Author Archives: Caroline

The Winner of Winners of the Women’s Prize

Which novel is the winner of winners? There have been 25 winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction up to now. When asked to pick their choice of overall winner readers voted in their thousands, according to the Women’s Prize website. The most popular book from all 25 prize winners of the annual Women’s Prize for Fiction is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, winner in 2007. 

Half of a Yellow Sun Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s haunting novel, originally won the Women’s Prize for Fiction (then the Orange Prize) in 2007. Set in Nigeria during the Biafran War, the novel is about the end of colonialism, ethnic allegiances, class, race and female empowerment – and how love can complicate all of these things. (Website)

Does this mean it’s the best book written by a woman in the last 25 years? Of course not. There is no such thing. But it does mean that this novel, along with many others is a good book.

The Women’s Prize for fiction

Why do I support a prize for women’s fiction? Examine the list of 25 winners (below) and notice that it includes many excellent titles, all by women of course.

I like the way the prize features novels by women in a literary landscape that favours men: from the books that get accepted for publication, to those that get reviewed, those that get dismissed (as ‘women’s fiction’}, to those that get bought. Each year a number of books by women have a spotlight shone on them: the long list, then the shortlist and then the winner. 

To be honest I am not much concerned about which one wins, don’t enter the speculation as the announcement draws near, and didn’t vote for a winner of winners. I haven’t always read the winning novel. And I have been disappointed by some that have won. But there is always at least one excellent read on the longlist every year, and often more.

So each year I dedicate a post on this blog to the longlist and the previous winners, which usually adds up to nearly 40 books written by women that are worth noticing.

Half of a Yellow Sun

And I have an admission to make. I did not finish Half of a Yellow Sun when I first picked it up in 2007. The reason was simple. I loved the first part with its description of a Nigerian family and their life. But I had been told that it became very dark after that, even violent. Well, the war in Biafra was violent. But I have never wanted to subject myself to reading that would stir up emotions that I can’t control. So I am sorry to report that I stopped reading it at p146 (I know this because the bookmark still keeps the place). Perhaps now it has been voted the winner of the winners I should take my courage in my hands and try again? And because it is by an author I admire, and a woman from Lagos Nigeria, a woman of colour, I have found my copy and add it to my tbr pile.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, published in 2007 by Harper Collins, and winner of the winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. 435pp

All Winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 

Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet (2020)

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)

Related post

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 (September 2020)

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Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston

What can we learn from the experiences of women in the past? How can their reflections help us think about the occurrences of our own lives? The so-called Blitz spirit has been evoked since the Coivid-19 pandemic began to take hold earlier this year. We even celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE Day in May at a distance with scones and little union flags.

In Wave Me Goodbye there are 28 stories, all written in English and from the experience of women from the UK or the ‘colonies’. All the stories were written at the time of the second world war (except one). This is a special and important collection. This is a special and important addition to the posts of the Decades Project 2020 (see below)

Wave Me Goodbye

Different experiences

The first thing to say about them is that these stories reflect the very wide range of women’s experiences of the war. They were not all staying at home and making do and mending, or fire watching, or working in war jobs. And the experiences here range from the so-called Phoney War, while everyone waited for the war to start, through to the first post-war visits to war-ravaged Europe. 

There are stories about

Working in a field hospital
The Blitz
partners leaving for active duty, and home on leave
adventures abroad in the Balkans
land girls
losing treasured things, such as letters from a lover
living with other women
the war in Africa
fantasy 
the aftermath.

In writing their stories they drew upon their experiences and reflected what was happening and how it affected their different lives. Some are about the acute experiences of departure and loss, others provide insights into the arrangements made by women in the absence of so many men.  

Quality of writing

The second thing to note is the quality of the writing, almost every mid-century writer of note wrote a short story that was included in the collection.

Rosamond Lehmann
Jan Struther
Mollie Panter-Downes
Rose Macaulay
Olivia Manning
Elizabeth Bowen
Elizabeth Taylor
Barbara Pym
Sylvia Townsend Warner …

It reads like a combined Virago and Persephone catalogue! 

In the introduction Anne Boston quotes Elizabeth Bowen:

All war-time writing is…  resistance writing. (xxi)

In a sense the resistance is oblique: it is to the distortions that war brings with it; distortions in relationships, time, clothes, food, careers, homes, life itself. And that is one of the parallels with the pandemic: that too is distorting our lives as well as killing thousands of people.

Some stories of resistance are triumphant. I loved Sweethearts and Wives by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which concerned a household of women managing their domestic arrangements, largely without men, in a haphazard and cheerful manner. 

Short stories and the war

And thirdly the short story was the genre of those days. Many of the writers were established novelists, but turned their attention to short stories during the war. The fragmentary nature of short prose captured the disconnected experiences that war handed out, rapid and catastrophic change. An example is Miss Anstruther’s Letters by Rose Macaulay, in which Miss Anstruther frantically tries to find her dead lover’s letters after she has been bombed out. This was Rose Macaulay’s experience, and it reflects the fragility of material belongings. With the quality of writing, it is easy to find insights, description, experiences narrated with great skill.

The depth of damage resulting from six years of war is beautifully captured in Elizabeth Taylor’s story of a couple visiting France and trying to reconnect after their different experiences of the war. It is called Gravement Endommagé and considers damage at many levels.

I can’t review individual stories here, but refer you to JacquieWine’s blog (see below) where she looked at many individual stories in two posts when she explored this collection earlier this year. 

