Tag Archives: feminism

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

When this novel was published in 1962 the era of permissiveness (if it ever existed) was just about to begin. I was about to enter my teenage years. It seemed as if everything about our social mores was being questioned, including especially marriage and sexual partners. What I remember most from my first reading was the scene where the narrator broke down in Harrods household linens department.

What did I come here for? Why did I walk, in the spring, along a mile of pavement? Do I want bed rest, a barbecue, a clock like a plate or a satin stole, or a pepper mill or a dozen Irish linen tea towels printed, most beautifully, with the months of the year? April brings the primrose sweet, scatters daisies at our feet. I am beginning to cry. I stand in the bloody great linen department and cry and cry quite soundlessly, sprinkling the stiff cloths with extraordinarily large tears. Oh, what has happened to you, Mrs Enterprise, dear? Are your productions limited, your trusts faithless, and what of the company you keep? Think of those lovely children dear, and don’t cry as the world turns round holding you on its shoulder like a mouse.
But I cried just the same. The doctor they sent me to was expensive and Jake said, ‘Do you think you’re going to get over this period of your life, because I find it awfully depressing?’ (p28-9)

What I remember about the film (1964) was how beautiful Ann Bancroft was and what a bastard Peter Finch portrayed as her husband. His reaction to her Harrods tears is typical of his narcissistic gaslighting.

The Pumpkin Eater

This novel is quite short and easily read within 24 hours. The story is told by an unnamed narrator, a woman, who recounts her breakdown and the failure of her 4th marriage. She has many children (unnumbered) and Jake and her doctor assume that she should therefore be very happy. But she finds Jake’s affairs very distressing. She finds his absence on location very distressing. And she is outraged that her husband will support his mistress’s baby despite having persuaded her to agree to an abortion and sterilization. And she is furious when he blames her for her reaction, claiming that she agreed to the operations.

Jake seems incapable of understanding his wife’s point of view. Her psychoanalyst seems unable to understand her either.

‘Apart from everything else you feel about him, all your conflicting emotions … Do you like him?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Not very much.’
‘That’s my impression. Why don’t you like him?’
I tried to think. One by one I turned over the possible reasons for disliking Jake: he is a coward, a cheat, he is mean, vain, cruel, he is slovenly, he is sly. ‘I … I don’t know,’ I said. (67)

The title

It’s a strange title, and the epigraph points to its origins. It seems like it comes from a Grimm fairy tale. But Wikipedia tells us that its origins are in English nursery rhymes.

Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her.
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.

Jake does keep his wife, but not very well.

The 1960s

The introduction to the Penguin Classic edition by Daphne Merkin, makes the point that Penelope Mortimer predated Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer when she wrote about ‘the claustrophobic grayness and casual betrayals of upper-middle class marriage’ (vii). ‘Permissiveness’ was on its way. But she was not celebrating the advantages that less strict social codes would bring women. Indeed you could say she was providing a warning.

Motherhood and maternity

The most surprising thing about our narrator is that she has lots of children, the oldest three are casually sent off to boarding school to accommodate her marriage to Jake. She loses touch with them. Nor does motherhood seem to act as a break upon her behaviour, and certainly not on Jake’s. The damage to their children from their dysfunctional relationship does not appear to have troubled the characters or the writer.

Psychological support

It certainly seems as if the expensive doctor to whom she is sent following her Harrods breakdown, is part of the structure to maintain the status quo, when men can demand that women subjugate their lives and wishes within the marriage. The doctor at times seems more interested in Jake, a successful movie director, than in his wife’s troubles.

Teenage episode

An episode from her childhood gives one hope that Jake’s wife would not sacrifice herself. When her school friend Irene comes to stay, the teenagers find themselves at odds about the imperative to attract the attention of boys. There is a telling scene where Irene arrives at the railway station and is not recognizable.

Irene was wearing what I later heard her describe as a powder blue costume. Her hair was rolled in a perfect sausage at the nape of her neck, and another bobbing over her rather low forehead. She wore high heels, a necklace and lipstick. She was carrying a handbag as well as a suitcase. I thought she looked perfectly frightful. I was horrified. (46)

The contrast between the two girls could hardly have been greater. Irene, who is 14 and a half, plans to spend her time provoking the attention of boys. ‘I felt sick with shame for her.’ But although she doesn’t follow Irene’s example, and although she has had three previous marriages, the narrator has expectations of the marriage that she cannot share with Jake and it causes her great pain.

Rereading this novel made me realise how far things have improved, as well as how far they still have to go, in the matter of marriage and relations between men and women. It would not be acceptable today for women to suffer the gaslighting that Jake subjects his wife to. And he would be expected to have more sympathy and understanding of her life, not assume that because they are married it is all okay, everything he does. 

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer, first published in 1962. I used the Penguin Classics edition from 2015 with an Introduction by Daphne Merkin. 144pp 

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This novel was chosen by my book group to read in June, proposed because it kept appearing in lists of books that everyone should read. Some of us had read it before, but we were all happy for it to be on our list. I was one of the readers in the group who had read it before, probably in the late 1970s (that’s the date of the edition I own). I may have read it before, but I had completely misremembered the second half. I do remember that it made an impact on me the first time, and it certainly did again as I prepared to discuss it with the group.

The Bell Jar

Esther Greenwood narrates the novel, which is based on Sylvia Plath’s own experiences. It begins in New York in 1953.

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.
I thought it must be the worst thing in the world. (1)

These opening sentences set the tone. Esther doesn’t know what she is doing, and she is thinking about death. She also has a sharp turn of phrase: goggle-eyed headlines; fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway; burned alive all along your nerves.

These themes continue throughout the 258 pages and twenty chapters of this novel: Esther’s lostness; her interest in death and her facility with words.

Esther has a scholarship at her rural college and has won a prize of a month’s internship on a New York fashion magazine with eleven other girls. She is disappointed with the experience, finding more fun in escaping from the group and with Doreen to escape into an ill-advised adventure. On her return home she is devastated to find that she was not accepted onto a writing course she had been counting on, and her life continues to go downhill, as she contemplates and then attempts suicide. Her treatment includes receiving ECT and finding a good psychotherapist which allows her to finally emerge into the world.

