Tag Archives: Emily Books

Older women in fiction: the top five posts

I am very proud of the series on older women in fiction on this blog. The reviews are among my most read posts, which means there is an appetite for fiction on this subject. Looking at the whole series it is clear that these novel writers do not want to present the stereotype of the cosy granny. Instead, they show the realities and suggest some feisty alternatives to the stereotype. Here are the five most read posts from the series with summaries and links to the comments. All are highly recommended.

mrspalfrey green1 Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

Mrs Palfrey is a widow, with a little money and some class. Not wanted by her daughter she goes to live with other elderly people in the Claremont Hotel near the Cromwell Road in London. She meets an aspiring novelist as a result of a fall and presents him as her nephew. Confusions result. There are sharp observations, gentle humour and an honest look at what it meant to be old and lonely in the 1960s and ‘70s. A lesson for today as well.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor published by Virago Modern Classics.

  1. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence (1964)

25 Stone AngelThe Stone Angel is by a Canadian and follows the slow loss of capacity by the aging Hagar Shipley as she becomes dependent upon her son and his wife. It is an arrangement that suits them all badly and as she declines further she is institutionalised. She escapes and experiences adventures and insight before she dies. She is a fighter, ‘a holy terror’ according to her son.

Thanks Litlove for the recommendation

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence published by Virago Modern Classics

  1. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West (1931)

117 All passion coverThe widow of a great man steps out of his shadow and away from the controlling impulses of her many children to live her final months on her own terms. As a result 88-year old Lady Slane meets people who have more qualities than her former husband, despite his achievements. And she herself becomes a force for good. It is set in London in the years between the wars.

Thanks Emily Books for the recommendation

All Passion Sent by Vita Sackville-West published by Virago Modern Classics.

  1. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987)

46 Moon TigerAnother feisty woman this time aged 76, a journalist, who on her death bed is reflecting on her life. We are given further insights as she is visited by people from her past. The novel, as all by Penelope Lively, provides insights into the effects of one’s past on the present, as we see from the extended passage from the diary of Claudia Hampton’s lover who died in the war. As a result we come to see Claudia’s final weeks and her whole life in a different way. This novel won the Booker Prize.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively published by Penguin Modern Classics.

5 The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972) Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

80 Summer Bk coverAn evergreen book that centres on the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter as they spend their summers on an island off the coast of Finland. This grandmother is an artist and is tetchy, wise, ailing and independent.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson published by Sort of Books

 

Some further reflections

All but one of the books explored so far in the series have been written by women. A Passage to India by EM Forster is the exception. Mrs Moore is not one of the main characters in the novel, although the idea of Mrs Moore is more extensive than her presence. You might also notice that several of them are published as classics, and that Virago is responsible for three of the five.

During the last two years I have built up a list of fiction containing older women, including suggestions from readers of the blog and twitter users. You can find it here. Please make suggestions for additions to the list.

Please add your comments to these reviews. I have noticed that people do not tend to comment on reviews of books on Bookword, or not as much as they do on other topics.

The 12th post in this series will appear in February, when I look at Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey.

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction, Reviews

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

129 Sin the St coverOn Sunday evenings the headteacher would read a book aloud to the youngest boarders. We jostled our way into his sitting room after supper and arranged ourselves on the sofa, the window seat, the chairs, the footstools, the rugs, anywhere a twelve-year old of any shape and size could fit. When we were settled Hector Jacks would start to read from The Sword in the Stone. I was reminded of this pleasure – of being read to, of the head’s warm voice, as kindly as Merlin himself – by H is for Hawk.

Wart was an outsider, and at boarding school it was easy to feel like outsiders from our families, sent to live in the strange community of a ‘60s coeducational boarding school. For Wart it came good in the end, after his strange education, transformed into a series of animals, learning from the creatures of a vanished landscape (even in the early ‘60s I knew that the countryside he described had disappeared). Wart withdrew the sword and he was King Arthur. We could all draw out the sword one day.

Arthur Pyle: How Arthur drew forth ye sword from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903) via WikiCommons

Arthur Pyle: How Arthur drew forth ye sword from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903) via WikiCommons

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

One of the themes of H is for Hawk is the troubled relationship between TH White and his goshawk. TH White wrote The Sword in the Stone and one of the animals Wart turns into is a merlin.

