Tag Archives: Jacquiwine’s Journal

Short Stories – More Treats

This week I am spoiling you with recommendations for two more collections of short stories. Over the years on Bookword blog I have recommended many collections. Some of these are listed below, with links to my posts about them. The form is very appealing to me. I often read short stories when I am between novels, or at night when sleep is hard to come by. And sometimes I read them just for pleasure. The two collections featured here are highly recommended.

A Different Sound: stories by mid-century writers edited by Lucy Scholes (2023)

There are eleven stories in this collection, chosen and introduced by Lucy Scholes. They are connected by being the era in which they were written – during the Second World War or just after. And they are all by women. The introduction introduces stories that are different, as the title suggests. 

The church clock struck seven. The chimes had a different sound, coming across water instead of grassy meadows. (From The Thames Spread Out by Elizabeth Taylor (252). 

What is different, perhaps, is that women are finding their voices in a more confident way, expanding their experiences during the war, and being taken seriously in the literary world. Many of the writers were regularly published in the New Yorker, for example.

The collection is very varied, including some creepy stories, such as Three Miles Up by Elizabeth Jane Howard, and Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds. I have to admit that I didn’t read it, as I did not want to replay Hitchcock’s horror movie in my head. He transposed the setting from Cornwall to California by the way.

Shocking Weather, Isn’t It? by Inez Holden contrasts attitudes in peace- and war time. Bullied and neglected and in prison for theft before the war, Swithin Silas is considered a hero when his cousin goes to visit him a second time in hospital. Now a wing commander, he is considered a hero, the only patient that’s been awarded the D.F.C. with two bars. Inez Holden has written some interesting fiction: There’s No Story There is a novel set in an ammunitions factory where Inez Holden reveals the irony of her own title. 

For me, the two outstanding stories are by the Elizabeths Taylor and Bowen. The Thames Spread Out, quoted above, is a classic story, set on the banks of the Thames, which has flooded. She describes a swan swimming into the house, up to the foot of the stairs. A ‘kept’ woman finds herself reviewing her situation, trapped not just by the river, but also by the routine of the Friday night appearances of her lover. When the Thames recedes, she copies the swan and leaves.

Summer Night by Elizabeth Bowen is set in neutral Ireland, during the war. It contains many complicated characters, is full of people deluding themselves about their lives: a woman driving through the early night to meet her lover; the lover entertaining neighbours unwillingly; the guests are a brother and sister who have an unusual relationship as she is deaf and he would normally be touring Europe; and the home situation of the driver is uneasy too, her husband, their two children and his aunt. As in so much of Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction, nothing is straight forward. The other stories are also worth reading.

Thanks to JacquieWine’s Journal for the recommendation.

A Different Sound: stories by mid-century writers edited by Lucy Scholes (2023)published by Pushkin Press. 270pp

Dance Move by Wendy Erskine (2022)

I was impressed by the craft that went into Wendy Erskine’s first collection of short stories, Sweet Home. Her characters are ordinary people, living unremarkable lives in and around present-day Belfast, but buried in each life is failure, or disappointment or loss. Many of her characters are acutely lonely. All are unable to improve their lives.

In this second collection of short stories, Dance Move, we are again in the territory of unrealised dreams and gloom lowering over their attempts. Each story is told with a precision in the writing that reveals much more than it says. If you haven’t yet become familiar with Wendy Erskine, let me tell you, you will be bowled over.

Dance Move by Wendy Erskine (2022)published by Picador. 223pp

Related posts on Bookword

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine (March 2021)

Even more praise for short stories (September 2021)

More Praise for Short Stories (January 2017)

Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor (June 2016)

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston (November 2020)

There’s No Story There by Inez Holden (March 2021)

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Seven Steeples by Sara Baume

Long ago, before Covid (the pandemic as well as my own sad bout earlier this May), I read A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume and was very impressed. I reviewed it in May 2018 on this blog.

What impressed me was the close attention she gave to details of the local wildlife by a young woman struggling with life. She walks, drives and cycles in the surrounding Irish countryside, often finding dead wildlife, which she photographs for a possible art project: robin, rabbit, bat, rat, mouse, rook, fox, frog, hare, hedgehog and badger. 

In Seven Steeples it is the slow deterioration of things which are catalogued.

Seven Steeples

A couple decide to live together, away from their friends, family, history, and the world in a house on the West Coast of Ireland. ‘Them in and the world out.’ They stay for 8 years. Gradually the couple become alike, and the text follows the disintegration of the house, their dogs and their separateness, the grounds of the house and its contents as they simply live.

At times I reacted against the pair, seeing them as without energy or determination (solutions to problems are usually to do nothing), unproductive, even pathetic. This is signalled by the failure of the couple to climb the mountain for seven years, from which they would be able to see seven steeples, among other sights. But the novel challenges dominant ideas about how we should live. This couple, Bell (Isobel) and Sigh (Simon) just exist within the context of very little action. They have no overarching purpose in their decision to live in this way for eight years, only a non-purpose. 

