Monthly Archives: April 2021

Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley

Mary Cholmondeley is another or those neglected female writers of the early twentieth century, despite having published 13 novels. I had never heard of her or of her books until I read a post on Heavenali’s blog last June. I was intrigued enough to order a copy, which eventually came to the top of my tbr pile.  It’s a strange book, and I wasn’t helped by the title or the cover of the print-on-demand copy that I received – a renaissance lad in a fetching flat hat, looking wan and interesting.

Despite all of this I enjoyed the book and thank Heavenali for drawing my attention to it.

Red Pottage

Two young women must negotiate their early adulthood in a society that has no respect for their independence. The reading public were most shocked by the portrayal of two young women, unmarried and not guided by men so much as their principles. Rachel is an orphan, not especially good looking or celebrated by cultured society until she becomes very rich as a result of an inheritance. Hugh Scarlett is attracted to her, just at the moment when he has decided to end his adulterous liaison with Lady Newhaven.

Hester is Rachel’s great friend, but she too has experienced misfortune when her aunt died. Hester must live with her brother, a vicar. She is a published novelist and is determined to complete her novel while in the household. Hester’s brother, Mr Gresley, is a pompous and obnoxious man who mistakes his opinions for truth sanctioned by his position in the church.

Meanwhile Hugh Scarlett’s treachery has been discovered by Lord Newhaven who offers him an alternative to a duel: one of them will end his life within four months and the unfortunate one will be decided by picking the shorter taper. Lady Newhaven overhears them deciding on this process but fails to establish which one draws the short taper.

The story of Red Pottage reveals a huge amount of hypocrisy. The women suffer from it and from a lack of honesty by some of the most significant men in their lives. Much of the hypocrisy of these well-heeled people is very funny. The society women fancy themselves as cultured, sympathetic and intellectual. They are not.

The title refers to an incident from Genesis 25. Easau had been working in the field and is very hungry. His younger twin demands Esau’s birth right in exchange for some pottage (vegetable stew, so not an exotic meal). Esau holds his privilege so lightly that he agrees. The red of the pottage is thought to be a play on his name, which of course links to Hugh Scarlett, who towards the end of the novel find himself understanding, that he has sacrificed all for the worthless love of Lady Newhaven. He hopes his love for Rachel will redeem him. It does not work out as he intended.

Mr Gresley commits a crime against his sister, so grievous that she nearly dies. He does this because he claims that he  knows better than her. But his destructive actions reveal his lack of true Christian feeling.

In contrast, Dick, who has returned from Australia, is much less constrained by society’s manners and plays an important part in challenging them, proving himself to be much more generous than Mr Gresley.

There are others who do well by the two young women, and eventually it all sorts itself out. But there has been much heartache, and uncovering of secrets before the conclusion.

The tension about who will kill themselves when the time comes is played out among the characters, and at times we are left asking plot questions (what did Lord Newhaven leave with the Bishop before he went to London, or why did he save Hugh Scarlett’s life) there is much entertainment at the behaviour of the self-important. Mr Gresley’s temperance meeting is disrupted because he had not taken enough note of one of the invited speakers. I laughed out loud at this early example of mansplaining when at a dinner party Rachel is addressed by ‘the great’ Mr Harvey.

“I trust, Miss West” said the deep voice of Mr Harvey revolving himself and his solitaire [diamond ring?] slowly towards her, “that I have your sympathy in the great cause to which I have dedicated myself, the emancipation of woman.”
“I thought that the new woman had effected her own emancipation,” said Rachel.
Mr Harvey paid no more attention to her remark than anyone with a theory to propound which must be delivered to the world as a whole.
“I venture to think,” he continue, his heavy lustreless eyes roaming to a standstill upon her, “that though I accept in all reverence the position of woman as the equal of man, as promulgated in The Princess, by the lion-hearted Laureate [Tennyson], nevertheless I advance beyond him in that respect. I hold” – in a voice calculated to impress the whole table – “that woman is man’s superior, and that she degrades herself when she endeavours to place herself on an equality with him.” (119)

At times Mary Cholmondeley’s style is as florid as Mr Harvey’s. These paragraphs provide a beat in a scene beside the river where Rachel knows she is about to receive and reject a proposal from a former lover.

