Category Archives: Reviews

Not all jolly hockey sticks then!

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

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

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

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

Boarding Schools Books

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

Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil (1926)

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

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

(Published by Blackie & Sons)

Frost in May by Antonia White (1933)

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

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

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

(Published in Virago Modern Classics)

Consequences by EM Delafield (1919)

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

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

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

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

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

(Published by Persephone Books)

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

Abigail by Magda Szabó (1970)

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix (2020)

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

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

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

(Published by Macelhose Press)

Villette by Charlotte Bronte (1853)

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

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

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

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

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

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

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

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Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Does Queenie deserve its reputation? A recommendation by Bernardine Evaristo is a reliable endorsement. This lively first novel has also been doing well in those literary prizes: Fiction Book of the Year 2020 in the British Book Awards, longlisted in the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020, shortlisted for the First Novel Award by Costa, Blackwell’s Book of the Year 2019.

Stig Abell, former editor of the TLS, and a judge of the British Book Awards described its merits in this way:

This is a novel of our time, filled with wit, wisdom and urgency, and unafraid to tackle life as it is being experienced by a young, single black woman in the city. This shouldn’t be filed away as simply a funny debut by a brilliant writer (though it is that); this is an important meditation on friendship, love and race.

It is funny and brilliant and accessible and powerful.

Queenie 

Queenie, 26, is a journalist living and working in London and the narrator of this story. It begins as she and her white boyfriend separate. She believes it will be temporary. The reader knows that it is likely to be permanent, but we understand hope. While she waits for him to decide she embarks on a series of short-lived relationships with men, mostly white, mostly found on-line and including a colleague. 

She is usually somewhat reluctant to get into bed with them, but is persuaded by drink and because they are insistent and she likes to please. Life gets harder for her as the weeks turn into months and she is worried that Tom has not been in touch; that her sexual health may be in danger so she visits a clinic; her work is being neglected and her boss is noticing; and she slips further and further into debt with a friend.

Queenie’s life comes to a terrible halt when it emerges that one of sex partners is actually the boyfriend of one of her best friends. All at once she loses her friend, her job, her accommodation. Not all of this is directly her fault, as some of the men treat her very badly indeed. 

She gradually restores herself and her life with the help of her Jamaican origin grandparents, her friends and a counsellor. Her experience of abuse and neglect in her past is revealed and much of her response to her situation is explained by this. She emerges wiser and bruised.

Reading Queenie

This is a fast-paced book, and one which is easy to read, to keep turning the pages. I liked the way that emails and text messages were included. The Corgis who provide a chorus of comment and advice on her actions are an excellent device. And the interactions of the Jamaican grandparents are very funny: I loved the way they shout out at night if Queenie gets out of bed, and how they are won over to supporting her receiving counselling.

The most endearing quality of this novel is Queenie herself: spirited, doubting, reflective and both revealing and guarded at the same time. Her character is well drawn and develops through the novel. Reading it, I certainly felt that Queenie deserved much better from the men that cross her path and has a valuable, loving resource in her friends.

The story of Queenie is suffused with inescapable racism. Her counsellor, Janet, reminds her that she can’t carry the pain of the whole race.

‘It’s not a burden I’m taking on, it’s one that’s just here.’ I could feel anger building in my chest. ‘I can’t pick it up drop it.’
‘Is that how you see it?’ asked Janet as calmly as she could in an attempt to counter my distress.
‘That’s how it is.’ I started to get louder. ‘I can’t wake up and not be a black woman, Janet. I can’t walk into a room and not be a black woman, Janet. On the bus, on the tube, at work, in the canteen. Loud, brash, sassy, angry, mouthy, confrontational, bitchy.’
I listed off all my usual descriptions on my fingers.
‘There are ones people think are nice, though: well spoken, surprisingly intelligent, exotic. My favourite is ‘sexy’, I think. I guess I should be grateful for any attention at all. […] Do you know how that feels, Janet?’
‘No. Queenie, I don’t.’ (325)

All the black characters are subjected to racism, in subtle or overt ways. I responded to this passage by remembering how outspoken women are treated. Queenie is responding with the multiplier of ethnicity. And her experience is that she is frequently seen as sexually available for all men, much more frequently than white women are. So like Janet, I don’t know how that feels. Which is one reason why novels such as this one are important for white readers.

Like a mantra, throughout the text the message is repeated: We are enough. Each of us is enough. Each person is enough

I look forward to Candice Carty-Williams’s next novel.

Women of ClourQueenie by Candice Carty-Williams (2019) published by Trapeze. 392pp

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Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann

What pleasure! Another Twentieth Century female novelist to get stuck into. Dusty Answer was Rosamond Lehmann’s first novel and her most successful in that it became a best-seller. Some were scandalised by it, for in 1927 young women were not supposed to write about such sensuality, and hardly to experience it. Some thought this novel would pervert the young and campaigned for it to be withdrawn from sale.

