Category Archives: Writing

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf 

I thought I had read all the novels by Virginia Woolf and was enjoying re-reading them. But I can find no record of my reactions to Jacob’s Room, there is no entry in my reading record, begun in April 2006, and no post on Bookword blog. When I began reading it, all I could recall was that some of it was located in Scarborough, and that Jacob had died in the First World War. I had not read it before.

The ending reminded me of those paintings by Van Gogh of empty shoes, or William Nicholson’s painting of Gertrude Jekyll’s boots, which say so much about the absent wearer. Jacob’s mother is clearing his room:

‘What am I to do with these, Mr Bonamy?’
She held out a pair of Jacob’s shoes. (168)

Post card of ‘A Pair of Leather Boots’ by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889. Amsterdam.

These painters were in their way doing on their canvases what Virginia Woolf was doing in Jacob’s Room, her third novel. She was breaking away from the traditional narrative and portrait of a character. Conventional fiction showed appearance, motivation, action, consequences and so forth. Rather she was evoking a sense of Jacob, his times, and the loss of the young men in the war through glimpses of Jacob. And she was presenting these glimpses as we might experience meeting a new person: incomplete, with restricted context, mediated through others.

Jacob’s Room

In her diaries Virginia Woolf recorded that ‘I think Jacob was a necessary step for me, in working free’ [October 14th 1922]. At that time she was beginning work on Mrs Dalloway and had just decided upon the name of her shell-shocked character. In the later novel she famously used a new style of writing from the interior of her characters: sometimes called stream of consciousness.

In Jacob’s Room she is introducing a different innovation in the writing of fiction. The reader is invited to draw their portrait of Jacob from glimpses, observing how other people react to him, starting with a reference in a letter from his mother describing his behaviour on the beach in Cornwall. This is followed up by a painter who indicates to his brother, sent to find him, where Jacob is among the rocks. Finally we see him exploring rock pools and crabs. 

And so we follow Jacob through the eyes of others, growing up, going to Cambridge, later in rooms in London, on holiday in the Scilly Isles and in Greece. We meet his friends, his lovers, and see his mother becoming more and more distant from him.

Before it was published, Virginia Woolf confided in her diary that she feared people would think it was ‘mad, I suppose: a disconnected rhapsody’ [June 23rd 1922]. The idea of a rhapsody is useful. Passages are poetic, lyrical, such as the view from the boat sailing to the Scilly Isles.

Strangely enough, you could smell violets, or if violets were impossible in July, they must grow something very pungent on the mainland then. The mainland – not so very far off – you could see clefts in the cliffs, white cottages, smoke going up – wore an extraordinary look of calm, of sunny peace, as if wisdom and piety had descended upon the dwellers there. Now a cry sounded, as of a man calling pilchards in a main street. It wore an extraordinary look of piety and peace, as if old men smoked by the door, and girls stood, hands on hips, at the well, and horses stood; as if the end of the world had come, and cabbage fields and stone walls, and coast-guard stations, and, above all, the white sand bays and the waves breaking unseen by any one, rose to heaven in a kind of ecstasy. (45-6)

Some of the passages set in London are also elegiac.

The lamps of London uphold the dark as upon the points of burning bayonets. The yellow canopy sinks and swells over the great four-poster. Passengers in the mail-coaches running into London in the eighteenth century looked through leafless branches and saw it flaring beneath them. The light burns behind yellow blinds and pink blinds, and above fanlights, and down in basement windows. The street market in Soho is fierce with light. Raw meat, china mugs, and silk stockings blaze in it. Raw voices wrap themselves round the flaring gas-jets. Arms akimbo, they stand on the pavement bawling – Messrs Kettle and Wilkinson; their wives sit in the shop, furs wrapped round their necks, arms folded, eyes contemptuous. Such faces as one sees. The little man fingering the meat must have squatted before the fire in innumerable lodging-houses, and heard and seen and known so much that it seems to utter itself even volubly from dark eyes, loose lips, as he fingers the meat silently, his face sad as a poet’s, and never a sing-song. Shawled women carry babies with purple eyelids; boys stand at street corners; girls look across the road – rude illustrations, pictures in a book whose pages we turn over and over as if we should at last find what we look for. Every face, every shop, bedroom window, public-house, and dark square is a picture feverishly turned – in search of what? It is the same with books. What do we seek through millions of pages? Still hopefully turning the pages – oh, here is Jacob’s room. (92)

Such a passage, such a rich text, rich in imagery, and references, and movement! And then just at the end she reminds us that we are readers. 

