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Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve

It is October 1918, the final months of the First World War. In Paris Jeanne Caillet is waiting for her husband to return. He has been wounded and in hospital for several months. Life is hard for Jeanne and the women who live near her: shortages of fuel, and food, and work. This novella reaches deep into the destructive power of war and looks at the damage it visits upon a small web of relationships surrounding Jeanne. 

Originally written in French, here translated by Adriana Hunter for Peirene Press, the publication date for Winter Flowers is 7th October 2021.

Winter Flowers

In some ways Jeanne is lucky. She has a job making artificial flowers by the gross to a tight schedule and exacting standard. The work brings in just enough to support her and her daughter. Her neighbour Sidonie sews aprons. Jeanne and her Sidonie support each other by taking turns to deliver the finished articles and collect the parts for the next batch. 

Jeanne’s hands are dulled with work, her back is stiff. And as she closes her eyes, and relaxes her head and shoulders, all her in-held breath comes out at once in a hoarse cry that would leave anyone who heard it struggling to say whether it expressed pleasure or pain. (7)

Sidonie’s only surviving son Eugène left for the war at the same time as Jeanne’s husband Toussaint. Eugène has not been heard from for months, but Toussaint is in hospital having been wounded in the face. 

As soon as he was admitted to Val-de-Grâce military hospital, Toussaint sent his wife a brief letter.
‘I want you not to come.’
Those were his words.
It was clear, definitive. It invited no reply, and Jeanne sent none. (29)

Jeanne, and the reader, learn indirectly of the dreadful injury to Toussaint’s face from a report from his father. It is as if the damage cannot be approached directly. But Jeanne does not know what to think of her husband’s message, and of what will happen when the war ends.

Meanwhile she has to keep on making the flowers, often far into the night. The flowers have several functions within this novella. To start with, they provide the only colour in a relentless grey and dismal time. The red poppies, of course, came to symbolise the dead soldiers of the Western Front. And Jeanne is making these for the luxury market, for those who have power and influence, and who still value the display of wealth and unnecessary objects. 

At the heart of this novel is this contrast: Jeanne is involved in the delicate work of creating artificial flowers and at the same time living in near destitute conditions and caring for a husband seriously damaged by the war. 

When Toussaint returns there is an intensification of the hardships of the Caillet family: another person in their small flat and another mouth to feed. Toussaint’s face is badly injured so he wears a mask. He may have lost the ability to speak, and he won’t go out or interact with his family. 

The Caillet family are by no means the only ones damaged by war. When Sidonie is told by the Special Messenger Service (women volunteers who inform families that soldiers have been killed) that Eugène has been dead for eighteen months she is devastated. Invited to the town hall to a ceremony at which she is given a certificate, Sidonie is accompanied by Jeanne. Here are the people who pronounce empty and vacuous platitudes to those who lose people.

Up on a rostrum, flanked by his deputies, the mayor with his tricolour sash over his barrel chest gives an interminable speech, and there’s a pomposity in his voice and his words for which they are quite unprepared. (79)

The reader learns that the Jeanne and Toussaint had a good and loving relationship before the war, even surviving the death of their first child. The novel follows Jeanne’s attempts to reunite with her husband, bridge the years of the war, their different experiences, the maturing of their surviving child. How can they keep the family together, as Léo has grown up? How can Jeanne support Sidonie when the last of her sons is declared dead, and the official response is so lacking?

The flowers represent so much: they show up the dreariness of Paris; they indicate the suffering of the women; they are destined to be bought by rich people not directly involved in the war; and they represent the dead.

Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve, first published in French in2014 and the English translation by Peirene Press in 2021. 117pp

Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter.

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“Better than Whitewashing.” The Wind in the Willows and Covid.

Back at the end of last year, as we finished our second Lockdown and almost immediately began the third, I gave in and decided to banish the worst effects of continued incarceration and got out a jigsaw puzzle. And after a few days I had finished it, with a little help from a grandson. 

While I had submitted to that curious addiction that jigsaws create in me (just one more piece, just that piece that goes there) I thought a lot about the opening scene of The Wind in the Willows. The Mole is spring cleaning his house, when he gets fed up with it and, with ‘an aching back and weary arms’, he decides to do something else.

It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. (3)

I longed for the moment when we could leave our homes, not worried by Covid and masks and 2 metre rules, and escape into spring. It seemed like it was not far away, for were all going to be vaccinated and this long trial would soon be over.

And as the jigsaw progressed and I searched among all those shapes with small dabs of green for the right one, I promised myself I would read The Wind in the Willows and enjoy again the adventures of the Mole, his friend the Rat, the wild Toad, and severe Mr Badger. 

