Category Archives: Feminism

Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito

This collection of twelve stories originally appeared in 1995, but we have Bernardine Evaristo and Penguin Books to thank for their reappearance, together with two later stories, in the Black Britain Writing Back series.This innovative publishing project has brought several neglected Black British writers to readers’ attention. I recently reviewed Minty Alley by CLR James (link here) and I look forward to reading more from the series.

Dat’s Love

The variety in this small collection is astonishing. It is in the subject matter, the style, the length, the narrative structure, the voice, and the settings of the stories. I can’t help wondering what else she had in her files that she did not put forward for publication.

The stories are exuberant, a little wild, often inventive. Many of them are narrated by or from the point of view of young people, girls, and some by historical characters. Here for example, in a very dull setting, is a young girl from the story called Michael Miles has Teeth like a Broken-down Picket Fence:

It was November. The girl looked up at the cloudy sky and sighed like a housewife disappointed in the whiteness of her wash. Mine looks grey, she thought, using the voice of the woman on the advert as she walked along. That was what was meant by November, that time of year when all the colours had drained away by the third week and the world was left in black and white – no monochrome, she thought, preferring that word because it had more grey in it. Not much of black or white there wasn’t, when you had a look. She thought obscurely of cameras and washing machines and vacuum cleaners and fashionable clothing: they were all the same grey tones in the magazine pictures that showed them. Only the covers on the front were in colour. She expanded the word ‘monochrome’ until it fitted everything in it: ‘monochromatic’ was the word. It fitted everything. The girl turned her head and waited to cross to the bus stop on the other side of the road.
She saw the dog as she hurried across. (19)

It was a particular day, dreary as all days were: November 22nd 1963, hardly a monochrome day in world politics. I felt that Leonora Brito captured the greyness of the time, how young people wanted more from the world and their lives. It did not arrive for some time.

In a first-person narrative, a young woman reports about hospital staff ‘when it was over they gave me a doll.’ This is in a short story called Mother Country. The narrator rejects the idea that she is holding ‘a real doll’.

Who are you trying to fool? I asked the one standing in for the midwife, crossly. ‘A real doll!’ This, I shook my head and pointed, is not a real doll. Real dolls have short, chubby legs. Legs made out of laminated plastic; that stay up in the air when you push them up, and don’t just flop like these do. I gestured contemptuously. And another thing, I picked up one of its hands to demonstrate, the fingers and toes of a real doll are always stuck together, while these can be s-e-p-a-r-a-t-e-d out! (42)

Mother Country describes the transition from childhood to womanhood, from rejection of this new being to acceptance, from the trauma of childbirth and the infantilising words of the nurses to a visceral mother-baby bond. 

Leonora Brito was not afraid of playing around with narrative structure. The story called Dido Elizabeth Belle: a narrative of her life (extant) starts in the middle of the action. The narrator is a formerly enslaved young woman who was the great niece of Lord Mansfield, and she grew up in Kenwood House. But we hear a different side to her history in Leonora Brito’s account. She is running away through the woods and meets a man. His reactions and thoughts are interpolated with hers. It’s like the cinematic split-screen, and it works well.

Many of the stories are rooted in Cardiff, such as Digging for Victory set in 1955 when Mr Churchill visited the docks in his warship. Instead of hero worship the story turns into a celebration of community spirit as the great ship had caused the canal to empty and people were needed to lend a hand and deal with the damage.

Many of the most effective stories use children’s or young people’s voices with their naïve point of view. Music and popular songs of the time are also used in many stories, including the title story. Her titles are also delightful.

Leonora Brito

Leonora Brito

Leonora Brito was born in Cardiff in July 1954. Her mother was local and her father was a seaman from Cap Verde. She took some time to find her voice, studying law and history at Cardiff University, and eventually moving into writing for radio and tv, and her short stories. She won the Rhys Davis Short Story Prize in 1991 and it gave her the confidence to become a full-time writer. Dat’s Love was published in 1995 and was well-received and a second collection was commissioned, but Leonora died in June 2007 before it was completed. Sadly, given how good they are, we just have these 14 stories to admire.

Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito, first published in 1995 and republished by Penguin in 2023 in Black Britain Writing Back series. 169pp 

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The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan

Last November, when my book group chose the books for 2023, I recommended The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan. The novel had good reviews and I remembered reading and enjoying The Spinning Heart (2012). The suggestion that it concerned some strong Irish women made it an attractive choice. So here we are, 12 months later, ready to discuss this gem of a book.

The Queen of Dirt Island

The story is structured in a series of two-page chapters, which roll forward and provide a rhythmic beat to one’s reading. It’s a steady story which unfolds over a couple of decades on the edge of a remote and rural Irish housing estate in County Tipperary. It begins with the birth of one of the women, Saoirse. Her father is killed in a road accident even before she is brought home from hospital. He mother, Mary, has been rejected by her family for becoming pregnant. But her mother-in-law, Eileen known as Nana, looks out for her, becomes her friend, and eventually comes to live with Mary and Saoirse.

The story of the women’s struggles, within their families, on the edges of their community, against poverty, and the demands of life, is carried forward through the steady pulse of the short chapters. The prose has a lilt to it, and the speech of the women, their idioms and imagery, are from the best Irish traditions.

Someone had asked Paudie to hide guns in the shed, down behind a load of bales of hay. And other stuff, too. Nana wasn’t sure what. Semtex, Eileen. What in the name of God and His Blessed Mother is Semtex? It doesn’t sound like anything that could ever do any good. And apparently we could all have been blown to Kingdom Come over it. Jim Gildea told me. You’re lucky, Mary, he said. Someone was watching over ye the way it was all brought out in the open now, before Paudie was in too deep. In too deep, Jim Gildea said! As if a shed full of guns and Sem-fucking-tex isn’t deep enough! (21)

Saoirse learns about the world from the conversation of Mary and her mother-in-law Eileen. She is well protected until she is a teenager. In the extract above she hears about her uncle’s arrest.

