Category Archives: Feminism

Red Ellen – The Novels of Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson has long been a hero of mine. She was one of the first female Labour MPs, and had a reputation as a ‘firebrand’, probably because of her red hair. Most memorably, she was MP for Jarrow at the time of the famous hunger march (1936). You can find photographs of her leading it: a small figure in comparison to other marchers.

Born in 1891 into a working class family in Manchester, she got her education there and began her political activities by supporting female suffrage. She went on to work as a trade union organiser, and was first elected to parliament in 1924 when most Labour MPs lost their seats. She won Middlesborough East by a majority of 972. As a trade unionist she was involved in the General Strike of 1926 but she lost her seat after the failure of the second Labour Government in 1931, returning to parliament in 1935. 

While she was out of parliament she turned to writing, earning her keep as a journalist, and writing her two novels, the subjects of this post. Her return to parliament kept her too busy to continue with fiction writing. During the Second World War she served in the coalition government and became Minister of Education in the post-war Labour government. Sadly she died too young in 1947, having suffered from bronchial asthma, been a smoker and an overworker all her adult life.

It is with some sadness that I realise that my grandfather would have known her as he was also elected in 1935, albeit as a Liberal. Sadly I did not take the opportunity to ask him. I am sure he would have known her, full of energy, small, with red hair and a dramatic sense of colour and style in her clothing.

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson

Clash was published in 1929 and much of it is drawn from the author’s experiences of the General Strike, such a bold move, such exciting times, but ultimately a failure. The miners, in support of whom it was called, suffered for months in the lock out that followed. Joan Craig is the heroine, and her proximity to the leaders of the unions, her hard work to keep the strike going, and her support for the miners are all drawn from Ellen Wilkinson’s experiences. But Joan has black not red hair.

This is also a love story. Joan falls for the older Bloomsbury writer, Tony Dacre. Much of the second part of the novel is taken up with Joan’s dilemma: follow her heart or continue with her work supporting workers. 

The clash of the title is evident in so many aspects of the story. I was struck by how many of these tensions still exist 90 years later. There is the tension between the North and the South of England. All the excitement of the strike and the pleasure of intellectual company and activities is found in London. Joan is tempted. But in the North there is real poverty, exploitation of workers, and work that she is so good at to be done. 

The North-South divide is also a class divide. Tony Dacre offers Joan the possibility of more comfort and security. The passages describing the hardships of life when the miners were locked out are a strong as any in the novel. The ignorance of the middle class (in both senses of ignorance) is shocking. And the class divide is sharpest in the failed relationships of bosses and trade unions.

There is the male-female tension, played out as she considers the life offered by Tony. His view is that she would have to give up her work, dedicate her life to him if they were together. And he believes that romantic love is justification enough for this. It’s what women do. A clash between intellectual and romantic views of life is also shown. I won’t pre-empt your reading by telling you how Joan resolved these dilemmas. But like her creator she did not disappoint.

My interest in the history of the time was well rewarded by reading this novel, full of action and ideas. I enjoyed it. Thanks to HeavenAli for drawing it to my attention on her blog.

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson, published in 1932. It was reissued in the Virago Modern Classics series in 1989. 309pp

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson 

This second novel also draws on Ellen Wilkinson’s experiences, this time in the House of Commons. She had been a PPS (parliamentary private secretary) to several ministers. The amateur detective in her novel  Robert West, is a young male MP, PPS to the Home Secretary, known as Flossie. I chose to read this as a relief from some books that had hard-to-read passages of abuse of women. It is a light read.

A gunshot is heard at the same moment as Big Ben struck and the division bell sounded. A rich American banker has been murdered in Dining Room J. Rob West is tasked with helping the police find the culprit. The Home Secretary was meeting with Oissel to negotiate a government loan but left for the division just before Oissel was found dead. The story features the beautiful but ice-cold grand-daughter of the murdered man, her fiancé who is also an MP, a female MP from the Labour Party, a journalist, the Scotland Yard detective, a Peer of the Realm and the chief Civil Servant in the Home Office. Who did it?

The story is slight, but one relationship caught my attention. Rob West asks Grace Richards MP for some help.

The attitude of Robert West to the modern young woman was typical of that of a very young man. He preferred the intelligent woman. He liked to be seen about with one who was also making a name for herself. But while he was interested in her he expected her to put her own affairs in the background, and devote herself to his. When she was no longer needed she might be permitted to pick up her own threads again, but she must not trouble him. This he called allowing a woman to lead her own life. (120)

He asks her for help.

