Monthly Archives: May 2022

Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson

Tirra Lirra by the River has been on the list of novels about older women for several years, recommended by Whispering Gums, an Australian blog. It was first published in 1978. I think that the strange title put me off exploring it, but what a shame that was because this is a very interesting novel, and one which many Australian school children have had as a set book in the past. And that title is a reference to The Lady of Shalott, that long ballad by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

This is the 58th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed.

Tirra Lirra by the River

The novel is narrated by Nora Porteous. She begins her story with her return to her childhood home in Brisbane. Nora is in her late 70s and describes herself as old. 

Through the long mirror in the big black hall stand I see a shape pass. It is the shape of an old woman who began to call herself old before she really was, partly to get in first and partly out of a fastidiousness about the word ‘elderly’, but who is now really old. She has allowed her shoulders to slump. I press back my shoulders and make first for the living room. (4)

Nora Porteous has returned from several decades spent in England, because she has run out of options, of places to escape to, and this house was the bequest of her sister, to her nephew, not to be sold in Nora’s lifetime. In fact, Nora also has pneumonia and spends the first weeks of her return in bed recovering. During this time, she considers and revisits her past.

This is not so much the story of her life retold, but more her attempt to understand her life, the decisions she made and the influences upon her. She finds the courage and energy to examine some of the seminal episodes and people in her life, some of which she has hidden from herself: her marriage, the fate of her friends, some adolescent dalliance with a young lad and so forth. 

The title refers to the Lady of Shallot, who wove tapestries under a curse that she should never stop. She can only see the world through a mirror, and in it she must watch people passing her tower. One day Sir Lancelot rides by. The Tirra Lirra of the title is what Lancelot sings as he approaches.

As he rode down from Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
‘Tirra lirra, tirra lirra:’
            Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom 
She made three paces thro’ the room 
She saw the water-flower bloom, 
She saw the helmet and the plume, 
She look’d down to Camelot. 
Out flew the web and floated wide; 
The mirror crack’d from side to side; 
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried 
The Lady of Shalott. 

Nora has been sewing tapestries as a young woman. She comes to see that her only skill is in needlework, but it is not well developed. On her return she is shown some of those early tapestries, and is impressed by them, as were the recipients who kept them.

For Nora the allure of Camelot was a longing to live in Sydney. Her Sir Lancelot is Colin Porteous, not a very convincing stand-in. But they marry and move to Sydney. Collin will not allow her to work. While she likes the city, and meets new artistic people there, when Colin moves them to live with his mother, Nora’s life shrivels to nothing.

After several years Nora eventually makes another escape when Colin seeks a divorce to marry Pearl. This time she sails to Southampton. The voyage took six weeks, and when she landed she was pregnant.

In London, she found a doctor who performed an abortion, 

But the bleeding stopped at last, and never again did I have any sexual contact, of any kind, with anyone. (94)

 She tries various jobs always planning to return to Sydney but the war intervenes, and she finds work she enjoys, making costumes. And she makes friends and lives with them in West London for many years in a shared house. The ending of that arrangement sends her back to Brisbane.

In returning to Brisbane she is able to explore incidents in her life which she has previously hidden from herself, like on a globe where she keeps the dark side away from her gaze. And she catches up with the lives of people she had known and who had been important to her in her childhood. She describes how her time in London, in Fred’s house with Hilda and Liza was full of storytelling. In Brisbane she misses her fellow storytellers.

I am often lonely for that audience, and yet, if it were possible to return and regain it, I would not go. An audience, especially so sympathetic an audience, imposes restrictions I now wish to do without. 
… I have made things, concocted things, all my life. Perhaps I shall do so again (and indeed there are times when I do prefigure some small hand-made object), but at present my concern is to find things. My globe of memory is in free spin, with no obscure side, and although at times it is swelling and spinning it offers the queer suggestion that imagination is only memory at one, or two, or twenty removes, my interest now is in repudiating, or trying to repudiate, those removes, even if it ends by my finding something only as small as a stone lying on pale grass. (160)

Nora is engaged in a frank exploration of her past, her creation, finding the obscured memories to look at them full in the face. We can only admire this effort. She will not die in a barge on the river like the Lady of Shallot.

Jessica Anderson

Photo credit: Via Wikipedia: Photograph by Robert McFarlane, Kings Cross Sydney, 1984

Jessica Anderson was born in Brisbane in 1916. She lived until 2010. She was a late starter to writing. Her first novel was published in 1963, when she had remarried and she was able to spend time devoted to writing. She lived most of her life in Australia, in Sydney. 

Many have believed that Tirra Lirra in the River was autobiographical, but Nora was born about 16 years before the author and spent many more years in the UK. The novel was published in 1978 and was very successful in Australia, winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award, among others.

