Monthly Archives: January 2024

I Belong Here by Anita Sethi 

I thought about this book earlier today as I was on my morning walk with the dog. It was rather an overcast day in south Devon, the kind where you can’t tell whether it is raining or not. I picked a favourite route, through woodland along a riverbank for about a mile and a half. It was quite muddy underfoot, especially in places where the path isn’t well drained. The fallen leaves are beginning to rot and can be quite slippery. In these woods we see many primroses later in the year, and wild garlic (ransoms). Today there were no wildflowers. I had to make do with the sight of snowdrops in the hedges of the lane on my way out of my village.

I love walking this route. It is always changing. When I first discovered it, I had no dog, and it was not well walked. You rarely met anyone. Since Covid we meet plenty of dog walkers. As people in Devon do, we greet each other and pass on. The river has a strange name: the Lemon. I haven’t been able to establish where it rises, but it collects the water from many hillsides and eventually joins the Teign just before that river widens into its estuary. 

The river undermines trees all the time, and those on the banks often fall. Some create barriers across the path; some create bridges across the narrow river; others lie where they have fallen. But one that I previously relied on for a seat has been removed. It was perfect for sitting and watching the dog leaping into the water, so I had to find another. The dog loves swimming, even in January. She has an absorbing hobby: collecting stones from the bed of the river and taking them away onto the dry bank. I can sit until I feel the cold, watching her leap into the water and emerging after some bottom exploration with a huge wet stone. I don’t know why she does this. She did it yesterday at the beach as well.

Walking with the dog, rain or shine, twice a week has been part of my life for about five years. Even before I moved down to Devon from London I would frequently go out on my own. I have walked around the LOOP (the London Outer Orbital Route, which encircles London without going beyond the M25). It took two years to complete all the segments, but I understood London and its edges so much better when I had completed it.

With my friend Sarah I have also walked the Thames Path, from the source of the river near a patch of snowdrops in a soggy field in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier. That was in about 15 stages. Given that we were following the route of one of England’s greatest rivers, I am not quite sure how we got lost on one section. Our current walking and musing often takes place high above the Vale of Pewsey, in the area of Salisbury Plain – think white horse of Westbury and Eric Ravillious.

Walking is a such a good activity, on your own, with a dog or with other people. It puts one in touch with the landscape, especially a familiar landscape when one can notice the small changes of the seasons or the topography. And it is an excellent social activity, bringing people together, creating shared experiences, providing opportunity for interaction, reflection and quiet togetherness. 

As I walked this morning I noticed a new perspective on a ridge, and how some foresters had been clearing some of the scrub and hedge material that had previously hidden the river along sections of the path. I considered as I walked, the notion of belonging to a place. This summer it will be eleven years since I moved to this part of the world. I have walked some part of it every week. Do I belong? How does walking help me to belong?

I Belong Here: a journey along the backbone of Britain

This book was a Christmas present from the previously-mentioned Sarah.  Thank you Sarah!

Anita Sethi experienced nasty racial abuse on a train in the north of England. She reported it to the train officials and the man was prosecuted and found guilty. Upset by the incident and previous experiences of racism and sexism, she seeks to gain equilibrium through hiking in the north, specifically the Pennines as she was born and brought up in Manchester. Some of this walking she does alone, sometimes she has some support.

Having been told to ‘go back where you belong’ she asks the question, where do I belong, and how do I know. She considers the experiences of Black people in the countryside, of women walking alone, of the meaning of belonging. Along the way she meets people, talks with them, is rescued and helped by them. She considers literature of walking. I especially enjoyed her descriptions of the geology of the areas she walked in, including Hadrian’s Wall. This is a fusion of memoir and nature writing, justly popular and prize-winning.

Of course she belongs. I do too. Belonging is not in the gift of White male racists. Belonging is a function of living.

I Belong Here: a journey along the backbone of Britain by Anita Sethi, published in 2021 by Bloomsbury. 320pp

Shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize for nature writing in 2021 and winner of the Books Are My Bag Readers’ Non-Fiction Award 2021.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Books and Walking, Reading, Women of Colour, Writing and Walking

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

Hotel du Lac won the Booker Prize in 1984. I first read it in the same year. And since I have read many of Anita Brookner ‘s other novels. But then I stopped paying attention, until I wanted to reacquaint myself with her writing in the depth of this winter.

On this second reading I was aware of how this novel features people and things that are putting on a brave appearance but crumbling behind the veneer. Even the comfortable hotel is trying to appear as if it retains its grandeur as the height of the season. This, for example, is the opening sentence.

