Category Archives: Feminism

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

I seem to be in the middle of a spate of novels about the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is such an interesting period. I was fortunate enough to study the 1790s under the late EP Thompson at the University of Warwick, when I specialised by studying Mary Wollestonecraft. At that time there was no biography of her.

A Room Made of Leaves had several things to recommend it. In the first place it was given to me by my dear friend Sarah. Her recommendations are always interesting. Second, the author was known to me as the writer of The Idea of Perfection (2001) which I remember won the Orange Prize for Fiction, as the Women’s Prize was then called. It made a strong impression on me at the time. Then the cover is splendidly exotic, designed to reflect the lush vegetation that settlers found when they arrived in Australia. And finally, it set in the period of my interest, beginning in Devon, and moving to the other side of the world to the new penal colony of Australia.

A Room Made of Leaves

The novel is framed as the recently discovered memoirs of Elizabeth Macarthur and so is written in the first person. Born in humble beginnings in Devon, Elizabeth became unwanted by her mother, and although devoted to her grandfather, a sheep farmer, she was taken in by the local vicar and made his ward partly on account of her close relationship to his daughter. But her friendship with the daughter ends when Elizabeth unwisely becomes involved with a reckless and volatile soldier John Macarthur. His prospects are poor as he is on half pay at the end of the French wars. A brief conquest beside a hedge leads to pregnancy, marriage and life controlled by Macarthur. 

Elizabeth finds herself to be the wife of a man who is almost pathologically interested in his own advancement, desperate to be recognised as a gentleman. A posting to Australia is one step in his plan for advancement. Nothing will get in his way, not a weak leader, aboriginal inhabitants, even his own temper. In fact, he uses these to his own advantage.

Elizabeth learns to manage her situation as the wife of this very difficult man. She is one of the few women among the military society of the colony. She establishes a salon where she learns to understand and manipulate the men and situations that come to her. She recognises that she had to become as devious as her husband in order to maintain her integrity.

Key to her independence of mind is her affair with the astronomer, Mr Dawes. Men with his skills and knowledge were required by the Royal Navy at this time, to read the stars and navigate successfully across the oceans of the world. Mr Dawes, like Elizabeth, was an outsider in the new colony. He was unlike the other naval officers for he was a man of science, interested in the indigenous peoples of the area around Sydney, and in the fauna of this unknown land. Lessons for Elizabeth in astronomy became trysts for the lovers, meeting in the bower he created that gives the book its title: a room made of leaves.

John Macarthur manages to gain land in the new colony, and after a while his power extends and he is also able to acquire some land in Parramatta, now a suburb of Sydney. The farmland proved excellent for sheep and drawing on the expertise of a convict, transported for stealing a sheep, and her own experience in Devon with her grandfather, they developed an excellent breed of merino sheep. 

As Sarah said to me in an email, 

The thing I loved about the Kate Grenville – well, one of the things – was the way Elizabeth builds a true life for herself out of a very shitty situation

The ‘editor’ of Elizabeth’s memoirs says

Australian history, like most histories, is mainly about men. (1)

She has suggested a plausible alternative to the official history.

Australians of my generation had it dinned into them that ‘our nation rides of the sheep’s back’ – meaning that wool was the basis of our economy – and that John Macarthur was ‘the father of the wool industry’. Streets and swimming pools and parks all over Australia are named after him in gratitude. 
But here’s the thing: the Australian merino – the sheep we rode on the back of – was mostly developed during the years that John Macarthur was in England. It looks very much as though the Father of the Wool Industry must actually have been the Mother of the Wool Industry: his wife. (3)

The book has lots to say about the position of women, and a life lived in the shadow of a bully, and about colonialism and racism and its effects on the indigenous peoples in early Australian history. The descriptions of the countryside in Devon, the landscape of London and the lush area around Sydney are all vivid and enjoyable. 

Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville, WikiCommons Daniel Bagnato March 2017

The author was born in 1950 as is known for her writing about early Australian history. She has won many awards, for her nine novels, and has also written The Writing Book guidance for writers, for example (2010). She had a career in films, which perhaps partly explains her strong visual writing.

My thanks to my friend Sarah, for the gift of this book, and for the many conversations we have had about novels and other writing over the years and those to come.

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville, published in 2020 by Canongate. 321pp

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The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The writer of Confessions, Sara Collins, came to my attention last year because she presented and interviewed writers in several on-line events that I attended during lockdowns. She interested me because she was chosen to interview some well-known writers. I also noticed that she has been playing a part in the identification of young writers the Futures Award, by the Women’s Prize for Fiction and Good Housekeeping promoting young women writers.