It appears that Virginia Woolf modelled Jacob in part upon her much-loved brother Thoby. When their father died in 1904, she joined with her sister Vanessa and Thoby moving to a house in Gordon Square, where they entertained Thoby’s Cambridge friends. It was the start of the Bloomsbury Group. Thoby died of typhoid in 1906 after a trip to Greece. The young men of his generation bore the brunt of the First World War, and Jacob’s Room pays homage to them and that world and the people who were destroyed by the war. 

She was nervous about the reception of Jacob’s Room, as for all her novels. But she reflected in her diary after she had shown it to her husband, and most significant critic, Leonard:

There is no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice; and that it excites me so that I feel I can go ahead without praise. [July 26th 1922]

First edition cover

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, published in 1922. I used my copy of the Penguin Modern Classic edition (1965). 168pp

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Rattlebone by Maxine Clair

Rattlebone is a black neighbourhood in Kansas City. This novel is set in the city in the 1950s when Maxine Clair was growing up there. It follows the childhood of Irene Wilson and draws in events from the lives of others in the community. I find myself wanting to use words that imply concepts of tweeness, sweetness, naivety and so forth in thinking about this book. But this novel packs quite a punch. It contains little about relations between different ethnic groups. But we are aware that the families who live in Rattlebone have a hard life, do some of the worst jobs and for rubbish wages. At the same time they have built up a strong and developing sense of community. When the high school is destroyed by a rogue aeroplane, local communities contribute to its reconstruction. 

The incident is the most dramatic in the novel. This extract gives us a sense of Maxine Clair’s skill as a writer. Irene is watching the planes from her high school classroom.

They were coming in dangerously low, coming, coming. The pilot in one plane must have been trying to urge the other to pull up. Then the one climbed the sky in a sharp angle, exposing its silver belly to the sun. The other appeared to be locked into a steady plunge. Mr Cox spun around and yelled ‘Run!’ The plane had rotated slightly, so that it seemed to be coming broadside straight for us. By the time we considered running, it was too late. The whole room exploded in a fury of glass. (216)

The incident is included in the final chapter of the novel and leads to a new beginning for Irene, outside of Rattlebone.

Rattlebone

Looked at one way, this is a collection of short stories, but they are all connected to Irene and to the suburb of Rattlebone which makes this more than a collection. There are eleven stories, some of them very short, others extended. Some are retold by characters who appear elsewhere and some are given some perspective by being told in the third person. Some, like the final episode, are narrated by Irene. 

The first chapter is also narrated by Irene and features her new teacher. Interestingly it links her community of Rattlebone with the child herself by starting off in the first-person plural: ‘we’. Here is the first sentence of the opening chapter.

We heard it from our friends, who got it from their near-eyewitness grandmothers and their must-be-psychic ladies, that when she was our same age, our teacher, Miss October Brown, watched her father fire through his rage right on into her mother’s heart. (1)

October Brown comes from outside of Rattlebone, and she immediately begins to change the orderly pattern of Irene’s life. She introduces current affairs and French into the classroom, and her father leaves the family to pursue an affair with her. She appears in other stories, with another errant husband, but also she finally provides Irene with a route out of her narrow life in Rattlebone. 

The perspective in the stories changes as Irene matures, not always making her the focus of the episode. For example, her father is caught up in a flood after work and goes to help with others to build up the levées to protect their families. In another dramatic episode he is forced to face up to what is important in his life. In later stories we find he has returned home, and how his troubled relationship with his wife is resolved, not to Irene’s satisfaction. 

Some of the most touching stories involve the fate of the children of Irene’s age, who experience accidents, or who are so challenged that they are removed from Rattlebone, much to the sadness of mother and sister. The children have considerable leeway over their lives for their parents are always busy working. There is the strange story about the visits of ‘the white woman’. The children are out playing, observing their elders, and enjoying an ordinary day.

Then she drove up in a raggedy-trap, old-time car with no top, black slits in the side of the hood, running boards, rumble seat stuffed with what looked like broken furniture, and a horn blasting Aah-hooga! Aah-hooga!
She stepped out of the car, unfolding her flat self to be taller than any of our mothers. Except for her face, all of her was covered up in white: a long-sleeved, church-ushering dress, white nurse’s shoes, white stockings, white gloves, white thing twist-wrapped around her head with no hair showing. She was the whitest – not beige, not pink, not rouge or lipstick – white woman we had ever seen. (26)

Sister Joan is preaching some kind of religion, but the mothers see her off. She disappeared as suddenly as she arrived.