Covid-19?

So what can we learn from the Second World War that might help us with Covid-19? We need to be resourceful and resilient. We need to adapt our lives to the profoundly anti-social aspects of the response to Covid-19. We can expect experiences as different as people are. We can expect great responses and more feeble ones. Humans, women have done it in the past. We can do it again. The values that underpin the good life must be held onto in difficult times: community, care for others, decency and integrity.

Related posts

On HeavenAli’s blog she recommends this quite marvellous collection in her review in June. 

Another enthusiastic reader is JacquiWine who provided two posts on her blog to do justice to the collection. 

Novels from the Home Front (on Bookword in November 2019)

The War-Time Stories and Letters of Molly Panter-Downes. (January 2019)

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther (November 2018)

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston, first published in 1988 by Virago and republished in 2019. 360pp

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I explored ten novels by women, one a month, 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. For November I have added this important collection. In December I will review the year’s blogs and consider a theme for 2021.

The post war choices for the project have been:

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)

In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes (1994)

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Reading, Reviews, short stories, The Decade project

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama became the First Lady of the United States in 2009. She came from humble Chicago beginnings and through hard work and determination took the first steps on a successful career in law. Is this a story of the American Dream? 

Her autobiography brings into question the whole idea of the American Dream for African Americans, and especially for African American women. Is she unique, or is she leading the way?

Origins

She was born in January 1964 into a family who lived on Chicago’s South Side. They were not well off, her father maintaining his job at the local water plant despite advancing MS, her mother was a stay-at-home mom. She had an elder brother Craig. The family was tight knit, and surrounded by a large community of relatives and friends. The South Side was increasingly suffering from White Flight, but it was a good place to grow up. Michelle worked hard at school and followed her brother to Princeton. On graduating she was accepted into the prestigious Harvard Law School and returned home to take up a post in a high status law firm in Chicago. 

Up to this point she had approached her career by working very hard at her studies and by volunteering with various community groups. She was a woman with a mission, successfully managing by working long hours and planning every detail of her life.

Marriage

Barack Obama came to her as an intern, to some extent following her career path. But his background was very different, with mixed parents and a childhood spent in Hawaii and Indonesia. He also had a very different attitude to life.

I found this part of her memoir the most fascinating. As she reflects, she was succeeding in the life she had envisaged for herself: a well-paid job, with prospects in a law firm, and yet a dissatisfaction with her life. She took what she calls a ‘swerve’. Not only did she marry Obama, but she decided to leave behind the private law firm to go into work that supported the public good in Chicago, community projects in Health Care and the University. 

When the children were born she continued to work, finding support from other working mothers and from her own mother, who deserves her own biography. Pretty soon Obama was launching himself into his political career, having cut his teeth in community projects, writing and editing the Harvard Law Journal. 

Now she had to decide how to be married to this ambitious man, raise her two children and manage her own professional life. Again, this required some swerves in her attitude, to what it meant to live and work in such a marriage, alongside all the other issues women meet, while also encountering prejudice against Black women (and occasionally against tall women too).

The ‘swerves’ are not presented as sacrifices, more that she accepted the role to maintain their family. They both worked at it. He was more driven than her, having a great ability to manage huge amounts of information and to keep his eyes on the higher ambitions and ideals and to work for them.

The White House and FLOTUS

The section of her memoir about her time in the White House reveals the ambiguity of the position of First Lady. She had no constitutional power at all, but very high visibility and some influence. She decided to use the power she had in three main areas: children’s health, military families and promoting the aspirations and the prospects of young women. 

But the costs were very high. The Obamas were committed to bringing up their girls in as normal way as possible, in the face of extreme secret service security measures and extreme fame and exposure. They were also set up to be criticised by anyone who cared to, on any grounds. And it became increasingly obvious that much of their legacy would be lost after the 2016 election.

“When they go low …”

I often find that I have provoked a negative reaction in people through my opposition to the accepted norms, to political assumptions, especially about feminism and women. So, I try to keep in mind her exhortation given high publicity in her speech at the Democratic Convention in 2016 in the face of some brutal events in the Presidential campaign:

Dignity had always gotten us through. It was a choice, and not always an easy one, but the people I respected most in life made it again and again, every single day. There was a motto Barack and I tried to live by, and I offered it that night from the stage: When they go low, we go high. (407)

I did feel sorry for the enclosed, bubble life, of the White House, and the trappings of fame and security. Her own actions to support better child health through healthier eating (garden in the White House), the military families (with Mrs Biden) and the promotion of girls is all laudable. And all a terrible contrast to the administration that followed.

Making a difference

Having read the book, I watched the film (Becoming on Netflix), which focused on the tour to promote the book, interspersed with illustrated extracts, with additional photos and comments from her family and staff. Huge numbers turned out to hear her speak, and she also made time for small groups: young people from reservations, young Black women, all young people, and my favourite section was the group of older Black women who told Michelle Obama how proud they were to see a strong Black independent and intelligent woman in the White House. The film made it clear that she has given courage and inspiration to many people in the US and beyond. 

And now, with Kamala Harris gaining the position of Vice-President elect, it seems that the American public learning to embrace these inspiring women.

Remember Ann Petry’s novel The Street, published in 1946 (Virago reissue 2019).

Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018) published by Viking. 428pp. Thanks to Anna for the loan of her copy.

