Category Archives: Reading

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I was seduced by scenes of Italy in sunshine and by the endless smiles of Richard E Grant on the BBC programme Write around the World. I think it should have been Read around Europe. I was seduced into giving My Brilliant Friend a second chance. Seeing the streets of Naples in the sun and the tunnel through which the girls try to escape and find the sea, seeing all that made me suspect I had missed something first time round when I read My Brilliant Friend back in 2015. My response to that first reading had not been very favourable and I had not continued with the Neapolitan Quartet.

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend is the story of two girls growing up in the poorest district of Naples in the ‘50s. The novel is narrated by Elena, written many decades later. She is known familiarly as Lenu. She describes Lila, from the outset as mean, selfish and very spirited. She is also clever, and she and Lenú are connected from their first days in school. Everything in school seems to come easily to Lila, and Lenú looks up to her, sees her as her reference point. Their relationship is defined by their surroundings, including their families and the traditions of the neighbourhood and by their gender.

All the children in the neighbourhood are controlled through violence, and through a strong sense of hierarchy of the families. Lila’s father is a shoe repairer while Lenú’s is a porter in the city hall. Poverty is everywhere in post-war Italy. The novel is set against the background of the gradual economic improvement of the time.

The girls try to look beyond the neighbourhood, to speak in Italian as well as dialect, to learn Latin and Greek. Both hope for wealth and fame, at first through writing a novel together, and later they become more realistic: Lenu studies hard and successfully although there is little admiration for her success from her family or the neighbourhood. Lila takes her own path, giving up on school and eventually settling for the wealthy Stefano who appears to want to change the rules of the neighbourhood, to escape the domination of the Solara family.

We see the two girls growing apart. Lenú can see that Lila is imprisoned by the district, limited by it, defined by it. Lenú sees a life beyond for herself. Indeed, the novels in the quartet are framed to show that in her 60s Lila has erased herself, while Elena is living comfortably in Turin. 

So, this novel and the three novels that follow make up the Neapolitan Quartet and they have been very successful since they appeared in translation in 2012. Readers recommended them to each other and got lost in the unfolding story. Novelists of the calibre of Elizabeth Strout and Zadie Smith extol their virtues. 

I have wondered what the fuss is about. It was only when I came to the final scene, the wedding, that I understood what the detail of their lives had been building up to. It was hard work for not much gain. I suspect that the attraction is in part the attraction of soaps: family drama, struggle against circumstances, many characters, the development of the limited cast of characters, and several vivid and violent scenes.

It is a dense novel, and evocative of both its time and place. But even on a second reading I am not tempted to continue with the quartet. I would love to know what people have enjoyed about it to make it so successful. I am not alone in finding that My Brilliant Friend failed to live up to its reputation.

Who is Elena Ferrante?

And there is mystery surrounding the author. She has demanded anonymity and does not engage in speculation about her identity. Is this a publicity stunt? Of course, several people have taken it upon themselves to identify the writer, claiming a translator, and a professor and a male writer. 

I can’t think that it matters who Elena Ferrante is. I am reminded of the old joke about who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. It is claimed that it was another writer of the same name.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, published in English in 2012 by Europa Editions. 331pp

Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

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A Bookish Christmas post on Bookword

It happens every year: just before the last weekend in November hard hats and hi-viz jackets appear at the war memorial. They have a cherry picker with them, and they hoist a tree upright, and place a star on top and then adorn it with lights. Christmas in our village starts here. Tomorrow will be the annual lantern parade, and off we go.

My list of bookish Christmas present

I love books and if I can please more than one person on my list with bookish presents I am very happy. I also like to benefit others, bookish charities and so forth, at the same time. Here is this year’s list.

Book Aid International and Reverse Book Tokens

This an organisation that deserves support for the excellent work it does. Based on the principle that BOOKS CHANGE LIVES, Book Aid International helps people overseas, and because our government has slashed the international aid budget, this kind of activity is needed all the more. They send new books to school and university libraries, to support young people and health professionals. They donate books to refugee camps, and other places where they are much needed which may have difficulty providing books. 

For example, the University of Mosul was destroyed by ISIS, but Book Aid International committed to restoring the library. To date, it has provided 50,000 new books to replace those that were destroyed. 