Another reason to read her book is that she is a woman of colour, born in Jamaica, brought up in Cayman. This is her first novel, but not, I suspect her last, because it has already done well, for example winning the Costa First Novel Prize in 2019. And because the screenplay of this novel has already been filmed and released on Disney channel.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton

The story has mystery, suspense, and being set in Jamaica and London in the early nineteenth century, has a strong historical background. There is romance, and anger and truly awful physical experiments of which Josef Mengele would have approved. 

The story is framed by Frannie’s trial for murder in 1826 at the Old Bailey and told mostly as her deposition in her own defence. Some additional documents and testimony are presented to fill out her story and to give an added perspective.

You could read this book as a mystery, a well told story. But Sara Collins has placed the action at a significant moment, especially for black people in England. The barbarous trade across the Atlantic had been ended for British ships at least, in 1807. But enslaved peoples still provided the labour on the sugar plantations of Jamaica, such as the one Frannie was born on. 

It was also the time of enlightenment, when men with means were pursuing knowledge about everything related to humans. Mr Benham, one of the murder victims, is one of the finest minds in England, writing as a moral philosopher. He is interested in the physiological aspects of blackness, and in the study of the black body. 

While this is the period of Rights of Men and Woman (Mary Wollestonecraft published in 1792) it is also the period of Frankenstein. This is the story of a human being cobbled together from body parts, and then abandoned by its creator, the Frankenstein of the title, when his monster became a liability. Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft published her novel in 1818. The ethics of experimentation and research into humans is a theme of this novel, along with the question, are some humans less worthy of education, position, rights, than others? And is this due to skin colour, gender, sexuality, class or something else? What could possibility justify the enslavement of another human?

Frannie Langton was born in Paradise in Jamaica. Paradise is the plantation owned by Langton. He owns everything, the slaves, the crops, the profits, the house, his wife. You may remember that Paradise was the name of the plantation in Beloved. Frannie is brought by Mr Langton to the house, to serve his wife. She is taught to read, and eventually to help Langton in his experiments, his investigations into blackness and its physiological consequences. Even Frannie’s education, it emerges, is the result of a wager, to see if a black person can be educated. 

Frannie is a mulatta, that is she is mixed race and in the course of the novel she discovers the identity of both parents. Langton brings Frannie to England and gives her to Mr Benham, with whom he is trying to curry favour, his endeavours in Jamaica having collapsed. Mt Benham will no longer support Langton as he suspects his experiments have gone too far. Mr Benham is known for his reformist views on slavery.

Frannie forms a close bond with Mrs Benham, and they become lovers. There are several twists and turns to the plot before Mr and Mrs Benham are found dead. It is not surprising that Frannie is accused of their murder, for she is black, female and a lesbian. 

Reading The Confessions of Frannie Langton

It was a pleasure to read this novel; the story is well-told with pace and wit. There are many characters as suits a novel set in this period in London. There are the other servants in the house, the people on the streets, those who wish to live in the orbit of the Benhams, and the men who make use of the services of the women at the School House. The indolent and luxurious life lived by the Benhams, and people of their class can only be sustained by the poorly paid work of a range of servants, a parallel to the profits that were made on the sugar plantations of Jamaica, which sustained so much of the plantation owners’ way of life.

Frannie has been endowed with a good eye and a ready description. For example, when she is taken into the Langton’s house at Paradise she meets the cook Phibbah and she plies her with questions.

… but Phibbah was caked in the kind of spite that will not hear. (13)

While the story is fictional, the setting and the themes of the novel are not. Black servants were not unfamiliar in London households. For example, Francis Barber was brought to England by his ‘owner’ when he was seven, educated, freed and then he worked as Samuel Johnson’s manservant and companion. Johnson bequeathed Francis enough money that he could set up as a draper in Litchfield. 

It is not quite clear whether Frannie is free or not, and the circumstance of her being given to Mr Benham suggests that the men did not consider her to be free.

Gothic is a word used in the blurb to describe this novel. Lush, lavish, an exposé of the worst of early nineteenth century British society, where behind the ornate and detailed veneer lies a mess of exploitation and sin. The paperback’s cover beautifully captures this masking. Sara Collins takes her time, however, to reveal what lies behind the curtain, the lies, the attitudes, the grimness of life in Paradise or in London for the underclasses and what happened in the coach house.

The manner of the Benhams’ deaths is hardly shocking given all that. And although there is a twist at the end, the verdict is not long in doubt.

