Monthly Archives: February 2024

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

Two novels by Elizabeth Taylor focus on thoroughly unlikeable characters: Angel and The Soul of Kindness. Both titles are freighted with irony. Angel is a monster, and Flora is monstrously selfish. As a result these novels are not comfortable to read, although full of acute observations.

Of her other novels I find The Sleeping Beauty the least enjoyable. I think it is because the main character, Vinny, appears to be what in my childhood was called a spiv. The novel was published in 1953, just when I was learning to avoid spivs! But actually, Vinny is the Prince Charming of this novel, in the unlikely role of the prince charming who awakens a sleeping beauty.

The Sleeping Beauty

We first meet Vinny, who has come to Seething, a town on the coast, to bring consolation to Isabella whose husband has been drowned. Vinny seems to be an accomplished consoler, ready with words, patient in the presence of tears, and altogether useful to the bereaved. Here are the opening lines of the novel.

“There’s Vinny going in with the wreaths,” Isabella had once said.
Now that her own time to be consoled had come, she was glad of him. The wreaths she had mentioned were a figure of speech – her way of associating Vinny with condolences and gloom; for disaster could always bring him to a scene. He went with sympathy professional in its skill; yet adept and exquisite. (1)

Isabella speaks of him as inevitable, and he appreciates the description. I am not sure why Vinny appears to me to be a spiv. Perhaps it’s the name. Or that he appears at this difficult time for Isabella and her adolescent son Laurence, ready to exploit the new widow. 

But it is not Isabella who is the sleeping beauty. In fact she is a silly woman. Rather, gazing out of the window while Isabella cries, Vinny spots the Tillotson family on their way up the cliff to their holiday guest house. Close behind them are a child and a woman.

It was too dark to see the woman’s face, but he was certain, from her walk, that it was beautiful. She went on slowly and dreamily along the shore. Beautiful women do not need to hurry. Then she turned and paused, looking back: the girl came nearer to her, and together they crossed the sands and began to climb the rustic steps, the private way up to the house above, where a light or two was switched on in upstairs rooms. (7-8)

Vinny is captivated by this woman, Emily. He discovers that she is the sister of the Rose who runs the guest house. She suffered badly in a road accident and was now protected from the world by Rose. The child, Philly, is Rose’s mentally challenged daughter who is cared for by Emily. Vinny brings his mother, Mrs Tumulty, to stay in the guest house so that he can form a closer relationship with Emily.

Vinny’s mother, Mrs Tumulty, is a larger-than-life character and much that the reader needs to know about her is captured by Elizabeth Taylor on her arrival at the guest house:

Vinny and the gardener brought in the most curious weather-beaten luggage – an old leather hat-box; a round-topped trunk with labels of countries which no longer existed, hotels which had been shelled in 1916 and never risen again; a Gladstone-bag; a wicker hamper. There were also Mrs Tumulty’s bird-watching glasses and a black japanned box in which she collected fungi; for she was a great naturalist. (52)

Vinny faces the many challenges to a satisfactory outcome with Emily, not the least of which is that he is already married. His wife is another great character, described in this way:

To say that Vinny’s wife was not above telling a lie – and she would not have been his wife at all if that had been so – would be to underestimate her inventiveness. She had in fact a great distaste for the truth and was for ever tidying it up or turning her back on it. …Vinny’s desertion she had disposed of by moving to a new place and saying he was dead. She even changed Vinny himself into a Fighter Pilot and gave him a D.F.C with bar. (109)

Laurence thinks that Vinny is in Seething for his mother. He is an awkward young man, in the army and often on his way back to Aldershot. He too is awakening, into manhood and love, but he does not make things easy for Vinny.

Rose, Emily’s sister, has much to lose if Emily marries Vinny: her child’s carer, her companion, someone who relied on her, the end of a period when she didn’t compete with Emily, and so forth. 

I found it hard as a reader to find much sympathy for either Emily or her suitor, Vinny. Emily is not a lively character, always a weakness in the fairy tale – the heroine is asleep! We are asked to believe in the magic of Vinny’s love, but I did not find Emily to be a very interesting or attractive character. I would have preferred to spend more time in the company of the rather spoiled Tillotson children. Elizabeth Taylor writes about children so well. In this example Betty, the children’s nursemaid, takes them down to the Regatta.

