Monthly Archives: August 2020

Character Breakdown by Zawe Ashton

I am in awe of people who can turn their skills to many different art forms, especially if they are young. And there is a bonus when they are female and black. Here is a memoir/fiction from Zawe Ashton. Many people will know her as an actor as well as a writer, a poet and a theatre producer. How had I never come across her name before she appeared in a list of recommendations from Bernardine Evaristo (see below)? 

Character Breakdown is a fictionalised memoir or a biographical fiction or neither: about being an actor, taken from her own experience but fictionalised. The title is a play on her state of mind as well as the resumés sent via agents to actors for their auditions. 

This is a work of fiction.
But mostly fact. [epigraph]

Character Breakdown

Zawe Ashton was Hackney born and bred and educated at two local girls’ schools: Elizabeth Garret Anderson School and Parliament Hill School. She also attended the Anna Scher Theatre School. She began acting very young, and has had a busy career. 

She was nearly derailed from her career by the bullying behaviour of a bunch of girls who befriended her, she thought, when she appeared on tv. But they planned to beat her up after school.

Mum has to come and get me. They can’t send me home alone. I sit and stare at the motivational quote posters for young women.

‘Young women, young futures.’
‘I am strong, I am worthy, I am beautiful.’
‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken.’

I don’t want to be anyone.

On the car ride home, I decide to stop acting for ever. Nothing good comes of being visible. I have to watch my back, and learn to walk in new shoes. (62)

She gives us the life of a young black female actor in a series of character breakdowns and playlets, sometimes phone conversations with, for example, her agent, or a journalist or a director. The breakdowns are followed by conventional narrative that sheds light upon the character being cast and her response to the role. Some of it is horrific, and some cringe-worthy and there are some challenging roles. There are red carpet moments and humiliations too, like the time she thought she had started a very heavy period while appearing in a West End play. And the moment when she loses her voice.

Sexism and racism permeate her account. Her necessary concerns with her appearance emphasise both of these. 

The very enjoyable narrative drive is found in the quick sequence of episodes, her successes and her failures. We are shown her world, where everything is a little distorted, where actors strive for reality through making stuff up. A bit like fiction. 

Character Breakdown by Zawe Ashton published in 2019 by Vintage. 311pp

This book appeared in a list of recommendations provided by Bernardine Evaristo which appeared on the Penguin site in March 2020.

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Unmute: Young Voices from Lockdown

Every now and again in April- July I noticed that on Twitter Kate Clanchy had posted a poem written by a young person. So often these were beautifully crafted lines that made me stop my scrolling and wonder at the young person who had written the poem, and at Kate Clanchy the teacher who had assisted at the emergence of the poem and the poet. Like. Retweet. 

Recently a friend told me about the winner of the George Orwell Political Writing prize for the book: Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me (2019). She knew I would be interested in the writing of a teacher who respected the voice of students. I told her that I was excited because that very morning I had ordered Unmute, the collection of poems written by her students.

Young Voices

I am not whimsical or romantic about young people. Twenty-five years working in urban secondary schools knocked any of that out of me. But my professional experiences also embedded in me a belief in the importance of giving young people a voice, helping them to find it, amplifying it. So what Kate Clanchy has done is quite in tune with my professional beliefs.

Let us have no talk about young people being ‘the future’. They will make their own future, as we did. It will be both worse and better than the one we created.

And no talk of the innocence of youth, because that denies the reality, the rawness of each person’s experiences at whatever age. I was headteacher of a school in Islington where one third of the population had a different mother tongue than English. And where many of those children had been refugees. Helping those young people explore their experiences, their individual biographies was a major task for the English department. It was a validation for those young people of the lives they had led up to that point. And for some it was a very fearful and dangerous and difficult childhood.

Our young students brought us face to face with their experiences and they also did what young people have done: looked at the familiar with fresh eyes. They can question accustomed responses, traditional ways of expressing ideas; they can experiment with form and language and metaphors and images. They can remind us, too, of the younger selves that we carry within us. 

Unmute

The poets met on-line during Lockdown. All thirteen had at one time or another attended the weekly poetry workshops with their teacher when attending Oxford Spires Academy. Some are sixth-formers, some have moved on with their education. They sought each other’s company to make sense of the lockdown experience, together in poetry. 