There’s a great deal of humour in the talk of the adult women as Saoirse grows up. She learns about her world through overhearing their conversations. Despite the lack of punctuation it is always clear who is speaking. When Saoirse reveals that she is pregnant, the chapter called IMMACULATE, is one long paragraph of her mother’s fury. 

How in the fucking fuck could you have gotten pregnant? […] I thought you were different. I thought you’d be something. God forgive me, it’s my own fault for trusting you. I thought behind it all that you were good. (73-74)

The story is built on the strength of the four women: from the grandmother, through Mary to Saoirse and to Pearl, Saoirse’s child. Mary is the queen of Dirt Island. She inherits it from her parents, despite her brother’s ambitions to take it from her. She is the character in the book written by Saoirse ‘s boyfriend, Josh. A heroine, redrawn from Saoirse’s own memories to create something ‘unrecognizable, alien, monstrous’ (214). Josh spiced up the story that we know, to distort Saoirse’s father and his death, and her mother’s role in Paudie’s misdeeds. Later the novel is rewritten and becomes a classic, included in the Irish school curriculum that Pearl is taught.

This distortion reminds the reader of the strength of these women, and we know they love and support each other through daily life, growing up, marriages, births, deaths and betrayals. They shape Saoirse childhood, and then Pearl’s. They have warmth and pride, fury and revenge, love and pity. 

We finish this book, having enjoyed its rhythms and impetus, and the slow march of the decades, aware that we have been given a glimpse of loving life and community. And we make sense of the epigram.

Let the books remember the local battles.
Re-write the plot. Let the harvest wither.
This is your life. She is your great event.
Keep her in the sun.
[‘History’, Mary O’Malley]

What will the other members of my book group think?

The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan first published in 2022. I used the Penguin edition. 245pp 

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The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

When this novel was published in 1962 the era of permissiveness (if it ever existed) was just about to begin. I was about to enter my teenage years. It seemed as if everything about our social mores was being questioned, including especially marriage and sexual partners. What I remember most from my first reading was the scene where the narrator broke down in Harrods household linens department.

What did I come here for? Why did I walk, in the spring, along a mile of pavement? Do I want bed rest, a barbecue, a clock like a plate or a satin stole, or a pepper mill or a dozen Irish linen tea towels printed, most beautifully, with the months of the year? April brings the primrose sweet, scatters daisies at our feet. I am beginning to cry. I stand in the bloody great linen department and cry and cry quite soundlessly, sprinkling the stiff cloths with extraordinarily large tears. Oh, what has happened to you, Mrs Enterprise, dear? Are your productions limited, your trusts faithless, and what of the company you keep? Think of those lovely children dear, and don’t cry as the world turns round holding you on its shoulder like a mouse.
But I cried just the same. The doctor they sent me to was expensive and Jake said, ‘Do you think you’re going to get over this period of your life, because I find it awfully depressing?’ (p28-9)

What I remember about the film (1964) was how beautiful Ann Bancroft was and what a bastard Peter Finch portrayed as her husband. His reaction to her Harrods tears is typical of his narcissistic gaslighting.

The Pumpkin Eater

This novel is quite short and easily read within 24 hours. The story is told by an unnamed narrator, a woman, who recounts her breakdown and the failure of her 4th marriage. She has many children (unnumbered) and Jake and her doctor assume that she should therefore be very happy. But she finds Jake’s affairs very distressing. She finds his absence on location very distressing. And she is outraged that her husband will support his mistress’s baby despite having persuaded her to agree to an abortion and sterilization. And she is furious when he blames her for her reaction, claiming that she agreed to the operations.

Jake seems incapable of understanding his wife’s point of view. Her psychoanalyst seems unable to understand her either.

‘Apart from everything else you feel about him, all your conflicting emotions … Do you like him?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Not very much.’
‘That’s my impression. Why don’t you like him?’
I tried to think. One by one I turned over the possible reasons for disliking Jake: he is a coward, a cheat, he is mean, vain, cruel, he is slovenly, he is sly. ‘I … I don’t know,’ I said. (67)

The title

It’s a strange title, and the epigraph points to its origins. It seems like it comes from a Grimm fairy tale. But Wikipedia tells us that its origins are in English nursery rhymes.

Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her.
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.

Jake does keep his wife, but not very well.

The 1960s

The introduction to the Penguin Classic edition by Daphne Merkin, makes the point that Penelope Mortimer predated Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer when she wrote about ‘the claustrophobic grayness and casual betrayals of upper-middle class marriage’ (vii). ‘Permissiveness’ was on its way. But she was not celebrating the advantages that less strict social codes would bring women. Indeed you could say she was providing a warning.

Motherhood and maternity

The most surprising thing about our narrator is that she has lots of children, the oldest three are casually sent off to boarding school to accommodate her marriage to Jake. She loses touch with them. Nor does motherhood seem to act as a break upon her behaviour, and certainly not on Jake’s. The damage to their children from their dysfunctional relationship does not appear to have troubled the characters or the writer.

Psychological support

It certainly seems as if the expensive doctor to whom she is sent following her Harrods breakdown, is part of the structure to maintain the status quo, when men can demand that women subjugate their lives and wishes within the marriage. The doctor at times seems more interested in Jake, a successful movie director, than in his wife’s troubles.

Teenage episode

An episode from her childhood gives one hope that Jake’s wife would not sacrifice herself. When her school friend Irene comes to stay, the teenagers find themselves at odds about the imperative to attract the attention of boys. There is a telling scene where Irene arrives at the railway station and is not recognizable.