Neither had experienced any unusual unhappiness in early life, any notable trauma. Instead they had each in their separate large families been persistently, though not unkindly, overlooked, and this had planted in Bell and in Sigh the amorphous idea that the only appropriate trajectory of a life was to leave as little trace as possible and incrementally disappear. (17-18)

In an age when humans appear to have made irreversible damage to our natural world, it is interesting to contemplate how to live and make fewer traces. We must collect our benefits, pay our taxes, buy our food, repair our vans, and always dispose of unwanted material items. The experiences of Sigh and Bell contrast vividly with life as most of us live it.

It is difficult for humans not to leave some traces, and in any case the couple’s environment itself cannot help but alter the house and the landscape, the garden and the view. Most of the novel is a detailed description of the small, incremental alterations brought to their lives over the eight years. During this time both the dogs and the humans become interchangeable. 

The descriptions of the slow changes to their environment and their house were the main pleasures in reading this novel.

Red-hot pokers, which they had not planted, appeared in a clump at the end of the driveway – nine fireworks mounted atop the green trail of their ascent, nodding an ominous welcome.
The lilies, which they hadn’t planted either, bowed their discoloured bonnets and stuck out their bloated, orange tongues as a beacon to the hoverflies that crawled inside and supped the last of the lily juice. The cones had fantastic acoustics. A gentle, guzzling buzz became the chatter of a cassette player on fast-forward.
There was a sense of hysteria amongst the insects. (150)

The details in every paragraph are vibrant and telling.

By early autumn the house teemed with insects.
There were the moths that entered last thing at night and tucked themselves into the pockets of cardigans. There was an earwig Sigh carried around in his shoe for an entire day, unharmed, and a mosquito that ravaged Bell in her sleep, a dozen bites from scalp to crotch. There was a posse of fruit flies suspended above the compost bucket like fat dots of floating, vibrating dust. There was a black slug the size of a mouse that criss-crossed the kitchen rug at night, the streak of its slime tracing the outlines of the imitation oriental symbols: a star, the tree of life.
What we need, Sigh said, is a kitchen hedgehog. (156)

There is very little story here, which will not please many readers. Instead Sara Baume gives us a very close look at how insects, plants, weather and so forth interact on human lives, and what happens when the humans do not resist. It’s very strange and very powerful.

Seven Steeples by Sara Baume, published in 2022 by Tramp Press. 254pp

JacquiWine’s review on her blog drew my attention to this novel. You can find her review here from February 2023, in which she describes 

a beautifully-crafted story of withdrawal from conventional society for the peace of a minimalist existence. Alongside this central theme, the novel has much to say about the natural erosion that occurs over time, from the decay of buildings and possessions to the dwindling of human contact and relationships.

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume, reviewed on Bookword blog in May 2018. 

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Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan

How refreshing after some lacklustre reading to find this novel, first published in 1937 and neglected until it was reprinted in the Recovered Books series by Boiler House Press. The novels of Gertrude Trevelyan have all but disappeared, and we have Brad Bigelow to thank for the recovery of this one. I came across Two Thousand Million Man-Power on Twitter, struck first by the cover and then by the many reviews praising this book. I am joining in the praise.

Two Thousand Million Man-Power

In this novel the narrative follows two ordinary, rather boring people from 1919 to 1936. Robert is a laboratory chemist in a cosmetics company on the edge of London. Katherine is a schoolteacher in a council school in south London. They come together at a political meeting. They claim to be communists and so avoid getting married, but eventually, after treading the streets of London together for several years, and avoiding landladies, they get married. This costs Katherine her job as there is a bar on married women teachers in council schools to help address male unemployment. 

Gertrude Trevelyan explores the effects of events in the world on ordinary people. These events are political, social and economic. Although they begin their married life in relative prosperity, Robert loses his job as the effects of the Great Crash affect his company. He has difficulty, for 18 months, in find another job. Katherine takes on teaching in a private school. They become less happy with each other and the world they live in.

This world is shown by the interpolation of lists of events spread throughout the novel. Such sections frequently refer to the new communist state of Russia, and the gradual disenchantment of the idealistic couple with communist ideology. The events are reported within a paragraph or fill a page. 

Now the World Economic Conference meets at Geneva, the Soviets take part by invitation, the Conference fails; the French Minister of the `interior speaks on the Communist Menace, Soviet headquarters are raided at Peking, British Government breaks off trade relations with Russia; ten Socialist MPs entertain members of the Russian Trade Delegation to luncheon at the House. “It’s all very well,” Robert says. ”You can’t get away from it, they’re enemies of law and order.” (88)

Such a technique, it has been claimed, originated with John Dos Passos’s trilogy U.S.A. which was published two years before Two Thousand Million Man-Power. As I understand it the earlier novel had separate sections while Gertrude Trevelyan integrates her references with the events in the wider world. I found this aspect of the novel, the integration of the lives of Robert and Katherine with the ‘real’ world of the 1920s and 1930s, both innovative and effective. 

This technique also served the big picture of this novel: it is hinted at in the rather esoteric title. Capitalism, the size of everything, the juggernaut of preparations for war, for progress, for economic growth (and decline) is represented by the idea of the machine. Towards the end of the novel, when we have reached 1936, Robert reflects on what lies before them, and how their lives had been taken over by the actual as well as the metaphorical machine. Their enthusiasm for progress has developed into an enthusiasm for consumerism.