It was an afternoon the secret of which Autumn and Spring will never tell to Winter and Summer, when the wildest dreams of love might come true, when even the dead might come down and put warm lips to ours, and we should feel no surprise.
A kingfisher flashed across the open on his way back to the brook near at hand, fleeing from the still splendour of the sun-fired woods, where he was but a courtier, to the little winding world of grey stones and water, where he was king. (133)

Mr Tristram is confident that Rachel will accept his renewed attentions, despite having jilted her painfully some years before, when she was poor. We know better, and this overblown prose precisely conjures his self-importance and misplaced confidence.  When Mary Cholmondeley celebrates the qualities of honesty, openness and loyalty her prose is more direct.

Mary Cholmondeley

Mary Cholmondeley was born in Shropshire in 1859. She was the third of eight children of a vicar and the family moved around a great deal. She never married but lived with her sister in London and Suffolk after the death of their father. She wrote 13 novels. Red Pottage was considered a bit scandalous when it was first published in 1899 as it was seen as a satire on clergy and dealt with adultery and independent woman and their emancipation. She died in 1925.

Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley appeared in 1899. I read the print on demand edition by AEgypan Books (no dated). 283 pp. It was also published in the Virago Modern Classics series.

Related posts

Heavenali’s review from June 2020

Also reviewed on Stuck in a Book blog in August 2011

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The Living is Easy by Dorothy West

The American Dream – anyone can make it if they work hard enough. Bart Judson is the son of freed slaves, who makes a good living in Boston selling fruit. His speciality is bananas. He married another southerner, Cleo, who is very pretty and very light skinned and very ambitious. Boston is a city that prides itself on its liberal attitudes to its Black population. 

Some of Cleo’s ambition is shared with Lutie Johnson, the protagonist of Ann Petry’s novel The Street published two years earlier than The Living is Easy in 1946. These two novels offer a complementary view of trying to make it in the US as a Black person in the first half of the 20th Century. Lutie belongs in the poor Black fiction of the time. Cleo has the advantage of money. However, in both novels the American Dream is shown to be a chimera, offered in good times to everybody. 

The Living is Easy

The novel begins in Boston at the turn of the century. Cleo is married to a rich black businessman, and they have both made their way from the South. In Boston, they pride themselves on treating their black brethren decently. However, race pervades everything. Passing, if you can, is normal, the lighter your skin the more acceptable your social status.

Cleo is ambitious for herself. In the opening chapters we see how she successfully rents a larger house in a higher status district. Dependent upon her husband for money, we see how she will manipulate the situation to skim off a little of the rent money every month. She conceives a desire to recreate the close family ties of her childhood and schemes to bring her three married sisters to Boston, leaving their husbands behind. 

While Cleo continues to lie and plot to gain every advantage from every situation the economic environment is changing. In Boston immigration is changing the city. More and more Black families are coming to the city, many of them poor, in contrast to their predecessors who were doctors, lawyers and business men. In addition a large number of Irish families are also changing the population.

The First World War begins to have an effect on trade, especially trade that relies on shipping as Bart Judson’s does. There is less money, the sisters have to go out to work, Cleo has to resort to inadequate repairs on the house. Bart ends up broke after the war and must go and seek his fortune in a new place.

Despite Boston’s pride in its attitudes to its successful Black residents, racism lies close to the surface. One of the most shocking moments in this novel is when Cleo agrees to rent the house and its owner Mr Van Ryper explains why he is leaving it.

“Best house on the block. Sorry to leave it, but I’m too old to temper my prejudices.”(45)

Cleo assumes a poor Black family has moved in next door and asks where in the South they come from. Mr Van Ryper clarifies matters.

