Category Archives: short stories

Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito

This collection of twelve stories originally appeared in 1995, but we have Bernardine Evaristo and Penguin Books to thank for their reappearance, together with two later stories, in the Black Britain Writing Back series.This innovative publishing project has brought several neglected Black British writers to readers’ attention. I recently reviewed Minty Alley by CLR James (link here) and I look forward to reading more from the series.

Dat’s Love

The variety in this small collection is astonishing. It is in the subject matter, the style, the length, the narrative structure, the voice, and the settings of the stories. I can’t help wondering what else she had in her files that she did not put forward for publication.

The stories are exuberant, a little wild, often inventive. Many of them are narrated by or from the point of view of young people, girls, and some by historical characters. Here for example, in a very dull setting, is a young girl from the story called Michael Miles has Teeth like a Broken-down Picket Fence:

It was November. The girl looked up at the cloudy sky and sighed like a housewife disappointed in the whiteness of her wash. Mine looks grey, she thought, using the voice of the woman on the advert as she walked along. That was what was meant by November, that time of year when all the colours had drained away by the third week and the world was left in black and white – no monochrome, she thought, preferring that word because it had more grey in it. Not much of black or white there wasn’t, when you had a look. She thought obscurely of cameras and washing machines and vacuum cleaners and fashionable clothing: they were all the same grey tones in the magazine pictures that showed them. Only the covers on the front were in colour. She expanded the word ‘monochrome’ until it fitted everything in it: ‘monochromatic’ was the word. It fitted everything. The girl turned her head and waited to cross to the bus stop on the other side of the road.
She saw the dog as she hurried across. (19)

It was a particular day, dreary as all days were: November 22nd 1963, hardly a monochrome day in world politics. I felt that Leonora Brito captured the greyness of the time, how young people wanted more from the world and their lives. It did not arrive for some time.

In a first-person narrative, a young woman reports about hospital staff ‘when it was over they gave me a doll.’ This is in a short story called Mother Country. The narrator rejects the idea that she is holding ‘a real doll’.

Who are you trying to fool? I asked the one standing in for the midwife, crossly. ‘A real doll!’ This, I shook my head and pointed, is not a real doll. Real dolls have short, chubby legs. Legs made out of laminated plastic; that stay up in the air when you push them up, and don’t just flop like these do. I gestured contemptuously. And another thing, I picked up one of its hands to demonstrate, the fingers and toes of a real doll are always stuck together, while these can be s-e-p-a-r-a-t-e-d out! (42)

Mother Country describes the transition from childhood to womanhood, from rejection of this new being to acceptance, from the trauma of childbirth and the infantilising words of the nurses to a visceral mother-baby bond. 

Leonora Brito was not afraid of playing around with narrative structure. The story called Dido Elizabeth Belle: a narrative of her life (extant) starts in the middle of the action. The narrator is a formerly enslaved young woman who was the great niece of Lord Mansfield, and she grew up in Kenwood House. But we hear a different side to her history in Leonora Brito’s account. She is running away through the woods and meets a man. His reactions and thoughts are interpolated with hers. It’s like the cinematic split-screen, and it works well.

Many of the stories are rooted in Cardiff, such as Digging for Victory set in 1955 when Mr Churchill visited the docks in his warship. Instead of hero worship the story turns into a celebration of community spirit as the great ship had caused the canal to empty and people were needed to lend a hand and deal with the damage.

Many of the most effective stories use children’s or young people’s voices with their naïve point of view. Music and popular songs of the time are also used in many stories, including the title story. Her titles are also delightful.

Leonora Brito

Leonora Brito

Leonora Brito was born in Cardiff in July 1954. Her mother was local and her father was a seaman from Cap Verde. She took some time to find her voice, studying law and history at Cardiff University, and eventually moving into writing for radio and tv, and her short stories. She won the Rhys Davis Short Story Prize in 1991 and it gave her the confidence to become a full-time writer. Dat’s Love was published in 1995 and was well-received and a second collection was commissioned, but Leonora died in June 2007 before it was completed. Sadly, given how good they are, we just have these 14 stories to admire.

Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito, first published in 1995 and republished by Penguin in 2023 in Black Britain Writing Back series. 169pp 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, short stories, Women of Colour

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout 

This is the fourth novel about Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. In her most recent novels, Elizabeth Strout has frequently revisited the characters she has created, filling in their back story or taking them into their future. This novel features Lucy Barton but includes references to Olive Kitteridge. At times she has used multiple short stories to create a different form for a novel, as in Olive Kitteridge and in Anything is Possible. This enables a wider view of the characters, but in Lucy by the Sea she keeps close to Lucy, so close that it is narrated in the first person.

Lucy by the Sea

Elizabeth Strout has great skills as a writer: in Lucy by the Sea she captures Lucy’s bewilderment at the advance of the coronavirus and the precautions people around her are taking. At a time when the incidence of Covid appears to be increasing again it all feels drearily similar. But in this novel, we are cast back to that time when it all seemed so unbelievable, so swift and so doom-laden.

The novel opens with a reprise of the events of Oh William, concerned especially with a trip to Maine that Lucy made with her former husband, William. They returned to their separate lives in New York. At the start of Lucy by the Sea it is the winter of 2019-2020. Lucy has just published a book and in the autumn did a promotional tour in the States.

