Category Archives: Learning

Persuasion in Bath

I have recently been enjoying Bath and its connections with culture, not least with books. I have visited twice this spring and begin to feel I know the city even if it is 100 miles away from where I live in Devon. In April I attended the first Persephone Festival; a couple of weeks ago I joined some members of the Jane Austen Society SouthWest Branch in a brief tour of the city and its connections to Jane Austen and her novels. In preparation for that second visit I reread Persuasion, a novel that reaches its climax in the city.

Persuasion

Persuasion was published after Jane Austen’s death in 1817. Some commentators believe that she was too ill to complete the editing of the text before she died. Perhaps we will never know if she planned to revise it further, but we do have evidence of some revision in the cancelled chapter. In 1818 Persuasion was published in the form we have now, and some editions include that chapter.

The Bath location occurs in the final nine chapters of the novel, with 91 pages that make up 42% of the short narrative. The main character, Anne Elliot, is the daughter of a very vain, snobbish and imprudent baronet, who has had to rent out their home in Kellynch to live in Bath. Some eight years previously Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth had fallen in love and were ready to announce their engagement, when Anne was persuaded by her dead mother’s closest friend, Lady Russell, to break off the engagement. 

Anne is thoughtful, unselfish and forgiving. Neither her father nor her elder sister, Elizabeth, take any notice of Anne and her state of mind. She is not consulted about the move to Bath, for example. Her younger sister, Mary, lives close to Kellynch Hall in Uppercross and entertains a belief that she is being passed over and neglected by everyone. Anne spends a few weeks with Mary and her family before she goes to Bath, and the warmth and appreciation for Anne are a contrast to the indifference of her own father and sister. Into this situation Captain Wentworth returns, now enriched by his exploits in the navy. He is in search of a wife and seems to be drawn to Mary’s lively and sociable sisters-in-law: Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove.

There are four locations in this novel: Kellynch Hall, Uppercross, Lyme Regis and Bath. They represent four locations which increasingly connect Anne to the wider world. In Kellynch life is restricted by snobbery and unkindness; Uppercross has a close family of enthusiastic and warm people; Lyme Regis adds several friends who are involved in the navy; Bath is a place of fashion and transactional social relations. At each step she comes closer to Captain Wentworth.

On my recent trip to Bath I learned a great deal about the social situation in the fashionable city. For a start, we learned at the architectural museum that it had gone beyond its most fashionable era by the time Jane Austen was writing. But its conventions and social activities remained even if the more socially privileged were seeking other places to indulge themselves, such as the continent, seaside resorts and so forth. The function of the Lower and Upper Assembly Rooms, the regular weekly events which included concerts, theatre presentations, balls and taking the waters, all this was still in place. Jane Austen lived in Bath for a while and knew all this. Moreover, many of her readers would have known all this too.

On this tour I learned about the precision with which Jane Austen locates her characters, and how she does this for the express purpose of telling the reader something of her characters. Sir Walter, that snob, reveals the social standing of the novel’s characters, as well as his attitude through his observations on their residences. For example he has some ‘severe’ words for Anne when he discovers that she has been visiting an old school friend in Westgate-buildings.

‘Westgate-buildings!’ said he; ‘and who is Miss Anne Elliot to be visiting in Westgate-buildings? – A Mrs Smith. A widow Mrs Smith, – and who was her husband? One of the five thousand Mr Smiths whose names are met with every where. And what is her attraction? That she is old and sickly. – Upon my word. Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste! Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you.’ (141-142)

Sir Walter is disgusted by the part of town in which Mrs Smith lives, by her ill health, by her common name, by her widowhood. His judgment is not sound. We learn that Mrs Smith is not old at all, but a former school friend of Anne’s and therefore about her age. 

If they did not know this already, the information that Sir Walter had accommodated himself in Camden-place would have shown readers his weakness. Jane Austen describes the choice in this way:

Sir Walter had taken a very good house in Camden-place, a lofty, dignified situation, such as becomes a man of consequence, and both he and Elizabeth were settled there, much to their satisfaction. (125)

Camden-place was a terrace at the northern end of Bath, built in 1788, on subsiding land: half the buildings collapsed in the 1880s. The baronet was not only on unstable financial grounds when he moved to Bath.