It’s hard to understand these fears and criticisms today. We know that women were not supposed to be concerned with sex. But this is not a sexy book. There are certainly overtones of homosexuality, male and female, as well as young people behaving in a headstrong manner. There is very little overt sex. What is very heady is that the text and the story are suffused with the protagonist’s emotional responses.

Cover of first US edition

Dusty Answer

Judith is the only child of an eminent and well-off father and a distanced mother. They live in a large and beautiful house on the banks of the river (?Thames). The next door house is occupied occasionally by the Fyfe family, a large group of cousins, 4 boys and one girl. Judith longs to be included in their circle and her life seems to switch on and off with their arrivals and departures. The first part concerns the time they spent together as children and is most romantically described.

The First World War intervenes and the most attractive of the boys, Charlie, is killed. Just before he left for the Front he had married Mariella and she has a son, Peter, although she still acts like a child herself. Judith continues to live in the shadow of the Fyfes, as she anticipates her time at Girton College.

The first evening at college Judith is crippled with social embarrassment and finds herself quite unprepared to live with other young women. Her isolated and privileged upbringing is evident in her reaction at her first evening meal. She finds her fellow undergraduates to be boorish and ugly. The crucial difference is that they are not self-absorbed as she is.

Trips. Labs. Lectures. Dons. Vacs. Chaperons. The voices gabbled on. The forks clattered. The roof echoed.
‘Ugly and noisy,’ muttered Judith. ‘Ugly and noisy and crude and smelly …’ You could go on for ever.
There were eyes staring from everywhere, necks craning to look at her …
‘But I can abstract myself. I can ignore their rudeness …’
[…] She studied the row of faces opposite her, and then more rows, and more, of faces. Nearly all of them plain, nearly all with a touch of beauty: here and there well-cut heads, broad white placid brows, young necks; white teeth set in pleasant smiles; innocent intelligent lovely eyes. Accepting, revealing faces they were with no reserves in them, looking at each other, at things – not inward at themselves. But just a herd, when all was said: immature, untidy, all dull and all alike, commonplace female creatures in the mass. How boring it was! (110)

But in the very next paragraph she finds Jennifer and for two years they are inseparable. It is a very intense relationship. Then Jenifer abandons Judith for another woman and leaves the college. Judith finishes her degree, aware that she has become more and more in love with Roddy Fyfe.

After gaining a good degree Judith drifts around and becomes more involved with the Fyfes cousins. Each of them finds reasons to be close to her. She reveals her love to Roddy and is again rejected. She agrees to marry Martin, on the rebound, then tells him she won’t. Mariella confides in her about her marriage and son. Judith goes abroad with her mother. Julian meets up with them and offers to knock the edges off her as his mistress. She has made up her mind that she will do this when Martin dies in a sailing accident.

Everything is resolved in a flurry of grief and letters, including a promise to meet from Jennifer, who does not appear.

Judith returns home to an empty house a little wiser and more experienced and able to shake off the Fyfes’ influence. 

She was rid at last of the weakness, the futile obsession of dependence on other people. She had nobody now except herself, and that was best. (303)

The epigraph suggests that Judith will deceive herself if she feels that she understands.

Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life? (George Meredith)

It’s a complex set of relationships with a large number of characters, which I found quite difficult. I never managed to differentiate the Fyfe boys until the final section.

Rosamond Lehmann

The author lived until she was 89 (born 1901 died 1990) and she drew on her childhood for this novel. She was brought up in Buckinghamshire, her father a Liberal MP and her family high achievers in the Arts. She was first educated at home and then won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, graduating in English Literature and in Languages. 

The success of this first novel enabled her to escape from her first marriage and she went on to write six more novels, a play and some short stories. She had two children in her second marriage, but when her daughter died of polio in 1958 her life took a new direction. She became interested in psychic matters.

Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann, first published in 1927 republished in the Virago Modern Classics in 1996, which I used for this post. 303pp

Related links

My Bookword review of Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann appears immediately before this post.

Heavenali wrote an excellent review of Dusty Answer last month on her blog. You can read it here.

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Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

Set in the social milieu of the well-to-do and being saturated with the raw sensitivities of the protagonist, a girl of 17 one might think that Invitation to the Waltz would not appeal to many readers. The main character, Olivia Curtis, is a girl on the cusp of adulthood and about to attend her first important social event – a dance. Nevertheless, for all readers it is an easy book to get into. The structure is simple, and everyone can identify with the awkwardness, doubts and surprises of an important social event.

I thought I had read this book, but I was remembering its sequel Weather in the Streets, which I seem to no longer possess. I enjoyed my first read of Invitation very much, and still have the sequel to reread.

Invitation to the Waltz

Olivia wakes up on her 17rth birthday. The Curtis family are moderately well off and accepted by the high ranking families in the neighbourhood. One of these families is giving a ball in honour of the coming out of their daughter, Matilda, a childhood friend of Olivia and her older sister Kate. The event hangs over the first half of the novel.