The novel was published first in the UK, under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas in 1963. Shortly after its publication Sylvia Plath committed suicide. She was 31 years old. The novel was later published under her own name, finally in America in 1971. She also published several collections of poetry.

It’s difficult to read this novel without thinking about her ultimate death, and without wondering what happened in her life that she found living so hard. 

Here are some thoughts from our book group discussions.

In the 1950s it was hard to be born female and not to conform to the stereotype of womanhood being promoted (including by women’s magazines) at that time. Esther has a boyfriend, Buddy Willard but it is clear from his first mention that she has little intention of marrying him, despite his prospects as a doctor.

[Because] I did look down on Buddy Willard, and although everybody thought I would marry him when he came out of the TB place, I knew I would never marry him if he were the last man on earth. (54) 

Her impetus towards independence, like her friend Doreen, would have been a struggle even for a bright young girl in the ‘50s.

Another aspect of The Bell Jar is that novels about suicide and the desire to end one’s life were not common in the 1960. At our group we had previously discussed All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews from 2014, another novel based on real experience. It tells the story of a Canadian woman trying to prevent her sister from taking her own life. Reading The Bell Jar today is all the more poignant for knowing that Sylvia Plath did take her own life. The novel does not explain her determination, only chronicle it.

Which leads me to mention another feature of The Bell Jar. It is a novel full of emotion, anxiety and concern, frustration and fury, fear and humour. But the language used is stripped of emotion. All that feeling is expressed through her way of writing. Here’s an example from a moment towards the end of her time in New York.

I also had a dim idea that if I walked the streets of New York by myself all night something of the city’s mystery and magnificence would rub off on to me at last.
But I gave it up.
It was becoming more and more difficult for me to do anything in those last days. And when I eventually did decide to do something, such as packing a suitcase, I only dragged all my grubby, expensive clothes out of the bureau and the closet and spread them on the chairs and the bed and the floor and then sat and stared at them, utterly perplexed. They seemed to have a separate, mulish identity of their own that refused to be washed and folded and stowed. (109)

Later, in a glorious scene the clothes are all thrown out of the window! 

Another feature of her writing style is her imagery, frequently amusing. Humour is present for a good deal of this novel, often in the description of other people. All 12 of the young women who had won the prize to be in New York come down with food poisoning. Esther had been afraid it was caused by her greedy consumption of caviar, but it turned out to be the crab meat. The description of the girls throwing up is both amusing and rather disgusting. 

This extract, where she meets the psychologist Dr Gordon, makes me smile.

I curled in the cavernous leather chair and faced Doctor Gordon across an acre of highly polished desk.
Doctor Gordon waited. He tapped his pencil – tap, tap, tap – across the neat green frilled pf his blotter.
His eyelashes were so long and think they looked artificial. Black plasti8c reeds fringing two green, glacial pools.
Doctor Gordon’s features were so perfect he was almost pretty.
I hated him the minute I walked in through the door. (135)

Eventually the bell jar lifts. The bell jar is her description of the way in which her depression and suicidal wishes are experienced. It’s a compelling and somewhat grim experience to read this novel. It is hard not to regret the loss of such talent when a writer dies so young, with such promise. However it’s a demanding novel that deserves to be read by all serious readers.

You can read my thoughts on All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews – from Bookword in 2015. Click on the link.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, first published in 1963 by Faber & Faber. I used the paperback edition, first published in 1966. 258pp

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Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

A conversation with another reader led me to Mansfield Park. She said that she had picked it up again after many years and found that it was a rewarding experience. I decided to have another look too. Many questions remained from my first reading. Why is the novel named after a house? What was so dreadful about the young people enjoying theatricals? Is Fanny Price a prig? Is it Jane Austen’s most boring book? Would it be worth rereading?

Of course it was worth rereading. Jane Austen’s books are all worth reading countless times. You will always find new things in them. I can’t remember when I last (or first) read Mansfield Park, but it wasn’t within the last 14 years. I know because I have kept a log of all the books I read since April 2006.

Mansfield Park

This novel was published in 1814, the first book she wrote after she became a published writer. Sense and Sensibility had appeared in 1811 and Pride and Prejudice in 1813. 

The story follows Fanny Price, brought from Portsmouth at age 10 to her aunt’s house, Mansfield Park, which is in rural Northamptonshire. She grows up with her four Bartram cousins, a fragile and quiet young person, happy to avoid the spotlight and befriended only by her cousin Edmund. Sir Thomas Bartram is called away for more than 12 months to his plantations on Antigua, taking his spendthrift elder son with him. While he is away Mary and Henry Crawford come to stay at the nearby vicarage, with their sister who is married to the clergyman, Dr Grant. The Crawfords have come from London and bring gaiety and colour to life in the big house. Tom Bartram returns to England before his father and when he returns to Mansfield Park he is followed by Mr Yates, whom he met at Weymouth. This young man has ‘habits of fashion and expense’. He brings with him a longing to resume amateur theatricals, cut short by a family death at his previous visiting place. Fanny opposed the play, seeing all its dangerous potential and then observing the behaviour of the actors. 

The rehearsals for Lover’s Vow are interrupted by the return of Sir Tomas Bartram, who is horrified to find that his family have indulged in such an activity, which might compromise the reputation of one daughter, Maria, currently engaged to a wealthy neighbour.

Henry Crawford turns his attentions to Fanny, intending to make her fall in love with him, but finds that he falls in love with her. Everyone is in favour of the match, except Fanny who steadfastly refuses his attentions. She has observed his behaviour towards women, stoking the rivalry between the sisters Julia and Maria, encouraging Maria when she was already engaged to Mr Rushworth. The reader knows that on top of her understanding of Mr Crawford, Fanny loves Edmund, who is caught in the seductive coils of Mary Crawford. 

Her uncle sends Fanny back to Portsmouth to reacquaint herself with her family. While she is away disaster strikes the Bartrams: Tom falls gravely ill, Maria (now a married woman) runs off with Mr Crawford, and Julia elopes with Mr Yates. Fanny is needed at Mansfield Park where he judgement of Mr Crawford and her stance on proper behaviour is seen as justified. It ends happily.