In time Livingsby would retire and Robert might get his job, he’d be a little bit older and a bit more tired and he’d have a little less hair and he’d care a little bit less that he’d never done any of the things he’d wanted to, and they’d be able to have a bigger flat, and a newer and newer flat, and Kath would want a plane instead of a car. There’d be regular air services to New York and stratosphere races for aviators, and he’d be a bit older and pretty bald and Kath would have a transformation, and then there’d be regular stratosphere services and the record breakers would be higher up still, in rockets, and Kath would want a stratosphere cruise in the summer instead of a trip by air. (278-9)

There is a bit of a risk in taking two rather boring and unsympathetic characters to carry the novel over nearly twenty years. The narrative becomes less about what happens to Robert and Kath, more how international events profoundly affect ideals, ambitions and love. The hardest section of the novel concerns Robert’s daily search for work, with no prospects, until he is faced with the attraction of suicide in the London Docks, in sight of the City of London.

And although some of her (or Robert’s) prophesies do not manifest in the way she imagined, Gertrude Trevelyan also had some prescience about the way the machine uses the world’s resources.

Because the resources of the earth were being used up: coal, oil and finally water: water being used for power. Power being gradually drained from the earth, used up for speed and armaments and an increasing number of trivial, unnecessary purposes. Every housewife putting on an electric iron in her kitchen using up a bit of power from the earth’s centre. Like a lunatic on a tree, sawing off the branch he sits on. The world living on its capital. (266)

I loved discovering this innovative, creative and thoughtful writer. I look forward to reading more of her novels. Thanks to Brad Bigelow and Recovered Books for discovering this one.

Gertrude Trevelyan

Portrait of Gertrude Eileen Trevelyan July 1937 by Bassano Ltd. from the National Portrait Gallery Licensed under Creative Commons agreement

Born in Bath in 1903, Gertrude Trevelyan aspired to ‘a position of total obscurity’. She attended Oxford University (Lady Margaret Hall) after the First World War and claimed to enter the Newdigate Prize for undergraduate poetry as a joke in 1923. Julia, Daughter of Claudius won. She was fortunate enough to have a small private income that allowed her to live independently in a flat in London where she wrote seven novels between 1932 and her death (from injuries received in the Blitz) in 1941. Two Thousand Million Man-Power was her 5th novel. She was celebrated for her different experimental approaches in her novels, both the subject matter and her style. But she avoided the literary scene in London, took on no reviewing or teaching. This partly explains why she and her novels were so quickly forgotten.

Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan. First published in 1937 and reissued by Recovered Books in 2022. 297pp.

Related posts and articles

Neglected Books Page by Brad Bigelow (December 2018)

HeavenAli (November 2022)

JacquiWine’sJournal (February 2023)

StuckInABook (November 2022)

Guardian article: If She was a Bloke, She’d still be in Print: the lost novels of Gertrude Trevelyan by Alison Flood (December 2022)

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The Trees by Percival Everett

To understand the title, The Trees, think of the song Strange Fruit, sung by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. 

Southern trees
Bearing strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
And blood at the roots 
Black bodies
Swinging in the southern breeze [lyrics by Abel Meeropol, 1939]

To understand the novel it helps to have an idea of the story of Emmett Till. Another song always moves me: Emmylou Harris singing My Name is Emmett Till. She reminds us of the lynching in the summer of 1955 of the Black 14-year-old, who came from Chicago’s South Side to visit family in Money, Mississippi. He was accused by a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, of improper behaviour. Her husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother WJ Milam found the boy and beat him up and shot him and dumped him in the Tallahatchie River. Emmett Till’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral when her son’s body was returned to her in Chicago, so that people could see what had been done to her son.

Funeral photo via Wiki Commons: Emmett Till’s parents at his funeral by David Jackson September 15 1955

The toxic mixture of violent racism in the time of Jim Crow, fears of emasculation and lynching are the background to the novel The Trees, but you may also have heard that it is funny, a pastiche and has paranormal aspects too, a Black comedy.

The Trees

The action begins in in the present time in Money, Mississippi 

Money, Mississippi, looks exactly like it sounds. Named in the persistent Southern tradition of irony and with the attendant tradition of nescience, the name becomes slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going away. (11)

This is the opening paragraph: sardonic, knowing, arcane (what is this word *nescience? – see note below), amusing, showing familiarity with the Southern states. These are characteristics of tone and style of this novel. It unfolds as a detective novel. 

Two detectives are sent from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. They are sent to Money because two bodies have been found: a White man – Wheat Bryant – and an unknown decomposing body of a Black man clutching Bryant’s testicles. Then the Black corpse disappears, and another murder takes place, with a similar disappearing Black corpse. Jim and Ed from the MBI are not welcomed. It came to me in a jolt that they are Black. Their wisecracking, world-weary attitude is inherited from the golden age of American ‘tec fiction. 

The connection with the lynching of Emmett Till is soon noted by the MBI agents, although they are shocked that a murder from nearly 70 years ago is being referenced. The story takes off from there, as a Black and female FBI agent is also involved. A 103-year-old woman, Mama Z, seems to hold some clues, and it emerges that she has records of the thousands of lynchings that took place in the Jim Crow era.

