Tag Archives: Decades Project 2020

Passing by Nella Larsen

Published in 1929 Passing was the second and final novel by the American writer Nella Larsen. The title refers to a ‘Negro’ (her term) passing as a white person. Set in Chicago and New York among the middle classes, Passing exposes the damage done by definitions and categorisation by race. The novel provides a challenge to the concept of race altogether.

This is the third book for the Decades Project (see below for more details), being my choice of books from the decade 1920-1929 highlighted in the Virago collection called Brilliant Careers.

Passing

The novel is set in the 1920s in the USA. Irene is taking tea in a department store in Chicago. To do this she is ‘passing’ for Irene is light enough in her colouring to appear to be white. ‘Negroes’ were not accepted in the restaurant. Irene was born and brought up in this city. A childhood friend, Clare, recognises her and they sit together to talk about old times. Clare is also ‘passing’, not just in the store for convenience, but she is married to a white man (unlike Irene who is married to a doctor who could not pass). Clare is a risktaker, lively and beautiful.

She is keen to spend more time with Irene, because she misses the company of ‘negroes’. She  invites Irene to tea and there Irene meets Clare’s husband. There is a shocking scene when Bellow laughingly explains why he calls his wife ’nig’- because she is getting darker with the passing of the years. And then, when Irene enquires whether he has ever met a ‘negro’ he replies:

“Thank the Lord, no. And never expect to! But I’ve known people who’ve known them, better than they know their black selves. And I read in the papers about them. Always robbing and killing people. And,” he added darkly, “worse”. (172)

There is so much to be shocked at here. The open, bragging way in which John Bellow dismisses ‘negroes’; that Irene did not challenge him; that there is such a casual racism in his criticism; and he is standing next to his wife who has been ‘passing’ for many years.

Irene is glad to return to her home in Harlem, New York where her husband is a doctor. Irene reappears some months later, wanting to mix with the lively inhabitants of Harlem. At first resistant to her troublesome former schoolfriend, Brian warms to Clare’s charms.

Fearing an affair, Irene contemplates what can be done, when she accidentally meets Clare’s husband again while she is in the company of a ‘Negro’ friend. John Bellow begins to understand and becomes very angry. This sets off a chain of events that leads to a death from a 6th floor window. Was the victim pushed or did they jump? We are not sure.

‘Passing’ in other ways

While the story of the novel is tied to the passing of ‘negroes’ there are some other kinds of passing that Nella Larsen reveals in this novel. We should also note that Irene, from who’s point of view the novel is written, is happy to pass in order to get a decent cup of tea, in other words, when it suits her, but condemns Clare’s more radical form, by which her whole married life is constructed around passing.

The term could also be used to describe other compromises people make. Irene is concerned to preserve her marriage to Brian at all costs. She would be prepared to pass as a happy wife, keeping up the nice home and the plans for their two children even while knowing Brian was sexually unfaithful. 

And what are we to make of the white folks who like to visit Harlem and mix in with the black culture? This was the time of the Harlem Renaissance after all. 

And finally passing might also refer to death.

And the reader cannot help noticing that all these other aspects are connected to the overall idea that race was a defining social category from which other issues arise.

Race in Passing

In Passing Clare has to perform being white, not being ‘negro’. This is what categorising by race does to people; also categorising by other ‘isms’. When we were writing about our ageing population we spent some time thinking about the pressures on people to act old, perform being older members of the community. Sexuality, gender and other categories must also be performed or hidden. The first two books in the Decades Project for 2020 were about young women who refused to perform as required by their families and insisted on leading their lives in their own way. 

The damage done by the category and labelling of race is exposed in Passing. The the main characters, Irene and Clare, and their husbands are all living lives that are lies. 

Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen was born in 1891. She died in 1964. She was part of the so-called Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s – 30s. She wrote only two novels because she gave up writing when she was accused of plagiarism. She was the daughter of a black father who deserted her mother who then married a Danish émigré like herself. So Nella grew up in a white family, although she was bi-racial. 

In some ways this book is dated, but it still has relevance today. I thoroughly recommend it. My book group read this a few years ago and it provoked some very interesting discussion. I know of another book group that had the same experience.