In Part 1 we follow Olivia Curtis through her birthday. It turns out, like most birthdays, to be a mixture of anticipation for Olivia and the everyday necessities for everyone else. We are introduced to her family through their presents: a china ornament from her young brother, a roll of flame coloured silk from her parents, money from her uncle, a diary from her sister. She takes the fabric to be made into a dress for the upcoming dance. Olivia is a sensitive young person, meeting with many of the people in the locality, aware the social hierarchies and those who require her consideration. 

However, she lacks confidence in her taste and her judgement about how to deal with people. She finds herself unable to risk offending people, not Mrs Robinson with her grudging and pessimistic tone, relating the same catalogue of complaints every time; not her daughter the seamstress who is not as skilled as Olivia would like in designing the all-important dress, and would rather gossip about their neighbours; not the social outcast Major Skinner with the dubious wife; not even the sweep’s children who shout after her in the street. And she finds herself relieved of her birthday money by a travelling salesgirl against whom she has no defences. 

Part 2 is concerned with the day of the party, and especially with Olivia and Kate as they prepare. One pressing problem has been to acquire at least one partner, and a godson of mother’s is summoned. They are very unsure if he will do the right thing. All the anticipation involving in bathing,  doing one’s hair and dressing … Here Rosemond Lehmann inserts a magical and believable moment. Putting on her new red frock Olivia is dismayed to see that it is terrible.

Uneven hem; armholes too tight; and the draping – when Olivia looked at the clumsy limpish pointless draping a terrible boiling-up, a painful constriction from chest to forehead started to scorch and suffocate her.
‘It simply doesn’t fit anywhere …’ The words burst from her chokingly. ‘It’s the most ghastly – It’s no good. I won’t go looking like a freak. I must simply rip if off and burn it and not go to the dance, that’s all.’ She clutched wildly at the bodice, as if to wrench it from her.
Kate cried suddenly: ‘You’ve got it on back to front!’ (131)

And right way round it will do. Kate is beautiful and wears her clothes with ease.

And in Part 3 (about half the book) we follow Olivia at her first dance with all its awkwardness, false starts, gaps in her dance programme and uncoordinated partners. She has hoped that Tony Heriot will remember her and her evening will end in his arms and in happiness. But it is Kate he has eyes for.

Olivia wanders around the assembly, being introduced to a very awkward young man who claims to be a poet and behaves badly to her. And has to be rescued from a creepy old man – an ‘old fogey’ – who dances with all the young ladies. Marigold confides to Olivia that she calls him ‘a dirty old man’. And finally Timmy, about whom Marigold warns her in an inaudible whisper, so Olivia must find out for herself that he is in fact blind. She escapes to the terrace where Rollo, Marigold’s handsome older brother is also escaping the fray and he takes her to the library where his father shows her rare books and she begins to enjoy herself, contrasting the warmth of the library to the unreal world of the dance. 

By the end of the evening, Olivia has made the transition to adulthood, been a little scarred and hurt but also complemented. And she is aware that Kate is moving on and she herself has learned more about adults and their fragilities than one would want for a girl of 17.

Rosamond Lehmann

The author lived until she was 89 (born 1901 died 1990). She was brought up in Buckinghamshire, her father a Liberal MP and her family high achievers in the Arts. She was first educated at home and then won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, graduating in English Literature and in Languages. 

Her first novel Dusty Answer was a best seller, and she never achieved such financial or popular success again. It was considered scandalous, to have been written by a sex maniac. She was able to escape from her first marriage with the income from it and went on to write six more novels, a play and some short stories. Invitation to the Waltz was her third novel. She had two children in her second marriage, but when her daughter died of polio in 1958 her life took a new direction. She became interested in psychic matters.

Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann, first published in 1932 and republished in the Virago Modern Classics in 1981, which I used for this post. 301pp

Comments on two other blogs

Heavenali reread The Invitation to the Waltz in 2012 and in her post noted how Rosamond Lehmann draws attention to class differences in 1920s English society.

In 2016 Tredynas Days also reviewed the novel, looking in particular at the work done by descriptions of clothes. It’s an interesting and effective approach.

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The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

It was more than a little shocking in the 1960s that this novel began with a 15 year old’s awakening sexuality, and a girl’s at that. Angela Carter was excellent at shocking people into questioning their assumptions, and she certainly did this in The Magic Toyshop.

It was her second novel, first published 1967, and reissued by Virago in 1981. This is my choice for the 1960s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). Feminism is being openly canvassed from this decade which can be seen in the emergence of new writing by women.

The Magic Toyshop

Melanie (15) has lived a comfortable life with well-off parents, a younger brother (Jonathon 12 who is mad on model shops) and Victoria (5 but still babied). At the start of the novel their parents are absent in America. Melanie discovers her mother’s wedding dress and tries it on one evening and exults in its sensuality. The dress is ruined when she is locked out and has to climb back in up a pear tree. When her parents are killed in the Grand Canyon she sees herself as responsible.

The children are sent to live in London with their Uncle Philip who carves toys in wood and who runs the toyshop. They soon find that the household is larger than they knew: he has married Margaret, who became mute at her marriage. That is such a powerful image. Her two brothers also live in the house above the toyshop, and Finn is apprenticed to the toymaker. Francie is a fiddler. 