I was also scheduled to go to Italy and Germany in the beginning of March, but in early December – it was kind of odd – I just decided I was not going to go to those places. I never cancel book tours and the publishers were not happy, but I was not going to go. As March approached someone said, “Good thing you didn’t go to Italy, they’re having that virus.” And that’s when I noticed it. I think it was the first time. I did not really think about it ever coming to New York.
But William did. (6-7)

William tries to persuade Lucy to leave New York. She continues to downplay the dangers of the virus, until people in her social circle begin to fall ill.

It’s odd how the mind does not take in anything until it can. (7)

She continues to resist William’s increasingly determined efforts to get her to move out, until the first deaths take place. Together they travel to a house he has rented for them in Maine, on the shore. At first Lucy thinks they will be there for just a couple of weeks, but the weeks extend into months as the pandemic persists.

Now Lucy must learn everything new: new friendships, new forms of exercise, new household routines, new ways to spend her day, a more distanced perspective on political events, and new worries about the two daughters. While everything has changed, the lives of her two daughters do not stay still either, and she is forced to take a more distant role in their lives than she would choose. She also with William thinks about passing time, about memory and about ageing. 

The narrative follows the first year of the pandemic, with all its mysteries, unexpected turns and reflection. William and Lucy make adaptations, find ways to deal with frustrations, and continue to stay safe in Maine. As her daughters go through difficulties, and her relationship with William changes, she also has to come to terms with the political situation.

On January sixth, as I came in from my afternoon walk to the cove, the television was on and William said, “Lucy, come here now and watch this.” I sat down still wearing my coat and I saw people attacking the Capitol in Washington, D.C., and I watched the news as though it was the first days of the pandemic in New York, I mean that I kept looking at the floor and had the strange sense again that my mind – or body – was trying to move away. All I can remember now is watching a man smashing a window again and again, people pushing up against one another as they got into the building while the policemen tried to hold them back. Many different colors swam before me as I saw people climbing up walls, all moving together. (233)

Later she has some insight into people who feel poorly about themselves, who had fun made of their religion and their guns, and who are looked at with disdain. But then she has clarity.

I sat for a long time on the couch in the dark; there was a half moon that shone over the ocean. And then I thought, No, those were Nazis and racists at the Capitol. And so my understanding – my imagining of the breaking of the windows – stopped there. (239)

After a year of the pandemic Lucy has experienced many challenges and has developed into a much more sympathetic person towards the people she meets and knows. She also sees more clearly the problems in her country.

I felt that this novel had put me back in touch with those early months of the pandemic, with all the fears and uncertainties, the disbelief, and the ineptitudes of our governments, and all the adjustments we made. 

I was unsure about the references to Olive Kitteridge, in a local care home, in this novel. I did not feel I needed an update on her or her love of birds.

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout, published in 2022 by Viking. 288pp 

Thanks to Anne for the present of this book.

Related Posts

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Bookword, May 2022)

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (March 2017)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (February 2018)

Also

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (June 2016)

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (August 2020)

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, short stories

Edmund Dulac ‘s Fairy Book

There is an antiquarian feel to this week’s post. I was moving some books around the other day, most came from what is left of my mother’s library. For some reason I had put aside the larger books. Edmund Dulac’s Fairy Book came into my hands. An inscription revealed that it had been a Christmas present to my grandfather, from his two sisters in 1916. There are mysteries concerning this volume.

Edmund Dulac ‘s Fairy Book

The book is about A4 size, with 170 pages, the pages thick like cartridge paper. Inside there are 14 stories, one of which is alarmingly called White Caroline and Black Caroline. There are 15 illustrations listed, but one of the plates is missing: 

The prince, looking out, saw him snatch up the princess . . . and soar rapidly away. [From Bashtchelik (Or Real Steel) a Serbian fairy tale]

And to my shame one of them has a pencil drawing in profile on the reverse, much like the profiles I used to draw aged about 10.

The stories are not the familiar ones. For example, the story called White Caroline and Black Caroline is Flemish.

Come, Come, Caroline,
White, white, child o’ mine!
I hate you, HATE you,
And, at any rate, you
Are no child o’ mine.

Come, Come, Caroline
Black, black, child o’ mine,
I bore you, adore you,
Will give whatever more you
Want, O child o’ mine!

This verse heads up the story, which goes on to describe how the mother, who does not believe that White Caroline is her daughter, tries to dispose of White Caroline, but is thwarted by Black Caroline. They manage to defeat their mother, resist the nymphs and vampires, one of them marries a king, and then they change into white swans.

The other stories are as unfamiliar as the Carolines’. Here are some of the titles:

  • The Buried Moon (English)
  • The Seven Conquerors of the Queen of the Mississippi (Belgian)
  • The Serpent Prince (Italian)
  • Ivan and the Chestnut Horse (Russian)
  • The Queen of the Many-Coloured Bed-Chamber (Irish)
  • The Blue Bird (French)
  • The Friar and the Boy (English)
  • Urashima Taro (Japanese)
  • The Fire Bird (Russian)

It is the illustrations that are this volume’s glory. Dulac managed to capture something of each country’s style of illustration: here, for example are English, Italian and two Russian pictures. 

