Monthly Archives: September 2021

Even more praise for short stories

More praise for short stories was the title of a post on this blog in January 2017. It updated an earlier post (November 2013). It has maintained a modest readership ever since, so I decided it was time to revise the second post and recommend more short stories for those who love reading them, as I do.

I love the form, writing them and reading them. They are not novels-lite, and the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, giving the reader the experience of a novel in one story. William Boyd suggested that the form’s strength derives from its roots in our oral traditions. He said:

The great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and beguiling resonance about them – a complexity of afterthought – that cannot be pinned down or analysed. Bizarrely, in this situation, the whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its component parts. (in Prospect 2006, A Short History of the Short Story)

Nadine Gordimer said that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. That’s another way of putting it.

Reading short stories

I love reading short stories, especially in anthologies. They can introduce us to new writers; give us a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provide us with insights into different writing in a digestible form. 

It is not clear why large publishers don’t like to publish anthologies of short stories. But smaller and independent publishers are doing their bit (let’s hear it for them AGAIN! because they listen to what the reading public say they want.)

A selection from Bookword 

In the last year I have reviewed the following collections, with links included:

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Edited by Anne Boston

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine

Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus

And in the next few months I plan to read these: 

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston

Elizabeth Bowen collection

Shirley Hazzard collection

Where the Wild Ladies are by Matsuda Aoko, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton, Tilted Axis press (2020). A present from my daughter.

Writing short stories

Short stories have provided a platform for writers not visible in other forms. This is especially true for novice writers, and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions by Fish Publishing, the Bridport Prize, and the Costa Award. And you can find local competitions too, for example here in the South West there is the Exeter Short Story Prize, organized by Creative Writing Matters. These competitions are not usually limited to contestants in the area, although this one has an additional award for local writers. Online you can also find many journals and sites that publish short stories.

Most how-to-write-fiction books assume the reader is a novelist, so I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Gebbie (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights.

I say no more about writing them at the moment as I have been stuck on one for months and months and months.

Other recommendations 

Some other recommendations (with some links) are:

Elizabeth Taylor (Virago)

 

Raymond Carver (Vintage)

Alice Munro (Virago and Penguin)

Edith Pearlman (Pushkin)

Hilary Mantel (4th Estate)

Persephone Book of Short Stories

Dorothy Whipple (Persephone)

When I previously wrote about short stories, readers recommended the following writers:

More Praise for Short Stories appeared in January 2017 on this blog.

Over to you

Which stories and writers would you recommend? What have you enjoyed? Are you a writer of short stories?

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Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve

It is October 1918, the final months of the First World War. In Paris Jeanne Caillet is waiting for her husband to return. He has been wounded and in hospital for several months. Life is hard for Jeanne and the women who live near her: shortages of fuel, and food, and work. This novella reaches deep into the destructive power of war and looks at the damage it visits upon a small web of relationships surrounding Jeanne. 

Originally written in French, here translated by Adriana Hunter for Peirene Press, the publication date for Winter Flowers is 7th October 2021.

Winter Flowers

In some ways Jeanne is lucky. She has a job making artificial flowers by the gross to a tight schedule and exacting standard. The work brings in just enough to support her and her daughter. Her neighbour Sidonie sews aprons. Jeanne and her Sidonie support each other by taking turns to deliver the finished articles and collect the parts for the next batch. 

Jeanne’s hands are dulled with work, her back is stiff. And as she closes her eyes, and relaxes her head and shoulders, all her in-held breath comes out at once in a hoarse cry that would leave anyone who heard it struggling to say whether it expressed pleasure or pain. (7)

Sidonie’s only surviving son Eugène left for the war at the same time as Jeanne’s husband Toussaint. Eugène has not been heard from for months, but Toussaint is in hospital having been wounded in the face. 

As soon as he was admitted to Val-de-Grâce military hospital, Toussaint sent his wife a brief letter.
‘I want you not to come.’
Those were his words.
It was clear, definitive. It invited no reply, and Jeanne sent none. (29)

Jeanne, and the reader, learn indirectly of the dreadful injury to Toussaint’s face from a report from his father. It is as if the damage cannot be approached directly. But Jeanne does not know what to think of her husband’s message, and of what will happen when the war ends.