Sir Walter is ready to fawn upon his Irish relations, Lady Dalrymple and her daughter, Miss Carteret. They had taken a house in the newest part of Bath, off Great Poultney Street in Laura-place. The hotel we stayed in was in a house off Laura- Place, and very close to the delightful Henrietta Park. Lady Dalrymple’s lodgings were the most fashionable and newest among all the characters, as fitting her social status.

Sir Walter’s tenants, Admiral and Lady Croft, also come to Bath, primarily for the Admiral’s health. Again we read more about the social standing of these characters, and the snobbism of Sir Walter, through his observations.

The Crofts had placed themselves in lodgings in Gay-street, perfectly to Sir Walter’s satisfaction. He was not at all ashamed of the acquaintance. And did, in fact, think and talk a great deal more about the Admiral, than the Admiral ever thought or talked about him. (150)

Jane Austen lived for a while at 25 Gay-street. She knew what she was writing about.

The White Hart, where the Musgraves are staying, is the scene of the tense letter-writing scene, in which Captain Wentworth finally admits that he still loves Anne. Their reunion takes place soon after – where else but in Union-street?

Our walking tour of Bath took us to many places that were significant in Jane Austen’s life, and to many of the streets and meeting places mentioned in Persuasion as well as in Northanger Abbey. We also noted film locations, but my interest has been in how the writer used locations in Bath within those final 9 chapters of Persuasion.

I am indebted to Hazel Jones, the tour leader and secretary of the Jane Austen Society SouthWest Branch, for her skills in organising and leading this tour. Her knowledge of Bath and Jane Austen were impressive and invaluable. I also learned from her that before my next visit to Bath I will reread Northanger Abbey as its early chapters are set in Bath.

Persuasion by Jane Austen, first published in 1818. I used an edition published by Pan Books in 1969, now its pages are yellow at the edges and the glue is giving out on the spine. It has an inappropriate cover too. 

Related Posts on Bookword Blog

In the society of Jane Austen – December 2019

Pursuing Jane Austen – June 2019

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Remembering Alice Munro

Some time ago, more than a decade ago, I attended a fiction writing course. We were asked to bring the first page or so of some fiction we admired. I chose the first page of a short story by Alice Munro, called The Love of a Good Woman (1998).

For the last couple of decades, there has been a museum in Walley, dedicated to preserving photos and butter churns and horse harnesses and an old dentist’s chair and a cumbersome apple peeler and such curiosities as the pretty little porcelain-and-glass insulators that were used on telegraph poles.
Also there is a red box, which has the letters D.M. WILLENS, OPTOMETRIST printed on it, and a note beside it, saying, “This box of optometrist’s instruments thought not very old has considerable local significance, since it belonged to Mr D.M. Willems, who drowned in the Peregrine River, 1951. It escaped the catastrophe and was found, presumably by the anonymous donor, who dispatched it to be a feature of our collection.” (3)

There are so many questions raised by these two paragraphs. Why did Mr Willens drown? What was the catastrophe? Did anyone else drown in the river in 1951? Is there anything in this museum that is more dramatic than insulators, butter churns and Mr Willens’s optometry box? Does this rural setting have a secret? Will the anonymous donor make an appearance in the story? 

We were asked to re-write the passage using our own words, but following the pattern of the sentences, the rhythms, the clauses of the original. Both choosing the opening passage and the re-writing exercise underscored Alice Munro’s excellence as a writer.

This month, it was announced that she had died in the town where she had lived in Ontario, Canada. Although she had not written anything much for a decade it was still a sad moment to reflect on the passing of one of Canada’s great writers. She comes from the same era as Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, and did much to put Canadian women on the literary map. 

So I went back to my considerable collection of her published works and reread some of her short stories and remembered why I loved them, and why she so inspires me as I struggle with my own short stories. 

Alice Munro. Picture credit: Edward MacDowell: Medal acceptance speech in 2006 via Wiki Commons

Alice Munro

She was born in July 1931 and died at the age of 92 in May 2024. She had been writing since she was a teenager and had been recognised for her work. She was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2009 for her lifetime’s work. And in 2013 she won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Most of her work is set in rural Ontario where she lived.

Her first story was published when she 19 in 1950 while she was at college. The following year she married James Munro. They moved to Vancouver and remained together until they divorced in 1972. Those twenty years of marriage produced two children, and Alice Munro said she found it hard to write while also being the model 1950s and 1960s housewife and mother. 