Fanny Price

Fanny Price is often referred to as a prig, someone who is smugly self-righteous and narrow-minded. I was struck on this reading by how the action revolves around her, without her involvement. She joins the household, she bears the taunts and barbs of her second aunt (Mrs Norris) and the neglect by most of the family. She is almost omitted from the visit to Mr Rushworth’s estate. The young people tour the grounds and she is quickly abandoned by Edmund and Mary, witnesses the flirtation of Henry Crawford and Maria Bartram, and notices the display of jealousy by Julia. 

Being quiet, compliant, passive, guided by the men of the family, useful to her aunt Bartram, Fanny was all that was seen as good in young women in the early 19th Century. Yet it is possible to make a case that Fanny displays feminist behaviour, for Fanny is defiant in the face of Mr Crawford’s marriage proposal. He appears to be everything a penniless young woman should hope for: landed, rich, accomplished, true he is rather short. But he is a good horseman, and an obliging companion, especially to women. Fanny sees beyond his appearance and cannot respect this man. She makes up her own mind, refuses to be guided by her uncle, or seduced by wealth (as Maria is in her marriage to the luckless and dim Mr Rushworth). She embodies sincerity and an ability to distinguish between appearance and hypocrisy on the one hand, and truth and sincerity on the other. In standing up for herself she is neither priggish nor passive.

She is shocked by Mary Crawford’s light-hearted dismissal of the role of the clergy, shocked because this is Edmund’s chosen profession, and she displays disrespect and lack of consideration to Edmund. And shocked because Fanny values good clergymen. She does not support the idea of the theatricals because she can see the dangers to which it may expose the young people. She is right; Henry Crawford teases Julia by taking on the role of Maria’s lover. These two rehearse their scenes to excess, and often in private. 

Through Fanny’s eyes we can see that the Crawfords bring, from London, a love of display, money, and an emphasis on appearance. When Maria is known to have run off with Henry Crawford, Mary hopes that it can all be covered up and remain a secret. This attitude appals Edmund and he immediately gives up the idea of marriage to her. For him, as for Fanny, the shame is in the act, not in the discovery of it.

And we see the chaotic family from which Fanny escaped when she returns for a couple of months to Portsmouth. Her mother is coping with too many children, her father is uncouth. Her brothers are noisy and quarrelsome. The maid is not up to her responsibilities and Mrs Price is unable to teach her to do better. The household is a stark contrast to the orderliness and quiet of Mansfield Park.

And throughout the 48 chapters Mrs Norris has been behaving with great toxicity. She has indulged the two girls, exploited every occasion to her own advantage and taken every opportunity to put Fanny down. Sir Thomas has begun to see her hypocrisy when he returned from Antigua, surprised that she had not exerted her influence to prevent the theatricals. One of her many meannesses was to deny Fanny a fire in her attic rooms. Even as she defies Sir Thomas in his wish for her to marry Henry Crawford, she is touched to discover that he has countermanded Mrs Norris’s order and henceforth she will have warmth in her rooms. 

By the end of the novel those that conduct their relationships through hypocrisy and deceit, or by valuing appearance over substance, or who do not value the natural setting of the countryside, its avenues, wildernesses, prospects, these people have been found wanting. Mansfield Park and its rather intimidating owner stand for proper behaviour, as in propriety, for genuine unselfishness, consideration of others and orderly life. London and Portsmouth serve as contrasts to its gentle manners.

Mansfield Park – the house

It is the representation of these values that led Jane Austen to name the book after the house. And any well-informed reader of the time would have been aware of the Mansfield judgement of 1772 in the case of a Black slave James Somerset. According to David Olusoga 

To those who heard it, and to those who were to read about it later, the judgement appeared to grant freedom not just to James Somerset but to all black people in Britain. (Black and British p137-8) 

Much has been made of the undercurrents related to slavery and the slave trade in this novel. Sir Thomas Bartram’s wealth, after all, comes from his plantations in Antigua. Naming her book, which would reference the judgement, we can imagine that she was drawing attention to decency in relationships with people beyond your circle as well as within it.

The reader is also conscious of a great deal of wit, humour and sharp exposure of her characters. This lifts any danger of this novel being too worthy. 

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, published in 1814. I used the edition from the Penguin English Library (1966) 457pp

Related posts on Bookword

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Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Secrets in Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

In the Society of Jane Austen

Pursuing Jane Austen

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Difficult Women by Helen Lewis

I loved reading this book for two reasons. First, it validated being a difficult woman, that is considered to be difficult every time I objected to something sexist. Second, it was my history. I am solidly and proudly a ’second wave’ feminist. Additionally, it provided perspective on some developments in gender politics during my life. 

Difficult Women: a history of feminism in 11 fights

The full title gives you an idea of the content and structure of this book. Helen Lewis explores eleven fights in the history of feminism and you could probably predict what they are. Some have not yet been won, others began a very long time ago. Each one, as Helen Lewis shows, was pushed forward by one or more women who were seen as very difficult.

Christabel Pankhurst and the fight for the vote
Marie Stopes and sex
Jayaben Desai and the Grunwick strike
Maureen Colquhoun, the first openly Lesbian MP
Sophia Jex-Blake and women’s medical education
Erin Pizzey and women’s refuges
And and and

In each of the eleven fights women refused to be quiet or withdraw their objections, and each of them were vindicated in the longer term. 

In my own past I think of access to contraception for unmarried women, divorce reform, abortion rights, equal pay, maternity leave and childcare. I became a pregnancy counsellor for the centre in a nearby city after being active in the campaign to provide access to abortions in my local area. I learned so much from that work, not least about the agonies for women contemplating abortions.

I was one of the first to apply for maternity leave in the same city, in 1977. It was granted, but the vitriol meted out to me by my colleagues was hard to take. I was taking a man’s job, I was told. I learned the truth of the phrase she quotes more than once: to have it all you must do it all. I became a single mother, wanting to progress my career, to be able to take advantage of living in London, but finding that my life was exceedingly tough for several years. 