Meanwhile she has to keep on making the flowers, often far into the night. The flowers have several functions within this novella. To start with, they provide the only colour in a relentless grey and dismal time. The red poppies, of course, came to symbolise the dead soldiers of the Western Front. And Jeanne is making these for the luxury market, for those who have power and influence, and who still value the display of wealth and unnecessary objects. 

At the heart of this novel is this contrast: Jeanne is involved in the delicate work of creating artificial flowers and at the same time living in near destitute conditions and caring for a husband seriously damaged by the war. 

When Toussaint returns there is an intensification of the hardships of the Caillet family: another person in their small flat and another mouth to feed. Toussaint’s face is badly injured so he wears a mask. He may have lost the ability to speak, and he won’t go out or interact with his family. 

The Caillet family are by no means the only ones damaged by war. When Sidonie is told by the Special Messenger Service (women volunteers who inform families that soldiers have been killed) that Eugène has been dead for eighteen months she is devastated. Invited to the town hall to a ceremony at which she is given a certificate, Sidonie is accompanied by Jeanne. Here are the people who pronounce empty and vacuous platitudes to those who lose people.

Up on a rostrum, flanked by his deputies, the mayor with his tricolour sash over his barrel chest gives an interminable speech, and there’s a pomposity in his voice and his words for which they are quite unprepared. (79)

The reader learns that the Jeanne and Toussaint had a good and loving relationship before the war, even surviving the death of their first child. The novel follows Jeanne’s attempts to reunite with her husband, bridge the years of the war, their different experiences, the maturing of their surviving child. How can they keep the family together, as Léo has grown up? How can Jeanne support Sidonie when the last of her sons is declared dead, and the official response is so lacking?

The flowers represent so much: they show up the dreariness of Paris; they indicate the suffering of the women; they are destined to be bought by rich people not directly involved in the war; and they represent the dead.

Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve, first published in French in2014 and the English translation by Peirene Press in 2021. 117pp

Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter.

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“Better than Whitewashing.” The Wind in the Willows and Covid.

Back at the end of last year, as we finished our second Lockdown and almost immediately began the third, I gave in and decided to banish the worst effects of continued incarceration and got out a jigsaw puzzle. And after a few days I had finished it, with a little help from a grandson. 

While I had submitted to that curious addiction that jigsaws create in me (just one more piece, just that piece that goes there) I thought a lot about the opening scene of The Wind in the Willows. The Mole is spring cleaning his house, when he gets fed up with it and, with ‘an aching back and weary arms’, he decides to do something else.

It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. (3)

I longed for the moment when we could leave our homes, not worried by Covid and masks and 2 metre rules, and escape into spring. It seemed like it was not far away, for were all going to be vaccinated and this long trial would soon be over.

And as the jigsaw progressed and I searched among all those shapes with small dabs of green for the right one, I promised myself I would read The Wind in the Willows and enjoy again the adventures of the Mole, his friend the Rat, the wild Toad, and severe Mr Badger. 

(There was another book that appealed to me for a similar reason: One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes. I had been told this novel was about the moment, a year after VE Day, when Laura could say that the war was over and they could start afresh. I reviewed that book in July. You can find the post here.)

If you know The Wind in the Willows, you will be aware that for the Mole it was not easy to emerge into the sunlight by the river.

So he scraped and he scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow. (3)

And so it has been for us, despite the vaccine, and despite the ending of restrictions, I still feel we are scrooging and sometimes still scrabbling. 

The Mole is a fine fellow, and he quickly strikes up a strong friendship with the Rat, a water rat, who is never so happy as when he is messing about in boats. He is also something of a writer:

During his short day he sometimes scribbled poetry or did other small domestic jobs about the house (28)

Off they go in the Rat’s boat, for the first of many picnics, and to enjoy an idyllic Edwardian summer, until the Toad spoils everything. 

The Toad is a boastful, talkative, self-satisfied animal, prone to passions about boats, then caravans and so on until his interest is taken elsewhere. But it is in motorcars that he has to face his lack of responsibility, and he is imprisoned following yet another smash-up, placed ‘in the remotest dungeon of the best-guarded keep of the stoutest castle in all the length and breadth of Merry England’. (76).

