Category Archives: Reviews

The House Opposite by Barbara Noble

In a recent post, Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry, I remarked about my interest in the history of the war years, especially of the home front. Growing up after the war we knew so little of what our parents had done. Many of us had parents who were silent about their experiences. In addition, there are parallels between our situation in the Coronavirus pandemic and the war. I noted that the reactions of the home population during the war have many similarities to our thoughts today, which I find comforting, not least the belief that we will get through it.

Here’s another novel of the Second World War, again featuring the Blitz and published in 1943 before the outcome of the war was clear. It has been republished by Dean Street Press in their Furrowed Middlebrow series. This novel was suggested to me by Susan Kavanagh when I said that was going to read more C20th fiction. Thank you for the recommendation.

The House Opposite

The title reflects the urban setting, a suburb of London, fictional Saffron Park. The story follows the two families who live in houses that face each other on the same street. Elizabeth Simpson lives with her parents, she is a young woman who works as a secretary to the boss of an import business based in Soho Square in central London. Her father is a solicitor who also volunteers as an air raid warden. 

Opposite them is the family of Owen Cathcart. He has just left school and is hoping to be called up to the RAF. His father does something dodgy with timber and furniture and his mother looks out for everyone in the street.

Everyone has a secret, and not revealing stuff to others was an important consideration in their small society. Elizabeth has been conducting an affair with her boss for three years. Her mother has taken to drink for she is very afraid of the bombing raids. Because of something he heard Elizabeth say, Owen is afraid he is gay. He hero-worships his cousin who is already in the RAF. His father is arrested and tried for profiteering and his mother is deeply ashamed when this gets into the newspapers. And everyone has to work together when the sirens go off. Owen and Elizabeth find themselves sharing the fire watch duty in the street, which brings them closer. 

The story follows the everyday lives of these people while destruction is all about them: shops, restaurants, cafés, and some homes disappear overnight. People go to work, to the cinema, visit friends and relations in the country and endure. Elizabeth’s lover turns out to be a weak man. When her mother gets drunk on rum they send her off to stay in the country with her sister. Owen grows up by noticing that other people have difficulties in their lives, for example, he sees that Elizabeth is not happy. He finds his own way passed the hero worship of his cousin. 

The bombing acts as an intensifier of their situations. People show small acts of kindness or courage or generosity to each other. They are loyal to their families and look out for them. They show courage against the background of danger. And they confront some truths about themselves and reflect on their experiences to learn from them. These are ordinary people who find ways to be their best selves. 

Barbara Noble

Born in 19017 in North London, Barbara Noble wrote six novels, of which this is the fourth. The next novel she wrote Doreen is about an evacuee torn between her mother and the family she stays is sent to live with. It has been republished by Persephone Books. As well as writing fiction Barbara Noble worked for twenty years for Twentieth Century Fox before taking over as editor for Doubleday publishing in 1953. She died in 2001.

The House Opposite by Barbara Noble was first published in 1943 and republished in the Furrowed Middlebrow series by Dean Street Press in 2019. 222 pp

Related Posts:

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell (also published in the Furrowed Middlebrow series). A war memoir from 1939-41.

HeavenAli liked The House Opposite very much. She reviewed it on her blog in June last year. 

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My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky

The grandmother of the title is racist, outspoken, a liar, a hypochondriac, a schemer and secretive.

At the refugee home, we were, as Grandmother noted unhappily, surrounded by Jews. She’d never made a secret of her antisemitism: “Not because of Jesus or anything. I have genuine, personal reasons.” She’s nearly burst whenever she had to keep herself from using certain curses during toasts with the neighbors. Then she’d revel in the fact that she’d managed to gain access for us to the privileges of the golden West under false premises. ‘Just so you don’t think we’re really Jews,” she hammered home to me while feeling my forehead for a fever. “Opa had an uncle who had a brother-in-law. He had a Jewish wife. That’s how it works. Don’t ask.” (10)

The character of the grandmother is grotesque at the outset of this novella. Her grandson, Max, who tells the story, is only six, and is watched over obsessively by his Russian grandmother. With her husband they have come to live in Berlin in a converted hotel.