I was interested to see a short clip on YouTube where Sara Collins identified three books that had been important to her. They were: Beloved by Toni Morrison, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. You can find my reviews of Beloved and Frankenstein by following the links.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, published in 2019 by Penguin. 376pp

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The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean has been on my shelves for some time, bought soon after I reviewed another novel by May Sinclair, Mary Olivier: a life, on this blog. It is curious that there was interest in May Sinclair in the previous decade, but not much recently. I find it curious because she has much to say about the traditional way in which middle-class girls in England were brought up in preparation for the life their parents hoped for them, and it still has relevance today. 

The two books mentioned here go together. Mary Oliver defied her parents and insisted on educating herself and refusing marriage. The protest against a life of sacrifice for women has a long history. The pressures from social convention, religious beliefs, and the lack of alternative role models for young women are also the background to this second novel: The Life and Death of Harriett Frean. Unlike Mary Oliver, Harriett Frean sacrifices herself to her parents’ beliefs about the role of women. 

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean

The title, which hints at her not very happy last years, can be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of self-sacrifice and denial. Harriett lives her life in loneliness, justifying her own behaviour as beautiful. As a child she sought her parents’ approval, and this influence is so strong that it endures even beyond their graves. As a child she resists greed and selfishness and any other behaviour that would displease her parents, encouraging the development of a mean-spirited girl of small imagination.

The family is self-satisfied. Her father speculates to make money and takes no responsibility for their neighbour’s financial downfall alongside his own. He publishes one book, The Social Order. Its lack of value is evident from May Sinclair’s description.  

He dreamed of a new Social State, society governing itself without representatives. (65) 

Harriett assumes an air of superiority as a result of this book and refers to it long after the author and the book have been forgotten by everyone else. 

In fact, nothing any of the Freans do is generous or productive, but they are all self-satisfied. Her father dies while they are in reduced circumstances. Later, her mother also falls ill, but dies in agony refusing treatment. Harriett denies herself the love of her friend’s fiancé, which does no one any good. When she visits her friend and the husband, she is unaware of the damage she has done. 

Harriett continues living in the same house, and in the same way, seeing her friends in a regular round. She falls ill and on recovery finds herself living a very small life.

She lived by habit, by the punctual fulfilment of her expectations. (162)

The habitual life contains no affection, no generosity, and no diminishing of the sense of superiority. And she dies in the same state of mind. Her own final thought is that she has behaved beautifully.

This is a devastating take down of Victorian standards of behaviour for women.

May Sinclair 1863-1946

May Sinclair was born in Cheshire, her father was a Liverpool shipowner. Her mother was a strict Christian. He father became bankrupt and died soo after. She moved with her mother to Ilford near London. May’s education was interrupted by her mother’s demands that she care for her brothers who had heart disease. She began publishing to earn money to support her mother and herself and became a successful writer. Her first novel, published in 1897, was Audrey Craven.

She was a suffragist and many of the 23 novels she wrote were concerned with issues that affected women.Mary Olivier: a life was her 13th published novel and The Life and Death of Harriett Frean was her 16th. She also wrote essays and poetry. She stopped publishing in the early 1930s as she was suffering from Parkinson’s but went on to live until 1946. During her lifetime she was highly regarded, moved in literary circles in London and with such achievements she deserves to be rescued from obscurity.

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair, first published in 1922 and reissued in the series Virago Modern Classics in 1980. 181pp

Related Links

Mary Olivier: a life on Bookword

Heavenali’s review of The Life and Death of Harriett Frean from 2013 can be read here

An article in the Guardian in August 2013 by Charlotte Jones condemns the neglect of this ‘accomplished writer’. It can be found here.

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Manifesto by Bernardine Evaristo

There were people who thought that Bernardine Evaristo had come from nowhere to win the Booker Prize in 2019 with Girl, Woman, Other. These people had not been paying attention for she has been writing and working in theatre, poetry and fiction for many years. She is also a professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University.

And how could any writer produce a work of such creative imagination and with so many characters, and with an assured innovative style from ‘nothing’. As Manifesto reveals, it takes years of writing, of experimenting, of wrestling with words, of making mistakes, of throwing away, of revising before a writer can create a masterpiece of that calibre. What did it take?

Pay attention to the subtitle: On Never Giving Up

Manifesto

Bernardine Evaristo was born with several apparent disadvantages: she comes from a working-class background; she is female; and she has parents of different ethnicities. Her family was large, and she was not indulged as a child. But she found books and then theatre and then knew that her life would be with words.

If you are imagining a pity-me type memoir, look elsewhere. Each of these possible disadvantages became sources of knowledge and strength as she grew up. She made her own way, beginning in a community theatre that she co-founded and continuing to write poetry and later fiction.