And so my personal struggles were often feminist struggles. This is true for Helen Lewis too, although she is at least a generation younger than me. As we used to say – the personal is political.

Omissions

Two omissions from this book sadden me. I spent my professional life working in schools or on school improvement in the university. I worked in London schools from 1982. These were the years of school curriculum reform, and analysing classrooms from perspectives such as racism, sexism and class. We considered the curriculum that we had inherited and adjusted it for all the children in our schools. From 1988 such freedom was removed from teachers and the curriculum became defined as the knowledge and skills that children needed to acquire at certain points in their lives.

We also looked at how gender relations operated in classrooms. How boys dominated, demanded attention, and occupied the extremes of behaviour. We looked at how teachers prejudged children, by gender, race and class background within seconds of meeting them and considered how to change this. We looked at girls’ aspirations beyond school and tried to raise them. My first published book was on the subject of gender and pastoral care. I was an editor and had a chapter in it.

All this feminist work in schools is overlooked by Helen Lewis, as she focuses only on Higher Education and training men to be teachers in primary schools.

More curious for the overall story of feminist fights is her silence on the Greenham Common protest, a hugely significant political struggle and a very feminist form of activism, women protesting without men. It is mentioned once in relation to contradictory press coverage of the participants. I remember Greenham as an existential battle to remove US missiles from Berkshire, one led by women who sacrificed large parts of their lives to set up a camp around the base and stay there. I joined them in the Embrace-the-base event in 1982, along with my mother, and my sister and our three children. We had a banner quoting Mrs Thatcher on The Falklands: the wishes of the islanders are paramount

Embrace the Base 1982 via Wiki Commons

Women also played a significant and differentiated role in supporting that other great political battle of the 1980s, the miners’ strike. The miners’ wives were heroic and inspirational in their attempts to support the fight against the miners’ unions.

Divisions

One thing Helen Lewis does capture is the long tradition of divisions within the feminist movement, or rather feminist movements. Caring passionately about something means you disagree passionately with others who might also be engaged in change. We label each other and thereby exclude fellow travellers; sometimes we heap scorn and fury on them. Helen Lewis describes how, having become deputy editor of the New Statesman, she earned the opprobrium of many women, who were able to publicly voice their views on social media and in other fora.

I find myself wanting to avoid the current differences in the views about transgender people, not clear about my own opinions, not clear about the issues involved, but witnessing great hurt and anger in the exchanges. 

Helen Lewis

Helen Lewis finishes Difficult Women with a call to put every advance, every step gained into the structures of our society and with a manifesto for difficult women. It begins like this:

The Difficult Woman is not rude, petty or mean. She is simply willing to be awkward, if the situation demands it; demanding if the situation requires it; and obstinate, if someone tries to fob her off. She does not care if ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’. She is unmoved by the suggestion that it’s ‘natural’ for women to act a certain way or accept a lower status. It probably isn’t, and even if it is – so is dying from preventable diseases. No one thinks we should succumb to cholera just because it’s traditional. 
The Difficult Woman has strong beliefs … (329)

Her writing style is journalistic, which makes it lively. While she draws on her own experiences there is also plenty of evidence to support the arguments, referred to in the text, and listed in the final pages. She’s currently a staff writer on The Atlantic. Wikipedia reports that in 2012 she coined a useful note-to-self called Lewis’s Law

the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.

Difficult Women: a history of feminism in 11 fights by Helen Lewis, first published in 2020. Available in paperback from Vintage. 356pp

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The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I wanted to read more Angela Carter. I picked The Bloody Chamber as the timing was auspicious for a zoom lecture and discussion I planned to join. Ah me, the best laid plans and all that. I managed to miss the session. And perhaps there were dark reasons for this consistent with the black tones of the stories?

The Bloody Chamber

This collection of ten short stories are based on well-known tales, such as Blue Beard, Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast and Puss-in-Boots. They were published in 1979, at the height of feminism’s second wave. The stories are of different lengths, one as long as 34 pages, another only two. 

Angela Carter explained that she wanted ‘to extract the latent content from traditional stories’. Just pause a moment to consider that phrase ‘latent content’. How often in fairy stories are young women, nearly always young and beautiful women, rescued by handsome men, or their fathers, from sleeping, or being eaten, or some other gruesome fate? What about the other girls? What about the women who were no longer virginally attractive to men?

What Angela Carter does in their retelling is to suggest some alternatives. Take the truly terrible story of Blue Beard, who murders each of his wives, and keeps each victim in a room in his castle for the next wife to find. The story is retold by the final wife in The Bloody Chamber. She is about to be beheaded when she is rescued by her revolver-toting mother, who hearing distress in her voice over the telephone comes at all speed to rescue her. See what she did there? A little dose of modern day sprinkled into an old tale. 

Feminism in The Bloody Chamber

So the introduction of feminism into these tales is very welcome. The reader, female or male, must ask why, in traditional fairy tales, women and girls are represented in the ways they are. And how would the world look if power did not lie only with men? How would the world look if sexual relations were built not on pain and subjugation?

The result is a flamboyant and exuberant set of stories. 

To begin with, the heroines are often strong young women, with intelligence and respect for others. The protagonist of The Bloody Chamber is a lonely young woman, with a talent for playing the piano. Her new husband has offered her huge wealth, and isolation in a castle with its own piano. Of course, there is a key on the ring which he entrusts to her, that she must not use. But of course she does. And what she finds is horrifying. Because she has disobeyed him, he intends to kill her. 

Or, in The Courtship of Mr Lyon, Beauty is a thoughtful and perceptive young woman. Helped by the beast’s spaniel, she comes to see that she could be happy with Mr Lyon. She is not helplessly caught up in his spell as in the original story. And so on.

One of the themes is that domesticity can be a horrendous trap. Again, the castle in The Bloody Chamber is seamlessly managed, the décor is beautiful, delicious meals arrive, all comfort is provided. But the secret is in the chamber where the previous wives have been horribly murdered and arranged as if in domestic situations; on a bed, under a sheet, or impaled by an Iron Maiden. An Iron Maiden is not very domestic, but note its name.

