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Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair

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

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

Mary Olivier: A Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Should you say I was unhappy?” 

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

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

“Oh – that. Why didn’t you?”

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

“”I suppose he was a Unitarian?”

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

Why?”

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

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

Reflection on Mary Olivier

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

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

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

May Sinclair 1863-1946

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

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

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

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

The Decades Project 2020

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

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

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The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal

Not having read My Name is Leon, I had no idea what to expect from The Trick to Timeby Kit de Waal. I chose it because I had read nothing on the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 long list and I recognised the author’s name. Indeed I have supported her Unbound project for an anthology of working class writers.

We follow the main character Mona in three timeframes. Mona is a child living by the sea on the west coast of Ireland, then a young woman in Birmingham married to the man she loves, pregnant with their first child, and finally nearing her 60thbirthday living alone in a seaside town in the south of England. We learn that her life has been punctured by loss, most poignantly of her child, but also of her husband William, on the night of the Birmingham pub bomb.

The Trick to Time

Given that the reader must follow Mona in three timeframes it is helpful that her father gave her some sound advice about time early on. They are on the beach and he is trying to persuade Mona to spend more time with her mother before she dies.

One day, you will want these hours back, my girl. You will wonder how you lost them and you will want to get them back. There’s a trick to time.’

He stands up, brushes the sand from his trousers, and Mona jumps on his back for the ride home. He lollops over the dunes with her hands round his neck and her chest against his ribs.

‘What’s the trick, Dadda?’

He likes to explain things so Mona expects a good long answer that might delay them getting back home.

‘You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer,’ he says. (21)

In this novel the characters relate to time depending on where they are in life. The young woman who helps Mona in her shop has all the time in the world. Mona is approaching 60 and feels that time is no longer on her side so she must change things for the better before drifting further.

Birdie, a cousin of her mother’s, was in love with Mona’s father, and waited for him until Mona left for Birmingham. Time was cruel to her, taking the love of her life within the year.

Val was a student nurse who attended to Mona when her daughter was still born. It was Val who found the body and brought it to Mona to hold while the hospital was in uproar from the bombing. These hours with her daughter, Beatrice, allows Mona to grieve. Every year she visits Val and her daughter’s grave, marking the years since Beatrice was lost.

Time and loss are explored with great poignancy. Mona’s love of her husband William hangs over the decades of Mona’s life that follow his loss. Love is a great healer, but it is not omnipotent.

The characters are sustained by strong communal bonds throughout. The Irish have their family connections. After the dreadful night of the IRA bomb, Mona is cared for by William’s aunts and when she looses William as well she returns to her childhood home to the care of her cousin Bridie.

In Birmingham the Irish community is strongly connected, but this leads to bad feelings after the bomb attack. In her English seaside town Mona is loosely connected to her neighbours and to those whose work supports her doll business. Some connections endure for years, like Birdie’s for Mona’s father, or the affection between Val and Mona.

To help people with the loss of their child, Mona uses an imaginative technique, getting the parents to articulate the life that might have been, recreating the time that the child would have lived. In the end she receives comfort for her own losses in this way.

It is a moving and engaging novel.

Kit de Waal

Kit de Waal was born in 1960 and brought up in the Irish community of Birmingham, the daughter of an Irish mother and a Caribbean father. Kit de Waal is her pen name. Her previous novel, My Name is Leonwas well received, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Prize, and the Desmond Elliot Prize and winning the Kerry group Irish novel of the Year Award in 2017.

She has established a creative writing scholarship at Birkbeck, University of London, to support writers from disadvantaged background. Another project is a collection of working class writing with Unbound, which she has edited, is called Common People: an anthology of working class writers.  It is due to be published in 2018. I am proud to have supported this initiative.

In April, The Trick to Timewas reviewed on Heavenali’s blog.

The Trick to Time was long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018.

The Trick to Timeby Kit de Waal, published in 2018 by Viking (an imprint of Penguin Books). 262pp

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Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns

So there’s this odd family, the Willoweeds, who live in a village some time around 1900. Things happen and after that some of them are changed and some of them are dead.

Many readers have enjoyed this short novel since it was published in 1954. I have seen it called idiosyncratic, biblical, quirky, dark, surreal, strange, macabre. Is it a fairy tale? Or an allegory? It’s certainly engaging.

The story of Who was Changed and Who was Dead

The focus of the short novel is the Willoweed family who live in a big house in a village near a river. Grandmother Willoweed dominates the village, although she has taken an oath not to set foot on land that is not hers. This creates a problem when she must attend a funeral, but it is solved by putting her in a boat. The title implies that the reader will see how this family are affected by events.

Here is how the novel opens.

Time: Summer about seventy years ago

Place: Warwickshire

Chapter I

The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night. (1)

So from the start, the world is awry. The time is also awry, for the book was published in 1954, which would put the action in the late 1880s according to the heading. But the novel also takes place in 1911, coinciding with the coronation of George V. Time and place are awry. So is the Willoweed family.