After her marriage ended and responsibilities for her daughters were reduced, she wrote many stories, often producing a collection every four years or so, and others were printed in literary journals such as The New Yorker. She also taught at universities in Ontario. 

Her themes were attractive to readers from the ‘70s onwards: girls growing up in rural settings; the limiting of women through contemporary attitudes and customs; relationships; marriage; death; aging and the counter-culture of the 1960s.

The short stories of Alice Munro

When I began reading her stories in the 1980s, I was impressed with how complete and well-crafted they were. She clearly loved the genre, never needing to expand into longer fiction. Readers often observed that she managed to get as much into a story as any novelist writing in the longer form. She had a grasp of the least words required to provide the reader with the details they needed to understand a character or place. (See the description of the museum contents above, which tells you all you need to know about the kind of place that Walley is.) Here is a good example of a description of a person.

My mother prayed on her knees at midday, at night, and first thing in the morning. Every day opened up to her to have God’s will done in it. Every night she totted up what she’d done and said and thought, to see how it squared with Him. That kind of life is dreary, people think, but they are missing the point. For one thing, such a life can never be boring. And nothing can happen to you that you can’t make use of. Even if you are racked by troubles, and sick and poor and ugly, you’ve got your soul to carry through life like treasure on a platter. Going upstairs after the noon meal, my mother would be full of energy and expectation, seriously smiling. (4)

In case you think her mother was too dour the next paragraph makes her quite human.

She was saved at a camp meeting when she was fourteen. […] She could tell stories about what went on at those meetings, the singing and hollering and wildness. She told about one old man getting up and shouting, “Come down, O Lord, come down among us now! Come down through the roof and I’ll pay for the shingles!” (4)

This is from an unusual story, The Progress of Love (1987), in that it’s told in the first person. It is also a good example of a skill she developed in which she moved the narrative within a story between periods of time. Another example of this is in Lichen, from the same collection, where a formerly married couple remember each other as they were. The husband realises that he is still bound to her through a long, shared past as he remembers a moment when he betrayed their marriage. The blending of different time periods is something Alice Munro excels in.

I love writing and reading short stories. Alice Munro is without peer in this genre. If you haven’t yet read any of her short stories, I encourage you to start now.

Related posts about Short Stories on Bookword

Short Stories – More Treats (July 2023)

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine (March 2021)

Even more praise for short stories (September 2021)

More Praise for Short Stories (January 2017)

Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor (June 2016)

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston (November 2020)

There’s No Story There by Inez Holden (March 2021)

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Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman

It feels, doesn’t it, like the worst of times. And that things are getting still worse. Here is another view:

The reality is exactly the opposite. Over the last several decades, extreme poverty, victims of war, child mortality, crime, famine, child labour, deaths in natural disasters and the number of plane crashes have all plummeted. We’re living in the richest, safest, healthiest era ever. (13)

Rutger Bregman, the Dutch author of Humankind, goes on to say ask why we don’t realise this.

It’s simple. Because the news is about the exceptional, and the more exceptional an event is – be it a terrorist attack, violent uprising, or natural disaster – the bigger its newsworthiness. (13)

And it’s because we are susceptible to negativity bias and increasingly to availability bias and come to assume that the exceptional we are being told about is common. And in his book, Rutger Bregman goes on to challenge the myth that humans are but a small step from anarchy and violence, and basically selfish animals.

Humankind: a hopeful history

The pessimistic view of humans is exemplified in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In that fiction, some schoolboys are marooned on a desert island, and after some weeks, when the survivors are rescued, violence has broken out, some boys have died and the survivors have developed a system of rules and beliefs based on humiliation and terror. 

And, you may be asking, if humans are kind and sociable as Rutger Bregman claims, how did Auschwitz ever take place, or the murder of so many women and children in Gaza in the last few months? And I am sure you can think of many other occasions when humans have behaved very badly.

This is a hopeful history, and Rutger Bregman traces back the success of the evolution of homo sapiens to the development of kind communities. He reports a very long history of communal hunter-gathering, but the harmony was threatened when humans began to settle on farms and to create towns. This brought competition for land, from such competitions so many harms in the world arise.

But in small and local communities, he argues, the basic urge to kindness and community spirit holds good. The further you are from conflict the less you care about other humans. He finds a real-life example of boys being marooned on an island and finds that they survived without the conflict of Golding’s imagination. 