“Why are there flags on the steamer?” Benjy asked.
“It’s dressed all over for Regatta Day,” Betty said.
“How do you know that that is what it is called?” asked Constance. “Over all, I mean.”
“I happen to have a cousin in the Navy.”
“You are always boasting. I think you are getting too big for your boots.”
“It is what Nannie said you were,” her brother reminded her.
“I bet you wouldn’t have the nerve to take us on a boat,” Constance said, but casually and without optimism. Benjy looked quickly up at Betty’s face, and then away again, seeing that the idea had not had her attention. (218)

The children do not play a big part in the drama of the novel, but they are there, part of the picture at Seething.

Elizabeth Taylor

Names are always interesting in Elizabeth Taylor’s novels: Seething (the town), Mrs Tumulty (a women of chaos) and as usual a derivative of Elizabeth, in this case in the naïve nursery maid Betty.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1953. I used my copy of the Virago Modern Classic (1983) which has an introduction by Susannah Clapp. 250pp 

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Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf 

I thought I had read all the novels by Virginia Woolf and was enjoying re-reading them. But I can find no record of my reactions to Jacob’s Room, there is no entry in my reading record, begun in April 2006, and no post on Bookword blog. When I began reading it, all I could recall was that some of it was located in Scarborough, and that Jacob had died in the First World War. I had not read it before.

The ending reminded me of those paintings by Van Gogh of empty shoes, or William Nicholson’s painting of Gertrude Jekyll’s boots, which say so much about the absent wearer. Jacob’s mother is clearing his room:

‘What am I to do with these, Mr Bonamy?’
She held out a pair of Jacob’s shoes. (168)

Post card of ‘A Pair of Leather Boots’ by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889. Amsterdam.

These painters were in their way doing on their canvases what Virginia Woolf was doing in Jacob’s Room, her third novel. She was breaking away from the traditional narrative and portrait of a character. Conventional fiction showed appearance, motivation, action, consequences and so forth. Rather she was evoking a sense of Jacob, his times, and the loss of the young men in the war through glimpses of Jacob. And she was presenting these glimpses as we might experience meeting a new person: incomplete, with restricted context, mediated through others.

Jacob’s Room

In her diaries Virginia Woolf recorded that ‘I think Jacob was a necessary step for me, in working free’ [October 14th 1922]. At that time she was beginning work on Mrs Dalloway and had just decided upon the name of her shell-shocked character. In the later novel she famously used a new style of writing from the interior of her characters: sometimes called stream of consciousness.

In Jacob’s Room she is introducing a different innovation in the writing of fiction. The reader is invited to draw their portrait of Jacob from glimpses, observing how other people react to him, starting with a reference in a letter from his mother describing his behaviour on the beach in Cornwall. This is followed up by a painter who indicates to his brother, sent to find him, where Jacob is among the rocks. Finally we see him exploring rock pools and crabs. 

And so we follow Jacob through the eyes of others, growing up, going to Cambridge, later in rooms in London, on holiday in the Scilly Isles and in Greece. We meet his friends, his lovers, and see his mother becoming more and more distant from him.

Before it was published, Virginia Woolf confided in her diary that she feared people would think it was ‘mad, I suppose: a disconnected rhapsody’ [June 23rd 1922]. The idea of a rhapsody is useful. Passages are poetic, lyrical, such as the view from the boat sailing to the Scilly Isles.

Strangely enough, you could smell violets, or if violets were impossible in July, they must grow something very pungent on the mainland then. The mainland – not so very far off – you could see clefts in the cliffs, white cottages, smoke going up – wore an extraordinary look of calm, of sunny peace, as if wisdom and piety had descended upon the dwellers there. Now a cry sounded, as of a man calling pilchards in a main street. It wore an extraordinary look of piety and peace, as if old men smoked by the door, and girls stood, hands on hips, at the well, and horses stood; as if the end of the world had come, and cabbage fields and stone walls, and coast-guard stations, and, above all, the white sand bays and the waves breaking unseen by any one, rose to heaven in a kind of ecstasy. (45-6)

Some of the passages set in London are also elegiac.

The lamps of London uphold the dark as upon the points of burning bayonets. The yellow canopy sinks and swells over the great four-poster. Passengers in the mail-coaches running into London in the eighteenth century looked through leafless branches and saw it flaring beneath them. The light burns behind yellow blinds and pink blinds, and above fanlights, and down in basement windows. The street market in Soho is fierce with light. Raw meat, china mugs, and silk stockings blaze in it. Raw voices wrap themselves round the flaring gas-jets. Arms akimbo, they stand on the pavement bawling – Messrs Kettle and Wilkinson; their wives sit in the shop, furs wrapped round their necks, arms folded, eyes contemptuous. Such faces as one sees. The little man fingering the meat must have squatted before the fire in innumerable lodging-houses, and heard and seen and known so much that it seems to utter itself even volubly from dark eyes, loose lips, as he fingers the meat silently, his face sad as a poet’s, and never a sing-song. Shawled women carry babies with purple eyelids; boys stand at street corners; girls look across the road – rude illustrations, pictures in a book whose pages we turn over and over as if we should at last find what we look for. Every face, every shop, bedroom window, public-house, and dark square is a picture feverishly turned – in search of what? It is the same with books. What do we seek through millions of pages? Still hopefully turning the pages – oh, here is Jacob’s room. (92)