From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey. (7)

In two long and beautifully balanced sentences, Anita Brookner reveals that in late September the fog can obscure the little town and its lake for days. Here is the second sentence, followed by a wry comment that should warn the reader.

For it was late September, out of season, the tourists had gone, the rates were reduced, and there were few inducements for visitors in this small town at the water’s edge, whose inhabitants, uncommunicative to begin with, were frequently rendered taciturn by the dense cloud that descended for days at a time and then vanished without warning to reveal a new landscape, full of colour and incident: boats skimming on the lake, passengers at the landing stage, an open market, the outline of the gaunt remains of a thirteenth-0century castle, seams of white on the far mountains, and on the cheerful uplands to the south a rising backdrop of apple trees, the fruit sparkling with emblematic significance. For this was the land of prudently harvested plenty, a land which had conquered human accidents, leaving only the weather distressingly beyond control. (7-8)

Hotel du Lac

Into this beige, genteel and forlorn situation enters Edith Hope, her name like a needle. We quickly learn that Edith has been exiled to the hotel following an incident of gross social abomination in London, and required to repent, atone and change.

In the airport she had looked in the mirror and seen a woman out of place.

‘Milling crowds, children crying, everyone intent on being somewhere else, and here was this mild-looking, slightly bony woman in a long cardigan, distant, inoffensive, quite nice eyes, rather large hands and feet, meek neck, not wanting to go anywhere, but having given my word that I would stay away for a month until everyone decides that I am myself again. For a moment I panicked, for I am myself now, and was then, although this fact was not recognized. Not drowning, but waving.’ (10)

This is from a letter she sits down on her arrival and writes to David. She signs off. 

‘My dear life, as my father used to call my mother, I miss you so much.’ (12)

The sin of which she has been accused, we are led to believe, involves an affair of the heart. The hotel she has been sent to has been carefully chosen by her friend Penelope.

What it had to offer was a mild form of sanctuary, an assurance of privacy, and the protection and the discretion that attach themselves to blamelessness. (14)

Over the next few days she meets the other guests, few in number, at mealtimes, in the public areas, and out an about on walks and in the local shops and café. Each of them appears to Edith as one thing, but over the course of the next few days reveals themselves to be a different person, some more sympathetic than others. 

The woman she met as she entered is not a Belgian confectioner’s widow, but a lonely, deaf old countess who has been parked in the hotel by her negligent son and daughter-in-law. ‘A tall woman of extraordinary slenderness’ who feeds many morsels from her plate to her ill-disciplined lapdog turns out to have an eating disorder and to be on notice from her husband to get fit for pregnancy or be abandoned. The rich mother and daughter, always positive, always sweeping Edith into their orbit are less easy to understand. And then there is the urbane and good-looking Mr Neville who makes a proposition to which she finds herself attracted.

I have quoted several times above from the opening chapter to illustrate the careful and precise choice of words and phrases that Anita Brookner uses to describe the scene and to alert the reader to both the façades of the hotel and the people and the human experiences that lie behind all this careful production. Anita Brookner frequently writes long balanced sentences, conveying a sense of nothing awkward or out of place. But Edith feels both awkward and out of place and wants very much to return to her life in London. Of course, by the end of the novel Edith finds her feelings rather than appearances to be the more reliable guide to behaviour.

I am thrilled that my reading group has agreed to read this later this year, so we can discuss the writing and her subject matter together. And I shall be reading and re-reading more novels by Anita Brookner, having appreciated this one again. Any suggestions of which novel of hers I should not miss?

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner, first published in 1984. I used the Penguin edition published in 2016. 184pp. This novel won the Booker Prize in 1984. 

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Army without Banners by Ann Stafford

Until recently, in written history, war has been a male occupation: the political approach to it, the armies and combat, and reluctance to include women in the services on the same basis as men. In the British Army, for example, they have served only since 2018 on the same basis as men. Auxiliary service has been open to women for much longer.

Of course women have always been affected by war, and sometimes involved with the events of war, even if written history has not put them in the foreground. They kept families and homes together in the absence of the men, they took over the running of estates, of jobs, of responsibilities; they cared for the men who were wounded, buried and mourned the dead, followed armies in baggage trains as cooks, nurses and prostitutes. One or two we know of disguised themselves as men to join the forces, such as James Barry (1789-1865). Identified as a female at birth, Barry lived his/her adult life as a man in the medical corps of the army, becoming Inspector General of the military hospitals. 