Passing by Nella Larsen was first published in 1929. I used the edition published by Serpent’s Tail (with her first novel Quicksand) in 2014. 105pp

The Decades Project 2020

This year I have returned to adult fiction and to my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20thCentury Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. I am choosing one from each decade every month. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The first two choices for the project were

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

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Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair

Here is another book about a spirited young woman who rejects what her parents intend for her: a life of submission and sacrifice. Just like the heroine and writer of the first in this series of the Decades Project, My Brilliant Career, May Sinclair describes how her protagonist, Mary Olivier, broke through to her own freedom. She also rejected marriage. This novel was first published in 1919.

This is the second book for the Decades Project (see below for more details), being my choice of books from the decade 1910-1919 republished by Virago.

Mary Olivier: A Life

We follow the life of Mary Olivier from her early years until her maturity, 1865 – 1910, in five books, written from Mary’s point of view but in the third person (or from time to time in the second person). We follow her through her struggles as the youngest child and only daughter in a middle class Victorian family. Here she is as she reached puberty.

Mamma whispered to Mrs. Draper, and Aunt Bella whispered to Mamma: “Fourteen.” They always made a mystery about being fourteen. They ought to have told her.

Her thoughts about her mother went up and down. Mamma was not helpless. She was not gentle. She was not really like a wounded bird. She was powerful and rather cruel. You could only appease her with piles of hemmed sheets and darned stockings. If you didn’t take care she would get hold of you and never let you rest till she had broken you, or turned and twisted you to her own will. She would say it was God’s will. She would think it was God’s will.

They might at least have told you about the pain. The knives of pain. You had to clench your fists till the fingers bit into the palms. Over the ear of the sofa cushions she could feel her hot eyes looking at her mother with resentment.

She thought: “You had no business to have me. You had no business to have me.” (124)

In many ways this is a book about the struggle between a mother, who is staunchly Christian and believes in a duty of sacrifice and submission for women and her daughter who is more independently spirited. Her mother is also very controlling using her meekness and dependence to manipulate her brothers and Mary into taking care of her, especially after the death of their father. In the book the love of ‘little mamma’ for Mary is always conditional and always comes after her devotion to her three sons.

In the chapter entitled Maturity, Mary is rejected by a man because she is no longer compliant. She herself would have rejected him, but for a while it makes her miserable, being jilted.

Mamma had left her alone with her [maiden] Aunt Lavvy.

“I suppose you think that nobody was ever so unhappy as you are,” Aunt Lavvy said.

‘I hope nobody is. I hope nobody ever will be.”

“Should you say I was unhappy?” 

“You don’t look it. I hope you are not.”

“Thirty-three years ago I was miserable, because I couldn’t have my own way. I couldn’t marry the man I cared for.”

“Oh – that. Why didn’t you?”

“My mother and your father and your Uncle Victor wouldn’t let me.”

“”I suppose he was a Unitarian?”

“Yes. He was a Unitarian. But whatever he’d been I couldn’t have married him. I couldn’t do anything I liked. I couldn’t go where I liked or stay where I liked. I wanted to be a teacher but I had to give it up.”

Why?”

“Because your Uncle Victor and I had to look after your Aunt Charlotte.” (221)

The novel is also about how, against the wishes of her mother, she teaches herself languages and philosophy and turns away all suitors. Sometimes this is because she is too independent, but when she finds a man she can love deeply and who is free to marry her, she still cannot bring herself to sacrifice her inner life. 

Reflection on Mary Olivier

Much of the novel is Mary’s discussion of competing religious or philosophical positions. It’s a long book – too long – and some of her dilemmas about men’s affections or philosophy are repetitive. But it must have been something of a shock at the end of the WW1 to see a woman’s intellectual life so favoured. Nevertheless she was a much-read and popular writer. 

The protest against a life of sacrifice for women has a long history. Here we see the pressures from social convention, religious beliefs, and lack of role models for young women to pursue education at that time. In this novel the restrictions are policed by the mother. I was reminded of Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton (1953). 

Another view of this novel, looking at May Sinclair’s neglected status, can be found on Heavenali’s blog last January.