The dangers in distorted male sexuality is another aspect of these stories that is hard to read. Blue Bear of course, but the tiny story of The Snow Child is deeply disturbing and entirely about a man dominating his wife. (She rejects it, but only after we have seen his vile attempts to impose his will on her).

The style of The Bloody Chamber

Angela Carter’s writing is gloriously flamboyant, extravagant and exaggerated, as fits the origins and subversions of her stories. Some of it is joyous. I loved the story of Puss-in-Boots, and our hero, like Figaro in The Barber of Seville that she evokes at the start of the story, is wonderfully naughty, impish and daring. He has his own side-line in feline amorous pursuits, but he happily and ingeniously engages in supporting his human friend to defeat the pantomime older man who has married an attractive young woman. The story is told with swagger and bravado, entirely appropriate to this engaging adventurer. Puss-in-Boots tells how he became the owner of the boots one night as he sang of his passion:

Do you see these fine, high, shining leather boots of mine? A young cavalry officer made me the tribute of, first, one; then after I celebrated his generosity with a fresh obbligato, the moon no fuller than my heart – whoops! I numbly spring aside – down comes the other. Their high heels will click like castanets when Puss takes his promenade upon the tiles, for my song recalls flamenco, all cats have a Spanish tinge although Puss himself elegantly lubricates his virile, muscular, native bergamasque with French, since that is the only language in which you can purr. (68)

There is so much fun to be had in that paragraph, and also much to be admired in the language and vocabulary used. It is operatic, although the subject is an attempt to stop feline caterwauling. 

The imagery used in these stories also underlines her purposes. In The Bloody Chamber the protagonist describes the removal of her clothes by her new husband ‘as if he were stripping the leaves off an artichoke’ (15). We can notice again, the male attempt to control the woman and where there is the additional notion of him consuming her.

In the bloody chamber itself, so full of horrors, the young pianist finally comes across the corpse of her husband’s most recent, Romanian wife. 

She was pierced, not by one but by a hundred spikes, this child of the land of the vampires who seemed so newly dead, so full of blood … (29)

Every sense is enticed in these stories, not just visual ones as in the spikes and the blood. But she draws on taste (I love artichokes and they have a rich and complex taste and texture. The image of peeling a young woman like an artichoke I fin to be alluring and disgusting in equal measure.) There are plenty of sounds, and music is a frequent aspect of hearing: the piano, the opera, the caterwauling, locks and keys and birds. And touch, our sense of touch is fully activated: furs, cold keys, spikes, roses and thorns. Smell, lilies, and blood, and wine and other exotic aromas.

When I read The Magic Toyshop recently, I said in my post that I wanted to read more of her work. It took something of a strong stomach, and required some trust in the writer because even now I find her to be shocking. It is not just the material, the inversion of traditional subjects, but the language in which she coaches her insights  into the reader’s awareness. In the post I said of The Magic Toyshop, ‘I loved its magic, its sensuality and the creative way in which abusive behaviour is revealed and gets its comeuppance.’ 

Angela Carter

Angela Carter (1940 – 1992) was born in Eastbourne, UK. She spent some of her childhood with her grandmother in Yorkshire as an evacuee. After school she followed her father into journalism, and then to Bristol University. She wrote novels, short stories, articles, as an editor and translator and in TV, film and radio. 

Her biographer Edmund Gordon refers to her ‘subversive intelligence’ which  contrasted with the sober social realists who dominated fiction in the ‘60s in the UK. 

If you have stuck with me this far, I will reveal the reason I missed the online session about The Bloody Chamber. I am discomforted by the prolonged effects of the pandemic, and this manifests in missing appointments and muddling up times – which I have done a few times recently. No bloody chambers here!

See also the post on The Magic Toyshop (1967) which was included in the Decades Project in 2020 on this blog.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, published in 1979. I read the edition from Vintage, 1995. 126pp

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Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns

Benefits was written by a woman almost exactly the same age as me. We were young at that time: 31 years old. It was Zoe Fairbairns’ third novel. In Benefits she presents us with a vision of the future, seen from 1979, in which women continued to be controlled by technical, political and chemical means. It’s always attractive to consider what a writer got wrong or right about  the future. The details are different, but we should remember that today withholding benefits, Universal Credit, is used to punish the poor for any transgressions: failed appointments, mistakes, and unreported changes in circumstances. 

Benefits is my choice for the 1970s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). The Female Eunuch had been published in 1970 and The Feminine Mystique in 1963.  Women were widely involved in feminism and women’s liberation. Consciousness raising groups of women were everywhere. Benefits rises out of the concerns of the late 70s.

Benefits

Set in a dystopian future beginning in the late 1970s, women are threatened by a government that starts off by awarding benefits to mothers and gradually begins to control their lives through the benefits and then through an even more sinister project.

The story follows two women. One is Lynn, a kind of middle of the road feminist, who is not unhappily married, has a daughter with a chronic illness, and who participates in the commune in the abandoned high rise: Collindeane Tower.

Marsha also drifts into the orbit of the commune, and takes up with Polly, a bossy Australian feminist who would like to take charge, but ultimately flees back to Oz, taking Marsha with her.

Another character is David Laing, a former social worker with a coffee habit and a controlling nature who becomes a minister. He is able to see the problems with the welfare system at the start of the novel, but is unable to engage sufficiently with the women who he knows. Peel, his subordinate and later his successor,  has a damning view of Laing, an early expression of the anti-boomers rhetoric we still hear today. 

He was of the soft generation, of the post-war guilt-ridden child-obsessed baby boom. They rode a roller coaster of gratuities: free milk, free cod liver oil, free schools, free medicine, free grants to go to college … it was Peel’s view that the trauma of the seventies, the sudden realisation that the party was over and they couldn’t get what they wanted by slapping on the label rights and howling, had blighted the generation for life, had rendered them incapable of understanding how life works. (168)

The policy shifts and changes, beginning with the benevolence of benefits paid into the purses of mothers, objected to by trades unions which were dominated by men who did not want to pay more taxes for the benefits; subsequently compliance was required to qualify for the benefits and ultimately to control women through narrow qualifications.