(There was another book that appealed to me for a similar reason: One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes. I had been told this novel was about the moment, a year after VE Day, when Laura could say that the war was over and they could start afresh. I reviewed that book in July. You can find the post here.)

If you know The Wind in the Willows, you will be aware that for the Mole it was not easy to emerge into the sunlight by the river.

So he scraped and he scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow. (3)

And so it has been for us, despite the vaccine, and despite the ending of restrictions, I still feel we are scrooging and sometimes still scrabbling. 

The Mole is a fine fellow, and he quickly strikes up a strong friendship with the Rat, a water rat, who is never so happy as when he is messing about in boats. He is also something of a writer:

During his short day he sometimes scribbled poetry or did other small domestic jobs about the house (28)

Off they go in the Rat’s boat, for the first of many picnics, and to enjoy an idyllic Edwardian summer, until the Toad spoils everything. 

The Toad is a boastful, talkative, self-satisfied animal, prone to passions about boats, then caravans and so on until his interest is taken elsewhere. But it is in motorcars that he has to face his lack of responsibility, and he is imprisoned following yet another smash-up, placed ‘in the remotest dungeon of the best-guarded keep of the stoutest castle in all the length and breadth of Merry England’. (76).

It takes the combined forces, ingenuity and manipulation of Mr Badger (forever speaking in the voice of Michael Hordern), the Rat and the Mole to get the Toad to see sense, and to win back Toad Hall for him. 

The character of the Toad is compelling. He is very tricksy and resilient. Here he is as he wakes up the morning after he has made his escape from the castle, dressed as a washerwoman.

He shook himself and combed the dry leaves out of his hair with his fingers; and, his toilet complete, marched forth into the comfortable morning sun, cold but confident, hungry but hopeful, all nervous terrors of yesterday dispelled by rest and sleep and frank and heartening sunshine. (114)

Yes, I know that toads don’t have hair, but if they did it would be rather wild and straw-coloured.

His homecoming is delayed as the friends have to see off the weasels and stoats from the Wild Wood who have occupied Toad Hall during his absence. They do this thanks to the Mole’s subterfuge. Mr Badger insists that they prepare a banquet. The Rat has to persuade the Toad that at the banquet he will not make a single speech or sing a single song. Not even a little one.

“It’s no good, Toady; you know well that your songs are all conceit and boasting and vanity; and your speeches are all self-praise and – and – well, gross exaggeration and – and –“
“And gas,” put in the Badger in his common way. (153-4) 

So here we are now, the pandemic is not over yet, not here and not in the whole world outside either. There is no banquet for us yet. But I enjoyed re-acquainting myself with this book, even though all the main characters are male, and refer to people as ‘fellows’. 

And I have checked online and found that there are many more jigsaw puzzles available on the theme of The Wind in the Willows.

 

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, first published in 1908. I used the Penguin Threads edition published in 2012. 

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Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

What is this book? A cult classic? A fable? A feminist tract? A psychological story? Sci-fi? Perhaps all of these. I bought a copy and read it because I loved its excellent cover (in a new Faber edition), and because I had heard good things about it, that it is short and a good read.

Mrs Caliban

Rachel Ingalls appears to delight in ambiguity. You can take this book seriously at the same time as delighting in its playfulness. If Dorothy is Mrs Caliban, who is Mr Caliban: her husband Fred, or Larry the green frogman from the sea? Is it a psychological story, in which Dorothy has hallucinated a more satisfying relationship? This is not resolved. There is much sadness at the story’s heart, grief over the death of a son, a miscarriage and the failing marriage. Dorothy and Fred are too sad to divorce. 

The story concerns a human-sized green amphibian, who escapes from the Institute of Oceanographic Research. He appears in the kitchen in front of Dorothy, an unhappy housewife, in the middle of her preparations for dinner.

She came back into the kitchen fast, to make sure that she caught the toasting cheese in time. And she was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face. (20)

We are in California in the late ‘70s. Interested? Curious?

Dorothy is very lonely. She is sure that her husband is cheating on her. She has one friend, Estelle, with whom she has coffee and occasional outings. She does not confide in Estelle about Larry. Estelle in turn is cagey about her lovers, and by the end of the novella we have found out why.

Dorothy provides accommodation in a spare room and food for the creature, and she calls him Larry. He is particularly partial to avocados. Soon they are having frequent and satisfying sex and managing to take drives under cover of darkness. The press is full of shocking stories about the violence of the frogman, but he explains to Dorothy that he killed two of the lab technicians because they tortured him. Many of the stories are fabricated, designed to shock and titillate.

The hunt for the sea monster continues in California, as Larry and Dorothy monitor its lack of progress on tv. They plan to return Larry to the ocean he knows, which means they will have to travel to the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific being unfamiliar to him. Before they can embark on their trip one of Estelle’s children is killed, and then the bodies continue to pile up. The novella ends as Dorothy waits for Larry at a prearranged emergency rendezvous.