“And why should I help you?”
Robert was positively shocked. Why should she help him! What did she think women were in politics for if not to be helpful? (123)

There is an edge in this little exchange which makes me think that Ellen Wilkinson had encountered this young man’s attitude many times. 

I would love to have met Ellen Wilkinson, heard her make a speech, watch her navigate male-dominated politics. I enjoyed her two novels, and that will have to do.

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson, first published in 1932 and reissued in 2018 in the British Library Crime Classics series. 254pp

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Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is about slavery, slavery in the US. It is about the terrible things that were done to enslaved people. It is about the damage that was wrought on them before ‘emancipation’ (1863) and after. It is about physical damage, but also economic damage and psychic damage, damage to relationships and to communities. This was lasting harm, for individuals, their descendants and for American society, up to and including today. 

The harm done by slavery disrupts the narration of the story of Sethe and her family. It is mutilated, and so like all readers, like the characters in the story, I had to make some kind of sense from the turbulent events. It starts with the rage that was evident in the present time of the story (1873-4), returning later with the arrival of Beloved. The novel opens in rage:

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old – as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). (3)

After slavery ended (1873-4):

The novel is set in the time of the so-called reconstruction of the south following the Civil War. Eighteen years earlier Sethe had escaped from Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky (oh the irony of the name) over the river to Cincinnati to join her mother-in-law. Slave Catchers arrived to return Sethe to the plantation with her children. She killed her 2 year old child and was prevented from killing the other children. By the time the story starts only the now grown up new-born lives with Sethe: Denver, a recluse.

Things change when Paul D, a former slave also from Sweet Home, arrives at the house. He throws out the baby’s ghost and the three of them settle down to live together. Then another young woman arrives claiming to be Beloved, the name of the murdered child, and more chaos ensues.

I find myself asking how many ways can people be damaged? There is the physical damage. On Sethe’s back are the scars of whippings, which she calls her tree. There is the economic damage. None of the Black characters find it easy to get work. The psychic damage is revealed in Paul D’s case by the tobacco tin, sealed inside are his memories of which he cannot speak. And then there are the wild dreams of Beloved, dreams that evoke the terrors of the Middle Passage and routine rape of female slaves. There is damage to relationships, the most shocking of which is Sethe’s killing of her own baby. 

[Sethe knew] That anybody white would take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful magical best thing – the part of her that was clean. No undreamable dreams about whether the headless, feetless torso hanging in the tree with a sign on it was her husband or Paul A; whether the bubbling-hot girls in the colored-school fire set by patriots included her daughter; whether a gang of whites invaded her daughter’s private parts, soiled her daughter’s thighs and threw her daughter out of the wagon. She might have to work in the slaughterhouse yard, but not her daughter. (295-6)

This is not an easy book to read. But the salvation, such that it is, will come from the community made by the neighbours in Cincinnati who look out for Sethe and her loved ones.

“They don’t know when to stop”: Publication 1987

Toni Morrison in 1998

When this book was published the US had been through yet more difficult times. In the previous decades the KKK still operated, Black children were still being killed in churches, Martin Luther King Jnr had been assassinated and Civil Rights Acts passed. I am reminded of the last words of Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother whose freedom from slavery had been bought by her son’s labour.

Baby Suggs grew tired, went to bed and stayed there until her big old heart quit. Except for the occasional request for color she said practically nothing – until the afternoon of the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to  Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but whitepeople. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said, and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever. (122-3).

Toni Morrison was influenced by both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement. In the Foreword to the Vintage edition she says that she had just decided to live off her earnings as a writer and given up her job when the idea of the book came to her:

I think now it was the shock of liberation that drew my thoughts to what “free” could possibly mean to women. (x)

While collecting material for The Black Book, Toni Morrison had come across the true story of Margaret Garner, who in 1856 killed her own child rather than allow it to return to slavery. She was drawn to this material.

The terrain, slavery, was formidable and pathless. To invite readers (and myself) into the repellent landscape (hidden, but not completely; deliberately buried, but not forgotten) was to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts. (xi)

And she writes of the need to reveal the vocal ghosts, to unsilence their voices and the memories of that awful time.

I hoped … that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. (xiii)

I find these statements powerful and attractive, full of good purpose and her intentions for the novel fulfilled.

The present day

Toni Morrison was born in 1931 and died in August 2019. She had been given countless awards and her writing remains highly regarded.  She wrote 11 novels for adults and some for children. Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997) complete the trilogy begun with Beloved.