I have quoted several times from the book because I find Maxine Clair’s prose and her descriptions and the voices she uses to be strong and vivid and entirely suitable to her material. 

Maxine Clair

Born in 1939 and raised in Kansas City, Maxine Clair was 55 when Rattlebone was first published. It received good attention but was not a best-seller. She had been pursuing a career in medical technology, but changed to creative writing, publishing poems and a novel called October Suite, featuring the schoolteacher October Brown – not available in the UK. She is still teaching creative writing. 

The Guardian Review by Nick Duerden in June 2023 refers to Rattlebone as ‘a small perfectly formed classic’.

It was also reviewed on her blog by Heaven Ali in August 2023. You can read that review here. She says, ‘What Maxine Clair does beautifully though is to give us a snapshot of a place in time, that sense of time and place is present in every word she writes.’

Rattlebone by Maxine Clair, first published in the US in 1994. Now available in the UK, published by Daunt Books in 2023, with an introduction by Okechukwu Nzelu. 138pp 

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Letter from New York by Helene Hanff

Readers will be aware of the charming exchange of letters contained in 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. Two people who never met exchanged letters about books and life, in the post war era. Helene Hanff was in New York and Frank Doel worked at Marks & Co, the bookshop in London which she approached to supply her with the books she wanted. The two generous souls had exchanged letters for many years. After Frank died Helene created and published the book. It was 1970.

84 Charing Cross Road was immediately successful on both sides of the Atlantic largely for its charm and wittiness. Women’s Hour, a weekday programme on the BBC radio, commissioned Helene to produce a 5-minute letter from New York every month for six months. She began in October 1978 and the six months extended to nearly six years, until 1984. These contributions to the BBC have been collected into this lovely edition, published in 2023, Letter from New York.

Letter from New York

The background to all the letters is her studio apartment on East 72nd Street in Manhattan. She describes the community in the building, the friends and dogs who live there, and the surroundings, especially Central Park. She returns again and again to stories about her neighbours, their dogs, their approach to New York weather, and the daily life lived in ‘the last small town in America’.

The community in which she lived was strong, varied, and lively. Her cousin, in her introduction, describes how convivial Helen Hanff was, always entertaining friends and welcoming newcomers. Some of the connections in the building came from the shared use of food storage facilities, especially when it came to Christmas parties.

On Christmas Eve my pies will once more be up in 1-B in Nina’s freezer, and my sweet potato casserole and homemade cranberry sauce will be down at 4-F North, in Richard’s refrigerator. He will bring them up an hour before dinner, when he has to come up anyway to take the turkey out of the oven for me because one year I dropped that. I’m small and the turkey wasn’t. When he comes up to Christmas dinner Richard has to bring along his hot tray and his good carving knife. After dinner he or Arlene’s Mickey will wheel my tea cart full of dinner dishes up the hall, so I can put them in 8-E’s dishwasher, since Alan and Susan go to Susan’s mother’s on Long Island for Christmas. (165)

Spare keys are distributed in a similar way. Such arrangements reflect as well as foster good neighbourliness. Neighbours in summer sit together on the front steps watching life on the pavement and recommend services, shops and occasionally share dogs. If it sounds somewhat idyllic, that’s because she is constantly upbeat, never one to dwell on the difficulties of life, unless it’s finding the right clothes for a wedding.

She takes us around Central Park, and one episode persuaded English listeners to send wildflower seeds for a neglected area. She and her friends frequently attend concerts and services in churches, theatre performances, inside and in the open air, and the many parades and street parties that took place on New York Streets. She gives us some history and information about the geography of New York city and some of its notable inhabitants. 

