Monthly Archives: December 2022

Beowulf – 4: Charles Keeping’s illustrations

Moving some books around I found a copy of Beowulf, with the credits on the cover to Charles Keeping and Kevin Crossley-Holland. Readers will know that the illustrator is not normally the first named. Most readers of children’s books in the post war period will be familiar with Charles Keeping and his style of illustrations. Many of my copies of books by Rosemary Sutcliff have them, including Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf.

It is not immediately apparent that this is a book for young readers, but the blurb on the back says that it is ‘retold for children’. A Wikipedia search tells me that Oxford University Press created a series of four books, this is one of them, to showcase Charles Keeping’s illustrations. It was published in 1982. I can’t remember how it came into my possession, possibly I inherited it in the collection of books I received when my mother died a few years ago. 

This is the fourth in a series of connected posts, connected by the ancient English poem Beowulf. You can find links to the previous posts at the end of this piece.

Beowulf

This is not a translation, but a retelling by Kevin Crossley-Holland. I referred to another version of his in the first post I wrote on this ancient poem as well as the version by Rosemary Sutcliff published in 1961, also with illustrations by Charles Keeping. In the present version the illustrations are powerful and provide the dark atmosphere for the story.

They are in black and white which makes for stark images and reflects the Nordic location of the poem. Beowulf was a Geat (from present day Sweden) who travelled to assist Hrothgar, the king of Denmark. This king had built a huge feasting hall, Heorat, that was being terrorised by a monster called Grendel.

The illustrations do not shy away from the horror, violence, and pain. The story tells how Beowulf defeated Grendel, causing his death by ripping off his arm. Not just one but two monsters are taken on by Beowulf. If anything, Grendel’s nameless mother is an even more formidable enemy than Grendel. She has supernatural powers and Beowulf must wrestle with her underwater. 

The pictures are drawn with fine lines, which pick out individual features, for example of sleeping warriors. But the lines are also used to create the surroundings of the figures, often in fog, or at night, or with simple stalks growing from the ground. When we see them, the people’s faces are gnarly and often scarred. Grendel is the stuff of nightmares.

Through the dark night a darker shape slid. A sinister figure shrithed down from the moors, over high shoulders, sopping tussocks , over sheep runs, over gurgling streams. It shrithed towards the timbered hall, huge and hairy and slightly stooping. Its long arms swung loosely. (17)

Perhaps only the one-armed Grendel shrieking as he ran is more terrible. Or his hairy arm, ripped from his body and pinned up by the entrance to the hall. Commentators suggest that Charles Keeping’s monsters have a human and vulnerable quality to them, and that makes them appealing to the viewer/reader.

Charles Keeping 

Charles Keeping was born in 1924 and spent some of the war years in the RAF serving as a wireless operator. At the end of the war he was wounded and after his recouperation attended art school and began his career as an illustrator. It took off after he had illustrated Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novel The Silver Branch. He had a very successful career, illustrating children’s books most often. He died in May 1988.

Beowulf by Charles Keeping & Kevin Crossley-Holland, published in 1982 by Oxford University Press.

You can see several of Charles Keeping’s illustration on the Paris review website (September 2015) called Charles Keeping’s Beowulf with a link to yet more.

Related posts

Beowulf – 1 (February 2021)

Beowulf – 2, in which he meets a feminist (June 2021)

Beowulf – 3, Grendel by John Gardner (March 2022)

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Filed under Books, Books for children, illustrations, Reading

Cat Brushing by Jane Campbell

Old People are not pets.’ I wish I could remember where I came across this truth recently. I like a book that depicts older people, especially older women, as real humans, with the full range of emotions and experiences. Such books are to be treasured but can be hard to find.

This problem is explored in an article in the most recent edition of Mslexia (Dec/Jan/Feb 2022/3) by Debbie Taylor called The Time of our Lives. The article looked at myths about ageing authors, and also about the characters that older women want to read about. The article referred to the ten top novels featuring older women on Bookword and listed this blog as a resource for interested readers. There is a great deal to think about in the article. 

This is the 61st post in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the link at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed on Bookword Blog.

