Monthly Archives: November 2023

Puss in Books

In recent days at home I have been much absorbed in settling in a cat who has newly arrived in my house from the local pet rescue centre. As a result, I have been thinking a great deal about cats in books. They seem very plentiful in children’s books, but despite cats and readers being very complementary, there are not so many for adults.

My childhood cat books

One of the earliest books I remember is The Tale of Tom Kitten by Beatrix Potter, created in 1907. Tom Kitten was forever losing buttons off his trousers. One year a tin featuring his mother sewing on a button appeared in my Christmas stocking. The toffees in it soon disappeared, but it has found a place in my sewing basket ever since, to store all those loose buttons that we seamstresses collect.

The other feline companion of my childhood was Orlando the Marmalade Cat by Kathleen Hale. He first appeared in 1938, and the only copy that I have from that series is An Evening Out. Orlando is a caring father and husband. Grace is a rather retiring cat, but their kittens are splendid, and like Tom Kitten, easy to identify with: Pansy, Blanche and Tinkle. Especially Tinkle, who was the smallest, naughtiest and blackest kitten you ever saw. The family go to the circus, and Orlando, by mistake, gets caught up in the acts: Performing Dogs, the Human Horse, Mr Plunkett the elephant, Signora Celia and her celebrated seals and Mr Meek the lion-tamer. The audience think Orlando is part of the show, but when he saves the life of Mr Meek the Circus Manager presents him with a gold medal.

My daughter’s childhood books

Mog the forgetful cat appeared in 1970, the creation of Judith Kerr. Mog was recognisable to any family who had lived with a cat, especially as she was not very bright. But she too earned a medal when she accidentally saved the family from some burglars (pronounced burg-gew-lars in our family).

The other series that featured in reading to my daughter was The Church Mouse by Graham Oakley. Sampson the Cat was befriended by the Church Mice and saved them from threats of extermination.

The Tiger who came to Tea by Judith Kerr was another favourite, mostly for the illustrations that showed the absurd situation with plenty of delightful detail.

My grandson’s childhood book

When I asked my grandson, now 15, what cat book he remembered from earlier reading, he promptly replied The Patchwork Cat. William Mayne wrote the story and it was charmingly illustrated by Nicola Bayley. Tabby was very attached to her old patchwork quilt and when it was thrown out she went to the dump to rescue it, despite all kinds of terrors on the way.

And two for the adults

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 

I read this classic Russian novel in 2006 and noted that it was hard to get into – it’s connections with our world are so strange. No doubt the citizens of Moscow who were familiar with Stalin did not find it so. I lived in London at the time and several people commented on this book when I read it on the bus.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966) Penguin Classic. Translation by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Levear. 432pp 

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide 

Enjoyable story about a man and his wife who are adopted by a cat, and then she dies. They must leave the house and this disrupts their grieving. Every cat lover will recognise the obsession and madness.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide (2014) Picador. Translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland. 140pp

And for the poets and poetry lovers …

You thought that TS Eliot was a rather dry modernist poet with a high squeaky voice. But his triumph was his collection of cat poems: The Rum Tum Tugger, Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer, Mr Mistoffelees, Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat amongst other. He also had an irrefutable theory about what cats are doing when they are sitting quietly looking at nothing.

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
the reason I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in rapt concentration of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name
His ineffable, effable,
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
[From The Naming of Cats, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot]

Have I left any important cats out?

And my little cat is called Bindi and she is already capable of upsetting a pile of books or dislodging some less favoured tomes from the bookshelf. She is making herself quite at home.

Bindi, making herself at home on the dog’s bed.

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Out of the Window by Madeline Linford 

A few weeks ago I visited the Persephone Bookshop in Bath, on a visit to the Gwen John exhibition at the Holburne Museum. Some years ago the bookshop and I were based near each other in London. I would visit in my lunch hour, enjoy browsing among the republication of so many novels and memoirs by women from the last century. I had been missing this experience and was pleased to find that the relocated bookshop provides the same satisfaction. I bought one of the most recent Persephone publications.