Irene was wearing what I later heard her describe as a powder blue costume. Her hair was rolled in a perfect sausage at the nape of her neck, and another bobbing over her rather low forehead. She wore high heels, a necklace and lipstick. She was carrying a handbag as well as a suitcase. I thought she looked perfectly frightful. I was horrified. (46)

The contrast between the two girls could hardly have been greater. Irene, who is 14 and a half, plans to spend her time provoking the attention of boys. ‘I felt sick with shame for her.’ But although she doesn’t follow Irene’s example, and although she has had three previous marriages, the narrator has expectations of the marriage that she cannot share with Jake and it causes her great pain.

Rereading this novel made me realise how far things have improved, as well as how far they still have to go, in the matter of marriage and relations between men and women. It would not be acceptable today for women to suffer the gaslighting that Jake subjects his wife to. And he would be expected to have more sympathy and understanding of her life, not assume that because they are married it is all okay, everything he does. 

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer, first published in 1962. I used the Penguin Classics edition from 2015 with an Introduction by Daphne Merkin. 144pp 

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Beowulf – 5 The remarkable revival

The ancient story of Beowulf has had a remarkable revival. 

Beowulf’s story was composed around the 6th or 7th centuries, written down in the 10th or 11th centuries, and has survived for about 1500 years. The manuscript is long, about 3000 lines in Old English, and is kept in the British Library. How and why the manuscript was created is not known. Who composed it is not known. Whether it was composed by one artist or several is not known.

Originally the story would probably have been told or sung in three parts over three evenings, in a great hall, much like the one featured in the story. There is no evidence that anyone called Beowulf ever existed. Except of course he does, in countless translations, adaptations, films and retellings. 

Beowulf is a Geat and a hero. His story tells of his defeat of Grendel and of Grendel’s mother, and a treasure-loving dragon. Grendel was terrorising the Danish mead hall, the pride and joy of its builder the king. After defeating Grendel, the monster’s mother came seeking revenge and there was another epic battle, this time underwater, but again Beowulf prevailed. Much later in life, when he was a king himself, Beowulf took on a dragon who guarded the most fabulous pile of treasure, and although the dragon died, so did Beowulf to the dismay and misery of his people.

As far as I am aware, the revival of Beowulf’s story is a recent phenomenon.

Why is Beowulf so popular today?

It’s a good story. It’s the story of good triumphing over evil and with a couple of twists. Just when Beowulf and his admirers think he has solved the problem of the attacks on the Danish mead hall, along comes another monster for him to dispatch. Later he becomes a king and does the kingly thing of defending his people, even at the cost of his own life. 

Beowulf appeals to children as well as adults. The plot can be simplified, omitting the genealogies, back stories, and sub plots. The hero defeats three monsters. He is brave. He is young and one of a gang at the start of the story and becomes king in his mature years. 

Beowulf is a hero. Superheroes are all the rage at the moment. His power, his superpower, is to have the strength of 30 men in one of his arms. He is more than a human. He finds a magic sword and has the ability to fight for hours underwater. He fits right in with the spidermen, supermen, and other film heroes.

We like a little of the supernatural in our fiction. The powers of the hero and of his defeated monsters and dragon are all supernatural. They don’t quite belong in our world, so we can return from ancient Denmark and feel happy at the outcome, and relieved that such things do not exist in our world. 

The antagonists are sympathetic. Both Grendel and his mother have been made the focus of novels: by JohnGardner and Maria Dahvana Headley respectively. Maria Dahvana Headley updated the story not only to interpret it through feminist eyes, but also to place it in a modern context, which seriously challenges the goodness of Beowulf. John Gardner views the story from the eyes of Beowulf’s first victim, who might even be a human of sorts, seriously challenged by the bragging Danes in the mead hall, and much misunderstood by the other characters and by the original storyteller of course. 

Other times, other places. There is also the mystery and attraction of this being a very old story, capable of retelling in ways that say something about the teller and their context and time. I have not yet read Edwin Morgan’s version, but I note that he says this about his original version published in 1952.

The translation, which was begun shortly after I came out of the army at the end of the Second World Wat, was in a sense my unwritten war poem, I would not want to alter [in a new edition] the expression I gave to its themes of conflict and danger, voyaging and displacement, loyalty and loss. Inter arma musae tacent (“In time of conflict the Muses are silent”) but they are not sleeping. (Preface to 2021 edition)

These themes are timeless, conflict and danger, voyaging and displacement, loyalty and loss and just as Edwin Morgan experienced them in the Second World War, so do we today.

The mystery of the text. The story of the survival of the version of Beowulf that we have is fascinating, not least because it is so ancient, and the language in which it was written is obscure to most readers, despite being a version of very old English. It is not clear whether it is written by more than one scribe or composed by more than one poet. We know that the poet and the scribe cannot be the same person, for the poem predates the written version by some centuries. Survival of texts and arguments about versions and who wrote what and authenticity are the very stuff of fascination. For example, Shakespeare’s plays have been subjected to a huge amount of scholarly examination in the various versions that still exist. I have looked at the versions listed below, which include prose, and poetry, adaptations and translations. No doubt there are others, and in different genres, perhaps a computer game, anime or film. Whatever version Beowulf is in, the story will be read into the late twenty-first century. Not bad for a text that started as a spoken or sung poem fifteen centuries ago.

Pile in order 2

Versions of Beowulf discussed in this series

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff, (1961) reissued by Puffin in 1966.

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo, (2006) by Walker Books.

Beowulf, translated and introduced by Kevin Crossley Holland (1987) Phoebe editions

Beowulf by Charles Keeping & Kevin Crossley-Holland, (1982) Oxford University Press.

Beowulf by Michael Alexander (1973) Penguin Classics

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney, (1999) Faber

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley (2021) Scribe. 

