Tag Archives: Abacus

Birds of Passage by Bernice Rubens

I am not easily shocked. I am not often shocked. But this novel shocked me. It also served to remind me how far attitudes have changed in the 42 years since its publication, specifically attitudes to rape and exploitation of women. 

I picked this book to include in the series on Older Women in Fiction on this blog. This is the 62nd in the series 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.

Birds of Passage

Two widows live next door to each other. For decades they have planned to go on a cruise together when their husbands have died. In due time, they are both widowed, both passed 60, and both have waited the required and decent amount of time, and so they embark on a Mediterranean cruise for three weeks. Neither of them experienced marriage as a happy state, seeing it more of a duty and a series of gender-specific tasks, notably the men cut the hedge and determine what grows in the garden. Neither of them has had much excitement or happiness in their lives, but they have done what was expected of them.

Also on the cruise is another widow, Mrs Dove, who wins her ticket in a competition, and she takes her daughter with her. The daughter is suffering from a crisis of sexuality (my description, certainly not Bernice Ruben’s) for having been abandoned by her husband, Alice Dove has taken up with predatory Nellie, and is portrayed as a dungaree-wearing man-hater. Mrs Dove has been so well groomed by her late husband that she is quite at a loss in social situations. She too has had her life shaped by the expectations of her husband and her social group in Ilfracombe. At the end of the novel she escapes these expectations, and her daughter reflects that she is a woman …

… who married [Mr Dove] because he was of the opinion that he was good for her, who stayed with him till he died because it was his version of her duty, who even mourned him, heeding his instructions from the grave which taught her where her obligations lay. And who had heeded him since, together with the neighbours who were of the opinion that her husband was a good man, that it would be ungracious of his memory to think of marrying again, that she should not plant vegetables in a garden he had devoted to flowers, though her heart yearned for them, and that she didn’t need a colour television, because black and white had been good enough for the good Mr Dove, and should certainly be good enough for her. (200-201)

On the cruise Mrs Dove agrees to marry Wally, a lonely, overweight and intrusive character, a bit of a fantasist. Both feel that the other passengers are expecting them to become engaged, and both find the same escape from their predicament.

Rape

So far so good. Here is the troubling bit. The main narrative concerns the two neighbouring widows, Ellen and Alice. (A small niggle was that both this older woman and Mrs Dove’s daughter have the same name. No use is made of this confusing detail by the novelist. So I can’t figure out why she would do it.)

At the start of the cruise, both women are raped by the same predatory waiter. Ellen is badly traumatised by the rough treatment of the man, and when she threatens to expose him he reveals that he had already provided himself with insurance against this, for he has secretly taken a photograph of her in the nude, apparently willingly posing for him. She is so shamed that she is unable to reveal the abuse to the purser. It continues, night after night.

Her friend, Alice, on the other hand, finds herself awoken into sexual ecstasy by the rape. And she waits impatiently every dawn for her assailant to repeat his attentions to her. Neither women can reveal what is happening to them, for they are ashamed.

Let’s pause here and consider what we have read:

  • Lesbians wear dungarees, have their hair short and hate men. They are rescued by rediscovering their feminine side.
  • Some women enjoy rape, are turned on by the violent abuse.
  • Another woman is so afraid of being exposed in a naked photograph that she will endure three weeks of abuse.
  • Neither woman thought to get the chains reattached to their doors to prevent the waiter entering their cabins.
  • Ellen did go as far as to buy a Swiss army knife in Venice to protect herself but was unable to use it. 
  • The woman who did complain, that was Alice Dove who fought back successfully and dragged the waiter to the purser’s office, she was not believed. The waiter turned the story around. Apparently, women were in the habit of claiming rape when their advances to the waiter were rejected the purser noted. I could not help but bring the serial rapist, a Met policeman, to mind at this point in the story. Join the dots, I want to shout.
  • And this story has been described as ‘a true comedy of manners’ by the Guardian reviewer of the time, quoted on the front cover.

I find it hard to understand how the situation of gaslit widows, and serial rape can be described as a comedy of manners. I can only think that in the 42 years since this novel was published, attitudes to women, and older women in particular, have moved on. Thanks to #MeToo and the work of countless women to expose the levels of acceptance of sexual abuse against women.

Rape cannot, today, be the subject of comedy, let alone a comedy of manners. The treatment of a woman exploring her own sexuality is also a serious matter.