Mr Van Ryper rose to his feet. His face purpled with anger. “Madam, my father was a leader of the Underground Movement. I was brought up in an Abolitionist household. Your accusation of color prejudice is grossly impertinent. I believe in man’s inalienable right to liberty.” (46)

He lectures her for a while and then, when she says it’s nice that he isn’t prejudiced, he contradicts her again.

“Madam, I am distinctly prejudiced against the Irish,” Mr Van Ryper said wearily, thinking that colored women, for all they had had to endure, were as addlepated as their fairer-skinned sisters. “The Irish present a threat to us entrenched Bostonians. They did not come here in chains or by special invitation.” (47)

So Mr Van Ryper is happy to be prejudiced against the Irish and all women. The difficult position of women is referred to again later when Bart is asked for funds for two of the sisters to return to the South to bury their father.

He saw with bitter clarity his situation and theirs. Cleo could not go to her dead father nor Serena to her doomed husband unless he gave them a few miserable dollars for train fare. The dependency of women had been the thing he cherished them for. Yet in this moment he was sharply aware of the brutal weapon dependency wielded.  (277)

Cleo has caused a great deal of damage and suffering with her scheming and manipulations. Her sisters’ marriages are destroyed, their husbands abandoned, and throughout her marriage she has seen her husband as an enemy to be thwarted. She’s a hard character to like, but women and especially Black women might respond as she did to the limited lives they could live. 

For some of this novel she was living an easy life, but change brought by economic forces, to the demography of Boston, to her husband’s business, meant that a life built on lies and deceit could not remain easy. I doubt whether a life built on good principles could have stood against the pressures she endured, and there are examples of people of integrity in this novel, not least Bart Judson who sees his business fail. The Living is Easy shows the reader that the American Dream has no more substance for Cleo and Bart Judson than it did for Lutie Johnson.

Dorothy West

Dorothy West was born in Boston in June 1907 and died in Martha’s Vineyard in August 1998. Her parents had been born in slavery. Dorothy West wrote and was published from an early age and was educated at Boston University and Columbia. She was part of the Harlem Renaissance, mixing with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and other writers of the time. She visited Russia with Langston Hughes and edited a literary journal. She worked on a federal writers project during the war.

She began spending more time on Martha’s Vineyard and wrote both her novels there. She contributed stories to the local paper and issued collections of short stories. Her second novel The Wedding was not published until 1985. She was included in the Daughters of Africa collection in 1992. 

At a time when people were writing about poor Blacks, she provided a new perspective from more prosperous Black lives.

The Living is Easy by Dorothy West, first published in 1948. I used the edition from Virago Modern Classics from 1987. 362pp

Related posts:

The Street by Ann Petry (1946)

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

Margaret Busby and Daughters of Africa (1992)

Feminize Your Canon: Dorothy West by Emma Garman in The Paris Review, July 2018

Whatever happened to Dorothy West? by Diana Evans in the Guardian, August 2019

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Bookword walks in Orkney

My friend Sarah has many good ideas. We have been friends for 40 years but as we live 180 miles apart we have not seen each other since October. Sarah suggested we do a virtual walk, somewhere where there was a route we could follow and visit interesting things along the way. We chose St Magnus’s Way in Orkney: the route is 55 miles long, begins in Egilsay and finishes in Kirkwall on Mainland, following a route themed on the saint’s life. 

So we began our walk on 1st March, spending a little time, virtually, at the bird sanctuary on the small island of Egilsay and looking up the story of the saint’s death, and at photos of his church. Then we followed a rocky path along the north cliffs of the Mainland arriving in Birsay after three days. The next bit of the route was a flat and straight road between some of the lochs that can be found all over Orkney. We arrived in Dounby on 7th March.

By this point my researches had roused in me a desire to visit Stromness (mostly because of the music, Farewell to Stromness by Peter Maxwell Davies which I play on the piano) but also because it has a reputation as a pretty town with a museum that contains a whale’s ear drum. And more than that, we both wanted to visit the Neolithic archaeology of the island, and St Magnus’s Way would not be taking that in. So we diverted to Skara Brae.