She came out of the car and walked up and down the beach, hour after hour. The water ran over the sand, one wave covering another like knitting of threads, like the begetting of revenges, betrayals, memories, regrets. And always it made a musical, murmuring sound, a language as definite as speech. But he never came. (117)

I loved it, for it is very engaging, unique and has a strong feminist thread.

Rachel Ingalls

Rachel Ingalls was born in Boston in 1940, her father was a professor of Sanskrit at Harvard, her mother a fulltime housewife. She attended Radcliffe, spent time in Germany and then came to Britain and settled here. She died in March 2019.

Although lauded by John Updike, Ursula le Guin, Joyce Carol Oates and others, she is unjustly neglected, partly because she was very self-effacing. She wrote 11 collections of short stories and novellas. She is often concerned with rules and conventions and the violence by which society maintains them. 

Mrs Caliban is considered her masterpiece, and John Updike described it as ‘an impeccable parable, beautifully written from first paragraph to last’. 

Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, first published in 1982. The new edition in the UK is published by Faber. 117pp

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Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021

And the winner is …

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Congratulations to the winner

After 26 years is this prize still necessary?

This prize has been going for 26 years. Kate Mosse, co-founder, says it still does three important:

  1. honour and celebrate excellent fiction by women
  2. make women’s endeavours in fiction more visible 
  3. use funds to promote more excellent fiction through charitable, educational and research programmes.

Fiction, she says, can still make a difference. You can read her article published in the Guardian in 2020 about the prize and its continuing relevance here.

Honouring and celebrating excellent fiction

So, in the spirit of the prize, I give you forty-one brilliant books, all written by women, from the short- and long-list for this year and all the previous winners. I have included links to the books I have reviewed on Bookword. 

The 2021 shortlist

  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  • Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
  • No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

The 2021 longlist

There were sixteen longlisted books as follows:

  • Because of You by Dawn French
  • Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
  • Consent by Annabel Lyon
  • Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
  • Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
  • Luster by Raven Leilani
  • No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
  • Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  • Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
  • Summer by Ali Smith
  • The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  • Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize. 

Maggie O’FarrellHamnet (2020)

Tayari JonesAn American Marriage (2019)

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire  (2018)

Naomi Alderman: The Power (2017)

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (2016)

Ali Smith: How to be Both (2015)

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014)

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Marilynne Robinson: Home (2009)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)

Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004)

Valerie Martin: Property (2003)

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto (2002)

Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection (2001)

Linda Grant: When I Lived in Modern Times (2000)

Suzanne Berne: A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999)

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party (1998)

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces (1997) 

Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter (1996)

Here is the link to the website of the Women’s Prize for Fiction: https://womensprizeforfiction.co.uk

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Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim

Here are three short extracts from the first three pages of Expiation. They set the scene of a social milieu that is smug and critical and which provides the material for a novel of folly and lies, in which Elizabeth von Arnim has a great deal of fun at the expense of a large bourgeois family called Bott, known collectively as the Botts. We imagine that the family’s and suburb’s names are intended to be absurd.

Not only were the Botts kind, but the whole of Titford was kind. That important south London suburb appreciated the Botts, so financially sound, so continually increasing in prosperity. They were its backbone. They subscribed, presided, spoke, opened. Titford was full of Botts, and every one of them a credit to it. (1-2) 

And here she was at forty-five, a little cushiony woman, fair-skinned and dove-eyed, with dimples on her plump hands where other people had knuckles, and a smooth head, sleekly covered with agreeable hair the colour of respectability. (2-3)

What a wife. What a nice place the world would be if all wives were more like Milly, the male Botts had frequently thought – whispering it to themselves, for it wouldn’t do to say it out loud – when they had been having trouble with their own wives. (3)

Expiation

The novel opens as the family have just buried Earnest Bott who has been killed in a motor accident. His will has been read and the family are shocked. He has left his substantial everything to a charity for fallen women, except for £1000 to his wife Milly. ‘Only my wife will know why’. What had Milly done?

The Botts are concerned to keep the dreadful business of the will (not so much Milly’s offence) from being known in Titford. Milly must be treated as though she has done nothing wrong. But they don’t know what she has done. They begin to have suspicions. The family decide to give her houseroom in rotation. There are four remaining brothers and five sisters, and their discussion about how to support Milly resembles the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility, talking each other down in the matter of their contributions to support a less fortunate family member.

When they go to tell her this, Milly has disappeared. 