Being positive has been a significant part of her development as a writer, a choice she made. My favourite story in the book is this one:

When Lara was published [in 1997], I wrote an affirmation about winning the Booker Prize – a wild fantasy because I was as far away from winning it as a writer can be. Yet I’d seen how winning that prize could improve writers’ careers, bringing their work to mainstream attention, and because I was thinking big, it seemed obvious to envision winning it. (168)

In addition to her relentless positivity, Bernardine Evaristo has always encouraged others in their writing, and promoted work by people of colour. Currently she is curating Black Britain: Writing Back with Hamish Hamilton at Penguin UK. The series aims to ‘reintroduce into circulation overlooked books from the past that deserve a new readership’. (175) There are several books in the series that interest me, including Black Boy at Eton by Dilibe Onyaema and Without Prejudice by Nicola Williams.

I attended a day writing workshop at the British Museum about a decade ago. She is an excellent and encouraging teacher.

The Manifesto

Two sentences from the manifesto chimed with me:

Be wild, disobedient & daring with your creativity, take risks instead of following predictable routes; those who play it safe do not advance our culture or civilization. (189)

The two books by Bernardine Evaristo that I have enjoyed very much, Mr Loverman and Girl, Woman, Otherhave both been risky, and both have advanced our culture. 

Personal success is most meaningful when used to uplift communities otherwise left behind. We are all interconnected & must look after each other. (…) nobody gets anywhere on their own. (189-90)

This endorsement of fr community engagement in writing is very pertinent for me right now. Before lockdown my writing group organised a writing festival in our town, and we have just published our second collection of writing, a collaborative effort which I will write about in the next post.

Manifesto: On Never Giving Up by Bernardine Evaristo, published in 2021 by Hamish Hamilton.

Related posts on Bookword

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (May 2020)

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (August 2014)

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Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

Rereading this novel from 1976, I was reminded of how important books were in the women’s movement of the time – now rebranded as Second Wave Feminism. I found that the future world created by Marge Piercy was impressive and influential. It was the possibility of this or other futures that I remembered from my first reading, so much so that I had forgotten Consuela’s struggles with the mental health system of New York that carried the plot. I remembered Consuela visiting the brave new world, and her surprise at what she found and was shown. It was an effective vehicle for describing a different way of life. 

Now I have reread the novel, 45 years after its first publication, I can see that Marge Piercy was also suggesting that the way in which women were being treated in 1976 was laying the foundation for the dystopian futures that Consuela also visits. In those futures, sexual subservience, enforced by controlling women’s minds, was enabled by the experiments in which Connie was unwittingly and unwillingly enrolled. 

 

Woman on the Edge of Time

Consuela is a Mexican-American living in New York in the ‘70s. She is assaulted by her niece’s pimp and ends up in an asylum, where she had been incarcerated after a previous breakdown. This time she has just been tidied away, except that she might be useful in an experiment that one of the doctors is undertaking. Desperate to escape, when Consuela is contacted by Luciente she willingly goes with her into the future, returning now and again. At first, we do not realise that Luciente’s community called Mattapoisett hopes that Connie can stop the programme that she is about to be put on. From time to time she passes over to visit Luciente and her friends and learns more about the feminist-socialist community being developed.

Connie is identified as suitable for a new treatment for violent patients: implanting neurotransmitters to control behaviour. She is unable to resist becoming part of this programme, despite an escape attempt.

On two occasions Connie travels to the future but fails to arrive at the Mattapoisett of her friends, instead joining them in a war they are losing against robotic weaponry and on the second occasion finding a woman who has been physically enhanced and is controlled by sophisticated neurotransmitters to be a sex save, confined in a managed and artificial environment. 

Eventually Connie is due for her final fitting at the New York Neuro-Psychiatric Institute. Her ability to control her behaviour is about to be removed, and if she cannot prevent it, the community of Mattapoisett will not be able to establish itself. Their destinies have become entwined.

Reading Woman on the Edge of Time for the first time

It is one of the greatest gifts of good fiction, that the reader can be shown a different world, a different way that things can be. Marge Piercy has said that she wanted to show readers that there were choices about the future, that it did not roll out with inevitability. Science Fiction is especially good at this.

For me it was the idea that people did not need to live in a world where everything was defined by gender: two examples: the language can be changed (per/person instead of she or he is used in this book); Connie is not initially aware that Luciente is a woman because she doesn’t dress or move like one. More significantly, with the use of artificial pregnancy and birth, gender-based roles in society have been removed and in Marge Piercy’s imagined community persons are free to follow what they are good at. Furthermore, the community is organised for the benefit of all. It is not only feminist and socialist but also ecologically organised to care for a much-damaged earth. 