And here, my friends prepare yourselves, I sustained an injury by twisting my ankle and breaking it. I was not able to continue the walk. So we consulted on whether to give up, perhaps to start again later. And here was Sarah’s second brilliant idea: we should hunker down in a bothy and read books about Orkney until I was fit to continue.

So we did. We agreed to read Beside the Ocean of Time by the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown. I ordered a copy of Outrun by Amy Liptrot for Sarah. And I reread the account by the Scottish poet, Kathleen Jamie, of a Neolithic village dig on the island of Westray, north of Mainland, in Surfacing.

Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown 

Thorfinn Ragnarson is a dreamy boy who is unlikely to make anything of himself, according to the school teacher on Norday, a fictitious island in Orkney. His daydreams form the chapters of this book, taking us from the time, long before the Vikings to the death of the island after the Second World War. He explores the rivers of Eastern Europe, just misses the battle of Bannockburn, helps Bonnie Prince Charlie, and with the islanders outsmarts the press gangs of the 18th century.

The island’s unchanging nature, the families, the crofts handed down through countless generations, the myths and legends of the islanders, their history, their rituals and needs are all evoked. The death of the island is sudden and brutal. It is used as an aerodrome in Second World War, and crofts, land, animals and people are erased despite their long history.

Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown, published in 1994 by Polygon books. 197pp. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 1994.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

I can see why this memoir was much lauded when it was first published. The writing is very clear, very unemotional and very sharp. She does not ask you to be sorry for her, although she got herself into terrible difficulties.

The first part of this book describes how the author was plunged into alcoholism, out of control in Hackney in the ‘90s. Eventually she decides she has to sort herself out. She returns to her childhood home in Orkney and through working on her father’s farm, for the RSPB and living more or less in isolation on Papay island through the winter, she achieves two years of sobriety.

The book is full of beautiful descriptions of landscape, finding meaning in astronomy, bird life, farm life and the ways of the islanders. Change, seasons, people’s fallibilities, these are the backdrop to her story. That the farm is situated just north of Skara Brae where I was hunkered down, lends more details to our walk and our delay in the Neolithic village.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (2016) published by Canongate. 280pp. Shortlisted for the Wellcome and Wainwright Prizes in 2016.

Surfacing Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie is a Scottish poet. She also has a way of connecting archaeology with people’s lives in her essays. She writes with great calmness and humility about her visit to the site of an abandoned Yup’iq village in Alaska which is being gradually washed away by the Pacific Ocean as a result of rising sea levels.

She visits another archaeological site, this one a Neolithic village on the island of Westray, north of Mainland in Orkney. The Links of Noltland are in danger from lack of funding. The dig has found a large community, built over centuries from stone, recently uncovered by the winds. If funds run out the elements will destroy what remains of settlements built on the remains of the homes of previous generations. You can find the link to my post on Surfacing here.

Surfacing Kathleen Jamie, published in 2019 by Sort of books. 247pp

Now my ankle is good enough to make a slow progression towards The Ring of Brodgar, on its isthmus between two lochs: Stenness and Harray. We pass broch, tumuli, stone rings and cairns. This land has been occupied for perhaps 8000 years. Before the Vikings arrived, Neolithic and Bronze age peoples came and lived, farming and raising cattle, living among the seals, the migrating birds and on the edge of the sea. I move slowly with a stick and my friend for support.

And Sarah writes:

One of the most difficult aspects of the last year has been not walking with you Caroline. I value these days so much, for the sense of exploration and movement, and for the way we pace our talking along with our walking, sometimes offloading, sometimes musing, always laughing and learning.

So a virtual journey seemed like a good idea if it was all we could do. I’m not on the whole a great follower of travel guides, or reader of travel books, but we knew we needed a route where we could find views and terrain described. I must say though that it was photos and the BBC 4 archaeology programme that really captured my imagination at first, not the written word.  I quickly tired of St Magnus who seemed to have done not much to be sanctified and remembered so long. 