129 Hawk coverI could not easily leave off reading this book, it lived with me while I was doing other things – washing up, walking, checking emails. I was caught by the intensity of the writing, the wisdom revealed in the dissection of the author’s relationships with death and with a goshawk and the intermingling of her three themes.

First theme: the training of the goshawk Mabel.

I loved the descriptions of the training, (called ‘manning’ huh?) especially when they were outdoors, the slow progress, mistakes, set backs and successes. The passage about her delight in the play that she and the goshawk unexpectedly share is an example. We get minutely observed descriptions of appearance and behaviour, without it ever becoming soppy or anthropomorphic. Here is an example of her writing, describing an early hunting trip.

The next day out on the hill Mabel learns, I suppose, what she is for. She chases a pheasant. It crashes beneath a tall hedge. She lands on top of the hedge, peering down, her plumage bright against the dark earth of the further slope. I start running. I think I remember where the pheasant has gone. I convince myself it was never there at all. I know it is there. Clay sticks to my heels and slows me down. I’m in a world of freezing mud, and even the air seems to be getting harder to run through. Mabel is waiting for me to flush out the pheasant, if only I knew where it was. Now I am at the hedge, constructing what will happen next scenarios in my head, and at this point they’re narrowing fast, towards point zero, when the pheasant will fly. … I’m crashing through brambles and sticks, dimly aware of the catch and rip of thorns in my flesh. Now I cannot see the hawk because I am searching for the pheasant, so I have to work out what she is doing by putting myself in her mind – and so I become both the hawk in the branches and the human below. The strangeness of this splitting makes me feel I am walking under myself, and sometimes away from myself. (182-3)

She uses the beautiful language of hawking: muting, bating, creances. And she uses it to show us step by step about hawking.

Second theme: Helen Macdonald’s grief at her father’s death.

She is knocked sideways by her father’s sudden death and partly sees the acquisition of the goshawk as a means to heal herself. Instead it takes her deeply inside herself, too deeply. But she emerges on the other side as she comes to see the need for social interaction as well as valuing the introspection that her time with Mabel encourages. The solitariness of the hawk, the immersion in nature and the countryside will not cure her without the community of hawkers and her own family and friends.

Third theme: TH White and Gos

The book also explores the life of another outsider, TH White, who was a homosexual. After a miserable time at boarding school, he tried to become a good teacher at Stowe but left just before the Second World War. Helen Macdonald reveals that his training of Gos was cruel, despite his intentions. It arose from his attitude to education (as a teacher and a miserable school boy) not out of knowledge of the hawk. White believed that you need to face up to things, including the challenge of his goshawk. It is also the message of The Sword in the Stone, a comfort to a homesick child, but ultimately judgement is required about when to stop toughing it out, and do something else.

H is for Hawk has been highly praised in blog and newspaper reviews and is shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction (winner to be announced on 4th November). I would not be surprised if it won for the quality of its descriptive writing. I have only recently begun reading nature writing. The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane is another good read. Perhaps there is a new type of nature writing.

Links to other reviews:

Vulpes Libris in which the reviewer, Hilary, said ‘it knocked me sideways’

Emily found it ‘a staggeringly good read’, despite the fuss. Read her comments on Emily Books.

Rachel Cooke in the Guardian

Any different views? Any recommendations along the lines of people who liked H is for Hawk also liked … ?

 

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The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

This is an unusual book – in its subject matter and in its structure. In her introduction to the Vintage edition, AS Byatt reports that she had read it several times, and not always with appreciation. But for a discriminating reader she suggests ‘that it is one of those books that grow in the mind, in time’.

103 House in P coverThe story is told in three parts, framed in a single day. Part One is set in ‘the present’ (ie 1930s) in the house in Paris, where two children have been brought together because Henrietta (11) is on her way from London to stay with her Grandmother in France and is being cared for by Miss Fisher. Coincidentally, Leopold (9) has arrived on the same day from Italy and is anticipating meeting his mother, Karen, whom he has never known. She fails to turn up.

The second part recounts the story, in the past, about ten years before, of Karen and her affair with Leopold’s father. This part of the story takes us to Cork, London and the towns of the English Channel. We find how Miss Fisher and her irascible mother are involved.