A whole chapter records the list of names that a Black scholar from Chicago makes from her records. The list takes up 10 pages of the novel. Emmett Till’s name appears about two thirds of the way through. Several lynching victims are recorded as ‘unknown male’, or are bundled together (16 adult men), some women are recorded in the list along with many Chinese names. 

“When I write the names they become real, not just statistics. When I write the names they become real again. It’s almost like they get a few seconds more here. Do you know what I mean? I would never be able to make up this many names. The names have to be real. They have to be real, don’t they?”
Mama Z put her hand against the side of Damon face.
“Why pencil?”
“When I’m done, I’m going to erase every name, set them free.”
“Carry on child,” the old woman said. (211)

Mama Z tells Damon that she has compiled 7,006 dossiers of murdered people. She tells him that fewer than 1% of those responsible were convicted of these murders. 

More lynching-related murders are committed, each with its testicle-clutching Black corpse in attendance. The law enforcement officers gradually put together how the murders have been committed, where the bodies are from and the stories behind these new victims. The killings continue to accelerate and spread throughout the country. It becomes obvious that the original perpetrators have lost control of their original plot. And we are in the dark territory of racism and backlash in the US, historically and in the present day. 

The pastiche of the detection continues to the end – there is even a locked-in-a-fridge scene. Some jokes are corny (the three detectives who introduce themselves as Ho, Chi, and Minh, for example). But the juxtaposition of the features of the ordinary plot with the carnage echoes the way in which White history has failed to explore the history of Black murder and simply got on with writing about the White American dream.

I have a few scruples. The present-day victims from Wheat Bryant to the victims of the hordes that are eventually activated, while gross and racist, were the children of the murderers of the ‘50s. The issue of culpability is tricky, for no doubt they have benefited from the racism that fuelled the appalling death rate during the period of the lynchings, and the murders of all those enslaved peoples before that, but they did not commit them themselves. I guess Percival Everett want to make the point that all White people are implicated – then and now.

And I always find extra-judicial killings hard to accept, although it is clear that justice under Jim Crow laws was completely inadequate. And unlike most detective stories, the motives and methods of the murderers are not neatly explained in the final chapter. Indeed, the paranormal appears to have taken over, with the hordes chant Rise! Rise! We are left with a sweet love story and Armageddon. 

Perhaps that’s how it will be. 

Percival Everett

Born in 1956 and working as a professor of literature at the University of South California, Percival Everett is a prolific writer: of poetry, short stories and 23 novels. His work embraces many different traditions in English literature, and he claims the influence of Mark Twain. In the Guardian review of The Trees, he was described as a ‘seriously playful’ writer, which seems about right. 

The Trees was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2022.

The blog review which alerted me to this book can be found on Jacquiwine’s Journal, in September 2022.

*Note: Nescience is the state of not knowing.

The Trees by Percival Everett was published in 2021 by Influx Press 334pp

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Reports of the Death of Book Blogs …

Reports of the Death of Book Blogs are a little premature, perhaps even exaggerated. The question being asked on this post is: is book blogging dying? Right, posing the question on a book blog provides the answer– the book blog is not dead. This book blog is not dead. This, after all, is my 721st post since I began Bookword in December 2012. 

I pose the question because three times in the last week I have come across reports of the demise of the book blog. I have never come across this suggestion before, but I can spot a trend. Three suggestions in one week – perhaps book blogging is on its way out.

Checking the possibility

So, I looked online. Actually, there was no evidence for the death at all, although it is claimed that other social media activities (TickTock or podcasting, for example) are pushing out blogging. There is no evidence for the claim which is perhaps based on individual experience and taste.

It’s a little like the promise of the paperless office. Remember that? In my experience workplaces use paper andon-line file management. In the workplace where I volunteer the IT is so unreliable that we have to manage with both paper and online files, and in every office there are piles of paper and people staring at computer screens. I suspect that there are an increasing number of podcasts about books now, but they exist alongside book blogs.

I asked Google (a typed question not a spoken query) if book blogging was dead. Google replied promptly by presenting me with a list of the top 100 book blogs based in the US, and several rather older and similar lists. I added UK to my question and came across another list of 100 top book blogs. If there are 200 top blogs in the US and the UK then book blogging is clearly not dead. 

The criteria for being top (or the best) are not provided. Nor was information about who compiled the list. My inner researcher (yes, I used to work in a university) was despairing of these lapses, but my basic question is answered. Book blogging is not dead.

Indeed, I couldn’t find any evidence that it is even ailing. Perhaps it arises from an assumption that if podcasts are increasingly popular, blogging will be less popular. People used to say that Kindle and other digital readers would spell the end of ‘real’ books. Again, both seem to thrive. It’s a question of plurality, of variousness not of a zero sum.

Book Blogs Live

I went back to the list of 100 top book blogs and noted some blogs that I am familiar with. And I noticed that among the ‘toppest’ were many corporate sites: publishers, periodicals, professional bloggers. I don’t think these existed in such great numbers when I started Bookword, but since their purpose is, among other things, to sell books I conclude that they see a value in blogging.

The more individual blogs, the ones where people just like to write about books they are reading, these blogs also appeared in the list. I enjoy these more. We often leave comments on each other’s blogs. We promote each other’s sites on Twitter. 