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The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann

Do you know that Thurber cartoon: a stout woman is reading a book in a relaxed manner, legs hanging over the arm of her chair? Her middle-aged husband sits foursquare and has the paper open and looks startled. She tells him: ‘It’s our own story exactly! He’s a bold as a hawk, she’s soft as the dawn.’

When I first read this book, in the early ‘80s perhaps when Virago republished it, I felt that – it was my story. And rereading it recently that feeling has not changed. I knew what she was writing about. Perhaps more to the point, Rosamond Lehmann knew what she was writing about.

The Weather in the Streets

The story is a kind of sequel to Invitation to the Waltz, in which Olivia Curtis was poised on the brink of adulthood, socially awkward at a ball, and rescued by Rollo Spencer. Ten years later she is now married but has separated from Ivor. This novel is the story of her affair with Rollo. 

At the start of the story she is going home to see her father who may be dying. He isn’t but he remains an invalid. On the train she meets Rollo. They have not met since Marigold’s coming out party. They are attracted to each other, and after Rollo has ensured she gets invited to his family’s country house for a party the die is cast. The affair is carried on for nearly a year, when after months of clandestine meetings and a holiday together in Austria Olivia finds that she is pregnant. Rollo has disappeared with his family for the rest of the summer. She endures the pregnancy until visited by Rollo’s mother. 

The affair ends because Olivia comes to see that she has always been in second place to Nicola, Rollo’s wife, always just a distraction for him. They had no future. They did have love and a good time. She returns to her artistic friends and moves on painfully. 

In love

Rosamond Lehman writes about the inner torments of isolated young women with great effect. This was the strength of Dusty Answer as well as Invitation to the Waltz. In this novel, Olivia is not yet self-assured, not yet happy in any social group. Being separated from her husband she is not welcome in most social circles, and out of tune with her family’s social connections. Rollo pays her attention, as he did at the party when she was 16, and she warms to him. They get on well and at first everything is ecstatic. But once established as his mistress she finds herself always waiting.

He’d manage to come for dinner once a week. I cooked it in the tiny cupboard of a kitchen, and he laid the table, awfully pleased with himself. I shall never like cooking, I’m not talented enough, but it was nice cooking for him, he appreciated it so. I bought a stylish new cookery book and dished up all sorts of mixtures. Sometimes when he couldn’t have dinner with me, he’d ring the bell late, about one o’clock. I never stayed out anywhere after midnight in case he did. It was rather wearing, the waiting, often after one had struck, I’d listen for the half-hour, then two, then the half-hour again, still keyed-up for the doorbell, the telephone, hearing in my brain his car come down the street and stop, sitting frozen in my chair – a listening machine. … I asked him how he explained when he came late. ‘I go to look up old George,’ he said. I knew that George was a habitué of the house – Nicola’s friend – it didn’t seem safe, but he and George had standing orders for the last ten years to provide an unhesitating alibi on all occasions with an element of doubt in them. George could be trusted. He was a very useful chap, never been known to ask a question. (191)

The dynamics of love

She’s an expert at describing falling in love, the invisible currents between two people, how each takes it a little further until it’s a settled thing. She illuminates the way love can put you into a bubble, when nothing exists except in relation to this wonderful thing that’s happening. And those little jolts, the sparks when one of the pair is offended, but the other hasn’t noticed. In the passage above I notice how smoothly Rollo uses his alibi, set up ten years ago. Has he needed it before, will he need it again? Is this a man of honour? And I notice how Olivia sacrifices her own freedoms, her own life to wait for him.

An accomplished writer

When she published this novel Rosamond Lehmann was well established. She had gained a reputation of being a little racy with Dusty Answer. Like a number of women writers of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor are two examples, she was able to convey so much in one sentence, one movement, one piece of dialogue and had the skill to convey the reactions people had to each other through their words. Here is the moment when Olivia and Rollo hesitate just before committing themselves to an illicit relationship.

Getting up from my stool to take another cigarette, nervouser and nervouser … He struck a match, saying very softly, in a funny, diffident, plaintive voice: ‘I’ve thought about this evening such a lot.’
‘So’ve I.’ Looking at the cigarette, puffing furiously.
He put his head down suddenly to give me a light quick kiss on the cheek. No good. What can break this down? How to melt, how to start? … Because here he is, he’s come for what I promised, it’s got to be made to be …standing side by side in Etty’s crammed room …
‘Darling, are you glad to see me?’ Coaxing …
‘Yes, Rollo.’
‘Don’t be frightened,’ he said.
It was all over before now, it could still be nothing, never happen … I don’t know how, there wasn’t one moment, but he made it all come right as he always did, saying: ‘She won’t be coming in, will she?’ (144-5)

In this extract there are no less than six ellipses indicating tentative moves, hesitancy which is put to an end by his practical (practised?) inquiry about her flat mate’s return.

The scene between Olivia and Rollo’s mother, as another example, expresses so much, not least through what is not said. It proves decisive.

Our own story exactly!

To wait, to be waiting always between the moments of aliveness, to give way with grace, to always look over your shoulder, to exercise discretion when you want to shout about it. This is what I recognised in this novel so long ago and what I recognised again. Rosamond Lehmann keeps our attention on Olivia and our sympathies with her conflicting emotions as the affair progresses. The impossibility of making a life around a doomed love affair, the million and one slights, offences, disappointments, as well as the ecstasy and belief that no-body else had loved as we did.

