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Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

This short novel is a fearsome portrait of a fearsome old woman. Great Granny Webster lives in Hove, Sussex, in a dark house, spending her time sitting upright in a chair, doing nothing. This has been her way of life for decades. What makes her live in this way?

Great Granny Webster is the 34thin the series on older women in fiction. You can find a list of all those previous posts and readers’ recommendations on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.

Summary of Great Granny Webster

This short novel is narrated by the great grand daughter who was 14 years old when she spent three months with the old woman in Hove in order to recuperate after an illness by taking in the sea air. The poor girl has to live with her great-grandmother in a rigid routine, waited on by one maid who is also very old. The description of the routine in the house is chilling, and very strong.

Often I would be in the same room as Great Granny Webster for hours and she would say not a single word to me. She would just sit there bolt upright in one of the most horribly uncomfortable highbacked wooden Victorian gothic chairs I have ever seen. One felt that originally it had only ever been intended to stand like a decoration in some imposing baronial hall. (13)

By contrast the narrator’s Aunt Lavinia is a fun-loving socialite of the post-war period. She is also described in detail, and we understand that she is no happier than Great Granny Webster. She is described in this way:

Aunt Lavinia was then thirty-two and she was always described as “jolie laide.” A play-girl in the style of the twenties, she was famous for her beautiful legs and for the fact that she had been married briefly to three millionaires while taking at the same time a large selection of lovers, who were not only friends of her husbands’ but almost as well-endowed financially. Her attitude to life appeared so resolutely frivolous that perversely she could seem to have the seriousness of someone with a driving inner purpose. She believed in having “fun” as if it was a state of grace. (29)

The second chapter provides a dramatic contrast to Aunt Lavinia’s grandmother, but we soon see that they are both iron-willed in pursuit of their chosen path.

A third chapter explores Dunmartin Hall in Ulster. To this house Great Granny Webster’s daughter went when she married. She goes mad and her devoted husband is quite unable to keep up the fabric or the conventions of this vast aristocratic house because he is so keen to support her. The footmen and butler wear rubber boots to serve the meals – always pheasants – as a protest against the damp conditions. This is the home of the narrator’s father. He died in the war but he frequently went to visit his grandmother in Hove before his death, and the narrator tries to find out what he liked about his visits. Again, we have a contrast, this time of the chaotic household and the rigid one.

Finally, years later, the narrator is called to the funeral of the old lady. In a scene of bizarre and ludicrous awfulness, the old lady’s ashes are tipped into her grave with only the narrator and her ancient maid as mourners.

The old woman

Behind this fearsome portrait of a sad old woman and those who were influenced by her lies the question – why on earth did she behave as she did? As a child and young woman she was was exposed to and constrained by those Victorian values and expectations of what it meant to be a woman from the upper classes. The rigid formality, the meeting of the expectations of others, the refusal to express emotions, the belief in her own righteousness, all these come from that upbringing. No matter that there have been major changes in society, two world wars and the ‘60s; no matter that her daughter is incarcerated for life in a lunatic asylum; that her granddaughter commits suicide; and her son-in-law appeals to her for help; despite all this she holds on to her rigidity and independence.

We are left in no doubt that it was a toxic upbringing, and that it had profoundly terrible effects on subsequent generations. We are to understand that much of this novel was based on Caroline Blackwood’s own experiences.

My reactions

I may have given the impression that this is a tough book to read. But the descriptions are marvellous and some of the details quite hilarious. Perhaps to show affection, but in any case highly inappropriate, the old lady indicates to her great-granddaughter that she will leave her a four-poster bed. One of the ornamental pineapples is a little loose and the old lady is very concerned that when it is moved into storage the removal men may be careless.

“I want you to realise that there are no reliable furniture removal firms any more. Now-a-days they send just anybody. All you get is a couple of rough young men with no breeding at all, no sense of the way one is meant to handle beautiful possessions. I therefore want someone responsible to be there to supervise the movers when they come to take my things from my house.” (25-6)

She is speaking to a schoolgirl.

One of the charms of this book is the construction of the sentences, often long, often beginning with a subordinate clause, and all constructed with considerable rhythm. In the first example above she gives us no less than five adjectives to communicate the sense of that chair: one of the most horribly uncomfortable highbacked wooden Victorian gothic chairs I have ever seen. The quality of her writing adds to the pleasure of reading this book.

Caroline Blackwood

Girl in Bed (1952) by Lucien Freud

This writer was unknown to me before this novel was recommended for the older women in fiction series. Caroline Blackwood was born in 1931 and died in 1996. She lived vividly, married Lucien Freud (painter), Israel Citkowitz (composer) and Robert Lowell (poet). She came from the extremely wealthy Guinness family and lived in London, New York and Ireland. She wrote other books, including biographies of Princess Margaret and Lucien Freud. Her life was blighted by alcoholism. Great Granny Webster is probably her best-known and most admired work.

