Monthly Archives: January 2022

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

I seem to be in the middle of a spate of novels about the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is such an interesting period. I was fortunate enough to study the 1790s under the late EP Thompson at the University of Warwick, when I specialised by studying Mary Wollestonecraft. At that time there was no biography of her.

A Room Made of Leaves had several things to recommend it. In the first place it was given to me by my dear friend Sarah. Her recommendations are always interesting. Second, the author was known to me as the writer of The Idea of Perfection (2001) which I remember won the Orange Prize for Fiction, as the Women’s Prize was then called. It made a strong impression on me at the time. Then the cover is splendidly exotic, designed to reflect the lush vegetation that settlers found when they arrived in Australia. And finally, it set in the period of my interest, beginning in Devon, and moving to the other side of the world to the new penal colony of Australia.

A Room Made of Leaves

The novel is framed as the recently discovered memoirs of Elizabeth Macarthur and so is written in the first person. Born in humble beginnings in Devon, Elizabeth became unwanted by her mother, and although devoted to her grandfather, a sheep farmer, she was taken in by the local vicar and made his ward partly on account of her close relationship to his daughter. But her friendship with the daughter ends when Elizabeth unwisely becomes involved with a reckless and volatile soldier John Macarthur. His prospects are poor as he is on half pay at the end of the French wars. A brief conquest beside a hedge leads to pregnancy, marriage and life controlled by Macarthur. 

Elizabeth finds herself to be the wife of a man who is almost pathologically interested in his own advancement, desperate to be recognised as a gentleman. A posting to Australia is one step in his plan for advancement. Nothing will get in his way, not a weak leader, aboriginal inhabitants, even his own temper. In fact, he uses these to his own advantage.

Elizabeth learns to manage her situation as the wife of this very difficult man. She is one of the few women among the military society of the colony. She establishes a salon where she learns to understand and manipulate the men and situations that come to her. She recognises that she had to become as devious as her husband in order to maintain her integrity.

Key to her independence of mind is her affair with the astronomer, Mr Dawes. Men with his skills and knowledge were required by the Royal Navy at this time, to read the stars and navigate successfully across the oceans of the world. Mr Dawes, like Elizabeth, was an outsider in the new colony. He was unlike the other naval officers for he was a man of science, interested in the indigenous peoples of the area around Sydney, and in the fauna of this unknown land. Lessons for Elizabeth in astronomy became trysts for the lovers, meeting in the bower he created that gives the book its title: a room made of leaves.

John Macarthur manages to gain land in the new colony, and after a while his power extends and he is also able to acquire some land in Parramatta, now a suburb of Sydney. The farmland proved excellent for sheep and drawing on the expertise of a convict, transported for stealing a sheep, and her own experience in Devon with her grandfather, they developed an excellent breed of merino sheep. 

As Sarah said to me in an email, 

The thing I loved about the Kate Grenville – well, one of the things – was the way Elizabeth builds a true life for herself out of a very shitty situation

The ‘editor’ of Elizabeth’s memoirs says

Australian history, like most histories, is mainly about men. (1)

She has suggested a plausible alternative to the official history.

Australians of my generation had it dinned into them that ‘our nation rides of the sheep’s back’ – meaning that wool was the basis of our economy – and that John Macarthur was ‘the father of the wool industry’. Streets and swimming pools and parks all over Australia are named after him in gratitude. 
But here’s the thing: the Australian merino – the sheep we rode on the back of – was mostly developed during the years that John Macarthur was in England. It looks very much as though the Father of the Wool Industry must actually have been the Mother of the Wool Industry: his wife. (3)

The book has lots to say about the position of women, and a life lived in the shadow of a bully, and about colonialism and racism and its effects on the indigenous peoples in early Australian history. The descriptions of the countryside in Devon, the landscape of London and the lush area around Sydney are all vivid and enjoyable. 

Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville, WikiCommons Daniel Bagnato March 2017

The author was born in 1950 as is known for her writing about early Australian history. She has won many awards, for her nine novels, and has also written The Writing Book guidance for writers, for example (2010). She had a career in films, which perhaps partly explains her strong visual writing.

My thanks to my friend Sarah, for the gift of this book, and for the many conversations we have had about novels and other writing over the years and those to come.

