Category Archives: Learning

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair

Here is another book about a spirited young woman who rejects what her parents intend for her: a life of submission and sacrifice. Just like the heroine and writer of the first in this series of the Decades Project, My Brilliant Career, May Sinclair describes how her protagonist, Mary Olivier, broke through to her own freedom. She also rejected marriage. This novel was first published in 1919.

This is the second book for the Decades Project (see below for more details), being my choice of books from the decade 1910-1919 republished by Virago.

Mary Olivier: A Life

We follow the life of Mary Olivier from her early years until her maturity, 1865 – 1910, in five books, written from Mary’s point of view but in the third person (or from time to time in the second person). We follow her through her struggles as the youngest child and only daughter in a middle class Victorian family. Here she is as she reached puberty.

Mamma whispered to Mrs. Draper, and Aunt Bella whispered to Mamma: “Fourteen.” They always made a mystery about being fourteen. They ought to have told her.

Her thoughts about her mother went up and down. Mamma was not helpless. She was not gentle. She was not really like a wounded bird. She was powerful and rather cruel. You could only appease her with piles of hemmed sheets and darned stockings. If you didn’t take care she would get hold of you and never let you rest till she had broken you, or turned and twisted you to her own will. She would say it was God’s will. She would think it was God’s will.

They might at least have told you about the pain. The knives of pain. You had to clench your fists till the fingers bit into the palms. Over the ear of the sofa cushions she could feel her hot eyes looking at her mother with resentment.

She thought: “You had no business to have me. You had no business to have me.” (124)

In many ways this is a book about the struggle between a mother, who is staunchly Christian and believes in a duty of sacrifice and submission for women and her daughter who is more independently spirited. Her mother is also very controlling using her meekness and dependence to manipulate her brothers and Mary into taking care of her, especially after the death of their father. In the book the love of ‘little mamma’ for Mary is always conditional and always comes after her devotion to her three sons.

In the chapter entitled Maturity, Mary is rejected by a man because she is no longer compliant. She herself would have rejected him, but for a while it makes her miserable, being jilted.

Mamma had left her alone with her [maiden] Aunt Lavvy.

“I suppose you think that nobody was ever so unhappy as you are,” Aunt Lavvy said.

‘I hope nobody is. I hope nobody ever will be.”

“Should you say I was unhappy?” 

“You don’t look it. I hope you are not.”

“Thirty-three years ago I was miserable, because I couldn’t have my own way. I couldn’t marry the man I cared for.”

“Oh – that. Why didn’t you?”

“My mother and your father and your Uncle Victor wouldn’t let me.”

“”I suppose he was a Unitarian?”

“Yes. He was a Unitarian. But whatever he’d been I couldn’t have married him. I couldn’t do anything I liked. I couldn’t go where I liked or stay where I liked. I wanted to be a teacher but I had to give it up.”

Why?”

“Because your Uncle Victor and I had to look after your Aunt Charlotte.” (221)

The novel is also about how, against the wishes of her mother, she teaches herself languages and philosophy and turns away all suitors. Sometimes this is because she is too independent, but when she finds a man she can love deeply and who is free to marry her, she still cannot bring herself to sacrifice her inner life. 

Reflection on Mary Olivier

Much of the novel is Mary’s discussion of competing religious or philosophical positions. It’s a long book – too long – and some of her dilemmas about men’s affections or philosophy are repetitive. But it must have been something of a shock at the end of the WW1 to see a woman’s intellectual life so favoured. Nevertheless she was a much-read and popular writer. 

The protest against a life of sacrifice for women has a long history. Here we see the pressures from social convention, religious beliefs, and lack of role models for young women to pursue education at that time. In this novel the restrictions are policed by the mother. I was reminded of Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton (1953). 

Another view of this novel, looking at May Sinclair’s neglected status, can be found on Heavenali’s blog last January.

May Sinclair 1863-1946

In some ways this novel is autobiographical, although it might be more accurate to say that it drew on the author’s experiences. She knew what it was to have a father who suffered from alcoholism, and to have brothers who died young. She also cared for her mother, earning their living by writing. And she too educated herself. 

There are some experimental aspects of this novel. For example her use of language to reflect the age of the protagonist: simple vocabulary and short sentences in infancy. She moved freely between using the 3rd person (he/she) and the 2nd person (you) and this seems to signal a moment of reflection about her inner life. In the last two pages she uses the first person: If it never came again I should remember. (380) 

She had written her first novel in 1897, Audrey Craven, and Mary Olivier: a life was her 13th published novel. She wrote 23 in all. She was a poet, critic and essayist. She moved in literary circles in London, unlike Mary Olivier, and was an active suffragette. With such achievements she deserves to be rescued from obscurity.