In her frantic struggles the hood of her cloak fell back from her dazzling golden hair, and immediately the whole place was flooded with light. From The Buried Moon.
When Grannmia saw her strange lover, she alone remained calm and courageous. From The Serpent Prince.
The chestnut horse seemed to linger in the air at the top of its leap while that kiss endured. From Ivan and the Chestnut Horse.

With a scream the Princess rushed forward, and, before her wicked sister could prevent her, she had upset the cauldron with a crash. From The Fire Bird.

Two Mysteries, and one of them is solved

The first puzzle for me was the gift itself. My grandfather was 16 when he received this from his sisters. I wondered why they thought this was an appropriate present for a young man. Fairy stories are usually for the nursery. But a little internet research provided the answer.

Edmund Dulac was a French illustrator who was naturalised as British in 1920. He came to London before the First World War and was working for Hodder and Stoughton producing illustrations for their books. Starting with Arabian Nights in 1907 they published illustrated annuals. Fairy Book was published in 1916, the year it was given to my grandfather. Special dispensation must have been provided to use the high quality of paper during wartime. And the reason for that permission was that this was a patriotic book. Its subtitle is Fairy Tales of the Allied Nations. There were therefore no Austrian or German stories included as all the stories come from allies.

This was a relief book, according to an article I read, although I couldn’t find the phrase used elsewhere. But it explains the gift to a 16-year-old. It was a patriotic present, perhaps other copies were given by the sisters to other relations. And perhaps they gave him other presents too. Was money raised by the sale of Fairy Book? And if so, where did it go? There is nothing in the book to indicate this.

The second mystery emerged from the American website (The Minneapolis College of Art and Design) where I read about Fairy Book. It referred to The Story of the Bird Feng – a Chinese story. Neither story nor illustration are included in the version in my possession. This is a shame as the illustration is very elaborate drawing, its inspiration from Chinese lacquer work, I think.

The wonderful bird, like a fire of many colours came down from heaven, alighted before the Princess, dropping at her feet the portrait. From The Bird Feng.

The details on the website reveal that there was an American edition of Fairy Book. I don’t understand why. Was China considered an American but not a British ally?

Some other notes

Edmund Dulac continued to be a successful illustrator, although the fashion for fairy stories changed after the war. In the Second World War he designed banknotes and stamps for the British government.

Copies of Fairy Book are for sale in many places, ranging from £20 to £90.

Edmund Dulac’s Fairy Book published in 1916 by Hodder & Stoughton.

3 Comments

Filed under Books, illustrations, short stories

Beginning again with Katherine Mansfield

Following my week’s immersion in a Virginia Woolf summer school, I decided to give Katherine Mansfield another go. I started with In a German Pension.

Katherine Mansfield

She was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1888. In 1903 she came to England, at the age of 19, and became friends with some of the Bloomsbury Group. DH Lawrence was one, Virginia Woolf another. She had been writing for some time and had published in school and other local publications in New Zealand. She travelled in Europe in the next three years, somewhat unsettled she returned to New Zealand but returned to England in 1908. She had a small income from her father but was usually short of money.

She had an unsettled love life as well. She had relationships with both men and women, and at one point went to Germany to recover from a miscarriage. This was the background to the publication in 1911 of the first of her collections of short stories – In A German Pension. She was 23 years old.

At first the collection was successful, running into three editions. But the publisher went bankrupt and the collection disappeared. The author was not very unhappy about the loss. When her next collection Bliss was published and successful in its turn, she resisted the idea of the earlier stories being reprinted.

I cannot have The German Pension reprinted under any circumstances. It is far too immature, and I don’t even acknowledge it today. I mean I don’t ‘hold’ by it. I can’t go foisting that kind of stuff on the public. It’s not good enough. But if you send me the note that refers to it, I will reply and offer a new book by 1 May. But I could not for a moment entertain republishing the Pension. It’s positively juvenile, and besides that, it’s not what I mean; it’s a lie. Oh no, never! 
[Letter from Katherine Mansfield to John Middleton Murry in 1920, quoted in his Introductory Note p8.]

Penguin Modern Classic cover showing Mrs Rayne’s Tea Party by Henry Tonks (Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum)

In A German Pension

There are 14 short stories, some only a few pages long, all set in an unnamed town where people stay to take the cure. The narrator does not feature in all the stories, but where she does, she refers to herself in the first person, is usually dodging a question or impertinence of another guest at the pension and is described as English or possibly American. 

She writes about her fellow guests at the pension in a mostly unflattering way. Many of them are shown to be hypocrites, very ignorant and rude. For example, Frau Godowska and her daughter have just been introduced by the professor to ‘my little English friend’, when this conversation follows. 

‘I have never been to England,’ interrupted Fräulein Sonia, ‘but I have many English acquaintances. They are so cold!’ She shivered.
‘Fish-Blooded,’ snapped Frau Godowska. ‘Without soul, without heart, without grace. But you cannot equal their dress materials. I spent a week in Brighton twenty years ago, and the travelling cape I bought there is not yet worn out – the one you wrap the hot-water bottle in, Sonia. My lamented husband, your father, Sonia, knew a great deal about England. But the more he knew about it the oftener he remarked to me, “England is merely an island of beef flesh swimming in a warm gulf of sea of gravy.” Such a brilliant way of putting things. Do you remember, Sonia?’ (From The Modern Soul, p44-45)

Some of the German characters are very patriotic, often at the expense of the English. Then there are the monstrously selfish men, for example Herr Binzer who suffers so much when his wife is having a baby, lamenting that he is too sensitive (A Birthday). Then there is the brutish Herr Brechenmacher, a postman, who spoils his wife’s enjoyment of a wedding party by reminding her of the trouble she gave him on their wedding night. She checks on her children and then goes to bed. The story ends like this.