It takes the combined forces, ingenuity and manipulation of Mr Badger (forever speaking in the voice of Michael Hordern), the Rat and the Mole to get the Toad to see sense, and to win back Toad Hall for him. 

The character of the Toad is compelling. He is very tricksy and resilient. Here he is as he wakes up the morning after he has made his escape from the castle, dressed as a washerwoman.

He shook himself and combed the dry leaves out of his hair with his fingers; and, his toilet complete, marched forth into the comfortable morning sun, cold but confident, hungry but hopeful, all nervous terrors of yesterday dispelled by rest and sleep and frank and heartening sunshine. (114)

Yes, I know that toads don’t have hair, but if they did it would be rather wild and straw-coloured.

His homecoming is delayed as the friends have to see off the weasels and stoats from the Wild Wood who have occupied Toad Hall during his absence. They do this thanks to the Mole’s subterfuge. Mr Badger insists that they prepare a banquet. The Rat has to persuade the Toad that at the banquet he will not make a single speech or sing a single song. Not even a little one.

“It’s no good, Toady; you know well that your songs are all conceit and boasting and vanity; and your speeches are all self-praise and – and – well, gross exaggeration and – and –“
“And gas,” put in the Badger in his common way. (153-4) 

So here we are now, the pandemic is not over yet, not here and not in the whole world outside either. There is no banquet for us yet. But I enjoyed re-acquainting myself with this book, even though all the main characters are male, and refer to people as ‘fellows’. 

And I have checked online and found that there are many more jigsaw puzzles available on the theme of The Wind in the Willows.

 

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, first published in 1908. I used the Penguin Threads edition published in 2012. 

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Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

What is this book? A cult classic? A fable? A feminist tract? A psychological story? Sci-fi? Perhaps all of these. I bought a copy and read it because I loved its excellent cover (in a new Faber edition), and because I had heard good things about it, that it is short and a good read.

Mrs Caliban

Rachel Ingalls appears to delight in ambiguity. You can take this book seriously at the same time as delighting in its playfulness. If Dorothy is Mrs Caliban, who is Mr Caliban: her husband Fred, or Larry the green frogman from the sea? Is it a psychological story, in which Dorothy has hallucinated a more satisfying relationship? This is not resolved. There is much sadness at the story’s heart, grief over the death of a son, a miscarriage and the failing marriage. Dorothy and Fred are too sad to divorce. 

The story concerns a human-sized green amphibian, who escapes from the Institute of Oceanographic Research. He appears in the kitchen in front of Dorothy, an unhappy housewife, in the middle of her preparations for dinner.

She came back into the kitchen fast, to make sure that she caught the toasting cheese in time. And she was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face. (20)

We are in California in the late ‘70s. Interested? Curious?

Dorothy is very lonely. She is sure that her husband is cheating on her. She has one friend, Estelle, with whom she has coffee and occasional outings. She does not confide in Estelle about Larry. Estelle in turn is cagey about her lovers, and by the end of the novella we have found out why.

Dorothy provides accommodation in a spare room and food for the creature, and she calls him Larry. He is particularly partial to avocados. Soon they are having frequent and satisfying sex and managing to take drives under cover of darkness. The press is full of shocking stories about the violence of the frogman, but he explains to Dorothy that he killed two of the lab technicians because they tortured him. Many of the stories are fabricated, designed to shock and titillate.

The hunt for the sea monster continues in California, as Larry and Dorothy monitor its lack of progress on tv. They plan to return Larry to the ocean he knows, which means they will have to travel to the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific being unfamiliar to him. Before they can embark on their trip one of Estelle’s children is killed, and then the bodies continue to pile up. The novella ends as Dorothy waits for Larry at a prearranged emergency rendezvous.

She came out of the car and walked up and down the beach, hour after hour. The water ran over the sand, one wave covering another like knitting of threads, like the begetting of revenges, betrayals, memories, regrets. And always it made a musical, murmuring sound, a language as definite as speech. But he never came. (117)

I loved it, for it is very engaging, unique and has a strong feminist thread.

Rachel Ingalls

Rachel Ingalls was born in Boston in 1940, her father was a professor of Sanskrit at Harvard, her mother a fulltime housewife. She attended Radcliffe, spent time in Germany and then came to Britain and settled here. She died in March 2019.