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair was first published in 1919. It was reissued by Virago in 1980. 380pp

The Decades Project 2020

This year I have returned to adult fiction and to my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20thCentury 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. I am choosing one from each decade every month. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The first choice for the project was My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

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Books on the theme of Archaeology

I am lucky enough to live within a mile of an important archaeological dig that the University of Exeter has been exploring for several years. Detectorists discovered Roman coins and the dig began. The received wisdom – that the Romans did not establish themselves west of Exeter – was overturned. There is evidence of iron age living, of a Roman road (where was it going from and to?) and of occupation up to the early middle ages. And then the settlement moved. The village was abandoned and a new settlement established where our village now stands. 

Every year I go and visit the dig site, peer at the variations in soil colours, notice the markers, sometimes orange buckets, sometimes slips of paper, and try to picture people living on the site.

Sutton Hoo

Occasionally I read about archaeology. Next to our own dig I think the Anglo Saxon finds at Sutton Hoo ship burial (Suffolk) are the most engaging. A long time ago, before the National Curriculum, I used to teach my school students about Sutton Hoo, not least for its links with Beowulf. The finds are spectacular and the shadow of the ship in the mound is compelling. I have visited the displays at the British Museum more times than I can recall and plan to revisit the site of the curious mounds next to the river Deben next summer.

Here are two books related to Sutton Hoo, the first of which is a novel.

The Dig by John Preston 

The story follows the progress of the dig at Sutton Hoo in 1939. It is told in the first person by several key players: Mrs Pretty who owned the site, the first archaeologist Basil Brown, one of the professional archaeologists Mrs Piggott, and the boy Robert Pretty.

This structure of the novel mirrors a dig, as we slice through the incomplete telling of the stories of all their lives and find clues, some of which are never followed up. The gradual uncovering of the finds is well told through Basil Brown, an amateur employed by Mrs Pretty who is shoved aside by men with more class and education.

The novel reminds us that knowledge is always mediated through the time of its uncovering, in this case an Anglo Saxon king’s burial is seen in the context of the imminent outbreak of war. And we see how everyone’s story is partial, incomplete and above all unknown to others – especially the women’s. Mrs Pretty is mourning her husband, attending a medium for consultation, and Peggy Piggott is on her unsatisfactory honeymoon (sexless one imagines) and attracted to the photographer who happens to be Mrs Pretty’s nephew.

I enjoyed this book, but I wonder if I would have got so much out of it if I hadn’t known the story of the discovery and wasn’t so familiar with the artefacts.

The Dig by John Preston, published in 2007 by Penguin 230pp.

The Sutton Hoo Story: encounters with early England by Martin Carver

This is the account of the evidence and research into the site by the man who directed the most recent dig, published in 2017. All the mounds have been explored, all the evidence described, and all the theories examined. The context for the finds in England, but also in relation to Europe, is laid out. The author reminds us that no account can be final as archaeology is a dynamic study.

The Sutton Hoo Story: encounters with early England by Martin Carver, published by Boydell Press in 2017. 240pp

Essays

Archaeology has inspired creative non-fiction and none more exhilarating than this poet’s view. I was very pleased to come across this book earlier in the year. You can find the full review on Bookword (October 2019), here.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

This is a collection of essays by a Scottish poet. Her themes include time and archaeology. Among other meditations she takes us on two digs, first in Alaska where a 500 year old village is being washed into the ocean. The Yup’iq people live in the village and still live off the land and sea. The dig links the people with their history and the finds extend beyond mere knowledge to influence young people in the village, and the villagers’ understanding of themselves and their past.

A second dig on Orkney also features a site under threat. At the Links of Noltland a large community created in stone is being uncovered, but funds will run out before they are able to  explore the full extent of the remains. Successive generations built on the foundations of the earlier settlements but the elements will take anything that the archaeologists cannot recover.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie, published by Sort of books in 2019. 247pp

Archaeology and more fiction

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss 

Set in the 1980s, Silvie’s self-taught father has dragged his family on a holiday to re-enact an iron age camp. The possibility of authentically living as our ancestors did is challenged, not just because living off the land proves difficult and is food supplemented by crisps and cola from the local garage. The beliefs and attitudes of the enthusiasts take on a very threatening aspect reminding the reader of our primitive origins. 

It is a short book, but written powerfully, and the prose develops a momentum, uninterrupted by speech marks or line gaps. There is a full post about this novel on Bookword (June 2019): here.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, published in 2018 by Granta. 152pp

Agatha Christie

And of course the famous crime writer Agatha Christie was married to an archaeologist, Sir Max Mallowan and accompanied him on his digs in Nineveh and Syria and Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Wikipedia refers to these novels, influenced by her archaeological experiences:

  • Murder in Mesopotamia (1936)
  • Death on the Nile (1937)
  • Appointment with Death (set in Jerusalem) (1938)
  • They came to Baghdad (1951)

Can you add any other books, fiction or nonfiction, that link to the theme of archaeology? 