Being a monthly newsletter, the rhythms of the year, the seasons, the celebrations, the changes in the city are documented for us. We become familiar with her friends, and especially Arlene, who happily passes on clothes to Helene, and has the delightful habit of giving her twelve presents every Christmas. She describes the collection in January 1983:

I don’t remember when Arlene started giving me twelve Christmas presents, one for each of the twelve days of Christmas. She’s been doing it for years. (We fight about this every year. I always lose.) A few are expensive, all twelve are useful, but they always include three or four so far out they have to be explained to me. […]
Number 12 was two bright terry cloth mitts, each the size of a football, the two joined by a length of rope. First you wash your hair. Then you sling the rope around your neck, slip your hands into the enormous mitts and dry your hair with them. (141)

I haven’t visited New York since 1969, but this book made me feel nostalgic. And her cousin Jean Hanff Korelitz reports the same reaction in the introduction: 

These charming pieces bring back the New York of my childhood, the storefronts and fashions, the errands and quirks and tastes and smells of the city I grew up in. (16)

There are two other charming aspects of this book. One is the illustrations by Bruce Eric Kaplan on the covers, the bookmark as well as the chapter headings.

The other is that this is a lovely book in itself: the design, the paper and smart yellow livery of the binding. Well done Manderley Press. It’s another success for an independent small publisher.

Helene Hanff

Helene Hanff

She was born in Philadelphia in 1916 and was largely self-educated. The books she requested from Marks & Co were to feed her habit of self-education. She made her living as a writer. Her apartment block in New York was renamed Charing Cross House in her honour, after her death in 1997.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. My thoughts on this earlier book on Bookword blog in August 2018.

Letter from New York by Helene Hanff, first published in 1992 and reissued by Manderley Press in 2023. 176pp 

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The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan

Last November, when my book group chose the books for 2023, I recommended The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan. The novel had good reviews and I remembered reading and enjoying The Spinning Heart (2012). The suggestion that it concerned some strong Irish women made it an attractive choice. So here we are, 12 months later, ready to discuss this gem of a book.

The Queen of Dirt Island

The story is structured in a series of two-page chapters, which roll forward and provide a rhythmic beat to one’s reading. It’s a steady story which unfolds over a couple of decades on the edge of a remote and rural Irish housing estate in County Tipperary. It begins with the birth of one of the women, Saoirse. Her father is killed in a road accident even before she is brought home from hospital. He mother, Mary, has been rejected by her family for becoming pregnant. But her mother-in-law, Eileen known as Nana, looks out for her, becomes her friend, and eventually comes to live with Mary and Saoirse.

The story of the women’s struggles, within their families, on the edges of their community, against poverty, and the demands of life, is carried forward through the steady pulse of the short chapters. The prose has a lilt to it, and the speech of the women, their idioms and imagery, are from the best Irish traditions.

Someone had asked Paudie to hide guns in the shed, down behind a load of bales of hay. And other stuff, too. Nana wasn’t sure what. Semtex, Eileen. What in the name of God and His Blessed Mother is Semtex? It doesn’t sound like anything that could ever do any good. And apparently we could all have been blown to Kingdom Come over it. Jim Gildea told me. You’re lucky, Mary, he said. Someone was watching over ye the way it was all brought out in the open now, before Paudie was in too deep. In too deep, Jim Gildea said! As if a shed full of guns and Sem-fucking-tex isn’t deep enough! (21)

Saoirse learns about the world from the conversation of Mary and her mother-in-law Eileen. She is well protected until she is a teenager. In the extract above she hears about her uncle’s arrest.

There’s a great deal of humour in the talk of the adult women as Saoirse grows up. She learns about her world through overhearing their conversations. Despite the lack of punctuation it is always clear who is speaking. When Saoirse reveals that she is pregnant, the chapter called IMMACULATE, is one long paragraph of her mother’s fury. 

How in the fucking fuck could you have gotten pregnant? […] I thought you were different. I thought you’d be something. God forgive me, it’s my own fault for trusting you. I thought behind it all that you were good. (73-74)

The story is built on the strength of the four women: from the grandmother, through Mary to Saoirse and to Pearl, Saoirse’s child. Mary is the queen of Dirt Island. She inherits it from her parents, despite her brother’s ambitions to take it from her. She is the character in the book written by Saoirse ‘s boyfriend, Josh. A heroine, redrawn from Saoirse’s own memories to create something ‘unrecognizable, alien, monstrous’ (214). Josh spiced up the story that we know, to distort Saoirse’s father and his death, and her mother’s role in Paudie’s misdeeds. Later the novel is rewritten and becomes a classic, included in the Irish school curriculum that Pearl is taught.

This distortion reminds the reader of the strength of these women, and we know they love and support each other through daily life, growing up, marriages, births, deaths and betrayals. They shape Saoirse childhood, and then Pearl’s. They have warmth and pride, fury and revenge, love and pity. 