The story of the real-life shipwreck of six boys who survived over a year in harmony on a Pacific island of Ata in the 1960s is not well known. Their rescuer, Captain Warner wrote,

‘the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.’ [quoted on p32]

The idea that humans are brutish and need rules to control them, a Hobbesian outlook, underpins how many institutions work. Rutger Bregman considers how the world might look, if our social institutions were based on more cooperative principles, in particular, schools, prisons and our governance. He finds examples where innovations have taken place: a school in the Netherlands, the prison system in Norway, a democratic local government in Venezuela. And he reminds us about the Danish under German occupation in October 1943 and their response to the plan to arrest and deport all Jewish citizens. It was defeated by the actions of thousands of Danish citizens who ensured that Jewish citizens escaped, often by small boats to Sweden. Rather than pitched into chaos and panic, the London Blitz produced resilience, helpfulness and camaraderie, known as the Blitz Spirit. While this upbeat approach was not universal, the bombing did not reduce the British population to panic and chaos. (Sadly, the example of this reaction did not stop the Allies using the same tactic on German towns and cities at the end of the war. The German population was not cowed either. The exceptionalism of the British response proves to be another myth.)

Rutger Bregman is not providing a prescription for individual lives, partly because it is not disputed that towards our immediate neighbours humans are for the most part compassionate, caring and generous. Rather Rutger Bregman considers that social institutions based on trust, generosity and friendliness may be more successful and cheaper for society than our current models, especially for prisons and schools. 

But here are three warnings:

  1. The opposing theory that humans are prevented by a very thin veneer from being violent and selfish is like a hydra. ’Veneer theory is a zombie that just keeps coming back’ (19).
  2. To stand up for human goodness is to take a stand against the powers that be, and you will be seen as threatening, subversive, seditious and a communist (where such a theory has a bad name).
  3. To stand up for human goodness will also produce accusations of naivety, ridicule, lack of common sense. 

Advocating more positive views of humans and their behaviour is not, however, doomed to fail. It is the right time.

The reasons for hope, by contrast [to the doomsayers], are always provisional. Nothing has gone wrong – yet. You haven’t been cheated – yet. An idealist can be right her whole life and still be dismissed as naïve. This book is intended to change that. Because what seems unreasonable, unrealistic and impossible today can turn out to be inevitable tomorrow.
It’s time for a new realism. It’s time for a new view of humankind. (20)

Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman, published in 2020 by Bloomsbury. Translated from the Dutch by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore. 467pp

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Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden 

It is a great time to be reading Irish writers at the moment. I’m looking forward to reading The Wren, The Wrenby Anne Enright. It is my suggestion for our reading group later this year and has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. Our group has enjoyed The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan (2022) as well as Claire Keegan’s short fiction. Deirdre Madden was not familiar to me until I read a review on Jacquiwine’s blog earlier this year. I am pleased to say that the author has written seven other novels which I expect to sample because I enjoyed this novel a great deal.

Molly Fox’s Birthday

Molly Fox’s Birthday unwinds over one day, Midsummer’s Day, in the early years of this century, possibly in 2006. There are no chapter divisions, very little dialogue, to break the momentum, only occasional gaps in the lines. It is told in the first person, but we never learn the narrator’s name. 

She is a friend of the actor Molly Fox and is staying in her flat in Dublin. She wakes in Molly’s flat, notices her belongings, remembers their shared past, meets her neighbours, brother and friends, and as the day moves on, she tries to understand how well she knows Molly and these other people and what people reveal to each other.

Our narrator is a playwright and she has planned to work on her new play during the time she is staying in Dublin. The novel explores how people perform themselves, how their interior and exterior selves match or are mismatched, and how they are seen and remembered by others. 

Molly and the narrator meet when the narrator’s first play is being performed, and both their careers take off at this point. They have been friends ever since, but the writer puzzles over how well she knows Molly, even after 20 years. For example, the day is Molly’s birthday, but the actor never celebrates it and it is only late in the novel we realise why this is. The writer has assumed wrongly it is because Molly does not want to damage her career by revealing her true age. 

They have a mutual friend, Andrew, who is a TV art pundit and has taken on a very different presentation of himself since his student days. The writer watches one of his programmes, and later he turns up himself and reveals an episode which the writer had known nothing of, although she knows about his marriage and fatherhood. She also considers how the murder of his brother in the Troubles impacted upon Andrew’s life. 

