Author Archives: Caroline

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Do you have this experience? It doesn’t happen very often, but when I finished The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard I felt that I had been lifted onto a different plane. In part it was the accomplishment of the writing, its elegance, sparseness and the observations of human relationships revealed in the prose. And in part it was the breadth of Shirley Hazzard’s observation and of her imagination of the post-war world.

The Transit of Venus is my choice for the 1980s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). The novel captures something of the international influences happening in the decades following the Second World War. 

The Transit of Venus

The novel’s narrative stretches over 30 years allowing the characters and their relationships to be played out with the inevitability of the transit that gives the book its title.

Two Australian sisters have come to Britain in the 50s and are staying in a house of an eminent astronomer, Professor Thrale. Grace is the younger, very pretty, engaged to the son, Christian. Caroline is older and with more purpose in life. There is a third sister, a half-sister Dora who is an eternal victim who has cared for Caroline and Grace since their parents died. We follow Grace and Caro through several decades, and mostly Caro because Grace leads a calm and largely unexplored life. 

Ted Tice is a young astronomer come to spend time with Thrale and he falls for Caroline, a love he nurtures beyond the end of novel. Caro however is seduced by a friend of the family, a young playwright, Paul Ivory who in turn is engaged to Tertia who lives in grand style nearby. Paul and Caro begin an affair. The reader is sure that Paul is untrustworthy and that Tertia knows about the affair but has other motives for continuing with her engagement and marrying Paul. 

Paul Ivory is the bad boy, cynical, calculating, enjoying power and influence. He has a secret, known to Tice (and he knows Tice’s secret too). He breaks up with Caro.

She works in an office, subjected to the taken-for-granted sexism of the time. She is very hurt by the end of her affair with Paul but eventually marries an American benefactor and goes to live in NY. Christian Thrale has an affair because he believes he should. Grace falls in love with her son’s doctor, but he refused to compromise her. The marriage is not made better or worse by these episodes. Ted Tice goes on loving Caro from a distance until two important secrets are revealed. 

Themes

Although the transit of Venus across the sun is predictable it is an event that occurs only every 120 years, and then twice in 8 years. Captain Cook’s voyage to Tahiti in 1768 was designed to coincide with one transit to help with astrological measurements, specifically the size of the solar system. His measurements were inaccurate. The next transit will be in December 2117.

Shirley Hazzard understands that our lives are influenced by both predictability and chance, by those we meet and the moment we meet them. The important thing is what we do with our experiences: perhaps use them to manipulate others as Dora does. She turns every situation into a story of wrong being done to Dora. She is the saddest of all the characters.

Dora sat on the corner of the spread rug, longing to be assigned some task so she could resent it. […] Dora was not one to lie down under the news that a veranda was called a loggia, or a mural a fresco. Let alone villa for house. (45)

Grace lives a life of conventional comfort, with her husband making steady progress in the Foreign Office, and children and a nice house with beautiful things. A mirror bought in Bath is frequently mentioned, yet towards the end of the book Caro reflects that

It was not clear now, as formerly, that Grace was satisfied with chintz and china – with Christian saying, “A wee bit fibrous,” or hoisting his trousers at evening and announcing, “Must get my eight hours.” It was not quite certain Grace had remained a spectator. Those who had seen her as Caro’s alter ego might have missed the point. (324)

The reader has seen Grace’s thwarted love for her son’s doctor and noted the dignity ascribed to her by Shirley Hazzard.

With these prospects and impressions, Grace Marian Thrale, forty-three years old, stood silent in a hotel doorway, with the roar of existence in her ears. And like any great poet or tragic sovereign of antiquity, cried on her Creator and wondered how long she must remain on such an earth. (289)

Caro’s life has also contained much hurt and loss. She had not remained a spectator, but engaged with the experiences life sent her with dignity, reflection and generosity.

Writing

Reading The Transit of Venus one could not fail to notice the quality of the writing. The novel’s plot is skilfully managed and the tension is held to the final chapter. Some of the sentences are beautifully constructed. Look at what she wrote about Grace’s reaction to the departure of her would-be lover quoted above. And as I typed Caro’s reflections I noted the provisionality of the sentences: ‘not clear now’, ‘not quite certain’, ‘might have missed the point’. 

Within her sentences the choice of words, especially adverbs and adjectives, add complexity, depth and nuance to the novel. She writes on a wide canvas: across several decades and across the globe: Australia, Britain and New York as well as parts of Europe and South America. It has been described as an unbearably sad book, but I felt moved by it, as if the experience of reading it had added to my own life. In part this is because of her ‘huge charity towards the people’ (Kirkus Review 1980). 

Perhaps you have felt uplifted by this novel and are only surprised that I mention it. Or perhaps you have yet to experience one of Shirley Hazzard’s novels, in which case you have a great treat in store for you.

Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzard was born in Australia and died in 2016 in New York. She had spent time in the Far East after the war, before being employed by the UN from 1951. She was posted for a while to Naples, and developed a love of Italy. 

It wasn’t until 2003 that she published her next and final novel, The Great Fire, which was also much acclaimed by the critics. I am currently reading some of her essays in a volume called We Need Silence to find out What we Think.

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, published in 1980) and reissued by Virago in 1995. 337pp The novel also won the National Book Critics Award.

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I am exploring previously published novels by women. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The most recent choices for the project are

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)

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In Dependence by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

#BlackLivesMatter has encouraged me to promote novels by women of colour on my blog and on twitter with more vigour. Wanting to highlight such books I looked through the 600 or so posts on Bookword and found fewer than I expected. There have been more in recent months. When I reviewed Girls, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo in June I included her list of recommendations on the Penguin site in March 2020

In Dependence appeared on that list. I was attracted to it because I had hugely enjoyed Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika and included it in Bookword’s older women in fiction series. The main character in that novel is an older woman from Nigeria, a professor of English Literature in San Francisco. She is a very attractive character, as flamboyant as the title, as she faces up to the social and physical consequences of a fall. You can read about that novel here

In Dependence

The story of In Dependence follows two friends who meet in 1963 at Oxford University. Nigeria has recently become independent. The politics of the time is allowing young people to control their destinies more, at least in Europe, and to feel more independent. In 1963 Tayo arrives in Oxford from Nigeria. He is handsome, intelligent but not naive or superior. He meets other African students, including Christine with whom he becomes enamoured. But they quarrel when he meets Vanessa, a white woman with ambitions to become a journalist in Africa. Tayo and Vanessa become lovers.

I was reminded of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel A Game of Hide and Seek, which also follows two people who were once in love and meet each other over the years, finding their lives cannot be entirely disentangled. Such long-term relationships cannot be easy for they involve changes in two people as well as the involvement of others.

The story unfolds over the years up until the end of the 20th century when Tayo receives an honorary degree from Oxford. In the meantime, Christine has committed suicide, Vanessa and Tayo split up when he got another (Nigerian) woman pregnant. He married her. Vanessa adopted a son in Senegal from a good friend who was killed, and later married an older man, a mutual Oxford acquaintance.

Tayo and Vanessa are apart but continue to think of each other. The book explores themes of extended and mixed families in the diaspora, how love does and doesn’t endure, changing Nigerian politics, dependence on children and partners and longstanding friendships. The implications of the title become clear, we are interdependent.

Sarah Ladipo Manyika

The author was born in 1968 and was raised in Nigeria. At one point in her life she taught English Literature in San Francisco State University. She has written two novels and several short stories as well as many articles. 

Also by Sarah Ladipo Manyika: Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016) from older women in fiction series in 2018.

In Dependence Sarah Ladipo Manyika, published in 2008 by Legend Press and more recently reissued by Cassava Republic Press. 271pp

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Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020

And the winner is …

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Congratulations to the winner

After 25 years is this prize still necessary?

This prize has been going for 25 years. Kate Mosse, co-founder, argues that it is still important because it can still do 3 things:

  1. honour and celebrate excellent fiction by women
  2. make women’s endeavours in fiction more visible 
  3. use funds to promote more excellent fiction through charitable, educational and research programmes.

Fiction, she says, can still make a difference. You can read her article published in the Guardian about the prize and its continuing relevance here.

Honouring and celebrating excellent fiction

So in the spirit of the prize, I give you forty brilliant books, all written by women, from the short- and long-list for this year and all the previous winners. I have included links to the books I have reviewed on Bookword. 

The 2020 shortlist 

  • Dominicana by Angie Cruz
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
  • Weather by Jenny Offill

The 2020 longlist 

  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
  • Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
  • Dominicana by Angie Cruz
  • Actress by Anne Enright
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie
  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
  • How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
  • The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  • Girl by Edna O’ Brien
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
  • Weather by Jenny Offill
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
  • Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize. 

Tayari JonesAn American Marriage (2019)

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire  (2018)

Naomi Alderman: The Power (2017)

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (2016)

Ali Smith: How to be Both (2015)

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014)

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Marilynne Robinson: Home (2009)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)

Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004)

Valerie Martin: Property (2003)

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto (2002)

Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection (2001)

Linda Grant: When I Lived in Modern Times (2000)

Suzanne Berne: A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999)

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party (1998)

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces (1997) 

Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter (1996)

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Non-Combatants and Others: writings against war by Rose Macaulay

Rose Macaulay opposed the First World War, and later joined peace organisations. This stylish and well produced collection of her writings against war 1916 -45 was sent to me for review by the publisher, Handheld Press. It includes her short novel Non-Combatants and Others, first published in 1916. The war didn’t end until November 1918.