The home was a former hotel with a cracking plaster façade and a sign still adorning the entrance that said “Sunshine Inn”. […] Grandmother looked unfavorably on most of the new acquaintances: she was suspicious of people who left their homelands, except when it came to us. (10-11) 

With such characters, in such a situation, the opportunities for humour and wit are plentiful and fully embraced in this German novella.

My Grandmother’s Braid

When I began to read this novella, I was hoping that Max and his grandfather would eventually escape the old woman’s attentions. She supervises Max’s every move, obsessively keeping germs at bay, and providing only liquid food for the boy claiming that he has a very weak constitution. She even attends school with him when he starts. She continues to supervise him until she finds another child to do the surveillance for her.

The grandfather meets and falls in love with another refugee, Nina. When Nina becomes pregnant you might expect that all hell would be unleashed. But the grandmother is nothing if not pragmatic, and the two household gradually integrate and the baby is cared for by three adults in different combinations. The pressure is off Max, and he learns to stand up for himself.

He also learns more about his grandmother’s past – she is a former prima ballerina. And about his own mother and what happened to her. The grandmother shows herself to be very enterprising, and sets up a dancing school for the neighbourhood. As Max and his baby uncle grow up their lives become more settled and Max is able to take risks, to understand his grandmother’s obsessions and eventually to follow his own path.

In the course of the story we have been presented with many scenes of humour based on mutual incomprehension, visual effects (such as the silent workforce attending the grandfather’s funeral), quick repartee: ”Where is his mother? Is it true she sold him?” “No,” said grandmother calmly. “Look at him. Would anybody ask for money for that?”

This book was great fun, and also provided some poignant moments which made me reflect on the situation of some of the most despised people in Europe. This group of refugees need the grandmother’s endurance if not her grandiloquence. Overwhelmingly, it is a book about unconditional love that is expressed in curious and sometimes hilarious ways . 

The book was sent to me because I have a subscription with the Asymptote Club

Alina Bronsky

Alina Bronsky

Alina Bronsky is the pseudonym of a Russian-German writer. Born in 1978 she now lives in Berlin and has written a number of novels, including The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine. She is highly regarded for her vibrant prose and has won many literary awards in Germany. 

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky, originally published in 2019 as Der Zopf meiner Grossmutter. The English translation from the German by Tim Mohr was published by Europa Editions in 2021. 159pp

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The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann

Rosamond Lehmann is one of the best writers I know for describing the feelings and anxieties of people in relationships. Sometimes her protagonists are outsiders, as in Dusty Answer and Invitation to the Waltz. In The Weather in the Street and in the subject of this post, The Echoing Grove, the relationships are more complex and changeable. The authenticity of the drama she narrates is never in question. It is, as I suggested in a previous post, as if ‘it’s our own story exactly’.

The Echoing Grove

My copy of The Echoing Grove has been sitting on my shelf for some time, a second hand orange, Penguin edition bought some time ago. Having read and reviewed three novels by Rosamond Lehmann over the last eight months I decided to read this fourth one. 

The novel is concerned primarily with a trio of characters: Rickie, his wife Madeleine and her sister Dinah.  It is the 1930s. Rickie falls for Dinah soon after he married her sister and they embark on an affair. But the course of their love is hardly smooth as Madeleine is badly hurt, Rickie leaves Dinah, then returns to her, she becomes pregnant, the baby is still born, she attempts suicide, and so on. The lives of these characters are interwoven until Rickie’s death in 1944.

Each of them has other lovers that we meet over the course of the novel, but it is with these three and their shifting and unhappy triangle that we are centrally concerned. When Madeleine and her sister Dinah meet at the start of the novel, after 14 years of separation it is in fact almost the end of the story. The author plays about with chronology throughout the novel, trusting the reader to pick up the hints and follow the shifts in time. She does the same with point of view; sometimes moving into the head of one of the three main characters, shifting from third to first person within a paragraph. 