Milly is mortified to realised that Earnest had known that she was conducting an affair and added the codicil to his will 2 years before. Milly leaves very early the morning after the will was read, to get her £1000 and go to live with her sister in Switzerland, also estranged from the Botts because she eloped with her lover from Earnest’s home 25 years previously. The story goes on from there, with Milly giving her sister Agatha the money because she has lived in great poverty since she eloped. Milly, now penniless, realises that she will have to marry Arthur, much against her inclination, for the affair long calmed into a generous friendship. But when they meet for a final time, she realises that he has found a young girl with whom he is in love and plans to marry. 

And so, with no means of support, she returns to Titford and to the Botts. Milly finds she must atone for what she has done. Not to Earnest, who is dead, but to his family – for Milly also suffers from that double standard: 

It is the woman, the Botts considered, on whom the duty has been laid of walking steadfastly along the straight path of virtue, thus persuading man, that natural deviator, to walk along it too. Sometimes he won’t, the Botts admitted, and then the woman’s duty is to continue along it alone. (38)

Milly begins living with each of her brothers-in-law and their wives in turn, and this causes severe strains upon their marriages, as each makes deductions about Milly and what she has been doing, the money, the cause of the dreadful will and the identity of Milly’s paramour. There is a great deal of hysteria and suspicion, and Milly is understood to be guiltless or extremely full of guile by different Botts in turn. All is resolved by the patience and good sense of the matriarch.

This is a novel that looks at hypocrisy, especially of the smug family Bott. It’s about the cost of lies and deception. We follow Milly, indeed sympathise with her as she tries to do the right thing by the Botts, but find ourselves questioning with her when it is okay to lie, why are some lies not punished (I’ll make you the happiest woman ever) and others are (finding happiness outside marriage). Frequently the family have to halt their discussions because it does not do to talk before the servants, from whom the truth must be hidden. It’s told with Elizabeth von Arnim’s trademark wit, her ability to reveal hypocrisy and with a certain amount of daring since she was writing in 1929 when adultery and divorce were not words to be breathed in mixed or polite company. 

Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1929 and republished by Persephone Books in 2019. 362pp

Related posts

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

Fallen Women, a themed post on Bookword

Heavenali’s blog delights in the absurdity of the Botts, in February 2021.

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The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

You have to admit that it’s an intriguing title. Do you know anything about Tartar cuisine? Whether the dishes are hot or not? Where can you find Tartar cuisine? One interpretation of ‘hottest dishes’ might be the sexist interpretation of dish as woman, and so the hottest dishes are Rosa, her daughter Sulfia and granddaughter Aminat. Or it might be literal, and refer to the research by Dieter into the cuisine – research that lands him in hospital under the care of Russian nurse Sulfia. And it emerges that Rosa is not familiar with Tartar cuisine, at least not as a cook. But the dishes are familiar to her palette.

If this all sounds a bit muddled, and rather wild, just join in and follow the story told by Rosa of how she came to the west.

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

I read My Grandmother’s Braid last February and so had some familiarity with the flamboyant writing of Alina Bronsky. These grandmothers are not to be messed with. They are selfish, liars, schemers with a very high opinion of themselves. And they love their granddaughters with a fierceness that overcomes most obstacles.

This novel is narrated by the main character, and might not appeal to those who want to have sympathy with the protagonists of the novels they read. She is also an unreliable, even dishonest narrator. But she has wit and nerve and plenty of energy. Here is the opening paragraph:

The knitting needle
As my daughter Sulfia was explaining that she was pregnant but that she didn’t know by whom, I paid extra attention to my posture. I sat with my back perfectly straight and folded my hands elegantly in my lap. (15)

Rosa is dismayed that her daughter, so different in character from her, is pregnant. She is unable to be clear about who the father is, or indeed whether there was a father at all. Rosa describes her pregnant daughter in this ungenerous way:

This daughter I did have was deformed and bore no resemblance to her mother. She was short – she only came up to my shoulders. She had no figure whatsoever. She had small eyes and a crooked mouth. And, as I said, she was stupid. She was already seventeen years old, too, so there was little chance she would get any smarter. (13-4)

The baby is born, despite Rosa’s attempts to abort it, and as soon as she is born Rosa decides that she is the best person to bring the girl up. Now she focuses on getting Sulfia out of the way. She is instrumental in getting Sulfia married on three occasions. Sulfia meets men in dependent positions because she works as a nurse in a clinic. 

It is in the clinic that Sulfia meets Dieter, a German cookery writer, who shows no interest in Sulfia until he meets Aminat, now a sulky adolescent. Rosa schemes to get the three of them invited to Germany, and there she manages to get Sulfia married to Dieter. Her daughter returns to Russia to care for her father, but Aminat and Rosa stay on, Rosa picking up jobs and connections that will be resources for the next stage in her life.

