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Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

Born in 1893 Vera Brittain struggled against her father’s opposition when she applied to study at Oxford. She gained a place and began her studies, but the First World War broke out and all the young men she knew and cared about had to decide whether to join up. During the Great War she lost her lover, her brother and their circle of friends and worked as a Red Cross VAD in London, Malta and northern France. By the time the war ended in 1918 her world was utterly different and her youth ‘smashed up’.

In the ‘70s, when I first read Testament of Youth women were coming to understand that the personal is political, and reading Vera Brittain helped me to see that history is personal and political. She wrote this in the Foreword to the autobiographical study:

Only, I felt, by some attempt to write history in terms of personal life could I rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the war. (11)

Testament of Youth is my choice for the 1930s in the Decades Project on Bookword.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

The book’s subtitle is: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925. Vera Brittain’s childhood was mostly spent in Buxton, in a middle class family with limited expectations of young women. She wished to study at Oxford but had to battle with her father about this before being ultimately successful and awarded an exhibition at Somerville. She took her place to read English Literature, but then the First World War broke out and everything changed.

She lost her lover Roland Leighton in the first months, two more friends from their circle in the next two years and her brother in Italy in 1918. She decided to join the Red Cross VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachment) partly to match the potential sacrifices of her circle but also to do something meaningful and distracting while those she cared for were at The Front.

copyright held by British Red Cross and used with permission.

She began nursing in London, volunteered to serve overseas in Malta following Roland’s death, and finally at Etaples in northern France, close to the action. She returned to work in London in the final months of the war. Following her brothers death in June 1918 and with no one else to lose she described the final months.

And now there were no more disasters to dread and no friends left to wait for; with the ending of apprehension had come a deep nullifying blankness, a sense of walking in a thick mist which hid all sights and muffled all sounds. I had no further experience to gain from the War; nothing remained except to endure it. (458)

After the war she returned to Oxford, where she found her experiences were ignored as she describes in a chapter called Survivors not Welcome. Until she met Winifred Holtby she found life very hard, but their friendship brought new direction to her life and following graduation they planned to earn their living writing and lecturing. They shared flats and campaigning activities, often travelling abroad to find facts for the League of Nations Union. And finally she began a correspondence with an academic specialising in politics. George Caitlin is not mentioned by name. She married him in 1933 and survived until 1970.

‘Smashing up my youth’

The cost of the war for Vera Brittain was very high indeed, and her enduring pain is very evident to the reader. To reveal some of this she draws on the many letters her circle wrote to each other, and also her own poetry. Her poem To My Brother provided the title for the only collection I know of First World War poetry by women. (see below).

Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart … (434)

Her analysis includes the cost of the loss of so many men to public life in the1920s. Writing near the end of the book she recalls the situation in 1924 as she travelled through Europe, and wrote this about the rebuilding of civilisation after the war.

… the men who might, in co-operation with the women who were not too badly impaired by shock and anxiety, have contributed most to its recovery, the first-rate courageous men with initiative and imagination, had themselves gone down in the Flood, and their absence now meant failure and calamity in every department of human life. Perhaps, after all, the best we who were left could do was refuse to forget, and to teach our successors what we remembered in the hope that they, when their own day came would have more power to change the state of the world than this bankrupt, shattered generation. (645-6).

Testament of Youth was published in 1933. In 1939 Britain was again at war.

It’s a long book and very detailed about her state of mind and her many experiences over its 25 year span. Her reactions to the treatment of VADs, her experiences of nursing wounded soldiers, including German prisoners, are vivid and shocking.

Her feminism is evident throughout and set against the wider context, especially of events in Europe during and after the war. Her struggle to get into Oxford against her father’s wishes, becomes almost insignificant once the war began. But she was still summoned home to care for her mother towards the end of the war, the duty of the daughter. After the war she notes that she was, for a while, a ‘surplus woman’ but writes to Winifred Holtby that she does not regret her single status.

Her friendship with Winifred Holtby is like a gold thread in the account of her post-war years, a new friendship that supported her writing ambitions and political involvement and thawed her emotional state.

Testament of Youth Lives on

Testament of Youth is a book that seems to be rediscovered every 30 or 40 years. In 1979 it was serialised in five parts on BBC tv with Cheryl Campbell in the main role. In 2014 a film was made with Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain.

Robert McCrum put Testament of Youth as #42 on list of 100 best nonfiction books of all time in the Guardian. Here’s his assessment from November 2016.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, first published in 1933. I used the edition published by Fontana in 1979. 661pp

The Scars upon my Heart collected and edited by Catherine Reilly published Virago in 1981. I drew on this collection in a post on women’s poetry of the Great War.

The Decades Project

For 2018 I decided to find non-fiction by women for 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 the links to the first three books in the Decades Project:

Ms Jekyll and her Garden (1900-9) and

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914)

Another look at A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1928)

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Image credit: copyright held by British Red Cross and used with permission.