May Sinclair 1863-1946

In some ways this novel is autobiographical, although it might be more accurate to say that it drew on the author’s experiences. She knew what it was to have a father who suffered from alcoholism, and to have brothers who died young. She also cared for her mother, earning their living by writing. And she too educated herself. 

There are some experimental aspects of this novel. For example her use of language to reflect the age of the protagonist: simple vocabulary and short sentences in infancy. She moved freely between using the 3rd person (he/she) and the 2nd person (you) and this seems to signal a moment of reflection about her inner life. In the last two pages she uses the first person: If it never came again I should remember. (380) 

She had written her first novel in 1897, Audrey Craven, and Mary Olivier: a life was her 13th published novel. She wrote 23 in all. She was a poet, critic and essayist. She moved in literary circles in London, unlike Mary Olivier, and was an active suffragette. With such achievements she deserves to be rescued from obscurity.

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair was first published in 1919. It was reissued by Virago in 1980. 380pp

The Decades Project 2020

This year I have returned to adult fiction and to my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20thCentury Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. I am choosing one from each decade every month. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The first choice for the project was My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

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My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

My Brilliant Career, written by 16-year-old Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin and published in 1901, is the start of a new series on the blog. This precocious writer grew up in New South Wales and knew something of the hardship of pioneer life. The title is ironic, the career of her main character, Sybylla, like her own, was not brilliant at the end of the novel.

Welcome to the Bookword 2020 Decades Project. This year I return to adult fiction and to my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. To shape my choices I am using the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. I will choose one from each decade every month. My choices will include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. I hope you enjoy this as much as I plan to.

My Brilliant Career

Sybylla’s story forms the narrative thread of this novel, told in the first person. Her circumstances change dramatically several times before she is 18, starting with the idyll of her early life in the bushlands, the family’s decline due to her father’s dissolution. The poverty that the family endure on a selection, trying to run a dairy farm, is grinding and Sybylla escapes when her grandmother invites her to live in her house, Caddigat. Here she meets Henry Beecham, who is as good a man as any and they are attracted to each other. But Sybylla refuses to commit to marrying him, preferring to retain her freedom. 

Her mother soon requires her to work as a governess to a family who have lent her father some money. She leaves the comfort of her grandmother’s house and takes up her position. But she finds the conditions too awful and has a breakdown. She returns home and Henry follows her, vowing he still wants her. She tells him that she does not want the servitude of marriage. She wants a brilliant career!

The main driver for this story is how this uppity, not beautiful young girl will evade or succumb to marriage. Her mother, aunt and grandmother all pressure her to make the best marriage she can. Her grandmother makes her views very clear, as here when she responds to a young man suggestion that Sybylla has the talent for a career on the stage.

‘Career! That’s all girls think of now, instead of being good wives and mothers and attending to their homes and doing what God intended. All they think of is gadding about and being fast, and ruining themselves body and soul. And the men are as bad to encourage them.’ (64)

Soon after Sybylla explains to her grandmother why she has rejected an offer of marriage.

‘… I would not marry him or any one like him although he were the King of England. The idea of marriage  even with the best man in the world seems to me a lowering thing,’ I raged; ‘but with hum it would be pollution – the lowest degradation that could be heaped upon me! I will never come down to marry any one –‘ here I fell victim to a flood of excited tears. (72)

It seems surprising to me that a sixteen year old writer dared to put these thoughts into the mouth of another young woman in 1901. This sentiment was hardly expressed until much later in the century I believe. At times Sybylla’s life is very hard, but she is never tempted to escape the drudgery of a woman’s lot in Australia in the 1890s by making a favourable marriage.

Another theme is the grinding difficulty of surviving, as a family and as an individual. One’s standing in the community matters and is guided by known truths (eg that women will marry or that a clean home is a godly home). Assistance when necessary comes from community and family although no one has much to spare. Another notable feature of the book is the political implication of the struggle to make a living in very difficult circumstances. She has a sympathetic reflection on those who pass through Caddagat as tramps, for example.

Sybylla appears to be a headstrong and opinionated girl, who  believes she knows better than those who are more experienced and educated than she is. To some extent she voices every girl’s experience of chafing the norms of girlhood, but Sybylla lives by her principles and will not marry. Her brilliant career was nowhere in sight at the conclusion of the book. Miles Franklin never missed an opportunity to send up her protagonist’s ambitions and failure to achieve them.