Finally in Part Three we return to the house in Paris, later in the same day, and Mme Fisher’s revelations about Leopold’s past and follow what happens to the two children as they prepare leave the house. Mysteries are revealed and the actions of the adults explored so that by the end of the novel both children are able to move on to the subsequent phases of their lives, although little has actually happened.

53 EBI found Elizabeth Bowen’s portrayal of the two children especially successful. These two are affected by their expectations of the adults, but at a level that the adults do not always see. The relationship between the children is revealed with all the awkwardnesses, probing, sympathies, quarrels of two children thrown together. They are both innocent of much about the adult world, especially sexual behaviour, but both sense it, especially Henrietta and are trying to understand the consequences of adults’ behaviour. Here is the description of Leopold adjusting to his mother’s refusal to meet him.

His eyes darkened, their pupils expanding. Yes, his mother refused to come; she would not lend herself to him. He had cast her, but she refused her part. She was not, then, the creature of thought. Her will, her act, her thought spoke in the telegram. Her refusal became her, became her coming in suddenly, breaking down, by this one act of being herself only, his imagination in which he had bound her up. So she lived outside himself; she was alive truly. She set up that opposition that is love. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I shall see her some other day.’ (p201-2)

The three-part structure seems designed to get the reader to re-examine her understanding of the previous sections. Karen, in the middle part, is the key character and we follow her through the expectation of marriage, a short visit to an uncle and aunt, and then her relationship with Max. We find that she was a close friend of Miss Fisher. Coming to this second section after the tensions of Leopold’s vivid beliefs about his mother and subsequent disappointment means a reassessment of the characters in the first part. Elizabeth Bowen seems to be saying, look again, now you have this knowledge. It’s an interesting device for a novel, and Elizabeth Bowen uses it with great assurance.

The complexity of her prose, noted in my reviews of The Heat of the Day, The Last September and The Hotel, also makes you read carefully, and takes you into the psychology of her characters.

There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone.

… Henrietta turned down her eyes, smoothed her dress on her knees and remarked with the utmost primness: ‘You must be very glad: no wonder you are excited. I am excited, going to Mentone.’ Then swinging her feet to the ground, she left the sofa and walked to the radiator, above which she spread her hands. Glancing aloofly to see if her nails were clean, she seemed to become unconscious of Leopold. Then she strolled across to examine a vase of crepe paper roses on the consol table behind Charles’s chair. Peering behind the roses, she found that they were tied on with wire to sprigs of box. She glanced across at the clock, smothered a yawn politely and said aloud to herself: ‘Only twenty-five past ten.’ Her sex provided these gestures, showing how bored she got with someone else’s insistence on his own personality. Her dread of Leopold gave way to annoyance. Already she never met anyone without immediately wanting to rivet their thought on herself, and with this end in view looked forward to being grown up. (p18-9)

I found the relationship between Karen and Miss Fisher the least convincing aspect of the book. Well, not their friendship, but its survival of Karen’s affair, the role of the interfering Mme Fisher and the death of Max.

103 EBTwo things about the subject matter made an impression on me. The first is the easy way in which people of Karen, Henrietta and Leopold’s class moved about Europe during the inter-war years. Transposed to the present day, perhaps involving the Eurotunnel, this story would not seem surprising. Maybe I am just influenced by the current anti-Europe political rhetoric, but it is worth remembering that ties with the continent have been strong for some time strong, and this is reflected in much literature of the time: in much of Henry James and Edith Wharton, for example.

And the second thing is Elizabeth Bowen’s frank exploration of sexual mores at the time. Some of it is highly wrought. Here’s the moment when we understand that Karen and Max (both engaged to other people) will mean more to each other.

‘We’ll bring the tray in when we go.’

But they both sat back, her hand lying near his. Max put his hand on Karen’s, pressing it into the grass. Their unexploring, consenting touch lasted; they did not look at each other or at their hands. When their hands had drawn slowly apart, they both watched the flattened grass beginning to spring up again, blade by blade. (p119-20)

The House in Paris is a feast for a discerning reader, of the novelist’s art, of the insights into the behaviour of young people and of children.

Here are some links to Blog reviews:

There is an excellent and thoughtful review by Booksnob.

And another by EmilyBooks, who calls it a tour de force.

And yet another by Girl with her Head in a Book.

GHave you read The House in Paris? Have you anything to add?

 

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