Monthly Archives: February 2023

Birds of Passage by Bernice Rubens

I am not easily shocked. I am not often shocked. But this novel shocked me. It also served to remind me how far attitudes have changed in the 42 years since its publication, specifically attitudes to rape and exploitation of women. 

I picked this book to include in the series on Older Women in Fiction on this blog. This is the 62nd in the series 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.

Birds of Passage

Two widows live next door to each other. For decades they have planned to go on a cruise together when their husbands have died. In due time, they are both widowed, both passed 60, and both have waited the required and decent amount of time, and so they embark on a Mediterranean cruise for three weeks. Neither of them experienced marriage as a happy state, seeing it more of a duty and a series of gender-specific tasks, notably the men cut the hedge and determine what grows in the garden. Neither of them has had much excitement or happiness in their lives, but they have done what was expected of them.

Also on the cruise is another widow, Mrs Dove, who wins her ticket in a competition, and she takes her daughter with her. The daughter is suffering from a crisis of sexuality (my description, certainly not Bernice Ruben’s) for having been abandoned by her husband, Alice Dove has taken up with predatory Nellie, and is portrayed as a dungaree-wearing man-hater. Mrs Dove has been so well groomed by her late husband that she is quite at a loss in social situations. She too has had her life shaped by the expectations of her husband and her social group in Ilfracombe. At the end of the novel she escapes these expectations, and her daughter reflects that she is a woman …

… who married [Mr Dove] because he was of the opinion that he was good for her, who stayed with him till he died because it was his version of her duty, who even mourned him, heeding his instructions from the grave which taught her where her obligations lay. And who had heeded him since, together with the neighbours who were of the opinion that her husband was a good man, that it would be ungracious of his memory to think of marrying again, that she should not plant vegetables in a garden he had devoted to flowers, though her heart yearned for them, and that she didn’t need a colour television, because black and white had been good enough for the good Mr Dove, and should certainly be good enough for her. (200-201)

On the cruise Mrs Dove agrees to marry Wally, a lonely, overweight and intrusive character, a bit of a fantasist. Both feel that the other passengers are expecting them to become engaged, and both find the same escape from their predicament.

Rape

So far so good. Here is the troubling bit. The main narrative concerns the two neighbouring widows, Ellen and Alice. (A small niggle was that both this older woman and Mrs Dove’s daughter have the same name. No use is made of this confusing detail by the novelist. So I can’t figure out why she would do it.)

At the start of the cruise, both women are raped by the same predatory waiter. Ellen is badly traumatised by the rough treatment of the man, and when she threatens to expose him he reveals that he had already provided himself with insurance against this, for he has secretly taken a photograph of her in the nude, apparently willingly posing for him. She is so shamed that she is unable to reveal the abuse to the purser. It continues, night after night.

Her friend, Alice, on the other hand, finds herself awoken into sexual ecstasy by the rape. And she waits impatiently every dawn for her assailant to repeat his attentions to her. Neither women can reveal what is happening to them, for they are ashamed.

Let’s pause here and consider what we have read:

  • Lesbians wear dungarees, have their hair short and hate men. They are rescued by rediscovering their feminine side.
  • Some women enjoy rape, are turned on by the violent abuse.
  • Another woman is so afraid of being exposed in a naked photograph that she will endure three weeks of abuse.
  • Neither woman thought to get the chains reattached to their doors to prevent the waiter entering their cabins.
  • Ellen did go as far as to buy a Swiss army knife in Venice to protect herself but was unable to use it. 
  • The woman who did complain, that was Alice Dove who fought back successfully and dragged the waiter to the purser’s office, she was not believed. The waiter turned the story around. Apparently, women were in the habit of claiming rape when their advances to the waiter were rejected the purser noted. I could not help but bring the serial rapist, a Met policeman, to mind at this point in the story. Join the dots, I want to shout.
  • And this story has been described as ‘a true comedy of manners’ by the Guardian reviewer of the time, quoted on the front cover.

I find it hard to understand how the situation of gaslit widows, and serial rape can be described as a comedy of manners. I can only think that in the 42 years since this novel was published, attitudes to women, and older women in particular, have moved on. Thanks to #MeToo and the work of countless women to expose the levels of acceptance of sexual abuse against women.

Rape cannot, today, be the subject of comedy, let alone a comedy of manners. The treatment of a woman exploring her own sexuality is also a serious matter.

And yet there are some positive things in this novel. Bernice Rubens makes mockery of bourgeois ideas about what is acceptable to other people which decide people’s behaviour. And at least Alice Dove responds decisively to the rapist. Older women are revealed to be complex creatures, not simply lonely and frustrated. But I remained shocked that 42 years ago we thought serial rape of older women a fit subject for comedy.