And in doing that they touched many people, through the Tweets and now the book. They write about hair, masks,  loss, clapping, separation, changed perceptions and mothers among other themes. I chose the poem below as an example because it speaks to each of us of the smallness of what matters, the invisibility before Lockdown of important truths. 

Crossing

I didn’t know I’d miss waiting
at traffic lights, waiting for a burst
of colour, a static sound.
I didn’t know I’d miss noise,
crowds, the breath of rain
as it hits parched tarmac,
being near enough to hear people’s 
breath. I didn’t realise I was only
exactly alone when I was
walking home from school, or 
to the shops. I didn’t
realise it was the in-
between times that held
me together.

Linnet Drury

You can read more poems from the collection by visiting Rathbones Folio Prize. And you can buy the kindle version here. For £5.00

Proceeds from the sales of UnMute go to Asylum Welcome, which is an Oxford organisation. I have made a donation on account of quoting the poem in this review. 

Unmute: Young Voices from Lockdown edited by Kate Clanchy (2020)

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Potterism by Rose Macaulay

About 100 years ago Lloyd George, the wartime UK prime minister, was accused of selling peerages. Sound familiar? In this novel, one was awarded to Mr Potter, the founder of a chain of publications that had done exceptionally loyal work during the war. Another current concern that has its roots in those days was the attitude, in the press as much as in wider society, of British exceptionalism, ‘we hate all foreigners’ (47). Potterism, published in 1920, was Rose Macaulay’s 10th novel and her first best seller. Rose Macaulay had something to say about this attitude, especially when expressed as anti-Semitism. She was an advocate of values, truth and integrity. 

I am grateful to Kate Macdonald for the advance copy from Handheld Press. Potterism is published on 24thAugust 2020 as is a collection of Rose Macaulay’s anti-war writings, including her short novel Non-Combatants and Others, written in 1916.

Potterism: a tragi-farcical tract

Potterism was a kind of attitude which Rose Macaulay tries to define and subvert in this novel. It was named for the publisher of a paper which appeals to low tastes, nationalism and a dislike of others. The Potter publishing empire is complacent, smug, conservative and without concern for the truth. One might have thought it was modelled on Lord Rothermere, a bit like the Daily Mail, only Lord Rothermere himself appears in the novel. 

The Anti-Potterism League consists of a few Oxford intellectuals, including the twin children of Mr and Mrs Potter. Jane and Johnny both dislike what their father’s papers stand for, and their mother’s romantic fiction. Other members of the League include Arthur Gideon, son of a Jewish émigré, Jukes, a clergyman and Katherine Varick, a scientist. 

Gideon is the leader of this group, and has the clearest idea of what feeds Potterism.

… Potterism has, for one of its surest bases, fear. The other bases are ignorance, vulgarity, mental laziness, sentimentality, and greed. The ignorance that does not know facts; the vulgarity that cannot appreciate values; the laziness which will not try to learn either of these things; the sentimentality which, knowing neither, is stirred by the valueless and the untrue; the greed which grabs and exploits. But fear is worst; the fear of public opinion, the fear of scandal, the fear of independent thought, of loss of position, of discomfort, of consequences, of truth. (72)

The start of the novel lays out the relationships between these people and then the war with Germany arrives. Gender divides them as the men volunteer and go off to war, Gideon is wounded, losing a foot. Johnny escapes with no injuries. Mr Potter’s newspapers adopt the most nationalistic and propogandist attitudes they can. Truth becomes less of a consideration still.

No one could say that the Potter press did not rise to the great opportunity. The press seldom fails to do this. The Potter press surpassed itself, it nearly surpassed its great rival presses. With energy and whole-heartedness it cheered, comforted, and stimulated the people. It never failed to say how well the Allies were getting on, how much ammunition they had, how many men, what indomitable tenacity and cheerful spirits enlivened the trenches. The correspondents it employed wrote home rejoicing; its leading articles were notable hymns of praise. In times of darkness and travail one cannot but be glad of such a press as this. So glad were the Government of it that Mr Potter became, at the end of the 1916, Lord Pinkerton, and his press the Pinkerton press. (31-2)

After the war Jane tries to get a job and goes to the Paris peace conference as her father’s secretary where she meets the Adonis that is Oliver Hobart. He did not fight in the war, strings being pulled by Potter to ensure his exemption. He is very beautiful and the editor of the flagship Potter newspaper: the Haste. He begins by courting Claire, Jane’s older sister, but soon transfers his affections and marries Jane. Arthur Gideon gets a job on the rival paper to the Potterist publication called Fact but it never achieves a wide circulation.