Although lauded by John Updike, Ursula le Guin, Joyce Carol Oates and others, she is unjustly neglected, partly because she was very self-effacing. She wrote 11 collections of short stories and novellas. She is often concerned with rules and conventions and the violence by which society maintains them. 

Mrs Caliban is considered her masterpiece, and John Updike described it as ‘an impeccable parable, beautifully written from first paragraph to last’. 

Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, first published in 1982. The new edition in the UK is published by Faber. 117pp

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Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021

And the winner is …

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Congratulations to the winner

After 26 years is this prize still necessary?

This prize has been going for 26 years. Kate Mosse, co-founder, says it still does three important:

  1. honour and celebrate excellent fiction by women
  2. make women’s endeavours in fiction more visible 
  3. use funds to promote more excellent fiction through charitable, educational and research programmes.

Fiction, she says, can still make a difference. You can read her article published in the Guardian in 2020 about the prize and its continuing relevance here.

Honouring and celebrating excellent fiction

So, in the spirit of the prize, I give you forty-one brilliant books, all written by women, from the short- and long-list for this year and all the previous winners. I have included links to the books I have reviewed on Bookword. 

The 2021 shortlist

  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  • Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
  • No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

The 2021 longlist

There were sixteen longlisted books as follows:

  • Because of You by Dawn French
  • Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
  • Consent by Annabel Lyon
  • Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
  • Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
  • Luster by Raven Leilani
  • No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
  • Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  • Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
  • Summer by Ali Smith
  • The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  • Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize. 

Maggie O’FarrellHamnet (2020)

Tayari JonesAn American Marriage (2019)

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire  (2018)

Naomi Alderman: The Power (2017)

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (2016)

Ali Smith: How to be Both (2015)

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014)

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Marilynne Robinson: Home (2009)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)

Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004)

Valerie Martin: Property (2003)

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto (2002)

Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection (2001)

Linda Grant: When I Lived in Modern Times (2000)

Suzanne Berne: A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999)

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party (1998)

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces (1997) 

Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter (1996)

Here is the link to the website of the Women’s Prize for Fiction: https://womensprizeforfiction.co.uk

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Books that nearly didn’t make it

Writers’ manuscripts sometimes get lost, destroyed, abandoned or otherwise prevented from being published. Here is a selection of publications that nearly didn’t happen, and one that got away. 

Writers write for others to read, so the risks and efforts involved in getting their words published can be enormous. They have often suffered up to this point for their views and yet they are compelled to find a way get the book into print.

  • Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
  • The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta
  • My Career goes Bung by Miles Franklin
  • The Third Reich of Dreams by Charlotte Beradt
  • Grey is the Color of Hope by Irna Ratushinskaya
  • No Friend but the Mountain by Behrouz Boochani

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

Irene Nemirovsky was a Russian émigré, who was a well-established novelist in France before the war. This book was written during the occupation by Germany, in 1940-41. Irene Nemirovsky was arrested in July 1942 and taken to Auschwitz and died almost immediately of typhus. Her two daughters were in hiding for the rest of the war, on the move all the time and hunted by the authorities. 

It was Denise who put it [the manuscript] into a suitcase as she and her sister fled Issy L’Evêque. She had often watched her mother writing – in tiny handwriting to save ink and paper – in a large leatherbound notebook. She took it as a memento of her mother. The suitcase accompanied Denise and Elisabeth from one precarious hiding place to another. After the war, they couldn’t bring themselves to read the notebook – having it was enough.  … Many years passed … (402. Myriam Anissimov, preface to French edition}

The manuscript of the two novellas in this unfinished suite was unopened until the late 1990s when the author’s daughter, Denise, was about to give the notebook to the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine, dedicated to documenting memories of the war.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, published in French in 2004 and translated by Sandra Smith for the English version, published in 2006 by Vintage. 403pp

The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta

Buchi Emecheta followed her husband from Nigeria in 1962 to study in London. It was not a happy marriage. He burned the manuscript of her first book, apparently jealous of the attention she gave it and to hurt the writer. Not surprisingly, she decided to leave him, taking the children. She had to earn her living and continued to gain degrees and to write over the next few years. She rewrote the novel, The Bride Price, which was published by Allison & Busby, a company that promoted African writing in 1976. 