Bernice Rubens

Bernice Rubens

Born in Wales in 1923, Bernice lived a long life, publishing 27 novels between 1960 and her death in 2004. She was the first woman to win the Booker Prize, in 1970, its second year, with The Elected MemberBirds of Passagewas her 12th novel. Her autobiography When I grow up was published shortly after her death in 2005.

Birds of Passage by Bernice Rubens published in 1981. I used the paperback edition from Abacus. 215pp

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

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Reading insomnia 

The irony was far too obvious to be ignored. I was unable to sleep for thinking about the books I was reading about insomnia. I was thinking about writing a post (this post) on the subject. The ideas and words and the books kept circulating in my brain, as those things do when you can’t sleep.

Insomnia

It began, my insomnia, in the time of Covid. My circular thoughts turned over fears about social isolation, especially for those over 60, about falling ill, about what we would lose in this pandemic. These thoughts engulfed me and interrupted my normally healthy sleep. I was not alone. Even without the anxieties over Covid, sleep experts had been referring to the widespread incidence of insomnia as an epidemic.

For the first 70 years of my life I had not bothered much about sleep. It came easily, refreshed in the way good sleep did. The worst impact was to be annoyed by how much time it took out of my life. I had had episodes of not sleeping when I worked in a very stressful job: headteacher of an inner-London secondary school. Then I had developed the technique of noting down whatever was troubling me and adding an action to take the following day which would move me towards a resolution of the issue. And then I would fall asleep. I did not regard this as insomnia, more as an inevitable outcome of the stress of the job. My blood pressure remained low, my appetite remained good but my sleep was infrequently interrupted.

But since March 2020 sleep has frequently eluded me, usually disappearing between 2 and 3 am. I developed several responses, all of which took at least an hour, sometimes two, to get through.

  • I would complete another Sudoku or crossword
  • I would scroll through my twitter timeline, or news apps
  • I would listen to podcasts
  • I would read, frequently this was several pages from Insomnia by Marina Benjamin, or a short story.

After two or three hours of this I would eventually sleep, but when I woke I felt terrible, and even a restorative doze in the afternoon did not make me feel better or avoid the same thing happening again the following night.

My insomnia retreated somewhat with the restrictions we all hoped would deal with the virus. I am aware that Covid is still around, doing its own rising and falling activities. I decided to read a bit more about sleep and what might help me get more of it. 

First up was The Sleep Solution: why your sleep is broken and how to fix it by Dr W. Chris Winter (2017). The title and author seemed to promise everything I needed: a definition of the problem (aka a diagnosis), a solution, provided by a doctor no less. It was quite chatty, full of diagrams, chapter reviews and sub-headings. All very reader-friendly, and full of good advice and sound information. I learned about ‘sleep hygiene’, which is a terrible name for some sensible actions. And it reinforced what I knew about smoking, drinking and other drugs on the quality of sleep. But it did not help me work out why I wasn’t sleeping well, or indeed what I should be doing differently.

More frightening was the second book, because it emphasises the function of sleep in keeping our bodies and brains in good health and I learned I was in danger of damaging mine: Why we Sleep: the new science of sleep and dreams by Matthew Walker (2017). I’m not sure in what ways the science he is reporting on is ‘the new science’, but I got a good sense of the work being done while I sleep and dream to maintain my health, memory, and wellness. But no diagnosis and no cure.

And most recently I have been dipping into The Shapeless Unease: my year in search of sleep by Samantha Harvey (2020). This describes a year of hell by the author, the effects on her life, her writing, her relationships, her sense of herself as a result of what she calls ‘hard insomnia’. There is little evident structure to this book, and it embraces many different approaches: a case study, a conversation with a friend, a novel she might be writing, straight forward accounts and some consideration of the medical encounters she endures. I think this lack of structure echoes the experience of unwanted awakeness. Although the writer stresses that there is no solace, the book ends hopefully:

This is the cure for insomnia: no things are fixed. Everything passes, this too. One day, when you’re done with it, it will lose its footing and fall away, and you’ll drop each night into sleep without knowing how you once found it so impossible. (175)

My go-to book, however, remains Insomnia by Marina Benjamin. I can start reading it wherever I have left off. I love it for its accessibility, for its artistry, intellectual insights, lateral thinking, gems of cultural disclosure and the picture of the writer and her dog, together on the sofa in the depths of the night. The dog is asleep. 

Related post

Sleep in Fiction (Bookword, March 2020)

Books referred to

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin, published by Scribe in 2018.

The Sleep Solution: why your sleep is broken and how to fix it by Dr W. Chris Winter, published by Scribe in 2017.

Why we Sleep: the new science of sleep and dreams by Matthew Walker, published by Penguin in 2017.

The Shapeless Unease: my year in search of sleep by Samantha Harvey, published by Vintage in 2020.