There is then a murder as Oliver Hobart falls downstairs and is killed. Who killed him? Gideon and Jane are in love and each thinks the other responsible. But in the time before the murderer is revealed several people get to put their opinions, including Mrs Potter who assumes it was Gideon because he is a Jew.

All is resolved and Jane is free to marry Gideon. 

Gender in Potterism

Rose Macaulay was a lifelong feminist and through the device of the twins, Jane and Johnny, she captures the different experiences resulting from their different genders. Jane is the cleverer, but it is Johnny who can go and fight and find a job after the war. And he doesn’t have to have babies, an idea which disgusts Jane. Jane is not a very sympathetic character, despite being a member of the Anti-Potterism League. She is greedy and selfish and not much concerned about anyone but herself. 

The scientist, Katherine Varik, appears calmer than Jane, and less greedy and selfish. Her voice is one of reason. At home she continues her scientific experiments in her laboratory, despite the uncertainty in her circle. There are not many female scientists in literature of that time I think.

Structure in Potterism

The first and last sections of this novel are narrated by RM (Rose Macaulay?). The central chapters are narrated in turn in the first person by Gideon, Leila Yorke (which is the pen name of Mrs Potter), Katherine Varik and Laurence Juke, who has become a deacon in the Anglican church despite being a bit of a radical. By using these voices the writer is able to emphasise different aspects of her concerns. For example, the section narrated by Leila Yorke is so full of conceitedness, so smug, so anti-Semitic that one cringes on reading it. We know, then, that Mrs Potter’s conclusion that the murder was committed by Gideon is not founded on anything more than prejudice. Both Juke and Katherine offer less histrionic versions of the events. 

This use of multiple inner voices was somewhat new at the time. Virginia Woolf uses it in Mrs Dalloway, published 5 years after Potterism. In that novel the shifts between voices are made without the signposts that are given to the reader by Rose Macaulay.  

Rose Macaulay

Here is another prolific twentieth century woman writer, and one who has been somewhat neglected in the last 50 years. Born in 1881 Rose Macaulay lived until 1958, having written 23 novels and a great deal of journalism, and other works. Potterism (her 10th novel) was one of the first to sell well, but perhaps her best known is The Towers of Trebizond (1956). She was well respected in her lifetime, but her popularity has not been sustained. It is good that Handheld Press is reissuing her work, bringing her to our attention, for she had some important things to say. And she has things to say to us today, as I have tried to indicate. And Handheld books are beautifully produced and designed. 

Potterism: a tragi-farcical tract by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1920 and reissued by Handheld Press in 2020 with an introduction by Sarah Lonsdale. 247pp

Other relevant on-line commentaries

Stuck in a Book reviewed Potterism as part of the #1920Club in April. And the publisher of the new edition wrote about it on her blog katemacdonald in January 2015 and has suggestions for further reading.

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The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote seven novels, each one very different. The Corner that Held Them was published just after the war in 1948. You may have read Lolly Willowes, a curious but engaging story about a single woman who escapes dependence on her family by becoming a witch, published in 1926. This book is quite different, except that it also considers women’s lives, this time in the fourteenth century, in a convent in Norfolk. 

But this is not your run-of-the-mill historical novel. There are no velvet-clad heaving bosoms, not much sex and no romance, but instead we read of daily lives, a murder, a running away, the collapse of the newly built spire and several loose ends. I was very taken with it.

The Corner that Held Them

For neither might the corner that held them keep them from fear [The Wisdom of Solomon xvii 4]

This is history, but not the royal progress of male actions, not the events that made Britain great, not even the plucky pulling together of the war just won. Instead it is a view of women’s lives, and not of one heroine, but of a community. 

Nor is it a religious history. While they observe the rituals of convent life, the concerns of the nuns are mainly to do with survival and comfort. Their convent is not well endowed. It was set up in dubious circumstances, to do with adultery, murder and grief by the very impious Brian de Retteville on the death of his wife Alianor in 1163. The convent was established on a small rise near a stream and some villages  in Norfolk. The nuns depended upon any dowries brought by novices and the rents from a few local properties, which were far from reliable. 