The list also included information on how often the blogger posts. The frequency ranged from 10 a week through to once a quarter (ie four times a year, or once every three months). These were the extremes, most seemed to post around once a week. (Here on Bookword it’s every 5 days, but I think I am going to slow down slightly to join the once a weekers.)

Flexibility

One of the great things about blogging is its flexibility: form, content, style, frequency, birth and death. There are no rules.

I began my blog to connect with other readers who like writing and talking about books. I keep going because I still want to do that. That’s why I read other blogs. Even if DoveGreyReader has disappeared, there are still many great bloggers out there. Here are some of the blogs that I keep visiting:

Book Bloggers: keep on blogging!

Related posts

Book Blogging Is Dead, But That’s Okay on FrappesandFiction. The blogger explains why she likes blogging about books (March 2022)

Being a Nice Book Blogger – a post looking at the claim that book blogging was harming literature (March 2017).

The death of real books/the end of e-books – a post looking at the sales of ebooks and real books, both holding up at that time (August 2017)

It was Mark Twain, btw, who said, ‘the report of my death was an exaggeration’. He is often misquoted.

Picture credit for Blog Cortega9 on WikiCommons.

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The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam

My book group decided to read The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam. I was pleased as I very much enjoy her novels, especially the Old Filth trilogy. So too do many others, who voted for the first of the trilogy to be included in the Guardian’s 100 best reads. I like the way she explores lives, especially those of women. She excels at placing them in difficult situations and requiring them to face dilemmas.  I especially enjoy the quirky details that she includes. Sometimes they are relevant to the plot line, and sometimes they provide period or character detail. The death of Old Filth’s wife Betty as she plants tulips and hides evidence of her betrayal, is one of those moments. I had not read The Flight of the Maidens.

The Flight of the Maidens

The novel follows three young women at that exciting moment in their lives when they are about to branch out, in this case all three have won places at university and the novel begins as they all secure the funding that will enable them to take up their places. 

These events occur in the summer of 1946, the war has ended and everywhere there is the sense of emerging from six years of disruption and deprivation. The national mood echoes the mood of the three young women who have spent their school days at war. 

The three girls take different routes over the next three months as they spread their wings (take flight) before meeting up again on the eve of taking their places at university.

Hetty lives with a mother who is suffocating in her attention to her daughter and a father who has never returned from the Somme. Her works as a grave digger but is known locally as something of a philosopher and rather fragile. Mostly to escape her mother, but also to experience a wider world than her Yorkshire village, she takes herself off to the Lake District to spend some weeks reading in preparation for her course. While there, staying in a guesthouse on a farm, Hetty learns a thing or two about herself. Her horizons are broadened when she meets the people of the area: those who work on the land and the aristocrats who seem to be quite mad. One of the aristocrats in the devilishly handsome Rupert, who seems somewhat unavailable but a dreadful flirt. She is rescued from seduction by distressing news from home.

Una is the single daughter of a single mother who has supported them both from the income from operating a not very reliable hairdresser’s in her home. She has had a longstanding uncommunicative relationship with a local boy who leaves school to get a job and works his way up to a career on the railway. Their relationship, up to this point, has been conducted through bike rides at weekends. Now Ray and Una decide to spend a weekend together in a remote hostel. Their plans are disrupted in a most unfortunate way, but their next attempt brings the looked-for intimacy. Una wonders whether university is the way to go.

Lottie has been in England since 1938, brought as an endangered Jewish child from Hamburg on the Kindertransport, and cared for by a Quaker family in Yorkshire. She is severely restricted in her emotional expression and in her interactions. She suddenly disappears to London where she is taken in by a very eccentric older Jewish couple who escaped from Germany with many items of household furnishing. They had been experts in transportation before they fled. After a few weeks of exploring bomb-damaged London, Lottie travels on to California to consider the option of being adopted by an older, rich, American relative. The West Coast life seems so disconnected from anything she knows or wants that she decides to return.

I found Lottie the least believable of the characters. Things appear to happen to her, and she attracts the oddest of people. The episode in California seems far-fetched, but perhaps that is the point in Lottie’s fractured and disrupted life.  

So, all three young ‘maidens’ are changed by those few months. Jane Gardam has captured that magical time in a young woman’s life. It took me back to my time before I went to university, which involved spending a few days in Israel during the Six-Day War in June 1967 and being evacuated to Cyprus – not then a divided island. The following year I went to America to study in Philadelphia and it seemed as if life was going to be a series of similar adventures. In the same way, twenty years before, the lives of Hetty, Una and Lottie opened out at the end of the war.

It was an exciting time for the girls, but a time for recuperation by the adults.

Jane Gardam

Jane Gardam

Jane Gardam was born in Yorkshire in 1928. She is a prolific writer of children’s and adult’s books. I counted 13 children’s books, many collections of short stories and 9 adult novels and one non-fiction book on her Wikipedia page. 

I recommend The Flight of the Maidens as well as the trilogy: Old FilthThe Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Friends

The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam, published in 2000 by Abacus. 278pp

Related Posts

The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam, in the Older Women in Fiction series (October 29014).