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Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I have heard it said that Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s least good novel, not their favourite. Such readers suggest that it has a soggy middle as Catherine Morland is carried away by her novel-inspired imagination. Northanger Abbey has the reputation of being a satire on the contemporary popularity of the gothic novel, such as Mrs Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (mentioned in the text). 

I have heard people say that Henry Tilney is the perfect hero, deserving of the love of a good woman because of his patience and tact. And I have read that it is a novel about novels and novel readers. Do any of these views capture the value of Northanger Abbey? Are these the reasons to reread it yet again?

Northanger Abbey

Catherine Morland is seventeen, unworldly and from a large family of adequate means who live quietly in Wiltshire. She is taken to stay in Bath by a friend of the family. The scene is set for Catherine’s adventures to show up some truths about Bath and the world. 

Under the care Mr and Mrs Allen she experiences the fashionable life of Bath, at first not knowing anyone, then befriended by the Thorpes. Isabella becomes her best friend. Isabella’s brother John Thorpe sees the world as he wants, and he assumes that Catherine is interested in him, although she is soon bored of his bragging company. 

She prefers Henry Tilney who was introduced to her by the Master of Ceremonies in the Lower Assembly Rooms. He danced with her when she knew no one. She meets his sister and Eleanor quickly becomes a better friend than Isabella. Under the misapprehension that she is an heiress, thanks to John Thorpe’s bragging misinformation, General Tilney encourages his son’s attentions and Catherine is invited to Northanger Abbey.

The General returns from a trip to London where he has been disabused of his ideas about Catherine and turns her out of the house. Henry follows her and declares his love. All are reconciled.

Believing what you want to believe

A number of people in this story believe what they want to believe. Catherine wants some mystery and drama and so mistakes what she finds in the Abbey. The General has expectations for Catherine in Mr Allen’s imaginary fortune. And when he learns her true situation he is unable to admit to his own mistakes and treats her shockingly. While she was wrong about his capacity for murder, she had rightly suspected that he was capable of great cruelty.

Isabella and John Thorpe both believe the best of themselves, larding their conversations with Catherine with obvious untruths and self-flattery. And their selfish and careless behaviour places her in some embarrassing and unwanted situations.

Of all the people that Catherine meets it is only the Tilneys, Henry and Eleanor, who do not use her to flatter themselves or to fulfil their wishes. And Catherine herself, when she relies on her feelings rather than her wild imagination has good judgement. She also learns from her own hot-headedness and from the betrayal of her ‘friend’ Isabella Thorpe.

And the writing tells us …

Much of the book is written in the negative: what you shouldn’t think about the heroine or her story, how her origins are not mean, her experiences not dire, and how the story does not end. It is an achievement to have made a novel about a heroine who is hardly remarkable, indeed has many faults. The first page is a teasing account of all the reasons why Catherine does not make a good heroine. She has attractions however, which we finally learn on p 41, with a light twist in the final line.

…her heart was affectionate, her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind – her manners just removed from the awkwardness and shyness of a girl; her person pleasing, and when in good looks, pretty – and her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is. (41)

And this teasing continues throughout the book, especially when Catherine’s imagination gets the better of her. 

And throughout, Jane Austen reminds us that in novels we are often invited to expect the unreasonable and the heroic. When General Tilney sends Catherine away, without even a servant to accompany her on a complicated journey, it will look to the world as if she is in disgrace. The author takes a moment to remind us that Catherine is not a romantic heroine.

A heroine returning, at the close of her career, to her native village, in all triumph of recovered reputation and all the dignity of a countess, with a long train of noble relations in their several phaetons, and three waiting-maids in a travelling chaise-and-four, behind her is an event on which the pen of the contriver may well delight to dwell: it gives credit to every conclusion, and the author must share in the glory she so liberally bestows. – But my affair is widely different: I bring back my heroine to her home in solitude and disgrace; and no sweet elation of sprits can lead me into minuteness. A heroine in a hack post-chaise is such a blow upon sentiment, as no attempt at grandeur or pathos can withstand. Swiftly therefore shall her post-boy drive through the village, amid the gaze of Sunday groups, speedy shall be her descent from it. (230)

There is a great deal in Northanger Abbey about books and reading and Catherine’s excitement at the latest sensational novel and at the prospect of visiting a real Abbey is evidence of her lack of judgement. 