We finish this book, having enjoyed its rhythms and impetus, and the slow march of the decades, aware that we have been given a glimpse of loving life and community. And we make sense of the epigram.

Let the books remember the local battles.
Re-write the plot. Let the harvest wither.
This is your life. She is your great event.
Keep her in the sun.
[‘History’, Mary O’Malley]

What will the other members of my book group think?

The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan first published in 2022. I used the Penguin edition. 245pp 

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The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg

Natalia Ginzburg was a writer with a very direct and precise style. Here are the first lines of The Dry Heart:

‘Tell me the truth,’ I said.
‘What truth?’ he echoed. He was making a rapid sketch in his notebook and now he showed me what it was: a long, long train with a big cloud of black smoke swirling over it and himself leaning out of the window to wave a handkerchief.
I shot him between the eyes. (1)

Just over 100 pages later this scene is retold. In the pages between the unnamed narrator describes her meeting with Alberto, their walks together, how they married and how the marriage fell apart, all within four years.

This intense and rather shocking novella is newly available in the translation from the Italian by Frances Frenaye, published by Daunt Books. Here is my response to it as part of Women in Translation Month 2023.

The Dry Heart

This novel was first published in 1940, in Italian. The blurb makes a great deal of the anonymous narrator’s apparently casual attitude to the murder she commits, (‘she shoots her husband and walks to a café for a coffee’) – cool as you like. But it quickly becomes clear that she is not level-headed, or cold-blooded. She has been suffering in an exceedingly dreadful marriage. Unlike many novels containing murder, this one does not leave you wondering who committed the crime, or how it was done. That cleared out of the way, the narrator goes to have her coffee and the reader gets to think about why she might have done such a dreadful thing. What is the truth of this event?

In concise, spare and unbroken narrative, the anonymous wife describes their meeting, four years before, their subsequent marriage, and descent into awfulness. Alberto has a long-term lover and is unable to stop himself leaving the narrator periodically to meet up with Giovanna. 

They appeared unsuited from the start. He is much older than her: 40 to her 26. She is much taller than him. She is lonely in the city where she has come from a rural background to teach in a school. He is a confident city-dweller and enjoys showing her around. She finds pleasure in her time with Alberto, and believes she is falling in love. She is surprised that he makes no affectionate move towards her and challenges him. He too has enjoyed their talks and walks together and is lonely himself as his mother has just died. He agrees to marry her. They live in his mother’s house.

In due course they have a daughter who, like her mother, is never named. But although Alberto is affectionate towards the child their lives become more separate, until the death of the child when she is about 2 years old. Alberto comforts his wife in her grief, but soon takes up his old ways. As he is about the leave her again for time with Giovanna the narrator challenges him. She asks for the truth, and not getting it she shoots him between the eyes. Thus it begins and ends. A tough novella about a marriage that should never have happened and ended in murder.

In part it is a novel that describes loneliness, of both husband and wife. Here she describes being alone and without confidence when she first arrived in the city.

When a girl is very much alone and leads a tiresome and monotonous existence, with worn gloves and very little spending money, she may let her imagination run wild and find herself defenceless before all the errors and pitfalls which imagination has devised to deceive her. I was a weak and unarmed victim of imagination as I read Ovid to eighteen girls huddled in a cold classroom or ate my meals in the dingy boarding house dining room, peering out through the yellow window panes as I waited for Alberto to take me out walking or to a concert. (6-7)

After spending her summer holidays with her parents she returns to the city. She has not heard from Alberto. He does not call. She explains that this is how she fell in love with him: imagining his life, what he is doing, becoming obsessed with him, ‘sitting all powdered and primped in my boarding house bedroom’ waiting for him to appear. 

Alberto is older than his wife, but no wiser, and unable to extricate himself from his lover. They live two lives separately, in separate beds after the birth of the daughter. He disappears periodically. She sees her life narrow to the care of their baby. She has little idea of an alternative to her life. Her cousin Francesca tries to persuade her to leave Alberto.

‘Let’s go for a trip somewhere. He’s a little rat of a man. What good is he to you?’
‘I love him,’ I said, ‘and then there’s the baby.’
‘But he’s deceiving you. He does it in the most blatant sort of way. I see them together sometimes. She has a behind like a cauliflower. Nothing much to look at.’ (54)

The spare, intense prose makes direct contact with the reader. There is little reported speech, and few names. Not only do we never discover the names of the narrator and her daughter, but the city is not identified either. And although the Second World War had been over for three years before the book’s publication, it seems to have left no shadow on this book, not on the story anyway. No one is reported to have died, or been imprisoned, and the city has not been damaged. The war does not appear to have been in any character’s backstory.