All this shifting about reflects the changing nature of the triangle. Even when one of the three resolve not to see another they change their behaviour soon enough. It might be a suicide attempt, or a health crisis, or an accidental meeting. Rickie thinks of it as ‘a game that no one ever won’. (120)

The three characters are very different, and are more appealing or more worthy of sympathy at varying points in the story. They all possess human weaknesses: Rickie unable to resist temptation; Dinah always the rebel out to shock; and Madeleine stands upon her position as the wronged wife. I have over simplified, for this is a novel about human frailty and my summations do not do it justice.

It is pretty intense, as love affairs can be, with scenes of heightened drama, such as in the night club or when Rickie decides to follow up the wife of his best friend. In the end too many threads were self-consciously tied up: the burn on the bedside table; the £1 that is owed, the cuff links, the important scenes recollected and picked over by all participants. And the scene in the Blitz, when Rickie is talking to a new lover, made me think about all those men who think it is women’s job to listen to them go on and on. It is seventy pages long.

The title appears to reference the poem Broken Love by William Blake. The title of the poem seems apt, but the echoing aspect is not clear to me.

‘Let us agree to give up love, 
And root up the Infernal Grove;
Then shall we return and see
The worlds of happy Eternity. 

‘And throughout all Eternity 
I forgive you, you forgive me.
As our dear Redeemer said: 
“This the Wine, and this the Bread.”’ (From Broken Love by William Blake)

Don’t pick The Echoing Grove up for an exciting story. For a novel full of emotion and that pulls your sympathies around a bit, The Echoing Grove is excellent.

The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann, first published in 1953. I used the Penguin edition from 1958. 302pp. A more recent version was published in the Virago Modern Classics series in 2013.

Related Links

Three other reviews of novels by Rosamond Lehmann on Bookword

Dusty Answer (1927) in July 2020

Invitation to the Waltz (1932) in July 2020

The Weather in the Street (1936) in November 2020

Simon Lavery reviewed The Echoing Grove in May 2020 on his blog, Tredynas Days and noted, as I have, the very long scene set in the Blitz. I enjoyed his reaction to it.

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Perfect Presents for a Bookish Bod

Eileen Carnell sent me an email. I asked her if I could use it on my blog. Eileen and I wrote several books together. (Here we are at a reading of Retiring with Attitude at Leatherhead Library in Autumn of 2014).

Dear Caroline, 

A response to your blog of the 10th January: Best Books for … the Long Haul

Hamnet

On Saturday morning there was no possibility of taking a walk. There were chores to do and indoor exercises to undertake but I thought that while I drank my decaff I’d read just for a few minutes. About two hours on, and 71 pages later, I put down my birthday copy of Hamnet*. I was captivated, transported back to 1596, my brain conveyed to a different landscape. I was immersed, time stopped, the outer world no longer existed. This is how I love to read – it feeds my spirit, provides sheer joy, escapism and a sense of well-being. As such Hamnet is a brilliant book to read during lockdown and the terrible connection between the plague of that time and Covid makes it even more timely.

Couch Fiction

I’m not a fan of cartoons. Comics were banned in our family when I was growing up so I never really learned how to read them, not knowing which bit of writing to read first or which part of the picture to look at**. But a second birthday gift this year changed my mind about such reading formats. This is Couch Fiction with its great sub-title A Graphic Tale of Psychotherapy. This book is witty, droll and delightful. Phillipa Perry *** is the psychotherapist in question. Flo Perry, her daughter provided the illustrations. 

This book works on two levels. It tell the story of a psychotherapeutic encounter through pictures, speech and thought bubbles. Then beneath each page of the interactions between the two characters there are notes which demystify the encounter providing an easy read of the theory, for example, it highlights if the therapist is moving too fast, her use of hunches, any clumsy interventions and how the person being helped may react, and for students of the process there is some useful stuff on transference and attachment theories. So this is familiar territory for me but a great light but satisfying reminder – a perfect gift for me.

The Best of Me

And speaking of the joy of the familiar and ideal presents I will never tire of reading David Sedaris. In particular his short story about the mouse entitled Nuit of the Living Dead is fantastic. This book The Best of Mewas one of my Christmas presents. Reading what makes me laugh out loud is such a tonic and really does raise my spirits – a treat to come for anyone who hasn’t read it – so witty, so subversive. I was lucky to have heard him reading this story aloud at The British Library a couple of years ago.