Any woman of child-bearing age seen on the streets without children in tow ran the risk of being stoned, spat on or refused admission to public buildings or transport. Some reported attacks by gangs of men who threatened a repetition if the women did not go back to their children. The policemen wrote down the details carefully. Then they said, ‘Are you sure you didn’t ask for it?’ (140)

Ultimately, as part of a shady deal with Europop to control women’s fecundity through chemical means, the whole thing unravels, helped by the violent death of Laing and the inspired children’s strike by women. 

Women’s issues

In the ‘70s women were struggling with question about organisation, living arrangements, leadership and how to improve their lives. Has that changed? Women’s lived experience must be put up against policy to check its value. By interweaving the stories of Lynn and Marsha and others, the author is able to show how distorted were the governments seeking to control women.

Of course Zoe Fairbairns did not know about Mrs Thatcher’s government and where it would take us in terms of cutting back the welfare state, and the industrial economy. She did not see the political division over the closing of the mines or the Falklands War, the Poll Tax and later the Iraqi war and years of austerity, let alone Covid-19. 

But the desire to control people, especially women, by those in political power remains. Today some of it is by the appeal to a past that did not exist, to ideas that are corroded and by denying or ignoring the outcomes of poor decisions and actions.

Zoe Fairbairns

Born in 1948, she began her writing career early, having two books published before she left university. She worked in women’s publications and journalism, including Spare Rib and continued to publish novels and short stories. Her most recent book is on writing short stories. 

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979) published by Virago. 214 pp 

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I am exploring previously published novels by women. I am framing my choices from 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. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The most recent  choices for the project are

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

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Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Are there any readers who have failed to notice this book? It won the Booker Prize 2019; it is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020. It sparkles. It’s about 12 people – girls, women and one other. I am highly recommending it.

Girl, Woman, Other

This is a long book, divided into five chapters and including an epilogue. The first four chapters each feature the stories of three people. Each story is connected to others in this collection, and the connections help it to zip along with energy.

Its epicentre is London, a London with which I became very familiar and where I lived and worked for 35 years. Most of that time I lived in Hackney, and worked either in the city’s secondary schools or at the Institute of Education, which was part of the University of London at that time, teaching teachers on masters and doctoral courses.

During that time the so-called Second Wave of feminism died down, although those of us struggling in a discriminatory world did not feel that we were in any way in post-feminist times. During that time, girls were still experiencing growing up on terms decided by men. There remained a great deal of discrimination, on the grounds of class, ethnicity and gender identity. It was hard for the young people in the schools, and hard for young women in the poorer areas. 

Bernardine Evaristo covers this ground, and more. Her imaginative ability to conjure up these lives interacted with my memory of these times, and added the important ingredient of experiences of minority ethnicities.

Her characters engage with discrimination, migration, heredity, gender identity, marriage, parenthood, abusive relationships, struggles with education, employment, and so on. So much of life is here, with a female and black emphasis.

She has written beautifully about this kind of territory before, not least in Mr Loverman, set in the Hackney I knew, it could almost have been in my street!

What the judges saw

Passionate, razor-sharp, brimming with energy and humour, a must-read about modern Britain and womanhood … Dazzling. [Booker Judges quoted on the cover, quoted on the back cover of the Penguin edition]

There is so much to enjoy in this book, not least the way in which it is written. I do not recall another book that has so many main characters, and which links their lives in ways which illuminate their own and other stories. The multiple stories are told vividly, and not restricted to London or to suffering although every person featured, like every person on the planet, has to engage with the difficulties and beauties of life. 

And she has adopted a somewhat restless style of writing: the text appears to be divided in traditional ways. There are chapters, with subdivision within them. On the page the text appears to be in paragraphs, but they are constructed of a main sentence or starter and then continue with a series of subclauses. Here’s an example from the start of the novel:

Chapter One
Amma
1
Amma
is walking along the promenade of the waterway that bisects her city, a few early morning barges cruise slowly by
to her left is the nautical-themed footbridge with its deck-like walkway and sailing mast pylons
to her right is the bend in the river as it heads east past Waterloo Bridge towards the dome of St Paul’s
she feels the sun begin to rise, the air still breezy before the city clogs up with heat and fumes
a violinist plays something suitably uplifting further along the promenade
Amma’s play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, opens at the National tonight (1)

I love the way this innovative form allows for multiple experiences, unfinished ideas, variation, and, in this opening statement, tells us a everything we need to know about who is featured, where and when and it alerts us to a significant event later that same day.

As I say, I highly recommend it and I am sorry our book group decided to read eleven other books this year, I would have liked to have discussed it with them. Maybe next year. But my enthusiasm has confirmed my daughter’s interest, especially as I told her she will find her school and college friends here, and our neighbours from when she was growing up.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019). I read the Penguin paperback edition. 453pp

Connected posts

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (2013) from Bookword in August 2014

HeavenAli reviewed Girl, Woman, Other on her blog in October last year. You can find her review here.

And an interesting list of recommendations provided by Bernardine Evaristo appeared on the Penguin site in March 2020

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The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

What life was there for older women, especially an older widow, in post-war England? Despite all the changes of the previous half-century and two world wars that had required women to take on more active roles outside their traditional sphere of the home, in 1951 there was no role for older women. For widows of a certain class, anyway, such as Louise.

The Winds of Heaven is the 33rdin the series on older women in fiction. You can find a list of all those previous posts and readers’ recommendations on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.

Louise in The Winds of Heaven

At the start of the novel Louise, who is about 60, has been widowed for a year or so. Her husband was a bully and put her down at every opportunity. He left her with nothing except debts and a sense of shame.

Louise has no reason to live anywhere in particular and no resources to make choices. She has three daughters and a school friend and they accommodate her in dreary rotation. Winters are spent on the Isle of Wight in Sybil’s out of season hotel. When the summer visitors arrive Louise begins another sequence of visits to her three daughters.

The daughters are all preoccupied with themselves and the difficulties they have created. Louise has three relationships that are respectful. Her oldest grandchild, Ellen (11), needs more indulgent adults in her life and she forms a strong bond with her grandmother. Her son-in-law Frank treats her with respect and is thoughtful about her situation. And Louise meets Gordon Disher in a Lyons teashop in the opening scene. She spills her tea on the lurid paperback he is reading: The Girl in the Bloodstained Bikini. It turns out that he is the author, and that like her he leads a lonely life, in his case selling beds in an Oxford Street department store.