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Another look at A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Reading non-fiction by women for the Decades Project brings me to a classic. For March I planned to consider a book published between 1920-29, so here is Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Virginia Woolf wrote two papers for two Cambridge women’s colleges in October 1928, and combined them into the six chapters of this short book. She starts in this way:

But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction – what has that got to do with a room of one’s own? (5)

She made the connection on the next page with this famous line:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. (6)

The 1920s and A Room of One’s Own

In the first decade of last century the only nonfiction by a woman that I could find were Gertrude Jekyll’s gardening books. Eight years of suffragette activity, the Great War, ten years of votes for some women and peacetime progress came between A Room of One’s Own and Emmeline Pankhurst’s autobiography My Own Story. By 1928 the impediments to women’s fiction had been removed, claims Virginia Woolf with her tongue in her cheek: the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good.

May I remind you that there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; that after 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 – which is a whole nine years ago – she was given a vote? May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now? When you reflect upon these immense privileges and the length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning five hundred a year in one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good. Moreover, the economists are telling us that Mrs Seton has had too many children. You must, of course, go on bearing children, but, so they say, in twos and threes, not in tens and twelves. (111)

What struck me as I read this essay for the third time was Virginia Woolf ‘s description of how deep the impediments were entrenched in English society. It is a blast against exclusiveness – ‘how unpleasant it is to be locked out’ (25).

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is not gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my min. (76)

The novelist and A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf brings her skills as a novelist to make the case that women’s lack of financial independence has been an underlying cause of the failure to produce fiction in the past. She follows an imaginary young woman, Mary Seton, on an day in Oxbridge, dining first at a man’s college, where she has been denied entry to the library and shouted at for being on the grass. Then she is entertained to supper at a women’s college, altogether a more meagre affair. She visits the British Museum (meaning the Library) where she looks for books on men and women. The books on women are all written by men. Men, she observes, had also taken it upon themselves to define what women could write about – and certainly they could not write critically of men. Some of her quotations of men writing about women make your eyes water.

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. (37)

I think of all those women speaking out in the #MeToo campaign about how they were abused by men. We can understand the abusive behaviour as serving to magnify a man’s natural size.

She invents a sister for Shakespeare and shows how, despite Judith’s talents being equal to her brother’s, she would not have been able to succeed in the theatre in the 17th century. In her lyrically argued prose, Virginia Woolf explores the state of mind women necessary to write fiction. Having been required to attend to a restricted sphere, the new art form of the novel provided the opportunity to use their understanding of human interactions. She notes three of the first novelists used male names: Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte and George Eliot. She also pointed out that a writer’s ideas and artistry depends upon what has already been written.

The core of her argument is that women need financial independence and privacy. Since 1928 it has become very clear that the problems for women are deeper than £500 a year (or its equivalent) and a room of one’s own with a key. Deeper even than the pram in the hallway. We must still struggle against male patriarchy especially now we have come to understand how it is bolstered by physical abuse and sexual violence.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. First published in 1928. I used my falling apart Penguin Modern Classics edition. 112 pp

The Decades Project

In 2017 I considered one novel by a woman each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). For 2018 I decided to find non-fiction by women for each decade. For next month I am hoping to find my copy of Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1933). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are the links to the first two books in the Decades Project:

Ms Jekyll and her Garden (1900-9) and

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914)

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My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst was written as Europe approached war in 1913-1914 and published as the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) ceased their campaigning. The WSPU were familiarly known as suffragettes, distinguishing them from the less militant suffragists. It is my choice in the Decades Project for 1910-1919 on this blog.

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst wrote her story before she knew the outcome of the struggle to gain votes for women. Raised in a radical family, married to a man who promoted women’s suffrage, like many others she was frustrated by the lack of progress, despite many years of suffragist campaigning. She writes about the reasons for establishing the WSPU in 1906.

This, then, was the situation: the government all-powerful and consistently hostile; the rank and file of legislators impotent; the country apathetic; the women divided in their interests. The Women’s Social and Political Union was established to meet this situation, and to overcome it. (53)

She launched the WSPU with her daughters Sylvia and Christabel. They determined to draw attention to the cause by any means necessary until victory was achieved. In her account she relates how it was necessary to increase the pressure as they were successively knocked back. They began with peaceful demonstrations and other activities to publicise their demand for Votes for Women, such as unfurling banners at election meetings and asking ‘when will there be votes for women?’ and making speeches in as many places as possible. The campaign was aimed at recruitment of activists and at discomforting cabinet members who were resisting their demands. They were frequently thrown out of meetings. Hostility, including violent reactions, was common.

As franchise reform was repeatedly postponed by Liberal governments the WSPU took to opposing Liberal candidates in by-elections and general elections. The government’s response became more determined. Women were arrested, charged and imprisoned. Police were instructed to manhandle the demonstrators as they marched towards Parliament on Black Friday 1910.

Ernestine Mills at the entrance to Parliament November 1910.

The suffragettes aimed to cause as much difficulty as possible for the authorities, so in prison they campaigned for political prisoner status, refused to follow prison regulations, including going on hunger strike. The official response was brutal: force feeding and later the Cat and Mouse Act.

From Mrs Pankhurst’s account one learns the meaning of this brutality for individual women. They continued, devising more and more ingenious ways to thwart the authorities, and adopted tactics of guerrilla groups to keep going as leaders were picked off. Following the failure of the Conciliation Act in 1910 they escalated the campaign to include damage to property. Golf courses were damaged, empty houses set alight, post boxes burned, windows broken.