Phillip is a patriarchal bully. He believes girls should not wear trousers or speak unless spoken to. His word is law, and he browbeats all the household. His passion is to make nearly life-size puppets and to enact playlets with these. The only audience is the household. 

The Freudian undercurrents are many. One of the enactments is the swan’s rape of Leda, played by Melanie. To look smart Margaret wears an unflattering grey dress and a silver choker made by her husband.

The dress fell straight from her shoulders to a hem mid-way down her shins in a long, vertical line. It fitted her badly, barely skimming her body and catching on her bony hips. It was difficult to imagine she bought the dress on purpose, had one fine day long past go into a shop and tried on dress after dress and, finally, taking this grey and unbecoming tube of cloth from a rack laden with many-coloured garments, slipped it over her head, examined herself fore and aft in the changing room mirror, smiled with pleasure, clapped her hands in approval and said to herself: ‘This is lovely, this is the very thing,’ while a curled, perfumed salesgirl hovered, saying: ‘But it’s perfectly you madam.’ (111-112)

The choker is designed to fulfil its function if she moves too much. ‘It was heavy, crippling and precious …’ (112). 

The story follows the developing relationship between Finn and Melanie, as they observe how Philip treats each of them: physical abuse for Finn and neglect and then sexual abuse for Melanie. The two take tentative steps towards their own relationship, and find strength with each other to finally rebel.

At night, in the garden, they faced each other in a wild surmise. (200)

This fantastic tale, which ends in incest and a conflagration and the possible death of the two younger children, is not a simple contrast between goodness and wickedness, youth and age, or even wicked masculinity vs the goodness of femininity. It has complexity in its themes of love and abuse, adult and adolescent sexuality, play and life, reality and magic. Even the title has an ambiguity or two: a commercial venture that is magical, simultaneously of the adult and the juvenile worlds. The title also indicates that this is not a story of social realism. It’s powerful, rich and very imaginative. 

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, having married and moved to Bristol, went to Bristol University. 

She left her husband and began travelling, spending two years in Tokyo, and visiting other parts of the world. She returned to write professionally, 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. She continued to write, combining  her taste for playful, gothic, humorous, science fiction, fairy tales, and fantastical surrealism. 

She was not a joiner, but energetically pursued her individual values and beliefs in her writing. Edmund Gordon suggests that she has been subjected to mythmaking since her early death, and I think I have been afraid of reading her work because of the myths. The Magic Toyshop has changed my mind. She has so much to say still today. 

See also: 

Angela Carter: A Portrait in Postcards by Susannah Clapp on her website: www.angelacarter.co.uk

The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon (2017)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter, first published in 1967. Virago Modern Classic edition released in 1981, which is the edition I used. 200 pp

The Decades Project 2020

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

The most recent  choices for the project are

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)

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These Wonderful Rumours by May Smith

Diaries are interesting because when they are written people do not know the outcome of the events they are describing, as I remarked in the previous post. This is especially true of war diaries, such as the subject of this post: These Wonderful Rumours. It is also true of my Covid-19 diary. How long, oh lord, how long?

Tuesday 3rd September 1940: The first anniversary of the war. It seems to have been going on for ages. I wonder how many more anniversaries there will be.

There were to be five more, and it did seem endless.

Friday 3rd September 1943: 4th anniversary of the war – my stars! And we have landed forces on the toe of Italy this morning at 4.30. Have a short service in school from 11 to 11.15

And the D Day landings were noted with caution.

Thursday 6th June 1944: A day of dither. We have invaded Normandy, and landings have been going on successfully since early morning. Oh dear! Sit around listening for news and poring over paper.

Meanwhile everyday life still had to be lived. May Smith is an excellent diarist, recording her reactions to international events and goings-on in her own world.

These Wonderful Rumours

In 1938 May Smith was 25, a school teacher in the primary school in Swindlincote near Derby. Throughout the war she lived at home with her parents and a few doors from her grandmother. Her grandmother’s cellar was used during air raids. By the end of the war her grandfather, grandmother and mother had all died from illness. 

May’s diary begins soon after she has been jilted by Ron. We learn that he has just been ordained as a priest in the Church of England and is thereafter referred to as Bishop Ron or some other such sarcastic phrase. May had been very much hurt by his rejection.

She writes nearly every day. There is a great deal in the diaries about her local friends. She plays tennis as often as she can in summer, and parlour games at home with her family. Two men are interested in her: Dougie a farmer in Norfolk and Freddie (who she eventually marries) who is a local school teacher. He retrains in meteorological skills during the war. She has a healthy correspondence with many friends, including those who trained with her at Goldsmith’s, and her two suitors. 

It seems from her diary that she was very keen on clothes, and spent most of her earnings on her wardrobe. She has clothes made for her by the local dressmaker Mrs W (frequently in ‘Narky and Independent Vein’) and visits the department stores in Burton and Nottingham. As the war progresses this pleasure becomes more difficult to indulge. Not only are there shortages of materials for making clothes and prices rise  but rationing comes into force and she even resorts to making her own brassieres.