Non-Combatants and Others

The events of the novel take place in the period from April 1915 until the new year. The war had begun the previous summer, and already the thousands upon thousands of volunteers were being slain and there was talk of the need for conscription. It was introduced in March 1916.

In this short period of time Rose Macaulay shows us how the war impacted upon Alix. We meet her as she is sketching a local child, and we are told that it is all she does. She is 22 years old and attending Art School. Despite living with her cousins, she does not share their busy and useful attitude to the requirements of the war. Members of the household are on war committees, volunteer as VAD, in the Women’s Volunteer Reserves, a special constable, concerned with Belgian refugees. Another cousin has volunteered and been injured at the front, and another is driving an ambulance in France. Alix’s own mother is active on work to promote peace. Her younger brother volunteered to join the army straight from school.

Such activity does not appeal to Alix, who is slightly lame. She is horrified when her injured cousin returns, on leave to recover, and shows himself to be psychologically damaged. She is at her window on the night of his return and sees him below her. 

Outside his own window, John, barefooted, in pink pyjamas, stood, gripping with both hands on to the iron balustrade, his face turned up to the moon, crying, sobbing, moaning, like a little child, like a man on the rack. He was saying things from time to time … muttering them …Alix heard. Things quite different from what he had said at dinner.  […] His eyes were now wide and wet, full of horror beyond speech. They turned towards Alix and looked though her, beyond her, unseeing. John was fast asleep. (23-24)

She leaves her aunt’s house to live in Clapton with the widow of another cousin. Here the war plays little part in the household. The daughters are not very involved except in gossip about the Belgians and servants. And the mother is benign but unconcerned. While she is here Alix receives news of her younger brother’s death, later accidentally learning that it was suicide. Her almost lover, a painter, is wounded and wanting the comfort of a woman takes up with Elsie, the attractive daughter of the household. Alix tries various distractions: church, days out, talking to her older brother who is a journalist. But gradually she comes to understand that she cannot escape the effects of war. She is horrified by her brother’s death, a young man of great promise, but naïve. And her career as a painter seem to be going nowhere. 

Eventually she cannot bear the lack of involvement in this second household. She leaves to spend Christmas with her mother who is about to launch her campaign for peace in England.

The final sentences of the novel are these:

The year of grace 1915 slipped away into darkness, like a broken ship drifting on bitter tides on to a waste[d?] shore. The next year began. (206)

This bleak image is a strong one. With the benefit of hindsight we know that 1916 went the same way, and much of 1918 too. The effects of the war resonated in individual lives for decades.

Rose Macaulay

Rose Macaulay is another prolific twentieth century woman writer, and one who has been somewhat neglected in the last 50 years. Born in 1881 Rose Macaulay lived until 1958, having written 23 novels and a great deal of journalism, and other works. Perhaps her best known novel is The Towers of Trebizond (1956). She was well respected in her lifetime, but her popularity has not been sustained. It is good that Handheld Press is reissuing some of her work, bringing her to our attention, for she had some important things to say. And their books are beautifully produced and designed. 

Non-Combatants and Others: writings against war, 1916-1945 by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1916 and reissued by Handheld Press in August 2020 with an introduction by Jessica Gildersleeve. 300pp

I haven’t yet read the miscellaneous pieces against war which are included in this volume. I did read Potterism by Rose Macaulay, also from Handheld Press. You can read the review here.

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Character Breakdown by Zawe Ashton

I am in awe of people who can turn their skills to many different art forms, especially if they are young. And there is a bonus when they are female and black. Here is a memoir/fiction from Zawe Ashton. Many people will know her as an actor as well as a writer, a poet and a theatre producer. How had I never come across her name before she appeared in a list of recommendations from Bernardine Evaristo (see below)? 

Character Breakdown is a fictionalised memoir or a biographical fiction or neither: about being an actor, taken from her own experience but fictionalised. The title is a play on her state of mind as well as the resumés sent via agents to actors for their auditions. 

This is a work of fiction.
But mostly fact. [epigraph]

Character Breakdown

Zawe Ashton was Hackney born and bred and educated at two local girls’ schools: Elizabeth Garret Anderson School and Parliament Hill School. She also attended the Anna Scher Theatre School. She began acting very young, and has had a busy career. 

She was nearly derailed from her career by the bullying behaviour of a bunch of girls who befriended her, she thought, when she appeared on tv. But they planned to beat her up after school.

Mum has to come and get me. They can’t send me home alone. I sit and stare at the motivational quote posters for young women.

‘Young women, young futures.’
‘I am strong, I am worthy, I am beautiful.’
‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken.’

I don’t want to be anyone.