In the First World War (1914-18) the impact of the mass armies, and mass deaths, meant that huge numbers of men were required to volunteer for armed service, and later were conscripted into the armed services, not least for the trench warfare on the Western Front. Women were required to fill many of their jobs. We read of women bus conductors, posties, munitions workers, radio operators and mechanics.

The Second World War (1939-45) saw the destructive action of war visited upon Britain’s cities through aerial bombardment – the Blitz – especially London. Women were mobilised, and by 1944 a third of the civilian population were engaged in war work including 7 million women. In London and other cities, the emergency services and air raid responders played a vital role in rescuing, caring for, rehousing and protecting the populations. Army without Banners is a novel that celebrates the role so many women played in supporting the community in the face of the destruction. Ann Stafford foregrounded the role of the ambulance service, but she also celebrates 

a full range of civil defence and women’s voluntary service personnel, post-raid and welfare services, caterers in tea cars and British restaurants, salvage collectors and a hospital librarian. (From the introduction pxii)

The experience was recognised as significant both for individual women and for their shared attitudes. Towards the end of the Blitz (and of the novel) some of the female ambulance crew (with male nicknames) are outside watching the dawn

‘I guess earning good money and getting on and having swell friends and a good time – that sort of stuff don’t seem real any more. But having good pals does. And sticking by each other and having a job of work you mind more than you mind about yourself.’
Mark said, ‘Yes we’ve come to feel that way in the blitz.’
‘If only,’ Penny said anxiously, ‘we can remember …’
‘We will,’ I said. The sound of my own voice surprised me but I couldn’t stop. ‘We will; there are so many of us, all in this together, all feeling the same way. Mark’s right; we’ve grown real. We – we know the things that matter now, I think. Kindness and courage and loveliness, and that queer feeling of belonging to each other, minding about each other. I’m pretty sure those are everlasting things.’ (183-4)

Army without Banners

The narrator, Mildred, is a middle-aged woman who lives at the start of the novel in a village, and whose husband and son are both away in the war. Like many women in September 1940 she was busy with local voluntary activities to support the war effort: ‘the First Aid Post in the village, the knitting groups and the committees and all the local nonsense’ (6). Her friend Daphne writes from London, telling her that she has been a driver in the ambulance service for six months, but now the Blitz has begun they need drivers. After some equivocation Mildred joins her friend and begins work as a driver. 

We learn about the training, the preparation, waiting and going out on call and the terror of being nearly hit. We get dramatic descriptions of driving out in the ambulances, the coordination with other services, and the dangers that they work in. They love it, that and the camaraderie in the Ambulance Centre. They hate the down time, and from time to time when action is less brisk Mildred looks at other services and wonders if she would have more interesting occupations in these: mobile canteen, hospital librarian, East End Settlement worker, Thames River ambulance, and in administrative jobs that coordinate it all. By this device we get a view of the many volunteer opportunities, as well as the details of the shifts, uniform, tasks and so forth available to women during the war. For this enthusiastic historian it’s a real treat.

Ann Stafford valued ‘kindness and courage and loveliness, and that queer feeling of belonging to each other, minding about each other’ brought by the shared experience of volunteering. While it was openly calling for women’s solidarity after the war, and praising the work that women did in the war, this novel is also a good read. There are also some charming line drawings by the author, which capture the tone of the writing. The action concludes in April 1941.

Ann Stafford

Ann Stafford was a most prolific writer. Her first publication was Business as Usual with Jane Oliver. She wrote four novels with Jane Oliver, 36 romance novels under another pseudonym with her and 25 novels on her own. She was awarded a PhD in Russian History and also studied art and rose to a high rank in the Red Cross. If you want something done …

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford published in 1933, a post on Bookword blog from April 2020.

Army without Banners by Ann Stafford, first published in 1942 and re-issued by Handheld Press (2024) 194pp with an introduction by Jessica Hammett.

Thanks to the publisher, Handheld Press, for the advance review copy. Publication date: 16th January 2024. 

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen by Elizabeth von Arnim

In 1901 the writer, Elizabeth von Arnim, made a visit to the island of Rügen, the largest German island which lies in the Baltic. She had visited before and was equipped with maps and guidebook and a friend. They brought along a carriage with four horses, maids and baggage. Nothing much happened on the trip, although Elizabeth had hoped it would prove the basis of her next book. She had published Elizabeth and her German Garden to some acclaim in 1898. Undaunted by the lack of adventures she chose to invent some, along with a cast of truly awful characters, and sometimes pay lip service to the idea she was writing her own visitor’s guide. 