Despite the war her work in school goes on. Sometimes her class is augmented by evacuees from Southend and Birmingham. A class of 40 is considered small. She does not say much about the pupils, except to refer to her need to keep them in order, absences after air raids and their excitement at snow, Christmas and the building of the air raid shelter in the playground.

The air raids begin in June 1940. At first, despite rehearsals, it was chaotic. 

Friday 7th June 1940: Something always happens on my birthday, and this one opened at 2 a.m. with an air-raid alarm. The awful wail of the sirens broke out, so said ‘oh lor’!’ and clambered out of bed, downstairs, grabbed the gas mask, and we all migrated to Grandma’s to the fringe of the cellar. Took us hours to get safely parked, as we were all pottering about in the dark, distrusting the efficacy of Grandma’s blackout.  … Finally we all moved into the cellar, Grandma leading. It took an age to pilot her down, and when she got there she decided she wanted to visit the lavatory and turned to come back up but was firmly checked.  … Just as we were finally settled, the All Clear sounded, so we had to march aloft again. Drank tea and ate biscuits with relief before retiring to bed about 4 a.m. The birds were just beginning to chirp.

As the weeks and months of raids went on the family and their lodgers became more efficient. There was damage nearby, especially on collieries and other industrial sites. They were near enough Birmingham, Nottingham and the Rolls Royce aircraft engine factory in Derby to be constantly disturbed.

May writes about books she reads, WEA lectures she attends and records her frequent visit to the flicks. She notes the food they ate, not bad despite rationing. They had friends who supplied some items. She also records some holidays, hiking near Buxton or at the sea at Llandudno, welcome breaks from the daily privations of war at home.

One thread of the diaries is her recovery from the despised Ron, and the constant attentions of two of her male friends. She keeps both at arm’s length for much of the war. One is called up into the Army motor corps, and the other is relieved of his school teaching job to train as a meteorologist. The threat of his posting overseas prods May into accepting his attentions. She marries Freddie in August 1944 and they have their first child in Autumn of 1945.

The diary is merrily written, with lots of capital letters when she is quoting people.

Some thoughts on diaries

Of course, as I read These Wonderful Rumours I compared it to my diary. Like May, I focus on new situations such as Lockdown for example which quickly become normal as the air raids did. Humans seem to adjust to new situations very quickly.

This is apparently an identified response. Writing about after the Coronavirus, Oliver Burkeman suggests that it will not feel very different, rather it will feel normal. We have a ‘tendency to swiftly adapt to positive or negative changes in our circumstances, drifting back towards our baseline levels of curmudgeonliness or cheer.’ In addition we always overestimate the impact of future changes.

Finally he reminds us that we are not passive in the face of the future and what it will bring us. We are, on the contrary, creating it as we go. I find this a comforting thought, and an empowering one.

We know from the section called Afterward that May and Freddie continued with their lives, well into the end of the 20th century, creating a family and continuing to contribute to the education of the young.

I find it reassuring to learn about the immense changes brought by the Second World War and how people adapted. We are told that the Covid-19 emergency will be over, at some point. We too will make our future.

These Wonderful Rumours: a young schoolteacher’s wartime diaries 1939-1945 by May Smith, edited by Duncan Marlor, published by Virago Press in 2012. 401pp

Life in a post-coronavirus world: will it feel so very different? By Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian in June 2020

Other Experiences of 2nd World War on Bookword

A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

So much more than an amusing Provincial Lady – EM Delafield

Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith

The wartime stories and letters of Mollie Panter-Downes

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Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

The generosity of book bloggers never ceases to move me. Since last August when I was guest blogger on Global Literature in Libraries looking at older women in fiction around the world I have had recommendations from many people. I really enjoy receiving these suggestions for the list and the series. Pam Giarrizzo went beyond recommending the book that is the subject of this post: she actually sent me a copy from California. Being so connected in the world shut down by Covid-19 was a great boost. There were further connections for me, as I will reveal. Thank you Pam.

This will be the 47th in the series championing fiction about older women in order to make them more visible. This book takes us to Guyana and was first published in 1986. It won the GLC Black Literature Competition in 1985. It is the first in this series from the Caribbean.

Frangipani House

Frangipani House is in Guyana, a large low house which had become a home for old women and where it sits ‘sleek and comfortable’ on the town’s edge. It is run by Olga Trask, known as Matron. 

A comely, honey-brown predator of a woman, short and crisp, with blue-grey eyes and a full head of coarse black hair. […] On admission the women placed everything in her care. (2) 

The story follows Mama King who is 69 and has been unwell for some time with malaria, quinsy and pleurisy. Her two daughters, Token and Cyclette, live in New York and decide to pay for her care at Frangipani House.

The residents are all women and none of them are happy, although some have lost the will to object to Matron’s regime. They adopt a number of strategies to deal with their situations: they sing, or die, or have a stroke, or fade away, or go mad. 