Mrs Pankhurst is voluble about the sexist double standard in treatment of political activists. Women were harshly treated by the justice system for advocating the same actions as the Irish Nationalists, although the WSPU did not go as far as taking lives. The men were allowed to get away with these crimes. The women were repeatedly arrested and imprisoned, released if on hunger strike, rearrested after a few days of recovery, and the organisation of the WSPU, including its weekly newspaper, was disrupted.

Arrest of Mrs Pankhurst in 1910

 

One learns of the determination of members of the WSPU, and especially of Mrs Pankhurst’s single mindedness. I think she was an unpleasant woman. Those who were not with her were considered her enemies. Certain that her ends and methods were right, she allowed no democracy within the WSPU.

Her arch nemesis was the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith. She spares none of her vitriol as she charts his political chicanery. Lloyd George and Churchill are not far behind.

Many at the time felt that the WSPU had set back the cause of women’s suffrage. She did not agree. Reflecting on the achievements of their campaign in 1914 she has this to say.

… It must be plain to every disinterested reader that militancy never set the cause of suffrage back, but on the contrary, set it forward at least half a century. When I remember how that same House of Commons, a few years ago, treated the mention of women’s suffrage with scorn and contempt, how they permitted the most insulting things to be said of the women who were begging for their political freedom, and how, with indecent laughter and coarse jokes they allowed suffrage bills to be talked out, I cannot but marvel at the change our militancy so quickly brought about. (326)

And what did happen to Votes for Women?

In February 1918, even before the war had ended the coalition government passed the Representation of the People’s Act which enfranchised more men (on residency qualifications) and some women: those over 30 with property or married to men with property or graduates voting in a university town. 8.4 million women gained the vote, about 43% of the electorate.

War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides. It has made it, I think, impossible that ever again, at all events in the lifetime of the present generation, there should be a revival of the old class feeling which was responsible for so much, and, among other things, for the exclusion for a period, of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise. (George Cave, Con, Home Secretary. From Hansard)

The government that introduced this legislation contained many ministers who had vigorously opposed women’s suffrage before the war. Women had to wait until 1928 to gain the vote on the same terms as men.

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914) Vintage 327pp

See also No Surrender by Constance Maud a novel by a suffragette published in 1911, republished by Persephone Books.

In March the Decades Project choice is A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, published in 1929.

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Photo Credit.  Ernestine Mills, artist and suffragist, is on the ground with gloved hands over her face. The man in top hat intervening in her behalf is Mills’s husband, Dr. Herbert Mills. Beyond the scrum of police, protesters, and spectators lies an entrance to Parliament. Daily Mirror 19 November 1910 via WikiCommons.

Photo credit: Arrest of Mrs P Nationaal Archief on VisualHunt.com / No known copyright restrictions

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Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

We have reached the 2000s and my choice for this decade is Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. In the previous 10 posts I have reviewed a variety of novels. This choice is a memoir in graphic form. The graphic form was new to me in the 2000s. And the book came out of Iran, which had seemed very mysterious since the revolution in 1979. Persepolis reminds the reader/viewer that real people live through such historical events and their lives can be shaped by them.

Persepolis: the story of a childhood

Marji’s family are connected to a former ruler of what had been called Persia and her parents are Marxists with a liberal attitude towards their only child. The memoir follows her life through the time of the revolt against the Shah when she was 10 years old, the Islamic revolution and the long war with Iraq. What did it mean to live in Tehran in those days? For some of the time the borders were closed, and for much of the time Iran was besieged by Iraq. There were extreme dangers for those who supported the old regime, for those who did not embrace the Islamic revolution and for anyone who broke the rules on the streets.

Even as a child Marji is not sheltered from the tumultuous events. Her family are implicated in the early struggles of the 20th century. She is on the streets when many are killed in a demonstration against the Shah: Black Friday. And she hears all the stories about the friends and relatives of the family as the Islamic Revolution takes hold. Always there is talk, especially after the clamp down, borders are shut and the long war with Iraq is on.

We Iranians are Olympic champions when it comes to gossip, says Marji (135) as the family discuss Iraq’s military range.

We follow Marji growing up challenging and defiant, wanting jeans, posters of western pop idols, and willing to take risks. Finally her parents decide she must leave in order to continue her education in Europe.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi was published at the same time and also revealed the horrors of being a young woman, a reader of western literature, during the Islamic revolution. The young women readers come to understand their situation through the books they choose.

Reading Persepolis

The black and white graphics, the simple drawings of Persepolis are distinctive and effective. They allow us to see through the eyes and assumptions of a child, and to cut through much of the posturing to identify hypocrisy, weak arguments, the use of force and so forth. For example, when very young she is convinced that she will grow up to become a prophet and so has a relationship with God, whom she realises resembles Karl Marx.

The simple drawings, the avoidance of colour suggest that Marjane Satrapi is reproducing the regime’s desire for conformity. In fact it also emphasises the individuality of her characters. Marji, at the beginning, has the features of a young child but she matures over the course of her memoir. I am impressed by how the artist manages to convey so many different faces and emotions in a space the size of a 5p coin.