The novel is not short. The central section is written in the first person, but we move away again into the third person when things get difficult for Olivia and Rollo. We can see that none of the marriages in this novel are perfect. Compromises and sacrifices have been made. Some have endured. In her family circle her mother is now devoting herself to an invalid husband;  her sister has married a doctor and had four children after a bitter experience of love; her brother James is wandering Europe, a bit of a loner, possibly gay. 

The gender imbalance is obvious, but not emphasised. Rollo can do what he wants. He’s a nice enough chap. Doesn’t want to hurt anyone. But he can’t sustain the relationship with Olivia. She ultimately needs more than he is prepared to give.

I wanted more for Olivia as well. I wanted her to be able to embrace marriage. But it seems that marriage does not suit some people. As I didn’t quite say, ‘My story exactly.’

The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann, first published in 1936 and then by Virago in 1981. It has been reprinted 19 times since then. 372pp

Related posts

Invitation to the Waltz  by Rosamond Lehmann

Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann

In an enthusiastic review of Weather in the Streets posted in July this year, JacquieWine’s Journal says this novel ‘expertly captures the cruelty, frustration and devastation of a doomed love affair in the most glittering prose’. 

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The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

What if Jenny Erpenbeck’s main character had not died, not died, that is, once but four times: as a baby, as an alienated young woman, facing Stalin’s firing squad or falling down the stairs? One answer is that she will die in the end, an old woman of 90 suffering from dementia in a care home in newly reunified Germany.

In her 2015 novel, The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck explores the life of a woman in twentieth century Europe. Or perhaps it’s twentieth century Europe explored through the lives of a woman?

November is German Literature Month so here is my contribution (see below).

The End of Days

Every person alive today is having a sharp lesson from the Coronavirus pandemic: you cannot escape the brush of history. You cannot escape, she seems to suggest, however often she rewinds and allows her main character to live a little longer. And our own deaths do not end our lives as we, in turn, have influenced other people’s lives. In this novel there is the father who emigrated to the US (or didn’t), the discussion and writing with comrades (who might betray you), the children to whom you give birth (and who may never know their fathers) and the things you treasured such as the works of Goethe, a clock, brass buttons, a letter …

The German title for this novel was Aller Tage Abend. It comes from the German phrase: Noch ist nicht aller Tage Abend, it is not yet the evening of all days, which means something like it’s not finished until the end of all days.

So what if the child had died in her cradle in Poland, born to a Jewish mother and a lowly railway clerk in 1902? Her father would have emigrated to the US, and the family would not have moved to Vienna at the start of the First World War.

The family were hardly better off in Vienna as the father’s wages did not cover enough to eat, and the city was gripped by shortages of everything as a result of the war. What if the girl had not crossed the road at that point to avoid the ice and met the boy with whom she made a suicide pact? She would not have joined the Communist Party, become a writer and emigrated to Russia.

And in Russia, if her file had not been placed for random reasons in one pile rather than another, she would not have been a victim of Stalin’s purges. She would not have gone to live in East Berlin and become an esteemed writer in the GDR, a noted anti-fascist.

What if she had not fallen on the stairs? She would have gone on to live to her 90th birthday, losing her connection to the world, but loved by her son.

We see anti-Semitism at work, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the rise of the Nazi party and the Anschluss destabilising inter-war Europe, the internecine battles within the Communist Party (he said, she said, I cannot affirm, I attest …) and the whole sorry history of 20th century Europe.

So much for the individual in history, then. This character hardly has a name, until the last book in which she is referred to only as Frau Hoffman. It may not even be her family name at birth. Children are born at random and absent fathers are everywhere. No political system can adequately protect or provide for all its citizens.  

This is not a shrug of the shoulders, ‘what if …?’ Our lives have meaning to ourselves and to others. And this we are shown between the start and close of this profound novel.

The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave. But that wasn’t right, because the Lord had taken away much more than had been there to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up. (5)

Many mornings he [her son] will get up at this early hour that belongs only to him and go into the kitchen, and there he will weep bitterly as he has never wept before, and still, as his nose runs and he swallows his own tears, he will ask himself whether these strange sounds and spasms are really all that humankind has been given to mourn with. (238)

But it is not yet the end of days.

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, published in Germany as Alle Tage Abend in 2012, and published in English by Granta in 2014. The translation from the German is by Susan Bernofsky.

Related posts

In October 2017 I enthusiastically reviewed another novel by Jenny Erpenbeck: Go, Went, Gone. It was definitely one of the best books I read that year. I recommended it to my Book Group and they too thought it was excellent.

For more on German Literature Month 2020 see the blog called Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

Written more than 50 years ago, this novel addresses the loss of dignity and agency that came with advancing age at that time. Is it the same today? Are our older citizens treated with the same slight attention and dismissive attitudes? Mrs Gadny is our unwitting guide, admitted to the Jerusalem, a care home for women. She is unhappy and has begun to lose touch with the present time. She develops dementia while the other inmates look on.

This is the 50th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women more visible. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books and reviews on my list here.

At the Jerusalem

Mrs Gadny is delivered to the Jerusalem by her step-son and his wife. This couple took her into their home, for seven weeks, after both her husband and her daughter had died. Those seven weeks were not successful as no one in the family had familiarity with or affection for Mrs Gadny. Sometimes grandchildren are seen as closer to the elderly, but these children are no more able to make the necessary adjustments than the adults. Thelma is monstrously selfish  and greedy and feels no obligation towards her husband’s step-mother, especially when it requires some sacrifices from her. What is the obligation of each generation to their parents? Today we are no nearer to a good answer to this dilemma. The section about the weeks that Mrs Gadny spends in her step-son’s home appears after we learn about her arrival and early unease at the Jerusalem. We can see that she is not comfortable here, but this section dissuades us from imagining that she was better off before. 