Then even the memory of the wedding faded quite. She lay down and put her arm across her face like a child who expected to be hurt as Herr Brechenmacher lurched in. (From Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding. P40)

Katherine Mansfield rejected these stories as not good enough, juvenile, a lie. Yet we see some clever character sketches, some subtle humour, and some engaging writing. But it is easy to see why the attitudes of the Germans and the ‘English’ guests at the pension towards each other might have struck the wrong note in the years after the First World War. 

Now after an interval of more than 100 years, rather than less than 10, we can judge the merits of In a German Pension better perhaps than Katherine Mansfield could, even if we still see some of the stories as containing juvenilia.

Katherine Mansfield by Lady Ottoline Morrell, vintage snapshot print, 1916-1917.

Virginia Woolf met Katherine Mansfield a few years after this collection was published, probably in 1917. In her first references to her new friend, Virginia Woolf frequently uses the term inscrutable. She was ‘intelligent and inscrutable’, ‘very inscrutable and fascinating’, and ‘inscrutable’. They admired each other’s writing and formed a close friendship which lasted until Katherine Mansfield’s death in 1923. Virginia Woolf told a friend in 1931 that she dreamt of Katherine often ‘- now that’s an odd reflection – how one’s relation with a person seems to be continued after death in dreams, and with some odd reality too.’

In A German Pension by Katherine Mansfield. I used the Penguin Modern Classic edition, published in 1964 with an Introductory Note by John Middleton Murry. 117pp

Picture credit:
Katherine Mansfield by Lady Ottoline Morrell, vintage snapshot print, 1916-1917.
National portrait Gallery NPG Ax140568
Reproduced under the Creative Commons Agreement

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, short stories, Virginia Woolf, Writing

Short Stories – More Treats

This week I am spoiling you with recommendations for two more collections of short stories. Over the years on Bookword blog I have recommended many collections. Some of these are listed below, with links to my posts about them. The form is very appealing to me. I often read short stories when I am between novels, or at night when sleep is hard to come by. And sometimes I read them just for pleasure. The two collections featured here are highly recommended.

A Different Sound: stories by mid-century writers edited by Lucy Scholes (2023)

There are eleven stories in this collection, chosen and introduced by Lucy Scholes. They are connected by being the era in which they were written – during the Second World War or just after. And they are all by women. The introduction introduces stories that are different, as the title suggests. 

The church clock struck seven. The chimes had a different sound, coming across water instead of grassy meadows. (From The Thames Spread Out by Elizabeth Taylor (252). 

What is different, perhaps, is that women are finding their voices in a more confident way, expanding their experiences during the war, and being taken seriously in the literary world. Many of the writers were regularly published in the New Yorker, for example.

The collection is very varied, including some creepy stories, such as Three Miles Up by Elizabeth Jane Howard, and Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds. I have to admit that I didn’t read it, as I did not want to replay Hitchcock’s horror movie in my head. He transposed the setting from Cornwall to California by the way.

Shocking Weather, Isn’t It? by Inez Holden contrasts attitudes in peace- and war time. Bullied and neglected and in prison for theft before the war, Swithin Silas is considered a hero when his cousin goes to visit him a second time in hospital. Now a wing commander, he is considered a hero, the only patient that’s been awarded the D.F.C. with two bars. Inez Holden has written some interesting fiction: There’s No Story There is a novel set in an ammunitions factory where Inez Holden reveals the irony of her own title. 

For me, the two outstanding stories are by the Elizabeths Taylor and Bowen. The Thames Spread Out, quoted above, is a classic story, set on the banks of the Thames, which has flooded. She describes a swan swimming into the house, up to the foot of the stairs. A ‘kept’ woman finds herself reviewing her situation, trapped not just by the river, but also by the routine of the Friday night appearances of her lover. When the Thames recedes, she copies the swan and leaves.

Summer Night by Elizabeth Bowen is set in neutral Ireland, during the war. It contains many complicated characters, is full of people deluding themselves about their lives: a woman driving through the early night to meet her lover; the lover entertaining neighbours unwillingly; the guests are a brother and sister who have an unusual relationship as she is deaf and he would normally be touring Europe; and the home situation of the driver is uneasy too, her husband, their two children and his aunt. As in so much of Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction, nothing is straight forward. The other stories are also worth reading.

Thanks to JacquieWine’s Journal for the recommendation.

A Different Sound: stories by mid-century writers edited by Lucy Scholes (2023)published by Pushkin Press. 270pp

Dance Move by Wendy Erskine (2022)

I was impressed by the craft that went into Wendy Erskine’s first collection of short stories, Sweet Home. Her characters are ordinary people, living unremarkable lives in and around present-day Belfast, but buried in each life is failure, or disappointment or loss. Many of her characters are acutely lonely. All are unable to improve their lives.

In this second collection of short stories, Dance Move, we are again in the territory of unrealised dreams and gloom lowering over their attempts. Each story is told with a precision in the writing that reveals much more than it says. If you haven’t yet become familiar with Wendy Erskine, let me tell you, you will be bowled over.