Beloved continues to be relevant today. The struggles in the US to accommodate their history continues, evident in both the Black Lives Matter campaign and in the attempted coup by a mob of white-supremacist Americans on the Capitol on 6th January 2021. 

And in the UK we have our own history of slavery and the slave trade to come to terms with. Do we need an equally powerful novel to help us see our history?

My thanks to Dr Kasia Boddy for her lecture on Beloved hosted by Literature Cambridge in January 2021.

Beloved by Toni Morrison, first published in 1987. I used the Vintage edition published in 2010. 324pp

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The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I wanted to read more Angela Carter. I picked The Bloody Chamber as the timing was auspicious for a zoom lecture and discussion I planned to join. Ah me, the best laid plans and all that. I managed to miss the session. And perhaps there were dark reasons for this consistent with the black tones of the stories?

The Bloody Chamber

This collection of ten short stories are based on well-known tales, such as Blue Beard, Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast and Puss-in-Boots. They were published in 1979, at the height of feminism’s second wave. The stories are of different lengths, one as long as 34 pages, another only two. 

Angela Carter explained that she wanted ‘to extract the latent content from traditional stories’. Just pause a moment to consider that phrase ‘latent content’. How often in fairy stories are young women, nearly always young and beautiful women, rescued by handsome men, or their fathers, from sleeping, or being eaten, or some other gruesome fate? What about the other girls? What about the women who were no longer virginally attractive to men?

What Angela Carter does in their retelling is to suggest some alternatives. Take the truly terrible story of Blue Beard, who murders each of his wives, and keeps each victim in a room in his castle for the next wife to find. The story is retold by the final wife in The Bloody Chamber. She is about to be beheaded when she is rescued by her revolver-toting mother, who hearing distress in her voice over the telephone comes at all speed to rescue her. See what she did there? A little dose of modern day sprinkled into an old tale. 

Feminism in The Bloody Chamber

So the introduction of feminism into these tales is very welcome. The reader, female or male, must ask why, in traditional fairy tales, women and girls are represented in the ways they are. And how would the world look if power did not lie only with men? How would the world look if sexual relations were built not on pain and subjugation?

The result is a flamboyant and exuberant set of stories. 

To begin with, the heroines are often strong young women, with intelligence and respect for others. The protagonist of The Bloody Chamber is a lonely young woman, with a talent for playing the piano. Her new husband has offered her huge wealth, and isolation in a castle with its own piano. Of course, there is a key on the ring which he entrusts to her, that she must not use. But of course she does. And what she finds is horrifying. Because she has disobeyed him, he intends to kill her. 

Or, in The Courtship of Mr Lyon, Beauty is a thoughtful and perceptive young woman. Helped by the beast’s spaniel, she comes to see that she could be happy with Mr Lyon. She is not helplessly caught up in his spell as in the original story. And so on.

One of the themes is that domesticity can be a horrendous trap. Again, the castle in The Bloody Chamber is seamlessly managed, the décor is beautiful, delicious meals arrive, all comfort is provided. But the secret is in the chamber where the previous wives have been horribly murdered and arranged as if in domestic situations; on a bed, under a sheet, or impaled by an Iron Maiden. An Iron Maiden is not very domestic, but note its name.

The dangers in distorted male sexuality is another aspect of these stories that is hard to read. Blue Bear of course, but the tiny story of The Snow Child is deeply disturbing and entirely about a man dominating his wife. (She rejects it, but only after we have seen his vile attempts to impose his will on her).

The style of The Bloody Chamber

Angela Carter’s writing is gloriously flamboyant, extravagant and exaggerated, as fits the origins and subversions of her stories. Some of it is joyous. I loved the story of Puss-in-Boots, and our hero, like Figaro in The Barber of Seville that she evokes at the start of the story, is wonderfully naughty, impish and daring. He has his own side-line in feline amorous pursuits, but he happily and ingeniously engages in supporting his human friend to defeat the pantomime older man who has married an attractive young woman. The story is told with swagger and bravado, entirely appropriate to this engaging adventurer. Puss-in-Boots tells how he became the owner of the boots one night as he sang of his passion:

Do you see these fine, high, shining leather boots of mine? A young cavalry officer made me the tribute of, first, one; then after I celebrated his generosity with a fresh obbligato, the moon no fuller than my heart – whoops! I numbly spring aside – down comes the other. Their high heels will click like castanets when Puss takes his promenade upon the tiles, for my song recalls flamenco, all cats have a Spanish tinge although Puss himself elegantly lubricates his virile, muscular, native bergamasque with French, since that is the only language in which you can purr. (68)

There is so much fun to be had in that paragraph, and also much to be admired in the language and vocabulary used. It is operatic, although the subject is an attempt to stop feline caterwauling. 