Leone and Natalia Ginzburg before February 1944 when Leone Ginzburg died. Source unknown via wikicommons

The absence is strange, for the author had not had a comfortable time during the war, being known to have left-wing tendencies, and to be Jewish. Her first husband was tortured for his activities against the Fascist regime resulting in his death in 1944. They had three children.

There are also some lighter moments in this bleak account. In the boarding house where the narrator lives when she first came to the city, she imagines the pleasures of her own establishment as a contrast to how she lives.

The boarding house was gloomy, with dark hangings and upholstery, and in the room next to mine a colonel’s widow knocked on the wall with a hairbrush every time I opened the window or moved a chair. I had to get up early … The colonel’s widow knocked furiously on the wall while I moved about the room looking for my clothes, and in the bathroom the landlady’s hysterical daughter screeched like a peacock while they gave her a warm shower which was supposed to calm her down. (6)

Such vivid details add authenticity to this account.

Jacquiwine’s review in July 2023 is enthusiastic and points to the humour in the novel.

The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg was first published in Italian as È stato cosi in 1949. The English translation by Frances Frenaye was published in 1949. I used the edition by Daunt Books published in 2021. 108pp

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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

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With Virginia Woolf in Cambridge

I risk making some readers jealous, but I have just returned from a 5-day summer school in Cambridge, devoted to Virginia Woolf. Not all of Virginia Woolf, but 5 specified books. And I want to share some of it.

  • Mrs Dalloway
  • To the Lighthouse
  • Orlando
  • A Room of One’s Own
  • Between the Acts

The popular view pictures Virginia Woolf as an effete, delicate, isolated, and icy woman. One of my major strands of learning on the summer school is how connected she was to the events of her time, and to the changes that women might be able to benefit from through her social circle, her reading, her thinking and her experiences to the wider world.

So here are a few ‘orts, scraps and fragments’ (Between the Acts) to pass on.

Women in her life

My first ort, scrap and fragment is the understanding of how connected Virginia Woolf was to so many different women. The summer school was focussed on Virginia Woolf and her women, and we met many of them. She had a wide range of female friends and connections. We heard about her friendship with Katherine Mansfield, her intimate relations with Vita Sackville West (Orlando), her connection to Newnham College, in particular with the classicist Jane Harrison who was a rule-breaker and a pioneer, and Pernel Strachey, librarian and Principal. She was very fond of the wonderful, larger-than-life Ethel Smyth, whose character echoes through Between the Acts. And the struggles of the painter Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, surely owes something to Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell.

The second ort concerns her thinking about the important issues of her day, which also resonate with us today. What does it mean to be a woman? How shall we understand colonialism? How did the two great wars affect women and the well-lived life? Between the Acts was written during the initial years of the Second World War, when fear of invasion and the unknown clouded every horizon. We were reminded of Covid-19 and that first year when we knew so little and feared so much. We too looked back, made our own pageants, summoned our history to help us deal with the situation. 

Women’s situation was changing fast during Virginia Woolf’s life. In particular, higher education was gradually opened up to women. Both Girton and Newnham Colleges were established and eventually accepted into the University of Cambridge. It was in these colleges that she gave the lectures that gradually evolved into A Room of One’s Own. I loved sitting in the room in Girton where she spoke at the invitation of a student. The walls are covered in amazing embroidery/tapestries. 

Later we got to see the manuscript of the book in the Fitzwilliam Museum archives, seeing something of how she worked on her text – right-hand side of the page only, wide margins, left-hand side for substantial rewriting. This wasn’t simply cultural tourists admiring the very pages she had written. It was more an insight into her craft.

Dr Mathelinda Nabugodi, Research Associate at the Fitzwilliam Museum, shows us the manuscript of A Room of One’s Own.

I love the playfulness and the in-jokes in her books. Orlando is full of unattributed quotations and references and plays with the ideas of changing gender and living for 400 years. But she is always playful for a purpose and I was appropriately challenged by these books, by the ideas and possibilities that are implied and set out for the reader. So here’s what I am going to think about.