Mrs Gadny had been in service, and she knows how things should be done and what are the correct terms used by people of class. She is a bit of a snob, for example she hates Thelma’s use of the word ‘lounge’ for sitting room. And she knows what is good taste in a room’s décor – it is not floral wallpaper. Although many of the other residents of the Jerusalem have also been in service, Mrs Gadny finds them coarse or intrusive. She is also much more reserved than they are.

At Matron’s request Mrs Capes, who lets everyone know that she is above her fellow residents, tries to befriend the new arrival. Matron explains this arrangement to Mrs Gadny. 

‘Mrs Capes is what you’d call a “character”. She’s energetic, has a lively mind. You’ll take to her. She will amuse you, I can promise. […] I shall ask her to guide you round the Home: show you all the nooks, all the crannies. And she can introduce you to the other residents, describe their little ways.’ (8)

But in carrying out this task Mrs Capes manages to show her the worst aspects of the Home, even including the place where a former patient hanged herself with a lavatory chain. She also provides critical gossip about the other residents and recommends a spiritualist’s consultations. Mrs Gadny does not warm to her company and continues to feel isolated and unwanted. 

Eventually, despite the affectionate care of one of the nurses, she breaks down and has to be put in a room on her own and finally sent to an institution where they can care for an old woman with dementia. 

The older women

While Mrs Gadny lives both in the past and the present, for example she hears her daughter’s cough from time to time, and writes to a former neighbour who died some years before. Her fellow patients are also living reduced lives. They are an unlikeable lot: rather coarse, prone to airs, gossip and criticism. One constantly mislays her teeth, another says what everyone is thinking, another has raucous uncontrolled fits of laughter and so on. All of this behaviour is on show at the annual trip to Southend.

The staff, while kind, are unable to resist infantilising the residents. They call them patients. Even the food is like nursery food: jelly, junket, semolina. However, it is difficult to avoid seeing humour in the situations at the Jerusalem but it is not at the expense of the characters or at least it does not belittle them. For example, there is a 90th birthday party: it takes place in the dormitory where all nine women sleep and two of them remain all day. One of those has the birthday, and the celebration takes place round her bed. She has to be repeatedly nudged awake. The other bed-bound woman is fed birthday jelly from time to time.

Much of the narrative as well as the effect of this novel is conveyed through the direct speech which dominates the text. This is often very brief, and much of what is important is revealed by what is not said. In his introduction Colm Toibin praises Bailey’s ability to convey so much through speech. Here’s an example of the style:

A rumour had reached Mrs Gross’s ears. Had it reached Edie’s? Concerning a coloured nurse?
‘No.’
‘Nurse Percival told Maggy we might be getting one. She came to see Matron last evening.’
‘The nurse?’
‘What?’
‘He invented steam.’
‘Who did?’
‘Watt did.’
‘You’ve confused me.’
‘She come to see Matron, this nurse.’
‘Yes. What I gathered from Maggy is that she’s brown rather than coloured.’
‘Brown’s coloured, Nell.’
‘Not in my book. When I refer to someone being coloured, I mean black. Brown’s lighter than black.’
‘God help us!’
‘Take Daisy, that cleaner. The one who wears the trilby, she’s black. Maggy says this nurse isn’t a bit like her – no marks on her face. What I’m trying to tell you is Matron’s going to ask each of us in turn whether we approve. Of her looking after us.’
‘Oh.’
‘I don’t mind, do you?’ (164)

What care should be provided for older people? And how can care of people with dementia allow them dignity? As I suggested earlier, these questions are still with us today.

A note: In his introduction to Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971) Paul Bailey noted that she had drawn on his habit of writing in Harrod’s banking hall to create the character of Ludo. Ludo was writing a book about elderly people called They Weren’t Allowed to Die There. She told him this after the publication of her book.

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey was originally published in 1967. It has been republished in 2020 by Head of Zeus with an introduction by Colm Toibin. 219pp

Simon had recently compared this book with Mrs Palfrey. He preferred the Elizabeth Taylor. Here is a review from Stuck in a Book from May 2017

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

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Just Us by Claudia Rankine

The pandemic is denying us so much that we value: travel, spending time with friends and family, being part of an interest group, drinking in pubs after 10 … But from time to time we can find things that have opened up new experiences. Many arts organisations have worked very hard to bring people experiences that they would otherwise miss. Some of these are not new, like transmitting performances from before Covid-19. Others are new: on-line courses, workshops and seminars. And also lectures and Q&A sessions.

I miss living in London for the distance it put between me and experiences such as readers’ talks, courses at City Lit as well as lectures and special viewings and my friends. So I bought a ticket to the South Bank Centre session featuring Claudia Rankin, talking about her newly published book Just Us: an American conversation about racism in the US.

Claudia Rankine, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, New York, New York, September 7, 2016

Claudia Rankine on-line

After technical difficulties – where would we be without those? – I enjoyed the conversation she had with Gary Younge. There he was, spot-lit in the darkened Festival Hall, and she was at home on the East Coast somewhere and I was looking in at my kitchen table in Devon. This is so civilised, and unlikely to have happened without the current restrictions.