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley (2018) Scribe. 

Grendel by John Gardner, (1971) Picador. This edition contains the illustrations by Emil Antonucci.

Beowulf by Edwin Morgan (1952) republished by Carcanet (2002)

Links to previous posts in the Beowulf series

Beowulf 1 Some versions February 2021

Beowulf 2 in which he meets a feminist July 2021

Beowulf 3 – Grendel by John Gardner March 2022

Beowulf 4 – Charles Keeping’s Illustrations December 2022

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Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

It seemed to happen a great deal in the ‘70s and ‘80s. A book would capture the attention of readers, especially women readers, and the question people asked was ‘have you read it yet?’ That doesn’t happen so often nowadays, but here is a book that I find all my reader-friends have read or are planning to read. I overheard two women talking, last week. ‘I’m reading that book.,’ said one. Her friend replied, ‘Oh yes, that Demon book. I wanted to read it in my book group, but they said it was too long. Their loss. How far have you got?’ ‘Only about halfway. Don’t tell me what happens. It’s so good though. I’m enjoying it so much.’

I am puzzled by a book group that resist reading a prizewinning novel, and one that so many people are talking about, ‘because it’s too long.’ As she said, ‘their loss’. I look back through other recent novels, and I think that another winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction caused a similar sensation: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. It too was long (453 pages).

It’s taken me a little time to read Demon Copperhead. And to put my reactions into a post for the blog. It is a long book. But I wonder what there is new or different for me to say. As usual I’ll say what I think. You can add your thoughts or differ with mine in the comments.

Demon Copperhead

First, it is very Dickensian. Of course it is, Barbara Kingsolver acknowledges her debt to the Victorian writer.

I’m grateful to Charles Dickens for writing David Copperfield, his impassioned critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children in his society. Those problems are still with us. In adapting his novel to my own place and time, working for years with his outrage, inventiveness, and empathy at my elbow, I’ve come to think of him as my genius friend. (547)

So it is Dickensian, first by being an adaptation of the story of a disadvantaged boy, and a brilliant one, to her context. More than that, she matches his ability to tell stories, conjure characters, keep a plot alive. And by matching Dickens’s outrage at society’s failure to care for children who slip through the cracks, who are not well treated by social services, and who are preyed upon by opportunists and others who should know and do better. The social injustice permeates this story. Dickens showed novelists how to do this.

Second, despite adapting David Copperfield for her novel, Demon Copperhead stands in its own right. You do not need to have read Dickens’ novel to follow the plot. And if you have read it, you do not need to spend too much time identifying the parallels between the two. One or two are a bit clunky: the upside-down boat for example. But mostly the original story is so strong that Barbara Kingsolver’s adaptation lightly makes the connections. I found Coach to be the least convincing character in Demon Copperfield, and I can’t think from which original character he would have been adapted.

Having said that, I found that for the most part she created authentic characters, many with great quirkinesses. Mr Dick is a joy. U-Haul is suitably creepy and oily as Uriah Heep. The Peggot family are as warm and embracing as you could wish. The belief by Mr McCobb that something will turn up is as misguided as in the original. And so on. The main joys of this novel are the characters, their influence on Demon and the interlacing of their stories with his. 

Third, it’s a story worth telling. It is told by a boy who wants to make the best of himself, but life keeps knocking him down: born into poverty, in a rural setting where the mining industry has collapsed, Appalachian Mountains, to a single mother who cannot cope without alcohol; he is looked after by the state’s social services which means his labour is swapped for accommodation and payment, on a deadbeat farm, and then with a struggling family. He learns much from this degrading treatment, but it is only when he takes his destiny in his own hands – running away to find the truth about his father – that things slowly begin to get better. He is knocked down many times before he finds true love and happiness.

Meanwhile we have seen the damage caused by the opioid epidemic, neglectful social services, and greedy individuals in a brutal and raw story. Here she is, at her most outspoken, describing an evening on the farm where the foster carer relied upon children’s labour.

A ten-year-old getting high on pills. Foolish children. This is what we are meant to say. Look at their choices, leading to a life of ruin. But lives are getting lived right now, this hour, down in the dirty cracks between the toothbrushed nighty-nights and the full grocery carts, where those words don’t pertain. Children, choices. Ruin, that was the labor and materials we were given to work with. An older boy who never knew safety himself, trying to make us feel safe. We had the moon in the window to smile on us for a minute and tell us the world was ours. Because all the adults had gone off somewhere and left everything in our hands. (76-77)

Blame disadvantaged and deprived children for making bad choices and then go off somewhere and leave them to it. 

Don’t be put off by the American setting – it has a great deal to say to us in the UK as our public services collapse. And don’t be put off by its length. There is a huge amount to enjoy and to think about in this novel. I’m not surprised it won so many prizes and has been so highly praised. Have you read it yet?

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, published in 2022 by Faber. Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 548pp

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Fight Night by Miriam Toews 

Miriam Toews does not avoid difficult subjects. All my Puny Sorrows was a great success with my reading group, despite its story following the increasingly desperate attempts by a woman to keep her sister from killing herself. It was based on the author’s own experiences. I found Women Talking to be a shocking account of rapes in a Mennonite community, also based on a true story. Both novels, refer to the power of women’s relationships, and to their strength in the face of tragedy and human frailty and distress.

This novel, different again from those two in its themes, highlights the resilience, resistance and stubbornness of three generations of females. It’s about fighting hypocrisy, exploitation and above all injustice in everyday life. After one episode battling to get her grandmother to lunch with her friends the narrator reports:

Fighting is so hard and yet we’re never supposed to stop! (34)

Fight Night

Swiv is the narrator of this novel, and the reader meets her when she is 9 years old and has already been expelled from school, accused of a ‘lashing out tone, which I’m supposed to be working on’. She is at home in Toronto with her grandmother and mother. Both these older women are great fighters. No doubt Swiv was following their example and advice when she crossed the teacher.