This not a rollicking comedy of outlandish behaviour, although there are many elements of this. There is some real pathos. Sulfia is very badly treated by her mother, who always has justifications for her actions, which she claims is for the interests of others. The saddest episode is when Sulfia dies, and everyone can see how she has been browbeaten. 

The novel follows Rosa’s attempts to gain a better life for herself and for those she cares about. The list of those she cares about varies considerably, usually involving her granddaughter, and sometimes her own daughter. To achieve what she wants Rosa lies, schemes, bribes, drills and dominates those in her orbit. 

She is selfish, opinionated, prejudiced, and self-deluding. At first she seems over written and it is quite shocking to see how everything is about Rosa, even her 17 year-old daughter’s unplanned pregnancy. I think that the author is describing aspects of everybody’s character, exaggerating them for effect and reminding the reader that we are all, to some degree, self-obsessed, opinionated and self-deluding.

It’s an unsettling story, for Rosa frequently exceeds the bounds of decency or morality in pursuit of her goals. The ending is somewhat obscure and ambiguous. I enjoyed reading it for its lack of English subtlety and charm. 

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky, first published in 2010 and in English by Europa Editions, translated from the German by Tim Mohr. 263pp

It is my contribution to Women in Translation Month 2021.

Related posts

My Grandmother’s Braid reviewed on Bookword blog in February 2021

Heavenali reported on her blog on her enjoyment of this book in February, its outrageous narrator and its ‘unique and quirky story-telling’.

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The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta

This is a story of so many tensions. Set in the years before Nigerian Independence in 1960, a young girl is deprived of the care of her father by his early death. Her family come under the protection of her ambitious uncle, and because she is educated he can demand a high bride price for her. 

This is a fairly short book, but I took my time reading it because I was enjoying the detail with which the story is told. From life in Lagos, a funeral ceremony, travel in the mammy lorries of the 1950s, the rural community and its traditions to the celebrations and customs of the Ibo people of Ibuz; I had so much to learn. I read a number of novels by Buchi Emecheta in the 1970s, but these mostly concerned Nigerian women living in London. 

The Bride Price

Early in the novel in Lagos Ezekiel Odia dies, and a funeral begins.

At the first announcement of his death, the traditional crying began. This was an art in itself. There were expert professional criers, who listed the good deeds performed by the departed and tactfully left out the bad. His lineage would be traced out loud, the victories of his ancestors sung and their heroic past raised to the winds, amidst the groans of other criers, the screams of women and the heart beats of the men. Such force was put into these cries. The first storm of them rose like and angry thunder, in different deafening pitches. The high, penetrating shrieks of the women somehow managed to have a touch of apathy in them, as if their voices were saying: “We do our share of the crying because it is expected of us, but what can one do when faced with death? It is a call we must answer however busy we are.” Their noises of protest against death were followed by low howls, like those of a slave who knows he is to be sacrificed for the life of his sick master. The men’s howlings were of a lower key, charged with energy, they hugged themselves this way and that like raging waves on a gloomy day, and on each face ran two rivers of tears which looked as if they would never dry. (29-30)

The story follows Aku-nna, the 13 year old daughter of Ezekiel, a respected man, who dies in Lagos. During the war he had been conscripted into the army to fight in Burma. His injuries lead to his early death. His family, wife and 2 children, become the property of his brother in Ibuza. Because she is educated, Aku-nna has a high bride price, which will allow her uncle to achieve his ambitions to have the title of Eze.

Aku-nna is attracted to the schoolteacher, Chike. But Chike is from a former slave family and so is regarded as lower caste and not suitable for Aku-nna. He is young, good-looking and saving to go to university. His father is generous and well-off but not accepted by the Ibo people. Meanwhile Aku-nna joins with the other girls in the traditional activities expected of them, and she prepares with them for the outing dance.

The girls talked and dreamed about their outing dance. They worked and saved hard to buy their jigida, the red and black beads which they would wear above their bikini-like pants. Apart from these, their tops would be bare, displaying the blue-coloured tattooes that went round their backs, then under their young breasts and met at the heart. Their feet would also be bare, but small bells were to be tied round their ankles, so that when in the dance they jumped, or curtsied, or crawled in modesty, the bells would jingle in sympathy. It was to be the great moment of their lives and they knew it. In their old age, with their clay pipes in toothless mouths, they would turn to their grandchildren and say, “When we were young and our breasts were tight as tied ropes, we did the aja dance. It was the best dance in the whole land, and we did it.” (103)

Chike and Aku-nna are soon in love and plan to marry when she is 16. But others have been waiting for her to start menstruating, a sign of becoming a woman, and when she does they begin to pay court, encouraged by the uncle. One night she is kidnapped by the family of one of her admirers, but she resists, telling her ‘husband’ that she and Chike have been intimate. Okoboshi rejects her and she escapes with Chike to another part of the country. Her uncle refused to accept the bride price offered by her father-in-law and, as tradition would have it, tragedy follows.