When Mama King’s pleading letters to her daughters go unanswered, she decides to run away. At first she is not found by Matron, but after a few weeks she ends up in hospital and Matron must answer to Mama King’s daughters for what has happened. And they must decide what should be done with her next.

Except it is Mama King’s decision in the end, which is as it should be, for the old woman has some strong opinions based on her experiences.

Through this short novel we see how different groups in Guyana regarded old people in the 1980s. There is the particular complication of the Guyanese diaspora, many family members can not be present to offer practical help and support. An important visit is made by Mama King’s grandson, Markey, who she cared for when he was small, and who is now in the US navy. In Guyana Mama King has a good friend in Grinchi who she has known from childhood. This friend has no children but a track record of helping those abandoned by their families. Issues of male violence, poor fathering, poor parenting and poverty all emerge in this satisfying novel. 

Beryl Gilroy

Beryl Gilroy (1924-2001) grew up in British Guiana, coming to Britain in 1951. She suffered discrimination but eventually became a primary headteacher in Camden at Beckford School (1969-1982), the first black headteacher in London.  She then went on to study and teach at the Institute of Education, part of the University of London. She wrote several more novels and including one based on her experiences as a teacher in London: Black Teacher (1976). Later, she became an ethno-psychotherapist.

In the tradition of Black women who write to come to terms with their trauma, or alternatively to understand the nature of their elemental oppression, I wrote to redefine myself and put the record straight. [From Leaves in the Wind]

She had to endure being ignored as both a woman and a black woman in her teaching and her writing careers.

And I find myself drawn to her educational biography as I too was a headteacher (of a secondary school) in north London, although twenty years after she took up her role. And I too moved on to the Institute of Education, and where her son Paul’s book, There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack (1989), was a key text in thinking about cultural aspects of education.

In terms of the visibility of older women, her novel reminds us of the need for dignity and consideration in the care of older citizens. It also lays to rest the myth of widespread care in the community of older people in other cultures. But she also draws attention to some of the additional difficulties for families who have migrated. And she reminds us of some pretty admirable older women in Guyana, in her portraya  of Muriel King and Miss Grinchi.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy, published in 1986 by Heinemann in the Caribbean Writer’s Series. 255pp. It is still available.

Here are some posts in the Older Women in Fiction series from outside the European tradition:

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashou

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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Mrs Dalloway on Dalloway Day

I had planned my summer around a week in Cambridge joining others to think about Virginia Woolf and her women. You know what happened to that. I am hoping that I can do it in 2021. Meanwhile, whatever else happens, it is DALLOWAY DAY today, Wednesday 17th June 2020.

And to celebrate, here again is the post I wrote after rereading Mrs Dalloway in preparation for my summer expedition, a slight revision from the version published on this blog in February.

Mrs Dalloway

In her diary as she was writing Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf expressed her ambitions for this novel.

In this book I have almost too many ideas. I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticise the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense. [June 19th 1923, p57]

The events of this novel take place over a single day in the summer of 1923. Clarissa Dalloway, the wife of a Conservative MP, living in Westminster, London, is giving a party in the evening. It is June and the day is hot. She leaves her house to fetch some flowers for the party. 

She meets various acquaintances who reappear later, as well as passing close to a damaged First World War veteran who is waiting to see the nerve expert Sir William Bradshaw. Before the party she is visited by a man who she last saw when she was a young woman, having refused to marry him. Peter Walsh has been in India. 

Clarissa is concerned because her husband has accepted an invitation to lunch with Mrs Bruton. This formidable lady seeks his help with a eugenics programme to send good quality people to Canada. And she has dealings with her daughter’s tutor, Miss Kilman, an evangelist, who seems to Clarissa to have stolen Elizabeth. 

The story moves easily through Clarissa’s thoughts as well as the points of view of other characters. Among the most striking is Septimus Warren Smith, the war veteran who is suffering from what we would call PTSD, then known as war neurosis. The doctors he consults say all he needs is rest. Both he and his wife Rezia are made desperate by the absence of help from the medical profession. Septimus commits suicide as Dr Holmes arrives to take him away for his rest cure. 

In the party everything comes together. Clarissa entertains her guests, even the Prime Minister attends (I can’t resist mentioning that he is a figure of gravity, much revered by those attending). Also present are the people she has met during the day and from her past. Sir William Bradshaw arrives, bringing news of his patient’s suicide.

And I am wrong to say that the plot is contained within one day. For of course, all those lives have pasts (‘beautiful caves’), some interleaved with each other’s and Clarissa’s. And these too we enter to understand the events of the day and the characters. In her diary the author referred to

… how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters [30th August 1923, p60]

And a year later she used a different image to describe this feature of Mrs Dalloway:

… But I like going from one lighted room to another, such is my brain to me; lighted rooms; … [August 15th 1924, p65]

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

Mrs Dalloway and the women in the novel.