Dance Move by Wendy Erskine (2022)published by Picador. 223pp

Related posts on Bookword

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine (March 2021)

Even more praise for short stories (September 2021)

More Praise for Short Stories (January 2017)

Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor (June 2016)

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston (November 2020)

There’s No Story There by Inez Holden (March 2021)

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Reading, short stories

Ursula K Le Guin’s Space Crone

When Ursula K Le Guin died in January 2018, it seemed far too soon. She had given us the impression of being endlessly inventive, always wise and a champion of thinking, learning, developing in community with writers and readers. Above all, she had important things to say about language and how humans should live in this world (and other worlds too). I had read The Wizard of Earthsea and been stimulated by the idea there about the power of naming things. And I had enjoyed being provoked by her imaginative ideas on gender and sexuality in The Left Hand of Darkness, and by her other sci-fi fiction. And I had begun reading her essays on writing the Tao and her collection of writing advice and exercises in Steering the Craft. I thought she would last forever.

Her death was too soon, although she was 89. She defied conventional ideas about aging, aging as a time when you become more right-wing, aging as a time when you slow down, aging as a time when you have used up all your good ideas. The concept of a space crone challenges all that. The essay of that name was written in 1976, when she was not yet 50, but she looks squarely at the menopause and how older women are not valued. Not quite 50 years on from the publication of that essay, our society is just beginning to take account of the menopause, if not the value of older women.

That essay provides the title to a new publication of essays, stories and lectures by Ursula K le Guin, Space Crone, published by Silver Press (an independent feminist publisher based in London) in 2023.

Space Crone

The publication of this collection, bringing together Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing on feminism and gender, seemed like the continuation of her influence. In this post I recommend two of the items in this collection: a short story, and a commencement address. The short story, Sur uses reversal of gender roles to spin a challenging tale. The address was delivered to graduates of a women’s college and in it she discusses languages, and their importance in feminists’ struggles.

Sur: A Summary Report of the Yelcho Expedition to the Antarctic, 1909-1910

The short story is framed as an account of an all-female expedition to Antarctica in 1909-10. The historically-minded of you will know that the first acknowledged team to reach the South Pole was led by the Norwegian Amundsen in 1912. This story, narrated by one of the female team, describes their alternative expedition, and rather than celebrating heroism and bravery, praises other qualities. You’ve never heard of this expedition, or of any evidence that they were the first to reach the South Pole?

But I was glad even then that we had left no sign there, for some man longing to be first might come some day, and find it, and then know what a fool he had been, and break his heart. (23)

So what happens when women, not men, set off on an expedition in such a dangerous place? They display qualities celebrated in this story, qualities of shared leadership, mutual support, modesty and generosity (such as allowing men to take the credit for being first). They are persistent in the face of challenges, even a specifically female challenge, and other physical difficulties such as frostbite. The power of their friendships, their camaraderie was behind their success.

There are other ways, Ursula K Le Guin seems to tell us, of narrating these heroic stories; there are other qualities that we should value and esteem besides the heroic and the brave. Her fiction shows us this again and again.

Sur was first published in the New Yorker in 1982.

Bryn Mawr Commencement Address (1986)

In this address, Ursula K Le Guin considers how language is used, in what today we might call different discourses. She identifies three. The language of power, of politics, of dichotomy, used by all those with power. The graduates have learned this language for their degrees and like us to heaf the language of people in power.

Then there is the mother tongue. Every person’s first language, which is the language of relationships, connection, of binding together not division, of experience rather than argument. Because it is the language of women, it must be ignored by men as they mature. Those who are powerless can find their voices and a different power by unlearning the language of power, and by recognising the third language, the native language. 

And what she calls the native language reflects the everyday, the creative, the language of experience. She gives many examples of this native language. Many are from first nations peoples which is hardly surprising as she grew up in a household of anthropologists: Sojourner Truth, Wendy Rose (Hopi and Miwok people), Joy Harjo (Creek people), Linda Hogan (Chickasaw people), and Denise Levertov. All are women, most are poets. And they have gentler truths to speak, in softer language. 

Speaking to young women graduates she encourages them in the tones of the native language:

If being a cog in the machine or a puppet manipulated by others isn’t what you want, you can find out what you want, your needs, desires, truths, powers, by accepting your own experience as a woman, as this woman, this body, this person, your hungry self. On the maps drawn by men there is an immense white area, terra incognita, where most women live. That country is all yours to explore, to inhabit, to describe.
But none of us lives there alone. Being human isn’t something people can bring off alone; we need other people in order to be people. We need one another. (43)

I see the connection between these two writings. The story Sur is narrated in this third language, the language of experience, and community. It is a story of community and experience, and challenges the dominant discourse of the explorer: a brave and heroic man who gets there first.  

Both my recommendations are from the 80s. I make no apologies, for I am from the tradition of the Second Wave of feminism, – I’m not even sure how many waves we can count today. I too found a voice in ‘the furies and glories of the seventies and eighties’ (33) as all those women offered their experience as truth. Let experience speak. Let us value those experiences, the importance of relationships, of community. Let us not use only the language of power, but also the language of creativity and life.