For many western readers, especially in the UK, Persepolis was our introduction to the graphic form. It is still not as embedded in our reading culture as, say, in France where bandes dessinees have been popular for decades and have acquired accepted cultural status. In the UK they are regarded as ‘comics’ and therefore an inferior cultural form. Perhaps graphic fiction is gaining ground. The graphic short story has had its own prize in the UK for ten years, as was reported recently in this Guardian article: ‘I was in shock!’.

Marji lives on

Marji’s further adventures were recorded in Persepolis 2. Marjane Satrapi also made a movie from the original. She now lives in Paris.

Persepolis: the story of a childhood by Marjane Satrapi Published in 2003 by Pantheon 153pp

Translated from the French by Mattias Ripa and Blake Ferris.

  • ALA Alex Award WINNER 2004
  • Booklist Editor’s Choice for Young Adults WINNER
  • New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age WINNER
  • School Library Journal Adult Books for Young Adults WINNER
  • YALSA Best Books for Young Adults WINNER

The Decades Project

For the Decades Project I selected a book from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here. The idea came from my library’s Reading Passport scheme.

Previous posts in the Project

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx, 1993

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner, from 1984

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, published in 1975

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, published in 1969

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

And now …?

In December, at the end of my first year of The Decades Project, I will reflect on the experience of blogging on this topic and reveal the theme for next year’s Decade Project.

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The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx

There have been ten novels in the Decades Project so far. We have reached the 1990s and my choice is The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx. I was so pleased to reread it. It’s an excellent novel that celebrates the power of stories to build communities.

The story

Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns. (1)

Quoyle is hapless. A good word that, which in its original meaning speaks of the lack of hap, ie luck. Today it also implies incompetence. This novel is about how Quoyle found his hap.

Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clasped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds. (1)

At the start of The Shipping News Quoyle is a journalist in New York, but not competent enough to stay in employment. He is married to Petal, but she prefers to sleep with anyone else. She runs off with one of her lovers taking their two children. In one terrible week Quoyle’s parents commit suicide together, Petal is killed in a car crash having sold their children. The children are rescued and Quoyle’s aunt agrees to help him, suggesting that they move back to her childhood home in Newfoundland.

Her house there turns out to be isolated, very old, and held down by ties into the rocks. It needs a great deal of work to make it habitable. Aunt sets about getting things organised and Quoyle takes up his job with the local newspaper, the Gammy Bird. He starts out with responsibility for the shipping news, a record of which ships enter and leave the port of Killick-Claw.

He turns out to be rather good at telling stories about the boats, and just about everyone they meet has a story to tell, often connected to boats, fishing and the sea. Quoyle, Aunt and the two girls gradually connect to their new community, through work, supporting each other, making friendships and love affairs, and telling their own stories.

By the last page Quoyle has learned a good lesson.

And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery. (337)

Some reflections

The theme of knots and knitting runs through this novel. (I could have said threads). Quoyle’s name is a variant of coil. We are told that ‘it may be walked on if necessary’ (1). He needs straightening out. The woman who will do it is called Wavey. Many of the characters knit. Knots appear in the headings of the chapters, often with line drawings taken from The Ashley Book of Knots. One character uses knots to conjure magic spells. Knots, of course bind, and are essential to those who live with boats.

Another theme is of sexual abuse, especially within families. The Gammy Bird runs a column on SA stories in every edition. For one character, only when her story of abuse is revealed can she live in peace in Killick-Claw.

I love the writing of this novel. Frequently sentences appear abrupt, often because pronouns have been omitted, or phrases such as ‘there were’, or verbs. It has the effect of putting the reader alongside a character.

We have weather, the changing seas, the mysteries of the local small islands, the seafood diets, creative and handy people, and above all the stories. By the final page Quoyle has found his hap for he is now the editor of the Gammy Bird and takes part in telling the story of his community.

Annie Proulx

This year Annie Proulx won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, noting especially her ‘deep reverence for the beauty and complexities of rural America’. Now known simply as Annie Proulx, she has written other novels, short stories and memoirs. The Shipping News won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. Kevin Spacey and Judi Dench starred in the 2001 film adaptation of the novel. While it does not capture the full subtlety of the novel – how could it? – it was good, not least for the grainy appearance of the Newfoundland setting. Brokeback Mountain in the collection called Close Range was also made into a film. I enjoyed Postcards (1992), but have to admit that I didn’t get far with Barkskins (2016).

(Photo Annie Proulx in 2009 US Embassy in Argentina, via wikicommons)

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx (1993) 4th Estate. 337pp

The Decades Project

For the Decades Project I have selected a book from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here. The idea is from my library’s Reading Passport scheme.

Previous posts in the Project

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner, from 1984

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, published in 1975

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, published in 1969

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 2000s

I have not yet decided what to read for the final two decades – 2000s and 2010s. Suggestions are always welcome.

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Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi

Bookword has reached the 1970s in the Decades Project with this novel from Egypt. I read Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi when it was first published in English in the 1980s. Like many readers I was shocked by the brutality and suffering in Firdaus’s story. It took its place among the important literature of the so-called second feminist wave.

In the project we have moved from Anglo-centric literature to a novel in translation and originally written in Arabic.