Clarissa Dalloway is the central character bringing everything together. As the title indicates she is married. Her decision to marry Richard Dalloway rather than Peter Walsh determined the direction of her mature life. We learn that she is frail, a victim and survivor of the Spanish ‘flu epidemic that ravaged the country as the First World War ended. For this reason I do not like the ruddy-faced portrait on the Oxford edition. Clarissa had slight, thin features.

As she neared the end of composing the book Virginia Woolf worried about Clarissa. She refers to the design she has for the novel and how well it is all progressing.

The doubtful point is, I think, the character of Mrs Dalloway. It may be too stiff, too glittering and tinsely. But then I can bring innumerable other characters to her support. [October 15th 1923, p61]

While it does seem that the people in her circle see her as rather lightweight, Virginia Woolf shows that she has strong liberal values, but is not always well-informed. The character of Miss Kilman (note the name) stands in complete opposition to Clarissa, with her certainties, especially in relation to love and religion. Clarissa reflects on the damage wrought by these things as she contemplates Miss Kilman.

The cruellest things in the world, she thought, seeing them clumsy, hot domineering, hypocritical, eavesdropping, jealous, infinitely cruel and unscrupulous, dressed in a mackintosh coat, on the landing; love and religion. Had she ever tried to convert anyone herself? Did she not wish everybody merely to be themselves? (p107)

Many of the characters are shown up by contrast to Clarissa. The odious Lady Bruton with her ideas about eugenics; Clarissa’s childhood acquaintances, one of whom has remained a mouse (Ellie Henderson) and the other despite great liveliness and unconventionality in her youth is now married to a rich farmer and has many sons (Sally Seton). One feels that Clarissa would have supported Rezia if they had met.

Life, death, sanity, insanity, the social system is all in Mrs Dalloway as Virginia Woolf intended. This novel also prompts us to think about time, its passage and effects, as Big Ben tolls throughout the day. And it is set in London, which despite later bomb damage is still recognisable today. The richness of this novel cannot be overpraised. I look forward to yet another rereading.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf published in 1925. I used the Oxford World’s Classics edition. 185 pp

Diary extracts from A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf published by Persephone Books (2012)

Previous posts on Mrs Dalloway

I have twice before written about Mrs Dalloway on Bookword.

Mrs Dalloway is ageing in July 2015

The second Mrs Dalloway in July 2019

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The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

Sally Jay Gorce is a lively 20-year-old American in Paris, the narrator of this novel. She is being subsidised by her rich uncle, so does not have to worry about money. She is a fresh voice, relating the succession of disasters in her life with sparkle, wit, some insight, and with great style. Just right for the post-war world.

The Dud Avocado was the first novel by Elaine Dundy. It quickly became a best seller. It was published in America in 1958, and was reissued by Penguin Books in 1960 and by Virago in 1993. With this choice for the the sixth decade in the Decades Project 2020 (see below) we emerge from the Second World War. 

The Dud Avocado

I first read this in 1961, perhaps the very copy I still have in my possession. At the time I thought it was risqué, funny, modern, definitely the voice of youth. Now with a reread it feels dated, and I have to admit that I was a little bored at times. Too many evenings in the bars and nightclubs, pursued by men, following her dream of becoming an actress and hooking up with Larry Keevil. (Really, the name should have been the clue.)

Sally Jay appears to be lively and irresistible. She certainly attracts attention, not least because when she first appears she is wearing an evening gown and it is around eleven in the morning. 

‘It’s all I’ve got to wear. My laundry hasn’t come back yet.’ (10)

And her hair is pink, originally ‘dyed a marvellous shade of red so popular with Parisian tarts that season’. (9) A bit on the transgressive and scatty side then.

She decides to ditch the Italian diplomat with whom she has been having an affair. She wanted to lose her virginity and she thought it was rather dashing to have an affair with a man who already had both a wife and mistress. She moves on through many casual encounters, and a relationship with Paul, an American painter. He is serious, but she leaves him to spend the summer in a villa near Biarritz. This has been organised by Larry, who has brought along a hunky Canadian who is keen to take up with Sally Jay and a girl he wants to seduce. Sally Jay’s main objective is to secure Larry for herself. But he becomes very elusive. She acts in his theatre company, spends the summer in his, but never gets into his bed.

During the timescale of the narrative (September to the next late Summer) she joins in the lively young night life in Paris and near their villa. They go to bars and nightclubs, dance and drink, eat and drink, and get involved in acting in plays and the movies. Her impetus for this hedonism seems to be that she is young. Here she is explaining to Teddy, the rejected Italian diplomat, why he is so angry.

What you can’t stand is the whole new young adventurous population with either just a little money or no money at all, no jobs, nothing, just a desire maybe to see the world awhile. Then all the jealousy and envy in your mournful little unfulfilled life rises up inside you and you have to invent all sorts of dark sinister motives for everyone. (212)

She says some pretty unpleasant things to people from time to time. But there are two things I noted about this statement. One is that young people really did feel like this well into the late ‘60s. And secondly that some of her circle did have ‘dark sinister motives’ for their actions, as Sally Jay found out later.