On the car ride home, I decide to stop acting for ever. Nothing good comes of being visible. I have to watch my back, and learn to walk in new shoes. (62)

She gives us the life of a young black female actor in a series of character breakdowns and playlets, sometimes phone conversations with, for example, her agent, or a journalist or a director. The breakdowns are followed by conventional narrative that sheds light upon the character being cast and her response to the role. Some of it is horrific, and some cringe-worthy and there are some challenging roles. There are red carpet moments and humiliations too, like the time she thought she had started a very heavy period while appearing in a West End play. And the moment when she loses her voice.

Sexism and racism permeate her account. Her necessary concerns with her appearance emphasise both of these. 

The very enjoyable narrative drive is found in the quick sequence of episodes, her successes and her failures. We are shown her world, where everything is a little distorted, where actors strive for reality through making stuff up. A bit like fiction. 

Character Breakdown by Zawe Ashton published in 2019 by Vintage. 311pp

This book appeared in a list of recommendations provided by Bernardine Evaristo which appeared on the Penguin site in March 2020.

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Unmute: Young Voices from Lockdown

Every now and again in April- July I noticed that on Twitter Kate Clanchy had posted a poem written by a young person. So often these were beautifully crafted lines that made me stop my scrolling and wonder at the young person who had written the poem, and at Kate Clanchy the teacher who had assisted at the emergence of the poem and the poet. Like. Retweet. 

Recently a friend told me about the winner of the George Orwell Political Writing prize for the book: Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me (2019). She knew I would be interested in the writing of a teacher who respected the voice of students. I told her that I was excited because that very morning I had ordered Unmute, the collection of poems written by her students.

Young Voices

I am not whimsical or romantic about young people. Twenty-five years working in urban secondary schools knocked any of that out of me. But my professional experiences also embedded in me a belief in the importance of giving young people a voice, helping them to find it, amplifying it. So what Kate Clanchy has done is quite in tune with my professional beliefs.

Let us have no talk about young people being ‘the future’. They will make their own future, as we did. It will be both worse and better than the one we created.

And no talk of the innocence of youth, because that denies the reality, the rawness of each person’s experiences at whatever age. I was headteacher of a school in Islington where one third of the population had a different mother tongue than English. And where many of those children had been refugees. Helping those young people explore their experiences, their individual biographies was a major task for the English department. It was a validation for those young people of the lives they had led up to that point. And for some it was a very fearful and dangerous and difficult childhood.

Our young students brought us face to face with their experiences and they also did what young people have done: looked at the familiar with fresh eyes. They can question accustomed responses, traditional ways of expressing ideas; they can experiment with form and language and metaphors and images. They can remind us, too, of the younger selves that we carry within us. 

Unmute

The poets met on-line during Lockdown. All thirteen had at one time or another attended the weekly poetry workshops with their teacher when attending Oxford Spires Academy. Some are sixth-formers, some have moved on with their education. They sought each other’s company to make sense of the lockdown experience, together in poetry. 

And in doing that they touched many people, through the Tweets and now the book. They write about hair, masks,  loss, clapping, separation, changed perceptions and mothers among other themes. I chose the poem below as an example because it speaks to each of us of the smallness of what matters, the invisibility before Lockdown of important truths. 

Crossing

I didn’t know I’d miss waiting
at traffic lights, waiting for a burst
of colour, a static sound.
I didn’t know I’d miss noise,
crowds, the breath of rain
as it hits parched tarmac,
being near enough to hear people’s 
breath. I didn’t realise I was only
exactly alone when I was
walking home from school, or 
to the shops. I didn’t
realise it was the in-
between times that held
me together.

Linnet Drury

You can read more poems from the collection by visiting Rathbones Folio Prize. And you can buy the kindle version here. For £5.00

Proceeds from the sales of UnMute go to Asylum Welcome, which is an Oxford organisation. I have made a donation on account of quoting the poem in this review. 

Unmute: Young Voices from Lockdown edited by Kate Clanchy (2020)

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Potterism by Rose Macaulay

About 100 years ago Lloyd George, the wartime UK prime minister, was accused of selling peerages. Sound familiar? In this novel, one was awarded to Mr Potter, the founder of a chain of publications that had done exceptionally loyal work during the war. Another current concern that has its roots in those days was the attitude, in the press as much as in wider society, of British exceptionalism, ‘we hate all foreigners’ (47). Potterism, published in 1920, was Rose Macaulay’s 10th novel and her first best seller. Rose Macaulay had something to say about this attitude, especially when expressed as anti-Semitism. She was an advocate of values, truth and integrity. 

I am grateful to Kate Macdonald for the advance copy from Handheld Press. Potterism is published on 24thAugust 2020 as is a collection of Rose Macaulay’s anti-war writings, including her short novel Non-Combatants and Others, written in 1916.