I had read a little of the book in advance and already had my interest alerted by its unusual layout. The main text of the book is printed on the right hand page. On the left-hand side are notes, fact checks, illustrations, references to points in the text, indicated with a red spot – side notes. In response to a question she made it clear that this was part of an attempt to be conversational, not put off readers with footnotes or notes at the end of the book. Some are included without either comment or correspondence indicted to the main text. Others show up precisely what she is referring to. In the current speak it allows for intersectionality and makes more personal, more individual the experience of living with racism and how racism operates.

Claudia Rankine also made clear that she is not providing solutions to the problems of racism in America (or the rest of the world). But she has produced a book to counter the divisiveness of current discourses on racism, many of which force people into opposing positions. She suggests that demanding defensiveness or justification does not move us forward. Let’s understand together and see how it works, is the invitation to the reader.

She reminded us that racism serves a purpose for some people and they have an interest in promoting the ideas and structure that keep it operational within society. Sadly, education cannot, therefore, be the whole answer. But conversations are essential, and hence the title of the book, which looks at conversations the writer has witnessed or had reported, and invites us into a conversation about it.

The title is, of course, a riff on justice, possibly also just US?

Just Us: an American conversation

Since the evening of the on-line conversation with Gary Younge I have returned to the book, Just Us, several time. Engaging with a book is such a privilege, feeling myself being challenged, and enlightened. It reminds me of studying for an MA some years ago, stimulating and opening my mind.

The book invited such interactions, as I have suggested, through its structure, placing sources and other material alongside the text. The style of the writing is also invitational: poetry, many questions, doubts and inner thoughts, accounts and reflections on events and interactions. 

Color blind?

I have returned to two of these in particular. One concerns white male privilege and how white men understand it, and sometimes defend it, and sometimes defend it aggressively. She explores several incidents in airports when white men, and occasionally women, push in the line for first class boarding. And she decides to ask men about the experience of privilege, trying not to be confrontational. One man tells her about diversity training at work and adds, “I don’t see color.”

All I could think to say was “Ain’t I a black woman?” I asked the question slowly, as if testing the air quality. Did he get the riff on Sojourner Truth? Or did he think the ungrammatical construction was a sign of blackness? Or did he think I was mocking white people’s understanding of black intelligence? “Aren’t you a white man,” I then asked. “Can’t you see that? Because if you can’t see race, you can’t see racism.” I repeated that sentence, which I read not long before in Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. (51)

It seems we are about to enter the debate about privilege and race and possibly gender in the UK as a result of the government’s ludicrous claim that teaching pupils in schools that ‘white privilege’ is an uncontested fact is breaking the law. There needs to be a balanced and impartial treatment of opposing views, according to  Kemi Badenoch, the women and equalities minister, herself a woman of colour. See Guardian report on Tuesday 20thOctober.

to name the problem is to become the problem

The other episode in About Us to which I return concerns a social situation, the dinner party. Claudia Rankine has suggested to the other guests that, rather than an unpredictable electorate, racism played a large part in the 2016 Presidential Election, sometimes under cover of other issues, such as Obamacare, immigration and ‘the Wall’. But the discussion is diverted when another guest tries to move the conversation away from the issues raised by the author, with a reference to beautiful brownies. And she questions whether she should have created this social awkwardness through her challenge or followed the path as invited and thereby colluded by staying silent or accepting a brownie. She reminds us of what Sara Ahmed says: 

to name the problem is to become the problem. [introduction to The Cultural Politics of Emotion]

‘Am I being silenced?’ wonders Claudia Rankine. ‘I understand inadvertently causing someone to feel shame isn’t cool,’ but she concludes this section with these observations.

Moments like these make me understand that the noncomprehension of what is known on the part of whiteness is an active investment in not wanting to know if that involves taking into account the lives of people of colour. And the perceived tiresome insistence on presenting one’s knowledge on the part of blackness might be a fruitless and childish exercise. Do I believe either of these positions enough to change my ways? Might as well stop the weather from coming. (156-7) 

I also especially enjoyed the section on women with dyed blonde hair and what people see when they look at blonde women. (complicit freedoms)

I found Just Us compelling and erudite while not offending or challenging aggressively my white privilege. I was invited.

Just Us: an American conversation by Claudia Rankine, published in 2020 by Allen Lane. 342pp

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In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes

I found the following story very funny when I was trying hard to be an intellectual 6th former. At an encounter group they are playing ‘who am I?’ to get to know each other. One person says: I have issues with my mother. All the participants think: that’s me! Mothers! We all have issues with our own and/or being one.

In a Country of Mothers is my choice for the 1990s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). It was published by Virago in 1994. AM Homes also wrote May We Be Forgiven, which won the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction. My notes when I read that book recorded that 

she is a vivid and brave writer, with a wonderful sense of the absurd, the absurd but possible, and with a tender aspect as well.

So as we reach the end of the century we recognise the world of this writer: therapy, aeroplanes, summer holidays, graduate education. We have come a long way through the twentieth century, from the first book in this year’s project, when the main character was battling with Victorian attitudes.

In a Country of Mothers

Claire is a successful therapist, with a lucrative if not satisfying practice in Manhattan. She is married to Sam, a lawyer, and they have two sons. They live in a small flat on Fifth Avenue. Her two boys cause her great concern and worry, to the point of obsession.