You can find The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson here, on the Poetry Foundation website.

Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson first published in 1978. Reissued by Melville House in 2014. 181pp

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

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Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell 

Many readers will remember the 2007 BBC TV series called Cranford. It adapted the novel along with some of Elizabeth Gaskell’s other writing into a short series. Judy Dench as Miss Matty is a strong memory. The book at the core of the series is this month’s choice for my reading group. We like to read classics from time to time, and I must admit that I had not previously read this novel. My only connection was with one episode of the TV series. But I am so pleased to have read it now for it is very enjoyable in its quiet and detailed way.

Cranford

The novel began its life as a piece in Household Words, edited by Charles Dickens in 1851. Our Society at Cranford, as it was called, painted a quaint picture of a mainly female population, genteel but not wealthy, proud of its conservatism, and hostile to outsiders and change. Dickens rightly saw the potential in this first piece and encouraged Mrs Gaskell to write more.

A dozen more sections followed at irregular intervals in subsequent editions of Household Words. The whole was gathered together and published in 1853 as a novel. The manner in which Cranford was created determined its structure and its lack of narrative drive. 

Change is a big theme of Cranford. The changes brought from outside the town include the railway, which sadly claims a victim in an early episode: Captain Brown saved a child which had wandered on to the track but was himself crushed by the engine. The railway brought closer connection to the nearest city: Drumble, standing in for Manchester, which was expanding fast, and bringing new practices such as the joint stock bank which holds Miss Matty’s meagre fortune. Travel allows brings other visitors to Cranford including the magician Signor Brunoni, actually a soldier called Samuel Brown, Lady Glenmire, and finally a brother returning from India.

Cranford ladies have their routines and traditions, and do not like them to be upset. The imperious Miss Jenkyns determines matters of protocol; after her death the task falls to Mrs Jamieson. She is thrilled when her widowed but titled sister-in-law, Lady Glenmire, comes to stay. But the lady’s engagement and marriage to the local doctor are deemed by Mrs Jamieson to be a great coming down for a titled lady. But this episode marks the beginning of a loosening of the rigid attention to status that has ruled the lives of these ladies.

When Miss Matty is plunged into poverty, her friends rally and make a secret arrangement to keep her more or less in the style to which they believed she was entitled. The loyalty, friendship and mutual support of the women is shown as a very positive aspect of Cranford.

In contrast, the ladies are quite able to whip themselves up into a false panic. They are convinced that foreigners or gypsies are haunting the dark streets of Cranford at night-time, just waiting to knock the unprotected women on their heads and to steal their belongings. It is quite clear that there is no such gang, and it is also evident that the presence of some strangers set off the panic.

The episodic nature of the plotline is a little confusing. The narrator, Mary Smith, is a woman who never quite comes into the light. She is younger than Miss Matty and her friends, but not a young woman. She has connections with Cranford, but lives with her father in Drumble, while making extended visits to stay with the Cranford ladies, in particular with Miss Matty. She knows them all intimately, their different foibles and qualities and busies herself with their affairs, but we never see her for herself.

Cranford is a quiet book, respectful of the foibles of the main participants, but strongly on the side of kindness, patience, and forbearing. It also chronicles changes to the urban settings even as the big cities of the industrial revolution were undergoing complete transformations. We are left in no doubt that those who adjust to the new in Cranford are the more open-minded and accepting. 

Elizabeth Gaskell

Born in 1810 Mrs Gaskell grew up in Knutsford in Cheshire, the original town of Cranford. In her other novels she explored the effects of the industrial expansion of the 19th century on the people of the great northern cities. Mary Barton: a tale of Manchester Life (1848) and North and South (1854) were two such novels. She also wrote a biography of Charlotte Brontë, and many other short stories and novels. She died in 1865.

The BBC tv adaptation of 2007 starred many well-known actors: Judy Dench, Imelda Staunton, Eileen Atkins, Julia McKenzie, Julia Sawalha for example

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, 1851-3. I read the edition from the Oxford World’s Classic series. 216pp

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Bookword in Naples

For months and months now I have been feeling restless, wanting to get away, away from Covid, from daily life, from staying at home and making soup (as a friend said). Since March 2020 I had spent just 4 nights from home, when I visited my sister in Cumbria. I enjoyed that very much, but by the New Year I wanted more. I am not claiming any specialness in these feelings. Readers of this blog may well have had similar emotions.

So earlier this year I booked myself onto a cultural tour of the ancient world around Naples. I imagined that it would either be cancelled or postponed, but in the event neither happened, and at the end of April, I took my Covid Pass, my clothes for warmer places and my masks and flew to Naples.