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House-Bound by Winifred Peck

I am intrigued by the changes in this country, brought by the Second World War, especially in the lives of women. House-Bound is the second of three books, published by Persephone that I recently bought, and I chose it because it looked at the disappearance of domestic servants and the effects on the households they had previous served. In addition, the Persephone catalogue suggested that Winifred Peck wrote with a lightness of touch that made this an interesting and diverting novel. 

House-Bound

It was as she stood in Mrs Loman’s Registry Office for Domestic Servants that Rose Fairlaw suddenly realised what a useless and helpless woman she was. Up till that moment she had always assumed vaguely that she was a busy and useful member of society. (1)

Rose lives in Edinburgh (called Castleburgh in the novel) during the Second World War. She is middle-aged and in need of maids and a cook to help her run her house. But it is 1941 and there are none to be had at the registry office. They have been called up or gone to better paid situations. Like many well-off women Rose faces having to manage the domestic duties of her house herself. She is struck by the comment of Mrs Loman.

‘Millions of women do just that.’

She announces her intentions to her friend Laura, and to her husband Stuart.

‘But – but –‘ Stuart plunged among a host of objections striding up and down the room. ‘I can’t have you opening the door to tradespeople.’ (52)

Rose has not had any experience of housework or cooking, and protests at the ‘uselessness of people like me’.

‘But you’re not useless,’ protested Stuart. ‘Women like you uphold the standards of civilisation.’ (53)

Rose immediately becomes quite overwhelmed and exhausted by her new responsibilities for the house is old, and although there is only Rose and her husband, he makes no changes to his routines. The registry office sends her Mrs Childe who instructs Rose on how to clean and comes in ‘to do’ in the mornings. Rose is also assisted in her housework by the advice and practical example of Major Posner, a psychiatrist with the American army. He is full of practical suggestions, and occasionally comes by and fixes a meal.

The courage of Rose in taking on the housework is one theme of the novel. It represents a profound social change, for Rose does indeed feel useless, and unproductive at a time when everyone seems busy with war work. The novel’s title, House-Bound, comes to have a literal meaning.

Everything in a house reminds you of something else you’ve got to do. You start up from the hall, and remember you must carry the laundry up, and when you are halfway you see you didn’t dust the chest on the half-landing. And two steps higher up you remember you left the apples stewing and must run down to take them off. And that reminds you that you must telephone to the greengrocer, and while you are doing that you remember that you ought to fill up the salt-cellars, and when you take them to the dining-room you see the flowers are dead, or you didn’t finish polishing the floor that morning. …And of course … none of these things are of any sort of use to the world at all, and yet I suppose they’ve got to be done!

Not only is the work never done, but it is not of use to the war effort. Rose’s predicament throws up questions about the work and conditions for house servants, and how their employment supported women such as Rose in idleness. There is an appalling old relative, Mrs Carr-Berwick, who appears late in the novel when she cannot manage without help and believes herself entitled to it.

A second, and less successful theme of the novel concerns Flora, Rose’s grown-up daughter. She comes across as a dreadful character: moaning, perpetually jealous, and yet with moments of great heroism when she left home to work on ambulances. It transpires that Major Posner, the US army psychiatrist, knew Flora previously and wishes to help her and the family deal with her, for she is indeed a selfish horror. This theme concentrates on accounting for Flora’s attitude and behaviour, providing psychological explanations.

The war brings untold grief to the family, and the house also suffers. Rose has done much soul searching, about war, sacrifice, the work of women, and how useless her class has been. But through her own suffering and courage she finds her way to first adapt and then make a good contribution to the war.

The tone of the book is light, and there is much humour to be found, especially in the relationships between the various characters, all of whom are well drawn, and in the slow realisation of social change that the war brought to such households. 

While reading this I wondered why the housework consisted of so much dusting. And then I remembered that the rooms were heated by coal fires. Someone has to fetch the coal, remove the cinders and re-lay the fire again. I saw it in my own childhood home. Coal fires create dust, which then gets moved from room to room, surface to surface by the activity called dusting. Housework binds you to its routines and requirements. 

Winifred Peck

Winifred Peck

Born in 1882, Winifred came from a distinguished family of writers and thinkers. She began writing with a biography of St Louis, and went on to write 26 books altogether, and House-Bound was the 15th of these. Among her novels were several crime mysteries. She is relatively unread today, but Persephone has republished this one. 

House-Bound by Winifred Peck, first published in 1942. Reissued by Persephone Books in 2007, with an afterword by Penelope Fitzgerald. 304pp

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A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

Should anyone ever ask me for an example of an outstanding first chapter to a novel, I would recommend the opening chapter of A Wreath of Roses. It captures the themes of the novel while providing a vivid scene: surface evenness disturbed by violence; loneliness; change; aftermath of war; summer nostalgia. We are in the post-war era and a woman waits at a small railway station for a connecting train to take her to her usual summer holiday. The summer calm is broken by a violent act, which was also witnessed by another passenger. Both passengers are shaken by the events and soon it is evident that he has something to hide. 