The Story

Woman at Point Zero is introduced as a true story, and framed by a psychiatrist’s visit to a woman’s prison where Firdaus is awaiting execution. The psychiatrist, requests an interview with the condemned woman, but she is refused until her last night. She summons the doctor and tells her story.

Firdaus was born with two disadvantages: being a female and to parents who lived in poverty. She lives her whole life on the margins. She is orphaned while still young, and then taken by her uncle to Cairo where he sends her to primary school. On his marriage she boards at secondary school, which she loves. But on graduating she is married off to an old man, a relative of her uncle’s wife. The old man is one in a long line of men who treat her badly, exploiting her sexually, forcing her into domestic servitude and beating her on any excuse. She runs away and is rescued by the next abuser, and the pattern continues until she is rescued and groomed by a madame.

She leaves this comfortable life when she understands that she is as exploited by the woman as by the men, sets herself up as a prostitute, and for the first time knows financial independence and wealth. But the life still depends upon men, so she gives it up to work in an office, but is betrayed again by a man she fell in love with and who only wanted to exploit her sexually for free, she returns to prostitution.

But this is threatened by a gangster who offers her protection, from his own violence. She kills him. She has reached the point where there is nothing, point zero. Her freedom is to die.

Why Firdaus’s story matters

Her story is recognizable in the lives of all women, despite the novel being set in Egypt, despite being written 40 years ago, and despite her career choice. The abuse is recognizable in our own society today. Women still suffer from violent abuse, and we still struggle with residual beliefs that women’s role is to service men.

At the time it was published in English Woman at Point Zero reinforced everything that the second wave of feminism was uncovering. It was passed around and discussed widely in my circle.

Towards the end of her account Firdaus tells us about the bleak prospects for women to escape persecution.

All women are victims of deception. Men impose deception on women and punish them for being deceived, force them down to the lowest level and punish them for falling so low, bind them in marriage and then chastise them with menial service for life, or insults, or blows.

Now I realized that the least deluded of all women was the prostitute. That marriage was the system built on the cruellest suffering of women. (117-8)

Her feminism is best understood as a criticism of capitalism, supported by Islam in parts of the world.

Nawal el Saadawi

Nawal el Saadawi by Mansour Nasiri via WikiCommons

Born in 1931 at 86 Nawal el Saadawi is still alive, and still speaking out. She was trained in medicine and psychiatry and Firdaus’s story is based on the life of a woman she visited in prison. Nawal el Saadawi worked for improved help for women in Egypt, as Director General for Public Health Education. Women who stand out often become enemies of prominent men and in 1981 she herself was arrested and imprisoned by Sadat’s regime. She was released after his assassination later that year. She worked for a time in the US but has returned to Egypt where she is still in the public eye, for example she was among the protestors in Tahrir Square in 2011.

Early in the novel Firdaus, still a child, suffers genital cutting. The practice of genital mutilation has only recently been taken seriously in this country and appears to be acceptable in other parts of the world. Nawal el Saadawi is one of the most distinguished voices in the campaigns against FGM.

Her second novel was published in1976 God Dies by the Nile, and her study of Arabic women, The Hidden Face of Eve, a year later. In 2016 she explained how hard it was to get her voice heard she says this:

The colonial capitalist powers are mainly English- or French-speaking … I am still ignored by big literary powers in the world, because I write in Arabic, and also because I am critical of the colonial, capitalist, racist, patriarchal mind set of the super-powers. [quotation from Wikipedia, from an article in the New African]

Woman at Point Zero takes its place in my plans to read more Women in Translation (#WIT) as well as in the Decades Project.

Woman at Point Zero Nawal el Saadawi, first published in 1975 and in translation by Zed Books in 1983. 142 pp

Translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata, her third husband.

The Decades Project

The idea for the Decades Project originated in my library’s Reading Passport scheme. I have adapted it by selecting a book from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it on this blog.

Reading passport 315

Previous posts in the Project

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, published in 1969

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1970s

I have not yet decided what to read in September for the decade of the 1980s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1990s (October) and 2000s (November).

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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

Last month, June, in my Decades Project I reached the 1950s and the first book from Africa: The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing. This month we have reached the 1960s. Fiction, serious fiction, moved beyond our atmosphere to use the idea of life on other planets. The Left Hand of Darkness is one of Ursula LeGuin’s best known and celebrated novels. In it she takes us into a fictional world where strangers are aliens, technology determines much of life, and no practices, including our deeply embedded gender relations, can be considered as fixed.

The Left Hand of Darkness

I came to read this novel following my pleasure in The Earthsea Trilogy. In these children’s books among the adventures and dragons was the importance of knowing the names of things. Being able to name an object or person or being gives you power over them. Think of the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin from the Brothers Grimm. Indeed the power of naming is akin to the power of writing. To write is to have power over something, to understand it, to manipulate it, to tell alternative version of it.

The Left Hand of Darkness felt like an important book when I first read it, probably in the ‘70s. In particular the idea of a society not dominated by gender difference felt timely. In 1976 Marge Piercy published Woman on the Edge of Time, which explored the same territory of the gender neutral. It is indeed a challenging idea. The novel goes yet further and considers human relations across many other boundaries, some of which are taken-for-granted assumptions. And in the end it proposes the possibilities of loving relationships between peoples and individuals despite huge differences and difficulties. It is as relevant now as it was when it was published in 1969.

