Tag Archives: identity

Keeping up Appearances by Rose Macaulay

I have observed before on Bookword Blog that Rose Macaulay is a witty, playful and amusing writer. Keeping up Appearances has all these attributes, and brings to mind her collection of short pieces, Personal Pleasures (1935), for she takes a swipe at several cherished perceptions of her times, and of ours: sexism, the press, concern with presentation, identity, class and so on.

The novel was published in 1928 and republished in the British Library Women Writers series. The new version comes with a Preface by Alison Bailey and an Afterword by Simon Thomas, the series consultant.

Keeping up Appearances

Keeping up Appearances is a difficult novel to review for there is an important plot reveal about halfway through, and although I am not one to worry about spoilers, I have no wish to impair the enjoyment of readers. The revelation itself is designed to get the reader to question any assumptions they have made about the characters up to that point. 

I found it quite a difficult book to read because its structure was so uneven. It begins by featuring two women: Daisy and Daphne, and contrasting the way they appear to the world. When the story starts the two young women are staying on a Mediterranean island with the Folyots, a well-off family with three offspring. Daisy and Daphne leave the island suddenly when Daisy is unable to face a charging wild boar and is ashamed of herself. We follow these characters over the next few months as they meet again in London.

Rose Macaulay assembled an interesting cast of characters to make her points.

Daisy is illegitimate, which in 1928 was a social aberration. She had been brought up by her father’s sister and was well educated. She earns her living as a hack writer for a newspaper, producing silly pieces under her pen name Marjorie Wynne about

… those absorbing problems that beset editorial minds concerning the female sex and young persons.

The Morning Wire encourages her to write on such topics as The Best Age for a Woman, Can Women have Genius? Do Men Like a Girl to Fix her Face on the Street? After Love’s Rapture – What? She publishes a successful popular novel called Summer’s Over.

Daphne is younger than her half-sister and from a better class. She is a steadier person than Daisy, who would like to be more like her. For example, Daphne saves the youngest Folyot child from drowning.

The Folyots: Mrs Folyot rescues refugees from right wing regimes in Europe (we are in the late 1920s so there is a real issue here) and campaigns on their behalf.

What she held should be done with life was to help revolutions. (9) 

She is always organising craft sales to raise funds or writing letters the newspapers or calling meetings. Although her cause is worthy, Mrs Folyot is busy achieving nothing.

Her husband is happy to support his wife as she goes about her philanthropic activities, but more concerned with his own interest in sculpture. Their son, Raymond is interested in animal life, but not politics or sculpture.

The daughter Cary is one of the most interesting characters, for she is intelligent and perceptive, and sees through Daisy. She is very much her own person, reads, asks penetrating questions and actually listens to what the adults say.

Daisy’s mother and family live in East Sheen, although she tries to pass them off to the Folyots as inhabitants of Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Her mother is warm and generous, her stepfather has straight forward intelligence, her brother is a crime reporter for another newspaper and her sisters are growing up and have much less ambition and more sense than Daisy.

The interactions between these characters, and the plot twists as Daisy confuses everyone are the occasion for the author to make some very pointed comments about England in the late 1920s. The titles for Daisy/Marjorie Wynne’s articles are an example of this: the sexism in the press. Most of Daisy’s contortions come from her acute awareness of class divisions between her mother’s family and the Folyots. 

There are several amusing and silly plot twists. The lumping together of people by class, sex, age, or anything else is strongly criticised, and Rose Macaulay was making the case for people to be what they wanted to be, not defined by their characteristics. The title challenges the idea that an individual’s life work is to maintain the appearance they wish to project. Here is Daisy contemplating Mr Folyot’s concern that he was not the first speaker at a dinner.

She would not have guessed that Mr. Folyot, as delightful, self-controlled, and humorous, so gifted a scholar, so gentle and kind a man, had these feelings, ambitions and resentments about the order of speaking at dinners. What else had he that she had never divined? Had everyone, then, some different self, that only a few people, that sometimes only they themselves, knew? How know anyone? (131)

This is the lesson that Daisy and the reader must learn.