The imagery used in these stories also underlines her purposes. In The Bloody Chamber the protagonist describes the removal of her clothes by her new husband ‘as if he were stripping the leaves off an artichoke’ (15). We can notice again, the male attempt to control the woman and where there is the additional notion of him consuming her.

In the bloody chamber itself, so full of horrors, the young pianist finally comes across the corpse of her husband’s most recent, Romanian wife. 

She was pierced, not by one but by a hundred spikes, this child of the land of the vampires who seemed so newly dead, so full of blood … (29)

Every sense is enticed in these stories, not just visual ones as in the spikes and the blood. But she draws on taste (I love artichokes and they have a rich and complex taste and texture. The image of peeling a young woman like an artichoke I fin to be alluring and disgusting in equal measure.) There are plenty of sounds, and music is a frequent aspect of hearing: the piano, the opera, the caterwauling, locks and keys and birds. And touch, our sense of touch is fully activated: furs, cold keys, spikes, roses and thorns. Smell, lilies, and blood, and wine and other exotic aromas.

When I read The Magic Toyshop recently, I said in my post that I wanted to read more of her work. It took something of a strong stomach, and required some trust in the writer because even now I find her to be shocking. It is not just the material, the inversion of traditional subjects, but the language in which she coaches her insights  into the reader’s awareness. In the post I said of The Magic Toyshop, ‘I loved its magic, its sensuality and the creative way in which abusive behaviour is revealed and gets its comeuppance.’ 

Angela Carter

Angela Carter (1940 – 1992) was born in Eastbourne, UK. She spent some of her childhood with her grandmother in Yorkshire as an evacuee. After school she followed her father into journalism, and then to Bristol University. She wrote novels, short stories, articles, as an editor and translator and in TV, film and radio. 

Her biographer Edmund Gordon refers to her ‘subversive intelligence’ which  contrasted with the sober social realists who dominated fiction in the ‘60s in the UK. 

If you have stuck with me this far, I will reveal the reason I missed the online session about The Bloody Chamber. I am discomforted by the prolonged effects of the pandemic, and this manifests in missing appointments and muddling up times – which I have done a few times recently. No bloody chambers here!

See also the post on The Magic Toyshop (1967) which was included in the Decades Project in 2020 on this blog.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, published in 1979. I read the edition from Vintage, 1995. 126pp

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The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

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

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

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

The End of Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it is not yet the end of days.

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

Related posts

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

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

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Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts

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

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

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

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The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

This is such a strange book. When I had finished reading I asked myself what on earth was it about? I wrote two pages of A4 notes to help me answer that question and to prepare this blog post. You had better read the novel yourself if you can’t make out anything from what I say. 

The Towers of Trebizond is my contribution to the #1956Club. I have read two other novels by Rose Macaulay recently (much earlier ones, see below) and have several copies of her other works which I inherited from my mother. The edition I read was a 1959 reprint, from the Reprint Society. You can find out more about the #1956Club at two blogs: KaggysBookishRamblings and Simon at StuckinaBook.

The Towers of Trebizond

The novel is set in the decade following the end of the Second World War. It follows a small group of missionaries who go to Turkey to convert the population. There is Aunt Dot, probably in her fifties, who owns a camel and is an inveterate traveller. She wishes to emancipate the women of Turkey. Then there is Father Chauntry-Pigg who is rather high church and has an interest in certain styles of churches. He keep relics in his pockets. With them goes Laurie, Dot’s niece and the narrator, who has not much more to do that offer to be a companion and to write and illustrate the travel aspects of Dot’s projected book. She also helps care for the camel.

This foursome are joined by others from time to time. They arrive in Istanbul and pick up Halide, a doctor, converted to Anglicanism while studying in England and in love with a Turkish man, who wants a Muslim wife. There is David and Charles and a complicated case of plagiarism, connected with another book about travelling in Turkey. And Laurie’s married lover Vere meets her on the Mediterranean coast.