The grandmother has a forked tongue and a nasty, selfish personality. Her son Ebin is disappointed and disappointing, having been sacked from his post as a journalist, cheated on by his wife who then died giving birth to her third child. Ebin is cowed by his mother, and unkind to his children. He ignores Emma, the oldest, takes every opportunity to belittle Dennis, and makes a favourite of Hattie, who is not his daughter. The household also includes a pair of sisters, long-suffering maids and Old Ivor, who owns the ducks and looks after the gardens and is determined to outlive Grandmother.

Following the flood, which causes chaos, kills livestock and changes the appearance of everything, more troubles assail the village. Villagers begin dying, experiencing painful and maniacal episodes before death, symptoms of ergot poisoning, associated with rye flour. In the village various people are afflicted, including the baker’s lascivious wife. One of the maids becomes pregnant, but is able to pass off a miscarriage as an episode of the same illness that afflicts the villagers. At Willoweed House little Dennis succumbs.

After so many goings on, so many funerals, so many escape attempts, so much affliction and falling in love, conversion and boredom, it is rather disappointing that the novel concludes with Emma adopting a conventional and happy life in Kensington. The young doctor who attends the family falls for her and they get married, despite the opposition of the old woman.

Reading Who was Changed and Who was Dead

One of the delights of reading Who was Changed and Who was Deadis the descriptive and imaginative power of Barbara Comyns’s writing. Here are some of the guests at Grandmother’s annual birthday whist drive.

Grandmother Willoweed always declared the clergyman took opium, perhaps because he rather resembled a Chinaman. His mother was a little frightened bird of a woman, who held her twisted claw-like hands clasped near her face as if she was praying. This made it rather difficult for her to play cards and they would fall around her like petals from a dying flower. The three old maids from Roary Court would come on their tricycles. Their pet billy goat would trot behind them as they rode down the village street, and they would tether him where he could be seen from the drawing-room window. (23)

The hostess receives her guests.

Grandmother Willoweed wore a magenta gown trimmed with black lace, and on her head three purple plumes attached to a piece of dusty velvet. The magenta gown was split in several places; but she considered it was the general effect that mattered. (24)

And the story moves on at a good pace. There is no lingering over events, not the butcher’s suicide, the appearance of Doctor Hatt’s splendid new yellow car, the many funerals nor the illnesses in the village.

I experience the events of Who was Changed and Who was Deadas a child might, to whom nothing is strange or remarkable; things happen or don’t and the world just goes on turning. Events succeed events, some are linked and some are not. Some are changed and some are dead.

Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns (1907 – 1992) was brought up in Warwickshire on the banks of the River Avon in Bidford-on-Avon. She wrote many novels, published after the Second World War, perhaps the best known being Our Spoons Came from Woolworths(1950) and The Vet’s Daughter(1959).

Here is the link to the review on HeavenAli’s blog that led me to read this novel.

And here’s another enthusiastic review, this one by Simon on Vulpes Libris.

Who was changed and who was deadby Barbara Comyns, published in 1954. I read the Virago Modern Classic edition, published in 1987, with an introduction by Ursula Holden. 146pp

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The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

We know we are in for an interesting read when we find this near the start of the novel:

As they realised themselves in varying degrees, few people alive at the time were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means. (9)

The time is 1945. The ‘savage’ girls live in the May of Teck Club which exists for

The Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years …(9)

This is my second contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali. Memento Mori had older people as its subjects while The Girls of Slender Means are young. I plan to reading more of Muriel Spark’s work – she wrote 22 novels – in this anniversary year of her birth.

The story of The Girls of Slender Means

The events in the Club in Kensington occur between VE Day and VJ Day in 1945, but also at a later date. A number of young women live in the Club, on the lower floors in dormitories but increasing in social standing as the accommodation rises to the fourth floor. There are many young women, and our attention is drawn in particular to Selina the beautiful one, Jane the fat one doing ‘brain’ work and Joanna who, having failed in love has come to London and teaches elocution. Joanna recites poetry throughout. There are lesser characters, such as the older women including Greggie who manages the garden and claims there is an UXB buried there.

The young women are obsessed with having a good time now and expect their futures, with suitable young men, to come along in due course.

Love and money were the vital themes in all the bedrooms and dormitories. (26)

Men are attracted to the hostel. Nicholas Farringdon is a poet philosopher ne’er-do-well. We learn that after the events of the novel he converted to Catholicism and martyred in Haiti. This is reported by Jane to one of the other survivors of the disaster at the May of Teck Cub.

Jane is employed by a dodgy publisher to write letters to authors so that he can sell their replies. You know he is dodgy because he changes his name every two years and has abandoned two of his three wives. Jane’s activities are referred to, by her, as brain work. Her employer asks her to investigate Farringdon and so he comes to the Club and falls for Selina. None of the young women really have a handle on the world, and they are too naïve to know it. Jane, for example, naïve in 1945, is really on the make as much as her publisher boss. In the later time frame of the novel, after Farringdon’s death, we find she is collecting material for a feature on him.

There is a role for a Schiaparelli dress, passed around the young women for various activities and stolen by Selina under cover of the chaos of the building as it collapses.