The title warns us: roses have thorns. Wreaths are significant at funerals. Whoever thought of Elizabeth Taylor as chintzy and cosy should read this dark novel with its themes of the pain of change and of loneliness.

A Wreath of Roses

This is the fourth time I have read this novel. Although it has a dark, almost melodramatic sub-plot in contrast to her previous work, she continues to demonstrate that she can create and control a story full of complex characters, who have different perceptions and contrasting needs and are each changing as the narrative progresses.

Everything changes and comes to an end in the short time span of this novel. The war has not long finished; journeys come to an end, as does the traditional holiday of three women; attitudes to life and friendship change; the friendship group will not meet again in the same way; a life comes to an end and so on. 

The woman at the station in the opening chapter is Camilla, who works as a secretary in a school and is feeling that she should change her life and its unchanging routines. She is met at the end of her train journey by her friend Liz, who has a baby son, having married a clergyman about 18 months before. Liz and Camilla met at boarding school in Switzerland before the war and have spent a month together every summer since. They stay with Frances, Liz’s former governess, who now devotes herself to painting. 

Each of this trio are at a bit of a crossroads. Frances is finding it harder to paint in the way that she wishes and is facing ill health in her old age. Liz is having a hard time adjusting to her baby and to the demands of life as a vicar’s wife. She and Camilla are finding it hard to maintain their intimacy. They are each unhappy, as a visitor suggests to Frances:

“Liz is unhappy about her baby. Camilla – that’s a lovely name. It has the smoothness of ice – she’s unhappy about her life; embittered, waspish. You’re unhappy about the world.” (172)

They each bring a man to the story: Morland Beddoes has admired Frances’s painting from afar for years and corresponded with her even while a prisoner of war; Arnold is the vicar who is married to Liz, and despite Camilla’s jealousy is a good sort; Richard Elton (probably not his real name) meets Camilla on the train, and is clearly not a good sort, but a bad ‘un. She is drawn to him, although she has doubts about him too. She is attracted by the possibility of adventure and being desired, breaking down her habitual reserve and defences.

The story plays out over a few days, as the women try to recapture the pleasures of former holidays. The men and the baby are drawn in, for example to the annual picnic, and their presence reminds the reader how their circle is changing. 

Among the pleasures of this novel is the background of the local town and village and the steadiness of life in this rural setting. 

Camilla walked with Hotchkiss [the dog] along the quiet lanes. Trees and the hedgerows were dark as blackberries against a starry sky; a little owl took off from the telegraph-post, floating noiselessly across a field of stubble. Outside the Hand and Flowers a knot of villagers said goodnight to one another. They dispersed along the lanes, singing in slurred voices. Their ‘goodnights’ rang between the hedges. The bar with its uncurtained window was blue with smoke; the landlord crossed and recrossed it, carrying tankards, behind him on the wall a great tarnished fish in a glass case.
From the cottages all along the village came blurred and muted wireless music. Some of the doors stood open to the scented night, revealing little pictures of interiors, fleeting and enchanting, those cottage rooms that Frances loved so dearly, with their ornaments, their coronation mugs, their tabby cats. Night scented stocks lined garden-paths, curled shells were arranged on window-sills, and on drawn blinds were printed shadows of geraniums or a bird-cage shrouded for the night. (75)

In contrast to this beautifully captured scene, there is real fear in this novel. Camilla and Richard walked up to the Saxon earth works but got caught in the rain one evening. They seek shelter in an abandoned house. 

She went slowly upstairs in front of him. Rain swept across the landing window. The bannisters were coated with dust.
At the turn of the stairs, he came close behind her, and put his hands round her waist, Fear leapt through her at his touch. She stopped and turned round, her hand clutching at the bannisters. She could feel sweat breaking out over her body.
“I don’t want to go any farther,” she whispered. Her lips stiffened so that she could scarcely speak. “I can’t bear this house a moment longer.” He only stared at her. “Richard!” she said pleadingly, afraid of the silence.
“But I want to stay.” He caught her wrist and held it very tightly. “I have something to say to you.” (245-6)

There have only been a few days between the beginning of the novel, at a railway station, and the ending, again at a station. The circle of the friendship group has changed for ever, and each of the three women have a new reality to face. Nothing is yet resolved, but somehow it is a satisfactory ending for the novel. 

I have been rereading the novels of Elizabeth Taylor recently. You can find my comments on rereading At Mrs Lippincote’s in December 2022 here.

A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1949. I used the Virago Classic edition of 1994, with an introduction by Candia McWilliam. 253pp

Related postA Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor (August 2013). This is the link to the first post about reading this novel on Bookword.

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