The author herself has a short rant about how novels and novel-reading are disrespected by reviewers and readers and aspirational society. Towards the end of Northanger Abbey Henry contradicts Catherine’s suggestion that reading novels is not undertaken by gentlemen …

‘… because they are not clever enough for you. Gentlemen read better books.’

‘The person, be it a gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.’ (121)

And I might just draw your attention to Jane Austen’s very post-modern device of drawing attention to the novel’s structure and devices as you read, in other words, adding a little meta-fiction.

A British film adaptation was made in 2007, screenplay by Andrew Davies and directed by Jon Jones. I have not seen it. 

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen first published in 1818. I read the Penguin English Library edition from 1972. 252pp

Related posts

Lady Susan by Jane Austen (April 2015)

Pursuing Jane Austen (June 2019)

In the society of Jane Austen (December 2019)

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Decades Projects 2019 and 2020

Eleven books, one chosen from each decade since 1900, reviewed each month from January, all children’s fiction, all by women – that’s what the Decades Project has meant in 2019. I have so much enjoyed choosing, revisiting or discovering the books for 2019. In previous years I have looked at fiction and nonfiction by women in the same way, enjoying the historical perspective. Here is a review of the eleven choices of children’s fiction and a preview of the theme for 2020. 

The Decade Project in 2019

Some book choices were treats as I revisited pleasures and treasures from my childhood. I so much enjoyed Ballet Shoes, for example. And then had the pleasure of finding my original copy, now coverless, when later in the year I inherited my mother’s books. The Eagle of the Ninth is a book I have enjoyed as a child, a young history teacher and again in my mature years.

I had never read The Little White Horse, but it turned out to be a favourite read of many of Bookword’s followers. Goodnight Mr Tom was another book I was pleased to read for the first time.

From 2013

All these books were written by women. It is a very special kind of closeness to read to a young person, and I was reminded of my pleasure at reading to my daughter and more recently to my two grandsons. That one of my grandsons helped with the final post for 2019 was a happy bonus.

An early theme to emerge was the number of children in these stories who lacked parents. They were dead (The Secret Garden) or absent (Five Children and It) or plain incompetent (Goodnight, Mr Tom). The young people found themselves adopted (Ballet Shoes), or in boarding school (Joan’s Best Chum), or in care (The Story of Tracy Beaker), or in magical lands (The Little White HorseA Wizard of Earthsea).

The absence of parents allowed for freedom, discovery, growing up, the exercise of imagination and the development of a certain amount of self-confidence. Some children began as spoilt brats but all ended as reasonable human beings. Some children learned early to face hardships in life, being orphaned, being black in a racist society, physical abuse, abandonment, mortal danger.

And the young people in these stories met some very interesting characters: the Psammead, the archaeologist, a unicorn, wizards, old people, dragons.

The virtues that are encouraged by these stories have not changed much since 1900: resourcefulness, imagination, empathy, resilience, risk-taking. These are all good things and long may children’s fiction encourage them. 

Here are the links to the posts for the 11 choices in this year’s Decades Project:

How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell (2003)

The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson (1991)

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian (1983)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  by Mildred D Taylor (1976)

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes  by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It  by E Nesbit (1902)

The Decades Project in 2020: 

I have enjoyed each of the three historical projects so far undertaken, so I will continue with a new project in 2020. This year I will return to fiction and to my pleasures at rereading and discovering previously published novels. To shape my choices I am going to use 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 published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago.

And I will start, as that collection does, with My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901).

Suggestions for this new series are always welcome.

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The Best Books for … changing my life

So us book-bloggers, we are always saying that books are very significant. So are librarians, publishers and writers. And that’s because books change lives. This post is stuffed full of books that have changed lives (with links to Bookword reviews). Which books changed your life? 

This is the first in an ad hoc series of posts which will all begin The best book for …  Some other ideas are … presents for my birthday; … reading in translation; … recommending to book groups; … taking on holiday; … when I am ill in bed; and so on.

The top 10 most influential books in the Baileys’s poll:

Back in November 2014 I found a list of  books that had ‘impacted, shaped or changed readers lives’ organised by Bailey’s (who at that time sponsored the Women’s Prize for Fiction). I doubt whether it would be much different if they surveyed readers again today.

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Harry Potter by JK Rowling

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I Captured the Castle by Dodie Smith

Life-changing political books by women 

And in February last year the Guardian Review asked several influential women for their choices of life-changing political books by women. 

Harriet Harman and Mary Beard: The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer

Nicola Sturgeon: The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark and The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir

Diane Abbott: Why I’m no longer talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Gina Miller: Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

Jess Phillips: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Caroline Lucas: Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Natasha Walter: The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin

The Best Books for … changing my life

I have chosen just three books, or I would have had to mention 300. Each of these I think about a great deal still.