When her winter sojourn at her friend’s Isle of Wight hotel comes to an abrupt end Louise has no one to turn to, and nowhere to stay. The final crisis and resolution follow quickly.

Feminism in The Winds of Heaven?

When the winds of Heaven blow, men are inclined to throw back their heads like horses, and stride ruggedly into gusts, pretending to be much healthier than they really are, but women tend to creep about, shrunk into their clothes, and clutching at their hats and hair. (1)

This is the opening paragraph of the novel, intended to be taken literally but the image of creeping about in the face of buffeting is apt for Louise. The wind is a recurring image in the novel. Louise certainly creeps about, not rugged but shrunk into her unsatisfactory life. With no resources she feels unable to find a way out of her situation.

Louise produces some very strong reactions among recent reviewers:

The Captive Reader found her pathetic and was disappointed in the novel.

A Corner of Cornwall saw the validity of this view but also found Louise likeable.

She Reads Novels was more enthusiastic.

But Booksnob found that Louise spoiled her reading of the novel, despite Monica Dickens’s humour, warmth and observations, because she wanted the author to suggest Louise could do with some courage and ingenuity and a be given a kick up the backside.

My own view is that Louise is very much of her age (I mean the 1950s) and class and furthermore has been subjected to abusive behaviour by her husband, neglect by her daughters and disdain by society as a whole. Her efforts at courage and ingenuity are usually failures. She is very sympathetically drawn. But I would not condone her level of passivity in older women today.

That Louise is pathetic, lacks agency and is far too obliging is a condemnation of the time she lived in and its attitudes to older women. It was not easy find a role as a widow in the 1950s, especially without financial means. Is it any easier today?

Everything in Louise’s life has conspired to make her rather timid and grateful for anything. Her husband treated her badly, undermining her at every opportunity.

She had borne three daughters, to her surprise, for her husband had set his heart on a son, and Louise was in the habit of giving him everything he asked for. That she failed to give him a boy with a long conceited nose like his own to look down on the world had not helped raise his opinion of his wife’s helpfulness to society. (1-2)

In her widowhood she continues to try to do right for others, but it often goes wrong. An ill-judged remark, an inappropriate gift, helpful actions that turn out to undermine the settled order of things; such moments reinforce her sense of being unwanted and outside society.

Despite revealing Louise’s terrible fate as an older woman Monica Dickens gave her a romantic and happy-ever-after ending.

Other widows in fiction have faced similar difficulties: Louise makes reference to ‘those dismal ‘residentials’, where they farm out most widows’ (209). I think immediately of Elizabeth Taylor’s wonderful Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont in which Mrs Palfrey makes a good go of living in such a place. And Lady Shane in All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West simply ignores her children’s decisions for her when she is widowed and choses her own rather surprising path.

Monica Dickens

Monica Dickens (1915-1992) famously said that her aim in writing was ‘to entertain rather than instruct’ and hoped that readers would ‘recognise life in my books’. She was a rebel. Expelled from school, brought out as a debutante, she rejected the life mapped out for her and decided to go into service, and then into nursing. She used these experiences in One Pair of Hands (1939) and One Pair of Feet (1942). After the war she married an American and lived for much of her adult life in The States. Her great-grandfather was Charles Dickens. She was a writer all her life and had already published 10 books before The Winds of Heaven in 1955.

She is on the list of authors identified by Jane (beyondedenrock blog}: A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. Her birthday was 10thMay. Thanks to Grier for recommending this novel for the series.

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens, first published in 1955. Republished by Persephone Books in 2010. 320pp

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A Tribute to Ursula le Guin

Ursula le Guin died on 23rd January 2018. We lost two inspirations on that day. Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpeter, also died. Hugh Masekela was my sound track in the ‘90s. In exile he played his accessible and lively jazz. I heard him once at the Town and Country Club in London and again at the Free Nelson Mandela Concert in Hyde Park in June 2008. Remember Bring him back home (Nelson Mandela) and Soweto Blues? Both involved in the struggles for freedom and equality.

Humanity of Ursula le Guin

The South African Hugh Masekela and the American writer Ursula Le Guin shared a belief in the power of the imagination, and also the determination not to compromise democratic principles. Masekela endured the traumas of apartheid and exile.

Ursula Le Guin endured treatment as an outsider, as an “other”. As a woman at Radcliffe in the 1940s she was not quite at Harvard. As a woman writer she was treated with disdain and was ignored. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy she was dismissed. Yet she held onto her ambitions and her determination and has written powerfully about voice, ageing, beauty, death, women writers and the publishing industry. In her tribute Margaret Atwood praised Ursula Le Guin’s thought experiment. I salute her long career fighting against exclusion and discrimination.

Ursula le Guin the storyteller

Her narrative talents are evident in all her fiction. Many, like me, have been attracted to her novels for young people, in particular The Earthsea novels, and gloried in the stories well told. There are important moral ideas in these novels, about growing up, responsibility, self-awareness and the power of language.

I would recommend the Earthsea Trilogy to anyone who has not read them, as well as her many books and short stories for adults.

Ursula le Guin’s approach

In an interview with John Wray in the Paris Review from 2013 she reveals her essential interest as a writer.

I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches. …

INTERVIEWER

What it is that draws you to this “trying on” of other existences?

LE GUIN

Oh, intellectual energy and curiosity, I suppose. An inborn interest in various and alternative ways of doing things and thinking about them.

That could be part of what led me to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one. And, in a deeper sense, what led me to write fiction, maybe. A novelist is always “trying on” other people.

We can read this playfulness as she tries out various ideas about what society might be like if one element was different. One example that appeals to me is The Left Hand of Darkness which explores what a society might be like that is not founded upon gender distinctions. The Dispossessed plays with ideas about anarchy and Natasha Walter, writer and activist, recently picked it as her life-changing book.