Cat Brushing

I find it hard to review collections of short stories. The quality and interest will be variable, and what I have enjoyed may not please others. What is pleasing in this collection is that every story is about an older woman. They do not always act wisely, do not always triumph. But they are written as real people, not a different species, and not as curiosities or pets. 

The title story is told in the first person, as the unnamed old woman grooms her beautiful Siamese cat, noting the pleasure the cat receives. 

And seeing her respond like this to the smooth strokes I could see myself in bed with one of my lovers, and my own arching and offering, and wondered, when I had finished with the brushing, whether she felt as I had when it was over, not just brushed but glad, even grateful to have been brushed. In other words, was the moment only with her, or was there a reflective pleasure as well? (45-6)

It is gradually revealed that the narrator and the cat are living in Bermuda with her son and daughter-in-law. She regrets the passing of her sensual experiences, and the likelihood that her son and daughter-in-law will want to get rid of the cat because they are having a baby. Giving up pleasure is hard.

I relished the first story in the collection – Susan and Miffy. It starts with a challenge:

The lust of an old man is disgusting but the lust of an old woman is worse. Everyone knows that. Certainly, Susan knew it. (3)

Susan is in a geriatric ward, and after seeing her struggle to replace a light bulb, she lusts after Miffy a ward assistant. The very boring, beige existence of Susan in her younger days is contrasted vividly with the feelings and relationship of the two women. Susan has been an exemplary wife and mother and rarely felt any desire in her life. Now it consumes her.

And so the stories progress, with the women discovering aspects of themselves in the last stages of their lives. Sometimes they find that they have been hanging on to an idea, an ancient love affair, for too long and the object of their affections is no longer interested. One woman is charmed by a fellow passenger on a train in a chance encounter, and their subsequent lives together become exploitative. Another has devoted her life to the care of her father, and to a relationship with him which feels decidedly unhealthy. And the very satisfying story about a woman who has relished being alone all her life but finds happiness in changing her attitude ends the volume.

I liked the collection for its steady presentation of different women, with a variety of attitudes, histories and futures and facing difficult circumstances late in life, drawing on what they had learned over the years. This is a contrast to some depictions of older women as naïve or having learned nothing from their many experiences. Jane Campbell’s women have no magical powers, no wisdom for younger women.

Cat Brushing by Jane Campbell, published in 2022 by riverrun. 245pp

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

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At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

I’m doing a fair bit of rereading novels recently, including all of those by Elizabeth Taylor – at a snail’s pace and out of order, but with great pleasure.

At Mrs Lippincote’s is Elizabeth Taylor’s first published novel, and it appears that it was written when it was unclear when the war would end. The war is the background to the events here, but no direct mention is made: mention of ‘for the duration’ is about as far as it goes. Readers at the time would have been familiar with the meagre food (a supper of tinned pilchards on toast, for example) and the countless small deprivations required of everyone. Above all, people found themselves having to live in places they had not chosen. 

At Mrs Lippincote’s

This is a novel about displacement: the title gives us a hint to this effect. Everyone is displaced. Julia Davenant, her husband, son and a cousin arrive to live in the house of Mrs Lippincote, who has rented it to Roddy Davenant. Mrs Lippincote has recently been widowed and now she is living down the road in a hotel with her daughter. The Squadron, its leader, men and wives, are all displaced to this unnamed town. The cousin, Eleanor, writes to Reggy, a former boyfriend who is in a pow camp in Germany. Mr Taylor, known to Julia in London as a maitre d’, has turned up in this town running a club in a bungalow. 

It is also a novel about honesty. Julia, married to Roddy and mother of Oliver, is revealed as uninterested in conventions. She doesn’t care very much to follow normal rules but lives according to her own instincts. 

Julia had a strange gift of coming to a situation freshly, peculiarly untarnished by preconceived ideas, whether of her own preconception or the world’s. Could she have taken for granted a few of those generalisations invented by men and largely acquiesced in by women (that women live by their hearts, men by their heads, that love is women’s whole existence, and especially that sons should respect their fathers), she would have eased her own life and other people’s. (26)

We might feel rather sorry for Roddy in this, for he expected to mould her when he married her. She frequently makes him anxious that she will show him up with by not behaving appropriately. 