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam, her debut novel in 1971, is a recent post on Jacquiwine’s Journal, who refers to it as ‘a warm, funny, thoroughly enjoyable novel that captures the trials of adolescence so engagingly’.

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The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann

Do you know that Thurber cartoon: a stout woman is reading a book in a relaxed manner, legs hanging over the arm of her chair? Her middle-aged husband sits foursquare and has the paper open and looks startled. She tells him: ‘It’s our own story exactly! He’s a bold as a hawk, she’s soft as the dawn.’

When I first read this book, in the early ‘80s perhaps when Virago republished it, I felt that – it was my story. And rereading it recently that feeling has not changed. I knew what she was writing about. Perhaps more to the point, Rosamond Lehmann knew what she was writing about.

The Weather in the Streets

The story is a kind of sequel to Invitation to the Waltz, in which Olivia Curtis was poised on the brink of adulthood, socially awkward at a ball, and rescued by Rollo Spencer. Ten years later she is now married but has separated from Ivor. This novel is the story of her affair with Rollo. 

At the start of the story she is going home to see her father who may be dying. He isn’t but he remains an invalid. On the train she meets Rollo. They have not met since Marigold’s coming out party. They are attracted to each other, and after Rollo has ensured she gets invited to his family’s country house for a party the die is cast. The affair is carried on for nearly a year, when after months of clandestine meetings and a holiday together in Austria Olivia finds that she is pregnant. Rollo has disappeared with his family for the rest of the summer. She endures the pregnancy until visited by Rollo’s mother. 

The affair ends because Olivia comes to see that she has always been in second place to Nicola, Rollo’s wife, always just a distraction for him. They had no future. They did have love and a good time. She returns to her artistic friends and moves on painfully. 

In love

Rosamond Lehman writes about the inner torments of isolated young women with great effect. This was the strength of Dusty Answer as well as Invitation to the Waltz. In this novel, Olivia is not yet self-assured, not yet happy in any social group. Being separated from her husband she is not welcome in most social circles, and out of tune with her family’s social connections. Rollo pays her attention, as he did at the party when she was 16, and she warms to him. They get on well and at first everything is ecstatic. But once established as his mistress she finds herself always waiting.

He’d manage to come for dinner once a week. I cooked it in the tiny cupboard of a kitchen, and he laid the table, awfully pleased with himself. I shall never like cooking, I’m not talented enough, but it was nice cooking for him, he appreciated it so. I bought a stylish new cookery book and dished up all sorts of mixtures. Sometimes when he couldn’t have dinner with me, he’d ring the bell late, about one o’clock. I never stayed out anywhere after midnight in case he did. It was rather wearing, the waiting, often after one had struck, I’d listen for the half-hour, then two, then the half-hour again, still keyed-up for the doorbell, the telephone, hearing in my brain his car come down the street and stop, sitting frozen in my chair – a listening machine. … I asked him how he explained when he came late. ‘I go to look up old George,’ he said. I knew that George was a habitué of the house – Nicola’s friend – it didn’t seem safe, but he and George had standing orders for the last ten years to provide an unhesitating alibi on all occasions with an element of doubt in them. George could be trusted. He was a very useful chap, never been known to ask a question. (191)

The dynamics of love

She’s an expert at describing falling in love, the invisible currents between two people, how each takes it a little further until it’s a settled thing. She illuminates the way love can put you into a bubble, when nothing exists except in relation to this wonderful thing that’s happening. And those little jolts, the sparks when one of the pair is offended, but the other hasn’t noticed. In the passage above I notice how smoothly Rollo uses his alibi, set up ten years ago. Has he needed it before, will he need it again? Is this a man of honour? And I notice how Olivia sacrifices her own freedoms, her own life to wait for him.

An accomplished writer

When she published this novel Rosamond Lehmann was well established. She had gained a reputation of being a little racy with Dusty Answer. Like a number of women writers of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor are two examples, she was able to convey so much in one sentence, one movement, one piece of dialogue and had the skill to convey the reactions people had to each other through their words. Here is the moment when Olivia and Rollo hesitate just before committing themselves to an illicit relationship.

Getting up from my stool to take another cigarette, nervouser and nervouser … He struck a match, saying very softly, in a funny, diffident, plaintive voice: ‘I’ve thought about this evening such a lot.’
‘So’ve I.’ Looking at the cigarette, puffing furiously.
He put his head down suddenly to give me a light quick kiss on the cheek. No good. What can break this down? How to melt, how to start? … Because here he is, he’s come for what I promised, it’s got to be made to be …standing side by side in Etty’s crammed room …
‘Darling, are you glad to see me?’ Coaxing …
‘Yes, Rollo.’
‘Don’t be frightened,’ he said.
It was all over before now, it could still be nothing, never happen … I don’t know how, there wasn’t one moment, but he made it all come right as he always did, saying: ‘She won’t be coming in, will she?’ (144-5)

In this extract there are no less than six ellipses indicating tentative moves, hesitancy which is put to an end by his practical (practised?) inquiry about her flat mate’s return.

The scene between Olivia and Rollo’s mother, as another example, expresses so much, not least through what is not said. It proves decisive.

Our own story exactly!