The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta, first published in 1976, there is a Fontana African Fiction edition (1978). 168pp

My Career goes Bung by Miles Franklin

Miles Franklin was an outspoken Australian novelist, who became notorious on the publication of her first book, My Brilliant Career, in 1901. In it she portrayed a young woman who’s views and actions shocked the Australian public. Miles Franklin was burned by the reception of her first novel and refused to have it reprinted. My Career Goes Bung was written as the second volume of the fictional autobiography. It was completed in 1902, but fearful of its reception it was not published until the 1940s, when attitudes towards women had changed.

In the introductory To all young Australian writers – Greetings, she describes how she put the manuscript in a portmanteau, together with other papers, ‘left with someone in Chicago, USA while I went to the World War, which is now seen to have been merely practice manoeuvres for Global Armageddons’. The trunk was appropriated by someone who needed a travel bag and the papers burned as useless.

I thought My Career Goes Bung had gone with this collection, and had forgotten the copy of it which survived in an old trunk valiantly preserved all the years by my mother. (7)

My Career Goes Bung: purporting to be the autobiography of Sybylla Penelope Melvyn by Miles Franklin, first published in 1946. Republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1981. 234 pp

The Third Reich of Dreams by Charlotte Beradt

Charlotte Beradt was a Jewish journalist, raised in Berlin between the wars. She made a collection of dreams of the people, mostly Jewish, who lived under the Nazi regime from 1933. She collected over 300 dreams which she recorded and hid in the bindings of her own library. When even that hiding place was risky, she sent small selections with coded names to her friends abroad. Hitler became Uncle Hans, Goring was Gustav and Goebbels was Gerhardt. 

She escaped Berlin in 1939, to settle eventually in New York. Her book was first published in German in 1966, after she had retrieved the material. It has been translated into English, although it can be hard to find. She organised the 75 dreams in the book into chapters to demonstrate that waking life and dreams are linked, and that the unconscious effects of authoritarianism are noted in the collective unconscious. 

An article in the New Yorker by Mireille Juchau in 2019 describes her achievement. 

Grey is the Color of Hope by Irna Ratushinskaya

Irna Ratushinskaya was a Russian dissident poet, born in 1954, who was sentenced to 7 years in a labour camp in 1983. The punishment was for writing and circulating her poetry. The conditions in prison were very harsh, and to begin with she had no paper. She wrote poems with a matchstick in the soap, and then learned them by heart. Over 250 poems were composed and eventually written in this way.

She was released from prison as Gorbachev flew to Reykjavik to meet Reagan in 1986 as gesture of goodwill. She died in 2017. This is her prison memoir.

Grey is the Color of Hope by Irna Ratushinskaya, published by Vintage in 1989.

No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

This powerful and horrifying book was written in Parsi while the Iranian Kurdish poet was imprisoned on Manus Island. The island was owned by Papua New Guinea, rented by the Australian government to house refugees seeking asylum in Australia. The conditions were awful and many preferred refoulement (return to their country of origin) to living in the camps. The prison camp was eventually closed because it violated human rights.

This book recounts the voyages from Indonesia taken by Behrouz Boochani as he sought to escape from Iran. It continues with an account of his time in the jail, and an analysis of how the men were imprisoned and oppressed by what he calls a Kyriarchal system. This means several intersecting forms of oppression are made to work systematically and together to keep the prisoners down. These included the never-ending queues for food, toilets, telephones and the presence of the guards.  

The text was sent out of the prison by Facebook and then What’s App, to his translator, Omid Tofighian. 

Behrouz Boochani was held on Manus Island from 2013 – 2017. He was granted refugee status in New Zealand in 2020. 

The book is a powerful argument against detaining refugees, and of what has been called ‘off-shoring’, detaining asylum applicants away from the mainland. It is also a compelling description of a prison system, one that persistently dehumanises people. Remember, they were not criminals. 

No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani, published by Picador in 2018. 398pp. Translated from the Farsi by Omid Tofighian

And one that got away …

In 1848 the publisher of Wuthering Heights wrote to Ellis Bell (aka Emily Brontë) in anticipation of a second novel, which he was eager for the author to complete. No such manuscript has been found. Emily died later that year, her only known novel had been published the previous year.