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville, published in 2020 by Canongate. 321pp

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The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The writer of Confessions, Sara Collins, came to my attention last year because she presented and interviewed writers in several on-line events that I attended during lockdowns. She interested me because she was chosen to interview some well-known writers. I also noticed that she has been playing a part in the identification of young writers the Futures Award, by the Women’s Prize for Fiction and Good Housekeeping promoting young women writers.

Another reason to read her book is that she is a woman of colour, born in Jamaica, brought up in Cayman. This is her first novel, but not, I suspect her last, because it has already done well, for example winning the Costa First Novel Prize in 2019. And because the screenplay of this novel has already been filmed and released on Disney channel.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton

The story has mystery, suspense, and being set in Jamaica and London in the early nineteenth century, has a strong historical background. There is romance, and anger and truly awful physical experiments of which Josef Mengele would have approved. 

The story is framed by Frannie’s trial for murder in 1826 at the Old Bailey and told mostly as her deposition in her own defence. Some additional documents and testimony are presented to fill out her story and to give an added perspective.

You could read this book as a mystery, a well told story. But Sara Collins has placed the action at a significant moment, especially for black people in England. The barbarous trade across the Atlantic had been ended for British ships at least, in 1807. But enslaved peoples still provided the labour on the sugar plantations of Jamaica, such as the one Frannie was born on. 

It was also the time of enlightenment, when men with means were pursuing knowledge about everything related to humans. Mr Benham, one of the murder victims, is one of the finest minds in England, writing as a moral philosopher. He is interested in the physiological aspects of blackness, and in the study of the black body. 

While this is the period of Rights of Men and Woman (Mary Wollestonecraft published in 1792) it is also the period of Frankenstein. This is the story of a human being cobbled together from body parts, and then abandoned by its creator, the Frankenstein of the title, when his monster became a liability. Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft published her novel in 1818. The ethics of experimentation and research into humans is a theme of this novel, along with the question, are some humans less worthy of education, position, rights, than others? And is this due to skin colour, gender, sexuality, class or something else? What could possibility justify the enslavement of another human?

Frannie Langton was born in Paradise in Jamaica. Paradise is the plantation owned by Langton. He owns everything, the slaves, the crops, the profits, the house, his wife. You may remember that Paradise was the name of the plantation in Beloved. Frannie is brought by Mr Langton to the house, to serve his wife. She is taught to read, and eventually to help Langton in his experiments, his investigations into blackness and its physiological consequences. Even Frannie’s education, it emerges, is the result of a wager, to see if a black person can be educated. 

Frannie is a mulatta, that is she is mixed race and in the course of the novel she discovers the identity of both parents. Langton brings Frannie to England and gives her to Mr Benham, with whom he is trying to curry favour, his endeavours in Jamaica having collapsed. Mt Benham will no longer support Langton as he suspects his experiments have gone too far. Mr Benham is known for his reformist views on slavery.

Frannie forms a close bond with Mrs Benham, and they become lovers. There are several twists and turns to the plot before Mr and Mrs Benham are found dead. It is not surprising that Frannie is accused of their murder, for she is black, female and a lesbian. 

Reading The Confessions of Frannie Langton

It was a pleasure to read this novel; the story is well-told with pace and wit. There are many characters as suits a novel set in this period in London. There are the other servants in the house, the people on the streets, those who wish to live in the orbit of the Benhams, and the men who make use of the services of the women at the School House. The indolent and luxurious life lived by the Benhams, and people of their class can only be sustained by the poorly paid work of a range of servants, a parallel to the profits that were made on the sugar plantations of Jamaica, which sustained so much of the plantation owners’ way of life.

Frannie has been endowed with a good eye and a ready description. For example, when she is taken into the Langton’s house at Paradise she meets the cook Phibbah and she plies her with questions.

… but Phibbah was caked in the kind of spite that will not hear. (13)

While the story is fictional, the setting and the themes of the novel are not. Black servants were not unfamiliar in London households. For example, Francis Barber was brought to England by his ‘owner’ when he was seven, educated, freed and then he worked as Samuel Johnson’s manservant and companion. Johnson bequeathed Francis enough money that he could set up as a draper in Litchfield. 