Plans from here

I shall reread (it will be for the fourth time) Between the Acts, thinking in particular about representations of our history, and luxuriating in the possibilities that Virginia Woolf provides ways of understanding history and how we tell it. What, no armies in a pageant of British history?

I shall be reacquainting myself with the fiction of Katherine Mansfield, whose work I have rejected for reasons I can’t remember. Virginia Woolf clearly thought highly of her friend’s writing, so I would like to find out what there was to admire.

I want to look at Lily Briscoe and Mrs Ramsey in To the Lighthouse more closely. Mrs Ramsey wants Lily, and all women, to get married. She had no less than eight children. Lily wants to paint but finds it hard.

And I want to reread the second part of To the Lighthouse, called Time Passes, and to think about that passage with some new ideas in my head. And to think about female language, sentences and approaches to the novel form.

I met many wonderful people, from different parts of the world, and enjoyed their warmth and shared pleasures with them. We benefitted from some excellent lectures and supervisions. How lucky to see the splendid gardens of Newnham College.

 

Thank you to Literature Cambridge for the summer school, and for providing so much on-line stimulation, including when we were locked down. I have many links to previous lectures, photographs and further possibilities to explore, thanks to you. Thanks to Graham for the use of his photograph of people inspecting the manuscript of A Room of One’s Own.

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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.

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Summer reading over ten years

I began blogging just over ten years ago. Recent Twitter lists of summer reading encouraged me to look back over those years and see what I was blogging on 7th July in those years. Here are just seven posts from the 787 that I have produced over that time. Some themes emerge from those years: the older women in fiction series, translations, thematic posts, and the established fiction which I preferred to chasing the new. I have included links in this piece to all the posts mentioned. Happy summer reading!

Onward, Old Legs (2013)

Several novels featuring older women had already appeared on my blog by July 2013: Stone Angel by the Canadian writer Margaret Laurence and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, and I listed more than thirty others. Many of them I have now read, and some have been dropped from the list for various reasons. The full list for the series can be found at this link

Ways with Words (2014)

2014 was the year that Retiring with Attitude was published. I wrote it with my friend and colleague Eileen Carnell. We were asked to do a presentation on our book at the Ways With Words festival at Dartington that year. We have written one book since then, The New Age of Ageing with our colleague and friend Marianne Coleman. Our writing careers have slowed down since then!

Island Novels (2016)

Two years later I wrote a post on the theme of novels set on islands. It was a rich subject and I referred to Night Waking by Sarah Moss, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, and four other novels. I enjoy putting together themed posts.

To The North by Elizabeth Bowen (2019)

To the North was the seventh of Elizabeth Bowen’s ten novels reviewed on Bookword blog. In 2019 I was in a phase of reading novels that had been published for some time. It’s something I have continued with, and Elizabeth Bowen is a writer for whom I have great admiration. On a train travelling north from Italy the recently widowed Cecelia meets Markie, and is nearly taken in by him, but he transfers his attentions to her sister-in-law …

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (2020)

For several years I had followed a theme, reporting on a book every decade. In 2020 I picked publications by Virago, and in July this was the choice from the 1960s. I wrote,

This fantastic tale, which ends in incest and a conflagration and the possible death of the two younger children, is not a simple contrast between goodness and wickedness, youth and age, or even wicked masculinity vs the goodness of femininity. It has complexity in its themes of love and abuse, adult and adolescent sexuality, play and life, reality and magic.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss (2021)

I read most of this short novel when I was trapped on Pewsey station, following a walk with a friend. There were no trains, no taxis and no room at the inn. The novel, like the others by Sarah Moss that I have reviewed, mitigated the dire circumstances. A train eventually arrived.

[Summerwater] is bleak, and harsh and almost apocryphal. It captures the current generally depressed mood and seems to be a comment on the modern world.

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter (2022)

This novel, translated from the French by Frank Wynne, was first published in 2017. It follows one family through three generations, beginning in Algeria just after the Second World War and ending in the banlieues in the present day. I learned a great deal from this novel and thought about it again when France erupted earlier this summer.

And the others?

BTW in 2015 it was A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, and in 2017 a themed post about novelists called Elizabeth. In 2018 I posted my thoughts about Missing by Alison Moore.

At the moment I am reading about the last months of the German High Seas Fleet (for a thing), and Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf (for another thing), essays in Space Crone by Ursula le Guin, and enjoying the catalogue of the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery of paintings by Berthe Morisot, which I saw last weekend.  

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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.

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