“Shit,” Jake said.
“What?”
It wasn’t like Jake to swear. The beginning of the end: in the morning he’d come down to breakfast with an unfiltered Camel hanging out of the corner of his eleven-year-old mouth. (15)

Claire gave up a child for adoption, under pressure from her parents, 25 years before. She thinks about this lost daugter every day, and later it is revealed has bought her birthday presents every year. 

Jody is her new patient. She is 25, and works as an assistant to a famous director and has just achieved her dream of a place at UCLA film school. She is finding difficulty with this career move. In therapy it emerges that Jody was adopted about 25 years ago, as a replacement for a son that died aged 7. She can never be sure that her parents love her enough, and she finds herself continually arguing with her mother, even though they speak every night on the phone. Her mother is not quite enough and too clingy all at the same time. 

Jody comes for therapy on the recommendation of her previous therapist (who once knew Claire). Claire is immediately attracted to Jody who is spikey, creative and very sharp. When the summer comes Jody moves to LA and Claire goes on holiday with her family to the beach for a month. Suddenly both women realise how much they are missing: Claire misses her ‘daughter’ and Jody misses her ‘mother’.

When Jody falls ill in LA Claire steps out of her therapist role and insists that Jody’s mother brings her back to New York. She becomes more and more intrusive in Jody’s life, finding her a physician, even meeting the parents not just to ensure the care of Jody but also to find out facts about the adoption. Jody does not recover, and Claire becomes more and more obsessed and neither of them can find a way out of the ties that binds them together. It all ends very badly. Neither understands themselves or each other. 

The obsessive need for a mother or daughter and the impossibility of anyone living up to the role becomes more destructive every moment. Jody’s mother can never get it right, always refers stuff back to herself. Towards the end of the novel Jody comes to see that she had wanted her mother to be different. 

This was the woman who had loved her to the best of her abilities, however limited they might have been. She’d loved Jody to the limit of her fear. She’d taken a stranger’s child and claimed it as her own. How could Jody hope that her mother would magically become someone else? If Jody wanted someone else, she’d have to become that person herself. (161)

It is uncomfortable to realise that the therapist-client relationship may easily lead to difficulties, easily spill beyond the roles of therapist and patient. But, one is forced to ask, isn’t that what happens?

It’s an uncomfortable book, but that is the kind of writer that AM Homes is. She explores acute situations and characters at full stretch. Her novels are therefore often controversial.

In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes first published in 1993 and by Virago in 1994. I read the Granta edition published in 2013. 275pp

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I have been exploring novels by women. I framed 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 a book published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices have included rereads, classics and some new discoveries. In December I will review the year’s blogs for the project, but in November I will be looking at a collection of stories published by Virago during the Century.

The post war choices for the project have been:

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)

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Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

It is a very significant conjunction of women’s lives, social change and geography that are linked in this absorbing account of five women who lived in Mecklenburgh Square, not all at the same time, from the years after the First World War and into the Blitz. They were pioneers in their own literary fields and also in the way they chose to live their lives. 

I loved this book, for the details of the five lives:

  • HD (Hilda Doolittle), an imagist poet and novelist;
  • Dorothy L Sayers, one of the first Cambridge graduates and mostly known for her mystery novels;
  • Jane Harrison, a classicist and scholar in Cambridge who revolutionised idea about women in the archaeological past;
  • Eileen Power, who became a historian of the Middle Ages, specialising in the economic and female histories of that time, a professor at the LSE;
  • and Virginia Woolf, bombed out of Tavistock Square, an important novelist, essayist and publisher.

Further, the manner in which Francesca Wade brings the lives together in this one London square enriches the account. The subtitle of this book reveals something of its contents: Square Haunting: five women, freedom and London between the wars.

The women in this book were hungry for knowledge in all its forms: knowledge of history and literature, knowledge of the wider world, and self-knowledge, no less difficult to obtain. A drive to expand ‘the province of women’ into new realms characterised all these lives, manifesting in their search for education, in their travels, their friendships, their work and in the way they made their homes. Their pursuit of a fulfilling way to live has resounded through the twentieth century. (337-8)

We read of their struggles to  be treated on an equal footing with men in educational institutions, as students and teachers. We read of their passionate involvement in issues of the day, especially in securing a lasting peace after the end of the First World War. And most poignant perhaps, their attempts to find relationships with men that did not subsume their independence or their careers. All of the women, except Jane Harrison, married but often late in life, after negotiating terms that would allow them to continue their fulfilling lives. One thinks of Harriet Vane’s struggles with Lord Peter Wimsey’s regular marriage proposals in Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers.

Each of the women lived for a time in Mecklenburgh Square, with its mixed housing, including boarding houses, near to Bloomsbury. They were each seeking freedom from expectations of dependence in marriage and they enjoyed the intellectual society which allowed each of them to find a way to live. They struggled with the Victorian messages of their childhoods, and they tried to carve out more satisfying approaches in their personal lives as well as in their different literary and professional spheres.

Virginia Woolf permeates this account, setting the tone with the title which comes from her diary:

I like this London life in early summer – the street sauntering & square haunting. (20th April 1925)

She famously argued that women needed a private income and a room of their own in order to write. 

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. [A Room of One’s Own, 1928 (6)]

Mecklenburgh Square was Virginia Woolf’s last London home. It is pleasing that Francesca Wade did not define Virginia Woolf’s life by her death (suicide), but shows us how her life interacted with so many literary people of the time, and how her work as a publisher was important in promoting their writing. 