Space Crone by Ursula K Le Guin, published by Silver Press in 2022. Edited and introduced by So Mayer and Sarah Shin. 

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

Related posts and books

The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin (June 2019)

Imagination and the writer: Ursula K Le Guin including references to The Wave in the Mind (August 2018)

A Tribute to Ursula le Guin (March 2018)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin (July 2017)

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula K Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

The Wave in the Mind: talks and essays on the writer, the reader and the imagination by Ursula K Le Guin, published in 20014 by Shambhala Publications

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

Steering the Craft, Exercises and discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K Le Guin, published by The Eight Mountain Press in 1998. 

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin first published in 1969. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Essays, Feminism, Learning, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, short stories, Writing

Foster and Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan

Last year I was enthusiastic on this blog about a small novel: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan. I was not alone in my enthusiasm. It won the George Orwell Prize for political fiction and was shortlisted for both the Rathbones Folio and the Booker Prizes in 2022. It was a tale of quiet morality, and beautiful writing.

So when I was in Orkney and needed a small book for my flight home, I visited Stromness Bookshop. The bookshop is one of the smallest and best stocked bookshops I have ever been in. Squeezing between the stacks I found a copy of Foster, also by Claire Keegan. It was a perfect choice.

Foster

Foster is short, just 88 pages. It’s a story, set in rural Ireland, about an unnamed girl, the narrator, who gets taken by her father to the Kinsella’s farm one summer. They appear to be relatives of her mother who is expecting her next child. The narrator is not sure why she is there, or how long she will remain. In the short time he is at the farm her Da reveals himself to be a drinker and a gambler.

From such an insecure background, the girl is unsure of what is expected of her and she waits to see what happens. Over the weeks the Kinsellas show warmth, love and affection and she slowly comes out of her shell. We learn that this quiet couple lost their son, who drowned in slurry. The girl is happy at the farm, but the summer must end and she must return home.

It is so moving, so precise in its observations, through the child’s eyes, and a pleasure to read, like Small Things Like These.

Foster by Claire Keegan, published in 2010 by Faber & Faber. 88pp

Walk the Blue Fields

We read Small Things like These in my book group and shortly after I was lent this collection of short stories by Claire Keegan. They are also set in rural Ireland, and concern lonely men, for the most part, men who are inadequate at dealing with women and with their feelings about women. There is a slowness and understatedness about these stories which makes them captivating. The damage people do to their lives through drink, religion, gambling and ignorance is carefully revealed.

I thought that the title story was exceptional, in its subject matter (a priest who agonises as he officiates at the wedding of his former lover) and in how it is treated. It is not surprising that her short stories have also won prizes. 

Walk the Blue Fields Claire Keegan, published in 2007 by Faber & Faber. 183pp

You can find my review of Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan on Bookword blog, at this link.

And good news: So Late in the Day, a new short story by Claire Keegan, will be published by Faber and Faber in September.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, Reading, Reviews, short stories, Writing

Cat Brushing by Jane Campbell

Old People are not pets.’ I wish I could remember where I came across this truth recently. I like a book that depicts older people, especially older women, as real humans, with the full range of emotions and experiences. Such books are to be treasured but can be hard to find.

This problem is explored in an article in the most recent edition of Mslexia (Dec/Jan/Feb 2022/3) by Debbie Taylor called The Time of our Lives. The article looked at myths about ageing authors, and also about the characters that older women want to read about. The article referred to the ten top novels featuring older women on Bookword and listed this blog as a resource for interested readers. There is a great deal to think about in the article. 

This is the 61st post in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the link at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed on Bookword Blog.

Cat Brushing

I find it hard to review collections of short stories. The quality and interest will be variable, and what I have enjoyed may not please others. What is pleasing in this collection is that every story is about an older woman. They do not always act wisely, do not always triumph. But they are written as real people, not a different species, and not as curiosities or pets. 

The title story is told in the first person, as the unnamed old woman grooms her beautiful Siamese cat, noting the pleasure the cat receives. 

And seeing her respond like this to the smooth strokes I could see myself in bed with one of my lovers, and my own arching and offering, and wondered, when I had finished with the brushing, whether she felt as I had when it was over, not just brushed but glad, even grateful to have been brushed. In other words, was the moment only with her, or was there a reflective pleasure as well? (45-6)

It is gradually revealed that the narrator and the cat are living in Bermuda with her son and daughter-in-law. She regrets the passing of her sensual experiences, and the likelihood that her son and daughter-in-law will want to get rid of the cat because they are having a baby. Giving up pleasure is hard.

I relished the first story in the collection – Susan and Miffy. It starts with a challenge:

The lust of an old man is disgusting but the lust of an old woman is worse. Everyone knows that. Certainly, Susan knew it. (3)

Susan is in a geriatric ward, and after seeing her struggle to replace a light bulb, she lusts after Miffy a ward assistant. The very boring, beige existence of Susan in her younger days is contrasted vividly with the feelings and relationship of the two women. Susan has been an exemplary wife and mother and rarely felt any desire in her life. Now it consumes her.

And so the stories progress, with the women discovering aspects of themselves in the last stages of their lives. Sometimes they find that they have been hanging on to an idea, an ancient love affair, for too long and the object of their affections is no longer interested. One woman is charmed by a fellow passenger on a train in a chance encounter, and their subsequent lives together become exploitative. Another has devoted her life to the care of her father, and to a relationship with him which feels decidedly unhealthy. And the very satisfying story about a woman who has relished being alone all her life but finds happiness in changing her attitude ends the volume.