Rose Macaulay

Rose Macaulay

Born in 1881, Rose Macaulay wrote 23 novels before her death in 1958. She was a well-regarded novelist, perhaps most famous for her final novel The Towers of Trebizond (1958). She also wrote poetry, short fiction and many nonfiction works, including biographies and travelogues. Keeping up Appearances was her 16th novel. She was a woman of strong opinions and an unconventional personal life.

Keeping up Appearances by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1928 and reissued in the British Library Women Writers series in 2022. 261pp

Related Posts

Potterism by Rose Macaulay (August 2020)

Non-Combatants and Others: writings against war by Rose Macaulay (September 2020)

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay (October 2020)

Some books to help you through the night, including Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life by Rose Macaulay (January 2022)

Heavenali’s review refers to Keeping up Appearances as clever and entertaining and notes that it is still relevant today. (April 2021)

Stuck in a Book blog also reviewed it favourably in February 2010. Simon, the blogger, is the consultant for British Library Women Writers

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The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

How do we categorise the people we meet? By what we see? By ethnicity, colour, gender, age and in the UK those tiny indicators of class. Whole systems of exploitation have been built on the genetic features, especially ethnicity and gender. 

In recent years we have been encouraged to believe that our genetic composition determines our characters. Think of those people who look for criminal genes, or speak about inheriting certain characteristics from their parents, such as sporting ability. Think of the tv programme Who do you think you are? in which ancestors are traced, implying they can explain the person featured. 

The Vanishing Half questions these ideas about inherited attributes. It challenges how people are identified by ethnicity, or gender, and looks at some people who choose to ‘pass’. And it does this through a moving story of twins who ran away and their daughters.

The Vanishing Half

Twin girls, Desiree and Stella, are born in Mallard, a small town in the southern state of Louisiana. Their father was light skinned, and was murdered by white men in front of the twins. The town of Mallard is inhabited by light skinned African Americans, and its population values lightness above all. The consequences of maintaining the lighter skin tone in the town creates an oppressive environment. It was 1954when the twins ran away but 14 years later Desiree, returns without Stella. This is the starting point of the novel, for Desiree is escaping a violent marriage and is accompanied by her very dark skinned daughter, Jude. Stella has disappeared. Early Jones is a tracker paid by her husband to trace Desiree, but they become lovers and his attempts to trace Stella on her behalf produce no results. 

The story shifts down a generation. Jude suffers from her dark skin in Mallard and escapes as soon as she can, to LA on a university athletics scholarship. Stella lives in an exclusive, white neighbourhood, ‘passing’ as the white wife of a rich man, with a beautiful pale skinned fair haired daughter called Kennedy. They too live in LA and of course the paths of Kennedy and Jude cross. 

Stella, living as a white woman, is perpetually in fear of discovery. She is oppressed by  the consequences of her decision to be seen as white. She must be secretive about her early life, and does not mix socially. When her neighbours discover that a Black family will move into their exclusive community she leads the campaign of resistance. But she cannot resist befriending the wife of these incomers when their daughters play together. Kennedy does not know her mother’s secret, but when the cousins meet Jude works it out and tries to convince her.

Jude, in the meantime, has fallen for Reese, who has his own secrets. And they are friends with Barry, who has a successful drag act, while being a teacher in his day job. So many lies. So much acting.

There is no happy ending to this novel. Each of the characters must find their own way to live. Stella returns to Mallard to visit her mother and her twin only once and then resumes her wealthy, secretive, white life. Her daughter becomes a soap actress, recognised as the character she plays, not as herself.

Kennedy’s role in Pacific Cove as girl-next-door Charity Harris serves her well when she retrains to become a realtor:

A model home was nothing but a set, if you thought about it, the open house a grand performance directed by her. Each time, she stood behind the door, bowing her head as jittery as the first time she had ever taken the stage, knowing that her mother would be out there in the audience watching. Then she put on a big Charity Harris smile, opening the door. She would disappear inside herself, inside the empty home where nobody actually lived. As the room filled with strangers, she always found her mark, guiding a couple through the kitchen, pointing out the light fixtures, backsplash, high ceilings.
‘Imagine your life here,’ she said. ‘Imagine who you could be.’ (319)

So what is identity? Can you make up your own identity? Does your genetic heritage determine who you are? Or are you who you choose to be? It is not only the actors who have to pretend a role in life. Don’t we all have to do this to some extent? 