This vision of different possible futures was what I took away from this book on my first reading. It was powerful. It was not inevitable that we would march into such a destructive future. But we perhaps we have all the same. 

The future from the past

Some of her ideas have turned out to be well-founded. For example, everyone wears a ‘kenner’ on their wrists, familiar to Star Trek fans as ‘communicators’ and to Ursula le Guin readers as ‘ansibles’. We call them cell phones or mobile phones. And from time to time in Mattapoisett many people meet on one screen in a prediction that looks a lot like zooming.

Sadly, the treatment of women from ethnic minorities remains a subject of concern four decades on. There is much in the novel about how women, especially Mexican or Latino and also Puerto Rican women were treated in the ‘70s, and how women who wanted to take some control over their lives were often defeated by the men in their communities, using violence, incarceration and drugs. 

I have been asking myself how I initially came across this book. I think it must have been a combination of things: I was very fond of Marge Piercy’s poetry in the early ‘70s and would have been attracted to her fiction. Perhaps I was offered the book by the Feminist Press Book Club. My first edition was certainly published by them, now with its glue failing, and the pages all brown. Perhaps it was reviewed in Spare Rib, or I heard about it by word of mouth, or from my consciousness raising group.

Whatever, I was pleased to reread it for the 1976 Club, organised again by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, first published in 1976 and recently by Penguin in 2019. My first copy was published by the Feminist Press in UK in 1979. 417 pp

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Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

What is this book? A cult classic? A fable? A feminist tract? A psychological story? Sci-fi? Perhaps all of these. I bought a copy and read it because I loved its excellent cover (in a new Faber edition), and because I had heard good things about it, that it is short and a good read.

Mrs Caliban

Rachel Ingalls appears to delight in ambiguity. You can take this book seriously at the same time as delighting in its playfulness. If Dorothy is Mrs Caliban, who is Mr Caliban: her husband Fred, or Larry the green frogman from the sea? Is it a psychological story, in which Dorothy has hallucinated a more satisfying relationship? This is not resolved. There is much sadness at the story’s heart, grief over the death of a son, a miscarriage and the failing marriage. Dorothy and Fred are too sad to divorce. 

The story concerns a human-sized green amphibian, who escapes from the Institute of Oceanographic Research. He appears in the kitchen in front of Dorothy, an unhappy housewife, in the middle of her preparations for dinner.

She came back into the kitchen fast, to make sure that she caught the toasting cheese in time. And she was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face. (20)

We are in California in the late ‘70s. Interested? Curious?

Dorothy is very lonely. She is sure that her husband is cheating on her. She has one friend, Estelle, with whom she has coffee and occasional outings. She does not confide in Estelle about Larry. Estelle in turn is cagey about her lovers, and by the end of the novella we have found out why.

Dorothy provides accommodation in a spare room and food for the creature, and she calls him Larry. He is particularly partial to avocados. Soon they are having frequent and satisfying sex and managing to take drives under cover of darkness. The press is full of shocking stories about the violence of the frogman, but he explains to Dorothy that he killed two of the lab technicians because they tortured him. Many of the stories are fabricated, designed to shock and titillate.

The hunt for the sea monster continues in California, as Larry and Dorothy monitor its lack of progress on tv. They plan to return Larry to the ocean he knows, which means they will have to travel to the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific being unfamiliar to him. Before they can embark on their trip one of Estelle’s children is killed, and then the bodies continue to pile up. The novella ends as Dorothy waits for Larry at a prearranged emergency rendezvous.

She came out of the car and walked up and down the beach, hour after hour. The water ran over the sand, one wave covering another like knitting of threads, like the begetting of revenges, betrayals, memories, regrets. And always it made a musical, murmuring sound, a language as definite as speech. But he never came. (117)

I loved it, for it is very engaging, unique and has a strong feminist thread.

Rachel Ingalls

Rachel Ingalls was born in Boston in 1940, her father was a professor of Sanskrit at Harvard, her mother a fulltime housewife. She attended Radcliffe, spent time in Germany and then came to Britain and settled here. She died in March 2019.

Although lauded by John Updike, Ursula le Guin, Joyce Carol Oates and others, she is unjustly neglected, partly because she was very self-effacing. She wrote 11 collections of short stories and novellas. She is often concerned with rules and conventions and the violence by which society maintains them. 

Mrs Caliban is considered her masterpiece, and John Updike described it as ‘an impeccable parable, beautifully written from first paragraph to last’. 

Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, first published in 1982. The new edition in the UK is published by Faber. 117pp

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Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021

And the winner is …

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Congratulations to the winner

After 26 years is this prize still necessary?