I liked the collection for its steady presentation of different women, with a variety of attitudes, histories and futures and facing difficult circumstances late in life, drawing on what they had learned over the years. This is a contrast to some depictions of older women as naïve or having learned nothing from their many experiences. Jane Campbell’s women have no magical powers, no wisdom for younger women.

Cat Brushing by Jane Campbell, published in 2022 by riverrun. 245pp

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, short stories

The Conscientious Objector’s Wife, Edited by Kate Macdonald 

Some years ago, before the Covid pandemic, I was walking on Dartmoor, following a route that would take me back to Princetown. My route was clear, partly because there is a very talk mast at Princetown, and I could walk towards it despite the rise and fall of the moorland. The other reason that my way was so clear was because I was walking on a straight track, a road created during the First World War by Conscientious Objectors (COs) who had been sent to the converted prison. The track, which runs east-west from Princetown, where Dartmoor prison is located, was never finished. It appears to just peter out. It earned the nickname ‘the road to nowhere’.

The encounter with the track on the moor fired my imagination and led to some research about the COs on Dartmoor. I wrote a short story about a young conchie who worked on the road to nowhere. The story was shortlisted in the Exeter Short Story Prize and led to some further connections, an article in Devon Life, and a post on this blog called The Story of the Conchie Road (see below). As a result, several people contacted me because their relatives had been COs in Princetown and requested copies of my short story collection mentioned in the post.

I have retained my interest in the COs, their cause, and their time on Dartmoor. It was against this background that I ordered from the publisher the book featured in this post. 

The Conscientious Objector’s Wife: letters between Frank and Lucy Sunderland 1916-1919

At the start of World War 1 in July 1914 patriotic enthusiasm led thousands of young men to volunteer for the British army and navy. The belief that the war would be over by Christmas was soon revealed to be wishful thinking, and the war settled into a stalemate along the land fronts, especially the Western Front. It began to look as though the country and allies with the greatest number of men would win.

The supply of men willing to serve dwindled. Conscription was introduced into Britain on 2nd March 1916 for unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 41. This still did not supply enough men, so in May it was extended to include married men. This new regulation also introduced a ‘conscience clause’, which granted exemption to those who objected to military service. Some of those were allowed to take non-combatant roles in the army, such as stretcher bearers. Others were required to do work of ’national importance’ at two work camps, one of which was at Princetown on Dartmoor. Some were absolutists, men who refused any activity that would assist the war effort.

In November 1916 Frank Sunderland took an absolutist stand. For this he was imprisoned until April 1919, five months after the Armistice had been signed. He served his sentences in Bedford Barracks, Wandsworth and mostly in Bedford Prison near his home in Letchworth. The book is a collection of letters between Frank and his wife Lucy over the 30 months they were apart.

The histories of wars are usually concerned with battles and political power. Since the middle of the 20thcentury women’s history has been recognised as providing important additional perspectives on such events. Before the First World War suffragettes had been demanding a political voice for women through the ballot box. Lucy Sunderland provides us with a detailed look at a working class mother’s life on the home front during the war. 

This is really Lucy’s story for she has to adjust to the demands of the war, and becoming a single mother of three young children. Her husband, while not in a happy situation in prison, was fed and housed and had leisure to read and fraternise and miss home life. Some things are not included; if she experienced any harassment or criticism for being the wife of a CO she did not report it to her husband. She was careful not to distress him in that way. Nor did they discuss anything to do with the progress of the war, battles, casualties and so forth, perhaps to avoid trouble with the censors.

When Frank began his imprisonment Lucy became responsible for providing for the four remaining family members, to pay the rent on the house in Letchworth where they lived, to buy food, clothes, boots, medicines, and to pay doctors’ fees and school fees. To begin with she took on Frank’s insurance round and continued her work as seamstress. She earned a little from the eggs her chickens laid from time to time, and from her lodgers. Food became more scarce as the German navy’s blockade increased in effectiveness, and rationing was introduced. There were shortages of fuel too, especially of coal which was needed for industry and transport. 

Lucy became a single mother of three small children. She writes to Frank about her concerns to keep them in touch with their father, their educational advances, and their illnesses. Scarlet fever attacked the household, but they managed to avoid the ‘flue’, that is the Spanish influenza that killed so many healthy people as it tore through the population from the spring of 1918. We read family news, about her sister who is waiting to marry and about her parents. When her mother dies during a visit to Lucy’s house, the shock is evident to Frank and us in her account.

Letchworth had a vibrant cultural life; lectures on many subjects, ‘Adult’ school, books discussed and exchanged, and networks of sympathisers to pacifism, conscientious objectors, the New Town movement, and socialist ideas. Many of the Sunderlands’ acquaintances were Friends (that is Quakers), who were especially prominent in the support of exemptions from conscription.

The war was long, and by the winter of 1917/18 Lucy was feeling the accumulated effects of her mother’s sudden death, bombardment of north London (audible in Letchworth), Frank’s continuing absence, illnesses and dental problems, and the ceaseless demands of the household. In the summer of 1918 she took a two-month holiday in Barnstable and was restored by the countryside and how well her children flourished there. The reader too takes pleasure in the family’s enjoyment of north Devon, the sea, the landscapes, and the new people they meet. Lucy’s letters from here reflect the improving health of mother and children and their increasing family bonds. 