The tour focused on Greek and Roman archaeology around the Bay of Naples: Pompeii, Herculaneum, Paestum and its temples, Pozzuoli Amphitheatre, and, where Pliny the elder died, Castellammare dell Stabia. Dominating the bay was Mount Vesuvius. 

Forum, Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background

For as long as I knew about it, I had wanted to visit Pompeii, and was in awe of the volcano and its eruptions. The one that buried Pompeii in ash and pumice happened in AD79. More recently it erupted during the Second World War. We were assured that it always gave warnings of any impending eruption, but it is acknowledged to be active. So, we climbed up it and looked into its crater, and found a steaming vent, which was a little alarming, but the worst that we experienced.

For this post on Bookword I present some books and poems that relate to Naples.

Pompeii: the life of a Roman town by Mary Beard

Told with her trademark verve and questioning style, she reveals the daily life of those who lived in the town before the eruption, casting a critical eye on the archaeological evidence and what people have made of it. It’s a very readable guide. It’s very much more than a guidebook, more an introduction for an intelligent reader who doesn’t want to be fobbed off with the myths that surround the ruins. 

Pompeii: the life of a Roman town by Mary Beard, published by Profile Books in 2008. 360pp

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

This is a novel about two girls growing up in the poorest district of Naples in the ‘50s, narrated by one of them. The Neapolitan Quartet, of which this is the first volume, has been very successful. The attraction, I believe, is in part the attraction of soaps: family drama, struggle against circumstances, many characters, the development of the limited cast of characters, and several vivid and violent scenes.

Readers of the post on this novel in December 2021 will know that I am not a huge fan and you can see my original comments in full here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, published in English in 2012 by Europa Editions. 331pp. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag

Another novel, this one by the renowned intellectual Susan Sontag, published in 1962. It is a long time since I read it, possibly more than 20 years, and my copy seems to have disappeared from my shelves, probably in a ruthless cull to send it on to other readers through Oxfam.

I remember that it concerned the triangle, possibly the ménage à trois, of William Hamilton, Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, his beautiful wife Emma, and her lover Admiral Lord Nelson. William Hamilton studied volcanoes, and perhaps is one of those few men whose is famous because of his wife.

Although praised by eminent critics for its literary qualities, I’m afraid that my memory of this book has largely escaped.

The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag, available as a Penguin Modern Classic.

Pompeii by Robert Harris

And this third novel I might read following my visit. It’s set in the town if its title at the time of the eruption and was recommended by Richard E Grant in his BBC programme Write around the World.

The story follows a water engineer, Marcus Attilius Primus, who has arrived in Pompeii to deal with the problem of the failing water supply. He gets caught up in a corrupt plot, an assassination attempt, love for Corelia, and of course the eruption. 

Pompeii by Robert Harris, published in 2003, and available in paperback.

In the footsteps of Shelley:

It is said that Percy Bysshe Shelley loved this area, but he wrote Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples. Poor man, his dejection outweighed the wonders of the place:


Alas! I have nor hope nor health,
Nor peace within nor calm around,

You can find the full poem here.

And Primo Levi made connections to other deadly events:

Primo Levi was imprisoned in Auschwitz as an Italian Jew during the Second World War. He survived the Holocaust, but his writings reveal the damage done. A poem he wrote is translated from the Italian as Girl of Pompeii or Girl-child of Pompeii. The poem links the plaster cast body of a fleeing child at Pompeii with the Holocaust, through Anne Frank and the Atom Bomb, through a schoolgirl in Hiroshima. 

Since the anguish of each belongs to us all
We’re still living yours, scrawny little girl …

You can find several translations of this poem on the internet.

A fresco in Castellammare

I feel restored by my trip to Italy and by the literary connections made there. I might even reread Virgil’s Aeneid. 

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Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

This was a good read for a recent journey, all that waiting in airport lounges, on trains and planes, and on buses. I was thoroughly absorbed in this spikey novel, which I bought at the airport. It’s a paperback edition, but why do they make airport publications so hefty, by the way? 

Lessons in Chemistry

Elizabeth Zott is a heroine for our times; in particular, she won’t put up with being fobbed off as a mere woman. But Elizabeth Zott, the heroine of this fast-paced novel, lives in the US in the 1950s and 1960s. She has worked hard to achieve a master’s degree in chemistry, but her career keeps getting knocked back by men. At best they don’t believe that women can have jobs in science, or that they only want to find a clever husband. At worst they undermine their confidence and steal their research and sexually assault them when they object.