Talking Books

I love being read to so Talking Books are a joy to me, especially to send me off to sleep during these troubled times. Instead of watching the news at ten I settle down to listen to stories. Re-reading is also something I enjoy and I’ll never tire of Sissy Spacek reading Scout’s account of her first day at school with that wonderful Southern accent of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve also listened this month to Elizabeth is Missing, How to be Both, The Accidental Tourist (again) and Jane Eyre – hence my opening sentence ****.

Beginnings

Some beginnings are embedded in my brain and while reading I’m looking out for beautiful descriptions and passages that I wish I’d written. I love examining openings, not just of books themselves, but of paragraphs and new chapters. It can often take me a while to read a book because I spend ages re-reading sentences to analyse their construction. I love names too and often make a note of them to steal later for my own novella – swopping first names of some with different surnames – Gregory Page-Turner and Saffron Milford are examples of ones I plan to introduce soon – he a church warden, she a novelist.

And …

I’ve also got waiting for me from Christmas and birthday:

Raynor Winn, The Wild Silence

Sarah Moss, Summerwater

Monica Connell, Gathering Carrageen

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain

Mark Billingham, Cry Baby

Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing

Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere

Jacqueline Winspear, Birds of a Feather

And with a book token given to me by my brother-in-law for Christmas I am going to order the second and third in the series of Ian Rankin’s Rebus thrillers. 

I’m confident I have enough reading material to keep me going for ages. Who knows when I’ll get my second vaccination or when lockdown will end but I hope I’ll have one or two books left to take on board a train or ferry to Scotland or Ireland again. Roll on Summer.

Notes

* Hamnet and Hamlet were used in Shakespeare’s day interchangeably. This remarkable book is written by Maggie O’Farrell (2020).

** An exception to this rule was Posy Simmonds in The Guardian

*** Her husband is the more famous artist Grayson Perry.

**** Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing

Ali Smith, How to be Both

Anne Tyler, The Accidental Tourist

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

From Eileen Carnell

Related posts on Bookword

Best Books for … the Long Haul (January 2021)

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 (September 2020)

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (February 2015)

How to be both by Ali Smith (March 2015)

The Accidental Tourist (again) by Anne Tyler (October 2015)

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Red Ellen – The Novels of Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson has long been a hero of mine. She was one of the first female Labour MPs, and had a reputation as a ‘firebrand’, probably because of her red hair. Most memorably, she was MP for Jarrow at the time of the famous hunger march (1936). You can find photographs of her leading it: a small figure in comparison to other marchers.

Born in 1891 into a working class family in Manchester, she got her education there and began her political activities by supporting female suffrage. She went on to work as a trade union organiser, and was first elected to parliament in 1924 when most Labour MPs lost their seats. She won Middlesborough East by a majority of 972. As a trade unionist she was involved in the General Strike of 1926 but she lost her seat after the failure of the second Labour Government in 1931, returning to parliament in 1935. 

While she was out of parliament she turned to writing, earning her keep as a journalist, and writing her two novels, the subjects of this post. Her return to parliament kept her too busy to continue with fiction writing. During the Second World War she served in the coalition government and became Minister of Education in the post-war Labour government. Sadly she died too young in 1947, having suffered from bronchial asthma, been a smoker and an overworker all her adult life.

It is with some sadness that I realise that my grandfather would have known her as he was also elected in 1935, albeit as a Liberal. Sadly I did not take the opportunity to ask him. I am sure he would have known her, full of energy, small, with red hair and a dramatic sense of colour and style in her clothing.

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson

Clash was published in 1929 and much of it is drawn from the author’s experiences of the General Strike, such a bold move, such exciting times, but ultimately a failure. The miners, in support of whom it was called, suffered for months in the lock out that followed. Joan Craig is the heroine, and her proximity to the leaders of the unions, her hard work to keep the strike going, and her support for the miners are all drawn from Ellen Wilkinson’s experiences. But Joan has black not red hair.

This is also a love story. Joan falls for the older Bloomsbury writer, Tony Dacre. Much of the second part of the novel is taken up with Joan’s dilemma: follow her heart or continue with her work supporting workers. 