Tensions and oppositions

The story sets up a number of oppositions: Lagos is compared to Ibuza and the city against the rural setting. In Ibuza the community is very traditional. This provides a great deal of support for the family who lose their breadwinner but makes high demands on women. The wants of the individual are set against the practices and expectations of the community. 

The possibilities for boys and men are in contrast to those for girls and women. Traditional culture is in opposition to more modern attitudes, for education and health care for women in particular. 

Buchi Emecheta continued to explore the themes of race, gender and colonialism in her subsequent writings.

Buchi Emecheta

Born in Lagos in 1944, Buchi Emecheta was orphaned when young and although educated married young. Her husband came to London and she followed soon after in 1962 with two children. More children were born and she became unhappy in her marriage. When she began to write her husband burned the manuscript of her first novel. She decided to leave him, taking the children and to earn her living and continue to gain degrees in the next few years. She also rewrote the novel, which was The Bride Price, which was published by Allison & Busby, a company that promoted African writing.

She went on to publish 16 novels as well as several autobiographies, children’s books, plays and articles. She died in January 2017.

The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta, first published in 1976 by Allison & Busby.  I used the Fontana African Fiction edition (1978). 168pp

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Celebrating Margaret Busby, who promoted African literature in the publishing house that bore her name. (On Bookword December 2020)

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My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin

I had known about this book for many years, but I had been put off reading it by the rather colloquial title: I got the sense of going bung, but in my prim way thought it was a bit vulgar. I found a copy in a second-hand bookshop soon after I had reviewed My Brilliant Career and was intrigued. I so wish I had come across it earlier, because it was fun and I would have enjoyed it as a much younger woman too.

My Career Goes Bung

My Brilliant Career was not a sophisticated novel. The storyline follows the history of the Australian writer, written with a great deal of energy and brashness. According to the introduction by Carmen Callil, Miles Franklin said that she ‘conceived and tossed it off in a matter of weeks’. It was published in 1901. The reception of this novel caused her to refuse to allow it to be reprinted. 

She wrote My Career Goes Bung in 1902, when she was in her early 20s, but felt that it would be unacceptable to readers until much later. It wasn’t published until 1946.

In My Career Goes Bung the first novel having earned much notoriety for its young author, Sybylla has to deal with the reactions of people within her limited community, and then later from the cultural set in Sydney. Both novels are based on what happened to Miles Franklin. 

I loved this second volume. The heroine/narrator exposes so much hypocrisy about the role of young women at the start of the twentieth century in Australia, even though women had gained the vote by 1902. The surprising success of her first novel is regarded as below comment in ‘Possum Creek, although she becomes the centre of gossip and attention. There is no local person who takes her talents seriously, except her father. He is not a successful businessman and is interested in politics, but not very successful at that either. 

Her mother tells her that if she is against marriage she will have to take up a profession. Sybylla considers her options:

This brought me to consider my prospects and to find that I hadn’t any. I loved to learn things – anything, everything. To attend University would have been heaven, but expense barred that. I could become a pupil-teacher, but I loathed the very name of this profession. I should have to do the same work as a man for less pay, and, in country schools, to throw in free of remuneration, the speciality of teaching all kinds of needlework. I could be a cook or a housemaid and slave all day under some nagging woman and be a social outcast. I could be a hospital nurse and do twice the work of a doctor for a fraction of his pay or social importance, or, seeing the tremendously advanced age, I could even be a doctor – a despised lady-doctor, doing the drudgery of the profession in the teeth of such prejudice that even the advanced, who fought for the entry of women into all professions, would in practice “have more faith in a man doctor.” I could be a companion to some woman appended to some man of property.
I rebelled against every one of these fates. (20-21)

Sybylla finds it impossible to stay at home, for there is no one with whom she can be friends.

From ‘Possum Gully to Spring Hill and round about the Wallaroo Plains there wasn’t a real companion of my own age, nor any other age. The dissatisfaction of other girls stopped short of wondering why life should be so much less satisfactory to them than their brothers, but they accepted it as the will of God. None of them was consumed with the idea of changing the world. (31)

The opportunities for a feminist are limited at home, especially for one who does not wish to marry and would rather change the world. So Sybylla’s mother arranges for her to spend time in Sydney with an old lady who would be pleased to have her to stay. Here her notoriety is the object of considerable interest, and Mrs Crasterton’s standing in Sydney society is enhanced by the presence of her curious guest. Men seem to find her fascinating, and it takes her a little time to work out how to deal with them, their attentions and their offers of marriage. 

