can find my review here.

Walking Wounded  by Sheila Llewellyn (Sceptre)

Silence Under a Stone  by Norma MacMaster (Doubleday Ireland)

The Sealwoman’s Gift  by Sally Magnusson (Two Roads)

The Tattooist of Auschwitz  by Heather Morris (Zaffre)

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson (Doubleday)

So, dear @gransnet, not only writers over 40, but first novels over 60! What a generous and encouraging gesture it is by Paul Torday’s family to create this prize. 

You can find out more about the Paul Torday Memorial Prize here.

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

And the winner was Anne Youngson for her novel Meet me at the Museum. It turns out to be about an older woman as well as by an older woman. It was recommended to me by one of my sisters, and I was as charmed by it as she told me she had been.

Tina Hopgood is a farmer’s wife in the East of England whose life is circumscribed by the farm and she cannot even remember why she got married. She develops a correspondence with the curator of the Tollund Man museum in Denmark. It comes about because she originally writes to the archaeologist who found Tollund Man. The reply comes from Anders Larsen, a lonely widower. Tina is in distress, it transpires, over the death of her best friend, and the Tollund Man represented unfinished matters between them. 

So this gentle epistolary novel develops to explore their relationship, first by traditional mail and then by email. Each shares their troubles and concerns, and provides support to the other. Writing letters makes it possible for them to talk about the disappointments of their lives, their marriages, their children, the everyday and the events that transpire during the timeframe of the novel.

The story ends before they meet, after the predictable crisis in Tina’s marriage. There is a fair bit of philosophising, as these two are both around their 60s. They learn to evaluate their lives and identify what they have missed out on and what they want from now.

Anne Youngson published the novel when she was 70. She had had a distinguished career in engineering, but the press liked the idea that she is a grandmother. 

Meet me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson, published in 2018 by Doubleday (Penguin). 207pp

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

Should You Ask Me  by Marianne Kavanagh

The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour

Etta and Otto and Russell and James  by Emma Hooper


Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Writing

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe

Her name has been linked to Jean Rhys and Katherine Mansfield; she has been compared to Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf; she was admired by Simone de Beauvoir; and yet I hadn’t heard of her. Then Pushkin Press invited me to review a copy of her short stories, and I noticed that Heaven Ali is reading a novel by her called Marie

She is Madeleine Bourdouxhe, born in Belgium in 1906, who lived in both the French and Belgian capitals. Her first novel, La Femme de Gilles, was published in 1937 and Marie appeared in 1943. Her short stories were published in literary magazines in the late ‘40s. They were collected and published in Paris in 1985. Madeleine Bourdouxhe died in 1996. 

The Women’s Press published her translated stories in 1989. Pushkin Press published the English translations by Faith Evans in June 2019. My copy was provided by Pushkin Press, and I am most grateful.

A Nail, A Rose

The collection contains seven short stories and a novella. Her stories were mostly written after the war, in that period of economic depression and reconstruction and before French culture really flowered with the existentialists. France had much to consider in the post war years, some parts had been occupied for 5 years.

The writer’s style is spare and, at times, abrupt. The author assumes that the reader will do some work: for example, notice that the objects or people mentioned early in a story will be of significance later. 

Each story features a woman, sometimes giving her name to the story, sometime anonymous. She might be the narrator, or the focus of the third person narration. In every story there is considerable pain, often physical, sometime of love that has disappeared, or of relationships strained and in tension. She does not shrink from the visceral. The female body is ever present with its smells, leakages and lusts. ‘Anna’, for example, is a story about a woman who loves to dance, but her jealous husband uses violence to contain her spirit. 

Very little is explained, for example why the man hit the woman in the title story and why she then was calm with him and met him again. Precisely located in the story’s present, explanations are short or omitted. Sometimes flashbacks move the story on, as in ‘Leah’, where they refer to the woman’s earlier political activism.