The Story of The Left Hand of Darkness

Gently Ai is an envoy from the Ekumen, a loose affiliation of planets all occupied by humans. He has come to the appropriately named planet Winter to test out the possibility of extending the Ekuman arrangement with the agreement of the peoples of this planet. Winter is cut off from other planets by distance, and the humans have developed a different reproductive cycle. They have also not developed flight.

Gently Ai is black, male, about 30 and regarded as a pervert for his sexual characteristics. His cause is taken up by Estraven, the Prime Minister of one of the countries on this planet, but it is not clear whether Ai can trust him. Social practices make it hard for them to play the nuanced game of diplomacy and in a political coup they are both exiled to the neighbouring country. Here with different, but also challenging social practices and more political machinations Ai is imprisoned. Estraven rescues him and they undertake a long winter trek across uninhabited regions of ice, volcanic eruptions, rocky mountains and glaciers. They return to Estraven’s country and Gently Ai’s and the Ekumen’s mission is successful, although Estraven dies in the escape.

The two men develop a friendship as they cross the icy wastes. Their differences are huge: Ai is a man like those from Earth who must not show fear and must not cry. Estraven is skilled in diplomacy and not offending; he also has skills in survival. The two countries have very different ways of going about governance, but these ways fail to protect them from power-hungry people, and political manoeuvring. The different attitudes to the Envoy, to hospitality, trust, criminals, belief in the possibility of things being other (imagination?) are all explored.

Reading SF often feels like overcoming hurdles. I was able to get through the issues of different naming systems, words invented for the planets and for the technological paraphernalia, to get to the heart of the story. And I was moved again on this rereading.

Ursula LeGuin

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

The author was the daughter of two eminent anthropologists, and this interest in peoples and how they arrange their lives is evident in all her fiction. She has also written about writing (Steering the Craft), and her book reviews have appeared in the Observer. LeGuin is never one to waste a good idea, she added to the Earthsea Trilogy: Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. The Left Hand of Darkness is the first of the Hainish Cycle.

I am planning to explore her ideas about imagination next month, using the essay called The Operating Instructions. It can be found in her recent collection Words are my Matter (2016).

Cover of First Edition

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin first published in 1969. I used the edition published by Orbit in 1992. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

The Decades Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.

Previous posts in the Project

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1970s

I have decided to read Woman at Point Zero (1975) by Nawal El Saadawi in August for the decade of the 1970s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1980s and 1990s.

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The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

Reading a novel from each decade shows up the sudden changes in literary practices. One such moment occurred when Doris Lessing’s novel The Grass is Singing arrived on the literary scene of post-war London. Published in 1950 it was like nothing that had come before. Doris Lessing had recently arrived from Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. She brought with her Peter, her youngest child, and the manuscript of this novel. Her writing was tough and implicitly political. It was a new kind of novel, new in terms of location, material and treatment. Doris Lessing went on to forge a long career in fiction until she died in November 2014. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007.

It is for these reasons that I have chosen The Grass is Singing for the 1950s in my Decades Project (see below).

The novel The Grass is Singing

The opening chapter poses the question: why did these people behave in the way they did? There was a murder, why wasn’t more pity shown for the victim? Of for her husband, who has gone out of his mind? What did the murder reveal about relations between the natives and the white farmers? This is not a whodunit. Moses, the houseboy confesses when the native police arrive.

In this first chapter we are introduced to the characters, the location (a small farm in Southern Rhodesia), and the attitudes of local white people through the eyes of the newly arrived manager Tony Marston, a young man who is due to take over the management of the farm. Charlie Slatter, who runs the neighbouring farm very profitably and Sergeant Denham appear to be warning him about his reactions to the murder and this alerts the reader to relationships that will be unfamiliar.

From the second chapter the narration becomes more omniscient as Doris Lessing begins to chart the early life, marriage and disintegration of Mary Turner, the victim. Mary had an impoverished and unhappy childhood, but was able to escape to Salisbury (now Harare) where she was happy with a job in an office, accommodation in a hostel and an active social life without intimacy. She was not looking for marriage or children until she overheard her friends suggesting that there is something wrong with her. From this moment she latches onto the idea of marriage and when Dick Turner appears in her life they quickly decide to marry.

She moves out to Dick’s farm where it quickly becomes apparent that she is out of place and that she has mistaken ideas about marriage. And so does Dick. He is a farmer, but has no success. Her role is to manage the house, by managing the houseboy, a native. Brought up with no contact with natives and having absorbed the white population’s distain and fears, Mary is incapable of being decent towards them. Indeed, while supervising the field workers during a bout of Dick’s malaria, she strikes one of the workers when he dared to ask for a break for water. This is Moses who later comes to work in the kitchen.

Doris Lessing leads us towards the eventual breakdown between Mary and Dick, and the disintegration of both Turners.

Reading the novel

Reading this novel for the third time I am struck again by how tough a read it is. Mary’s response to words overheard, to her marriage, to the poverty of the farm, to the heat and the other conditions of life on the veldt, these are described in harsh detail. One can only be disappointed in her inability to see more clearly and to extricate herself from her difficulties. So often she just sits vacantly. The men who turn up at the scene of the murder believe that Mary had ‘let the side down.’