Elizabeth Taylor often includes a child in her novels, and she is rather good at them. Oliver is seven years old and rather a precocious child.

Oliver Davenant did not merely read books. He snuffed them up, took breaths of them in his lungs, filled his eyes with the sight of the print and his head with the sound of words. […] With impartiality, he studied comic papers and encyclopaedia, Eleanor’s pamphlets on whatever interested her at the moment, the labels on breakfast cereals and cod liver oil, Conan Doyle and Charlotte Brontë. (14-15)

He had the capacity to enter into a book and live it, so that looking out of his new bedroom window at a girls’ school he can imagine that it is Lowood and that he will have burnt porridge and unclean milk for breakfast. He is able to hold conversations with the Squadron Leader about books, and especially about Charlotte Brontë. In the way of children he can be very literal. 

The Squadron Leader is an interesting character. It emerges that he is perceptive about the men under his command, but that he doesn’t stand on ceremony or masculine bravado. Like Oliver he is a reader and in addition he knits.

Against the different kinds of honesty of these three characters we have Eleanor, Roddy Davenant’s cousin who lives with them. She is in love with Roddy, but when she takes up a job as a teacher and becomes involved with a socialist group, (through the woodwork teacher) she finds it necessary to hide her activities from Roddy and Julia. The reader is continually aware that she thinks she would be a better wife to Roddy than Julia is. Her letters to the prisoner of war are likewise not honest in their motives or contents. 

But the biggest hypocrite turns out to be Roddy, as the Squadron Leader knew. Here is a small example of his dissembling.

Roddy kissed Julia and went off to a party in the Mess – a men’s party, a ‘presence required’ party he explained leaving the house with a look of resignation. Watching him go, she was interested to see, as he turned for a second to latch the gate, the change that had come over him; gone the forbearance, and in its place geniality and a look of anticipation. (127)

Elizabeth Taylor

This was her first published novel, but Elizabeth Taylor was already showing herself to be a very accomplished writer. Look again at the quotation about Julia above. Note the list in parenthesis of things that Julia did not take for granted: that women live by their hearts, men by their heads, that love is women’s whole existence, and especially that sons should respect their fathers. It’s a safe enough list of examples, but through the novel Julia is proved right in not taking each of them for granted. 

Her descriptions of people are always illuminated by small details: Eleanor’s pamphlets, Roddy’s change of demeanour, Mrs Lippincote’s hat, and so on. Humour threads through the novel, humour and wry observation.

And the story is beautifully crafted. Here’s a moment from the first chapter which turns out to be significant but is only given the slightest emphasis. Julia is in her bedroom, surrounded by suitcases on their first evening in the house. She was searching in a trunk for handkerchiefs.

Oh, God! Of course, they were not there. She found, however, some talcum powder and a packet of envelopes which she needed.
As for a handkerchief … sniffing miserably, she had begun to rummage in the pockets of Roddy’s greatcoat. She did this aloofly, for husband’s pockets, since they were the subject of music-hall jokes, were always to be scorned and avoided. He did not apparently, carry handkerchiefs. “Now what are you up to?” he had asked, coming into the bedroom with yet another case. “My dear Julia, this trunk! You dive like a mole and leave disorder in your train.” (6)

Or notice this turning point following a party, which Roddy was claiming was “a damned good party”

“Yes,” she said gravely. She took up some empty bottles and went out. She had been angry with him on many occasions, impatient often, never grave. (85)

The novel ends as Julia and Roddy leave Mrs Lippincote’s house, he has been redeployed by the Wing Commander. The husband and wife’s roles have been reversed; he has been shown to cause disorder, and she is the competent one who will decide how they manage in the future.