Potterism: a tragi-farcical tract

Potterism was a kind of attitude which Rose Macaulay tries to define and subvert in this novel. It was named for the publisher of a paper which appeals to low tastes, nationalism and a dislike of others. The Potter publishing empire is complacent, smug, conservative and without concern for the truth. One might have thought it was modelled on Lord Rothermere, a bit like the Daily Mail, only Lord Rothermere himself appears in the novel. 

The Anti-Potterism League consists of a few Oxford intellectuals, including the twin children of Mr and Mrs Potter. Jane and Johnny both dislike what their father’s papers stand for, and their mother’s romantic fiction. Other members of the League include Arthur Gideon, son of a Jewish émigré, Jukes, a clergyman and Katherine Varick, a scientist. 

Gideon is the leader of this group, and has the clearest idea of what feeds Potterism.

… Potterism has, for one of its surest bases, fear. The other bases are ignorance, vulgarity, mental laziness, sentimentality, and greed. The ignorance that does not know facts; the vulgarity that cannot appreciate values; the laziness which will not try to learn either of these things; the sentimentality which, knowing neither, is stirred by the valueless and the untrue; the greed which grabs and exploits. But fear is worst; the fear of public opinion, the fear of scandal, the fear of independent thought, of loss of position, of discomfort, of consequences, of truth. (72)

The start of the novel lays out the relationships between these people and then the war with Germany arrives. Gender divides them as the men volunteer and go off to war, Gideon is wounded, losing a foot. Johnny escapes with no injuries. Mr Potter’s newspapers adopt the most nationalistic and propogandist attitudes they can. Truth becomes less of a consideration still.

No one could say that the Potter press did not rise to the great opportunity. The press seldom fails to do this. The Potter press surpassed itself, it nearly surpassed its great rival presses. With energy and whole-heartedness it cheered, comforted, and stimulated the people. It never failed to say how well the Allies were getting on, how much ammunition they had, how many men, what indomitable tenacity and cheerful spirits enlivened the trenches. The correspondents it employed wrote home rejoicing; its leading articles were notable hymns of praise. In times of darkness and travail one cannot but be glad of such a press as this. So glad were the Government of it that Mr Potter became, at the end of the 1916, Lord Pinkerton, and his press the Pinkerton press. (31-2)

After the war Jane tries to get a job and goes to the Paris peace conference as her father’s secretary where she meets the Adonis that is Oliver Hobart. He did not fight in the war, strings being pulled by Potter to ensure his exemption. He is very beautiful and the editor of the flagship Potter newspaper: the Haste. He begins by courting Claire, Jane’s older sister, but soon transfers his affections and marries Jane. Arthur Gideon gets a job on the rival paper to the Potterist publication called Fact but it never achieves a wide circulation.

There is then a murder as Oliver Hobart falls downstairs and is killed. Who killed him? Gideon and Jane are in love and each thinks the other responsible. But in the time before the murderer is revealed several people get to put their opinions, including Mrs Potter who assumes it was Gideon because he is a Jew.

All is resolved and Jane is free to marry Gideon. 

Gender in Potterism

Rose Macaulay was a lifelong feminist and through the device of the twins, Jane and Johnny, she captures the different experiences resulting from their different genders. Jane is the cleverer, but it is Johnny who can go and fight and find a job after the war. And he doesn’t have to have babies, an idea which disgusts Jane. Jane is not a very sympathetic character, despite being a member of the Anti-Potterism League. She is greedy and selfish and not much concerned about anyone but herself. 

The scientist, Katherine Varik, appears calmer than Jane, and less greedy and selfish. Her voice is one of reason. At home she continues her scientific experiments in her laboratory, despite the uncertainty in her circle. There are not many female scientists in literature of that time I think.

Structure in Potterism

The first and last sections of this novel are narrated by RM (Rose Macaulay?). The central chapters are narrated in turn in the first person by Gideon, Leila Yorke (which is the pen name of Mrs Potter), Katherine Varik and Laurence Juke, who has become a deacon in the Anglican church despite being a bit of a radical. By using these voices the writer is able to emphasise different aspects of her concerns. For example, the section narrated by Leila Yorke is so full of conceitedness, so smug, so anti-Semitic that one cringes on reading it. We know, then, that Mrs Potter’s conclusion that the murder was committed by Gideon is not founded on anything more than prejudice. Both Juke and Katherine offer less histrionic versions of the events. 

This use of multiple inner voices was somewhat new at the time. Virginia Woolf uses it in Mrs Dalloway, published 5 years after Potterism. In that novel the shifts between voices are made without the signposts that are given to the reader by Rose Macaulay.  