This prize has been going for 26 years. Kate Mosse, co-founder, says it still does three important:

  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 in 2020 about the prize and its continuing relevance here.

Honouring and celebrating excellent fiction

So, in the spirit of the prize, I give you forty-one 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 2021 shortlist

  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  • Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
  • No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

The 2021 longlist

There were sixteen longlisted books as follows:

  • Because of You by Dawn French
  • Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
  • Consent by Annabel Lyon
  • Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
  • Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
  • Luster by Raven Leilani
  • No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
  • Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  • Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
  • Summer by Ali Smith
  • The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  • Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize. 

Maggie O’FarrellHamnet (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)

Here is the link to the website of the Women’s Prize for Fiction: https://womensprizeforfiction.co.uk

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The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta

This is a story of so many tensions. Set in the years before Nigerian Independence in 1960, a young girl is deprived of the care of her father by his early death. Her family come under the protection of her ambitious uncle, and because she is educated he can demand a high bride price for her. 

This is a fairly short book, but I took my time reading it because I was enjoying the detail with which the story is told. From life in Lagos, a funeral ceremony, travel in the mammy lorries of the 1950s, the rural community and its traditions to the celebrations and customs of the Ibo people of Ibuz; I had so much to learn. I read a number of novels by Buchi Emecheta in the 1970s, but these mostly concerned Nigerian women living in London. 

The Bride Price

Early in the novel in Lagos Ezekiel Odia dies, and a funeral begins.

At the first announcement of his death, the traditional crying began. This was an art in itself. There were expert professional criers, who listed the good deeds performed by the departed and tactfully left out the bad. His lineage would be traced out loud, the victories of his ancestors sung and their heroic past raised to the winds, amidst the groans of other criers, the screams of women and the heart beats of the men. Such force was put into these cries. The first storm of them rose like and angry thunder, in different deafening pitches. The high, penetrating shrieks of the women somehow managed to have a touch of apathy in them, as if their voices were saying: “We do our share of the crying because it is expected of us, but what can one do when faced with death? It is a call we must answer however busy we are.” Their noises of protest against death were followed by low howls, like those of a slave who knows he is to be sacrificed for the life of his sick master. The men’s howlings were of a lower key, charged with energy, they hugged themselves this way and that like raging waves on a gloomy day, and on each face ran two rivers of tears which looked as if they would never dry. (29-30)

The story follows Aku-nna, the 13 year old daughter of Ezekiel, a respected man, who dies in Lagos. During the war he had been conscripted into the army to fight in Burma. His injuries lead to his early death. His family, wife and 2 children, become the property of his brother in Ibuza. Because she is educated, Aku-nna has a high bride price, which will allow her uncle to achieve his ambitions to have the title of Eze.

Aku-nna is attracted to the schoolteacher, Chike. But Chike is from a former slave family and so is regarded as lower caste and not suitable for Aku-nna. He is young, good-looking and saving to go to university. His father is generous and well-off but not accepted by the Ibo people. Meanwhile Aku-nna joins with the other girls in the traditional activities expected of them, and she prepares with them for the outing dance.

The girls talked and dreamed about their outing dance. They worked and saved hard to buy their jigida, the red and black beads which they would wear above their bikini-like pants. Apart from these, their tops would be bare, displaying the blue-coloured tattooes that went round their backs, then under their young breasts and met at the heart. Their feet would also be bare, but small bells were to be tied round their ankles, so that when in the dance they jumped, or curtsied, or crawled in modesty, the bells would jingle in sympathy. It was to be the great moment of their lives and they knew it. In their old age, with their clay pipes in toothless mouths, they would turn to their grandchildren and say, “When we were young and our breasts were tight as tied ropes, we did the aja dance. It was the best dance in the whole land, and we did it.” (103)

Chike and Aku-nna are soon in love and plan to marry when she is 16. But others have been waiting for her to start menstruating, a sign of becoming a woman, and when she does they begin to pay court, encouraged by the uncle. One night she is kidnapped by the family of one of her admirers, but she resists, telling her ‘husband’ that she and Chike have been intimate. Okoboshi rejects her and she escapes with Chike to another part of the country. Her uncle refused to accept the bride price offered by her father-in-law and, as tradition would have it, tragedy follows.

Tensions and oppositions

The story sets up a number of oppositions: Lagos is compared to Ibuza and the city against the rural setting. In Ibuza the community is very traditional. This provides a great deal of support for the family who lose their breadwinner but makes high demands on women. The wants of the individual are set against the practices and expectations of the community. 

The possibilities for boys and men are in contrast to those for girls and women. Traditional culture is in opposition to more modern attitudes, for education and health care for women in particular. 