It’s a good novel that can pose pertinent, important questions and carry a compelling story at the same time. 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, published in 2020. I read the paperback edition from Dialogue Books. 366pp

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021.

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Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

A prize-winning novel that is an adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone, set in the present day? Already chosen by my reading group as our August book? There was no reason not to get stuck into this one.

Summary of Home Fire (no spoilers)

The story follows the misfortunes of one Pakistani-origin family living in West London. The children are orphans. Father was rarely there, a fighter for the so-called Muslim causes, who died somewhere between Bagram and Guantanamo. Mother died suddenly leaving Isma to bring up the twins Aneeka and Parvaiz with the help of local families, especially Aunty Naseem. The action takes place about 3 or 4 years ago against this background.

We meet Isma as she is about to board a plane for Boston where she plans to take up her doctoral studies again. The twins have grown up and she can leave them in the care of others. The usual airport irritations of the security checks are much greater for her, both at Heathrow and also when she lands. She is a Muslim and must be closely questioned. Knowing this, she has arrived extra early and rehearsed answers to possible questions with her sister. The family have a secret that must not be divulged. Parvaiz has left the UK to join ISIS. Both sisters miss their brother badly and would like to make contact with him, find out if he is okay.

In Amherst she meets Eamonn another young British citizen from a Pakistani family. His father, Karamat (Lone) Wolf, has just been made Home Secretary. Karamat is a man of high political ambitions, but known to Isma’s family as Shameless. He favours Muslims who adapt to British life, not those who object to how they are treated.

Eamonn goes to London and takes up with Isma’s sister Aneeka. It is not clear whether she has hidden motives for getting involved with him, the reader suspects that she has, but he is quickly smitten.

The action shifts to Parvaiz. We learn of his recruitment, his training and employment in the media branch of ISIS, and how he now wants to return to London. This is, of course, the crux of the action of the novel. The Home Secretary has just announced that those who have left to join the militants will have their British citizenship revoked. And now, his own family is involved with such a young man.

As the plot moves to its conclusion, both families – the Home Secretary’s as well as Isma’s – are put under severe pressure.

My reactions

The idea of using a modern-day Antigone to explore some very ancient and difficult themes works well. Kamila Shamsie does not confine herself to the original story, but makes enough use of it to enrich the telling of this thriller. The theme of conflict between family and civic duty is central. Those who try to legislate for civic over familial duty are culpable. We must also understand the pull of the family, and the questions of identity in our multifaceted world.

The novel questions easy solutions. It will not allow us, or any of the characters, to get away with ideas about British values being the answer, and continually asks what is identity, what matters to one’s sense of self, and the role of family and country in this. These concepts have never been straight forward, and today they are as complex and insoluble as ever.

I have two reservations. First, it is not possible for anyone to be in ignorance of the atrocities committed in the name of ISIS. Nor of the possible consequences of betraying your country by joining them or of betraying them. [I write this as the current Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, announces the suspension of the policy of demanding that British Citizens do not face capital punishment.] But for the plot to work the reader must have some sympathy for Parvaiz and believe that he is motivated by his wish to find the truth about his father and that he is susceptible to the recruitment process.

Second, fictitious presentation of prominent political figures is very hard to do. This may be because our perceptions of them are built gradually through innumerable press exposures, not presented as thought-through characters in a novel. I think of the Blair character in The Ghost by Richard Harris (2007), and the Prime Minister in The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987). Both characters are problematic because they do not accord with our own picture of these people. The complexity of a political figure’s motivations and actions seem to me to resist authenticity.

I will mention two other things which I thought were well done. Aneeka’s grief is overpowering and leads to the final horrifying scene.

But this was not grief. It did not cleave to her, it flayed her. It did not envelop her, it leaked into her pores and bloated her beyond recognition, She did not hear his footsteps or his laughter, she no longer knew how to hunch down and inhabit his posture, she couldn’t look in the mirror and see his eyes looking back at her.