Molly’s brother Fergus calls on her during the day. She realises that he is not as Molly has presented him, and that she has never met him without Molly being present. She had understood him to be very dependent upon Molly, his mental health being severely damaged and spending time in and out of mental institutions. After talking with him her view alters.

This new Fergus was a man of wisdom and acute moral knowledge. He had had the courage and insight to inspect his own life more closely than most would dare to do, and he had compassion and forgiveness for those who had hurt him. […] It didn’t matter that his life, in social terms, was not a success. To expect someone to gain a mature perspective on their troubled life, as he had, and to also expect them to have worked out to their advantage all those other things such as property, relationships and career that we mistakenly confuse with life itself – that would have been unreasonable. What he had achieved seemed to me more precious by far. (155-6)

She spends time thinking about her own brother, who is Catholic priest, and who seems to be the person nearest her own interests in her family, despite her lack of religion. And so it goes on. The paragraph quoted above is characteristic of the writer’s musings.

The writer finds it harder and harder to settle down to work and instead she surrenders to the quest to understand her friends and their family. Towards the end of the day she decides that it won’t be a play she writes, it will be a novel – implying this novel.

Such a novel, focused on the question of how we know people, depends upon the depiction of the characters, rather than the narrative drive. Deirdre Madden manages this very well. The characters are distinct, they change, they influence each other in an authentic manner. 

§§§

Recommended by Jacquiwine in her blog in March 2024. Her praise for the novel encouraged me to read it.

Simon on his blog called Stuck in a Book also has high praise for this novel (December 2019).

It is interesting that this book appears to have rested on people’s bookshelves for some time, and yet still impresses.

Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden, published in 2008 by Faber. I used the paperback edition published in 2013. 221pp

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The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett

Published in 1937, a couple of years before the outbreak of war, this story of a large family appealed greatly to me when I read it 20 years later. At that time, the life of the family did not seem so different from what I saw about me. Their outlook, their general attitude is now called Blitz spirit. I had misremembered where the Ruggles lived, fixed in my mind that it was in the East End of London, where a cheerful approach to life’s challenges prevailed, we were told. One End Street was in Otwell, a fictional town on the river Ouse.

Eve Garnett portrayed a real family, although in a somewhat idealised manner. They lived in a town, had neighbours, the parents had jobs, the children achieved variously at school. The appeal of this large and active family is enhanced by the illustrations, by the author. It was, to my mind, an ideal Puffin book, and set the standard for my reading for several years.

  

The Family from One End Street

The Ruggles family was even larger than mine with seven children. But there were two big differences, the Ruggles lived in a town and they were poor, working class. Mrs Ruggles, Rosie, took in laundry and Mr Ruggles earned a living by collecting rubbish – a dustman as we called them. The reader is introduced to all 7 children through the device of finding names for their Christenings. 

The chapter headings indicate the spirit of the book:

  • The Christenings
  • Lily Rose and the Green Silk Petticoat
  • The Gang of the Black Hand
  • The Adventure of the Parked Car
  • The Baby Show
  • What Mr Ruggles Found
  • The Perfect Day

There is a great deal of humour in these stories. For example, Lily Rose, the oldest child, decides to help her mother by doing some ironing and starts with a green silk petticoat.

She spread out the petticoat carefully, took what she thought to be the cool iron from the stove and began. She made one long sweep up and down with the iron, and oh! what was happening! The petticoat was shrinking … shrinking … shrivelling up … running away before her eyes! Smaller and smaller it grew, while Lily Rose gazed fascinated and as if rooted to the spot, her eyes and mouth round ‘o’s of horror! 
At last the shrinking seemed to stop and there it lay, the beautiful green silk petticoat, no bigger than a doll’s – too small even for William [the baby], – had he worn such things! (25)

How well Eve Garnett captures that feeling of horror when a well-intentioned child finds her actions have taken a terrible turn. Following this dreadful event, Lily Rose must own up to the owner of the petticoat, Mrs Beasley, who is one of Rosie’s best clients. For Rosie has a strong moral code that she requires her children to live by.

Not long after the episode with the petticoat, Mr Ruggles finds a great deal of money in the rubbish he has collected. It would feed all his dreams, of owning a pig, and of taking the family to the grand Cart Horse Parade in London. Honesty brings its rewards on both occasions, but the reader is treated to a dilemma familiar to young people: to own up or to hide the truth. 