After a shocking first chapter the novel settles down to relate the events of the three decades following the Black Death, the rise of each prioress, the arrival of a new priest (who wasn’t) and several bailiffs, and novices. The nuns may individually have admirable skills, embroidery or writing, but they disappear with the nuns’ eyesight, senility or death. Indeed, Oby has nothing going for it.

The Black Death was fearsome. It carries off many of the villagers who have to serve the convent, and sees the flight of their priest. In the decades that follow its terrible cull in 1349 we see the coming and going of four or five prioresses, the careers of novices as they become nuns, the arrival of Ralph Kello who claims to be a priest and stays until his death, the building of a spire, its collapse, the changing bishops and their treatment of the nuns, a sympathetic custos and a runaway. There is a murder, attempts at levitation, a vision and a rape.

There is always the necessity of finding more funding. This takes one prioress to a Christening, the custos to a parish that owes rent, the non-priest to find a new hawk and one nun to the death bed of a relation who is a bishop. Far from being cut off from life around them, the ‘corner that held them’ is exposed throughout the novel to the changes of the time, in society, traditional relationships, music and literature. 

In historical fiction events often hold great significance. But in this novel Sylvia Townsend Warner almost plays with the reader to suggest that this event was no more significant than any other. Small episodes reveal aspects of daily life, relationships within the community that continually change, the worries about funding, the economies or the luxuries. At page 310 novel simply stops. 

It is importantly a view of women’s history. Sylvia Townsend Warner had no sympathy for the established church, but the community of women, mostly without vocation, mostly living in Oby through convenience to them or their family, provide interesting material for this novel. We read of the everyday business of living and dying. For example, as a bishop’s visitation approaches a villager is drowned in the Oby fish pond. The carp will no longer be suitable to present to the bishop. There is a storm.

The storm broke the drought. But on the morrow it was as hot as ever – a steaming, oppressive heat. Everything began to go wrong. The cream soured. The food in the larder spoiled. Doors stuck. Patches of mildew came out on walls. The house was invaded by ants. Feeling as though she had been hit over the head by a pole-axe the prioress drove on through these various calamities, hearing of each new disaster with the grinning patience of despair. (176)

One of the charms of this novel is that it is without the prithhees and other anachronisms we imagine inhabited the speech of medieval people. They do use metaphors and images from their daily lives. For example, on his arrival the bishop meets the prioress and… 

… saw what he was prepared to see: a burly old woman whose air, at once imperious and jovial, made her seem better fitted to rule a brothel than a nunnery. (177) 

Another example:

William Holly was one of those small, tight men like a knot of wood, his cross-grainedness seemed a warrant of longevity. (219)

And her descriptions of the countryside are joyous as she describes some of the inhabitants of the nunnery as they strike out on their journeys. 

The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner was first published in 1948 and reissued as a Virago Modern Classic in 1988. This is the version I read, which includes an introduced by Claire Harman. 320 pp

Some other observations on The Corner that Held Them

On Vulpes Libris blog in January 2010 Hilary posted her reactions. She refers to Sylvia Townsend Warner‘s exuberant power’ as a novelist.

Kate Macdonald, of Handheld Press, wrote a very interesting post on her blog in 2017 exploring how innovative Sylvia Townsend Warner was in her historical fiction writing. Here is the link

There is an annual Sylvia Townsend Warner Reading week hosted by A Gallimaufry blog. You can find the round up for 2020 here

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Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns

Benefits was written by a woman almost exactly the same age as me. We were young at that time: 31 years old. It was Zoe Fairbairns’ third novel. In Benefits she presents us with a vision of the future, seen from 1979, in which women continued to be controlled by technical, political and chemical means. It’s always attractive to consider what a writer got wrong or right about  the future. The details are different, but we should remember that today withholding benefits, Universal Credit, is used to punish the poor for any transgressions: failed appointments, mistakes, and unreported changes in circumstances. 

Benefits is my choice for the 1970s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). The Female Eunuch had been published in 1970 and The Feminine Mystique in 1963.  Women were widely involved in feminism and women’s liberation. Consciousness raising groups of women were everywhere. Benefits rises out of the concerns of the late 70s.