I suspect that searching for one answer was a common masculine approach to writing in the mid-20th century and one reason why she was marginalised. Her work was described as science fiction or fantasy, labels used to marginalise the writing. Yet it was precisely her ability to open up questions, to consider other possibilities, other lives, to challenge ‘othering’ and discrimination that appealed to me when I first met her writing.

Ursula le Guin on writing

In addition to her fiction Ursula Le Guin has written many essays, and provided some guidance for storywriters. Steering the Craft (1998) has the subtitle Exercises and discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator and the Mutinous Crew. In this book she provides many insights for writers and writing groups, including the importance of sound and rhythm in writing. She quotes Virginia Woolf often, explaining

I find her thought and work wonderful in itself, useful to anyone thinking about how to write. The rhythm of Woolf’s prose is to my ear the subtlest and strongest in English fiction. (47)

I have referred to her wonderful essays in Words are my Matter in previous blogposts, especially her ideas on imagination and how it is not the same as creativity and why writers need it and how to develop it in two posts: A Writer trains her Imagination and Imagination and The Operating Instructions.

Ursula Le Guin has referred to the instrumental view of learning and literacy summed up in this way: ‘Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions’. She ends by endorsing the central significance of literature.

The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we are visiting, life. (6 Words are My Matter)

She has plenty more to say in these issues about a range of topics.

Some Playfulness

I love her way of spiking some worn-out arguments, like the use of the generic pronoun “he” to include “she”. It doesn’t.

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter…

That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon.

This is from another collection of essays: The Wave in the Mind (another quote from VW). She writes well on ageing too:

I know what worries me most when I look in the mirror and see the old woman with no waist. It’s not that I’ve lost my beauty — I never had enough to carry on about. It’s that that woman doesn’t look like me. She isn’t who I thought I was.

This is another example of her ability to magically combine playfulness, imagination and seriousness. I wish I had read that essay when we were writing about ageing.

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

I will miss both formative influences – Ursula Le Guin’s and Hugh Masekela’s. You won’t be surprised to learn that I have been listening to his music while I have been writing this post. Thank goodness we have their recordings and books to return to.

Some references

I must remind readers of the BrainPickings blog which present writers’ ideas so well.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

The Wave in the Mind: talks and essays on the writer, the reader and the imagination by Ursula Le Guin (2004) published by Shambhala Publications

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

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

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A Reckoning by May Sarton

The story of this novel about an older woman who is dying of cancer may have put you off. The situation is not a comfortable one: Laura Spelman has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and told she has a year or two to live. She wants to make the best of the final stage of life, to choose whether to have treatment or not, how she lives, with whom she keeps company and to make some kind of reckoning of her life.

Safely inside [her car] she sat there for a few moments sorting out the jumble of feelings her interview with Dr. Goodwin had set whirling. The overwhelming one was a strange excitement, as though she was more than usually alive, awake, and in command: I am to have my own death. I can play it my own way. … I’ve got to do it well. (p7)

68 M SartonWe follow her through her final months and learn about the compromises she had to make. It turns out not to be possible ‘to have my own death’. Nor can she manage to play it her ‘own way’. But she starts out well. Laura tells people in her own time. And at first she rejects dependency upon others, but soon has to allow others to help her, especially her housekeeper and her doctor, and comes to appreciate their professional care. She also finds that other people have demands to make of her: her children and sisters in particular.

Reckoning can means several allied but distinct things:

  • A computation
  • A statement of an amount due, a bill
  • An account for things due or received
  • An appraisal or judgement
  • Retribution (as in Day of …)
  • And in nautical use ‘dead reckoning’ means finding your position through a calculation on direction and distance (rather than on astrological computation).

Any focus on older women in fiction is going to explore living in the shadow of death, ask questions about what it is to be an older woman. In everyday use ‘reckoning’ refers to both accounting and a sense of some payment being due. Is this, then, what the final stage of life should be: a computation about how much one owes and is owed? Laura Spellman offers us an approach that is admirable. As her doctor says, she is not dying while still alive, rather living until she dies.

68 M Sarton 1I chose this book as the 4th in the series exploring older women in fiction. But it barely qualifies as Laura Spelman is only 60. The novel was first published in 1978, and things have changed in thirty-five years. People live longer and  few would accept that they have lived their full term at 60 as Laura appears to. This novel is also of its time in the way she writes about lesbian and gay love as forbidden and dangerous, and in the way she needs to explain feminism. If I had read it then I would probably have been more impressed by it.

68 datesCredit is due to May Sarton, who wrote a great number of books: fiction (20), non-fiction (12 including her journals), poetry (17) about women’s lives. She had a 13-year relationship with a woman, but refused to allow her writing to be described as lesbian. She preferred to be known as a lesbian woman who wrote. In A Reckoning I think Sarton draws on the nautical meaning for Laura’s analysis of her life, she is considering her position, based on direction and distance travelled. May Sarton’s own life is less celebrated these days, but she made a huge contribution to feminism.

This is not literary writing, not polished, not every word counts. I have read so much Elizabeth Taylor recently that I notice when writers spell everything out, as May Sarton does. In A Reckoning I found too much eggnog, sleeping and dozing, listening to Haydn, reading Herbert’s poems, and not enough about her thoughts and responses to her physical decline.

There is an episode in the hospital that seems to serve the author by showing us how infantalising hospitals can be for the sick and dying. But medically it appeared to offer nothing to Laura; the doctor said he wanted x-rays to check on progress of cancer. She died more or less on her return home.

The strength of this book is in the reckoning of Laura’s relationships, with her husband, her mother and sisters, her adult children, friends and the strangers who provide necessary services for her as her health disintegrates. But in the end, the most significant reckoning is with being a woman, and having loved a young woman very intensely. This collection of explorations both works and doesn’t. The reunion with her friend of her youth seems too late and to add nothing to her life, only allows her to die.

I don’t think this is an especially good read. But it certainly adds to the canon of strong older women in fiction. Thanks to whoever recommended that we added it to our list.

 

The next Readalong in the Strong Older Women in Fiction group will be The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. I will post in February. Yes, Tove Jansson is the Finnish author of the Moomin books. But this novel for adults contains a life-affirming character in the grandmother. You should read it if you haven’t.

 

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