She demonstrates great perceptiveness at the hypocrisy of the society which still believes that a woman’s duty and calling is marriage and motherhood, while playing court to her originality. She is determined not to marry and escapes all attempts to lure her. Most of them think she will grow out of writing when she is married. But it was to stand up for herself, young, female and without much ‘EXPERIENCE’. She rejects all their suggestions and returns home, her writing career going nowhere.

Warned by a loyal suitor back home that she might become despised as an old maid Sybylla responds:

Despised for being an old maid, indeed! Why are men so disturbed by a woman who escapes their spoilation? Is her refusal to capitulate unendurable to masculine egotism, or is it a symptom of something more fundamental? (227)

Finally, she decides to go wider than Sydney, to the world beyond Australia, to London.

One my strongest pleasures in this vibrant, heart-felt novel is the language she uses, with such freshness. Here’s a favourite as her mother pours cold water on any idea of Sybylla going on the stage.

She finished me to squashation like a sucked gooseberry. (44)

I loved her observations and wit, her determination not to be seduced by the dominant ideas about women, love, marriage and motherhood. Miles Franklin largely kept to that. She never married and before returning to settle in Australia in 1932, encouraging Australian writing, she spent more than two decades in America and in England.

My Career Goes Bung: purporting to be the autobiography of Sybylla Penelope Melvyn by Miles Franklin, first published in 1946. Republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1981. 234 pp

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My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin on Bookword January 2020

Heavenali included a review of this novel on her blog in September 2015.

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Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

It’s a good story – a journalist investigates a claim of a virgin birth. It’s 1957 and the world is a different place. There were local newspapers and no knowledge of DNA and no internet to help with research. Everyone smoked. London was frequently obscured by fog. At work it was a man’s world, and the story was seen by the editorial group of the North Kent Echo as a women’s interest item and was therefore given to Jean to investigate. 

Jean is the character whose fortunes we follow in this book. Her life has been going along evenly, with considerable boredom, until she has to investigate Mrs Tilbury’s claim of parthenogenesis.

Small Pleasures

Jean is nearly 40 and sees her life slipping away, having failed in the matter of finding a husband and establishing a family and a home. Instead, she looks after her dependant and neurotic mother in their semi in the suburbs south of London. Theirs is a life governed by routine and modest expenditure. Quiet desperation, one might almost say. 

Small pleasures – the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week; a newly published library book, still pristine and untouched by other hands; the first hyacinths of spring; a neatly folded pile of ironing, smelling of summer; the garden under snow; an impulsive purchase of stationery for her drawer … (328)

And then Jean goes to see the young woman who claims that there was no father involved in the conception of her child. Gretchen Tilbury is an attractive young woman and a competent seamstress. It is unclear to Jean why Gretchen wants her story investigated. Gretchen tells Jean that at the time when the baby would have been conceived she was in a private clinic, St Cecilia’s Nursing Home, being treated for rheumatoid arthritis. Since Margaret’s birth Gretchen had married Howard, who believed her story. Jean decides to visit the husband at his shop near Covent Garden, and to meet with the matron and fellow patients who occupied the ward in St Cecelia’s alongside Gretchen at the time when the baby would have been conceived. 

As the investigation proceeds Jean is befriended by Gretchen and her much older husband. And she finds Margaret, the child at the centre of the story, very appealing too. Jean begins to spend time at the weekend with the family. Gretchen makes her a dress and Jean buys Margaret a pet rabbit in return. She also finds herself being drawn to Howard Tilbury. And it begins to look as though there was a virgin birth.

I love this about fiction: I know that there has been no proven case of a virgin birth, but I was prepared to accept the possibility that Gretchen Tilbury had a good claim, because it was within a novel.

As Gretchen’s claims become harder to dismiss the reader comes to see that trouble lies ahead for Jean: she and Howard fall in love; her mother has a turn and goes to hospital for a few days; the doctors’ tests continue; Jean begins to hope for a better future than one only enlivened by small pleasures. I won’t relate the rest of the story. It is well told, and tension is kept to the end.

There is a lot about duty and decency in this novel, what was expected of people in the 1950s and what had to be hidden. The author shows the sexism of the time, but the most attractive male characters are those that treat women well: Roy Drake the editor of the North Kent Echo; and Howard Tilbury, the stepfather of Margaret. The sexism of the other reporters, the headmaster she meets and the doctors conducting the tests is pretty dreadful, but it reminds us of how much has changed in 50 years.

Small Pleasures has been chosen by my book group for discussion soon. I am sure we will find that there are many aspects of this novel that we can discuss. It was also longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2021

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers, published in 2020 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 350pp

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Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

It is fitting that gardens play such an important part in this novel, for I read it while relaxing in mine. At last the sweet peas have arrived, the poppies are dropping their petals and the honeysuckle is drooped over the fence like a chatty neighbour.