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976): a novel that suggested it was possible not to organised society around gender. (See also, Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin.)

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961): when asked why he had  never written another book as good as Catch-22 , Joseph Heller replied ‘Who has?’ That story may not be true, but it is good. This book told me you cannot expect rational behaviour in policy, politics or war. 

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954): in which the author showed that history has real meaning when understood through people’s lives. It is the source of my enduring love of history and the reason history was the focus of my first degree.

What would be on your list of influential or life-changing books? What I like about framing the topic in this way is that it bypasses any notion of favourites. Writing this post has made me think about some books I would like to reread. I’ll get on to that.

A related post

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

You might also look at A Book that Changed my Life by Ursula Le Guin, a post in June 2015 on Book View Café Blog. It is only fair that the writer who has the most references in this post gets to say something herself. And basically she says it’s an impossible task, but here is one list. It’s a good one. I was pleased to see it includes Thomas Berger’s novel Little Big Man. Our hero tells a great story the punchline of which is ‘it’s a great day to die!’ Go visit Ursula Le Guin’s list!

Over to you

So what would you add to the unlimitable list of best books for changing your life?

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In the society of Jane Austen

Don’t we all have something that we are very enthusiastic about? I hope so. Enthusiasm is a great thing. For some people it is steam trains; for others its chocolate or wine; I know people who enthuse about football. For me it’s the books of Jane Austen and even Jane Austen herself.

I own copies of all her novels, even those she did not complete. Some in duplicate. And the collection of her letters. And several biographies. And a lovely book called Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 300 years of classic covers by Margaret Sullivan.

I have visited her house at Chawton, looked at her legendary writing table and the patchwork bed quilt she made with her female relatives. I own and use a Penguin Pride and Prejudice mug

I am not a fan of tv or cinema adaptations of the novels. For one thing they focus on the story and must occasionally take liberties by showing details where the text would explain all. For example, some people may be surprised to learn that Mr Darcy did not dive into his pond wearing a loose shirt just before he met Elizabeth Bennett at Pemberley. And adaptations can limit the imagination. It is hard not to see Colin Firth at Mr Darcy, and it even made a jolly good joke when filming Brigit Jones. And the adaptations focus on story, story, story, leaving out so much. 

And I’m not a fan of sequels or finishings off of the unfinished. However much we want to write fan fiction I think it is better left unpublished. Nor am I a fan of some covers. What scene in Pride and Prejudice does this cover depict? 

And is this your view of Captain Wentworth of the red face?

Jane Austen Society

But I do love to talk about her novels. And I like to read them. And I like to hear other people talking about them and about Jane Austen herself. And so I joined the South West branch of the Jane Austen Society. There are more than 80 of us. We meet four times a year, and we listen to two people talking to us about some Jane Austen-related things. 

There are lots of things I enjoy about this group. There are some very well read people, scholars and experts in the group. And the officers arrange for experts from other parts of the country or even from abroad to address us. We learn about such things as dress and its social implications in Bath, her schoolteachers, the seaside, members of Jane Austen’s family, and her interest in music. We enjoy close textual appreciation, or hearing about the fate of the many editions of her books since they came out of copyright. 

It was with 27 other members of the society that I went to Kent in search of Jane Austen and wrote about it on a post, wondering why we undertake cultural tourism. I’m going on another trip next year. 

The friendliness of the group, mostly women, mostly of my age, all sharing an enthusiasm, is another reason to enjoy this group. 

And it’s a wonderful place to overhear remarks:

I didn’t even know there was a Jane Austen Society until I was having lunch with a friend.

I have a friend who’s very keen on Jane Austen.

I need to belong to the Migraine Society.

And to pick up useful bookish phrases:

… read to bits …

Cheap books lead hard lives.

Smoocher (meaning a borrower but not returner of small things, C19th)

And to gather reading suggestions. 

And following our most recent meeting I have started to reread Northanger Abbey

Does anyone share my enthusiasm for a writer in the same way?

Related Posts on Bookword

Lady Susan by Jane Austen (April 2015)

Pursuing Jane Austen (June 2019)

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Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

Sometimes you just know that you must own a copy of a certain book. I heard an extract and a strong recommendation on a recent Backlisted podcast and thought – that’s a book for me. I went as far as Waterloo Station to find it. And I bought it in hardback as it is the only edition currently available. I was setting myself up for disappointment. 

But I was not disappointed. The book contains a series of essays by the Scottish poet, Kathleen Jamie. It is a beautifully produced book, attractive cover, rich tactile paper and it contains some grainy but appropriate B&W photos. And the text is special too.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

This was not a random shot in the dark attraction. I am interested in archaeology and history. There’s an annual dig a mile from where I live which is rewriting Roman history in the South West. The site appears to have been in occupation for decades, perhaps centuries, before and after the Romans came and went. It is still unclear why the village relocated in the early medieval period. But this is not what I want to write about.