Jo’s jersey

The children have adventures. The twins, Jim and John are required to have adventures when they join the Gang of the Black Hand. They both have misadventures, stowed away in a barge and a car, with some scary moments and great outcomes. Kate gets to go to the seaside with some school friends, but her precious school hat gets blown away and she tries to earn the money to replace it. Her adventure picking mushrooms, is also nearly a catastrophe. 

But her original hat is returned by a stranger, and the reader is introduced to another theme of these stories: the kindness of strangers, who frequently rescue the children and boost their material resources. Often this is in response to the resourcefulness of the children in the face of poverty: for example, Jo manages to get members of the orchestra at the local cinema to provide him with a ticket. They found him asleep in the orchestra pit, waiting for the feature to begin.

Not everyone is generous and kind. Mrs Smith-next-door-but-two makes unkind judgements one Sunday about the children’s appearances and is known by Rosie as Mrs Nosey Parker. She goes round to investigate Rosie Ruggles’s situation. 

A strange sight met her eyes when the door was opened; nothing less than Mrs Ruggles in her petticoat and jumper, her hair in curling pins, an iron I her hand, while through a mist of steam and airing clothes could be faintly seen the figure of Mr Ruggles, clothed only in pants (no better than one of them Nudists you read about, as Mrs Smith said to her husband later) busily engaged in polishing a pair of yellow-brown boots! What a spectacle for Sunday afternoon! Mrs Smith’s sympathy evaporated and righteous indignation filled her heart. (243)

The Ruggles family are preparing for a special event, the climax of this book: the Cart Horse Parade in London.

We read of a family bonded by love and pride in each other’s achievements. Everyone is disappointed when William fails to win the Grand Challenge Cup in the Baby Show. His teeth were too slow to come through, but he is awarded the title of Otwell’s Best Baby and his parents get a prize of £1 note. Kate passes the 11+ (Eleven Plus). 

Her photograph appeared in the paper, and the whole family had sardines and chocolate biscuits for tea to celebrate the event! (42)

This is the ‘30s, and free secondary education is not yet universal. Furthermore Kate will need special clothes for five years, not hand-me-downs. Her place is in jeopardy in the face of such expense, until Mr Ruggles fills in a form for a grant. His writing is not good, and in the box where he must say how many children he has the number 7 appears at first as a figure 1. It was a genuine problem for parents, especially parents of girls, how to support them in secondary school where family funds were so limited.

Eve Garnett also celebrates the ambitions and dreams of her characters, such as Kate’s ambition to continue her education. The climax to the stories is the fulfilment of the Ruggles’s wish to join Uncle Charlie in a winning cart in the Cart Horse Parade in Regent’s Park in London at Whitsun. The family have plenty of adventures that day, in the lake, arrested by a policeman for picking the flowers, and losing Jo who had swapped his designated but tight jersey for one of his father’s. It was, said Rosie, a perfect day.

The reading is easy, the stories flow, and the charm is full blown. Eve Garnett wrote a sequel, which was not published until 1956 as it had to be reassembled from a fire in her home: The Further Adventures of the Family from One End Street.

1937 Club

The 1937 Club is organised by two bloggers: Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book. Bloggers post their responses to books published in 1937 on their own blogs and these are listed on the organisers’ pages. I always enjoy identifying a book to fit the club year. 

The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett, first published in 1937. I read the Puffin Book edition from 2014. Illustrations by Eve Garnett. 304pp

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Yes to Life by Viktor E Frankl

We all have dark days. Some people have continuous dark days. Among the worst of all dark days was imprisonment in a concentration camp during the Second World War. And yet we have been given such thoughtful reasons for dignity and hope by two of those prisoners. Primo Levi gave us If this is a ManIf not Now, When?The Periodic Table, as well as poetry and essays. I quoted from his poem, Girl of Pompeii, when I wrote about my visit to the ancient city, buried in a volcanic eruption. Here are some lines, referencing Anne Frank, ‘who wrote of her youth without tomorrows’.

Nothing is left of your far-removed sister,
The Dutch girl imprisoned by four walls
Who wrote of her youth without tomorrows.
Her silent ash was scattered by the wind,
Her brief life shut in a crumpled notebook
[From The Girl Child of Pompeii, translated from the Italian by Ruth Feldman]

Primo Levi was Italian, while Viktor E Frankl came from Vienna. He too addressed the question of how a person can survive ‘without tomorrows’. Perhaps his most famous book, published in German in 1946, was Man’s Search for Meaning. The original English title was From Death Camp to Existentialism, but the revised title speaks more directly to a reader.