It is not quite clear whether Frannie is free or not, and the circumstance of her being given to Mr Benham suggests that the men did not consider her to be free.

Gothic is a word used in the blurb to describe this novel. Lush, lavish, an exposé of the worst of early nineteenth century British society, where behind the ornate and detailed veneer lies a mess of exploitation and sin. The paperback’s cover beautifully captures this masking. Sara Collins takes her time, however, to reveal what lies behind the curtain, the lies, the attitudes, the grimness of life in Paradise or in London for the underclasses and what happened in the coach house.

The manner of the Benhams’ deaths is hardly shocking given all that. And although there is a twist at the end, the verdict is not long in doubt.

I was interested to see a short clip on YouTube where Sara Collins identified three books that had been important to her. They were: Beloved by Toni Morrison, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. You can find my reviews of Beloved and Frankenstein by following the links.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, published in 2019 by Penguin. 376pp

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The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald falls periodically into the category of neglected female writer. The publisher of her first novel refused to consider any more from her arguing that she was ‘only an amateur writer’. Penelope Fitzgerald responded to his sexism-ageism with insight and wit. 

I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before you lose amateur status?

Two years later in 1979 she published Offshore which won the Booker Prize. Three other novels written by her were included in Booker Prize shortlists, including The Beginning of Spring. She doesn’t sound like an amateur to me.

The focus of her novels is very varied: historical, European, a bookshop in Suffolk, a houseboat on the Thames. And with each novel she probes deeply, exploring her themes with wit and meticulous research or knowledge. The Beginning of Spring is a novel to recommend highly, which presents as being about a mystery, but widens the idea to explore the mystery of people’s reactions to the changes in their lives.

The Beginning of Spring

The setting of this novel is curious. We are in Moscow, in the period between the first stirrings of revolution in 1905 and the outbreak of the First World War which brought on the fall of the Romanovs, and the Bolshevik Revolution. 

Her main character is also a curious choice: Frank Reid owns a printshop in Moscow, inherited from his father. He lives with his wife Nellie and their three children, supported by another Englishman, Selwyn Crane, a follower of Tolstoy. He is the printworks manager and a poet. 

The events of the story take place over a few weeks, that period when Moscow begins to emerge from the lockdown of winter. Everything in this novel is about change: the weather, the marriage of Frank and Nellie, the children who are growing up, the politics of Tsarist Russia, even new technology in the print business.

It is Frank we follow in this story of change, whose wife leaves him at the beginning of the novel. As he comes to terms with her disappearance, he must decide what to do about the care of the children, rather alarmingly sent back from a railway station having begun the journey with Nellie, and treated like so much unwanted baggage. He must also keep the print works going at a time of industrial unrest and subjection to the many imperial regulations applied to foreign businesses. 

He employs a young woman whom Selwyn has found, and she becomes a kind of governess for the children. Frank falls for her. But it seems that her life is not without complications, for a student breaks into the print works one night seemingly connected to her in some way.

Frank appears to be a rational man, but he is as caught up in the mysteries and changes brought by life as any of the characters are. Selwyn is much concerned about the print run of his poems Birch Tree Thoughts. He is known as a man who tries to do good for everyone, but a more selfish side is revealed towards the end of the novel. 

While change is the dominant theme and reflected in the title, another theme of the novel is strangeness, foreignness. The small English community in Moscow is depicted as very small-minded and full of gossip. Tolstoy’s philosophies do not sit well with British conservatism nor with the radical politics of the student revolutionaries in Tsarist Russia. Selwyn Crane’s poems have to be set in English in Roman type, whereas the printworks uses the Cyrillic alphabet. The children are able to negotiate the boundaries between Russia and their English family, even if they do not understand what they see, such as the gathering in the birch trees near the dacha. The adults are all in search of some utopian life. 

There are some splendid depictions of smaller characters; Kuriatin is a neighbour, nouveau riche and keen to show off his westernised purchases. The chief craftsman at the printshop Tvyordov; Charlie, Frank’s brother who visits during Nellie’s absence. Each of these characters are individuals, with complicated lives and to a greater or lesser degree, with very little knowledge of the world outside their own concerns.

Nothing is clear, but the season turns into spring and we learn about Nellie’s departure and her plans, and as the novel ends Nellie returns. 