I found myself responding strongly to the story called ‘Louise’ where a single mother works as a maid for Madame. Madame lends Louise her blue coat and Louise goes out to meet the man she wants to attract. As she waits for Bob to appear she begins to doubt herself.

Minutes passed, more and more slowly, and time began to drag. It must be lovely to wait when you know that someone is going to turn up, Louise thought to herself. Lowering her head, she went off into a sort of dream. She felt very pretty and very alone. (76)

In this way the author reveals much about Louise, and about her loneliness. The relationship with Bob proves to be an empty and unsatisfying one-night stand. But the experience of wearing Madame’s coat is much more significant and satisfying to Louise.

The novella, ‘Sous le pont Mirabeau’, follows a new mother who has to evacuate from the hospital immediately her baby is born as the Germans invade, and mother and child leave with the convoys to go to free France. She appears to only go a little further than the Loire, but eventually meets the Germans. This story is based on Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s experiences. As in her other stories, the people who appear are ordinary folk, and the mother with her baby experiences many small acts of kindness and care. She sees the soldiers as the people they are, first those in retreat and later the victorious ones.

I loved her writing, with its bare starkness. I was pleased to have been given a copy to review, because I would not have noticed her otherwise. Thanks to Pushkin Press. I might follow @Heaven_Ali soon by reading one of her two novels.

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (2019) Pushkin Press

Translated from French by Faith Evans

Copy provided by Pushkin Press. 224 pp


Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, short stories, Women in Translation

Lanny by Max Porter

My friend texted me:

I finished Lanny. Embarrassingly it brought me to tears on the Eurostar. It’s wonderful, ie full of wonder.

This is a wonderful and a strange book, strange title, strange typography and a strange cover like severed card, stylish, but strange. Max Porter’s first book, Grief is the thing with feathers, was also strange, but in a different way. That first novel had a lot of white spaces, a misquotation from Emily Dickinson as the title, and a focus on Ted Hughes and a Crow.

In his second novel, Lanny, Max Porter also considers loss and nature, but in a completely different way. Lanny is a boy liked by everyone who lives in a village in commuting distance of London. When Lanny goes missing everyone is distressed.

The Story

The story is told in three parts, each structured differently. Throughout the novel villagers’ overheard comments are spread about the pages, like worms or threads. This is the everyday noise, complaints, comments, gossip of village life.

In the first part several villagers speak, mostly about Lanny, a young boy whom everyone likes, and who seems to have an affinity for nature. Dead Papa Toothwort, a kind of Green Man, is also out and about in the village. Lanny’s mother asks an artist, Pete, to give Lanny art lessons every week, although Pete sees it more as two observers sharing what they see. 

In the second part, everything is much more urgent, less signposted. Lanny has gone missing, and everyone is suspected. Pete, his father; his mother, everyone in the village. Lanny has represented some kind of hope for them all and now that is endangered.

In the third part, as if in a dream, the story comes to a conclusion and village life returns to its more even pulse. Everyone is wiser and some characters are dead. We have seen the village torn apart by the fear of the unknown. And healed by patience and grace.

The writing is lyrical, and each voice has its own rhythm and tone.

Pete: My father would have me count his coppers on a Sunday morning. Memory swings like a hard dirt rudder then slips up with a boom and a crack and catches the wind. (38)

Lanny’s Dad: I woke up fists clenched and buzzing, certain of someone downstairs. Someone in the house. I used to get this a lot, but I’m more accustomed to the sound of the village now. I know a hedgehog making its way along the planted borders, I know the postman’s early footsteps on the gravel. I know the alien hum of Mrs Larton’s late-night tumble-drying. This isn’t that. This is a human body moving. (92)

Lanny’s Mum:

In came the sound of a song,

Swarm on his creaturely breath,

And he snuggled against me, climbing up on my lap,

Wrapping himself around my neck. (17)

We never hear directly from Lanny. His absence reinforces the notion that the idea of Lanny can be filled by people in different ways.