The novel begins as a letter by Swiv to her absent father. This device mostly fades into the background. The family is not in a good place. Her mother is pregnant with a baby they call Gord, and her grandmother is grieving for the loss of her husband and most of her family. Their family therapist has advised them to write letters to the people they are missing. 

The first section outlines Swiv’s unorthodox life and education. She acts as carer to her grandmother, just as much as she is herself cared for. They have a hilarious home curriculum, homework of writing those letters, and some maths lessons that require calculations about a jigsaw of an Amish farm, or working out when the growing girl and the shrinking grandmother will be the same height. They are assailed by developers wanting to buy the house, and the religious bigotry of Willit Braun. And the family are challenged by the consequences of Grandma’s irrepressible love of people and life.

Grandma rants to Swiv about what the church and Willet Braun did to their community. It goes on for about three pages, but this part seems especially relevant to so much that we see being done in the name of religion.

They took all the things we need to navigate the world. They took the beautiful things … right under our noses … crept in like thieves … replaced our tolerance with condemnation, our desire with shame, our feelings with sin, our wild joy with discipline, our agency with obedience, our imagination with rules, every act of joyous rebellion with crushing hatred, our impulses with self-loathing, our empathy with sanctimoniousness, threats, cruelty, our curiosity with isolation, wilful ignorance, infantilism, punishment! (161)

Grandma has a great line in problem solving, which often means avoiding the obvious or breaking the rules. Here, for example, Grandma and her old friends are talking about dying, including the value of assisted dying. 

Wilda said she was worried about saying goodbye to everyone before she died. How would she get round to it all when she’d be so busy with dying. Grandma said no problem! Let’s say goodbye now and get it over with! We’re friends, we love each other, we know it, we’ve had good times, and one day we’ll be dead, whether we’re assisted or not. So, goodbye! They all thought that was a good idea so they all said goodbye to each other and got it over with. (35)

Swiv’s mother is for ever rehearsing a production of a play, despite being ‘in her third trimester’. She has a short fuse, but plenty of love for the grandmother and Swiv. 

The first section ends with Grandma’s planning to visit her nephews in Fresno, and the decision that Swiv will go with her. From this point on their adventures take off: the flights, meeting the nephews (but they are old), a sailing trip, a visit to an old people’s home and a dash home. Nothing progresses easily, but much of it is enjoyable because of Grandma’s presence. She is friendly and fearless, so as they move through the disasters of this trip, she attracts people who will help her, rescue her, look after her. 

Swiv is young, as we are reminded by her horror of anything sexual (such as a woman’s thong underneath the bed), and by her naive observations from time to time. She reports everything breathlessly, and without speech punctuation. See the quotation above for an example. I know this annoys some readers, but Miriam Toews is skilled at telling a harsh and tender story through the eyes of this child. Swiv does not avoid the difficult and intimate aspects of the episodes in which she is entangled. She has good teachers, for her two carers have made it plain that speaking the truth, being direct is as important as learning to fight.

The ending is funny and sad but also uplifting.

I read Grandma’s letter to Gord the other day. You’re a small thing and you must learn to fight. (250)

Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews by Alessio Jacona (Rome Italy) Capri 2015 via wikicommons

Born in 1964 and brought up in a Mennonite community in Manitoba, Miriam Toews left when she reached 18. She lives in Toronto. Fight Night is her 8th novel. Speaking about Women Talking, she said, 

My goal is always to tell a story and to create characters that will move the reader. But I’m of course a feminist. I have a need to challenge that status quo that I’ve experienced. [From an interview with Katrina Onstad in the Guardian 18.8.18]

In writing Fight Night she has continued to create interesting and sympathetic characters, and to provide a plot that challenges the status quo. Recommended.

Fight Night by Miriam Toews, published in 2022 by Faber & Faber. 252pp

Related Bookword posts

Women Talking by Miriam Toews (September 2019)

All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (August 2015)

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The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Writing in her diary about her short story, Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street, Virginia Woolf observed that ‘she ushers in a host of others, I begin to perceive’ [August 16th 1922]. She had already appeared in Virginia Woolf’s first novel The Voyage Out (1915). Ten years later she was one of the two main characters in the novel Mrs Dalloway (1925).

It was not just her own writing that was influenced by Clarissa Dalloway. In 1998 Michael Cunningham published his novel The Hours, using Virginia Woolf’s original title. Since then, there has been a film made of Cunningham’s novel, and an opera. And Mrs Dalloway featured in the ballet Wolf Works. She certainly ushers in others.

The Hours

Michael Cunningham’s novel is structured around three versions of Mrs Dalloway, in different times and different places. Clarissa Vaughn (Mrs Dalloway) in New York at the end of the twentieth century. Virginia Woolf (Mrs Woolf) in Richmond, near London, as she is writing Mrs Dalloway in 1924; and Mrs Brown in Los Angeles in 1949, who is reading Mrs Dalloway. Short chapters tell a little of their stories in turn.

This is not a reimagination of Mrs Dalloway (the character and the novel), or of Virginia Woolf, in different times and places. It is not an adaptation. Rather Michael Cunningham has taken many of the themes of the novel and considered them from different viewpoints.

The title of his novel is significant. It is about time, and the life we have to fill time. Not everyone feels able to cope with this. Every story has a character who considers ending their life. Richard has HIV\Aids for which treatments are only just being provided. He is being encouraged by Clarissa to attend the party she has organised, and to receive an award for his poetry.