Out of the Window

This novel was first published in 1930, between the wars. It reflects some social changes that were brought by the First World War, but also the conventions that still dominated social interactions between the wars. The author, Madeline Linton, was born in 1895, and brought up in Manchester. She worked for the Manchester Guardian and became the editor of the Women’s Pages. She wrote five novels and a biography of Mary Wollestonecraft between 1923 and 1930. It seems that criticism of Out of the Window led to her giving up that part of her writing career. What a shame! This novel shows signs of a competent and interesting writer. She died in 1975.

I don’t understand the title of this novel. Are we seeing the young heroine as someone looking ‘out of the window’ in her small council house, or is her life being thrown ‘out of the window’? It doesn’t seem to me to be a very effective title, that is it gives no clue to the author’s intentions or approach.

It is the story of the marriage of an upper-middle class young woman, Ursula, and a working-class man, Kenneth. Their marriage results from her boredom with her life in the comfortable countryside, with admirers and tennis clubs and parties. She is a bit of a rule breaker. She meets Kenneth when he is speaking about the hardship experienced by some the strikers at an event organised by one of her friends. He is very good looking and she is bright and brave.

After a brief period they decide that they are in love and they marry despite the disapproval of everyone who knows them, and each of them having a more suitable person ready to pair up with them They live on a new council housing estate where money is always tight, but he is too proud to accept any money from her family. She is hopeless at managing, cooking, cleaning and gardening. Ken’s mother, Mrs Gandy, thinks that she is a spoiled and lazy young woman. They have a row:

‘Mrs Gandy, I know you didn’t want me marrying Kenneth, but you might at least be fair to me now.’
‘And who’s to blame for me not wanting it. When there was a decent, hard-working girl who would have given her eyes for him and made as good wife, too?’
‘I don’t know what you mean, and in any case, there’s no point in saying that now. My mother didn’t want me to marry him either, but at least she always treats him civilly when we go to her house.’
‘I suppose she thought he wasn’t good enough for you?’
‘I didn’t say so, but that’s what you think of me, isn’t it?’
‘And good reason, the way things have turned out.’ (240)

Bitter words have been exchanged and Ursula leaves Mrs Gandy’s house, with Kenneth still eating his tea. We can see that there was a difference even in how the families argued. 

The two Gandys were unused to abrupt decisions and to quarrels abandoned in the very heat of their fury. (240) 

Ursula is hurt because her husband had not defended her. Ken feels a loyalty to his mother. The quarrel illustrates what the young couple are up against. It is never resolved, for events overtake the young people.

Much of this novel is about assumptions, expectations and conventions, mostly unexplored and undiscussed by the young couple. Ken is quick to take offence, and Ursula fears losing his affection and showing up her inadequacies in front of her family and friends. He sees no reason why Ursula should be dissatisfied with her home, and with motherhood. Ursula is used to having help in the home and sees motherhood as a further burden. The only person she can confide in is her ‘maiden aunt’, a ‘virtuous spinster and a member of the Church of England’. 

‘You know, there ought to be some other solution for girls in love. It isn’t fair that they should be tied all their lives and have children, just because they once felt passionate about some man and were blind to everything else. The marriage service should be postponed until they had lived together for a while and the glamorous side of it got less interesting.’ (250-1)

For Ursula it is too late. Such solutions were transgressive even who I was growing up in the 1960s. Reliable contraception and a changing view of relationships and the role of women were needed before Ursula’s vision became possible. 

The differences between the classes were difficult to manage. The parents who oppose their marriage, however, speak in terms of contrasts in education, money, circle of friends and occupations. The couple cannot see a way to make the contrasts work for them.

The wider social context does not help them either. While things are changing – better housing, job prospects, education and votes for women – the promise of more change does not seem to allow the couple to step out of the restricting expectations of their class and gender.

Out of the Window by Madeline Linford, first published in 1930. Reissued by Persephone in 2023 (#148). 284pp 

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The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan

Last November, when my book group chose the books for 2023, I recommended The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan. The novel had good reviews and I remembered reading and enjoying The Spinning Heart (2012). The suggestion that it concerned some strong Irish women made it an attractive choice. So here we are, 12 months later, ready to discuss this gem of a book.