And yet there are some positive things in this novel. Bernice Rubens makes mockery of bourgeois ideas about what is acceptable to other people which decide people’s behaviour. And at least Alice Dove responds decisively to the rapist. Older women are revealed to be complex creatures, not simply lonely and frustrated. But I remained shocked that 42 years ago we thought serial rape of older women a fit subject for comedy.

Bernice Rubens

Bernice Rubens

Born in Wales in 1923, Bernice lived a long life, publishing 27 novels between 1960 and her death in 2004. She was the first woman to win the Booker Prize, in 1970, its second year, with The Elected MemberBirds of Passagewas her 12th novel. Her autobiography When I grow up was published shortly after her death in 2005.

Birds of Passage by Bernice Rubens published in 1981. I used the paperback edition from Abacus. 215pp

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

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The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam

My book group decided to read The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam. I was pleased as I very much enjoy her novels, especially the Old Filth trilogy. So too do many others, who voted for the first of the trilogy to be included in the Guardian’s 100 best reads. I like the way she explores lives, especially those of women. She excels at placing them in difficult situations and requiring them to face dilemmas.  I especially enjoy the quirky details that she includes. Sometimes they are relevant to the plot line, and sometimes they provide period or character detail. The death of Old Filth’s wife Betty as she plants tulips and hides evidence of her betrayal, is one of those moments. I had not read The Flight of the Maidens.

The Flight of the Maidens

The novel follows three young women at that exciting moment in their lives when they are about to branch out, in this case all three have won places at university and the novel begins as they all secure the funding that will enable them to take up their places. 

These events occur in the summer of 1946, the war has ended and everywhere there is the sense of emerging from six years of disruption and deprivation. The national mood echoes the mood of the three young women who have spent their school days at war. 

The three girls take different routes over the next three months as they spread their wings (take flight) before meeting up again on the eve of taking their places at university.

Hetty lives with a mother who is suffocating in her attention to her daughter and a father who has never returned from the Somme. Her works as a grave digger but is known locally as something of a philosopher and rather fragile. Mostly to escape her mother, but also to experience a wider world than her Yorkshire village, she takes herself off to the Lake District to spend some weeks reading in preparation for her course. While there, staying in a guesthouse on a farm, Hetty learns a thing or two about herself. Her horizons are broadened when she meets the people of the area: those who work on the land and the aristocrats who seem to be quite mad. One of the aristocrats in the devilishly handsome Rupert, who seems somewhat unavailable but a dreadful flirt. She is rescued from seduction by distressing news from home.

Una is the single daughter of a single mother who has supported them both from the income from operating a not very reliable hairdresser’s in her home. She has had a longstanding uncommunicative relationship with a local boy who leaves school to get a job and works his way up to a career on the railway. Their relationship, up to this point, has been conducted through bike rides at weekends. Now Ray and Una decide to spend a weekend together in a remote hostel. Their plans are disrupted in a most unfortunate way, but their next attempt brings the looked-for intimacy. Una wonders whether university is the way to go.

Lottie has been in England since 1938, brought as an endangered Jewish child from Hamburg on the Kindertransport, and cared for by a Quaker family in Yorkshire. She is severely restricted in her emotional expression and in her interactions. She suddenly disappears to London where she is taken in by a very eccentric older Jewish couple who escaped from Germany with many items of household furnishing. They had been experts in transportation before they fled. After a few weeks of exploring bomb-damaged London, Lottie travels on to California to consider the option of being adopted by an older, rich, American relative. The West Coast life seems so disconnected from anything she knows or wants that she decides to return.

I found Lottie the least believable of the characters. Things appear to happen to her, and she attracts the oddest of people. The episode in California seems far-fetched, but perhaps that is the point in Lottie’s fractured and disrupted life.  

So, all three young ‘maidens’ are changed by those few months. Jane Gardam has captured that magical time in a young woman’s life. It took me back to my time before I went to university, which involved spending a few days in Israel during the Six-Day War in June 1967 and being evacuated to Cyprus – not then a divided island. The following year I went to America to study in Philadelphia and it seemed as if life was going to be a series of similar adventures. In the same way, twenty years before, the lives of Hetty, Una and Lottie opened out at the end of the war.

It was an exciting time for the girls, but a time for recuperation by the adults.

Jane Gardam

Jane Gardam

Jane Gardam was born in Yorkshire in 1928. She is a prolific writer of children’s and adult’s books. I counted 13 children’s books, many collections of short stories and 9 adult novels and one non-fiction book on her Wikipedia page. 