And good writing is always attractive. As an esteemed poet Kathleen Jamie has brought her skill and craft to the natural world for some time.

What attracted me most to these essays was that she connected archaeological finds with the indigenous peoples who live next to the site today. She travels to Alaska to visit a site of an abandoned Yup’iq village which is being gradually washed away by the Pacific Ocean as a result of rising sea levels. The artefacts are in danger of being lost. 

At the end of the dig the archaeologists display their finds, everyday objects, to the villagers. She reveals that archaeology is a force to connect communities and affirm a community’s history. In this case the dig has exposed finds from 500 years ago, before Europeans ‘discovered’ America.

[…] I wandered round from table to table, eavesdropping.

‘And you’d pull the bow like this …’

‘A lamp! My mother had one.’

‘Nowadays we use synthetic sinew, ballistic nylon.’

I saw George, the water man. The last time I had spoken to him he had a map in his hands. Here he was again, but he’d swapped the map for his seal-hunting harpoon, which stood taller than he did. He was showing the students how his modern harpoon toggle compared to those of his Yup’iq forbears at Nunallaq [the dig site]. His was the same shape, same mechanism, but made of brass.

A lady came with a basket she had woven from beach grass. She was plump and wore a bright floral kuspuk and tracksuit bottoms. Her basket was bow-shape, a foot deep and decorated with stylised flowers in what looked like torn strips from an old polythene bag, but no, she said, it’s seal-gut, dyed. I saw her in earnest conversation with a PhD student who was studying the grass-work. (86-88)

Kathleen Jamie visits another archaeological site, this one in danger from lack of funding. On Orkney a large community, built over centuries from stone, is being uncovered, but funds will run out and the elements will destroy what remains. Successive generations built on the foundations of the settlement of others.

Similar themes are approached in different ways in other essays. The Reindeer Cave puts the reader by the poet’s side in a cave in the West Highlands.

You’re sheltering in a cave, thinking about the Ice Age. (1)

Her reflections on the aeons of time and our own world are thoughtful and lyrical. A short observation of an eagle in a landscape is another gem. For a longer meditation she takes us to her past in a Chinese village during difficult times. Her observations of the people in the guest house, the place they find themselves in, and the people whose world they are visiting, these are a delight. Like no writer I know, she links time and the land in ways that provide insight into the current environmental and archaeological crises. 

You can find admiration from another book blogger, who was already familiar with the work of this Scottish poet: dovegreyreader scribbles in September.

Surfacing Kathleen Jamie  (2019) Published by Sort of books. 247pp

And another thing: podcasts

Mentioned that my source for this book was a podcast. I have recently become more enthusiastic about these, finding them excellent companions for the washing up. This was largely a matter of working out how to access them from my ipad, which turned out to be very simple. 

The podcast I mentioned in the opening of this post featured Elizabeth Taylor and specifically her novel The Soul of Kindness. So my discovering of Surfacing was serendipitous. How lovely. You can find a link to the Backlisted website here: https://www.backlisted.fm.

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The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson

My choice for the 1990s in the Decades Project is Tracy Beaker’s own story  about being a child in care in the 1990s, looking for foster care. This is the tenth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project focusing on children’s literature. 

Tracy Beaker is the most successful character created by Jacqueline Wilson. There are three books with her name, and a television series among other indications of success. What is it about this spirited young girl that endears her to readers of all ages?

The Story of Tracy Beaker

Tracy tells her own story, which is as it should be for a ‘looked after’ child. Tracy is her own heroine, which is also as it should be. 

She is 10 years old and does not have a great deal going for her. She is in care and no one wants her, despite attempts to find suitable foster parents. She lives in a children’s home (Dumping Ground) and has a social worker (Elaine). She is not an attractive kid and Nick Sharratt’s illustrations aptly show her as a tangle-haired girl in ordinary clothes. Usually she has a smile on her face. 

Nick Sharratt and Tracy Beaker from his website

Tracy writes her own story in a vivid and clear style, as if she is writing in a social services workbook: Who am I? Clear-sighted as regards others, she is blind to her own faults, finding excuses for them, like hay fever (not crying), and that her mother is a Hollywood actress and will visit next Saturday. (It is likely that her mother has lost touch with her.) She is fierce and loyal, beastly to her enemies and grudgingly respectful of the residential social workers who have to deal with her tantrums.

The reader quickly sees that she is a child who will stand up for herself and at the same time she is a sulky child with poor behaviour because she has been let down by her mother, foster carers and the world. Those around her find it difficult to get on with her, but ‘dopey Peter Ingham’ persists. He shares a birthday with her and is also a resident in the children’s home. The story of how they become friends is an important subplot.