Rose Macaulay

Here is another prolific twentieth century woman writer, and one who has been somewhat neglected in the last 50 years. Born in 1881 Rose Macaulay lived until 1958, having written 23 novels and a great deal of journalism, and other works. Potterism (her 10th novel) was one of the first to sell well, but perhaps her best known is The Towers of Trebizond (1956). She was well respected in her lifetime, but her popularity has not been sustained. It is good that Handheld Press is reissuing her work, bringing her to our attention, for she had some important things to say. And she has things to say to us today, as I have tried to indicate. And Handheld books are beautifully produced and designed. 

Potterism: a tragi-farcical tract by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1920 and reissued by Handheld Press in 2020 with an introduction by Sarah Lonsdale. 247pp

Other relevant on-line commentaries

Stuck in a Book reviewed Potterism as part of the #1920Club in April. And the publisher of the new edition wrote about it on her blog katemacdonald in January 2015 and has suggestions for further reading.

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The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote seven novels, each one very different. The Corner that Held Them was published just after the war in 1948. You may have read Lolly Willowes, a curious but engaging story about a single woman who escapes dependence on her family by becoming a witch, published in 1926. This book is quite different, except that it also considers women’s lives, this time in the fourteenth century, in a convent in Norfolk. 

But this is not your run-of-the-mill historical novel. There are no velvet-clad heaving bosoms, not much sex and no romance, but instead we read of daily lives, a murder, a running away, the collapse of the newly built spire and several loose ends. I was very taken with it.

The Corner that Held Them

For neither might the corner that held them keep them from fear [The Wisdom of Solomon xvii 4]

This is history, but not the royal progress of male actions, not the events that made Britain great, not even the plucky pulling together of the war just won. Instead it is a view of women’s lives, and not of one heroine, but of a community. 

Nor is it a religious history. While they observe the rituals of convent life, the concerns of the nuns are mainly to do with survival and comfort. Their convent is not well endowed. It was set up in dubious circumstances, to do with adultery, murder and grief by the very impious Brian de Retteville on the death of his wife Alianor in 1163. The convent was established on a small rise near a stream and some villages  in Norfolk. The nuns depended upon any dowries brought by novices and the rents from a few local properties, which were far from reliable. 

After a shocking first chapter the novel settles down to relate the events of the three decades following the Black Death, the rise of each prioress, the arrival of a new priest (who wasn’t) and several bailiffs, and novices. The nuns may individually have admirable skills, embroidery or writing, but they disappear with the nuns’ eyesight, senility or death. Indeed, Oby has nothing going for it.

The Black Death was fearsome. It carries off many of the villagers who have to serve the convent, and sees the flight of their priest. In the decades that follow its terrible cull in 1349 we see the coming and going of four or five prioresses, the careers of novices as they become nuns, the arrival of Ralph Kello who claims to be a priest and stays until his death, the building of a spire, its collapse, the changing bishops and their treatment of the nuns, a sympathetic custos and a runaway. There is a murder, attempts at levitation, a vision and a rape.

There is always the necessity of finding more funding. This takes one prioress to a Christening, the custos to a parish that owes rent, the non-priest to find a new hawk and one nun to the death bed of a relation who is a bishop. Far from being cut off from life around them, the ‘corner that held them’ is exposed throughout the novel to the changes of the time, in society, traditional relationships, music and literature. 

In historical fiction events often hold great significance. But in this novel Sylvia Townsend Warner almost plays with the reader to suggest that this event was no more significant than any other. Small episodes reveal aspects of daily life, relationships within the community that continually change, the worries about funding, the economies or the luxuries. At page 310 novel simply stops. 

It is importantly a view of women’s history. Sylvia Townsend Warner had no sympathy for the established church, but the community of women, mostly without vocation, mostly living in Oby through convenience to them or their family, provide interesting material for this novel. We read of the everyday business of living and dying. For example, as a bishop’s visitation approaches a villager is drowned in the Oby fish pond. The carp will no longer be suitable to present to the bishop. There is a storm.

The storm broke the drought. But on the morrow it was as hot as ever – a steaming, oppressive heat. Everything began to go wrong. The cream soured. The food in the larder spoiled. Doors stuck. Patches of mildew came out on walls. The house was invaded by ants. Feeling as though she had been hit over the head by a pole-axe the prioress drove on through these various calamities, hearing of each new disaster with the grinning patience of despair. (176)

One of the charms of this novel is that it is without the prithhees and other anachronisms we imagine inhabited the speech of medieval people. They do use metaphors and images from their daily lives. For example, on his arrival the bishop meets the prioress and… 

… saw what he was prepared to see: a burly old woman whose air, at once imperious and jovial, made her seem better fitted to rule a brothel than a nunnery. (177) 

Another example:

William Holly was one of those small, tight men like a knot of wood, his cross-grainedness seemed a warrant of longevity. (219)

And her descriptions of the countryside are joyous as she describes some of the inhabitants of the nunnery as they strike out on their journeys. 