In a way your injury, forcing us to rest at Skara Brae, was a happy accident. Well, not happy obviously but a useful turn of events. I started to feel the wind, smell the sea and hear the birds right on the edge of this tiny island. Farewell to Stromness captures the excitement perfectly. Beside the Ocean of Time mostly disappointed me (I found the dreaming child so dull) but it does paint a picture of Orkney not as remote but as linked, through its widely-travelling inhabitants, to many world events and historical moments.

Mostly when I travel, not virtually but actually, I am interested in how people live in this place which is new to me. Literally how do they survive and thrive, and how do landscape and human behaviour interact here? What is important to them, and what isn’t? I am half way through The Outrun and although this is mainly the story of one woman’s journey into and eventually out of self-destruction, I’m appreciating a much broader impression of the physical and emotional context of life on Orkney. Sea and sky and land of course, and enviable familiarity with the sight and sound of so many different kinds of bird. But interwoven with all the natural beauty and the strong sense of community, grimmer pictures are painted of life for individuals and families: the smell of the ferry, the old freezer left to rust in the farmyard, her father’s caravan home, her job cleaning the accommodation for oil terminal staff, houses and farms left deserted and rotting away, boats breaking on rocks. It all feels very real and true, and quite different from a travel book.

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Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

I picked Jamaica Inn for my contribution to the #1936 club because I had a copy sitting on my shelves, and I had forgotten my first reading of it, which may have been about 50 years ago. I have been critical of Daphne du Maurier, specifically of Rebecca, but also of The House on the StrandJamaica Inn was her fourth novel, published before those two and in it I found a writer who can write a good old fashioned suspense story, with some romance. Wuthering Heights lite anyone?

Jamaica Inn

We are in Cornwall in the far south west of Britain in the 1820s. 

The heroine Mary Yellan is as she should be: youngish, but not so young as to be foolish; independent, but not by choice as she had promised her widowed and dying mother to live with her aunt at Jamaica Inn; pretty, but not so attractive that all the men will do anything for her; and with spirit to stand up to people, but a soft heart as well. The story begins as she makes her way from the peaceful town of her childhood, Helston, to the wilderness of Bodmin moor. It is night and the coachman is reluctant to set her down at this infamous hostelry.

The villain is Joss Merlyn and as villainous as a reader could wish. He is the landlord of Jamaica Inn. He drinks, he is a bully, he is violent and we know at once that he is up to no good. 

He was a great husk of a man, nearly seven feet high, with a creased black brow and a skin the colour of a gypsy. His thick dark hair fell over his eyes in a fringe and hung about his ears. He looked as if he had the strength of a horse, with immense, powerful shoulders, long arms that reached almost to his knees and large fists like hams.  (20)

He married Mary’s aunt Patience and has reduced her to a frightened dependence. It is not long before Mary discovers that he is the leader of a band of ruffians and cutthroats who are engaged in smuggling. Jamaica Inn is the perfect isolated place to store the contraband. Later when he is drunk he tells Mary that he and his band are also wreckers They deliberately lure ships onto the rocks to steal their cargo, killing any witnesses.

The hero Jem Merlyn is as he should be despite being the younger brother of the landlord: independent, a little wild but not with malice; handsome but in a rural and rugged way; with a reckless and adventurous outlook, and some mystery about him.

Daphne du Maurier tells a good story, full bloodied, daring heroine, ghastly baddies and set in a dramatic landscape that adds to the suspense. The story is set up well. We join Mary at the end of her coach journey in the late evening, the last passenger. She must be set down at Jamaica Inn despite the coachman’s reluctance, for respectable folk no longer go to the inn. Darkness continues to be the background for much of the action, in the inn, on the seashore and on the moor. This darkness is contrasted with the peaceful, bright little town of Helston where Mary was brought up, and the jollity of the Christmas fair at Launceston, where Mary and Jem spend a happy Christmas Eve. 