It is the search for a decent home that drives the story. Poor Tracy has been a ‘chid of the week’ in the local paper. This is how she would advertise herself.

TRACY BEAKER

Have you a place in your hearts for dear little Tracy? Brilliant and beautiful, this little girl needs a loving home. Very rich parents preferred as little Tracy needs lots of toys, presents and pets to make up for her tragic past. (61)

This is what appeared in the paper, written by Elaine.

TRACY

Tracy is a lively, healthy, chatty, ten-year-old who has been in care for a number of years. Consequently she has a few behaviour problems and needs firm, loving handling in a long-term foster home. (62)

Tracy’s reaction is over the top, of course.

I ask you!

‘How could you do this to me, Elaine?’ I shrieked when I saw it. ‘Is that the best thing you can say about me? That I’m healthy? And anyway I’m not. What about my hay fever?’ 

‘I also say you’re lively. And chatty.’

‘Yeah. Well, we all know what that means. Cheeky. Difficult. Bossy.’

‘You said it, Tracy,’ Elaine murmured. (62-3)

And then along comes Cam, a writer who is trying to write something about children in care for a magazine. Tracy, who also has aspirations as a writer, decides to adopt her although Cam finds that this is not plain sailing. Tracy tested her to the limit.

Absent parents in children’s literature

Almost all the books featured in this year’s Decades Project have been stories about children whose parents are absent or dead or completely inadequate. From the Fossil orphans of Ballet Shoes and Mary in the big Yorkshire house in The Secret Garden, to Willie in Goodnight Mister Tom parents who are present and good enough are in short supply.

The job of fiction is to explore a different reality, and in this way children can see that others may be less fortunate than them, and it allows them to face their fears about their parents.

The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson, first published in 1991. I used the Corgi edition (Puffin Books) published in 2018. 217pp. This edition contains an additional story Tracy Beaker’s Thumping Heart. Illustrations by Nick Sharratt.

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 2000-2010. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian (1983)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  by Mildred D Taylor (1976)

A Wizard of Earthsea  by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes  by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It  by E Nesbit (1902)

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please email me with your email address: lodgecm@gmail.com

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A Writing Festival – why would you organise one?

So what is a writing festival? And why would you put one on? Who would come? And, again, why do it?

Last Saturday, after months of preparation, nearly 100 people visited the Mansion in Totnes for a writing festival. They wrote in workshops, viewed an exhibition, heard or presented their work at performances, and joined in the great poetry slam. 

So what was all that for?

My writing group, the Totnes Library Writers Group which organised the event, had three clear aims for the festival:

1. To promote participation in writing activities  by writers of any experience

2. To increase confidence  in writing by participants

3. To develop skills  of disseminating and sharing writing within the Writers Group

The group has been quite active in exploring aspects of writing, having published an anthology called Gallimaufry in 2015 (see below). In 2017 we held a performance event to celebrate our fourth birthday. We wanted to do something different after these two experiments. 

We know the excitement of writing and of sharing our work within a community of writers. A festival was an attractive and compelling project at the start. Pretty soon we will have to ask – and what will be next?

So what was there to do at the festival?

We are proud of our programme, its scope, its quality and its appeal. There was so much to do. You could choose up to four from the 12 workshops on offer:

  • Researching your local history
  • Finding your inner storyteller
  • Storytelling (a workshop for children)
  • Music and poetry
  • Journaling – Creating your Morning Pages
  • Writing for magazines
  • Podcasts – writing for radio
  • Turning your ideas into stories – writing fiction
  • Chinese takeaway – inspiration from ancient Chinese poets
  • Blogging is citizen publishing
  • Writing for children
  • Finding your voice 

All the workshops were designed to get people writing and to include people who had not written before, or who were trying a new genre. There were performance events by members of the writers group, and for any participants and by our nonagenarian writer of totally tasteless verse.

Children from the local secondary school had produced and displayed some impressive writing in the same hall as another of our poets offered to write poems in three minutes, and one of our artist-poets sold items that she had created: bookmarks, ex libris labels and greetings cards.

The climax was the poetry Slam, won by Richie Green, organised by Jackie Juno, herself a successful slam contestant at Glastonbury and a Bard of Exeter. I particularly enjoyed this event because it was full of dynamism and excitement, which I had not previously associated with poetry.

Who came and what did they say about it?

From 9.30, when we opened the doors, people arrived to join in. Our audience were aged from 4 to 95 years old. About 73% were female. The feedback indicated that we had reached many people and that our group will enjoy new active writers in the future.

We were pleased that the local MP joined us in the afternoon. She was able to hear some of the performances by members of the writers group and she commissioned a poem from our 3-minute poet. 