The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner was first published in 1948 and reissued as a Virago Modern Classic in 1988. This is the version I read, which includes an introduced by Claire Harman. 320 pp

Some other observations on The Corner that Held Them

On Vulpes Libris blog in January 2010 Hilary posted her reactions. She refers to Sylvia Townsend Warner‘s exuberant power’ as a novelist.

Kate Macdonald, of Handheld Press, wrote a very interesting post on her blog in 2017 exploring how innovative Sylvia Townsend Warner was in her historical fiction writing. Here is the link

There is an annual Sylvia Townsend Warner Reading week hosted by A Gallimaufry blog. You can find the round up for 2020 here

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Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns

Benefits was written by a woman almost exactly the same age as me. We were young at that time: 31 years old. It was Zoe Fairbairns’ third novel. In Benefits she presents us with a vision of the future, seen from 1979, in which women continued to be controlled by technical, political and chemical means. It’s always attractive to consider what a writer got wrong or right about  the future. The details are different, but we should remember that today withholding benefits, Universal Credit, is used to punish the poor for any transgressions: failed appointments, mistakes, and unreported changes in circumstances. 

Benefits is my choice for the 1970s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). The Female Eunuch had been published in 1970 and The Feminine Mystique in 1963.  Women were widely involved in feminism and women’s liberation. Consciousness raising groups of women were everywhere. Benefits rises out of the concerns of the late 70s.

Benefits

Set in a dystopian future beginning in the late 1970s, women are threatened by a government that starts off by awarding benefits to mothers and gradually begins to control their lives through the benefits and then through an even more sinister project.

The story follows two women. One is Lynn, a kind of middle of the road feminist, who is not unhappily married, has a daughter with a chronic illness, and who participates in the commune in the abandoned high rise: Collindeane Tower.

Marsha also drifts into the orbit of the commune, and takes up with Polly, a bossy Australian feminist who would like to take charge, but ultimately flees back to Oz, taking Marsha with her.

Another character is David Laing, a former social worker with a coffee habit and a controlling nature who becomes a minister. He is able to see the problems with the welfare system at the start of the novel, but is unable to engage sufficiently with the women who he knows. Peel, his subordinate and later his successor,  has a damning view of Laing, an early expression of the anti-boomers rhetoric we still hear today. 

He was of the soft generation, of the post-war guilt-ridden child-obsessed baby boom. They rode a roller coaster of gratuities: free milk, free cod liver oil, free schools, free medicine, free grants to go to college … it was Peel’s view that the trauma of the seventies, the sudden realisation that the party was over and they couldn’t get what they wanted by slapping on the label rights and howling, had blighted the generation for life, had rendered them incapable of understanding how life works. (168)

The policy shifts and changes, beginning with the benevolence of benefits paid into the purses of mothers, objected to by trades unions which were dominated by men who did not want to pay more taxes for the benefits; subsequently compliance was required to qualify for the benefits and ultimately to control women through narrow qualifications.

Any woman of child-bearing age seen on the streets without children in tow ran the risk of being stoned, spat on or refused admission to public buildings or transport. Some reported attacks by gangs of men who threatened a repetition if the women did not go back to their children. The policemen wrote down the details carefully. Then they said, ‘Are you sure you didn’t ask for it?’ (140)

Ultimately, as part of a shady deal with Europop to control women’s fecundity through chemical means, the whole thing unravels, helped by the violent death of Laing and the inspired children’s strike by women. 

Women’s issues

In the ‘70s women were struggling with question about organisation, living arrangements, leadership and how to improve their lives. Has that changed? Women’s lived experience must be put up against policy to check its value. By interweaving the stories of Lynn and Marsha and others, the author is able to show how distorted were the governments seeking to control women.

Of course Zoe Fairbairns did not know about Mrs Thatcher’s government and where it would take us in terms of cutting back the welfare state, and the industrial economy. She did not see the political division over the closing of the mines or the Falklands War, the Poll Tax and later the Iraqi war and years of austerity, let alone Covid-19. 

But the desire to control people, especially women, by those in political power remains. Today some of it is by the appeal to a past that did not exist, to ideas that are corroded and by denying or ignoring the outcomes of poor decisions and actions.

Zoe Fairbairns

Born in 1948, she began her writing career early, having two books published before she left university. She worked in women’s publications and journalism, including Spare Rib and continued to publish novels and short stories. Her most recent book is on writing short stories. 