The invention of Dead Papa Toothwort is a great achievement. He is a kind of greedy green man, primitive, lumbering, an accretion of all the rubbish and dead foliage around the village. He sees the villagers from the perspective of centuries.

Max Porter’sprevious book was beautifully produced, and the publisher has again ensured all the aesthetic aspects of the book have been thought through: paper quality; cover design, end papers, page layout. The quirky feature of the villagers’ comments works beautifully.

Highly recommended. 

Lanny by Max Porter (2019) Faber & Faber. 213pp

You can find my review of Grief is the thing with feathers  by Max Porter here.

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To The North by Elizabeth Bowen

I came late to Elizabeth Bowen’s writing. But since I first acquired a copy of The Last September I have been reading and reviewing her books at a pleasurable and slow pace. This is how, six years ago, I introduced my approach to her writing:

Do you keep a cache of chocolates after Christmas, so that you can savour again the pleasures of treating yourself? The novels of Elizabeth Bowen are like that. She is a novelist I am glad to have come across late in my reading career. I picked up a copy of The Last September recently in an Oxfam secondhand shop and in February it came to the top of my reading pile. 

I have already reviewed six of the ten novels by Elizabeth Bowen on Bookword. (For links see the end of this post). She is central to my desire to avoid pursuing new books and to read and reread more of books published for some time ago. I wrote about this recently in a post called Books and the pursuit of the new.

I found an old Penguin copy of To the North among my mother’s books. I took it on my travels and admired her all over again. 

To The North by Elizabeth Bowen

The novel’s story takes place over a short period of time. It is set mostly in London and the time is between the wars.

The novel follows Cecelia, a young widow who is considering remarrying. She is a lively and attractive woman, is economically independent and she enjoys lunches and dinners and meeting up with her aunt by marriage, Lady Waters. At the start of the novel Cecelia is travelling north from Italy, returning to St Johns Wood, near Abbey Road in London.

She shares her house with her sister-in-law Emmeline. She is younger than Cecelia, and also independent. She has a car and she is a partner in a travel bureau that she and a friend have established. She is very beautiful and stylish in her own way.

On the train from Italy Cecelia meet Markie, a self-centred barrister, who is predatory and always wants what seems distant. After a mild flirtation with Cecelia he becomes obsessed with Emmeline. She normally holds herself aloof from love affairs, but Markie is an expert. They form a liaison although they agree not to marry but then he treats her very badly. Meanwhile Julian is waiting in the wings, patiently and with understanding for Cecelia.

There are some excellent supporting characters. The Blighs are friends of Lady Waters’s and provide a contrast to the intensity of Cecelia and Emmeline’s relationships. They are indulging in being unhappily married. Then there is Pauline, the adolescent orphan that Julian has responsibility for. Her interaction provides another ingenuous perspective. Elizabeth Bowen writes child characters very well. The typists, who work for the travel bureau, provide some comic interludes, as Enmeline and her partner are unable to deal with the hapless Miss Tripp and her replacement.

Elizabeth Bowen’s skill is in the minute description of the psychological shifts of each character as they interact with the others. We are presented with a number of different relationships: several marriages, a few romances, employer-employee, child- adult, and friendships between men and women and between women. One couple will self-destruct, the other will find comfort in each other.

Emmeline drives north at the end of the novel after a failed reconciliation with Markie. Their relationship is doomed.

This was the 4th of Elizabeth Bowen’s novels. She wrote 10. I have 3 more to read.

To The North by Elizabeth Bowen, first published in 1932. I used the Penguin edition, published in 1945. 286pp

Elizabeth Bowen

Heaven Ali wrote an excellent review in 2015 on her blog of To the NorthHere’s the link.

Links to reviews of novels by Elizabeth Bowen on Bookword

The Last September

The Hotel

The Heat of the Day

The House in Paris

Friends and Relations

Eva Trout


Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Reading, Reviews