The clash of the title is evident in so many aspects of the story. I was struck by how many of these tensions still exist 90 years later. There is the tension between the North and the South of England. All the excitement of the strike and the pleasure of intellectual company and activities is found in London. Joan is tempted. But in the North there is real poverty, exploitation of workers, and work that she is so good at to be done. 

The North-South divide is also a class divide. Tony Dacre offers Joan the possibility of more comfort and security. The passages describing the hardships of life when the miners were locked out are a strong as any in the novel. The ignorance of the middle class (in both senses of ignorance) is shocking. And the class divide is sharpest in the failed relationships of bosses and trade unions.

There is the male-female tension, played out as she considers the life offered by Tony. His view is that she would have to give up her work, dedicate her life to him if they were together. And he believes that romantic love is justification enough for this. It’s what women do. A clash between intellectual and romantic views of life is also shown. I won’t pre-empt your reading by telling you how Joan resolved these dilemmas. But like her creator she did not disappoint.

My interest in the history of the time was well rewarded by reading this novel, full of action and ideas. I enjoyed it. Thanks to HeavenAli for drawing it to my attention on her blog.

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson, published in 1932. It was reissued in the Virago Modern Classics series in 1989. 309pp

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson 

This second novel also draws on Ellen Wilkinson’s experiences, this time in the House of Commons. She had been a PPS (parliamentary private secretary) to several ministers. The amateur detective in her novel  Robert West, is a young male MP, PPS to the Home Secretary, known as Flossie. I chose to read this as a relief from some books that had hard-to-read passages of abuse of women. It is a light read.

A gunshot is heard at the same moment as Big Ben struck and the division bell sounded. A rich American banker has been murdered in Dining Room J. Rob West is tasked with helping the police find the culprit. The Home Secretary was meeting with Oissel to negotiate a government loan but left for the division just before Oissel was found dead. The story features the beautiful but ice-cold grand-daughter of the murdered man, her fiancé who is also an MP, a female MP from the Labour Party, a journalist, the Scotland Yard detective, a Peer of the Realm and the chief Civil Servant in the Home Office. Who did it?

The story is slight, but one relationship caught my attention. Rob West asks Grace Richards MP for some help.

The attitude of Robert West to the modern young woman was typical of that of a very young man. He preferred the intelligent woman. He liked to be seen about with one who was also making a name for herself. But while he was interested in her he expected her to put her own affairs in the background, and devote herself to his. When she was no longer needed she might be permitted to pick up her own threads again, but she must not trouble him. This he called allowing a woman to lead her own life. (120)

He asks her for help.

“And why should I help you?”
Robert was positively shocked. Why should she help him! What did she think women were in politics for if not to be helpful? (123)

There is an edge in this little exchange which makes me think that Ellen Wilkinson had encountered this young man’s attitude many times. 

I would love to have met Ellen Wilkinson, heard her make a speech, watch her navigate male-dominated politics. I enjoyed her two novels, and that will have to do.

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson, first published in 1932 and reissued in 2018 in the British Library Crime Classics series. 254pp

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Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is about slavery, slavery in the US. It is about the terrible things that were done to enslaved people. It is about the damage that was wrought on them before ‘emancipation’ (1863) and after. It is about physical damage, but also economic damage and psychic damage, damage to relationships and to communities. This was lasting harm, for individuals, their descendants and for American society, up to and including today. 

The harm done by slavery disrupts the narration of the story of Sethe and her family. It is mutilated, and so like all readers, like the characters in the story, I had to make some kind of sense from the turbulent events. It starts with the rage that was evident in the present time of the story (1873-4), returning later with the arrival of Beloved. The novel opens in rage:

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old – as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). (3)

After slavery ended (1873-4):

The novel is set in the time of the so-called reconstruction of the south following the Civil War. Eighteen years earlier Sethe had escaped from Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky (oh the irony of the name) over the river to Cincinnati to join her mother-in-law. Slave Catchers arrived to return Sethe to the plantation with her children. She killed her 2 year old child and was prevented from killing the other children. By the time the story starts only the now grown up new-born lives with Sethe: Denver, a recluse.