At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1945. I used the edition published in 1988 by in the Virago Modern Classic series. 215pp

Related posts

Two Elizabeths, two first novels, a post about The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen and At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, which noted some similarities between these two first novels. (May 2013)

Recent re-readings of novels by Elizabeth Taylor include

Reading Palladium again (September 2022)

Rereading A View of the Harbour (February 2022)

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reading, Reviews, Writing

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

It only seems a short time since I read and reviewed Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi on Bookword blog. It was published in 2016. It was a story in two parts, one following African generations who remained on the continent, and the other following the descendants of an enslaved woman. The novel allowed contrasts between the two branches of the family, and how they emerged in the early 21st Century. It made a strong impression on me.

Since that time, I have wanted to read her second book, Transcendent Kingdom (2020), which has been well reviewed and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2021.

Transcendent Kingdom

This later novel is also constructed as a contrast, here to contrast two apparently opposing stances on life. The Ghanaian connection is here again. The narrator is Gifty, who has been brought up in Huntsville Alabama, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants. 

Gifty has been a brilliant science student and has moved to Stanford, California to work on her doctoral research. She is a neuroscientist, experimenting on mice, hoping to find whether it is possible to control their responses to pleasure and pain. 

Gifty’s mother has put all her faith in the church she attended since arriving in the States: The First Assemblies of God. She is a diligent attendee and as a child Gifty shared her devotion. But Gifty lost her faith and her mother’s was severely tried by two significant losses in their lives. The first was Nana, Gifty’s talented brother, and the second was her father who returned to Ghana. 

Nana, a gifted soccer player turned to basketball and sustained an injury to his ankle takes him to hospital and he is prescribed OxyContin. This is a very effective painkiller, but it is also highly addictive. Nana’s descent into opiate addiction, attempted rehabilitation, heroin dependence and subsequent death is charted through the eyes of his younger and adoring sister.

Gifty’s mother has a breakdown, after Nana’s death and Gifty spends a summer in Ghana. The novel begins, many years later, when she has had another breakdown, and has come to stay in Gifty’s flat as there is no one else to care for her. The narrative jumps back and forth over time, and from Gifty’s attempts to help her mother to her research in the lab. 

Neither mother nor daughter are managing very well. While Gifty is a brilliant student, she has no social life to speak of and she is in her mid-twenties. Her mother lies in bed, hardly moving, speaking or eating for several weeks. Faith and science seem to have failed both women. 

Gifty herself articulates the issue:

All of my years of Christianity, of considering the heart, the soul, and the mind with which the Scriptures tell us to love the Lord, had primed me to believe in the great mystery of our existence, but the closer I tried to get to uncovering it, the further away the objects moved. The fact that I can locate the part of the brain where memory is stored only answers questions of where and perhaps even how. It does little to answer the why. (183)

We are assured, in the Acknowledgements, that Gifty’s research is modelled after a friend’s doctoral studies. The narrator quotes from several scientific papers which are probably real too. She frequently turns over ideas and problems in the text, making this novel less of a narrative progression, but more a contemplation of issues of choice, addiction, the control of the individual (mouse and man), and the division between heart, soul and mind.

Gifty’s research is an attempt to find whether there are any ways in which the brain can be coaxed into refusing pleasure if it also results in pain: the central problem of addiction. A breakthrough in her research leads to some hope. Her mother also gradually improves under her care.

The novel also considers migration, being Black in a White state, being a Black girl (and therefore unable to be a princess apparently), to be young and exposed to the opiate addiction crisis, and the role of the churches in sustaining people through difficult times. Loss and grief are described as acute states.

Two things bother me about this novel: first, the ethical question raised by using animals in experiments is not acknowledged, let along explored. And then I do not understand the title.

Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989 but moved with her family to the US in 1991. Recently she wrote a piece in the Guardian which stung me into replying to her charges in a post called Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine? In that article she refers to her belief in ‘the power of literature to challenge, to deepened, to change’. And she has claimed Toni Morrison as one of her major influences. Both her novels are powerful, in both because, like Toni Morrison, she relates systematic injustice and racism to individuals’ lives.

Related posts

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (June 2021)

Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine? (May 2021)

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi 2020. Published in paperback by Penguin 244pp. Shortlisted for Women’s Prize in 2021

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, Women of Colour