It has been suggested that Charlotte burned the manuscript after her sister’s death, to save her reputation from another sensational novel. Whatever happened that novel is lost to us.

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Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim

Here are three short extracts from the first three pages of Expiation. They set the scene of a social milieu that is smug and critical and which provides the material for a novel of folly and lies, in which Elizabeth von Arnim has a great deal of fun at the expense of a large bourgeois family called Bott, known collectively as the Botts. We imagine that the family’s and suburb’s names are intended to be absurd.

Not only were the Botts kind, but the whole of Titford was kind. That important south London suburb appreciated the Botts, so financially sound, so continually increasing in prosperity. They were its backbone. They subscribed, presided, spoke, opened. Titford was full of Botts, and every one of them a credit to it. (1-2) 

And here she was at forty-five, a little cushiony woman, fair-skinned and dove-eyed, with dimples on her plump hands where other people had knuckles, and a smooth head, sleekly covered with agreeable hair the colour of respectability. (2-3)

What a wife. What a nice place the world would be if all wives were more like Milly, the male Botts had frequently thought – whispering it to themselves, for it wouldn’t do to say it out loud – when they had been having trouble with their own wives. (3)

Expiation

The novel opens as the family have just buried Earnest Bott who has been killed in a motor accident. His will has been read and the family are shocked. He has left his substantial everything to a charity for fallen women, except for £1000 to his wife Milly. ‘Only my wife will know why’. What had Milly done?

The Botts are concerned to keep the dreadful business of the will (not so much Milly’s offence) from being known in Titford. Milly must be treated as though she has done nothing wrong. But they don’t know what she has done. They begin to have suspicions. The family decide to give her houseroom in rotation. There are four remaining brothers and five sisters, and their discussion about how to support Milly resembles the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility, talking each other down in the matter of their contributions to support a less fortunate family member.

When they go to tell her this, Milly has disappeared. 

Milly is mortified to realised that Earnest had known that she was conducting an affair and added the codicil to his will 2 years before. Milly leaves very early the morning after the will was read, to get her £1000 and go to live with her sister in Switzerland, also estranged from the Botts because she eloped with her lover from Earnest’s home 25 years previously. The story goes on from there, with Milly giving her sister Agatha the money because she has lived in great poverty since she eloped. Milly, now penniless, realises that she will have to marry Arthur, much against her inclination, for the affair long calmed into a generous friendship. But when they meet for a final time, she realises that he has found a young girl with whom he is in love and plans to marry. 

And so, with no means of support, she returns to Titford and to the Botts. Milly finds she must atone for what she has done. Not to Earnest, who is dead, but to his family – for Milly also suffers from that double standard: 

It is the woman, the Botts considered, on whom the duty has been laid of walking steadfastly along the straight path of virtue, thus persuading man, that natural deviator, to walk along it too. Sometimes he won’t, the Botts admitted, and then the woman’s duty is to continue along it alone. (38)

Milly begins living with each of her brothers-in-law and their wives in turn, and this causes severe strains upon their marriages, as each makes deductions about Milly and what she has been doing, the money, the cause of the dreadful will and the identity of Milly’s paramour. There is a great deal of hysteria and suspicion, and Milly is understood to be guiltless or extremely full of guile by different Botts in turn. All is resolved by the patience and good sense of the matriarch.

This is a novel that looks at hypocrisy, especially of the smug family Bott. It’s about the cost of lies and deception. We follow Milly, indeed sympathise with her as she tries to do the right thing by the Botts, but find ourselves questioning with her when it is okay to lie, why are some lies not punished (I’ll make you the happiest woman ever) and others are (finding happiness outside marriage). Frequently the family have to halt their discussions because it does not do to talk before the servants, from whom the truth must be hidden. It’s told with Elizabeth von Arnim’s trademark wit, her ability to reveal hypocrisy and with a certain amount of daring since she was writing in 1929 when adultery and divorce were not words to be breathed in mixed or polite company. 

Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1929 and republished by Persephone Books in 2019. 362pp

Related posts

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

Fallen Women, a themed post on Bookword

Heavenali’s blog delights in the absurdity of the Botts, in February 2021.

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