To wait, to be waiting always between the moments of aliveness, to give way with grace, to always look over your shoulder, to exercise discretion when you want to shout about it. This is what I recognised in this novel so long ago and what I recognised again. Rosamond Lehmann keeps our attention on Olivia and our sympathies with her conflicting emotions as the affair progresses. The impossibility of making a life around a doomed love affair, the million and one slights, offences, disappointments, as well as the ecstasy and belief that no-body else had loved as we did.

The novel is not short. The central section is written in the first person, but we move away again into the third person when things get difficult for Olivia and Rollo. We can see that none of the marriages in this novel are perfect. Compromises and sacrifices have been made. Some have endured. In her family circle her mother is now devoting herself to an invalid husband;  her sister has married a doctor and had four children after a bitter experience of love; her brother James is wandering Europe, a bit of a loner, possibly gay. 

The gender imbalance is obvious, but not emphasised. Rollo can do what he wants. He’s a nice enough chap. Doesn’t want to hurt anyone. But he can’t sustain the relationship with Olivia. She ultimately needs more than he is prepared to give.

I wanted more for Olivia as well. I wanted her to be able to embrace marriage. But it seems that marriage does not suit some people. As I didn’t quite say, ‘My story exactly.’

The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann, first published in 1936 and then by Virago in 1981. It has been reprinted 19 times since then. 372pp

Related posts

Invitation to the Waltz  by Rosamond Lehmann

Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann

In an enthusiastic review of Weather in the Streets posted in July this year, JacquieWine’s Journal says this novel ‘expertly captures the cruelty, frustration and devastation of a doomed love affair in the most glittering prose’. 

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Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Oh this book! I can’t have been very old when I read it, perhaps in my late teens. But however young it made a BIG impression on me. First it was written in French. It was about being very cool on the Mediterranean coast. And it featured some very adult themes about a father with very modern ideas bout his relationships with women and about a young girl just coming into womanhood.

I think I believed that this was how my ideal life would be, divided between sophisticated and cultured Paris and the charms of the summer spent in a villa on the French Mediterranean Sea. Such were the effects of Bonjour Tristesse.

Bonjour Tristesse 

‘A vulgar, sad little book’ said the Spectator, noting that it was written by a precocious 18-year old.

I was, of course very naïve, very impressionable and very self-absorbed when I read it. As I read it again I can see that the father was amoral and his behaviour to his daughter plainly unhealthy. Cecile, who narrates the story, was utterly self-absorbed, which was very affirming. Here is the famous opening:

A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. In the past the idea of sadness always appealed to me, now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I had known boredom, regret, and at times remorse, but never sadness. Today something envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, which isolates me. (9)

In the 60s precocious and self-absorbed was what we did. We believed we were the only generation to have ever been young, and we made a thing of it. That sober observer Philip Larkin said something about it in Annus Mirabilis. He was writing about 1963. The French were ahead of us. Bonjour Tristesse was published in 1954.

I excuse this belief in the importance of our generation because we were young and things were changing; we lived through some momentous changes in our social lives, and believed that the future was ours. In the event we had to give way to another generation who believed much the same. And like us they paid no mind to the sensibilities of their parents’ generation.

The Story of Bonjour Tristesse

Cecile has been living for two years with her widowed father Raymond in Paris, leading an exciting life as his companion, despite his many mistresses. They plan two months in a villa near Nice, with Elsa, his latest mistress. Soon after arriving Cecile meets Cyril, a young man also en vacances on the Cote d’Azur, and the two form an attachment.

This blissful idyll is interrupted when Raymond informs Cecile that he has invited Anne Larsen, a friend of his former wife, to join them. Anne arrives and a short battle takes place between her and Elsa, and the younger woman looses. Anne announces that she and Raymond will marry, and she begins to take Cecile in hand, requiring her break off with Cyril and to study for several hours a day in preparation for her examinations. Cecile becomes very jealous of Anne and determined to come between her and Raymond.

Cecile schemes to appeal to her father’s vanity by getting Cyril and Elsa to appear to be a couple. Despite some reservations about her plans the balance gradually tips in favour of Cecile and Anne drives away. Her car goes over the edge of the road at a dangerous bend. Suicide? After Anne’s death Cecile returns to Paris with her father and although they miss Anne, they soon pick up their old lives.

Rereading Bonjour Tristesse

I hardly remember reading to the end of this novel when I first read it. It was the opening sections that really appealed to me. Times have changed. I no longer see Bonjour Tristesse as a celebration of youth, or of the unconventional life of the French intellectual elite. It’s rather a sad family drama in which the mother is absent and her absence brings misery to everyone. But oh, those opening pages, I reread with such nostalgia.

He had rented a large white villa on the Mediterranean, for which we had been longing since the spring. It was remote and beautiful, and stood on a promontory dominating the sea, hidden from the road by a pine wood; a mule path led down to a tiny creek where the sea lapped against rust-coloured rocks. (10)

There are disputes about the translation of this novel. I read the classic 1954 translation by Irene Ash. Some say that it is not a good translation, not least because some lines were omitted. The controversy can be explored in Jacquwine’s Journal in September 2016 (and don’t miss the very long discussion in the comments) and in Rachel Cooke piece in the Guardian called The Subtle Art of Translating Foreign Fiction.