Benefits

Set in a dystopian future beginning in the late 1970s, women are threatened by a government that starts off by awarding benefits to mothers and gradually begins to control their lives through the benefits and then through an even more sinister project.

The story follows two women. One is Lynn, a kind of middle of the road feminist, who is not unhappily married, has a daughter with a chronic illness, and who participates in the commune in the abandoned high rise: Collindeane Tower.

Marsha also drifts into the orbit of the commune, and takes up with Polly, a bossy Australian feminist who would like to take charge, but ultimately flees back to Oz, taking Marsha with her.

Another character is David Laing, a former social worker with a coffee habit and a controlling nature who becomes a minister. He is able to see the problems with the welfare system at the start of the novel, but is unable to engage sufficiently with the women who he knows. Peel, his subordinate and later his successor,  has a damning view of Laing, an early expression of the anti-boomers rhetoric we still hear today. 

He was of the soft generation, of the post-war guilt-ridden child-obsessed baby boom. They rode a roller coaster of gratuities: free milk, free cod liver oil, free schools, free medicine, free grants to go to college … it was Peel’s view that the trauma of the seventies, the sudden realisation that the party was over and they couldn’t get what they wanted by slapping on the label rights and howling, had blighted the generation for life, had rendered them incapable of understanding how life works. (168)

The policy shifts and changes, beginning with the benevolence of benefits paid into the purses of mothers, objected to by trades unions which were dominated by men who did not want to pay more taxes for the benefits; subsequently compliance was required to qualify for the benefits and ultimately to control women through narrow qualifications.

Any woman of child-bearing age seen on the streets without children in tow ran the risk of being stoned, spat on or refused admission to public buildings or transport. Some reported attacks by gangs of men who threatened a repetition if the women did not go back to their children. The policemen wrote down the details carefully. Then they said, ‘Are you sure you didn’t ask for it?’ (140)

Ultimately, as part of a shady deal with Europop to control women’s fecundity through chemical means, the whole thing unravels, helped by the violent death of Laing and the inspired children’s strike by women. 

Women’s issues

In the ‘70s women were struggling with question about organisation, living arrangements, leadership and how to improve their lives. Has that changed? Women’s lived experience must be put up against policy to check its value. By interweaving the stories of Lynn and Marsha and others, the author is able to show how distorted were the governments seeking to control women.

Of course Zoe Fairbairns did not know about Mrs Thatcher’s government and where it would take us in terms of cutting back the welfare state, and the industrial economy. She did not see the political division over the closing of the mines or the Falklands War, the Poll Tax and later the Iraqi war and years of austerity, let alone Covid-19. 

But the desire to control people, especially women, by those in political power remains. Today some of it is by the appeal to a past that did not exist, to ideas that are corroded and by denying or ignoring the outcomes of poor decisions and actions.

Zoe Fairbairns

Born in 1948, she began her writing career early, having two books published before she left university. She worked in women’s publications and journalism, including Spare Rib and continued to publish novels and short stories. Her most recent book is on writing short stories. 

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979) published by Virago. 214 pp 

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I am exploring previously published novels by women. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The most recent  choices for the project are

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

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Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

I am a great admirer of Elizabeth Strout’s fiction. This will be the fourth post on Bookword focusing on her books, and the fifth novel of hers that I have read. Some of my admiration comes from the characters she draws, especially older women, and the situations she creates for them. Some of it comes from her style of writing, especially her dialogue. And some from the format she has chosen for Olive: interlinked short stories. I know other readers find her work hugely enjoyable too.

This will also be the 48th in the series championing older women in fiction in order to make them more visible. This book returns us to small towns in Maine, USA and to the character first introduced in 2008, Olive Kitteridge. 

Olive, Again

In the final episodes of the previous book Olive had recently been widowed and had met Jack – a Republican to her horror –  with whom she became friendly and ultimately intimate. Early on in this novel they are married. This collection of stories take us through the years of her second marriage and widowhood and into old age and its terrors.

We are shown small town East Coast American life, with its controlling gossip, unspoken standards and long memories. Change is also a feature. Mostly we are in Crosby but a nearby town, Shirley Falls, has been ‘overrun’ by ‘Somalians’, and the mills have closed and been demolished. Nothing is the same.