Buchi Emecheta continued to explore the themes of race, gender and colonialism in her subsequent writings.

Buchi Emecheta

Born in Lagos in 1944, Buchi Emecheta was orphaned when young and although educated married young. Her husband came to London and she followed soon after in 1962 with two children. More children were born and she became unhappy in her marriage. When she began to write her husband burned the manuscript of her first novel. She decided to leave him, taking the children and to earn her living and continue to gain degrees in the next few years. She also rewrote the novel, which was The Bride Price, which was published by Allison & Busby, a company that promoted African writing.

She went on to publish 16 novels as well as several autobiographies, children’s books, plays and articles. She died in January 2017.

The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta, first published in 1976 by Allison & Busby.  I used the Fontana African Fiction edition (1978). 168pp

Related post

Celebrating Margaret Busby, who promoted African literature in the publishing house that bore her name. (On Bookword December 2020)

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My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin

I had known about this book for many years, but I had been put off reading it by the rather colloquial title: I got the sense of going bung, but in my prim way thought it was a bit vulgar. I found a copy in a second-hand bookshop soon after I had reviewed My Brilliant Career and was intrigued. I so wish I had come across it earlier, because it was fun and I would have enjoyed it as a much younger woman too.

My Career Goes Bung

My Brilliant Career was not a sophisticated novel. The storyline follows the history of the Australian writer, written with a great deal of energy and brashness. According to the introduction by Carmen Callil, Miles Franklin said that she ‘conceived and tossed it off in a matter of weeks’. It was published in 1901. The reception of this novel caused her to refuse to allow it to be reprinted. 

She wrote My Career Goes Bung in 1902, when she was in her early 20s, but felt that it would be unacceptable to readers until much later. It wasn’t published until 1946.

In My Career Goes Bung the first novel having earned much notoriety for its young author, Sybylla has to deal with the reactions of people within her limited community, and then later from the cultural set in Sydney. Both novels are based on what happened to Miles Franklin. 

I loved this second volume. The heroine/narrator exposes so much hypocrisy about the role of young women at the start of the twentieth century in Australia, even though women had gained the vote by 1902. The surprising success of her first novel is regarded as below comment in ‘Possum Creek, although she becomes the centre of gossip and attention. There is no local person who takes her talents seriously, except her father. He is not a successful businessman and is interested in politics, but not very successful at that either. 

Her mother tells her that if she is against marriage she will have to take up a profession. Sybylla considers her options:

This brought me to consider my prospects and to find that I hadn’t any. I loved to learn things – anything, everything. To attend University would have been heaven, but expense barred that. I could become a pupil-teacher, but I loathed the very name of this profession. I should have to do the same work as a man for less pay, and, in country schools, to throw in free of remuneration, the speciality of teaching all kinds of needlework. I could be a cook or a housemaid and slave all day under some nagging woman and be a social outcast. I could be a hospital nurse and do twice the work of a doctor for a fraction of his pay or social importance, or, seeing the tremendously advanced age, I could even be a doctor – a despised lady-doctor, doing the drudgery of the profession in the teeth of such prejudice that even the advanced, who fought for the entry of women into all professions, would in practice “have more faith in a man doctor.” I could be a companion to some woman appended to some man of property.
I rebelled against every one of these fates. (20-21)

Sybylla finds it impossible to stay at home, for there is no one with whom she can be friends.

From ‘Possum Gully to Spring Hill and round about the Wallaroo Plains there wasn’t a real companion of my own age, nor any other age. The dissatisfaction of other girls stopped short of wondering why life should be so much less satisfactory to them than their brothers, but they accepted it as the will of God. None of them was consumed with the idea of changing the world. (31)

The opportunities for a feminist are limited at home, especially for one who does not wish to marry and would rather change the world. So Sybylla’s mother arranges for her to spend time in Sydney with an old lady who would be pleased to have her to stay. Here her notoriety is the object of considerable interest, and Mrs Crasterton’s standing in Sydney society is enhanced by the presence of her curious guest. Men seem to find her fascinating, and it takes her a little time to work out how to deal with them, their attentions and their offers of marriage. 

She demonstrates great perceptiveness at the hypocrisy of the society which still believes that a woman’s duty and calling is marriage and motherhood, while playing court to her originality. She is determined not to marry and escapes all attempts to lure her. Most of them think she will grow out of writing when she is married. But it was to stand up for herself, young, female and without much ‘EXPERIENCE’. She rejects all their suggestions and returns home, her writing career going nowhere.