And there is a part for a skylight out onto a flat roof. The girls are forbidden to use it, but some of the most slender are able to slip through the opening, others have to smear their bodies with cold cream or margarine. It is the focus of the climax of the novel.

Some reactions

I really enjoyed Muriel Sparks’s spikey style. Her descriptions of people nearly always include a twist, undercutting what on the surface.

Her description of war-battered London is a marvel of compression. Here is the novel’s opening paragraph:

Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wall-papers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit. (7)

And the novel ends with the words ‘long ago in 1945’ (142). The focus is on the poverty of spirit of the young women emphasised in those not so far off days.

A review in the New York Times in 1963 by Virgilia Peterson points to the qualities of this novel, at the time of its publication.

A review that captures the social nuances of the May of Teck Club can be found on Jacquiwine’s Journal blog (from July 2017).

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963) Penguin 142pp

More Muriel Spark

The first of my contributions to #ReadingMuriel2018 was Memento Mori by Muriel Spark first published in 1959. I read the Virago version.

In May/June I will read and report on a novel by Muriel Spark from the ‘70s. Any recommendations?

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The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

Few books have unsettled me as much as The Little Red Chairs. In my reading group we agreed it was a powerful, difficult and in some ways enchanting book. The evil in the novel would be unbelievable if it weren’t based on the real story of the Beast of Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic. There is also a luminous description of a village in the West of Ireland from which the main character flees, and innumerable other stories of displacement and loss from around the world. And we all loved the anarchic, chaotic and over the top performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream in the final chapter.

The Story

There are many stories in this novel, to the extent that it could be argued that telling stories is proposed as therapeutic and healing to individuals and to communities. The story that leads the novel begins in a rural community with the arrival of a visitor. He tells them he comes from Montenegro, and without explanation he settles in their community offering himself as a kind of new age healer. Fidelma, an energetic and attractive Irish woman who longs for a baby which she is unable to conceive with her older husband, asks Dr Valdimir if he will help her conceive. He agrees and the consequences are truly terrible.

There is tension from the opening pages. Dr Vlad does not fit in this generous community, in this gentle landscape. And we have been given plenty of warnings that wicked things are going to happen.

The title: to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo, 11,541 chairs were laid out along 800 metres of Sarajevo street. 643 of them were small chairs representing the children who were killed during the 1425 days of the siege. The paragraph explaining this precedes the first section of the novel.

Sarajevo October 2010, photo by Bizntaze via Wiki Commons

Dr Validmir: Vlad is not a name to inspire confidence. He is portrayed as a dark character, always in black clothes, secretive, mysterious, untrusting, on his guard.

The dream: And if we still are unaware of the provenance of this man, Edna O’Brien gives us his dream, in which his collaborator, K, relates the terrible events of the siege of Sarajevo and the war in Bosnia.

Moju: the mute kitchen porter at the Castle Hotel reacts to the voice of Dr Vlad with complete hysteria.

The story follows Fidelma as she is violated by disappointed followers of Dr Vlad. She flees to London, and falls to the bottom of the heap as she tries to find accommodation and work, to simply survive. Small acts of kindness, different communities, havens, help restore her. Finally she goes to The Hague, where Dr Vlad is on trial. His final speech to the tribunal is chilling, as he denies every charge in an increasingly illogical and crazy manner. Fidelma is able to name him for what he is.

Reading The Little Red Chairs

There is so much in this novel, the reading group felt it could have been twice as long to do justice to the lives within it. We asked and discussed all kinds of questions. We were interested in the contamination by evil and what restores, redeems people.

The villagers watch reports of Dr Vlad’s capture on tv.

‘Well, he’s caught now . . . the worst is over,’ Mona said.

‘But the contamination has happened,’ Schoolmaster Diarmuid said and there were knowing gasps. Father Eamonn, who had not stirred from the fire, just looked across from the fire at her and shook his head, dolefully. (134)

How did Dr Vlad manage to evade capture for 13 years? Should communities be less trusting? Is there something in the man that answered their needs, not just Fidelma’s? Is that the nature of the contamination?

Small gestures, the littlest bit of trust may be required to help restore human relations. The offer of a job, accommodation, friendship, these things are of huge significance in the life of those who have descended so low, who are lost.

A Postscript

One of the strongest scenes in the novel is Dr Vlad’s defence of himself at the court in The Hague. He begins in a reasonable tone, and then ‘in vivid strophes and with blazing contempt’ he attacks the prosecution and pours contempt on every piece of evidence and every witness. The court listens in silence.

They sat politely, bludgeoned from the sheer onslaught of rhetoric and evidence. As he cited document after document, raved, ranted, repeated himself and finally, declared that Serbs did not have any intention of taking that city, that there had been no siege and that it was a delusion and invention on the enemy’s part. (264)

I write this following the inauguration of America’s new president. The vilifying of the press, the argument about numbers of attendees, the bluster, the desire for the accepted version to be what the administration wants it to be … These seem to be from the same kind of twisted minds. It is offensive to those of us trying to live with integrity. And I thank Edna O’Brien for this amazing look at a sad aspect of humanity.

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien (2015) Faber & Faber 299pp

For another review is available from Heavenali on her blog in October 2015.

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