Such a passage, such a rich text, rich in imagery, and references, and movement! And then just at the end she reminds us that we are readers. 

It appears that Virginia Woolf modelled Jacob in part upon her much-loved brother Thoby. When their father died in 1904, she joined with her sister Vanessa and Thoby moving to a house in Gordon Square, where they entertained Thoby’s Cambridge friends. It was the start of the Bloomsbury Group. Thoby died of typhoid in 1906 after a trip to Greece. The young men of his generation bore the brunt of the First World War, and Jacob’s Room pays homage to them and that world and the people who were destroyed by the war. 

She was nervous about the reception of Jacob’s Room, as for all her novels. But she reflected in her diary after she had shown it to her husband, and most significant critic, Leonard:

There is no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice; and that it excites me so that I feel I can go ahead without praise. [July 26th 1922]

First edition cover

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, published in 1922. I used my copy of the Penguin Modern Classic edition (1965). 168pp

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Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale

As some of my friends know, I am writing a story – very slowly – that begins with a young boy leaving his mother in war time because there is not enough food for both of them. He joins the navy. This opening impressed my friend Barbara and to encourage me she lent me her copy of Mother’s Boy.

My story and the narrative of this novel have almost nothing in common beyond the separation of mother from son by war. Nevertheless I am grateful to Barbara for the loan of this novel as I have very much enjoyed reading it.

Mother’s Boy

This is a fictional account of the poet Charles Causley’s early life. Born and brought up in Launceston in Cornwall Charles was known to be close to his mother. Laura Causley was widowed when Charles was young, her husband died as a result of being wounded in WW1. While her husband was away at war, she had earned her keep by assisting her mother who did laundry. And when she died, Laura took on her mother’s business herself, and supported her son as he grew up. 

There is not much money in the family, or in the town. Charles, although he does well at school, goes into a boring local office job. He enjoys playing piano in a band and putting on amateur dramatics. As war approaches again in 1939, Charles signs up for the Navy. He becomes a coder, a new naval role which requires quick and methodical thinking, but not great eyesight.

He is not especially suited to naval life, and he suffers unrelentingly from sea sickness. The novel opens with a violent episode, and nothing else quite lives up to the drama of that scene in this novel. Some of his war is spent on naval bases, in Gibraltar and Malta and in the Far East. He finds love and sexual experience (gay), loses friends, and acquitted himself well.

Laura, at home in Launceston, notes the changes brought by the war to the town: Plymouth is bombed, evacuees are taken in, soldiers from the US are based locally and the colour bar brought by the US troops results in violence in the town. After D Day Launceston hosts some POWs. Finally Charles returns to teach at the local school and Laura keeps house for him.

The themes explored in this novel relate to the lives of British people in the early twentieth century: separation by war, expectations based on gender and class, learning tolerance of others. Evacuees bring the values of the city to rural Cornwall; other nationalities and ethnic groups must mix in too; Charles is gay and this is also something to be understood and accommodated. 

One theme, indicated by the title, which runs through this novel is the affection and regard between mother and son. After his return, Laura kept house for Charles until her death. Their regard, tested and perhaps strained during the war years, was resilient enough for them to spend her final years together. Charles Causley remained in Cornwall, a generous and popular poet until his death in 2003.

I enjoyed reading this novel as the central relationship is tenderly depicted. In addition, both characters are made vivid by the details of their lives: the routines, practices and equipment of a laundress, and the naval regime for Charles. The details of the local communities are very attractive. Some of the novel is set in Teignmouth, not far from my home. While this is a story based on the poet’s life, Mother’s Boy is definitely a novel, imagined and explored by a respectful writer. 

Thank you, Barbara, for the loan of this novel, but it rather held me up than encouraged my own story-writing!

Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale, published in 2023 by Tinder Press. 406pp 

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Rattlebone by Maxine Clair

Rattlebone is a black neighbourhood in Kansas City. This novel is set in the city in the 1950s when Maxine Clair was growing up there. It follows the childhood of Irene Wilson and draws in events from the lives of others in the community. I find myself wanting to use words that imply concepts of tweeness, sweetness, naivety and so forth in thinking about this book. But this novel packs quite a punch. It contains little about relations between different ethnic groups. But we are aware that the families who live in Rattlebone have a hard life, do some of the worst jobs and for rubbish wages. At the same time they have built up a strong and developing sense of community. When the high school is destroyed by a rogue aeroplane, local communities contribute to its reconstruction. 

The incident is the most dramatic in the novel. This extract gives us a sense of Maxine Clair’s skill as a writer. Irene is watching the planes from her high school classroom.

They were coming in dangerously low, coming, coming. The pilot in one plane must have been trying to urge the other to pull up. Then the one climbed the sky in a sharp angle, exposing its silver belly to the sun. The other appeared to be locked into a steady plunge. Mr Cox spun around and yelled ‘Run!’ The plane had rotated slightly, so that it seemed to be coming broadside straight for us. By the time we considered running, it was too late. The whole room exploded in a fury of glass. (216)

The incident is included in the final chapter of the novel and leads to a new beginning for Irene, outside of Rattlebone.

Rattlebone

Looked at one way, this is a collection of short stories, but they are all connected to Irene and to the suburb of Rattlebone which makes this more than a collection. There are eleven stories, some of them very short, others extended. Some are retold by characters who appear elsewhere and some are given some perspective by being told in the third person. Some, like the final episode, are narrated by Irene. 

The first chapter is also narrated by Irene and features her new teacher. Interestingly it links her community of Rattlebone with the child herself by starting off in the first-person plural: ‘we’. Here is the first sentence of the opening chapter.

We heard it from our friends, who got it from their near-eyewitness grandmothers and their must-be-psychic ladies, that when she was our same age, our teacher, Miss October Brown, watched her father fire through his rage right on into her mother’s heart. (1)

October Brown comes from outside of Rattlebone, and she immediately begins to change the orderly pattern of Irene’s life. She introduces current affairs and French into the classroom, and her father leaves the family to pursue an affair with her. She appears in other stories, with another errant husband, but also she finally provides Irene with a route out of her narrow life in Rattlebone. 

The perspective in the stories changes as Irene matures, not always making her the focus of the episode. For example, her father is caught up in a flood after work and goes to help with others to build up the levées to protect their families. In another dramatic episode he is forced to face up to what is important in his life. In later stories we find he has returned home, and how his troubled relationship with his wife is resolved, not to Irene’s satisfaction. 

Some of the most touching stories involve the fate of the children of Irene’s age, who experience accidents, or who are so challenged that they are removed from Rattlebone, much to the sadness of mother and sister. The children have considerable leeway over their lives for their parents are always busy working. There is the strange story about the visits of ‘the white woman’. The children are out playing, observing their elders, and enjoying an ordinary day.

Then she drove up in a raggedy-trap, old-time car with no top, black slits in the side of the hood, running boards, rumble seat stuffed with what looked like broken furniture, and a horn blasting Aah-hooga! Aah-hooga!
She stepped out of the car, unfolding her flat self to be taller than any of our mothers. Except for her face, all of her was covered up in white: a long-sleeved, church-ushering dress, white nurse’s shoes, white stockings, white gloves, white thing twist-wrapped around her head with no hair showing. She was the whitest – not beige, not pink, not rouge or lipstick – white woman we had ever seen. (26)

Sister Joan is preaching some kind of religion, but the mothers see her off. She disappeared as suddenly as she arrived.

I have quoted several times from the book because I find Maxine Clair’s prose and her descriptions and the voices she uses to be strong and vivid and entirely suitable to her material. 

Maxine Clair

Born in 1939 and raised in Kansas City, Maxine Clair was 55 when Rattlebone was first published. It received good attention but was not a best-seller. She had been pursuing a career in medical technology, but changed to creative writing, publishing poems and a novel called October Suite, featuring the schoolteacher October Brown – not available in the UK. She is still teaching creative writing. 

The Guardian Review by Nick Duerden in June 2023 refers to Rattlebone as ‘a small perfectly formed classic’.

It was also reviewed on her blog by Heaven Ali in August 2023. You can read that review here. She says, ‘What Maxine Clair does beautifully though is to give us a snapshot of a place in time, that sense of time and place is present in every word she writes.’

Rattlebone by Maxine Clair, first published in the US in 1994. Now available in the UK, published by Daunt Books in 2023, with an introduction by Okechukwu Nzelu. 138pp 

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