Warned by a loyal suitor back home that she might become despised as an old maid Sybylla responds:

Despised for being an old maid, indeed! Why are men so disturbed by a woman who escapes their spoilation? Is her refusal to capitulate unendurable to masculine egotism, or is it a symptom of something more fundamental? (227)

Finally, she decides to go wider than Sydney, to the world beyond Australia, to London.

One my strongest pleasures in this vibrant, heart-felt novel is the language she uses, with such freshness. Here’s a favourite as her mother pours cold water on any idea of Sybylla going on the stage.

She finished me to squashation like a sucked gooseberry. (44)

I loved her observations and wit, her determination not to be seduced by the dominant ideas about women, love, marriage and motherhood. Miles Franklin largely kept to that. She never married and before returning to settle in Australia in 1932, encouraging Australian writing, she spent more than two decades in America and in England.

My Career Goes Bung: purporting to be the autobiography of Sybylla Penelope Melvyn by Miles Franklin, first published in 1946. Republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1981. 234 pp

Related posts

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin on Bookword January 2020

Heavenali included a review of this novel on her blog in September 2015.

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Sister of the more famous …

Many women have had their creative spirit doused because they were women, and some more have been eclipsed by their more famous brothers. Here are a few examples.

Judith Shakespeare

Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. [A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf 48]

Judith Shakespeare was invented by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own in 1928 to consider the question of ‘the possibility of any woman, past, present or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare’. A bishop, no less, had declared it impossible Virginia Woolf charts a life for Judith, beginning with her lack of formal education.

She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books or papers. (49)

She imagines Judith faced with the prospect of marriage arranged for the benefit of her parents and resisting until she decides to run away to London. But hanging around the stage doors of London theatres was not a safe place for a girl of 16, and she fell pregnant by Nick Greene, the actor-manager who took pity on her. So she killed herself … 

… and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.
That, more or less, is how the story would run, I think, if a woman in Shakespeare’s day had had Shakespeare’s genius. (50)

Famously, Virginia Woolf claimed that Judith Shakespeare, and the many other women who put pen to paper were not successful because:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. (6)

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. First published in 1928. I used my Penguin Modern Classics edition. 112 pp

Another Look at A Room of One’s Own on Bookword (2018)

Dorothy Wordsworth

Dorothy Wordsworth was much missed by her brother William after her death as recorded in these lines on the occasion of being surprised by joy:

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Dorothy was a diarist, letter-writer and poet herself. But she was not interested in being published.

‘I should detest the idea of setting myself up as an author,’ she once wrote in a letter, ‘give Wm. the Pleasure of it.’

Sister and brother were close, living together, walking in the Lake District, sharing accommodation even after William’s marriage. Occasionally Dorothy’s writing was used by her brother, for example in his guidebook to the Lakes. More famously William relied on her detailed accounts of nature scenes and borrowed freely from her journals. For example:

I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing [Dorothy Wordsworth, Grasmere Journal 15 April 1802]

Not so lonely then.

Anne Brontë

Anne Brontë, author of Agnes GreyThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and poetry had two sisters and a brother. The reputations of Charlotte and Emily have grown over the years. Who takes account of Anne today? Even her wretched brother Branwell is better known than her. It has been claimed, however, that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was the first feminist novel. She died aged just 29.

Fanny Mendelssohn

Born into a musical household, Fanny Mendelssohn was known to be as talented as her younger brother. She was a noted pianist and composer and she contributed to the musical atmosphere of their house which fostered the talent of her brother, Felix. She composed over 450 pieces of music and some were published, but under her brother’s name to satisfy the ideas of the time and the reservations of her family. Fanny’s father wrote to her: ‘Music will perhaps become his [i.e. Felix’s] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.’

The death of Fanny Mendelssohn was the stimulus for one of her brother Felix Mendelssohn’s greatest string quartets: No 6 in F minor Op. 80. You can hear the raw grief in every bar. Felix died six months after his sister.

Nannerl Mozart

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolour by Carmontelle, ca. 1763. Via WikiCommons

Another musical prodigy had a sister: Nannerl Mozart. She too was something of a prodigy and toured with her father and brother, performing to the courts of Europe. It is thought that she also wrote much fine music, but like Fanny Mendelssohn, she was not allowed to continue when she reached adulthood. Mozart mentions her compositions, but there is no record of them in her father’s papers. Mozart wrote many duets for himself and his sister, and they kept up a lively correspondence when he went on tour without her. 

Some have argued that she was the more talented musical artist. The Other Mozart is a play by Sylvia Milo, review in Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/sep/08/lost-genius-the-other-mozart-sister-nannerl

Sisters ….

I acknowledge the theft of my title from Barbara Trapido’s novel: Brother of the more Famous Jack.

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