I recommend The Flight of the Maidens as well as the trilogy: Old FilthThe Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Friends

The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam, published in 2000 by Abacus. 278pp

Related Posts

The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam, in the Older Women in Fiction series (October 29014).

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam, her debut novel in 1971, is a recent post on Jacquiwine’s Journal, who refers to it as ‘a warm, funny, thoroughly enjoyable novel that captures the trials of adolescence so engagingly’.

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The March of Folly by Barbara W Tuchman

What on earth can have brought this book to mind? In these worrying times, foolish people seem to have power, and foolish policies appear to be unstoppable, so my mind turns to The March of Folly. Sadly this book does not provide answers to how to prevent folly in policy. But it reminds us that power does not always reside with wise people, and we must be on our guard and maintain our democratic processes to counter folly. And the subtitle, from Troy to Vietnam, reminds us that the historical roots of folly are deep.

The Decades Project on Bookword has reached the 1980s. The project features non-fiction by women from each decade from the start of the 20thCentury. The March of Folly was published in 1984 and was written by an American.

The March of Folly by Barbara W. Tuchman

The argument of this history book is straightforward. Folly is frequently committed by policy makers. To qualify as folly she employs three criteria:

  1. the policy must be seen as counter-productive at the time,
  2. there must exist a feasible alternative, and
  3. the policy is promoted by a group of people, not an individual.

Barbara W Tuchman explores 4 examples of folly that meet these criteria, although she refers to many others.

Her first example is the decision by the rulers of Troy to move the wooden horse into the city. The siege of Troy was a story first told by Homer and then by other historians.

Troy falls at last after ten years of futile, indecisive, noble, mean, tricky, bitter, jealous and only occasionally heroic battle. As the culminating instrumentality for the fall, the story brings in the Wooden Horse. (43)

There were warnings and caution was advised. ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,’ warned Laocoon. They were advised to burn the horse, or throw it in the sea or at least cut it open. But instead it was pulled into Troy with some difficulty and when the Greek soldiers were released it was the means to the complete defeat of the Trojans.

She moves on to consider the actions of the renaissance popes in the face of rising dissention, which allowed the Reformation to split the Christian church. Next she explores England’s policy under George III towards the American colonies, which led to the War of Independence and to the loss of the colonies by the British. Finally, in the longest section, she considers American policy in Vietnam. The book was published in 1984. It was less than ten years since the US had pulled out of their bloody involvement in Vietnam.

To account for such policies of folly Barbara W Tuchman suggests that there must exist a certain amount of wooden-headedness or mental standstill, blindness to alternatives, deafness to criticism. Sometimes the group act with folly out of self-aggrandizement, or a lust for power, or are corrupted by having power. They may even have an excess of power, she suggests. Persistence in a false action can be the result of a difficulty in admitting to errors. And there may well be a lack of moral courage.

Having presented her four case studies she finishes on a downbeat.

Perhaps better men flourish in better times, and wiser government requires the nourishment of a dynamic rather than a troubled and bewildered society. If John Adams is right, and government is ‘little better practised now than three or four thousand years ago,’ we cannot reasonably expect much improvement. We can only muddle on as we have done in those same three or four thousand years, through patches of brilliance and decline, great endeavour and shadow. (486)

Barbara W Tuchman

Barbara W Tuchman was born in the USA in 1912 and before her death in 1989 she wrote many books of history for the general reader. She was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

It is no surprise that she was criticised by academic historians for not being academic enough. Her books were very popular however.

And although it can be satisfying to see events in history that one regrets as the result of folly, she has been criticised for not explaining the rise of folly.  Her examples are recounted in increasing detail, but the circumstances that allowed the policies to persist are really only explained by – well – folly.

In 1984 she commented:

It seems superfluous to say that the present study stems from the ubiquity of this problem [the folly of policy makers] in our time. (40)

As Britain continues on its path to Brexit folly, we too must fall back on explanations of power, self-aggrandisement and inability to admit errors. We are, I am convinced, engaged in a 21stcentury march of folly ourselves.

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W Tuchman published in 1984. I read Abacus edition published in 1985. 559pp

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 I am featuring non-fiction by women in each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:

Elizabeth David’s books in the Kitchen(1950s)

Silent Springby Rachel Carson(1962)

84 Charing Cross Roadby Helene Hanff(1971)

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