From Istanbul the missionary party set off for the eastern sea board of the Black Sea, and for Trebizond (modern day Trabzon) a city that once was at the heart of the Empire of Trebizond. Rose Macaulay writes beautiful passages about their travels. They move on to Armenia, close to the Russian border, and Aunt Dot and Father Pigg disappear. Laurie suspects they have entered Russia, behind the Iron Curtain at this time. With no news of them she travels on by herself with the camel. She meets her lover and after some time in Palestine and Syria crosses into Israel. From here she travels home, her journey having taken her to many biblical and archaeological sites. I greatly enjoyed the lively descriptions of her travels and of the history of the places she visited.

The pace changes when she get home as she (and we) wait for Aunt Dot and her companion to reappear. There is a sub plot about a book David is writing using the works of Charles, about his travel in Turkey. Charles was eaten by a shark. There are other ongoing dramas as well, including about spying (Dot and her companion spend time with Philby and McLean in Moscow) and lots and lots about the influence of the church on places, buildings, morality etc etc. And there is an episode about training an ape to play chess, go to church, drive etc etc.

It’s all pretty bonkers, especially when there is a fatality in the penultimate chapter. This seems like a huge plot event to raise at this point in the novel. But we have been given a tour of many different things, and Rose Macaulay appears to be saying – embrace everything, reject nothing.

Rose Macaulay

Here is another prolific twentieth century woman writer, and one who has been somewhat neglected in the last 50 years. Born in 1881 Rose Macaulay lived until 1958, having written 23 novels and a great deal of journalism, and other works. The Towers of Trebizond is perhaps her best known novel. It was her last. She was well respected in her lifetime, but her popularity has not been sustained which is a shame as she has things to say to us today. 

In this novel she writes about the need to emancipate women, which was her lifelong concern. She was also interested in Anglicanism and the role of the church, as well as in adultery. She was no advocate of any particular system, and her comments on Soviet Russia would have horrified staunch supporters of the Cold War at the time. She was also critical of the creation of Israel for the suffering caused to the Palestinians. 

The narrator adopts a rather flat, even naïve style to report on the fantastic adventures. A wide-eyed traveller is a good basis for travel writing. She offers little judgement on the characters, or on the events, although there is discussion of the moral basis for their behaviours. This serves to underline the difficulties of truth and goodness in Europe in 1956. There is much discussion of spies, for example.

And then there’s the camel which provides possibly the second or third most famous opening line in fiction:

“Take my camel, dear,” said Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. (7)

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1956. I used an edition from the Reprint Society, published in 1959. 256pp Both NYRB and Flamingo have published paperback versions.

Related posts

Potterism: a tragi-farcical tract by Rose Macaulay, published in 1920 (on Bookword).

Non-Combatants and Other: writings against war, 1916-1945 by Rose Macaulay, published in 1916 (also on Bookword).

HeavenAli’s review in December 2018, who enjoyed The Towers of Trebizond while finding it ‘all wonderfully bonkers’. 

And StuckinaBook relishes its style, the humour and the ramble. Simon is one the hosts of the #1956Club.

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Character Breakdown by Zawe Ashton

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

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

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

Character Breakdown

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

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

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

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

I don’t want to be anyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Potterism by Rose Macaulay

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

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

Potterism: a tragi-farcical tract

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All is resolved and Jane is free to marry Gideon. 

Gender in Potterism

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

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

Structure in Potterism

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

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

Rose Macaulay

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

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

Other relevant on-line commentaries

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

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Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns

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

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

Benefits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women’s issues

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

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

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

Zoe Fairbairns

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

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

The Decades Project 2020

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

The most recent  choices for the project are

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

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

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Not all jolly hockey sticks then!

During Lockdown many readers have become quite nostalgic. Some even pine for their schooldays. Not me. But it turned my mind to the wealth of adult fiction that involves girls’ schools and more specifically girls’ boarding schools.

The setting provides a number of useful features for an author:

  • Action is confined in space (the school grounds) and time (the school terms)
  • Action is set against a routine of lessons, games and prep
  • Relationships are intensified 
  • Contrasts between girls of the same age are brought into relief
  • Parents are absent
  • Power relationships play out: older-younger pupils; teachers-pupils; boarding-day pupils; established-new girls
  • The outside world is both alluring and a danger
  • The girls are usually in a state of transition into adulthood.

And it is perhaps this last feature that has inspired so many writers to explore those vital school years.