The Queen of Dirt Island

The story is structured in a series of two-page chapters, which roll forward and provide a rhythmic beat to one’s reading. It’s a steady story which unfolds over a couple of decades on the edge of a remote and rural Irish housing estate in County Tipperary. It begins with the birth of one of the women, Saoirse. Her father is killed in a road accident even before she is brought home from hospital. He mother, Mary, has been rejected by her family for becoming pregnant. But her mother-in-law, Eileen known as Nana, looks out for her, becomes her friend, and eventually comes to live with Mary and Saoirse.

The story of the women’s struggles, within their families, on the edges of their community, against poverty, and the demands of life, is carried forward through the steady pulse of the short chapters. The prose has a lilt to it, and the speech of the women, their idioms and imagery, are from the best Irish traditions.

Someone had asked Paudie to hide guns in the shed, down behind a load of bales of hay. And other stuff, too. Nana wasn’t sure what. Semtex, Eileen. What in the name of God and His Blessed Mother is Semtex? It doesn’t sound like anything that could ever do any good. And apparently we could all have been blown to Kingdom Come over it. Jim Gildea told me. You’re lucky, Mary, he said. Someone was watching over ye the way it was all brought out in the open now, before Paudie was in too deep. In too deep, Jim Gildea said! As if a shed full of guns and Sem-fucking-tex isn’t deep enough! (21)

Saoirse learns about the world from the conversation of Mary and her mother-in-law Eileen. She is well protected until she is a teenager. In the extract above she hears about her uncle’s arrest.

There’s a great deal of humour in the talk of the adult women as Saoirse grows up. She learns about her world through overhearing their conversations. Despite the lack of punctuation it is always clear who is speaking. When Saoirse reveals that she is pregnant, the chapter called IMMACULATE, is one long paragraph of her mother’s fury. 

How in the fucking fuck could you have gotten pregnant? […] I thought you were different. I thought you’d be something. God forgive me, it’s my own fault for trusting you. I thought behind it all that you were good. (73-74)

The story is built on the strength of the four women: from the grandmother, through Mary to Saoirse and to Pearl, Saoirse’s child. Mary is the queen of Dirt Island. She inherits it from her parents, despite her brother’s ambitions to take it from her. She is the character in the book written by Saoirse ‘s boyfriend, Josh. A heroine, redrawn from Saoirse’s own memories to create something ‘unrecognizable, alien, monstrous’ (214). Josh spiced up the story that we know, to distort Saoirse’s father and his death, and her mother’s role in Paudie’s misdeeds. Later the novel is rewritten and becomes a classic, included in the Irish school curriculum that Pearl is taught.

This distortion reminds the reader of the strength of these women, and we know they love and support each other through daily life, growing up, marriages, births, deaths and betrayals. They shape Saoirse childhood, and then Pearl’s. They have warmth and pride, fury and revenge, love and pity. 

We finish this book, having enjoyed its rhythms and impetus, and the slow march of the decades, aware that we have been given a glimpse of loving life and community. And we make sense of the epigram.

Let the books remember the local battles.
Re-write the plot. Let the harvest wither.
This is your life. She is your great event.
Keep her in the sun.
[‘History’, Mary O’Malley]

What will the other members of my book group think?

The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan first published in 2022. I used the Penguin edition. 245pp 

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The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

When this novel was published in 1962 the era of permissiveness (if it ever existed) was just about to begin. I was about to enter my teenage years. It seemed as if everything about our social mores was being questioned, including especially marriage and sexual partners. What I remember most from my first reading was the scene where the narrator broke down in Harrods household linens department.