This was not grief. It was rage. It was his rage, the boy who allowed himself every emotion but rage, so it was the unfamiliar part of him, that was all he was allowing her now, it was all she had left of him. She held it to her breast, she fed it, she stroked its mane, she whispered love to it under the starless sky, and sharpened her teeth on its gleaming paws. (193)

The other small detail is the way the press mangle the names of the protagonists. Their identity is fodder to the news mill.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017) Bloomsbury 264pp

Long listed for Man Booker in 2017 and winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018.

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Reading is good for you

There is a simple and inexpensive treatment that reduces symptoms of depression and the risk of dementia, improves wellbeing throughout life increases empathy, improves relationships with others and makes you happy. It’s freely available to everyone, at least while public libraries still exist. To make the treatment effective the only necessary pre-condition is enjoyment:

With reading so good for you this statement, from the Reading Agency is a little shocking:

In the UK, reading levels are low among people of all ages: most children do not read on a daily basis and almost a third of adults don’t read for pleasure. (August 2015)

I think again of the young woman in the bookshop I reported on in a recent post: ‘I’ve never bought a book in my life’.

Old Woman Reading by Sandor Galimberti 1907 via WikiCommons.

Old Woman Reading by Sandor Galimberti 1907 via WikiCommons.

Reading is good for you

In the summer the Reading Agency published the report The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment. It brought together findings from 51 research papers to conclude that reading does us good.

Reading helps you understand the world

Barack Obama was talking to novelist Marilyn Robinson when he described how reading made him a better citizen, which was about

being comfortable with the notion that the world is complex and full of greys, but there is still truth to be found …And the notion that its positive to connect with someone else though they be very different to you. (From The Guardian 30.10.15)

The President is a best selling writer himself. The importance of fiction for politicians was wittily demonstrated by Yann Martel in his book What are you Reading Mr Harper? and explored in a recent blogpost here.

The Reading Agency report indicates that reading is helpful to all readers in developing and understanding of other people and cultures and thereby helps develop empathy.

Reading helps you understand yourself better

If reading develops empathy, we should not be surprised that reading helps us understand ourselves as well, helps with developing out identities. Fiction, in particular, helps you see the world and yourself in it, in new ways, opens up possibilities.

Reading helps your cognitive functions

This is just another way of saying that reading keeps you mentally active, increases your knowledge, provokes you with conundrums and mysteries, expands your vocabulary, encourages your creativity, helps you become a better writer.

Reading helps you feel better: bibliotherapy

The New Yorker published an article called Can Reading Make you Happy? by Ceridwen Dovey in January 2015. The answer is yes, and you can read the piece here. She had experienced bibliotherapy suggested by one of the authors of The Reading Cure.

223 novel cure coverThe Reading Cure: and A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin is a handbook to keep with your other home cures, according to the writers. This book has a book for every condition, every ailment. Of course I checked up on one or two and selected one or two of their suggestions.

Noisy neighbours – well their dogs? Try some audio books, read by top class readers: Middlemarch by George Eliot read by Juliet Stevenson; The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, read by Alan Rickman.

Being Seventy-Something? (I’m not, but it’s not far off). Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym; Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Procrastinating? The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Partner snoring? They recommended some soothing books but I’d recommend any book, the edge brought sharply into contact with the shoulder, enough to get them to change their position.

And let’s not forget that books help us relax, calm us, take us far away from our own struggles.

Libraries

223 Peanuts librarySo if reading is such a good thing, why, oh why, are so many councils closing libraries? (Yes, yes, I know that so-called austerity means difficult choices for councils, pitting beds for old people and holes in the roads against free and available books). We really need to keep on at the people who suggest library cuts. One way is to support National Library Day on Saturday 6th February 2016. Details on the Reading Agency’s website.

Sources for this post

The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, a literature review for The Reading Agency, June 2015. Conducted by BOP Consulting funded by the Peter Sowerby Foundation. Also available from the Reading Agency’s website.

Reading for pleasure builds empathy and improves wellbeing from The Reading Agency (August 2015)

5 Ways Reading Can Improve Your Life by Leila Cruickshank, on Scottish Book Trust website (November 2015)

The Power of Reading from Norah Colvin’s blog in August 2015.

The Reading Cure: and A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Published in 2015 by Canongate. 460pp

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