In the darkness sounds play a crucial role in the story: the sounds of horses, carts and men carrying heavy goods into Jamaica Inn rouse Mary to first notice the wrong-doing. Horse hooves on the roads announce the arrival in the scene of a new character. There is a clock that ticks, but one night it has stopped. There is rain and hail against the windows, and wind around the house. And when Mary is taken one night by the gang and left unconscious in a carriage on a narrow path, she wakes to hear the sea. 

There could be no stillness where the sea broke upon the rock-bound shore. She heard it again now, and continually; a murmur and a sigh as the spent water gave itself to the strand and withdrew reluctantly, and then a pause as the sea gathered itself for a renewal of effort – a momentary fragment in time – and then once more the thunder and the crash of the fulfilment, the roar of the surf upon shingle and the screaming scatter of stones as they followed the drag of the sea. (162)

What follows is a terrible scene as a ship is lured to the beach and the gang go wild with violence and greed.

So Mary’s task is to bring her uncle and his gang to justice and to rescue poor Patience. It’s hard to achieve for he has the physical advantage and on their return from the wrecking he makes a prison of Jamaica Inn, locking Mary in her room. It soon emerges that there is another person that has been directing Joss Merlyn and the wreckers. He is not prepared to be caught and goes to desperate ends to evade justice. The final climax takes place at Roughtor high on Bodmin moor.

Daphne du Maurier

Born in 1907, Daphne du Maurier lived until 1989. Her most famous book was Rebecca, but she wrote 17 novels in all and many other plays, pieces of journalism, essays. She lived for much of her adult life in Cornwall which features in many of her novels. 

As with some of her other novels, Alfred Hitchcock made a film of Jamaica Inn in 1939 with many changes to the story. Daphne du Maurier was not pleased with it. Nor was Hitchcock. There was also a serial by the BBC in 2014 and ITV adapted it for television in 1983.

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, first published in 1936. I read the Penguin edition of 1962. 268pp

Related posts

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

The #1936 Club led by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy‘s Bookish Ramblings

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Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

I love our reading group for two main reasons: I get to talk with others about my favourite subject and we read books I wouldn’t have chosen myself. Sometimes our choices are disappointing, but much more often the choices are very rewarding. This was the case with Lost Children Archive, which we read in March.

This novel already had a good reputation, and the topic of refugees, refugee children and their treatment is sadly and persistently in the news, both in the UK and in the US. This book was longlisted for Women’s Prize and Booker Prize in 2019 and it confronts the events at the US southern border head on. Not only is it topical but this is an innovative and imaginative novel that deserves attention.

Lost Children Archive

The main narrative of the novel is a road trip taken by two adults and their two children from New York to the southwestern states. The adults have left  careers in sound recordings to pursue their own interests: the husband is looking for the echoes of the Apache Indian tribes. The mother is drawn into a search for the stories of children who cross the border separating Mexico and the US. She had met Manuela at the school gates and heard that she is expecting her children, two girls, to arrive at any moment. 

As they drive, they witness the economic decline of many places: abandoned gas stations, ruined motels, the empty highway. Sadness pervades this trip because it is clear to the mother, the narrator of most of the book, that she and her husband will part when they reach their destination, wherever it is. 

As they travel, we are drawn into other texts, about sound recording, about the first nations, and the Elegies of Lost Children. These elegies are created by the author, but reference many other writers: Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot, Galway Kinnell.

There is other documentary material provided in the text, not least the Migrant Mortality Reports, photographs and the boy’s Polaroids. The importance of documenting, recording, creating these archives runs through this novel. What does it mean to be American? The indigenous population was all but wiped out, and deprived of land and other rights; the migrants from the south have the ambition to be American; the family who make the road trip find themselves adrift in their own country.

The climax is narrated by the boy and meshes with the stories in the Elegies and Manuela’s daughters who have their mother’s phone number stitched into their clothing. 