You can support Book Aid International by making a donation, and/or by buying a ‘reverse book token’. These special Book Tokens are a great idea for presents to support Book Aid International. For only £6 Book Aid International can send out three books. So, a Reverse Book Token  makes an excellent present. You can also join the Reverse Book Club to send a regular donation to the charity. A reader will thank you.

Book Trust Christmas Appeal

Some of us want to support those working to get all children to become readers here in the UK. Book Trust exists to get children reading. For a donation of £10 the Book Trust will send a book to a vulnerable child for Christmas. They support reading by children all year round and make recommendations for what to read next.

As a result of the Christmas appeal each vulnerable child will receive one of six hardback books, appropriate to their age. This year’s books include:

  • Tales from Acorn Wood,
  • Paddington Treasury,
  • My Encyclopedia of Very Important Adventures,
  • Weird but True 2022,
  • The Mysteries of the Universe,
  • Guinness World Records 2022

Each child will also receive a special letter and a festive poster and bookmark designed and written by author-illustrator Ed Vere.

Prison Reading Groups

This year I have also supported Prison Reading Groups. This charity aims to support reading and reading groups in prison and the charity runs programmes to support prisoners reading with their families. You can make a donation here.

Book tokens

And if you don’t know or are not sure whether Aunty Ethel will like the latest Sarah Rooney or a replacement for that classic novel you borrowed ten years ago, you can always give her a book token. Children in other families often grow up faster than one can believe, and you lose track of what they might like. Again, a book token can be the answer.

Books as Presents

The people on my Christmas list are well provided for: they will each get a copy of the latest collection of writing from my writers group: More Gallimaufry

Books from Bookshops

And for those who like to encourage independent bookshops please go there to get your bookish gifts. They need your help. Many of them deliver. And to avoid lining the pockets of the uber rich on-line delivery firms you can use good on-line alternatives. I have been using bookshop.org which supports local independent booksellers. We may not have much political power, but we do have some economic power, and so spending our money on important things in the good places is something we can do.

Happy Christmas and good reading to one and all!Bookish Christmas post

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The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

With so many good books in the world there must be some special reasons for rereading one. I recently took my copy of The Night Watch from my shelves and enjoyed several days in the company of Viv, Helen, Kay and Duncan. I first read it 14 years ago in 2007, a year after it was published.

I had two reasons for wanting to return to this novel. First, I am having something of a binge on wartime novels at the moment. It started when I began a short story set during the war, but I’ve neglected that story recently, while my enjoyment of wartime novels has continued.

Second, Sarah Waters employs an interesting structural device in this novel. The three episodes are present in reverse chronology: the characters are introduced in 1947, their experiences in 1944 follow and the final section concerns their lives in 1941. It’s a bold way to tell a story and I wanted to think about its effects. 

The Night Watch

We first meet the four protagonists after the war is over in 1947. None of them is happy and one of the effects of the chronological structure is that their histories are gradually revealed. Their backstories come later. The influence of the past on the present, of chance, of kindness and innocence are revealed in this way which makes everything unpredictable.

If you think about it, this is how you usually find out about people that you meet, and I don’t mean the ones in novels. You get to know them a little and you ask them about their past, where they’ve lived, their jobs, or education and so forth. We see how the person we have just met fits in with our understanding about the past that they reveal.

However, novels usually take the chronological development of their story in a traditional sequential way, albeit with flashbacks included. Sarah Waters in an exceptional storyteller. I would love to know why she chose to tell The Night Watch in the fashion.

It certainly makes the reader pay attention. They must try to sort out the puzzles that she lays before them. Why was Duncan in prison, for example? Or what is the mystery of the ring that connects Viv to Kay? And how did the war and their experiences in the war change the directions of the lives of the four characters? Part of the pleasure of reading The Night Watch is to resolve such mysteries. 

It is somewhat unsettling to read while keeping the later story in mind as she takes us backwards first to 1944 and then to 1941. The reader is constantly having to make the connections in reverse, as it were. The effect is to show up the accidental nature of so much of life, and, with the background of the war, how dark and dangerous life can be.

And perhaps this is one of the questions being posed – what are the limits of deploying conventional chronology in fiction and what happens when you reverse them?

Another experiment in telling stories backwards is Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis (1991). He employs a different device, telling the whole story in reverse, from a reverse consciousness: death leading to a strange rebirth, the person arriving in the prime of life, recovering their innocence in childhood and finally being reabsorbed into their mother’s body. Slightly yucky but it does raise questions about cause and effect, and moral responsibility especially as the protagonist is a Holocaust doctor who works in the camps. The effect in this novel is also unsettling and raises questions about morality and how we develop and judge moral behaviour.

Within this experimental way of presenting the stories in The Night Watch there are some very vivid scenes. There is a walk during the air raids of 1944 by two women through the city. They must guess where they are by landmarks such as churches as all the street names have been removed in case of invasion. In the same section Duncan experiences a terrifying air raid from inside his prison cell. 

Other aspects of the novel only slowly emerge. For example, we learn where Viv met her older married boyfriend, in the final section. But we have already wondered why she had not ditched him. And her decision not to see him again in the post-war section is really only explained by the long experience of her affair with him.

So I learned more about being on the night watch during the Blitz, and also about playing around with chronology. It’s tricksy, destabilising and an intriguing technique.

Sarah Waters

Born in Wales in 1966, she came out as a lesbian in the 1980s. She came to fame as a result of the success of the television version of her first novel Tipping the Velvet in 2002. The Night Watch was her fourth novel, which took her four years to write. She has described it as like a wrestling match. 

Like her other novels it has been a success, shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize (later the Women’s Prize) for fiction.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, published in 2006 by Virago.

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Manifesto by Bernardine Evaristo

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

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

Pay attention to the subtitle: On Never Giving Up

Manifesto

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Manifesto

Two sentences from the manifesto chimed with me:

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts on Bookword

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

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (August 2014)

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As We Are Now by May Sarton

The title of this novel is taken from a New England tombstone, included as its epigraph:

As you are now, as once was I;
Prepare for death, and follow me.

Writing in the ‘70s and ‘80s May Sarton was concerned that women should be able to choose the way in which they lived. This novel explores how an old woman can live her life as she wishes, albeit that she is approaching death and is dependent upon strangers. 

This is the 55th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to the reviews. This  is the second novel by May Sarton in the series, the first was A Reckoning, published in 1978, five years after As We Are Now. Thanks to Anne Goodwin who recommended it, and her book is also included in the series: Matilda Windsor is Coming Home.

As We Are Now

May Sarton was never afraid to take on difficult issues in her writing. Both novels included in the older women in fiction series address the same question: how can women retain control of their lives when they are getting older and sicker and more dependent. In A Reckoning, Laura has been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer. She responds in a positive way:

I am to have my own death. I can play it my own way. … I’ve got to do it well. (p7)

She is not able to achieve this. Like Laura, Caro Spencer is alone in the world. Up to this point she has lived an independent life, but at 75 suffered a heart attack. She left her house to live with her older brother, with whom she has always been close. But he has recently married again and she did not get on with the new wife. Caro has been placed in a remote old people’s home, a farmhouse, run by a mother and daughter. The care provided is not monitored, the mother and daughter team try to save money, and the other residents, referred to generically as ‘the old men’ are more or less comatose.

Caro wants to make sense of her life, before she dies bring everything together. She decides to write her thoughts in a notebook.

I call it The Book of the Dead. By the time I finish it I shall be dead. I want to be ready, to have gathered everything together and sorted it out, as if I were preparing for a great final journey. I intend to make myself whole here in this Hell. It is the thing that is set before me to do. So, in a way, this path inward and back into the past is like a map, the map of my world. If I can draw it accurately, I shall know where I am. (10)

Her search for completeness, for integrating the different aspects of her life is thwarted as she perhaps foresaw by the ‘Hell’ of the care she gets. The only beauty in her life is found by looking out of the window, and by the friendship of Standish, another patient, who is deaf and bed ridden. She is punished for transgressions and tranquilised to keep her biddable. She is isolated and confused. 

We discover that Miss Spencer had lived an independent life, always a little out of step, as a Math teacher in a small town in the Midwest. She had an English lover who she visited in England and went on a couple of trips with him in Europe. The affair petered out with the interruption of the war. She appreciates elegance, such as mathematical problems, and music. But her sources of support are not adequate to the trials of being in this home. And she wishes that she had prepared better.

The trouble is that old age is not interesting until one gets there, a foreign country with an unknown language to the young, and even to the middle-aged. I wish now that I had found out more about it. (23)

For a while she is provided with friendship by Standish, a local Methodist minister and his daughter and finally by Anna, the wife of a local farmer standing in for one of the carers while she is on holiday. Eventually she comes to see that the only way that she will regain control is by violent means.

It is a very telling book, not so much of the abuse of older people although it describes that. She is drugged, isolated, infantilised, humiliated and all independence is removed. We come to see the needs of an older person to find a good way to live their final years: dignity, warmth, friendship, connection and a place in a community. The title leads to a warning for readers: as you are now, as once was I. 

May Sarton

May Sarton was unceasing in her attempts to be heard. She published 53 books in her life, 19 novels, 17 collections of her poems, 15 non-fiction books, 2 for children, a play and some screenplays. She had a 13-year relationship with a woman, but refused to allow her writing to be described as lesbian. She preferred to be known as a lesbian woman who wrote. She lived in Europe and on the West and East coasts of the US, born in 1912 and died in 1995. May Sarton’s life is less celebrated these days, but she made a huge contribution to feminism. 

As We Are Now by May Sarton, first published in the US in 1973. Reissued in the UK by The Women’s Press in1983. This was the edition I used. 134pp

Related Posts

A Reckoning by May Sarton

Older Women in Fiction lists

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon

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Tension by EM Delafield

Charmed, as so many readers have been, by the provincial lady, I went to visit EM Delafield’s home village of Kentisbeare near Exeter. Diary of a Provincial Lady was narrated with wit and perception as she does her best to manage her household while fending off the advice of Lady Boxe. The village was delightful, and I was helped to find her grave by a local man, who later returned with a book that EM Delafield, as Mrs Dashwood, had given his mother inside which was a letter written in January 1940 about WI business and her plans to fly to Paris. Her handwriting was very small and very neat. I felt sure that I would have enjoyed her company.

I feel sure that I would not have liked Lady Rossiter from Tension. The lady of the house at the centre of the novel, a little like Lady Boxe, is completely lacking in self-awareness, full of her own importance and really just not very nice. Lady Rossiter is the cause of the tension of the title and the unhappiness of many people.

Tension

The plot of Tension is rather thin. The main pleasure to be had from reading this novel is from the characters, and particularly from the importance that many of the characters assume for themselves on very flimsy grounds.

A new lady supervisor is appointed to the adult education institute for which Sir Julian Rossiter serves as chairman. His wife, Lady Edna, likes to involve herself in the lives of the teaching staff, believing she brings a bit of colour and class to their lives. She recognises Miss Marchrose’s name and believes that she was once engaged to her cousin but broke the engagement when he was wounded. Outraged by this she makes it her business to make life difficult for the new lady supervisor.

Miss Marchrose turns out to be very efficient and very honest. As she settles in she becomes attracted to Mark Easter, the Rossiter’s agent. He is a married man, but his wife is in a home for dipsomaniacs and has not been seen for many years. 

Lady Rossiter has claimed that she is the confidante of poor Mark Easter, although nothing in the story supports this. Perhaps she is jealous of Miss Marchrose, or perhaps she doesn’t like efficient women or perhaps she enjoys outrage on behalf of her cousin who has since fully recovered and married another woman. Lady Rossiter stokes the gossip about Miss Marchrose and makes life very difficult at the college.

The supporting cast are beautifully observed; the two Easter children, Ruthie in particular, are nightmare creations, who terrorise everyone by their intrusive behaviour. Iris Easter is Mark’s half-sister who has written a book called Why, Ben! A Story of the Sexes. She is so empty-headed that her novel is sure to impress few people and fade away almost immediately. She is followed to the village by an admirer, Mr Garrett, who likes to boast of his Celtic connections. His father appears at the wedding:

The representative of the Clan appeared in the guise of a stout, handsome old man, with waxed moustache, in rather smart, tight, black clothes, wearing a top hat, a white carnation buttonhole, and white spats, and speaking with an accent that, though exceedingly pronounced was not to be recognised as that of any known part of Scotland. (160)

Mr Garrett senior is a business man from Swindon, the stationery business, not a Scottish laird.

Sir Julian is often the lens through which the reader observes the behaviours of the people in this novel. His comments to himself are frequently rather dry and when spoken pass over the head of his wife. He does not seek to modify his wife’s behaviour, revealing himself to be weak. He is, however, an excellent listener.

Many of the characters have mannerisms in their way of talking: one of the teachers provides a running commentary on what he is doing. Another calms himself in conversation by reading any words that are before him, including the label on a pot of plumb jam. Lady Rossiter has a little mantra that she claims helps her decide what to say: ‘Is it kind, is it wise, is it true?’ She is so sure of the correctness of her attitudes, of her understanding of people, of the right way to proceed that she consistently misses being kind, wise or true. Indeed, she is all gracious malevolence in black furs. 

Tension is everywhere in this novel: between the Rossiters, at the college, whenever the children appear. More is provided by the suggestiveness of the book written by Iris, Why, Ben! A Story of the Sexes and the contrast between Sir Julian’s attitudes to fluffy blonde Iris and the ass, her fiancé. The worst tension results from Lady Rossiter’s ill-judged interference with the social lives and the business of the college. It does not end happily, or almost unhappily.

EM Delafield

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

EM Delafield was a pen name. She was born Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture on 69h June 1890. She spent some time in a convent before the First World War, before she became a VAD nurse in Exeter and married Arthur Dashwood in 1919. After some years in the Malay States they settled in East Devon, in Kentisbeare. She was a prolific writer. There are 49 works listed on her Wikipedia page, including many non-fiction works such as biography, and short stories. Her most well-known book was Diary of a Provincial Lady, serialised for Time and Tide magazineShe died before the end of the Second World War in December 1943 grief-stricken at the death of her son.

Tension by EM Delafield, first published in 1920. Reissued in the British Library Women Writers series in 2021. 214pp

Related posts

So much more than an amusing Provincial Lady – EM Delafield (April 2018 on Bookword)

Heaven Ali reviewed Tension and called it ‘an absolute winner’

Kate Vane also reviewed it on her blog.

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Black History and Slave Owners in Devon

About half a century ago I was privileged to attend an East Coast college in Pennsylvania, as part of an exchange programme from the University of Warwick. Students of history got to spend a semester at an American university.

I shared a college room with two other women: one was a Finnish-American a little younger than me, and the other was from Brooklyn on a programme. Cheryl was black and at first as outsiders we had bonded. But soon she joined the black activists on campus and in our discussions blamed the English for slavery and the suffering of the black population. I felt no guilt since the trade had been undertaken by people who lived 200 years before I was born. 

Nowadays, I am not so quick to reject the idea that I am implicated in the enslavement of African peoples. As far as I can tell, my family were not among the many British people who were compensated for the ‘emancipation’ of the enslaved peoples held on their plantations, carefully noted in the legers of 1834. 

So, I do not appear to have ancestors involved in enslavement. But to ignore the financial benefits brought by the slave traders to the ports of England, the ship owners and crews who undertook the notorious Middle Passage, to ignore the economic results of the cotton industry – workers and investors – and those who benefited from cheap cotton goods, especially sugar produced on the plantations and made possible the economic prosperity of England would be wilful blindness. So much of the British prosperity of the 19th and to a certain extent the 20th centuries was built on the back of the enslaved Africans, shipped in their hundreds of thousands across the Atlantic.

I recently read Black and British: a forgotten history by David Olusoga (2016). It is a long read and at times distressing. To read the racist beliefs about black Africans is uncomfortable. To read of the arguments made by those who opposed the abolition, first of the slave trade and then of enslavement itself, is eyewatering. It was argued by some that it was every free Englishman’s right to trade and own enslaved people. The attitude persisted that blackness implied inferiority, that white people were superior. And it was argued that this superiority of white people justified enslavement of Africans. 

These beliefs took a long time to weaken. There was strong resistance to Africans and black Caribbeans joining the British Army to fight the Germans in the First World War. It was argued that for black men to kill Europeans would challenge the idea of the superiority of Europeans. While we may have pride in the resistance to the US ideas of segregation that the US troops brought with them in the Second World Wat, it was only 20 years since a black sailor, Charles Wootton who had served in the Royal Navy, had been killed in Liverpool in what can only be described as a lynching.

Perhaps the most significant ‘forgotten’ history concerns the enslavement of millions of Africans. While the trade might have been established by the Spanish and Portuguese, as soon as British ships were able to break the monopoly they engaged in the very lucrative trading in human lives: buying humans on the West Coast and transporting them in terrible conditions and selling them in the New World.

We pride ourselves on the British campaign to abolish the slave trade. This was achieved, despite much opposition, in 1807. Many believed that enslavement would gradually die away. It took another campaign to end it in the colonies of the British Empire, and to achieve this the biggest compensation ever was paid out. But it was not to the enslaved people that compensation was paid, but to those who had owned them. And while they were not deemed to be slaves after emancipation they were required to continue in a form of apprenticeship which lasted for six more years.

What was Devon’s connection to the enslavement of Africans?

And who were the slaveowners in Britain in the 1830s? This is a difficult part of history, one which some would rather leave alone. But historians chase after the details to build stories from the ground up. In Devon we are lucky enough to have a historian who has looked at Devon’s connection to the enslavement of Africans. 

Devon and the Slave Trade by Todd Gray provides documentary evidence of the connection. It is true that the first voyages across the Atlantic were by that famous Devonian John Hawkins. He made three voyages between 1562 and 1568. The difficulties were quite daunting (economic and political) and little involvement was seen again until the 18th century. Even then ships from Devon did not contribute substantial portion of African people making the Middle Passage crossing.

When in the 1790s the campaigns to end slavery were launched Devon people played their part. 

When he turned his attention again to the issue, during Lockdowns, and wrote Devon’s Last Slave-Owners Todd Gray had the digitized records of the compensation paid to reveal the names of the slave owners, their birth places, their place of residence and where their enslaved peoples resided. These records were compiled from the legers of the time by a team from University College London. You can find the database here.

His book seeks to answer the question: to what extent did Devonians own enslaved people at the time of Emancipation on 1st August 1834?

43 people, 39 of them men, many of them members of the clergy, owned over 7000 enslaved people, mostly in the West Indies. By examining the records of their lives Gray is able to conclude

Devon’s mid-nineteenth century slaveholders were not a homogenous group. Some were Devon born and bred but they were outnumbered by retirees from the West Indies and other parts of Great Britain: most were former owners who largely favoured the new seaside resorts over Exeter or Plymouth or the countryside. (240)

That is not the extent of Devon’s association with enslavement as Gray reminds us.

Ownership was merely one of the ways in which individuals were associated with slavery. In its widest sense, it could be assumed that any consumer of slave-produced goods, including sugar, rum, coffee and cotton, directly benefitted from enslavement. In 1834 thus would have defined some 16,564,138 people, the entire population of the country. (1)

The difficulties, the awkwardness of our country’s history must not be dodged because it is difficult and awkward, not the country’s finest achievement. What these three books have told me is that we are all bound up with enslavement, through our family histories, and through the wealth that it provided, which made this country one of the richest in the 19th century in the world. 

It also tells the story of the individuals, who suffered and who benefited from enslavement. Here is Princess, who testified in court in 1823 in her complaint about Robert Semple’s treatment of her:

That this morning she saw a woman of the name of Cuba sitting down asleep; she said to her: What were you doing last night that you did not sleep? At the same time Mr Semple came out of his bedroom and asked me what I said. I told him. He said You always have something to say. Better shut your mouth. I answered him again. Master, I don’t speak with you. I speak with Cuba and then I came downstairs and into the kitchen. Master followed me into the kitchen and told me I had better go to my work than meddle my tongue. I answered him I am doing my work, and you come to trouble me. I was not speaking to you. Then he went to the store and took a horsewhip and began to flog me. I asked him for what he flogged me. He said for badness. I told him: So long as you flog me for nothing, I shall go to the Fiscal and I came away. (235-6)

The lives in this account, from one county, reveal in detail the great variety of people living in Devon and their connection to the enslavement of black people. Both books of local history are also generously illustrated. Cheryl spoke near to the truth: we all have responsibilities in this sad history. It’s black history month, so it’s time to acknowledge that.

Books referred to:

Black and British: a forgotten history by David Olusoga (2016), Pan Books. 602pp
Associated with the BBC programme, and winner of the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize.

Devon and the Slave Trade: documents on African enslavement, abolition and emancipation from 1562 to 1867 by Todd Gray (2007)Mint Press 2nd ed 2020 134pp

Devon’s Last Slave-Owners by Todd Gray, (2021), Mint Press. 298pp

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Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

This is not the kind of book I would normally read or review on this blog. The cover says quite a lot about its genre, and mostly I think it is signalling mature women’s chicklit (which I have tongue-in-cheek referred to as ‘henlit’ before now). But I like mixing up my reading: a bit of non-fiction and some lighter stuff among the general diet of literary fiction.

I enjoyed much of this book: there’s a hilarious golf club celebration, the ineptness of people consoling a bereaved man with an illustrated tin of assorted biscuits, a shooting party that encounters children who have escaped from a school bus for a pee, and other humorous observations on everyday life.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

The story is set in a pretty village in Sussex in the present day. The village is largely untouched by the twenty-first century, and many of the inhabitants are retirees of some means. One reflection of our changing population is that the village shop is run by a couple from a Pakistani background. When Mr Ali died his wife continued to manage the shop, and has recently been joined by her nephew, who is rather surly and resentful. Helen Simonson nicely captures the patronising views of the villagers, especially as Mr and Mrs Ali were born in the North of England.

The upper echelons of the village, led by the ladies of the various village committees, compensated for the rudeness of the lower by developing a widely advertised respect for Mr and Mrs Ali. The Major had heard many a lady speak proudly of ‘our dear Pakistani friends at the shop’ as proof that Edgecombe St Mary was a utopia of multicultural understanding. (5)

Like Mrs Ali, Major Pettigrew has been widowed, but the story begins when his brother dies, and he finds it hard to drive to the funeral, so Mrs Ali offers him a lift. He is concerned about one of a pair of special guns that he believes his father intended to be reunited when the first of his two sons died. Major Pettigrew is rather keen on family traditions, and has great pride in his father’s achievements. He followed him into the army.

The villagers pay consolation visits to the Major, and we see the concerns of the ladies (not a word I use often, but they would describe themselves that way). In contrast Mrs Ali, finding the Major in some difficulties provides practical assistance. He appreciates her kindness and finds himself drawn to her. Her kindness is in sharp contrast to the attitude of his son, Roger, who seems unable to think of anyone but himself and nearly misses the funeral.

The story amiably ambles through the brother’s funeral, the son’s attempts to capitalise on the rather special guns, a shoot with a fading Duke and a predatory American property developer, and a disastrous themed Christmas dance at the golf club. Many assumptions and prejudices are challenged in the course of all this: especially about race and age, but also gender. The Major is involved in these events, inwardly critical but outwardly compliant.

The Major is an interestingly conceived character. He is constantly affronted by people who are selfish and inconsiderate, and there are many in Edgecombe. The Major is also quite stuffy, unwilling to break the social barriers that support community and quite pompous about people who do, but sceptical about those that create and promote barriers, especially of age, gender and ethnicity. 

I found him a little unrounded; he followed his father into the army, and we are told that when he left he spent time teaching in a boys’ private school but was happy to leave it. He had tried to impart his love of English literature to them. We do not find out how he earned his living in his later years, before retirement. He is 68 years old and Mrs Ali not yet 60. They share a love of Kipling.

He is an affable man, thinking or saying under his breath his ripostes to the clunky statements of his neighbours, or the patronising attitude of his solicitor. He is capable of generosity, providing Mrs Ali’s nephew with accommodation when he needed it. Abdul Wahid had fallen foul of his family and was considering a strict form of Islam.

All this was rather thin. In particular I had to suspend my critical historian’s eye over the re-enactment of the events that led to the Major’s father being awarded the pair of guns by a Maharajah. It happened, the re-enactment, at the end of the golf club party in which every patronising nod towards the Indian sub-continent had been rehearsed by the upper echelons of Edgecombe society. It is Mrs Ali who points out that although the Major’s father might have shown extreme bravery in protecting the Maharajah’s daughter against a violent mob that ambushed the train, the process of Partition was blighted by many massacres, especially of passengers on trains as Hindus fled to India and Muslims to Pakistan. The real story, no comedic aspects here, was the bloodiness as the British rule in India came to an end. Not the heroism of the Major’s father.

I enjoyed reading it, but some of it seemed a little schematic and designed as a slight provocation to those who haven’t yet cottoned on to what it means to be woke.

Selected by the Richard and Judy Book Club in 2011

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, published in 2010 by Bloomsbury. 388pp

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Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

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

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

 

Woman on the Edge of Time

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

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

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

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

Reading Woman on the Edge of Time for the first time

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

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

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

The future from the past

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

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

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

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

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

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Pepita by Vita Sackville-West

You have probably heard of the multi-talented Vita Sackville-West. Born in 1882 she shone in many fields before her death in 1962. Consider the many ways you know of Vita Sackville-West.

Her love affair with Virginia Woolf

 

Somehow the rather intellectual Virginia was bowled over by Vita’s charms and they were lovers and great friends for many years. Their love letters were recently published by Vintage press: Love Letters: Vita and Virginia. Vita was also the lover of other women and men.

Orlando

One of the outcomes of that relationship was Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. Vita Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, wrote, 

The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her. (From Wikipedia)

I like that: Orlando is ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature’. It’s also great fun.

All Passion Spent

Vita Sackville-West was a prolific writer herself, poetry, novels, journalism and biography. One of her 17 novels takes pride of place in the older women in fiction series on this blog: All Passion Spent, published in 1931. 

In the novel, Lady Slane is in her 60s. She is the widow of a Very Great Man, and when he dies her six middle-aged children meet and decide what she will do: stay with each of them in turn. To their consternation, she announces that she saw a house in Hampstead thirty years before and that it will do for her now. She rents it and lives in it with her maid. These final years bring new friends and interests, and after a lifetime of being eclipsed by her husband, Lady Slane finds happiness on her own terms.

Sissinghurst Castle

You may also know that Vita Sackville-West was a great gardener. Unable to inherit the family property Knole, she bought Sissinghurst Castle in Kent and created a beautiful garden there, which you can visit as it is now a National Trust property. She wrote regular columns for the Observer on gardening from 1946 until 1961.

Her portrait

Lady with a Red Hat by William Strang.

Love that hat!

Pepita by Vita Sackville-West

Vita came from a long line of rather remarkable and flamboyant women. She wrote about three of them in Pepita, published in 1937: her great-grandmother Catalina, her grandmother Pepita, and her own mother Victoria Sackville.

Her great-grandmother Catalina was a Spanish gypsy, who made her living selling second-hand clothes. It is not entirely clear whether Catalina’s barber husband was the father of her child Pepita. It suited people in their circle to suggest that the father was the Duke of Osuna, Catalina’s lover. The barber disappeared quickly from the story and died.

Pepita became a dancer of some renown in Europe, partly because she was very beautiful. She became very rich and supported her mother, who rose to be a landowner of a considerable estate in Spain. Pepita had been married briefly to her dancing master, but soon separated, apparently on account of her mother’s unpardonable actions – there’s a theme beginning here. While performing in Europe Pepita met the English diplomat and aristocrat Lionel Sackville-West. They became lovers, and he was the father of her children, including Victoria. 

He seems to have been a taciturn diplomat, one who did not observe the niceties of proper society for it was widely known that Pepita was his mistress and mother of his children. Pepita died in 1892 in the South of France, giving birth to her final child, who also did not survive. The children were farmed out, Victoria to a convent in Paris. Later her father needed her to act on his behalf in the social and diplomatic world of Washington. This was not a conventional arrangement as Victoria was not legitimate. Nevertheless, she played the part very well, and bowled over Washington society receiving many offers of marriage. 

Back in England she met and married another Lionel Sackville-West and went to live at the family estate at Knole. They had one child: Vita. Victoria was a very difficult and demanding woman, who also attracted admirers. 

Vita retells the stories of these women in Pepita. Her sources came from a trunk she found of papers, researched in Spain as part of a court case by one of her uncles. The Sackville-West men seem to be rather socially withdrawn, taciturn even, who liked these dramatic women, but did not exert themselves to make their lovers’ lives easier or mind much about the scandal that followed them. Vita’s own father did not (?could not?) leave Knole to her, so she invested her energies in Sissinghurst instead. 

As historic background to a talented and vibrant figure of the twentieth century, Pepita makes good reading, even if it is somewhat rose-tinted. 

Pepita by Vita Sackville-West first published in 1937 and reissued by Vintage in 2016. 266pp

Picture credits:

Sissinghurst Gardens: by Grace Kelly September 2011 via Wiki Commons

Pepita Dancing via Wiki Commons

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