As the end of their separation approached Frank and Lucy discussed how they would live in the future, pinning hopes on the New Town movement (such as plans that eventually materialised as Welwyn Garden City), having learned Esperanto to enable European travel, and looking forward to increased working-class influence in political matters.

The introduction by the editor (and publisher) Kate Macdonald is informative and a well written opening for this fascination account of life on the Home Front.

The Story of the Conchie Road on Bookword (November 2018)

The Conscientious Objector’s Wife: letters between Frank and Lucy Sunderland 1916-1918. Edited by Kate Macdonald and published in 2018 by the Handheld Press. 328pp

The ‘Road to Nowhere’ on Royal Hill, Dartmoor

4 Comments

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

Shirley Hazzard – Collected Stories

Lovers of short stories should be aware of this excellent writer. She did not write a great deal, five novels, some works of non-fiction and some short stories. A collection of 28 of these has been made by Brigitta Olubas, published by Virago in 2020. You will find critics using such expressions as precise, surgical, elegant, decorousness, scalpel-sharp prose, polished, bitingly funny. Her stories are all these things. 

Collected Stories

The stories in the first section of this collection are mostly about relationships, often with a young girl at the mercy of a jaded older man, who is pretty hapless. Her observational skills are superb. She is both moral and accurate. Here is a moment in the conversation between Clem, a married man of 42 who is trying to let Nettie down lightly at the end of their love affair. She is a young woman of very little experience.

“What are you thinking about?” he asked her.
“Men,” she said absently.
Taken aback by the plural, he stopped to assemble his thoughts once more. She was not being very encouraging, lowering her eyes and offering him monosyllables in this way. But there was no reason why she should encourage him, and he reminded himself of that; he was nothing if not fair. (38 A Place in the Country)

Shirley Hazzard is not so interested in the drama in the stories, more about the importance of people making authentic connections. As Zoe Heller remarks in her foreword about this story, Nettie, urged by her lover not to “exaggerate the importance” of her broken heart, ‘understands instinctively that the greater sin is to take such matters of the heart lightly’. (xi)

The middle section includes stories mostly set in the ‘Organisation’, which is the UN in a thin disguise, where Shirley Hazzard worked for many years in the 1950s. The stories reveal a certain smugness in the men in high positions. She is not above lampooning organisational speak, people’s attitudes to themselves, the hierarchies of the Organisation, the pointlessness of much of the work and the ability of the organisation to believe that its work had value where there is none.

‘The Meeting’ is a story about Flinders who has been running an operation in a north African country, replanting trees. He makes a presentation to a subcommittee of the Organisation, DALTO (the Department of Aid to the Less Technically Oriented), about his project, but he does not know how to speak their language, whereas another presentation at the same meeting is smooth and accompanied by a film but appears to have done nothing. 

He left the room and walked down a gray corridor. He wished he had gone to the trouble of taking a proper film, like Edrich, or had at least prepared the right kind of final report. At El Attara he had thought these things peripheral, but here they seemed to matter most of all. He should have been able to address the meeting in its own language – the language of ends and trends, of agenda and addenda, of concrete measures in fluid situations, which he had never set himself to master. At El Attara they had needed help and he had done what he could, but he found himself unable to speak of this work. He knew the problem of erosion to be immense, and the trees, being handed down that way had looked so few and so small. (171 The Meeting)

There is humour in her description of the language of meetings: the language of ends and trends, of agenda and addenda, of concrete measures in fluid situations. But more than that, this seems to be an indictment of the work of a great organisation, loftily above the needs of ordinary citizens of the world, and quite out of touch with the reality of those lives: he knew the problem of erosion to be immense. The problem appears to be erosion of the Organisation’s purposes.

Among the uncollected and unpublished stories in the third section is ‘Leave it to me’ about the hypocrisy of well-informed people. A group assemble in an Italian house, witnessing a fire in the fields. The English host complains that the Italians used to work together to extinguish such fires, but they don’t now. They let it burn. The party let it burn. Later they go outside to see how it’s going and find that the fire has been extinguished. 

I have picked out a couple of quotations, but these short stories are full of such moments, which add up to a collection of thoughtful and intelligent observations of the worlds in which Shirley Hazzard moved, and which have relevance today. They reveal that Shirley Hazzard was as brilliant a writer of short fiction as of longer works.

Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzzard; Christopher Peterson, New York. October 29, 2007 via WikiCommons

Shirley Hazzard was born in 1931 in Sydney, Australia. Her father moved the family when he took up a diplomatic position in Hong Kong in 1947, and they moved back to Australia and on to New Zealand before they settled in New York from 1951. She worked at the UN for about 10 years and was critical of its failings. She spent time in Italy and developed a love of the country. She died in 2016 in New York.

The Transit of Venus was published in 1980, and The Great Fire in 2003. Both books gained awards for excellence. Some of her essays have been collected in a volume called We Need Silence to find out What we Think.

Collected Stories by Shirley Hazzard, edited by Brigitta Olubas and published by Virago in 2020.  356pp

Related posts

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (September 2020)

Even more praise for short stories (September 2021)

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, short stories