An innovative and imaginative novel

I have already mentioned some of this novel’s originality: the use of texts from elsewhere, and other documentary materials. Some readers may be reminded of WG Sebald’s use of photographs. Here, too, they are not of good quality, but they still add something to the narrative, to the documentation of the story.

I am reminded of Sebald’s description of Theresienstadt concentration camp In Austerlitz. The effect of Sebald’s description, written over many pages in one sentence, as here in Lost Children’s Archive, is to force you to stay with the prose. You can’t look away. You have to bear witness to the experiences of the children. 

She gives none of the family a name. This anonymity brings you closer to their relationships. And Valeria Luiselli writes the most stunning descriptions of the landscapes through which the family travel and search.

The effect of all of these devices is to draw together a dramatic story with both individual human relevance and immediacy, with a damning indictment of how children are treated in our world, especially when they are unwanted migrants.

Valeria Luiselli herself is originally from Mexico, but the migrant story is not hers, although she had served as a court translator for South American children seeking asylum in the US. She has written other novels, Faces in the CrowdThe Story of my Teeth, as well as collections of essays. but this is her first book in English.

Our small zoom meeting of the reading group agreed that this is an intense, relevant and strong novel.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli published in 2019. I read the paperback version from 4th Estate. 385pp. Longlisted for Women’s Prize and Booker Prize in 2019. 

Another post about books on refugee

Well-founded fear: a Themed Post about Refugees (from March 2021)

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Literary Lifelines and Stepping Stones

Here is another guest post on Bookword Blog. After my friend and co-author Eileen Carnell’s contribution Perfect Presents for a Bookish Bod I invited other blog subscribers to write me something if they wished. The writer Jude Hayland has written this brilliant post which connects her reading and writing.

Literary Lifelines and Stepping Stones

It’s the question that so many writers are asked and that is so impossible to answer:

So when did you start to write? 

It feels akin to being asked:

So when did you start to read?

And I suppose the honest, but no doubt frustrating answer is – as soon as I could. For me, the reading and writing have always gone hand in hand. Once I had begun to read – with early memories of Milly Molly Mandy, Little Pete Stories, Teddy Robinson, My Naughty Little Sister– I wanted to write. My bedroom was full of small exercise books bought with pocket money from Woolworths, lined pages filled with my ill-formed handwriting spilling out stories of dolls that came to life at night, talking cats and bewitching fairies.

As I progressed onto reading about skating stars and vicarage children with Noel Streatfeild, wallowing in ballerina ambitions with Lorna Hill and harbouring theatrical dreams with Pamela Brown, so more exercise books were filled with attempts to emulate such plot lines. Always a child who enjoyed her own company, nothing was more treasured than retreating to my bedroom when I came home from school, losing myself in a book, then writing the latest chapter of my ballet tale or stage school saga.

When I was a teenager there was no such thing as YA literature. The transition to adult books from the children’s section of the library was via Catherine Cookson and Jean Plaidy before discovering Monica Dickens, Lynn Reid Banks and early Margaret Drabble. I am afraid I can’t claim that I read all of Jane Austen and most of Dickens by the time I was 18 as so many writers impressively seem to do – although Jane Eyre, studied for ‘O’ level, became a lifelong favourite and I remember reading LP Hartley’s The Go-Between one teenage summer, thinking that finally I had left children’s fiction behind. 

But my own writing had stopped – those Woolworths’ exercise books now seemed childishly redundant – as I embarked on an English Literature degree and spent three years reading such awe-inspiring literature that the only way I could put pen to paper or tap away on my manual Olivetti was in critical praise of their brilliance.

What got me writing again?

Then I began to teach. 

And, standing one day in a classroom of 14 year olds, setting them the task of writing a story, I thought I want to be doing this! I want to write stories, have the fun of making up characters, playing with words, inventing settings and conflicts.

And I began to write fiction again.

Not with any high literary aspirations – but for the pleasure of writing and the desire to be read. By this time, I had already had several non-fiction pieces published in national magazines – lightly amusing articles on learning to drive, my sister’s wedding, holidays for singles, flat hunting and sharing – so it seemed the obvious route to take to start submitting short fiction to women’s magazines.