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916 – 2000)

She published her first novel when she was 61. She had been active in the London literary world having worked as an editor and a biographer before embarking on her own fiction. She led a difficult life, not least because her husband was debarred, having passed dodgy cheques, forcing the family to live in near poverty, including for a while on a houseboat on the Thames which sank. She used her experiences in some of her novels, the houseboat being the setting of Offshore.

The Beginning of Spring was set in Moscow, a place that she had only visited once. Despite this the novel is full of details of the city. She also included information about the printing trade, and details of Russian life that indicate her depth of research. The research is not produced clunkily, to impress the reader, rather it is used to enhance her themes of change and foreignness. 

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald, first published in1988 by Collins. I used the edition by Flamingo from 2003. 246pp

Related post

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (Bookword January 2014)

Bookshops in Books (Bookword January 2018) 

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The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean has been on my shelves for some time, bought soon after I reviewed another novel by May Sinclair, Mary Olivier: a life, on this blog. It is curious that there was interest in May Sinclair in the previous decade, but not much recently. I find it curious because she has much to say about the traditional way in which middle-class girls in England were brought up in preparation for the life their parents hoped for them, and it still has relevance today. 

The two books mentioned here go together. Mary Oliver defied her parents and insisted on educating herself and refusing marriage. The protest against a life of sacrifice for women has a long history. The pressures from social convention, religious beliefs, and the lack of alternative role models for young women are also the background to this second novel: The Life and Death of Harriett Frean. Unlike Mary Oliver, Harriett Frean sacrifices herself to her parents’ beliefs about the role of women. 

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean

The title, which hints at her not very happy last years, can be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of self-sacrifice and denial. Harriett lives her life in loneliness, justifying her own behaviour as beautiful. As a child she sought her parents’ approval, and this influence is so strong that it endures even beyond their graves. As a child she resists greed and selfishness and any other behaviour that would displease her parents, encouraging the development of a mean-spirited girl of small imagination.

The family is self-satisfied. Her father speculates to make money and takes no responsibility for their neighbour’s financial downfall alongside his own. He publishes one book, The Social Order. Its lack of value is evident from May Sinclair’s description.  

He dreamed of a new Social State, society governing itself without representatives. (65) 

Harriett assumes an air of superiority as a result of this book and refers to it long after the author and the book have been forgotten by everyone else. 

In fact, nothing any of the Freans do is generous or productive, but they are all self-satisfied. Her father dies while they are in reduced circumstances. Later, her mother also falls ill, but dies in agony refusing treatment. Harriett denies herself the love of her friend’s fiancé, which does no one any good. When she visits her friend and the husband, she is unaware of the damage she has done. 

Harriett continues living in the same house, and in the same way, seeing her friends in a regular round. She falls ill and on recovery finds herself living a very small life.

She lived by habit, by the punctual fulfilment of her expectations. (162)

The habitual life contains no affection, no generosity, and no diminishing of the sense of superiority. And she dies in the same state of mind. Her own final thought is that she has behaved beautifully.

This is a devastating take down of Victorian standards of behaviour for women.

May Sinclair 1863-1946

May Sinclair was born in Cheshire, her father was a Liverpool shipowner. Her mother was a strict Christian. He father became bankrupt and died soo after. She moved with her mother to Ilford near London. May’s education was interrupted by her mother’s demands that she care for her brothers who had heart disease. She began publishing to earn money to support her mother and herself and became a successful writer. Her first novel, published in 1897, was Audrey Craven.

She was a suffragist and many of the 23 novels she wrote were concerned with issues that affected women.Mary Olivier: a life was her 13th published novel and The Life and Death of Harriett Frean was her 16th. She also wrote essays and poetry. She stopped publishing in the early 1930s as she was suffering from Parkinson’s but went on to live until 1946. During her lifetime she was highly regarded, moved in literary circles in London and with such achievements she deserves to be rescued from obscurity.

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair, first published in 1922 and reissued in the series Virago Modern Classics in 1980. 181pp

Related Links

Mary Olivier: a life on Bookword

Heavenali’s review of The Life and Death of Harriett Frean from 2013 can be read here

An article in the Guardian in August 2013 by Charlotte Jones condemns the neglect of this ‘accomplished writer’. It can be found here.

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