There was a film, of course. David Niven took the role of Raymond, Deborah Kerr was Anne and Jean Seberg was Cecile. It was directed in 1956 by Otto Preminger.

Women in Translation

I chose Bonjour Tristesse because I intend to read more Women in Translation – #WIT. I had scheduled the post for 14th July so it is also a celebration of Bastille Day and all things French. Women’s fiction is always good to promote as it gets less space in the printed media than men’s. And translated fiction also gets a poor deal. And I want to promote and enjoy connections with cultures across the world, despite the popular trend appearing to be in the opposite direction.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954) Penguin. 108pp. I read it in the original translation from the French by Irene Ash.

Over to you

Have you read Bonjour Tristesse? What effects did it have on you? Have you any suggestions for further reading of women in translation?

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Sisters in Fiction

Why do fiction writers so often use sisters in their novels? Is it because sisters usually have good relationships, certainly long ones, and allow authors to explore a variety of themes: growing up, marital prospects, contrasting experiences, enduring relationships or rivalries. Here are some thoughts on sisterly novels.

What little girls must learn? Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Everybody’s favourite gives us the lessons that must be learned about how little girls turn into grown ups. Who doesn’t identify with Jo Marsh, and who doesn’t yearn for the simplicities of 19th Century New England childhoods? We learn that sisters must grow up right, and that more than two of them ensures terrible trouble for the family.

The marriage market: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Five sisters, again a problem for their parents, and here specifically in the meat market that was an un-moneyed middle class Georgian England search for husbands. How will the sisters get their men? They are beautiful (Jane), intelligent and with bright eyes (Elizabeth), wanton (Lydia), boring (Mary) and stay-at-home (Kitty).

The delights of this novel include the mutually supportive relationship between Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, and the satisfaction in them both getting nice (rich) husbands.

Contrasts: 1. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Fiction is full of examples of sisters who grow up differently in the same household. The convenient contrast allows authors to look at the effects of birth order: the older having more responsibility than younger sisters. That is certainly true of the saintly Eleanor who is thwarted by Marianne’s gullibility in Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen’s novels are full of contrasting sisters: Anne and her sisters, (patient, selfish and grasping) in Persuasion, and the play-acting rivals Maria and Julia Bartram in Mansfield Park.

Contrasts: 2. Easter Parade by Richard Yates

248 Easter Parade Cover

 

Richard Yates took the contrast between two sisters’ lives from before the war to the 60s to tell a sad story of alcoholism and marriage failure.

Sarah, the older sister, quickly settles for the most classy man her mother finds for her. He turns out not to be classy, and also turns out to be a wife beater. His attitudes are typical blue collar American despite his English education.

Emily, the younger sister, chooses lots of men, and also ends up lost, without success and unemployed. Only her nephew, who is an ordained minister, seems to offer any hope or understanding. Everyone else has been consumed by drink.

Easter Parade Richard Yates (1976) Published by Everyman 188pp

For a very good review check out Jacquiwine’s Journal on Easter Parade.

Contrasts 3: They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

248 Dorothy Whipple

I haven’t read this yet, but the Persephone catalogue describes it as ‘A 1943 novel by this superb writer, contrasting three different marriages’. Dorothy Whipple has a good eye for family relationships. See my review of Greenbanks.

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published by Persephone.

Loyalty: Housekeeping (1980) by Marilynne Robinson

This novel defies description. The sisters, Ruthie and Lucille, live in a weird and rather isolated environment, called Fishbone, in the American Mid-West. They are orphans and a succession of relatives fails to look after them. Finally, their aunt cares for them until the younger sister breaks away. The scene of the flooded house lives in my memory.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, published in the UK by Faber & Faber 224pp.

Long-lasting: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

The central mystery of this successful novel is Maud’s attempt to find out what happened to her sister since she disappeared at the end of the war. She pursues the clues, despite the passage of time and her own fading mental powers.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014) published by Penguin Books. 275pp

For more on this novel see the post in the older women in fiction series.

Rivalry: The Looking Glass Sisters by Gohril Gabrielsen.

248 Lglass Sisters cover

The unrelenting horror of this story of a co-dependent relationship turned worse and more destructive by the page is a contrast to the other novels mentioned here.

The story is set in the remote far north of Norway. Two sisters live in a house, their parents have died. They are middle aged but the narrator recalls their earlier lives. She is younger and disabled, having lost the use of her legs in childhood, an outcome she partly blames on her sister for not alerting her parents to her worsening illness. The younger sister riles and deliberately provokes and annoys her older carer. The situation is changed by the arrival of Johan, and his inability to cope with the invalid and the invalid’s jealousy of her sister. The situation declines and declines and in the end everything is terrible.

The Looking-Glass Sisters Peirene (2008) 183pp

Translated from the Norwegian by John Irons

Sisters in fiction always a happy ending?

Sisters are doing it themselves!

On the whole, sisterhood is good in fiction, as in life. It is not surprising that the second wave of feminism took to calling all women sisters.

But there is ambivalence in these novels (and perhaps life). The relationship is not always easy. In novels, especially from the 19th century it seems that there is always a fear that one woman’s marriage/achievements will spell another’s poverty.

Over to you

Have you any suggestions about why sisters appear so often in novels? What other fictional sisters would you recommend?

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