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen

Rügen is an island off the Pomeranian coast, renowned for its sandy beaches (and jelly fish apparently). In the novel, the guidebook she found in the library quickly proves to be inadequate for Elizabeth’s requirements, and after a few misdirections and silences Elizabeth takes pleasure in doing the opposite of what it suggests. She is enjoying the freedom to choose what to do and where to go. However events interrupt her idyll and her adventures take a different form.

She is a writer with a sense of the dramatic as well as the absurd, and we are invited from the outset to enjoy the vagaries of her trip. It begins when her carriage barely fits into the ferry across to the island but takes a turn for the worse when their young coachman, August, does not notice that his two passengers, Elizabeth and her maid Gertrud, have alighted. He has been warned not to turn around to look at the women, and so he travels on and on without them. When they finally catch up with him a challenge comes from one of the bystanders as he tells his story.

The crowd waited breathlessly. ‘I turned round,’ continued August, ‘and I saw nothing.’
‘But you said you would never forget what you saw,’ objected a dissatisfied-looking man.
‘Never, never shall I forget it.’
‘Yet you saw nothing at all.’
‘Nothing, nothing. Never will I forget it.’
‘If you saw nothing you cannot forget it,’ persisted the dissatisfied man. (31-2)

Such conundrums and frustrations follow Elizabeth on her adventures. Soon after this inauspicious beginning Elizabeth goes swimming and enters the cold water more or less on top of another woman who turns out to be her cousin Charlotte ‘whom I had not seen for ten years’. Charlotte’s marital situation drives the plot: she married an eminent English professor, much older than herself. She now wants to free herself from him and has left him to promote the cause of women. Actually she appears to be promoting the cause of Charlotte and overlooks other women and has no time at all to consider the servant class, such as the long-suffering Gertrud. The women continue the trip around the island together.

Not long after this Elizabeth’s path crosses the professor’s. He is looking for his wife, but quite happy to be distracted by any women he meets. He is, in truth, a bit of a lech. When Charlotte departs, Elizabeth and the professor give chase, and Elizabeth contrives a plan to bring them together.

Everywhere they go they meet Ambrose (Bosy) and his mother Mrs Harvey-Browne. Bosy is a good-looking young man, but he pays no attention to what anyone says but himself. His mother, however, is horrendous, and Elizabeth tries to avoid the pair on her travels. Mrs Harvey-Browne is the wife of an Anglican bishop and expects to be treated as a person of some status. It has not dawned on her that there would be little understanding of her status on the island as the Germans do not have bishops, and furthermore her status is acquired by connection rather in her own right. Sadly she is often mistaken, for example, refusing to engage with the professor, when they first met, as she mistakes him for a tramp. But worse, she is determined to be critical of everything – landscape, language, service, food, transport, the weather … 

Her negativity puts Elizabeth’s character into relief. Elizabeth is witty, funny and resourceful, prepared to see the best in everyone, to help them, and to enjoy the adventures on Rügen. All is chaos and good humour from her side, but indignation, crossness and self-absorption from the others.

Rügen is clearly a beautiful island with exquisite views and beaches as well as bracing sea bathing and dense forests. I read a second-hand copy of this novel but I don’t recall where I bought it. I was delighted to find a postcard tucked in its pages, showing a watercolour of the church in Bobbin, featured on Elizabeth’s journey (246-249). The artists is W Teich.

Here are links to other posts on Bookword featuring novels by Elizabeth von Arnim:

Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim (August 2021)

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim (July 2021)

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim (November 2020)

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (August 2017)

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen: by the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1904. It was reissued by Virago in 1990 with an introduction by Penelope Mortimer. 199pp 

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Books and Walking, Reading, Reviews, Travel with Books

William’s Wife by Gertrude Trevelyan

Last year I enjoyed reading Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan. It had been published in 1937 and reissued by Recovered Books in 2022. The story in that novel followed two ordinary, rather boring people from 1919 to 1936. William’s Wife also covers a long period. William’s wife is Jane, and we join her on her wedding day towards the end of the 19th Century, and the novel ends with her eventual decline between the wars. Jane is no-one special. She is 28 years old when she marries and has been a lady’s maid.

William’s Wife

William’s Wife considers what it means to be William Chirp’s wife, living close to London, in a small town. Jane Atkins marries William Chirp who is a widower and owner of a substantial greengrocer’s shop. There is considerable consciousness of social status in the town, and Jane is anxious to be recognised for the new status she acquires on her marriage. But from the start William shows himself as mean and miserly, and Jane must resort to subterfuge to find the few pence for repairs to her clothes, nice things in the house and so forth. He controls her money to the point of abuse, and when he retires it gets worse, for he controls her time as well. The First World War arrives and she joins a group to knit items (helmets) for the soldiers, which include his son-in-law. William begrudges her the money for the yarn and the time she spends with the knitting group but he will not be publicly shamed. When he dies as the war ends, Jane comes into his money, and the house, which will on Jane’s death be inherited by his daughter Emily. 