Richard nods, and does not move. His ravaged head, struck by full daylight, is geological. His flesh is as furrowed and pocked, as runneled, as desert stone.
He says, “I don’t know if I can face this. You know, the party and the ceremony, and then the hour after that, and the hour after that.”
“You don’t have to go to the party. You don’t have to go to the ceremony. You don’t have to do anything at all.”
“But there are still the hours, aren’t there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there’s another. I’m so sick.” (197-8)

Writing her novel, Mrs Woolf thinks at first that Clarissa will commit suicide, but comes to think that this will be the action of a different character. Mrs Brown sees no place for herself in all those hours, and at the end of the novel we learn that she botched her suicide. The novel opened with a description of Virginia Woolf’s suicide, nearly twenty years after she had written Mrs Dalloway

Famously, Mrs Dalloway is set within 24 hours, and each of these three narratives unfold in a day, but also over 70 years. This is a comment about time, and how lives are connected with each other, even over time. I was pleased to read The Hours in a day.

Here are some of the other ideas explored in The Hours, some more, some less explicitly than in Virginia Woolf’s novel: 

  • the effects of war on husbands, 
  • sexuality and social attitudes to it,
  • marriage and its value,
  • motherhood,
  • the excitement of the city,
  • changing possibilities for women,
  • legacy, what will be left after death,
  • the damage wrought by HIV/Aids,
  • what it means to care for someone, and to be cared for by someone,

All these themes and ideas are explored in both novels (except HIV/Aids, which was of its time in New York in the late ‘90s).

Clearly Michael Cunningham immersed himself in Mrs Dalloway and has created something new and his novel enhanced my understanding of Virginia Woolf’s novel at the same time as providing new perspectives. It is not necessary to have read her novel to enjoy The Hours, but I would recommend it.

Survivors have to go on living through the hours too, like Clarissa who in the penultimate sentence of the novel, reflects, ‘here she is with another hour before her”. (226)

And of course there was a film, released in 2002, starring Meryl Streep (Mrs Dalloway), Nicole Kidman (Mrs Woolf) and Julianne Moore (Mrs Brown), directed by Stephen Daldry. And in 2022 an opera. (A note on the film casting of Meryl Streep: there’s a nice little self-reference here because Clarissa, seeing a celebrity’s trailer, imagines it might be Meryl Streep inside p27.) 

The Hours by Michael Cunningham first published in 1998 and in the UK by 4th Estate. 230pp

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Pen/Faulkner Award in 1999.

 

Related Links

The Hours at 25: The book that changed how we see Virginia Woolf, by Lillian Crawford on BBC Culture, August 9, 2023

In step with Virginia Woolf about the Ballet Woolf Works (Bookword May 2015) 

Inspired by the Writings of Virginia Woolf about the exhibition in Pallant House, Chichester called Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings (Bookword August 2018)

With Virginia Woolf in Cambridge about the summer school I attended (Bookword August 2023)

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Bookword February 2020)

The second Mrs Dalloway (Bookword July 2019)

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street by Virginia Woolf (Bookword May 2016)

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With Virginia Woolf in Cambridge

I risk making some readers jealous, but I have just returned from a 5-day summer school in Cambridge, devoted to Virginia Woolf. Not all of Virginia Woolf, but 5 specified books. And I want to share some of it.

  • Mrs Dalloway
  • To the Lighthouse
  • Orlando
  • A Room of One’s Own
  • Between the Acts

The popular view pictures Virginia Woolf as an effete, delicate, isolated, and icy woman. One of my major strands of learning on the summer school is how connected she was to the events of her time, and to the changes that women might be able to benefit from through her social circle, her reading, her thinking and her experiences to the wider world.

So here are a few ‘orts, scraps and fragments’ (Between the Acts) to pass on.

Women in her life

My first ort, scrap and fragment is the understanding of how connected Virginia Woolf was to so many different women. The summer school was focussed on Virginia Woolf and her women, and we met many of them. She had a wide range of female friends and connections. We heard about her friendship with Katherine Mansfield, her intimate relations with Vita Sackville West (Orlando), her connection to Newnham College, in particular with the classicist Jane Harrison who was a rule-breaker and a pioneer, and Pernel Strachey, librarian and Principal. She was very fond of the wonderful, larger-than-life Ethel Smyth, whose character echoes through Between the Acts. And the struggles of the painter Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, surely owes something to Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell.

The second ort concerns her thinking about the important issues of her day, which also resonate with us today. What does it mean to be a woman? How shall we understand colonialism? How did the two great wars affect women and the well-lived life? Between the Acts was written during the initial years of the Second World War, when fear of invasion and the unknown clouded every horizon. We were reminded of Covid-19 and that first year when we knew so little and feared so much. We too looked back, made our own pageants, summoned our history to help us deal with the situation. 

Women’s situation was changing fast during Virginia Woolf’s life. In particular, higher education was gradually opened up to women. Both Girton and Newnham Colleges were established and eventually accepted into the University of Cambridge. It was in these colleges that she gave the lectures that gradually evolved into A Room of One’s Own. I loved sitting in the room in Girton where she spoke at the invitation of a student. The walls are covered in amazing embroidery/tapestries. 

Later we got to see the manuscript of the book in the Fitzwilliam Museum archives, seeing something of how she worked on her text – right-hand side of the page only, wide margins, left-hand side for substantial rewriting. This wasn’t simply cultural tourists admiring the very pages she had written. It was more an insight into her craft.

Dr Mathelinda Nabugodi, Research Associate at the Fitzwilliam Museum, shows us the manuscript of A Room of One’s Own.

I love the playfulness and the in-jokes in her books. Orlando is full of unattributed quotations and references and plays with the ideas of changing gender and living for 400 years. But she is always playful for a purpose and I was appropriately challenged by these books, by the ideas and possibilities that are implied and set out for the reader. So here’s what I am going to think about.