What did I come here for? Why did I walk, in the spring, along a mile of pavement? Do I want bed rest, a barbecue, a clock like a plate or a satin stole, or a pepper mill or a dozen Irish linen tea towels printed, most beautifully, with the months of the year? April brings the primrose sweet, scatters daisies at our feet. I am beginning to cry. I stand in the bloody great linen department and cry and cry quite soundlessly, sprinkling the stiff cloths with extraordinarily large tears. Oh, what has happened to you, Mrs Enterprise, dear? Are your productions limited, your trusts faithless, and what of the company you keep? Think of those lovely children dear, and don’t cry as the world turns round holding you on its shoulder like a mouse.
But I cried just the same. The doctor they sent me to was expensive and Jake said, ‘Do you think you’re going to get over this period of your life, because I find it awfully depressing?’ (p28-9)

What I remember about the film (1964) was how beautiful Ann Bancroft was and what a bastard Peter Finch portrayed as her husband. His reaction to her Harrods tears is typical of his narcissistic gaslighting.

The Pumpkin Eater

This novel is quite short and easily read within 24 hours. The story is told by an unnamed narrator, a woman, who recounts her breakdown and the failure of her 4th marriage. She has many children (unnumbered) and Jake and her doctor assume that she should therefore be very happy. But she finds Jake’s affairs very distressing. She finds his absence on location very distressing. And she is outraged that her husband will support his mistress’s baby despite having persuaded her to agree to an abortion and sterilization. And she is furious when he blames her for her reaction, claiming that she agreed to the operations.

Jake seems incapable of understanding his wife’s point of view. Her psychoanalyst seems unable to understand her either.

‘Apart from everything else you feel about him, all your conflicting emotions … Do you like him?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Not very much.’
‘That’s my impression. Why don’t you like him?’
I tried to think. One by one I turned over the possible reasons for disliking Jake: he is a coward, a cheat, he is mean, vain, cruel, he is slovenly, he is sly. ‘I … I don’t know,’ I said. (67)

The title

It’s a strange title, and the epigraph points to its origins. It seems like it comes from a Grimm fairy tale. But Wikipedia tells us that its origins are in English nursery rhymes.

Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her.
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.

Jake does keep his wife, but not very well.

The 1960s

The introduction to the Penguin Classic edition by Daphne Merkin, makes the point that Penelope Mortimer predated Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer when she wrote about ‘the claustrophobic grayness and casual betrayals of upper-middle class marriage’ (vii). ‘Permissiveness’ was on its way. But she was not celebrating the advantages that less strict social codes would bring women. Indeed you could say she was providing a warning.

Motherhood and maternity

The most surprising thing about our narrator is that she has lots of children, the oldest three are casually sent off to boarding school to accommodate her marriage to Jake. She loses touch with them. Nor does motherhood seem to act as a break upon her behaviour, and certainly not on Jake’s. The damage to their children from their dysfunctional relationship does not appear to have troubled the characters or the writer.

Psychological support

It certainly seems as if the expensive doctor to whom she is sent following her Harrods breakdown, is part of the structure to maintain the status quo, when men can demand that women subjugate their lives and wishes within the marriage. The doctor at times seems more interested in Jake, a successful movie director, than in his wife’s troubles.

Teenage episode

An episode from her childhood gives one hope that Jake’s wife would not sacrifice herself. When her school friend Irene comes to stay, the teenagers find themselves at odds about the imperative to attract the attention of boys. There is a telling scene where Irene arrives at the railway station and is not recognizable.

Irene was wearing what I later heard her describe as a powder blue costume. Her hair was rolled in a perfect sausage at the nape of her neck, and another bobbing over her rather low forehead. She wore high heels, a necklace and lipstick. She was carrying a handbag as well as a suitcase. I thought she looked perfectly frightful. I was horrified. (46)

The contrast between the two girls could hardly have been greater. Irene, who is 14 and a half, plans to spend her time provoking the attention of boys. ‘I felt sick with shame for her.’ But although she doesn’t follow Irene’s example, and although she has had three previous marriages, the narrator has expectations of the marriage that she cannot share with Jake and it causes her great pain.

Rereading this novel made me realise how far things have improved, as well as how far they still have to go, in the matter of marriage and relations between men and women. It would not be acceptable today for women to suffer the gaslighting that Jake subjects his wife to. And he would be expected to have more sympathy and understanding of her life, not assume that because they are married it is all okay, everything he does. 

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer, first published in 1962. I used the Penguin Classics edition from 2015 with an Introduction by Daphne Merkin. 144pp 

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