For the couple at the heart of this novel gardens represent freedom. Jennifer will find her garden in the Sussex countryside, even if she has to battle with her spade against brambles and snails. For James, a country vicar, it is the only place where he can escape the expectations of his sister and his parishioners.

Father

Gardens were important to Elizabeth von Arnim too. Her first novel was called Elizabeth and her German Garden. And who can forget the magical qualities of the Italian castle gardens in The Enchanted April?

Gardens represent freedom, and in opposition is duty. Both Jennifer and James are caught up in duty’s coils.

Jennifer Dodge is already in her thirties but unmarried. She is one of the nearly 2 million ‘surplus women’ of the interwar years. At a time when marriage was the purpose of a woman’s life, the failure of so many women was an important social issue. She promised her dying mother that she would look after her father and so she is bound by a promise and the sense of duty imposed by father. She has spent the years maintaining a household to his liking, and assisting with his well known, but not well-read, books. He is a man of frigid habits. There are no gardens to enjoy at his house in Gower Street, London. 

Richard Dodge diverts from his normal path and marries a young and beautiful girl called Netta. He has done this because his novels have been criticised for being too sensual, so he plans to use up this sensuality in his life and keep it out of his books. This act frees Jennifer from her duty to father and it allows her to set out to find her own cottage with a garden, which she does as soon as they have gone on their honeymoon. (A nice comedic detail is that father plans to take Netta to Norway.)

James is ‘entangled in his own canonicals’ (224). His sister Alice, a mirror image to father, brought him up and is now his housekeeper in the little Sussex village of Cherry Lidgate. She manages everything for him, and manages him through emotional blackmail. It is owing to her annoyance at him that she lets Rose Cottage to Jennifer. But when she sees that there is a danger from her brother being attracted to Miss Dodge she uses all her powers to separate them and to bring him to his senses – as she sees it. She takes him to Switzerland, and while there the hotel manager asks him to provide a Sunday service for the English guests. James realises that he does not wish to be a vicar.

Really it was a terrible, a horrifyingly lonely thing, thought James, gripping his head in his hands and staring at the Bradshaw on his knees, to be all by oneself in the middle of other people’s determinations and conventions, and having to behave as though they were one’s own, having to put on one’s surplice every Sunday and talk as if one agreed, and talk as if one upheld, when all one wanted – (224)

Alice has a very annoying habit of saying, ‘Bosh!’ when she doesn’t agree with something. She says it once too often to James while they are traveling back to England. She plans to remove the tenant from Rose Cottage and he to propose. The reader cheers to realise that James has thrown off the dreadful Alice. And when she finds a soulmate, thinking herself inconsolable by the loss of James, we think this is entirely fitting for both parties.

While they have been in Switzerland, Jennifer has been getting on with her new life, mostly working in her garden. But she is interrupted by Netta, who has not gone to Norway (because her lap dog would have had to quarantine on their return) but to Brighton. Although marriage to Richard Dodge is not at all to her taste she is persuaded to return to Brighton. She is followed a day or two later by father. Netta has left him and he requires Jennifer to return to Gower Street and care for him again. 

The scene between the two of them is brutal. He believes that Jennifer sped to Rose Cottage to punish him for re-marrying. She cannot persuade him that she loves her life there. She tries to explain to him, but he only listens silently, unable to understand her. 

Such nonsense, too; such grievous nonsense. Stuff about beauty, and independence, and the bliss, he gathered, of nothingness. To have nothing – to be nothing – it appeared to amount to that – was the only freedom, according to his absurd daughter. If she had declared that to be dead was the only true  freedom, it would have made quite enough sense.
But, pitiably and confusedly as she talked, and insulting and ungrateful as her implications were, it did somehow emerge from the welter that the theory of a vendetta for his remarriage was incorrect and she was here because she liked it. (203)

There is much that is farcical about this novel, which lightens the pervading sense of oppression and wasted lives. Few people are honest with each other, preferring to make assumptions about; there are attempts to escape Switzerland that are thwarted by other escapes from Switzerland; meanness of spirit is employed to communicate the fault of other people. Who could forget the description of a lover’s first attempts at a romantic kiss to be ‘gobbling’? Some of the comings and goings are remind me of French farce.

The story reaches a happy-ever-after, but not before we have seen the full extent of Jennifer’s duty and obligation to her father. 

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1931 and reissued in the British Library Women Writers series in 2020. 296pp

Related posts

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim

Father has been reviewed by two bloggers I respect: Heavenali, who says it is glorious, and Stuck in a Book, who also wrote the helpful Afterword which illuminates the plight of ‘surplus women’.

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