She asserts her right as a young person (a well-off American?) to explore life as she wishes. I think we could see her as an early example of that trend that became almost obligatory in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s: to find yourself through life’s experiences.

I said that I tired of her, and it is true that the endless round of partying, name-dropping and wildness palled. I enjoyed its raciness more when I read it in my early teens. Her selfishness is only a little curtailed by the theft of her passport and the underhand and abusive behaviour of one of her circle.  She herself is rescued by a wealthy and glamorous man who only appears in the last 15 pages. 

Elaine Dundy

Elaine Dundy (1921-2008) was born into a wealthy family in New York and educated at home by governesses. After the Second World War she escaped to Paris and then to London, where she married the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan in 1951. (His name is dropped in the novel). They had a fraught marriage and separated in 1964. She worked on the satirical tv programme That Was The Week That Was, which had the reputation of being anti=Establishment. Back in the US she wrote two more novels and continued to make her name in theatre, journalism, films and writing biographies. 

The comparison with Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not resisted in many comments about Sally Jay. The novels were published in the same year. 

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy, first published in 1958. I used the Penguin edition from 1960.  255pp

Some relevant sites:

In the Guardian in August 2011, Rachel Cooke sees the Sally Jay’s life as ‘a complicated hoot’. She is not too bothered by the amoral aspects of the story. She rightly points out that no one reads this novel for the plot and enjoys the details of the heroine’s chaotic life. You can find her observations here

Simon in Tredynas Days, in May 2018, found that it was best to read the novel in small doses, to appreciate its qualities, like savouring chocolates in a box. Here are his comments in full.

The Decades Project 2020

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

The first five choices for the project were

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)

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Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Are there any readers who have failed to notice this book? It won the Booker Prize 2019; it is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020. It sparkles. It’s about 12 people – girls, women and one other. I am highly recommending it.

Girl, Woman, Other

This is a long book, divided into five chapters and including an epilogue. The first four chapters each feature the stories of three people. Each story is connected to others in this collection, and the connections help it to zip along with energy.

Its epicentre is London, a London with which I became very familiar and where I lived and worked for 35 years. Most of that time I lived in Hackney, and worked either in the city’s secondary schools or at the Institute of Education, which was part of the University of London at that time, teaching teachers on masters and doctoral courses.

During that time the so-called Second Wave of feminism died down, although those of us struggling in a discriminatory world did not feel that we were in any way in post-feminist times. During that time, girls were still experiencing growing up on terms decided by men. There remained a great deal of discrimination, on the grounds of class, ethnicity and gender identity. It was hard for the young people in the schools, and hard for young women in the poorer areas. 

Bernardine Evaristo covers this ground, and more. Her imaginative ability to conjure up these lives interacted with my memory of these times, and added the important ingredient of experiences of minority ethnicities.

Her characters engage with discrimination, migration, heredity, gender identity, marriage, parenthood, abusive relationships, struggles with education, employment, and so on. So much of life is here, with a female and black emphasis.

She has written beautifully about this kind of territory before, not least in Mr Loverman, set in the Hackney I knew, it could almost have been in my street!

What the judges saw

Passionate, razor-sharp, brimming with energy and humour, a must-read about modern Britain and womanhood … Dazzling. [Booker Judges quoted on the cover, quoted on the back cover of the Penguin edition]

There is so much to enjoy in this book, not least the way in which it is written. I do not recall another book that has so many main characters, and which links their lives in ways which illuminate their own and other stories. The multiple stories are told vividly, and not restricted to London or to suffering although every person featured, like every person on the planet, has to engage with the difficulties and beauties of life. 

And she has adopted a somewhat restless style of writing: the text appears to be divided in traditional ways. There are chapters, with subdivision within them. On the page the text appears to be in paragraphs, but they are constructed of a main sentence or starter and then continue with a series of subclauses. Here’s an example from the start of the novel:

Chapter One
Amma
1
Amma
is walking along the promenade of the waterway that bisects her city, a few early morning barges cruise slowly by
to her left is the nautical-themed footbridge with its deck-like walkway and sailing mast pylons
to her right is the bend in the river as it heads east past Waterloo Bridge towards the dome of St Paul’s
she feels the sun begin to rise, the air still breezy before the city clogs up with heat and fumes
a violinist plays something suitably uplifting further along the promenade
Amma’s play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, opens at the National tonight (1)

I love the way this innovative form allows for multiple experiences, unfinished ideas, variation, and, in this opening statement, tells us a everything we need to know about who is featured, where and when and it alerts us to a significant event later that same day.

As I say, I highly recommend it and I am sorry our book group decided to read eleven other books this year, I would have liked to have discussed it with them. Maybe next year. But my enthusiasm has confirmed my daughter’s interest, especially as I told her she will find her school and college friends here, and our neighbours from when she was growing up.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019). I read the Penguin paperback edition. 453pp

Connected posts

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (2013) from Bookword in August 2014

HeavenAli reviewed Girl, Woman, Other on her blog in October last year. You can find her review here.

And an interesting list of recommendations provided by Bernardine Evaristo appeared on the Penguin site in March 2020

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