Although blocked in her career by this kind of behaviour, Elizabeth does find a job in a research company in California. It is the same company as the brilliant Calvin Evans. Their first meeting is not good. He assumes she is a secretary, rather than a lab worker. But although he has assumed wrongly, he is able to see her talents as a scientist when she reveals them. 

Elizabeth and Calvin fall in love and set up house together (shocking). Circumstances force her to bring up their child on her own (shocking). Her work is stolen, but she persists in bringing up her daughter, and in pursuing her chemistry projects. The odds are very much against her, and she is dismissed and shut out of employment in chemistry for a while.

Then, because she is resourceful and determined, and because she has great presence, she lands a job presenting a cooking programme on late afternoon television. Her particular slant is to introduce chemistry to the women viewers, by treating them as intelligent and hard-working people. In her programme she encourages women to take charge of their lives. Chemistry is about change. The underlying message of her afternoon shows becomes – it starts now and with you Her programme becomes very popular. 

The story is told in multiple timeframes, beginning with the episode in which the tv station producer persuades her to take on the presenter’s role. The story is told to reveal the multiple ways in which women in the ‘50s and ’60s experienced the patriarchal attitudes of society at that time. There are numerous episodes that highlight this, mostly through Elizabeth’s refusal to accept the limitations she meets.

This means that we visit some cherished ideas from US post-war culture: about the role of women, marriage, illegitimacy, women’s education, defining identity through genetic families, lying, treatment of animals, child-rearing, religion, research funding and celebrity. She demonstrates that women are powerful, capable of change, not second to men.

There are many great characters in Lessons in Chemistry: Madeline, Elizabeth’s precocious daughter; Six-Thirty, her dog; Phil Lebensmal, the tv channel’s boss, and just about every scientist Elizabeth comes across.

Pacey, sparky and with a mystery at its heart, it was just the thing to entertain me for the duration of my journey. This is the first novel by Bonnie Garmus to be published. Her attractive dry wit will no doubt appeal again when she publishes her second novel. I am not surprised that it is already reported that there are plans to adapt it for the screen, even before the paperback is out in the UK (except at airports)

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, published in 2022, by Doubleday. 391pp

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Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

In today’s world, where largescale and terrible things are happening (yes, Covid pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine) and where morality and honesty appear to have deserted the government (yes, sending refugees to Rwanda, lying about Brexit and partygate), it’s important to celebrate decent behaviour. There is not a great deal us little people can do, but we can behave with decency and sympathy, even if it risks local condemnation. So it is, in this short novel: a celebration of decent behaviour.

I originally gave it as a birthday present to a reader-friend, and she lent it to me having greatly enjoyed it first.

Small Things Like These

Set in 1985 in the small costal town of New Ross, in Wexford, Ireland. Christmas approaches and Bill Furlong is busy with fulfilling the winter orders for fuel. He runs a successful business supplying coal, wood and anthracite to the town, despite starting out as the illegitimate son of a single woman, now dead, and an unknown father. When she became pregnant, his mother was not thrown out by her employer, or sent in shame to a mother and baby home. Instead, Furlong grew up in Mrs Wilson’s house and was well treated.

He married Eileen and they have five girls. They are a loving family and are just about able to afford to have a decent Christmas, getting the presents that the girls have requested. Some of the most satisfying scenes are those spent with his family, for example when Eileen and the girls make the Christmas cake, and the girls write their letters to Santa. Such scenes, however, remind Furlong of the disappointments and poverty of his youth.

One of his deliveries is to the local convent. Furlong makes an early start and discovers a girl locked in the coal shed. Although the nuns treat her as if she has accidentally spent the night there, Furlong is uncertain.

As the days pass, he is increasingly uneasy. He must face the truth of his own origins, the silence of the town about the inhabitants and purpose of the convent, and the warnings that the convent nuns have power that could compromise Furlong in New Ross. Finally, he takes action.

The small things of the title include his marriage and daughters, their preparations for Christmas, his decency towards his workforce and generosity to his customers. It also includes the townsfolk turning their backs on whatever is happening in the convent, and generally ‘minding their own business’. Expectations and tradition keep everything in its place, and he is warned off tangling with the Convent. He defies this tradition.

Moral, moving, very quiet and short.

Claire Keegan

Although she has lived in other places, Claire Keegan was born in Ireland in 1968. She has previously published 3 collections of short stories, winning prizes and accolades for them: Antarctica (1999); Walk the Blue Fields (2007); Foster (2010)

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, published in 2021 by Faber & Faber. 166pp

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In her review Kate Vane is frustrated that the story did not include the implications of Furlong’s action for his family and business. But she has strong praise for the novella. Kate Vane Blog October 2021.

Susan, on A Life in Books blog also praises this short book, and expects to delve into more writing by Claire Keegan, November 2021.

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