Many of the characters were taught Maths (Math) by Olive Kitteridge, and the image of her formed during this time endures. She was harsh, distant with occasional flashes of wisdom for her students. Teacher and students meet from time to time, the young people now adults, and some of them benefit from her observations about people’s suffering and her lapses into kindness. The distress of a young woman unable to choose butter in a supermarket is noticed by Olive, who helps her make her purchases, sees her home and visits when no one else does, for the woman is undergoing chemotherapy.

Memories are long-lasting. So is some damage. And Olive’s relationship with her adult son has never been good. They fell out badly when Olive went on a visit to New York to stay with his family, as revealed in Olive Kitteridge. Now he visits with his new wife and the visit again does not go well.

It came to her then with a horrible whoosh of the crescendo of truth. She had failed on a colossal level. She must have been failing for years and not realized it. She did not have a family as other people did. […] And it had not happened out of the blue. She could not understand what it was about her, but it was about her that had cause this to happen. And it had to have been there for years, maybe all of her life, how would she know? (91)

The reader is perhaps more observant than Olive. We see her clumsiness with people, her abruptness and her kindness. We see how she pushes people away, expects obedience from children, speaks truth rather than tact. And we see that people hold onto their images of her. She is intelligent rather than warm and does not conform to small town social regulation.

In some stories Olive makes only a small appearance, always in character but sometimes it feels too engineered. But the theme of class hierarchies and poverty continue through each story, as people learn to live with each other and the disappointments and catastrophes of their lives.

Ultimately Olive loses her second husband, the man who had loved her ‘Oliveness’. And she becomes old and even more lonely, has a heart attack and becomes dependent upon others.

At one point she meets Crosby’s own national poet in a coffee shop and because she is lonely Olive tells her about her life. (Later she find the conversation published as a poem in a magazine.) She tries to attract the waitress’s attention and then explains why being invisible can be liberating:

“It’s just that you don’t count anymore, and there is something freeing about that. […] I don’t think I can explain this well. But you go through life thinking you’re something. Not in a good way, and not in a bad way. But you think you are something. And then you see” – Olive shrugged in the direction of the girl who had served the coffee – “that you no longer are anything. To a waitress with a huge hind end, you’ve become invisible. And it’s freeing.” (204)

The format of the linked short stories allows Elizabeth Strout to show her protagonist both close up and at a distance. The interweaving of the characters’ lives and events reflect small town life. Everyone has their dilemmas and difficulties, and some have catastrophes that pile up in an almost comic way. Some characters even appear from other novels (Amy and Isabelle for example)

I was struck by the dialogue in this book. The story called Helped is largely a phone conversation of a bereaved young woman, Suzanne, who is just learning the full story of her family and the family lawyer. He is kind and a good listener and their conversation gradually peels back the pain Suzanne experienced within her family, and his own family origins in Hungary. The ‘beats’ in the long scene of the phone call are carefully and effectively timed, and we leave the conversation seeing that they have given each other something important and human.

The characters are authentic in their complexity. They have doubts, contradictions, regrets and some take bold leaps. The attraction of Olive is in her authenticity. She is a large woman, prone to dismissing people with a casual wave of her hand and to making judgements about them. But she also has insight and compassion for the lives of others. In the final pages she reflects on her own life and her approaching death. 

It was herself, she realised, that did not please her. (289)

She concludes in this way:

I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing. (289) 

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout, published in hardback by Viking, Penguin in 2019. The paperback is due out in November 2020. Thanks to Anne for the lend.

paperback version

Links to related reviews

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (on Bookword June 2016)

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (March 2017)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (February 2018)

JacquieWine’s review of Olive, Again appeared on her blog in November 2019.

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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Not all jolly hockey sticks then!

During Lockdown many readers have become quite nostalgic. Some even pine for their schooldays. Not me. But it turned my mind to the wealth of adult fiction that involves girls’ schools and more specifically girls’ boarding schools.

The setting provides a number of useful features for an author:

  • Action is confined in space (the school grounds) and time (the school terms)
  • Action is set against a routine of lessons, games and prep
  • Relationships are intensified 
  • Contrasts between girls of the same age are brought into relief
  • Parents are absent
  • Power relationships play out: older-younger pupils; teachers-pupils; boarding-day pupils; established-new girls
  • The outside world is both alluring and a danger
  • The girls are usually in a state of transition into adulthood.