Plans from here

I shall reread (it will be for the fourth time) Between the Acts, thinking in particular about representations of our history, and luxuriating in the possibilities that Virginia Woolf provides ways of understanding history and how we tell it. What, no armies in a pageant of British history?

I shall be reacquainting myself with the fiction of Katherine Mansfield, whose work I have rejected for reasons I can’t remember. Virginia Woolf clearly thought highly of her friend’s writing, so I would like to find out what there was to admire.

I want to look at Lily Briscoe and Mrs Ramsey in To the Lighthouse more closely. Mrs Ramsey wants Lily, and all women, to get married. She had no less than eight children. Lily wants to paint but finds it hard.

And I want to reread the second part of To the Lighthouse, called Time Passes, and to think about that passage with some new ideas in my head. And to think about female language, sentences and approaches to the novel form.

I met many wonderful people, from different parts of the world, and enjoyed their warmth and shared pleasures with them. We benefitted from some excellent lectures and supervisions. How lucky to see the splendid gardens of Newnham College.

 

Thank you to Literature Cambridge for the summer school, and for providing so much on-line stimulation, including when we were locked down. I have many links to previous lectures, photographs and further possibilities to explore, thanks to you. Thanks to Graham for the use of his photograph of people inspecting the manuscript of A Room of One’s Own.

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Ursula K Le Guin’s Space Crone

When Ursula K Le Guin died in January 2018, it seemed far too soon. She had given us the impression of being endlessly inventive, always wise and a champion of thinking, learning, developing in community with writers and readers. Above all, she had important things to say about language and how humans should live in this world (and other worlds too). I had read The Wizard of Earthsea and been stimulated by the idea there about the power of naming things. And I had enjoyed being provoked by her imaginative ideas on gender and sexuality in The Left Hand of Darkness, and by her other sci-fi fiction. And I had begun reading her essays on writing the Tao and her collection of writing advice and exercises in Steering the Craft. I thought she would last forever.

Her death was too soon, although she was 89. She defied conventional ideas about aging, aging as a time when you become more right-wing, aging as a time when you slow down, aging as a time when you have used up all your good ideas. The concept of a space crone challenges all that. The essay of that name was written in 1976, when she was not yet 50, but she looks squarely at the menopause and how older women are not valued. Not quite 50 years on from the publication of that essay, our society is just beginning to take account of the menopause, if not the value of older women.

That essay provides the title to a new publication of essays, stories and lectures by Ursula K le Guin, Space Crone, published by Silver Press (an independent feminist publisher based in London) in 2023.

Space Crone

The publication of this collection, bringing together Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing on feminism and gender, seemed like the continuation of her influence. In this post I recommend two of the items in this collection: a short story, and a commencement address. The short story, Sur uses reversal of gender roles to spin a challenging tale. The address was delivered to graduates of a women’s college and in it she discusses languages, and their importance in feminists’ struggles.

Sur: A Summary Report of the Yelcho Expedition to the Antarctic, 1909-1910

The short story is framed as an account of an all-female expedition to Antarctica in 1909-10. The historically-minded of you will know that the first acknowledged team to reach the South Pole was led by the Norwegian Amundsen in 1912. This story, narrated by one of the female team, describes their alternative expedition, and rather than celebrating heroism and bravery, praises other qualities. You’ve never heard of this expedition, or of any evidence that they were the first to reach the South Pole?

But I was glad even then that we had left no sign there, for some man longing to be first might come some day, and find it, and then know what a fool he had been, and break his heart. (23)

So what happens when women, not men, set off on an expedition in such a dangerous place? They display qualities celebrated in this story, qualities of shared leadership, mutual support, modesty and generosity (such as allowing men to take the credit for being first). They are persistent in the face of challenges, even a specifically female challenge, and other physical difficulties such as frostbite. The power of their friendships, their camaraderie was behind their success.

There are other ways, Ursula K Le Guin seems to tell us, of narrating these heroic stories; there are other qualities that we should value and esteem besides the heroic and the brave. Her fiction shows us this again and again.

Sur was first published in the New Yorker in 1982.

Bryn Mawr Commencement Address (1986)

In this address, Ursula K Le Guin considers how language is used, in what today we might call different discourses. She identifies three. The language of power, of politics, of dichotomy, used by all those with power. The graduates have learned this language for their degrees and like us to heaf the language of people in power.

Then there is the mother tongue. Every person’s first language, which is the language of relationships, connection, of binding together not division, of experience rather than argument. Because it is the language of women, it must be ignored by men as they mature. Those who are powerless can find their voices and a different power by unlearning the language of power, and by recognising the third language, the native language. 

And what she calls the native language reflects the everyday, the creative, the language of experience. She gives many examples of this native language. Many are from first nations peoples which is hardly surprising as she grew up in a household of anthropologists: Sojourner Truth, Wendy Rose (Hopi and Miwok people), Joy Harjo (Creek people), Linda Hogan (Chickasaw people), and Denise Levertov. All are women, most are poets. And they have gentler truths to speak, in softer language. 

Speaking to young women graduates she encourages them in the tones of the native language:

If being a cog in the machine or a puppet manipulated by others isn’t what you want, you can find out what you want, your needs, desires, truths, powers, by accepting your own experience as a woman, as this woman, this body, this person, your hungry self. On the maps drawn by men there is an immense white area, terra incognita, where most women live. That country is all yours to explore, to inhabit, to describe.
But none of us lives there alone. Being human isn’t something people can bring off alone; we need other people in order to be people. We need one another. (43)

I see the connection between these two writings. The story Sur is narrated in this third language, the language of experience, and community. It is a story of community and experience, and challenges the dominant discourse of the explorer: a brave and heroic man who gets there first.  