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin

Google Doddle 2014

Miles Franklin was born in New South Wales in 1879. She lived a long life, publishing many novels before she died in 1954. My Brilliant Career was assumed to be her autobiography and she refused to allow it to be republished following its first reception. She went to America and Britain before returning to Australia in 1932. She never married. 

This is not a sophisticated novel. The storyline follows the history of the writer, written with a great deal of energy and brashness. According to the introduction by Carmen Callil, the author said that she ‘conceived and tossed it off in a matter of weeks’. I am tempted to describe the writing and the main character as ‘spirited’, but I am conscious that only girls get described in this way. 

In her later life Miles Franklin encouraged other writers and especially Australian writers. She left a bequest that initiated the Miles Franklin Award in 1957. This award is given annually to a work of fiction of high literary merit which promotes Australian life. 

There is a second award in her name: the Stella Award for Australian women writers. 

Two blogs with reviews of My Brilliant Career:

Heavenali reviewed it on her blog in November 2013, noting its extravagant expression.

BookerTalk also reviewed it, in January 2019. She enjoyed it but regrets a tendency for Miles Franklin to get on her soap box in this novel.

The Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction includes an extract from the opening pages of the book where she describes the excitement of being a girl in the bush with her father.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, first published in 1901 and published as a Virago Modern Classic in 1980. 232pp

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Decades Projects 2019 and 2020

Eleven books, one chosen from each decade since 1900, reviewed each month from January, all children’s fiction, all by women – that’s what the Decades Project has meant in 2019. I have so much enjoyed choosing, revisiting or discovering the books for 2019. In previous years I have looked at fiction and nonfiction by women in the same way, enjoying the historical perspective. Here is a review of the eleven choices of children’s fiction and a preview of the theme for 2020. 

The Decade Project in 2019

Some book choices were treats as I revisited pleasures and treasures from my childhood. I so much enjoyed Ballet Shoes, for example. And then had the pleasure of finding my original copy, now coverless, when later in the year I inherited my mother’s books. The Eagle of the Ninth is a book I have enjoyed as a child, a young history teacher and again in my mature years.

I had never read The Little White Horse, but it turned out to be a favourite read of many of Bookword’s followers. Goodnight Mr Tom was another book I was pleased to read for the first time.

From 2013

All these books were written by women. It is a very special kind of closeness to read to a young person, and I was reminded of my pleasure at reading to my daughter and more recently to my two grandsons. That one of my grandsons helped with the final post for 2019 was a happy bonus.

An early theme to emerge was the number of children in these stories who lacked parents. They were dead (The Secret Garden) or absent (Five Children and It) or plain incompetent (Goodnight, Mr Tom). The young people found themselves adopted (Ballet Shoes), or in boarding school (Joan’s Best Chum), or in care (The Story of Tracy Beaker), or in magical lands (The Little White HorseA Wizard of Earthsea).

The absence of parents allowed for freedom, discovery, growing up, the exercise of imagination and the development of a certain amount of self-confidence. Some children began as spoilt brats but all ended as reasonable human beings. Some children learned early to face hardships in life, being orphaned, being black in a racist society, physical abuse, abandonment, mortal danger.

And the young people in these stories met some very interesting characters: the Psammead, the archaeologist, a unicorn, wizards, old people, dragons.

The virtues that are encouraged by these stories have not changed much since 1900: resourcefulness, imagination, empathy, resilience, risk-taking. These are all good things and long may children’s fiction encourage them. 

Here are the links to the posts for the 11 choices in this year’s Decades Project:

How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell (2003)

The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson (1991)

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian (1983)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  by Mildred D Taylor (1976)

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes  by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It  by E Nesbit (1902)

The Decades Project in 2020: 

I have enjoyed each of the three historical projects so far undertaken, so I will continue with a new project in 2020. This year I will return to fiction and to my pleasures at rereading and discovering previously published novels. To shape my choices I am going to use the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago.

And I will start, as that collection does, with My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901).

Suggestions for this new series are always welcome.

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