Recently I read another collection of writings by Viktor E Frankl, also with an irresistible title: Yes to Life in Spite of Everything. The ‘everything’ that we have to put up with may not be as overwhelming as the experiences of Jewish people and others in Europe during the Holocaust. But I do often wonder what is the point of continuing, and why one should say yes to life, in our troubled times. I’m sure many other people do too.

Yes to Life in spite of Everything

The title of this book comes from a song composed for the prisoners of Buchenwald to sing when they were exhausted from their hard labour and from the smallness of their rations. They were forced to sing this song.

Whatever our future may hold:
We still want to say ‘yes’ to life,
Because one day the time will come – 
Then we will be free!  (3)

Some prisoners, no doubt, found hope in the words of this song, but Frankl has taken it with its evil origins and reclaimed it to explore that existential question about survival.

Liberated from a labour camp, and returned to his work as a psychiatrist, Frankl gave three lectures in 1946 at the adult institute of Ottakring, in Vienna. He had been liberated for just 9 months. The lectures form the basis of this book.

Auschwitz

Much of this short book is given over to reminding the people of Vienna what the policy of euthanasia meant in the Third Reich. And an even stronger theme, the topic of suicide, permeates the book. Frankl argues strongly that it is not an appropriate response to hopelessness. 

Here he summarises his three main approaches for saying yes to life in this way.:

We have already heard that the fulfilment of meaning is possible in three main directions: human beings are able to give meaning to their existence, firstly, by doing something, by acting, by creating, – by bringing a work into being; secondly, by experiencing something – nature, art – or loving people; and thirdly, human beings are able to find meaning even where value in life is not possible for them in either the first or second way – namely, precisely when they take a stance towards the intolerable, fated, inevitable and unavoidable limitation of their possibilities; how they adapt to this limitation, react towards it, how they accept this fate. (68, emphasis added) 

Frankl expanded his ideas shortly after writing Yes to Life, in Man’s Search for Meaning from which this paragraph stood out for me.

Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for every individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or other destiny. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. [85, from Man’s Search for Meaning]

You must excuse the sexist language. I am sure that, as was common at that time but unacceptable now, Frankl included women when he wrote ‘men’.

I have been trying to apply the ‘three directions’ in my own life, pretty depressed by the state of things as I am. In particular, I have been noting the natural world as we advance into spring. One of my projects is to be more aware of bird song, since I frequently take walks in our local woodlands, on Dartmoor and feed the wild birds in my garden. I have learned to identify the ubiquitous robin and can usually identify the wren by its whirring final bars. Gulls and pigeons have never given me any problems. I discover, from my app, that invisible visitors to my garden a couple of days ago included robins, blue tits, wrens, chiffchaffs, dunnocks, greenfinches, firecrests and goldfinches. The app also identified the song of a Great Kisadee, a bird native to central and south America. I need to turn on my location control! But recently a flutter of long-tailed tits passed through. On a walk with a friend yesterday, in the woods on the site of an iron age fort, we came across clusters of primroses, the first bluebells and those delicate and unassuming woodland flowers, wood anemones. 

I am not being so simplistic as to suggest that noting birds and flowers are any kind of mental health solution. I am reporting that I read Frankl and it has sharpened my pleasure in those living things.

See also Bookword in Naples (May 2022)

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl, first published in German in 1946.

Yes to Life in spite of Everything by Viktor E Frankl, first published in German in 2019. The English translation from the German by Joelle Young was published in 2020 by Penguin. It contains an Introduction by Daniel Goleman. 143pp.

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The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan

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

The Queen of Dirt Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will the other members of my book group think?

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

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Struwwelpeter: Merry Stories and Funny Pictures 

Sorting through more of the books that came to me from my mother, I found a copy of Struwwelpeter. It seems to have been given to one or more of us children in the 1950s by ‘Grandpop’ my father’s father. I have two other editions, an earlier one, perhaps from the ‘20s or ‘30s and a more modern one, published in 1972. 

Struwwelpeter can be translated as shock-haired Peter. It is available today from bookshops, including with joint German/English text. Older editions sell for three figures on the second-hand websites. And an e-book is available on-line from Gutenberg editions.

The History of Struwwelpeter

The oldest of my editions has a page by the author, Dr Heinrich Hoffman, translated as the stories in the book are by an unknown translator. In this introductory note Dr Hoffman describes how the book came to be written. He wanted to find an appropriate picture book for his 3-year-old son for Christmas in 1844. He was very unhappy with what he found in the shops.

Long tales, stupid collections of pictures, moralizing stories, beginning and ending with admonitions like: “the good child must be truthful”, or “children must keep clean”, etc.

At the time Dr Hoffman was the medical man at the lunatic asylum, and often had to see children. He was aware that doctors and chimney sweeps were often used as bogeymen by mothers when they admonish and threaten their children. So to allay their fears he would produce little rhymes and pictures for the children. 

A story, such as you find written here, invented on the spur of the moment, illustrated with a few touches of the pencil and humorously related, will calm the little antagonist, dry his tears and allow the medical man to do his duty.

The ‘pretty stories’ found an instant readership, including in Great Britain. 

The Stories in Struwwelpeter

Each of my three editions contains 12 stories, with titles such as 

  • Cruel Frederick: Fred is bitten by a dog that he was tormenting
  • The Dreadful story of Harriet and the Matches: Harriet played with forbidden matches and was burned to a cinder, leaving only her red shoes
  • The Story of the Inky Boys: the boys who were taunting a ‘Black-a-moor’ got dipped in ink 
  • The Story of the Man that went out Shooting: the man who went shooting found the gun turned on him by the hares

In all these stories naughty people get their comeuppance: the hunter should not have fallen asleep; Harriet didn’t listen to the cats that warned her and so on. 

But the story that freaked me out as a child was The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb. Guess what? I was a thumb-sucker all through my childhood. I was in constant fear of the ‘great tall tailor’ with the huge scissors.

One day Mamma said “Conrad dear,
I must go out now and leave you here.
But mind now, Conrad, what I say,
Don’t suck your thumb while I’m away.
The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys who suck their thumbs;
And ere they dream what he’s about,
He takes his great sharp scissors out,
And cuts their thumbs clean off – and then,
You know, they never grow again.”

She leaves, Conrad sucks his thumbs, the great tall tailor comes and ‘Snip! Snap! Snip!’ his thumbs are cut off. His mother returns and finds Conrad looking ‘quite sad’.

“Ah!” said Mamma, “I knew he’d come
To naughty little Suck-a-Thumb.”

Today I am shocked that a mother would go out, knowing her son would suffer this fate, and return and say to the thumbless boy a version of “I told you so!”

Some of the other stories are as moralizing, but with exaggeration, as The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb. But few have outcomes as frightening.

  • The Story of Johnny Head-in-Air: although he falls in the river, he ultimately only loses his writing-book
  • Flying Robert: he fails to stay at home in the rain and is blown away with his umbrella, never to be seen again 
  • The Story of Fidgety Philip: he manages to bring the tablecloth, the meal and his own chair down onto the floor, spoiling the family dinner

I was relieved that there was no story about a nail-biter.

While every child likes to see other children getting their just deserts, the spectre of the tailor and his scissors haunted me. As did the exhortation to always be good!

When the children have been good,
That is, be it understood,
Good at meal-times, good at play
Good all night and good all day – 
They shall have the pretty things
Merry Christmas always brings.
Naughty, romping girls and boys
Tear their clothes and make a noise,
Spoil their pinafores and frocks,
And deserve no Christmas-box.
Such as these shall never look
At this pretty Picture-book.

And …

Dr Hoffman may have provided some humour and merriness into these stories, but to me they were awfully cruel. I think Dr Hoffman was disingenuous to claim that his stories weren’t moralising, for the sins of these children are just those that annoy their parents and get them nagging their children: thumb-sucking, playing with matches, tormenting animals, laughing at Black children, fidgeting, and not paying attention. I am sure there were other children than me who believed in the fate of these wrong-doers.

I worry that I inflicted this on my daughter. For the newest of my editions was published when she was 4 and I may have bought it for her. She too sucked her thumb, but I never minded, or threatened her with the great tall tailor and his scissors.

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With Virginia Woolf in Cambridge

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

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

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

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

Women in her life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plans from here

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Ursula K Le Guin’s Space Crone

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

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

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

Space Crone

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sur was first published in the New Yorker in 1982.

Bryn Mawr Commencement Address (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts and books

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

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

A Tribute to Ursula le Guin (March 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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