And it is perhaps this last feature that has inspired so many writers to explore those vital school years.

Boarding Schools Books

Here are six including some with links to posts on Bookword:

Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil (1926)

Mollie and Joan meet at Allendale School. The girls in this novel all have spirit and determination, even if from time to time they become weary or depressed. The school ethos encourages this capable attitude, and there is no suggestion that marriage is the answer to the girls’ problems, or that any of the young women aspire to a husband. Joan can see that she will need to earn a living and Mollie’s father turns out to be a crook so the girls learn to rely upon each other.

The values that are lauded in this book include always telling the truth, helping one another, being positive, mucking in and so on. Loyalty is a key theme.

(Published by Blackie & Sons)

Frost in May by Antonia White (1933)

Somehow I had neglected this book, even though it was frequently quoted in the education literature. It’s nearly a textbook on how not to educate a girl, is liberal education, how to ‘break’ the child’s spirit. 

It’s a beautiful evocation of childhood and that moment when a child is poised to take on the world, but not yet powerful enough to get her own way, and which is actually a good thing. The child, Nanda, in the end falls foul of the convent and her convert father. One cheers. 

Lovely introduction by Elizabeth Bowen (in 1948) who calls it a work of art.

(Published in Virago Modern Classics)

Consequences by EM Delafield (1919)

Consequences is hard to read, kept me awake at night, because the protagonist, Alex, was damaged by her family and her education. In its quiet way this is a tragedy.

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

But Alex is not able to follow this trajectory. Not especially beautiful, clever, or able to see what her parents want of her she craves affection, and when she causes her younger sister to have an accident she is sent off to a convent in Belgium to be put right. She develops a ‘pash’ for fellow student Queenie Torrance, and later she transfers affection first to Mother Gertrude and then to her sister-in-law.

On her return she still receives no guidance but is introduced to the social scene in London and becomes engaged to a selfish and boring young man. When she realises that engagement to such a vapid young man would not be right she runs off to become a nun under the influence of Mother Superior Gertrude. It does not end well for her.

Alex has had no support or guidance of any worth, including from her school, to achieve this. It’s a searing and feminist account of a damaging upbringing. It is hard to read because one can only imagine all the many young women who were as oppressed as Alex.

(Published by Persephone Books)

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

Abigail by Magda Szabó (1970)

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix (2020)

A long book but a gripping story. It is 1943 and Hungary is in danger of being defeated in the war. So a father sends his daughter away to school. How will Georgina survive the separation? How will she fit in as she offends the girls with whom she must live? The school has very strict Protestant rules (she describes it as Calvinist) and she breaks these too: has personal possessions, for example.

The father, the General, has placed Gina in Matula for her protection, as he fears she will be used against him if she is found. He heads an anti-Nazi underground movement. It turns out that the children’s guardian angel (Abigail, a statue with a pitcher in which you place your letter of request in the garden)  and the local dissident (anti-war, anti-Nazi) are the same person and that with his network they manage to save Gina. The finale is exciting as the conspirators evade the searchers.

Gina has to learn to trust others and that danger can be found outside the school she longed to escape from.

(Published by Macelhose Press)

Villette by Charlotte Bronte (1853)

Who could forget Lucy Snowe who goes to work as a teacher in Belgium and falls for M Paul Emanuel, an esteemed teacher at the school? Lucy is a passive young woman to whom terrible things keep happening, and I have never thought much of this heroine.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

Lowood is a charity school for poor and orphaned children to which Jane Eyre is sent when her aunt tires of her. The headmaster Mr Brocklehurst is cruel and the girls suffer under his rule. Jane befriends Helen, who dies in a typhus outbreak at the school. Jane spends six years as a pupil and two more as a teacher in Lowood before she goes as a governess to Thornfield Hall. 

Lowood is important in Jane’s development, especially because of the example set by her friend Helen and the guidance of one teacher, Miss Temple.

Boarding schools especially religious ones, do not come out of this brief survey very well. Or perhaps it is the parenting that is the focus of the criticism. Unloving parents and guardians who pack their awkward girls off for someone else to put them right.

Other novelists have their heroines teach themselves: Mary Oliver: a life by May Sinclair, for example. 

Can you suggest any more girls’ school novels? What have I missed?

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