But over all this is the shocking brutality of the racist society in which she lived. What Mary had done was have a relationship with a native. It was a very distorting and unhealthy relationship but

[Tony Marston, the recent arrival] would see the thing clearly and understand that it was ‘white civilization’ fighting to defend itself that had been implicit in the attitude of Charlie Slatter and the Sergeant, ‘white civilization’ which will never, never admit that a white person, and most particularly, a white woman, can have a human relationship, whether for good or for evil, with a black person. For once it admits that, it crashes, and nothing can save it. So, above all, it cannot afford failures, such as the Turners’ failure. (26)

And for ‘white civilization’ read justification for colonization, or for exploitation of the African population, or repeated abuses of human rights.

Doris Lessing seems to be telling us that we are all tainted by this idea of ‘white civilization’, even the poorest of the whites, the most incapable of the white population, and certainly the abused black people, they are all damaged by society based on racism.

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, first published in 1950 by Michael Joseph ltd. I used the edition from Flamingo (1994) 206pp

The Decades Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.

Previous posts in the Project

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1960s

I have decided to read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin in July for the 1960s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1970s and 1980s.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (1)

These are the famous opening words of the fourth novel in my Decades Project, and we are into the 1930s. It’s the era of the talkies, threats of European war, the country house and its hierarchical servants. We have moved from the cosy village whodunit of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, set in an unchanging village society in Devon to a large house in the next county. Cornwall is the setting for this psychological-romantic thriller.

The Story

A young girl, (we never know her name) is plucked from nothing. She narrates the story of her marriage to Maxim de Winter and the brief period when they lived at Manderley. From her dream in the first chapter we know that something bad happened here and that she no longer lives in the beautiful house. And from the second chapter we learn that she is still devoted to her husband, Maxim de Winter, but they live a solitary life in continental hotels. ‘Manderley is no more’.

The narrator met Maxim in Monte Carlo while she was employed as a companion to the most awful Mrs Van Hopper. Her employer is a snob, who sees the narrator as a nothing. Indeed, the narrator looses no opportunity to tell us she is poor, unremarkable to look at with lank hair and a flat chest, and with awkward social manners resulting from shyness. Maxim is 42 but despite the difference in their ages they enjoy each other’s company while Mrs Van Hopper is ill.

Maxim rescues the girl from her employer, marries her and takes back to Manderley. In her new home everything serves to emphasise the young bride’s differences to the previous Mrs de Winter, who died about 9 months earlier in a boating accident.

The most sharply drawn character is Mrs Danvers, the Manderley housekeeper. Our heroine is disempowered by Mrs Danvers, the expectations of their social group, and the unfamiliarity of a large country house. In her mind she builds the picture of Maxim’s previous idyllic marriage, and lives in her mousey way under Rebecca’s spell, increasingly believing that Maxim does not love her and is still in love with Rebecca.

When Rebecca’s boat is recovered, her noxious cousin and lover raises the possibility that Maxim murdered her. Maxim tells his new bride what actually happened and that he loathed Rebecca and loves his new bride. Eventually the tensions are allayed when it became clear that Rebecca was gravely ill and engineered her own death.

Reading the story the reader is caught up with the naivety of the young bride, feeling her gaucheness, her uncertainty about her new life, the pernicious influence of Mrs Danvers, and her inability to understand Maxim’s behaviour towards her. It is a kind of Jane Eyre, Cinderella, or imposter syndrome story. The poor wee little girl gets her man and his wealth in the end.

There is an alternative way of looking at this story, and readers who wish to retain the idea that Rebecca is a lovely romantic novel should read no further.

Menabilly House, Fowey, Cornwall, in 1920s – the inspiration for Manderley. via WikiComons

What Daphne du Maurier asks us to believe in Rebecca

The romantic view of Rebecca asks the reader to accept the following more cynical and less romantic reading might lead one to asks how the author gets us to accept the following:

Maxim is a neglectful and unkind older man who picks an innocent young woman to marry. Maxim is a man of the world, and at 42 on a few weeks’ acquaintance marries a gauche girl with very little polish or anything else to recommend her. He gives her very little help in her new responsibilities at Manderley. This is left the agent Frank Crawley.

The hero treats his wife badly. He is bound up with himself and his concerns and gives her no help in unfamiliar social engagements, the running of the house, her relationship with Mrs Danvers or, crucially, the nature of his previous marriage. He allows her to founder and she suffers.

Maxim is a murderer. He murders a woman who has just told him she is pregnant.

The narrator is especially feeble when confronting the house that has been moulded by Rebecca. She does not change the furniture, the food, the flower arrangements, acquiesces to everything Mrs Danvers or Maxim has arranged. Rather prone to imagining how things might be, she never even drams of putting her mark on the house or on Maxim’s life. I found her very feeble, always twisting her handkerchief in her fingers.

When Maxim confesses to murder his second wife hears only that he did not love Rebecca. He is a murderer. He is a wife murderer. But he loves her not Rebecca. She stands by him, excuses his crime, supports him in the efforts to pervert the course of justice.