Boarding Schools Books

Here are six including some with links to posts on Bookword:

Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil (1926)

Mollie and Joan meet at Allendale School. The girls in this novel all have spirit and determination, even if from time to time they become weary or depressed. The school ethos encourages this capable attitude, and there is no suggestion that marriage is the answer to the girls’ problems, or that any of the young women aspire to a husband. Joan can see that she will need to earn a living and Mollie’s father turns out to be a crook so the girls learn to rely upon each other.

The values that are lauded in this book include always telling the truth, helping one another, being positive, mucking in and so on. Loyalty is a key theme.

(Published by Blackie & Sons)

Frost in May by Antonia White (1933)

Somehow I had neglected this book, even though it was frequently quoted in the education literature. It’s nearly a textbook on how not to educate a girl, is liberal education, how to ‘break’ the child’s spirit. 

It’s a beautiful evocation of childhood and that moment when a child is poised to take on the world, but not yet powerful enough to get her own way, and which is actually a good thing. The child, Nanda, in the end falls foul of the convent and her convert father. One cheers. 

Lovely introduction by Elizabeth Bowen (in 1948) who calls it a work of art.

(Published in Virago Modern Classics)

Consequences by EM Delafield (1919)

Consequences is hard to read, kept me awake at night, because the protagonist, Alex, was damaged by her family and her education. In its quiet way this is a tragedy.

Alex Clare is born into an upper-class family, not especially rich, with a catholic father and she is the oldest child of 5. Her parents hold old-fashioned views about what girls should be, do and look like. She is expected to grow up as they require, come out as a debutante, find a husband and repeat the cycle for her own daughters.

But Alex is not able to follow this trajectory. Not especially beautiful, clever, or able to see what her parents want of her she craves affection, and when she causes her younger sister to have an accident she is sent off to a convent in Belgium to be put right. She develops a ‘pash’ for fellow student Queenie Torrance, and later she transfers affection first to Mother Gertrude and then to her sister-in-law.

On her return she still receives no guidance but is introduced to the social scene in London and becomes engaged to a selfish and boring young man. When she realises that engagement to such a vapid young man would not be right she runs off to become a nun under the influence of Mother Superior Gertrude. It does not end well for her.

Alex has had no support or guidance of any worth, including from her school, to achieve this. It’s a searing and feminist account of a damaging upbringing. It is hard to read because one can only imagine all the many young women who were as oppressed as Alex.

(Published by Persephone Books)

E.M. Delafield by Howard Coster. Bromide print 1930s. NPG x 10670. Used under Creative Commons Agreement, with thanks to the National Portrait Gallery.

Abigail by Magda Szabó (1970)

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix (2020)

A long book but a gripping story. It is 1943 and Hungary is in danger of being defeated in the war. So a father sends his daughter away to school. How will Georgina survive the separation? How will she fit in as she offends the girls with whom she must live? The school has very strict Protestant rules (she describes it as Calvinist) and she breaks these too: has personal possessions, for example.

The father, the General, has placed Gina in Matula for her protection, as he fears she will be used against him if she is found. He heads an anti-Nazi underground movement. It turns out that the children’s guardian angel (Abigail, a statue with a pitcher in which you place your letter of request in the garden)  and the local dissident (anti-war, anti-Nazi) are the same person and that with his network they manage to save Gina. The finale is exciting as the conspirators evade the searchers.

Gina has to learn to trust others and that danger can be found outside the school she longed to escape from.

(Published by Macelhose Press)

Villette by Charlotte Bronte (1853)

Who could forget Lucy Snowe who goes to work as a teacher in Belgium and falls for M Paul Emanuel, an esteemed teacher at the school? Lucy is a passive young woman to whom terrible things keep happening, and I have never thought much of this heroine.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

Lowood is a charity school for poor and orphaned children to which Jane Eyre is sent when her aunt tires of her. The headmaster Mr Brocklehurst is cruel and the girls suffer under his rule. Jane befriends Helen, who dies in a typhus outbreak at the school. Jane spends six years as a pupil and two more as a teacher in Lowood before she goes as a governess to Thornfield Hall. 

Lowood is important in Jane’s development, especially because of the example set by her friend Helen and the guidance of one teacher, Miss Temple.

Boarding schools especially religious ones, do not come out of this brief survey very well. Or perhaps it is the parenting that is the focus of the criticism. Unloving parents and guardians who pack their awkward girls off for someone else to put them right.

Other novelists have their heroines teach themselves: Mary Oliver: a life by May Sinclair, for example. 

Can you suggest any more girls’ school novels? What have I missed?

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