And here is a word cloud from the comments made by participants asked to say what was the best thing about the workshops.

Who organised it?

It was a huge amount of work and learning and the planning absorbed us from March to September – six months. I wonder whether we would have set out to organise it if we had known quite how much work it would entail. We were a group of six people from the Writers Group, with help from other members. We were determined to keep it manageable and local. 

The proof of the first intention, manageability, is found in the fact that we were all still standing on Saturday. 

And we fulfilled our intention to put on a local festival: every workshop leader came from the town or near it, and it demonstrated that there is a great deal of local talent. Most of the participants were local as well. And we were able to use a very central location, a space made available for community use by the Totnes Community Development Society: the Mansion. The building needs attention, but we prettied it up with loads of bunting made from books.

Who funded it?

From the earliest stages of the planning we agreed that we wanted to pay the workshop leaders the going rate of £150 for a 90-minute workshop. We believe that writers should be paid for their work. With 12 workshops that would mean quite a lot of money: £1800 for that aspect of the festival alone. We planned to charge no more than £5 per session to ensure the event was accessible to all, and had less than £50 in the kitty at that time, so we had to set about getting funds. I will own up to missing a deadline for a grant from one potential funder. It was a bad moment. But we did persuade enough organisations that it was worth investing in and in the end we found enough money to do what we wanted. Our funders included

Totnes Town Council

South Hams District Council

Network of Wellbeing, Totnes

Arts Council Lottery Fund

Devon County Council

And some generous donations by local people and organisations.

High spots

For me there were two very different but special moments: the slam and the day we heard we had Arts Council Lottery Funding. 

What I didn’t do

And while I was involved in all that I failed to pick any blackberries and I found no time to write. Irony, thy name is organising a writing festival.

And now … ?

Gallimaufry or why my writing group is cock-o-hoop (January 2016)

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My Bookish August

This has been a rather mad month in terms of bookish and writing activities. I know we are barely half way though August but it has been non-stop in the Bookword world. 

Woman’s Hour

For readers outside the UK who may not know it, Woman’s Hour is a long-running magazine programme on BBC Radio 4. As the title suggests, it focuses on issues from the female perspective, and covers a very wide range of topics. It has a large audience.

Early in August I was asked to join a discussion on older women and fiction, to be broadcast live. The prompt for this discussion was some recent research into the tastes and disappointments of women readers over 40, commissioned by the website Gransnet.

Our topic took as its starting point that women over 40 are the biggest buyers of fiction, but the survey revealed that readers were dissatisfied with how older women are depicted. They often appear in novels as stereotypes, for example unable to operate a smart phone. I made my points about how everyone needs to read good examples of older women, not just readers over 40. And I recommended three good titles, having plugged my blog. I have been asked to repeat my recommendations – so here they are, with links to the reviews on Bookword.

I was asked to arrive by 9.30am, but was unable to find the studio. Fortunately I have done this kind of thing before, or I would have been completely fazed by arriving late, having followed internet directions to the studios in Exeter that they left four years ago. My smart phone was no help; no one answered my increasingly desperate calls and no one could tell me where I was supposed to be. It took a gasman, a community centre receptionist and a taxi driver to deliver me to the studio. The programme order was rearranged to accommodate my tardiness.

This time I met no chickens as I waited to go on air. For an account of a previous experience in September 2014 in a BBC radio studio to promote a book see the link here: Retiring with Attitude at the BBC.

Guest Blogging on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative website

Karen Van Drie invited me to blog in August about older women in fiction around the world. I hope you have or will take a look. By the end the month there will have been about 25 posts. Sadly only six are translations. This is disappointing because August is Women in Translation Month: #WITMonth.  

You can find the blog here: Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, and for more information about the guestathon see my post on Bookword for 3rdAugust.

Planning for the Writing Festival

But most of my energies in August have gone on my contribution to planning a writing festival. WRITE NOW TOTNES will be held on Saturday 21stSeptember, organised by the Totnes Library Writing Group. We have pulled together an exciting range of workshops and other events designed to appeal to participants with a range of experience and of confidence. 

We are proud that it is a local event, ie all workshop leaders and performers are from the area around Totnes, and it is held in the centre of Totnes in the community buildings known as the Mansion. We are thrilled to have attracted funding, including from the Arts Council Lottery Fund. 

There is so much to organise and get right. I have volunteered to do a workshop on blogging of course.

For more details see our Facebook page.

And …

Just three things to keep me busy? Did I mention the dog, or writing or  …? Enough!

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Filed under Books, Learning, Libraries, Older women in fiction, Publishing our book, Reading, Reviews, The Craft of Blogging, Women in Translation, words, Writing