They run away to Europe despite being exonerated. The house is destroyed by fire, probably by Mrs Danvers at the instigation of Rebecca’s foul cousin, so the De Winters go abroad and hide, desperate for news and the old rituals of Manderley. They are not happy.

Daphne du Maurier’s writing

Rebecca is a classic novel, loved by many. But it invites the reader to collude in the unassertive behaviour of the narrator and in the acceptability of a heinous crime. It is a crime even if Rebecca was a monster. (We never get to see her except through Maxim’s and Mrs Danvers’ accounts.) It is a crime even if it is suicide by enraged husband (a variation of the American suicide by police) Maxim did not know that Rebecca was ill and that she feared a slow and painful death above all else.

Perhaps we are distracted by Mrs Danvers and the other vivid characters. Mrs Van Hopper is a delight, a stupid version of Mrs Catherine de Burgh. Each of the Manderley servants, Maxim’s sister are all believable characters, and sometimes very humorous.

I got a little fed up with the endless speculations of the narrator on the possible explanations or outcomes of every situation. It’s a long novel and many of her fears could have been reduced or avoided I felt.

Hitchcock’s film

Any reading of Rebecca is influenced by the 1940 Hitchcock film starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. Hitchcock did not allow his hero to shoot Rebecca, by the way. Her death during a struggle was accidental.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) Virago Modern Classics (2003) See the afterword by Sally Beauman 441pp

The Decade Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I am reading one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1920s in February and so on and review them here.

Previous posts in the Project

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905.

The next decade: 1940s

I am still musing on what to read from the 1940s for May’s choice. I am tempted by They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1950s and 1960s.

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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

This is my third post in the Decades Project, and we are into the 1920s. This classic whodunit was published in 1926. The genre was already established. Hercule Poirot had appeared in two previous novels. He solves the mystery of who killed Roger Ackroyd despite protesting that he wanted to retire. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was voted best crime novel ever in 2013 by the Crime Writer’s Association.

We are a decade on from O Pioneers! and oh so far away. This is cosy, unchanging rural England, where people are putting The Great War behind them and where people still know their place.

The story of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

We have many characters with the motivation to kill Roger Ackroyd, and many activities designed to throw the reader off the trail of the killer. There is a little back story: Roger Ackroyd, who is very rich, was about to marry a widow Mrs Ferrars. Mrs Ferrars was being blackmailed because she poisoned her brutish husband. She commits suicide, but has written to Roger Ackroyd to tell him who the blackmailer is.

On the point of revealing the identity of Mrs Ferrars’s blackmailer, Roger Ackroyd is found dead and her letter is missing. There is a nephew who benefits from his death; his sister’s daughter whose smallest bills he was in the habit of scrutinising; a creepy housekeeper with a secret she will hide at all costs; a manservant who creeps about; a housemaid who is not what she seems; a male secretary who may be greedy; a big game hunter, likewise; and a mysterious stranger seen at the house around the time of the murder. Our narrator is the village doctor Dr Sheppard, who has access to all households. What he doesn’t know his sister Caroline is sure to discover and gossip about. These two are able to keep the reader well informed.

Who is to solve the mystery? Poirot has retired to King’s Abbot in Devon, hoping to grow vegetable marrows and stay out of the limelight. His friend, Captain Hastings is in the Argentine so it falls to Dr Sheppard to act as Poirot’s sidekick and to ask the questions we want answered.

No spoilers here. But the ending has the requisite clever twist.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie in 1925

Born in Torquay in 1890, Agatha Christie has probably sold more novels than any other writer – 2bn copies. She lived in interesting times. She met and married her husband in 1914. He went off to the war in the newly formed Royal Flying Corps and she signed up as a VAD nurse. After the war she continued her reading and writing, and in the year that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published she disappeared for six days. Her marriage was in difficulties. Divorced in 1928, she got remarried 2 years later to an archaeologist, Sir Max Mallowan. Already familiar with Cairo she frequently accompanied him on his expeditions. Egypt and the Middle East form the background to many of her novels. During the Second World War she worked in a pharmacy in London. She lived until 1976, aged 85.

She had written 66 detective novels and 14 collections of short stories. They have, of course, been adapted for tv and film.

Greenway House in Devon was Agatha Christie’s holiday home, and it was from here that Allen Lane was travelling when he had the idea for Penguin paperbacks. Greenway House is now a National Trust property.

My reflections

It’s a very long time since I read a detective novel, and it was interesting to notice the plotting. Although I enjoyed reading this classic murder-mystery it has not converted me to an enthusiasm for the genre.

As a historical artefact it was interesting. It is set in the 1920s, when vacuum cleaners were a new fangled idea, but the novel celebrates continuity of the village community in rural England. John Major’s vicar’s wives are cycling past warm beer on the village green in the background. It’s not like that now, and I wonder how much was disappearing even then. The decades have brought changes here in rural Devon just as surely as in New York and Nebraska (the locations of the two previous novels in this series).

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. First published in 1926. I read the Penguin 1948 edition, a gift from my sister. 250pp

The Decade Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped each time you complete a book from a different decade. I like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I am reading one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1920s in February and so on and review them here.

Reading passport 315

Previous posts in the Project

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905.

The next decade: 1930s

I plan to read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) for April’s choice. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

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