Their stories are well told, especially Virginia Woolf’s. And I was presented with some surprising information about Dorothy L Sayers’s life in the square. We learn of their contribution of all five women to the emancipation struggle, and to women’s literary achievements. An excellent book. 

Square Haunting: five women, freedom and London between the wars by Francesca Wade published in 2020 by Faber & Faber. 422pp

Related posts

An excellent review of Square Haunting by Karen Langley (of the blog Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) can be found on the Shiny New Books review site, in which she points to the research that enriches Francesca Wade’s accounts of the lives of these women by relating it to the history of the square.

I reviewed Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers last year on Bookword, asking whether it is a who dunnit, or a romantic novel, or a feminist book? 

Another look at A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf was posted on Bookword in March 2018. 

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We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Earlier this year I posted a themed review on the subject of outsiders in fiction on Bookword. I invited further suggestions. This novel, We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, was recommended by another blogger and lent to me by a friend. The author is popular with some readers and bloggers, but I have to admit that I have not read anything else by Shirley Jackson, although I knew her name. It’s a very dark book, with plenty of violence, magic, and wicked acts together with some humorous incidents.

 

We have always lived in the Castle

The novel is narrated by Merricat who is 18 and lives with her sister Constance who is somewhat older. Together with Uncle Julien they live in a big house, separate from the village in Vermont. He is old and infirm and requires a wheelchair and does not appear to see Merricat. He was damaged in an arsenic attack six years previously which killed the other members of the family: the sisters’ parents and brother, and Julian’s wife. It is pretty clear from the first page who it was that carried out the murders. Constance was tried and acquitted. It also becomes evident that the truth is known by both sisters, although they do not refer to it until there is a crisis.

Since her trial Constance is a recluse, and people in the village continue to believe she was the murderer despite the acquittal. The villagers dislike the Blackwood family. The father had sealed off a path and the whole estate. Now Merricat must go to the village twice a week to collect supplies. The trio live in a very restricted and routinised way: days for going to the village, or dusting; meals prepared by Constance; Merricat not allowed to touch food or to do various things. She behaves more like an 8 year old than a person of 18.

Their routine is interrupted when cousin Charles arrives hoping to find some of the family money. He begins to dominate the household, and to sway Constance. He suggests that Julien should be in a home and Merricat disciplined or something worse.

Merricat practices some of her magic to get rid of him. She has already protected their estate by burying certain items and by nailing a book to a tree. When the book falls down she knows that their lives are going to be disturbed. She tries to get rid of Charles by ignoring him, by being rude, by disturbing his belongings. Ultimately a fire is started by his pipe in his bedroom and the upper floors of the house are destroyed. The crowd on onlookers trash the house and its contents in one of the most horrific scenes of the book. 

Above it all, most horrible, was the laughter. I saw one of the Dresden figures thrown and break against the porch rail, and the other fell unbroken and rolled along the grass. I heard Constance’s harp go over with a musical cry, and a sound which I knew was a chair being smashed against the wall. 
“Listen,” said Charles from somewhere, “will a couple of you guys help me with this safe?”
Then through the laughter, someone began, “Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?” It was rhythmic and insistent. I am on the moon, I thought, please let me be on the moon. Then I heard the sound of dishes smashing and at that minute realised that we stood outside the tall windows of the dining room and they were coming very close. (106)

Uncle Julien dies of a heart attack in the excitement. After the crowds have gone, Merricat and Constance clear up as best they can and continue living in the house that now resembles a castle. When the young women have remade a home in the ruins of the house the villagers gradually begin to leave presents of food in expiation. Charles returns to try to get back in the house, but the sisters ignore him, and he leaves. A new set of quiet routines is established and the two sisters do not have to engage with anyone.

It’s a very black story, some of it funny. The ostracism by the village, the othering of Constance and Merricat is a reminder of some dark social evil. In part it is a justification of the seclusion sought by the Blackwood sisters, and is thought to represent Shirley Jackson’s experience of living in North Bennington, Vermont with her family. 

The co-dependence of the sisters, and the determination of Merricat to control everything are also unnerving. As is their obsession with food. 

Shirley Jackson

Born in 1916, Shirley Jackson died in her sleep in 1965, not long after the publication of We have always lived in the Castle. It was her last book. She had published six novels as well as around 200 short stories and also earned money from her journalism. 

It’s ironic to note that Shirley Jackson died at the age of forty-nine, shortly after the publication of We have always lived in the Castle, of amphetamine addiction, alcoholism and morbid obesity; negligent of her health for years, she is said to have spoken openly of not expecting to live to be fifty, and in the final months of her life suffered from agoraphobia so extreme she couldn’t leave her squalid bedroom – as if in mimicry of the agoraphobic sisters of We have always lived in the Castle. (154-5) From the Afterword by Joyce Carol Oates

She is known as a writer of horror and mystery. This book is less of a mystery, more of an unfolding horror story. 

Cover of first edition in US

We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, first published in 1962. I was lent the 2009 version in the Penguin Modern Classics series. 158pp Thanks Anne!

Some relevant links

My post on Outsiders in Fiction on Bookword, February 2020

Reviewed by Heavenali in March 2016, who loved it.

Reviewed enthusiastically on JacquiWine’s Journal in October 2017, and it was she who recommended I added this to the list of outsiders.

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