Things change when Paul D, a former slave also from Sweet Home, arrives at the house. He throws out the baby’s ghost and the three of them settle down to live together. Then another young woman arrives claiming to be Beloved, the name of the murdered child, and more chaos ensues.

I find myself asking how many ways can people be damaged? There is the physical damage. On Sethe’s back are the scars of whippings, which she calls her tree. There is the economic damage. None of the Black characters find it easy to get work. The psychic damage is revealed in Paul D’s case by the tobacco tin, sealed inside are his memories of which he cannot speak. And then there are the wild dreams of Beloved, dreams that evoke the terrors of the Middle Passage and routine rape of female slaves. There is damage to relationships, the most shocking of which is Sethe’s killing of her own baby. 

[Sethe knew] That anybody white would take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful magical best thing – the part of her that was clean. No undreamable dreams about whether the headless, feetless torso hanging in the tree with a sign on it was her husband or Paul A; whether the bubbling-hot girls in the colored-school fire set by patriots included her daughter; whether a gang of whites invaded her daughter’s private parts, soiled her daughter’s thighs and threw her daughter out of the wagon. She might have to work in the slaughterhouse yard, but not her daughter. (295-6)

This is not an easy book to read. But the salvation, such that it is, will come from the community made by the neighbours in Cincinnati who look out for Sethe and her loved ones.

“They don’t know when to stop”: Publication 1987

Toni Morrison in 1998

When this book was published the US had been through yet more difficult times. In the previous decades the KKK still operated, Black children were still being killed in churches, Martin Luther King Jnr had been assassinated and Civil Rights Acts passed. I am reminded of the last words of Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother whose freedom from slavery had been bought by her son’s labour.

Baby Suggs grew tired, went to bed and stayed there until her big old heart quit. Except for the occasional request for color she said practically nothing – until the afternoon of the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to  Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but whitepeople. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said, and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever. (122-3).

Toni Morrison was influenced by both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement. In the Foreword to the Vintage edition she says that she had just decided to live off her earnings as a writer and given up her job when the idea of the book came to her:

I think now it was the shock of liberation that drew my thoughts to what “free” could possibly mean to women. (x)

While collecting material for The Black Book, Toni Morrison had come across the true story of Margaret Garner, who in 1856 killed her own child rather than allow it to return to slavery. She was drawn to this material.

The terrain, slavery, was formidable and pathless. To invite readers (and myself) into the repellent landscape (hidden, but not completely; deliberately buried, but not forgotten) was to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts. (xi)

And she writes of the need to reveal the vocal ghosts, to unsilence their voices and the memories of that awful time.

I hoped … that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. (xiii)

I find these statements powerful and attractive, full of good purpose and her intentions for the novel fulfilled.

The present day

Toni Morrison was born in 1931 and died in August 2019. She had been given countless awards and her writing remains highly regarded.  She wrote 11 novels for adults and some for children. Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997) complete the trilogy begun with Beloved.

Beloved continues to be relevant today. The struggles in the US to accommodate their history continues, evident in both the Black Lives Matter campaign and in the attempted coup by a mob of white-supremacist Americans on the Capitol on 6th January 2021. 

And in the UK we have our own history of slavery and the slave trade to come to terms with. Do we need an equally powerful novel to help us see our history?

My thanks to Dr Kasia Boddy for her lecture on Beloved hosted by Literature Cambridge in January 2021.

Beloved by Toni Morrison, first published in 1987. I used the Vintage edition published in 2010. 324pp

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The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

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

The Bloody Chamber

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

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

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

Feminism in The Bloody Chamber

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

The result is a flamboyant and exuberant set of stories. 

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

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

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

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

The style of The Bloody Chamber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angela Carter

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

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

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

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

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

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The Decades Project 2020 and its future

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

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

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

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

Brilliant Careers

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

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

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

The eleven books of 2020 (with links)

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

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

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)

In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes (1994)

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

Highlights

Three books were especially significant for me. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff

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

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

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

The Lantern Bearers

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

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

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

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

The story-telling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exile and home

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

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

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

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

Related posts

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

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

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Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim

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

Mr Skeffington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth von Arnim

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

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

Related posts

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

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

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