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979) published by Virago. 214 pp 

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I am exploring previously published novels by women. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The most recent  choices for the project are

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

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Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

I am a great admirer of Elizabeth Strout’s fiction. This will be the fourth post on Bookword focusing on her books, and the fifth novel of hers that I have read. Some of my admiration comes from the characters she draws, especially older women, and the situations she creates for them. Some of it comes from her style of writing, especially her dialogue. And some from the format she has chosen for Olive: interlinked short stories. I know other readers find her work hugely enjoyable too.

This will also be the 48th in the series championing older women in fiction in order to make them more visible. This book returns us to small towns in Maine, USA and to the character first introduced in 2008, Olive Kitteridge. 

Olive, Again

In the final episodes of the previous book Olive had recently been widowed and had met Jack – a Republican to her horror –  with whom she became friendly and ultimately intimate. Early on in this novel they are married. This collection of stories take us through the years of her second marriage and widowhood and into old age and its terrors.

We are shown small town East Coast American life, with its controlling gossip, unspoken standards and long memories. Change is also a feature. Mostly we are in Crosby but a nearby town, Shirley Falls, has been ‘overrun’ by ‘Somalians’, and the mills have closed and been demolished. Nothing is the same.

Many of the characters were taught Maths (Math) by Olive Kitteridge, and the image of her formed during this time endures. She was harsh, distant with occasional flashes of wisdom for her students. Teacher and students meet from time to time, the young people now adults, and some of them benefit from her observations about people’s suffering and her lapses into kindness. The distress of a young woman unable to choose butter in a supermarket is noticed by Olive, who helps her make her purchases, sees her home and visits when no one else does, for the woman is undergoing chemotherapy.

Memories are long-lasting. So is some damage. And Olive’s relationship with her adult son has never been good. They fell out badly when Olive went on a visit to New York to stay with his family, as revealed in Olive Kitteridge. Now he visits with his new wife and the visit again does not go well.

It came to her then with a horrible whoosh of the crescendo of truth. She had failed on a colossal level. She must have been failing for years and not realized it. She did not have a family as other people did. […] And it had not happened out of the blue. She could not understand what it was about her, but it was about her that had cause this to happen. And it had to have been there for years, maybe all of her life, how would she know? (91)

The reader is perhaps more observant than Olive. We see her clumsiness with people, her abruptness and her kindness. We see how she pushes people away, expects obedience from children, speaks truth rather than tact. And we see that people hold onto their images of her. She is intelligent rather than warm and does not conform to small town social regulation.

In some stories Olive makes only a small appearance, always in character but sometimes it feels too engineered. But the theme of class hierarchies and poverty continue through each story, as people learn to live with each other and the disappointments and catastrophes of their lives.

Ultimately Olive loses her second husband, the man who had loved her ‘Oliveness’. And she becomes old and even more lonely, has a heart attack and becomes dependent upon others.

At one point she meets Crosby’s own national poet in a coffee shop and because she is lonely Olive tells her about her life. (Later she find the conversation published as a poem in a magazine.) She tries to attract the waitress’s attention and then explains why being invisible can be liberating:

“It’s just that you don’t count anymore, and there is something freeing about that. […] I don’t think I can explain this well. But you go through life thinking you’re something. Not in a good way, and not in a bad way. But you think you are something. And then you see” – Olive shrugged in the direction of the girl who had served the coffee – “that you no longer are anything. To a waitress with a huge hind end, you’ve become invisible. And it’s freeing.” (204)

The format of the linked short stories allows Elizabeth Strout to show her protagonist both close up and at a distance. The interweaving of the characters’ lives and events reflect small town life. Everyone has their dilemmas and difficulties, and some have catastrophes that pile up in an almost comic way. Some characters even appear from other novels (Amy and Isabelle for example)

I was struck by the dialogue in this book. The story called Helped is largely a phone conversation of a bereaved young woman, Suzanne, who is just learning the full story of her family and the family lawyer. He is kind and a good listener and their conversation gradually peels back the pain Suzanne experienced within her family, and his own family origins in Hungary. The ‘beats’ in the long scene of the phone call are carefully and effectively timed, and we leave the conversation seeing that they have given each other something important and human.

The characters are authentic in their complexity. They have doubts, contradictions, regrets and some take bold leaps. The attraction of Olive is in her authenticity. She is a large woman, prone to dismissing people with a casual wave of her hand and to making judgements about them. But she also has insight and compassion for the lives of others. In the final pages she reflects on her own life and her approaching death. 

It was herself, she realised, that did not please her. (289)

She concludes in this way:

I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing. (289) 

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout, published in hardback by Viking, Penguin in 2019. The paperback is due out in November 2020. Thanks to Anne for the lend.

paperback version

Links to related reviews

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (on Bookword June 2016)

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (March 2017)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (February 2018)

JacquieWine’s review of Olive, Again appeared on her blog in November 2019.

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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