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwoodfirst published in 1977. I used the edition published by New York Review Books Classic. 108pp

Thanks to Jennifer Cairns for suggesting this book for the series.

Picture credit: Girl in Bed (1952) by Lucien Freud, for which Caroline Blackwood was the model. Used under ‘fair use’ for information and education.

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A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

I became aware of a twitter stir about this book last autumn. The title struck me as original, but I had never heard of the author. Eventually I wrote it on my tbr list, and soon after that requested it from my local library. Here it is and I must give it back after only 3 weeks because another reader has reserved it.

237 Manual cover

What have we here?

43 short stories by an American writer who died in 2004. Lucia Berlin was known and admired by some, but with the publication of this collection it is expected she will have something of a renaissance.

Many of the stories appear to be based on her own life. The same characters and situations are revisited: her sister dying of cancer in Mexico City, receptionist job in a doctor’s surgery, Oakland, Boulder. The blurb and introduction by Stephen Emerson tell us something of her life: three husbands, four sons, alcoholism, conquering alcoholism, an itinerant life.

The stories show the writer’s ability to enter the lives of her characters, sometimes two in one story. And some read almost as if she had responded to people saying oh, you should write a story about that.

The stories

A collection with 43 stories has many themes: living at the very bottom of the heap, needing to find a few coins to get the next bottle, knowing exactly when each liquor stores opens in the morning, the consequences of ignorance and naivety in a cruel world, illness, exploitation, and above all addiction.

I lost count of the stories in which addiction, usually to alcohol but also to heroin, rob the characters of their humanity. They abandoned self-respect, they are exploited and betrayed, and they suffer.

Yet these are not stories of misery. She also observes many actions of extreme kindness and generosity: the tenderness and attention to the sister who is dying of cancer; people who stay after hours, persuade others to do a little more for the unfortunates, the friendships made.

502 is a story about the protection given by four older guys to Miss Lou. The men re alcoholics who spent their days in a broken down old car. Their joshing made it impossible for the local policeman to prosecute Miss Lou for a driving offence. Some bonds are forged in extremis. And the sting in the tale of the story is that Officer Wong was known to be a kind cop.

As the stories follow one another, however, the reader accumulates a picture of the precariousness of life, how easily people can be tripped up and betrayed and end up in desperate situations.

237 Lucia-Berlins

The writing

Lucia Berlin writes with little outward emotion, almost deadpan, but she makes circumstances clear. Silence is a story about her beloved Uncle John, an important person in her childhood in a dysfunctional family. But out in the truck with him one day she witnesses him hurting a dog and a boy in an accident. He does not stop and nothing is said. The reader wonders about all this until the end of the story, when the narrator, now an adult catches up with her elderly uncle. ‘Of course by this time I had realised all the reasons why he couldn’t stop the truck, because by this time I was an alcoholic.’ (332).

Writing about very painful things is hard to do well. Lucia Berlin does not overwrite, and the evenness of the distance she keeps us from her events and characters heightens the pain, the despair. Without commentary she observe the small details of life that tell of bigger things. She trusts her readers to approach the stories intelligently, lets us do some of the work.

The title story is a masterpiece: saying things while writing about others. It has humour, wit and acute observation. The narrator used to be much better off, but now must join those who use public transport, must earn their living cleaning up after profligate people. She sees the dirty side of life. Here are some extracts from A Manual for Cleaning Women.

This practice tells you all you need to know about the cleaning woman and her relationship with her employers:

The minute I get to work, I first check out where the watches are, the rings, the gold lame evening purses. Later when they come running in all puffy and red-faced I just coolly say, “Under your pillow, behind the avocado toilet.” All I really steal is sleeping pills, saving up for a rainy day. (27)

She describes how to get your employer to notice your work.

My masterpiece in this area was when I cleaned the top of Mrs Burke’s refrigerator. She sees everything, but if I hadn’t left the flashlight on she would have missed the fact that I scoured and re-oiled the waffle iron, mended the geisha girl, and washed the flashlight as well. (35)

And the misunderstandings, in this case in the home of a pair of psychiatrists:

Once I bought Natasha, four years old, a black sequined blouse. For dress-up. Ms Dr Blum got furious and hollered that it was sexist. For a minute I thought she was accusing me of trying to seduce Natasha. She threw the blouse in the garbage. I retrieved it later and wear it now, sometimes, for dress-up. (32)

And a typical acute observation:

Women’s voices always rise two octaves when they talk to cleaning women and cats. (31)

These extracts also illustrate two particular skills of Lucia Berlin: the use of lists and her deadpan humour. Try her!

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. Published in 2015 by Picador 399pp

Related

You can read one short story – Friends – on Vice website here.

Dwight Garner’s review in the New York Times from August 2015.

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