Both my recommendations are from the 80s. I make no apologies, for I am from the tradition of the Second Wave of feminism, – I’m not even sure how many waves we can count today. I too found a voice in ‘the furies and glories of the seventies and eighties’ (33) as all those women offered their experience as truth. Let experience speak. Let us value those experiences, the importance of relationships, of community. Let us not use only the language of power, but also the language of creativity and life.

Space Crone by Ursula K Le Guin, published by Silver Press in 2022. Edited and introduced by So Mayer and Sarah Shin. 

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

Related posts and books

The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin (June 2019)

Imagination and the writer: Ursula K Le Guin including references to The Wave in the Mind (August 2018)

A Tribute to Ursula le Guin (March 2018)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin (July 2017)

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula K Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

The Wave in the Mind: talks and essays on the writer, the reader and the imagination by Ursula K Le Guin, published in 20014 by Shambhala Publications

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

Steering the Craft, Exercises and discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K Le Guin, published by The Eight Mountain Press in 1998. 

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin first published in 1969. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This novel was chosen by my book group to read in June, proposed because it kept appearing in lists of books that everyone should read. Some of us had read it before, but we were all happy for it to be on our list. I was one of the readers in the group who had read it before, probably in the late 1970s (that’s the date of the edition I own). I may have read it before, but I had completely misremembered the second half. I do remember that it made an impact on me the first time, and it certainly did again as I prepared to discuss it with the group.

The Bell Jar

Esther Greenwood narrates the novel, which is based on Sylvia Plath’s own experiences. It begins in New York in 1953.

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.
I thought it must be the worst thing in the world. (1)

These opening sentences set the tone. Esther doesn’t know what she is doing, and she is thinking about death. She also has a sharp turn of phrase: goggle-eyed headlines; fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway; burned alive all along your nerves.

These themes continue throughout the 258 pages and twenty chapters of this novel: Esther’s lostness; her interest in death and her facility with words.

Esther has a scholarship at her rural college and has won a prize of a month’s internship on a New York fashion magazine with eleven other girls. She is disappointed with the experience, finding more fun in escaping from the group and with Doreen to escape into an ill-advised adventure. On her return home she is devastated to find that she was not accepted onto a writing course she had been counting on, and her life continues to go downhill, as she contemplates and then attempts suicide. Her treatment includes receiving ECT and finding a good psychotherapist which allows her to finally emerge into the world.

The novel was published first in the UK, under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas in 1963. Shortly after its publication Sylvia Plath committed suicide. She was 31 years old. The novel was later published under her own name, finally in America in 1971. She also published several collections of poetry.

It’s difficult to read this novel without thinking about her ultimate death, and without wondering what happened in her life that she found living so hard. 

Here are some thoughts from our book group discussions.

In the 1950s it was hard to be born female and not to conform to the stereotype of womanhood being promoted (including by women’s magazines) at that time. Esther has a boyfriend, Buddy Willard but it is clear from his first mention that she has little intention of marrying him, despite his prospects as a doctor.

[Because] I did look down on Buddy Willard, and although everybody thought I would marry him when he came out of the TB place, I knew I would never marry him if he were the last man on earth. (54) 

Her impetus towards independence, like her friend Doreen, would have been a struggle even for a bright young girl in the ‘50s.

Another aspect of The Bell Jar is that novels about suicide and the desire to end one’s life were not common in the 1960. At our group we had previously discussed All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews from 2014, another novel based on real experience. It tells the story of a Canadian woman trying to prevent her sister from taking her own life. Reading The Bell Jar today is all the more poignant for knowing that Sylvia Plath did take her own life. The novel does not explain her determination, only chronicle it.

Which leads me to mention another feature of The Bell Jar. It is a novel full of emotion, anxiety and concern, frustration and fury, fear and humour. But the language used is stripped of emotion. All that feeling is expressed through her way of writing. Here’s an example from a moment towards the end of her time in New York.

I also had a dim idea that if I walked the streets of New York by myself all night something of the city’s mystery and magnificence would rub off on to me at last.
But I gave it up.
It was becoming more and more difficult for me to do anything in those last days. And when I eventually did decide to do something, such as packing a suitcase, I only dragged all my grubby, expensive clothes out of the bureau and the closet and spread them on the chairs and the bed and the floor and then sat and stared at them, utterly perplexed. They seemed to have a separate, mulish identity of their own that refused to be washed and folded and stowed. (109)

Later, in a glorious scene the clothes are all thrown out of the window! 

Another feature of her writing style is her imagery, frequently amusing. Humour is present for a good deal of this novel, often in the description of other people. All 12 of the young women who had won the prize to be in New York come down with food poisoning. Esther had been afraid it was caused by her greedy consumption of caviar, but it turned out to be the crab meat. The description of the girls throwing up is both amusing and rather disgusting. 

This extract, where she meets the psychologist Dr Gordon, makes me smile.

I curled in the cavernous leather chair and faced Doctor Gordon across an acre of highly polished desk.
Doctor Gordon waited. He tapped his pencil – tap, tap, tap – across the neat green frilled pf his blotter.
His eyelashes were so long and think they looked artificial. Black plasti8c reeds fringing two green, glacial pools.
Doctor Gordon’s features were so perfect he was almost pretty.
I hated him the minute I walked in through the door. (135)

Eventually the bell jar lifts. The bell jar is her description of the way in which her depression and suicidal wishes are experienced. It’s a compelling and somewhat grim experience to read this novel. It is hard not to regret the loss of such talent when a writer dies so young, with such promise. However it’s a demanding novel that deserves to be read by all serious readers.

You can read my thoughts on All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews – from Bookword in 2015. Click on the link.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, first published in 1963 by Faber & Faber. I used the paperback edition, first published in 1966. 258pp

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