And I was lucky.

Over the course of the next twenty years or so, I was published widely (under a different name than the one I now write under) both in the UK and in Scandinavia, Switzerland, Australia and South Africa. I acquired an agent and she took over the submissions to magazines such as Woman’s Realm, Woman, Woman’s Weekly, Bella, Fiction Feast and similar publications abroad. The market was rich with opportunities at that point with a high demand for stories – providing they fitted in with the prescriptive brief of the magazine.

And I was happy to fulfil it, delighted to derive some small income from sales to supplement my teaching salary as well as to see my name, briefly, in print. The discipline of writing to a given word limit was a good training in editing skills and even the limitations of subject matter provided an interesting challenge.

By now, I was reading Anita Brookner, Margaret Forster, Jane Gardam; Susan Hill and Penelope Lively; Carol Shields and Anne Tyler. Of course my reading of contemporary novels was not limited by gender and writers such as William Trevor, Ian McEwan and William Boyd found their way into my selections. But somehow it was and is the women writers whose books I return to again and again – both as a reader and also as a writer, to examine and study their craft. 

After a couple of decades of writing commercial short fiction, I was straining at the leash to write more freely. The markets were fewer, the parameters imposed growing more restrictive.

Confidence and self-belief were woefully lacking. Who was I to think I could write a novel of some 100,000 words, to believe that I had a story to tell that was worth a reader’s time and attention? 

How did I dare to write a novel?

Two events, however, nudged me into trying. First, I had been a runner-up in the Bridport short story competition, judged one particular year by Margaret Drabble. Not exactly a full length novel, but at least my writing had been favourably judged. Then I graduated with distinction from an M.A. in Creative Writing. My final submission was the first 20,000 words of a novel and the examiners’ comment was: this is worth continuing and completing. 

I would like to say I was off and at the finishing line within the year – but real life, of course, gets in the way of the best of intentions. There were the small matters of earning a living and bringing up a child, combined with increasing visits to much loved, aging parents. 

Eventually, however, I completed that first novel. Then tucked it away out of sight and embarked on the next. And it was only after completing and publishing that next novel, Counting the Ways, that I went back to what was, ostensibly, my first book, redrafted it extensively, and released that as my second, The Legacy of Mr Jarvis. The journey to writing my third novel, Miller Street SW22 which was published in February, was a little more chronological and straight forward and I am now working on my fourth.

What I like to write

Like the novels I love to read, the novels I write are character driven. I am at heart, unfailingly fascinated by other people. About the chance events, the choices and impulses that drive their lives. Ideas start with a character, a relationship or a family dynamic that drives the plot. 

I set my novels in the recent past – in the last half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. This is partly out of a need to write about a time that is fixed and open to hindsight. It also reflects my interest in domestic and social history and in particular how the nature of our lives is inevitably determined by the era in which we are born. 

There is also a practical aspect for such setting. Technology in the form of mobile phones, internet access, social media et al can run rough-shod through plot lines that require characters to be elusive, capable of dissimulation. Secrets were far easier to perpetuate and thus fester in the past and all three of my novels depend partly on such concealment. 

These days I am still reading and loving Anne Tyler. Additionally, Anna Quindlen, Linda Grant, Ann Patchett, Mary Lawson – to mention just a few of the names that flit into my head. And I am now trawling back to some wonderful 20th century writers that I unintentionally overlooked years ago while reading Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing – writers like Cecily Hamilton, Dorothy Whipple, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor. 

And I am pleased to say that I have never lost that childhood thrill of walking into a book shop, into the local library (lockdowns permitting) and spending time mulling over the shelves, suppressing the smile on my face at the thought of a new book to take home for company.

Reading and its inseparable partner writing are, for me, lifelines – this particular body’s essential daily bread. 

©Jude Hayland

Look out for Jude Hayland’s novels:

Counting the Ways

The Legacy of Mr Jarvis and 

Miller Street SW22

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