William’s meanness is not confined to money: he is ungenerous to his second wife, to his daughter and son-in-law, even when Jim goes into the army during the war. He denies Jane new clothes, even when she suggests that she could pay for them from money she brought to the marriage. But the Married Women’s Property Act was not passed until 1882 and William controls everything in their house and marriage.

“What d’you want now. What’s wrong with what you’ve got.”
“I only meant, I thought, if you could let me have some of my own money, William, that I saved from Mrs Minever’s, that you put in the bank.”
[…] “But I’ve worn it for so long, William. Best part of two years, ever since we was married, I feel so shabby in it for best, it would go on for everyday for years if I had something different for Sundays. And it isn’t as if I was asking you, I only thought, I wondered if you’d let me have a bit of my own money.” (40).

We can see that even this early in the marriage Jane has been beaten down. William does not ask questions. He makes statements. She answers in broken, tentative sentences, sure that she is in the right but frightened of her husband’s coldness. She is asking for her own money to get a better dress for Sunday best, and she is refused, in the same way that he delays making repairs to their home, refuses to invite his daughter around for Christmas, to have an officer billeted on them during the war – everything is controlled by him, including the information he gives her. He does not tell her when he has decided to retire, for example.

What will it mean to be William Chirp’s widow? When William was still alive Jane learned how to hide every penny, to make only the most important purchases, and to reveal nothing to anyone else. On becoming a widow she continues her penny-pinching ways, afraid that her money will be taken away from her, especially by her step-daughter Emily. She leaves the house she shared with William for a smaller house, and then becomes more and more paranoid and secretive and suspicious. She moves to smaller and smaller places. Eventually, with no evidence she fears that her belongings will be stolen when she goes out and so she takes everything she can around with her, picks up abandoned vegetables, cat meat, coal and wood from the street and lives a life of horror and fear. She has no friends, resents any person who interacts with her (the bank, the street sellers, Emily and the police officer who asks if she is ok). She makes elaborate preparations for every trip out of her rooms.

Well, with her hat on, and her jacket and her mantle, there was only to get her things together. Undo her black bag, that was stood up against the wall so she could take it again easy, and feel down to see all was there. For she didn’t need to go looking, she could tell well enough by the feel. Her boots and her best bead slippers and her boa and her muff and her best black and her serge … Ah, you couldn’t deceive her. She knew which was which well enough by the feel, she would have known if there was so much as a pin missing, without even setting an eye inside. Tie up the string again, good stout cord, a lucky day when she came across that. And prop it back against the wall, all ready with her umbrella on top.
And spoons in her handbag […] (237-8)

In a third person narrative, but clearly from Jane’s point of view and in her idiom, we see her decline. The details she has paid attention to all her life now come to dominate her life as she prepares for her daily walk, gathering everything around her, her money sewn into the hem of her dress, and her suspicions of everyone on high alert. The transformation of Jane is a horror story. That is what Jane learned from becoming William’s wife. 

Gertrude Trevelyan

Portrait of Gertrude Eileen Trevelyan July 1937 by Bassano Ltd. from the National Portrait Gallery Licensed under Creative Commons agreement

Born in Bath in 1903, Gertrude Trevelyan aspired to ‘a position of total obscurity’. She attended Oxford University (Lady Margaret Hall) after the First World War and claimed to enter the Newdigate Prize for undergraduate poetry as a joke in 1923. Julia, Daughter of Claudius won. She was fortunate enough to have a small private income that allowed her to live independently in a flat in London where she wrote seven novels between 1932 and her death (from injuries received in the Blitz) in 1941. William’s Wife was her 6th novel. She was celebrated for her different experimental approaches in her novels, both the subject matter and her style. But she avoided the literary scene in London, took on no reviewing or teaching. This partly explains why she and her novels were so quickly forgotten.

Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan

You can also read the review of William’s Wife on Heaven Ali’s blog in September 2023, by clicking on this link. She describes it as ‘not a happy novel’ and she describes how it stays with you af6er you have finished it.

William’s Wife by Gertrude Trevelyan, first published in 1938. It has been reissued by Recovered Books Boiler House Press in 2023. 264pp 

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews