Category Archives: Reviews

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

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

The Bloody Chamber

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

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

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

Feminism in The Bloody Chamber

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

The result is a flamboyant and exuberant set of stories. 

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

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

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

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

The style of The Bloody Chamber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angela Carter

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, short stories

The Decades Project 2020 and its future

When you have had enough of something, it’s time to stop. I don’t mean to sound like public warnings issued by betting sites in their advertisements. But I can’t see the point of continuing with a series on my blog when I am feeling tired of it. 

So it’s goodbye to the Decades Project, which I have run on different themes for several years.

  • Novels by women (2017)
  • Non-fiction by women (2018)
  • Children’s fiction (2019)
  • Women’s fiction published by Virago (2020)

Every year I picked eleven books, one chosen from each decade since 1900, reviewed each month from January. I often think like a historian and I am interested in change and how books relate to the times in which they were written. The project allowed me to notice how things changed over the century and to follow themes that emerged.

Brilliant Careers

In 2020 all the choices were written by women, most published by Virago and ten were featured in the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood.

The collection Brilliant Careers reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. I own copies of and had previously read many of the books featured. Others I had heard of but was not familiar with. The choices were easy, given the extracts and my desire to extend my familiarity with the Virago back catalogue.

The most obvious theme was of protagonists struggling to control their own lives, especially in the early years. The world wars changed women’s ability to become independent. No longer struggling against their families or against society’s expectations, they began to find opportunities such as entry to higher education and the professions.

The eleven books of 2020 (with links)

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

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

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)

In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes (1994)

Wave me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Edited by Anne Boston (1988)

Highlights

Three books were especially significant for me. 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940) was new to me. The novel was written out of the great pain and suffering of the Czechs in 1938-9, and their betrayal by the Allies, especially the French but also Chamberlain with his ’kid-glove fascism’. Martha Gellhorn was writing from her first-hand experience as a journalist in Europe. It’s a novel raw and stricken.

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967) was not the first book by her that I had read, but it made a big impression on me for its boldness, its ability to shock with teenage sexuality, and for the quality of the prose. I promised myself to read more of her work, and have done. Watch out for a post about The Bloody Chamber

Wave me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Edited by Anne Boston (1988) was a collection that impressed me greatly. After I had posted in November I discovered I had previously bought and read the earlier version. So good I read it twice! The stories reveal the multitude of ways in which war was experienced and written about by women. 

Perhaps it’s a result of reading that collection, Wave me Goodbye, that I feel inclined to read more books from the first half of the Twentieth Century. Not only was it a time of great change for women, but also a time when excellent women were writing. 

In the last few decades publishers have reintroduced readers to some of the most distinguished writers of that time: for example Rose Macaulay by the Handheld Press. Persephone Books continues to publish books by neglected writers from the middle years of the century. Virago’s back catalogue will continue to delight for years.

So next year, that’s what I plan to do some of the time on Bookword Blog.

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, short stories, The Decade project

The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff was born 100 years ago today – on 14th December 1920. She died in 1992 having written more than 40 novels, most of them historical fiction for children. Many adults, including me, love to read her books, for the story, the accuracy of the historical setting and for the themes she explores. 

“I would claim that my books are for children of all ages, from nine to ninety.” [Interview in 1986, quoted on Wikipedia]

Does she deserve her reputation as one of the best writers of the post-war period?

The Lantern Bearers

Some of her best known books are set in the period of the Roman occupation of Britain. The Eagle of the Ninth, perhaps her best known work, was set after the Antonine wall had been abandoned, and when Hadrian’s wall was still a barrier. By 410 AD Rome had more or less abandoned Britain, and Saxon warriors were already threatening to plunder eastern Britain, and also to settle on its fertile land. The Lantern Bearers is set in this turbulent time.

Aquila is a young man serving with the cavalry of the last of the Roman troops stationed in present day Rochester in Kent. His family live in Sussex, farming their land peaceably. He is recalled from leave because the last of the troops are being withdrawn (Rome is under attack). At the last minute he fails to board and deserts, feeling loyalty to Britain rather than to Rome. He returns to his family farm. But soon the Saxons come, many in search of good plunder or new homes. The Saxons who destroy his father’s farm come to murder Flavian because he had bonded with the British tribes against Saxon invaders. Aquila’s sister is dragged away, and he is left to the wolves.

He is discovered by another band of marauders who take him as a slave. He spends some winters in Jutland. He worries about his sister, and how to return to Britain. The tribe eventually decide to transfer to Britain so he goes with them and escapes. He does this with the help of his sister who he finds in a large Saxon encampment, but she won’t come with him because she has a son. Since he lost his freedom, to find and liberate Flavia Aquila has been the purpose of his life, but she has rejected him. For a short time seeks vengeance on the messenger who betrayed his father to the Saxons, but discovers that the man was tortured and died. 

Now he is lost and his life is empty, but he makes his way to the hills of North Wales and joins the resistance forces there, a band of British and Anglo-Roman soldiers led by Ambrosius. He joins them as they prepare for battle with the Saxons, and sustain some victories and some defeats. He remains isolated, but a trusted member of Ambrosius’s Companions. The commander asks him to marry a Celtic warrior’s daughter to help bind the allies, which he does. But it takes many years and a son to bring any warmth to his marriage. Ness’s decision to stay with him, because of their son, echoes Flavia’s rejection and it helps the gradual healing of Aquila’s wounds. However, the combined forces are not able to defeat the Saxons decisively, and must learn to live with these new neighbours. 

The story-telling

The story is a quest, at first for revenge for the loss of Aquila’s home and family, but later it becomes the quest of all exiles – to find a home, not just a place, but with people who care for him. It’s a long quest, and he is helped by those he meets: a monk Brother Ninnias , an old physician called Eugenus, Artos (aka Arthur) a brilliant horseman, and his own wife Ness. He even manages a kind of reconciliation with his sister. 

The quest is successful because Aquila has many qualities, shared with other heroes of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novels: loyalty, integrity, resilience and intelligence. As in all good stories, the path is strewn with failures, near misses and temptations to take the easier path. 

The action of the quest is helped along by splendid descriptive passages. In this extract Aquila is in Jutland and he has brought his dying master to the sea one night for the last time.

The grey sky was hurrying overhead and the high-riding moon showed as a greasy blur of brightness, rimmed with smoky colours behinds the drifting flecks of cloud. The tide was full out, and the brightness fell in bars of tarnished silver on the wet sandbanks beyond the dunes and the cornland, and the oily tumble of the water beyond again. The wind swung blustering in from the south-west and the sea, with the smell if salt in it and that other smell so long delayed, that was the promise of spring, and the whole night was alive with the trickle of melting snow. (60-61)

The title is significant. The period following the withdrawal of Rome used to be called the Dark Ages. Not only does Aquila light the great beacon at Rutupiae (Rochester) after the last Roman troops have left, creating a legend which is repeated to him for time to time, but Eugenus describes their role as the book ends. 

‘I sometimes think we stand at sunset,’ Eugenus said after a pause. ‘It may be that night will close over us in the end, but I believe that morning will come again. Morning always comes again out of the darkness, though maybe not for the people who saw the sun go down. We are the Lantern Bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning, to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind.’ (246)

I was conscious that Rosemary Sutcliff had lived through the threat in the Second World War of invasion from Europe, of loss of freedom and self-determination. The novel was published in 1959, just 14 years after peace was established in Europe. 

Exile and home

The theme of exile and belonging runs through this novel, which makes it of interest to adults as well as young people. For Aquila it meant an existential challenge. For the two women, Flavia and Ness, both of whom were absorbed into alien tribes, it meant dilemmas that were almost impossible to resolve. We are left in no doubt that the warring bands will not resolve the issues of who will rule Britain. These continued for another half millennium and were not resolved until after the Norman conquest.

But the individual finds a home by making connections, through family, through shared endeavours, through commitment to community, through honest relationships. These themes are as relevant today as they were after the Romans left, after the end of the Second World War, and are difficult for people of all ages.

I salute Rosemary Sutcliff on her centenary and for her achievements.

The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff first published in 1959 by Oxford University Press. I used an edition published in 1972. 248pp

Related posts

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff on Bookword in June 2019.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers on Kate Macdonald’s blog in 2016. She is interested in how Artos in particular is portrayed, but also admires the psychological insights into Aquila’s character.

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Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim

To begin with I thought Mr Skeffington was about ageing. It was recommended as an addition to the older women in fiction series. Then I thought it was about how pre-war society calculated a woman’s value by her looks and how losing her beauty meant losing her status. Then this book turned very dark, with a denouement suitable for the time of publication – 1940. It is about all these things, moving from one theme to another, sometimes in a rather schematic way.

Mr Skeffington

At the start of the novel Fanny Skeffington is rich, approaching 50 and recovering from a bout of Diphtheria. She was rich because of the generous settlement of her husband at their divorce following his infidelities. As she recovers, she finds herself thinking of him a great deal, even imagining him in her house, behind the fish-dish.

Fanny, who had married Mr Skeffington, and long ago, for reasons she considered compelling, divorced him, after not having given him a thought for years, began, to her surprise to think of him a great deal. If she shut her eyes, she could see him behind the fish-dish at breakfast; and presently, even if she didn’t shut her eyes, she could see him behind almost anything. (1)

Up until this point she has been beautiful and men have loved her for it and she basked in their admiration. Fanny enjoyed her independence, which meant being rich and therefore not obliged to remarry.

She seeks the advice of her former admirers in order to set her life right again, which means no longer seeing Mr Skeffington in her house and regaining the admiration of admirers. Here is the formulaic aspect of the novel. She meets her admirers in turn and each one thinks how her beauty is ruined and they no longer wish to put themselves out for her. They recognize no qualities in her, only that she is no longer a beauty. 

Fanny comes to realise that she has lost her looks, and that her beauty was an empty commodity.

Beauty; beauty. What was the good of beauty, once it was over? It left nothing behind it but acid regrets, and no heart at all to start fresh. Nearly everything else left something. Husbands, for instance, left, or ought to leave children, and then one could be busy with them, and with their children. It was, she felt, one of her most just grievances against Job [her former husband] that she was childless. (57)

She finds it hard to know what she can do with her life, her beauty gone, no children or grandchildren to be interested in and her cousins wanting to provide her with a quiet party to celebrate her half century. 

The novel follows Fanny as she is gradually disabused of her value to society, of her beauty and she begins to take account of her advancing years as she meets strangers and former acquaintances and admirers. These meetings are the occasion for a great deal of gentle and comic writing. For example the sister of Miles, an especially eloquent admirer who has become an inspirational preacher in Bethnal Green, is led to believe she is a fallen woman – a prostitute, which in some senses she has been. Then there is the leerily disgusting colonial, a man used to getting his way at all times, who has come back to reclaim and marry the Fanny he remembers, only to fail to recognise her. As they disabuse her of her former powers, she comes to more fully appreciate her strengths. 

Job Skeffington is Jewish. In the early part of the novel we learn that he found it easy to attract money, and her marriage to him helped Fanny to secure her own family’s financial stability. There are also many references to the European Situation, which we learn is bad and getting worse. Finally Fanny learns from George that Mr Skeffington had been in Vienna

Vienna wasn’t exactly a healthy place for a Jew, and he was soon in serious trouble – for a moment George didn’t seem able to go on, seemed to be staring, with horror in his eyes, at something he could hardly credit, – such serious trouble that he was lucky to get away with his bare life, if bare life, said George, his eyes full of that incredulous horror, could be called lucky, and was now in London, and on the rocks. (221) 

By the time her friend and cousin George brings Mr Skeffington to her in person she finds herself able to understand how her life might have more meaning in the future than she had feared. She wants a future being of use to him.

The Older Women in Fiction series features women over 60, so Fanny does not qualify being about to turn 50. But this novel is about ageing and how women brought up to trade on their looks have little currency if that is all they have. Fanny turns out to be made of more.

Elizabeth von Arnim

This was Elizabeth von Arnim’s final novel. She died in 1941 at the age of 74, having escaped the European war for America. She seems to celebrate independent woman, and then to criticise those who value beauty in a woman above all else. But the novel ends on a note warning against valuing appearances. It is somewhat uneven in its tone, with plenty of gentle humour and also a very sombre tone to end as Mr Skeffington returns.

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1940 and reissued by Virago in 1993. 233pp

Related posts

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (on Bookword in August 2017)

Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings reviewed Mr Skeffington and remembered the 1944 film starring Bette Davies and Claude Rains.

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Not girls but WOMEN

A post to celebrate women. A new trend in titles began a few years ago when it became fashionable to include the word ‘girl’ in the title of novels, especially mystery or horror novels featuring young women and violence. We are in an age which makes a fetish of youth and devalues maturity, especially in women. I hate the patronising use of the word girl to refer to a young woman. In this themed post I celebrate ten titles that have claimed woman and celebrate maturity.

Of the ten books in this list, 9 are novels and one is an edited diary. They were all reviewed on Bookword and the links are included.

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi (1975)

Translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata

Firdaus is awaiting execution for murder, having lived a life of exploitation by a series of men. It was an indictment of gender relations in Egypt at the time.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016)

Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Keiko lives a very small life serving in a convenience store. Her family try to encourage her into a more normal life, which risks overwhelming her. This is a critique of the pressures to conform in Japan, which can make young women childlike.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (2013)

An angry woman lives on the upper floor of a house in Boston, USA. Is she a mad woman in the attic? Loneliness and betrayal are the themes of this novel.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)

Mildred also lives above the action, in this case over a flat let to a rather stormy couple. She is a mature woman who understands that most people live with ‘the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies, the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction’.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019)

The prize-winning novel celebrates girls and women and never confuses the two. The lives of many women of colour are connected in this novel, mostly set in London. It was the best book I read in 2019.

A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt (2015)

This is the title given to the diaries of Jean Pratt. She kept it for sixty-one years from 1925 carrying on through the war. She lived in Burnham Beeches, outside London and never married. The title explains her life.

Older Women in fiction series

Here are four titles from novels in the older women in fiction series. Of course these are about women in their 60s and over, and such subjects are not usually referred to as girls. I still think it is important to celebrate their titles. I notice that three of them are about Arabic women. None are from Europe or North America. I am not sure what that tells us, but perhaps only that there are different traditions in titles for novels.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso (2016)

This is the story of a rivalry between two neighbours, Hortensia and Marion in Cape Town, South Africa and how they manage to argue and become reconciled. 

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour (2014)

Translated from the Arabic by Kay Heikkinen

The Palestinian diaspora is retold by an old woman, Ruqayya, who was born into a village taken over at the time of the Nakba. Family life must continue despite living in exile.

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail (2016)

Translated from the Arabic by Sophia Vasalou

A mystical story with its origins in real events about an old woman who returns to her village in the military zone on the border of Iraq-Iran during their war. Her simple approach to life and her donkey inspire the soldiers.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (2013)

Set in war-ravaged Beirut a widow is determined to hold on to her apartment. She leads a secret life translating western literature into Arabic.

Over to you

Can you suggest more titles to add to this list?

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston

What can we learn from the experiences of women in the past? How can their reflections help us think about the occurrences of our own lives? The so-called Blitz spirit has been evoked since the Coivid-19 pandemic began to take hold earlier this year. We even celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE Day in May at a distance with scones and little union flags.

In Wave Me Goodbye there are 28 stories, all written in English and from the experience of women from the UK or the ‘colonies’. All the stories were written at the time of the second world war (except one). This is a special and important collection. This is a special and important addition to the posts of the Decades Project 2020 (see below)

Wave Me Goodbye

Different experiences

The first thing to say about them is that these stories reflect the very wide range of women’s experiences of the war. They were not all staying at home and making do and mending, or fire watching, or working in war jobs. And the experiences here range from the so-called Phoney War, while everyone waited for the war to start, through to the first post-war visits to war-ravaged Europe. 

There are stories about

Working in a field hospital
The Blitz
partners leaving for active duty, and home on leave
adventures abroad in the Balkans
land girls
losing treasured things, such as letters from a lover
living with other women
the war in Africa
fantasy 
the aftermath.

In writing their stories they drew upon their experiences and reflected what was happening and how it affected their different lives. Some are about the acute experiences of departure and loss, others provide insights into the arrangements made by women in the absence of so many men.  

Quality of writing

The second thing to note is the quality of the writing, almost every mid-century writer of note wrote a short story that was included in the collection.

Rosamond Lehmann
Jan Struther
Mollie Panter-Downes
Rose Macaulay
Olivia Manning
Elizabeth Bowen
Elizabeth Taylor
Barbara Pym
Sylvia Townsend Warner …

It reads like a combined Virago and Persephone catalogue! 

In the introduction Anne Boston quotes Elizabeth Bowen:

All war-time writing is…  resistance writing. (xxi)

In a sense the resistance is oblique: it is to the distortions that war brings with it; distortions in relationships, time, clothes, food, careers, homes, life itself. And that is one of the parallels with the pandemic: that too is distorting our lives as well as killing thousands of people.

Some stories of resistance are triumphant. I loved Sweethearts and Wives by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which concerned a household of women managing their domestic arrangements, largely without men, in a haphazard and cheerful manner. 

Short stories and the war

And thirdly the short story was the genre of those days. Many of the writers were established novelists, but turned their attention to short stories during the war. The fragmentary nature of short prose captured the disconnected experiences that war handed out, rapid and catastrophic change. An example is Miss Anstruther’s Letters by Rose Macaulay, in which Miss Anstruther frantically tries to find her dead lover’s letters after she has been bombed out. This was Rose Macaulay’s experience, and it reflects the fragility of material belongings. With the quality of writing, it is easy to find insights, description, experiences narrated with great skill.

The depth of damage resulting from six years of war is beautifully captured in Elizabeth Taylor’s story of a couple visiting France and trying to reconnect after their different experiences of the war. It is called Gravement Endommagé and considers damage at many levels.

I can’t review individual stories here, but refer you to JacquieWine’s blog (see below) where she looked at many individual stories in two posts when she explored this collection earlier this year. 

Covid-19?

So what can we learn from the Second World War that might help us with Covid-19? We need to be resourceful and resilient. We need to adapt our lives to the profoundly anti-social aspects of the response to Covid-19. We can expect experiences as different as people are. We can expect great responses and more feeble ones. Humans, women have done it in the past. We can do it again. The values that underpin the good life must be held onto in difficult times: community, care for others, decency and integrity.

Related posts

On HeavenAli’s blog she recommends this quite marvellous collection in her review in June. 

Another enthusiastic reader is JacquiWine who provided two posts on her blog to do justice to the collection. 

Novels from the Home Front (on Bookword in November 2019)

The War-Time Stories and Letters of Molly Panter-Downes. (January 2019)

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther (November 2018)

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston, first published in 1988 by Virago and republished in 2019. 360pp

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I explored ten novels by women, one a month, framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. For November I have added this important collection. In December I will review the year’s blogs and consider a theme for 2021.

The post war choices for the project have been:

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)

In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes (1994)

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Becoming by Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama became the First Lady of the United States in 2009. She came from humble Chicago beginnings and through hard work and determination took the first steps on a successful career in law. Is this a story of the American Dream? 

Her autobiography brings into question the whole idea of the American Dream for African Americans, and especially for African American women. Is she unique, or is she leading the way?

Origins

She was born in January 1964 into a family who lived on Chicago’s South Side. They were not well off, her father maintaining his job at the local water plant despite advancing MS, her mother was a stay-at-home mom. She had an elder brother Craig. The family was tight knit, and surrounded by a large community of relatives and friends. The South Side was increasingly suffering from White Flight, but it was a good place to grow up. Michelle worked hard at school and followed her brother to Princeton. On graduating she was accepted into the prestigious Harvard Law School and returned home to take up a post in a high status law firm in Chicago. 

Up to this point she had approached her career by working very hard at her studies and by volunteering with various community groups. She was a woman with a mission, successfully managing by working long hours and planning every detail of her life.

Marriage

Barack Obama came to her as an intern, to some extent following her career path. But his background was very different, with mixed parents and a childhood spent in Hawaii and Indonesia. He also had a very different attitude to life.

I found this part of her memoir the most fascinating. As she reflects, she was succeeding in the life she had envisaged for herself: a well-paid job, with prospects in a law firm, and yet a dissatisfaction with her life. She took what she calls a ‘swerve’. Not only did she marry Obama, but she decided to leave behind the private law firm to go into work that supported the public good in Chicago, community projects in Health Care and the University. 

When the children were born she continued to work, finding support from other working mothers and from her own mother, who deserves her own biography. Pretty soon Obama was launching himself into his political career, having cut his teeth in community projects, writing and editing the Harvard Law Journal. 

Now she had to decide how to be married to this ambitious man, raise her two children and manage her own professional life. Again, this required some swerves in her attitude, to what it meant to live and work in such a marriage, alongside all the other issues women meet, while also encountering prejudice against Black women (and occasionally against tall women too).

The ‘swerves’ are not presented as sacrifices, more that she accepted the role to maintain their family. They both worked at it. He was more driven than her, having a great ability to manage huge amounts of information and to keep his eyes on the higher ambitions and ideals and to work for them.

The White House and FLOTUS

The section of her memoir about her time in the White House reveals the ambiguity of the position of First Lady. She had no constitutional power at all, but very high visibility and some influence. She decided to use the power she had in three main areas: children’s health, military families and promoting the aspirations and the prospects of young women. 

But the costs were very high. The Obamas were committed to bringing up their girls in as normal way as possible, in the face of extreme secret service security measures and extreme fame and exposure. They were also set up to be criticised by anyone who cared to, on any grounds. And it became increasingly obvious that much of their legacy would be lost after the 2016 election.

“When they go low …”

I often find that I have provoked a negative reaction in people through my opposition to the accepted norms, to political assumptions, especially about feminism and women. So, I try to keep in mind her exhortation given high publicity in her speech at the Democratic Convention in 2016 in the face of some brutal events in the Presidential campaign:

Dignity had always gotten us through. It was a choice, and not always an easy one, but the people I respected most in life made it again and again, every single day. There was a motto Barack and I tried to live by, and I offered it that night from the stage: When they go low, we go high. (407)

I did feel sorry for the enclosed, bubble life, of the White House, and the trappings of fame and security. Her own actions to support better child health through healthier eating (garden in the White House), the military families (with Mrs Biden) and the promotion of girls is all laudable. And all a terrible contrast to the administration that followed.

Making a difference

Having read the book, I watched the film (Becoming on Netflix), which focused on the tour to promote the book, interspersed with illustrated extracts, with additional photos and comments from her family and staff. Huge numbers turned out to hear her speak, and she also made time for small groups: young people from reservations, young Black women, all young people, and my favourite section was the group of older Black women who told Michelle Obama how proud they were to see a strong Black independent and intelligent woman in the White House. The film made it clear that she has given courage and inspiration to many people in the US and beyond. 

And now, with Kamala Harris gaining the position of Vice-President elect, it seems that the American public learning to embrace these inspiring women.

Remember Ann Petry’s novel The Street, published in 1946 (Virago reissue 2019).

Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018) published by Viking. 428pp. Thanks to Anna for the loan of her copy.

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The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann

Do you know that Thurber cartoon: a stout woman is reading a book in a relaxed manner, legs hanging over the arm of her chair? Her middle-aged husband sits foursquare and has the paper open and looks startled. She tells him: ‘It’s our own story exactly! He’s a bold as a hawk, she’s soft as the dawn.’

When I first read this book, in the early ‘80s perhaps when Virago republished it, I felt that – it was my story. And rereading it recently that feeling has not changed. I knew what she was writing about. Perhaps more to the point, Rosamond Lehmann knew what she was writing about.

The Weather in the Streets

The story is a kind of sequel to Invitation to the Waltz, in which Olivia Curtis was poised on the brink of adulthood, socially awkward at a ball, and rescued by Rollo Spencer. Ten years later she is now married but has separated from Ivor. This novel is the story of her affair with Rollo. 

At the start of the story she is going home to see her father who may be dying. He isn’t but he remains an invalid. On the train she meets Rollo. They have not met since Marigold’s coming out party. They are attracted to each other, and after Rollo has ensured she gets invited to his family’s country house for a party the die is cast. The affair is carried on for nearly a year, when after months of clandestine meetings and a holiday together in Austria Olivia finds that she is pregnant. Rollo has disappeared with his family for the rest of the summer. She endures the pregnancy until visited by Rollo’s mother. 

The affair ends because Olivia comes to see that she has always been in second place to Nicola, Rollo’s wife, always just a distraction for him. They had no future. They did have love and a good time. She returns to her artistic friends and moves on painfully. 

In love

Rosamond Lehman writes about the inner torments of isolated young women with great effect. This was the strength of Dusty Answer as well as Invitation to the Waltz. In this novel, Olivia is not yet self-assured, not yet happy in any social group. Being separated from her husband she is not welcome in most social circles, and out of tune with her family’s social connections. Rollo pays her attention, as he did at the party when she was 16, and she warms to him. They get on well and at first everything is ecstatic. But once established as his mistress she finds herself always waiting.

He’d manage to come for dinner once a week. I cooked it in the tiny cupboard of a kitchen, and he laid the table, awfully pleased with himself. I shall never like cooking, I’m not talented enough, but it was nice cooking for him, he appreciated it so. I bought a stylish new cookery book and dished up all sorts of mixtures. Sometimes when he couldn’t have dinner with me, he’d ring the bell late, about one o’clock. I never stayed out anywhere after midnight in case he did. It was rather wearing, the waiting, often after one had struck, I’d listen for the half-hour, then two, then the half-hour again, still keyed-up for the doorbell, the telephone, hearing in my brain his car come down the street and stop, sitting frozen in my chair – a listening machine. … I asked him how he explained when he came late. ‘I go to look up old George,’ he said. I knew that George was a habitué of the house – Nicola’s friend – it didn’t seem safe, but he and George had standing orders for the last ten years to provide an unhesitating alibi on all occasions with an element of doubt in them. George could be trusted. He was a very useful chap, never been known to ask a question. (191)

The dynamics of love

She’s an expert at describing falling in love, the invisible currents between two people, how each takes it a little further until it’s a settled thing. She illuminates the way love can put you into a bubble, when nothing exists except in relation to this wonderful thing that’s happening. And those little jolts, the sparks when one of the pair is offended, but the other hasn’t noticed. In the passage above I notice how smoothly Rollo uses his alibi, set up ten years ago. Has he needed it before, will he need it again? Is this a man of honour? And I notice how Olivia sacrifices her own freedoms, her own life to wait for him.

An accomplished writer

When she published this novel Rosamond Lehmann was well established. She had gained a reputation of being a little racy with Dusty Answer. Like a number of women writers of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor are two examples, she was able to convey so much in one sentence, one movement, one piece of dialogue and had the skill to convey the reactions people had to each other through their words. Here is the moment when Olivia and Rollo hesitate just before committing themselves to an illicit relationship.

Getting up from my stool to take another cigarette, nervouser and nervouser … He struck a match, saying very softly, in a funny, diffident, plaintive voice: ‘I’ve thought about this evening such a lot.’
‘So’ve I.’ Looking at the cigarette, puffing furiously.
He put his head down suddenly to give me a light quick kiss on the cheek. No good. What can break this down? How to melt, how to start? … Because here he is, he’s come for what I promised, it’s got to be made to be …standing side by side in Etty’s crammed room …
‘Darling, are you glad to see me?’ Coaxing …
‘Yes, Rollo.’
‘Don’t be frightened,’ he said.
It was all over before now, it could still be nothing, never happen … I don’t know how, there wasn’t one moment, but he made it all come right as he always did, saying: ‘She won’t be coming in, will she?’ (144-5)

In this extract there are no less than six ellipses indicating tentative moves, hesitancy which is put to an end by his practical (practised?) inquiry about her flat mate’s return.

The scene between Olivia and Rollo’s mother, as another example, expresses so much, not least through what is not said. It proves decisive.

Our own story exactly!

To wait, to be waiting always between the moments of aliveness, to give way with grace, to always look over your shoulder, to exercise discretion when you want to shout about it. This is what I recognised in this novel so long ago and what I recognised again. Rosamond Lehmann keeps our attention on Olivia and our sympathies with her conflicting emotions as the affair progresses. The impossibility of making a life around a doomed love affair, the million and one slights, offences, disappointments, as well as the ecstasy and belief that no-body else had loved as we did.

The novel is not short. The central section is written in the first person, but we move away again into the third person when things get difficult for Olivia and Rollo. We can see that none of the marriages in this novel are perfect. Compromises and sacrifices have been made. Some have endured. In her family circle her mother is now devoting herself to an invalid husband;  her sister has married a doctor and had four children after a bitter experience of love; her brother James is wandering Europe, a bit of a loner, possibly gay. 

The gender imbalance is obvious, but not emphasised. Rollo can do what he wants. He’s a nice enough chap. Doesn’t want to hurt anyone. But he can’t sustain the relationship with Olivia. She ultimately needs more than he is prepared to give.

I wanted more for Olivia as well. I wanted her to be able to embrace marriage. But it seems that marriage does not suit some people. As I didn’t quite say, ‘My story exactly.’

The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann, first published in 1936 and then by Virago in 1981. It has been reprinted 19 times since then. 372pp

Related posts

Invitation to the Waltz  by Rosamond Lehmann

Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann

In an enthusiastic review of Weather in the Streets posted in July this year, JacquieWine’s Journal says this novel ‘expertly captures the cruelty, frustration and devastation of a doomed love affair in the most glittering prose’. 

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The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

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

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

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

The End of Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it is not yet the end of days.

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

Related posts

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

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

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At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

Written more than 50 years ago, this novel addresses the loss of dignity and agency that came with advancing age at that time. Is it the same today? Are our older citizens treated with the same slight attention and dismissive attitudes? Mrs Gadny is our unwitting guide, admitted to the Jerusalem, a care home for women. She is unhappy and has begun to lose touch with the present time. She develops dementia while the other inmates look on.

This is the 50th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women more visible. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books and reviews on my list here.

At the Jerusalem

Mrs Gadny is delivered to the Jerusalem by her step-son and his wife. This couple took her into their home, for seven weeks, after both her husband and her daughter had died. Those seven weeks were not successful as no one in the family had familiarity with or affection for Mrs Gadny. Sometimes grandchildren are seen as closer to the elderly, but these children are no more able to make the necessary adjustments than the adults. Thelma is monstrously selfish  and greedy and feels no obligation towards her husband’s step-mother, especially when it requires some sacrifices from her. What is the obligation of each generation to their parents? Today we are no nearer to a good answer to this dilemma. The section about the weeks that Mrs Gadny spends in her step-son’s home appears after we learn about her arrival and early unease at the Jerusalem. We can see that she is not comfortable here, but this section dissuades us from imagining that she was better off before. 

Mrs Gadny had been in service, and she knows how things should be done and what are the correct terms used by people of class. She is a bit of a snob, for example she hates Thelma’s use of the word ‘lounge’ for sitting room. And she knows what is good taste in a room’s décor – it is not floral wallpaper. Although many of the other residents of the Jerusalem have also been in service, Mrs Gadny finds them coarse or intrusive. She is also much more reserved than they are.

At Matron’s request Mrs Capes, who lets everyone know that she is above her fellow residents, tries to befriend the new arrival. Matron explains this arrangement to Mrs Gadny. 

‘Mrs Capes is what you’d call a “character”. She’s energetic, has a lively mind. You’ll take to her. She will amuse you, I can promise. […] I shall ask her to guide you round the Home: show you all the nooks, all the crannies. And she can introduce you to the other residents, describe their little ways.’ (8)

But in carrying out this task Mrs Capes manages to show her the worst aspects of the Home, even including the place where a former patient hanged herself with a lavatory chain. She also provides critical gossip about the other residents and recommends a spiritualist’s consultations. Mrs Gadny does not warm to her company and continues to feel isolated and unwanted. 

Eventually, despite the affectionate care of one of the nurses, she breaks down and has to be put in a room on her own and finally sent to an institution where they can care for an old woman with dementia. 

The older women

While Mrs Gadny lives both in the past and the present, for example she hears her daughter’s cough from time to time, and writes to a former neighbour who died some years before. Her fellow patients are also living reduced lives. They are an unlikeable lot: rather coarse, prone to airs, gossip and criticism. One constantly mislays her teeth, another says what everyone is thinking, another has raucous uncontrolled fits of laughter and so on. All of this behaviour is on show at the annual trip to Southend.

The staff, while kind, are unable to resist infantilising the residents. They call them patients. Even the food is like nursery food: jelly, junket, semolina. However, it is difficult to avoid seeing humour in the situations at the Jerusalem but it is not at the expense of the characters or at least it does not belittle them. For example, there is a 90th birthday party: it takes place in the dormitory where all nine women sleep and two of them remain all day. One of those has the birthday, and the celebration takes place round her bed. She has to be repeatedly nudged awake. The other bed-bound woman is fed birthday jelly from time to time.

Much of the narrative as well as the effect of this novel is conveyed through the direct speech which dominates the text. This is often very brief, and much of what is important is revealed by what is not said. In his introduction Colm Toibin praises Bailey’s ability to convey so much through speech. Here’s an example of the style:

A rumour had reached Mrs Gross’s ears. Had it reached Edie’s? Concerning a coloured nurse?
‘No.’
‘Nurse Percival told Maggy we might be getting one. She came to see Matron last evening.’
‘The nurse?’
‘What?’
‘He invented steam.’
‘Who did?’
‘Watt did.’
‘You’ve confused me.’
‘She come to see Matron, this nurse.’
‘Yes. What I gathered from Maggy is that she’s brown rather than coloured.’
‘Brown’s coloured, Nell.’
‘Not in my book. When I refer to someone being coloured, I mean black. Brown’s lighter than black.’
‘God help us!’
‘Take Daisy, that cleaner. The one who wears the trilby, she’s black. Maggy says this nurse isn’t a bit like her – no marks on her face. What I’m trying to tell you is Matron’s going to ask each of us in turn whether we approve. Of her looking after us.’
‘Oh.’
‘I don’t mind, do you?’ (164)

What care should be provided for older people? And how can care of people with dementia allow them dignity? As I suggested earlier, these questions are still with us today.

A note: In his introduction to Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971) Paul Bailey noted that she had drawn on his habit of writing in Harrod’s banking hall to create the character of Ludo. Ludo was writing a book about elderly people called They Weren’t Allowed to Die There. She told him this after the publication of her book.

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey was originally published in 1967. It has been republished in 2020 by Head of Zeus with an introduction by Colm Toibin. 219pp

Simon had recently compared this book with Mrs Palfrey. He preferred the Elizabeth Taylor. Here is a review from Stuck in a Book from May 2017

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

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