Tag Archives: Jane Austen

The Best Books for … a lockdown

I am thoroughly fed up with newspapers, booksellers even book tweeters assuming that they know what I want to read during the lockdown. By the time this post appears it will be more than 50 days into the restrictions, and although we may still be finding them hard, we will know more about how we cope than pop psychologists with their routines of resilience. I am dubious about the idea of reading being some kind of antidote to boredom and loneliness.

We are being recommended to read long books, or comfort reads, or books about restrictions and the plague, or books that offer escapism. But we may not want this. What everyone seems to agree on is that readers are reading more, and readers have more time for more reading. But I don’t want to work through a list of long books I’ve been meaning to read forever; I don’t want books to cheer me up; or to match any low mood; or books that pander to a reduced ability to concentrate. 

During the lockdown I have enjoyed a good mixture. So here’s my list of Best Books and I invite you to add your choices too. 

Quiet books

If you haven’t read Stoner by John Williams this might be a good opportunity. The main character leads an unremarkable life, which can be described as an accumulation of failure and disappointment. But it is a life worth reading about. You can read my review here.

Barbara Pym is another writer, but very different, who writes about the small things of life, the quiet people, everyday events. I really enjoyed rereading Excellent Women, and highly recommend it to you. It was the subject of the previous post. And for a book by her in the older women in fiction series you could read Quartet in Autumn.

A thoughtful writer

An early casualty of the cancellation of all my activities was an event in Bristol at which Rebecca Solnit was due to speak. What made it even more frustrating was that this was the second time she had cancelled a visit to Bristol. I’m not taking it personally. But I want to read more from Call them by their True Names by Rebecca Solnit. This was a gift from my daughter at Christmas, being a collection of essays. And in anticipation of that cancelled event I had obtained a copy of her memoir: Recollections of My Non-Existence. I have scheduled a post on this blog on her writing for the near future.

She always provides a wider perspective on events, allowing one to understand the world in which we live in more breadth and depth. You will find several posts featuring her writing (all non-fiction).

Comfort Reading

I don’t usually go in for comfort reading, but there is one book that I have read in the past during times of great personal difficulty. It absorbs my attention and flatters my focus as a reader, for I know the plot so well. I enjoy reading new details, of style, comment, interaction and so forth. It is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. And if the moments of personal difficulty follow too close together I will replace it with Persuasion. Neither novel comforts me because they end well for the heroine, but because they are so well crafted, such a treat for the reader.

Books I started and want to finish now

One book in this category has to be Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, which won the Booker Prize. I started it a few months ago, but it was called back to the library and so now I have my own copy I can continue to read it without the threat of being parted from it. I relished Mr Loverman, partly because it is set in Hackney, a part of London which I know well. And also because the people in that novel were, as it were, known to me. I had lived among them. In addition I attended a day course at the British Museum on which Bernardine Evaristo tutored. It was a good experience. That woman has serious talent.

And another book to finish is RC Sherriff’s A Fortnight in September. This is another book that I read a chapter of and now want to get back to. It regularly receives praise on social media, and I feel I should know it. 

Poetry

I am dipping into various collections and enjoying the work of a range of poets: Kathleen Jamie and Helen Dunmore for example. 

Novels on the theme of pandemic:

Maybe I will try one or more of these:

Lockdown by Peter May 

La Peste by Albert Camus

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

The Stand by Stephen King

But probably not.

And …

I am enjoying listening to Podcasts, for the discussions about books or words. And I’m pleased that Backlisted Podcast is now in production again. These podcasts feature, as the name implies, books that are on publishers’ backlists but still deserve attention. They restarted the series in April with a look at Barbara Pym.

And I continue to read chosen books for the blog, especially the series, my book clubs and because I have them on my shelves. 

Recommended by others

Five Comfort Reads from A Life in Books blog

Lockdown Reading by Anne Goodwin on Inspired Quill

Comfort Reading on the Guardian, chosen by various writers

There are lots of good suggestions there for people who like lists of recommendations.

Best Books for …

This was my third post in an ad hoc series which all begin The best book for …  Some other ideas are … reading in translation; … recommending to book groups; … taking on holiday; … when I am ill in bed; and so on. The first two were: 

The Best Books for … changing my life in December 2019

The Best Books for … giving in January 2020.

Over to you

So what books would you add to a list of the best books for the lockdown?

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Podcast, poetry, Reading, The Best Books for ...

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I have heard it said that Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s least good novel, not their favourite. Such readers suggest that it has a soggy middle as Catherine Morland is carried away by her novel-inspired imagination. Northanger Abbey has the reputation of being a satire on the contemporary popularity of the gothic novel, such as Mrs Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (mentioned in the text). 

I have heard people say that Henry Tilney is the perfect hero, deserving of the love of a good woman because of his patience and tact. And I have read that it is a novel about novels and novel readers. Do any of these views capture the value of Northanger Abbey? Are these the reasons to reread it yet again?

Northanger Abbey

Catherine Morland is seventeen, unworldly and from a large family of adequate means who live quietly in Wiltshire. She is taken to stay in Bath by a friend of the family. The scene is set for Catherine’s adventures to show up some truths about Bath and the world. 

Under the care Mr and Mrs Allen she experiences the fashionable life of Bath, at first not knowing anyone, then befriended by the Thorpes. Isabella becomes her best friend. Isabella’s brother John Thorpe sees the world as he wants, and he assumes that Catherine is interested in him, although she is soon bored of his bragging company. 

She prefers Henry Tilney who was introduced to her by the Master of Ceremonies in the Lower Assembly Rooms. He danced with her when she knew no one. She meets his sister and Eleanor quickly becomes a better friend than Isabella. Under the misapprehension that she is an heiress, thanks to John Thorpe’s bragging misinformation, General Tilney encourages his son’s attentions and Catherine is invited to Northanger Abbey.

The General returns from a trip to London where he has been disabused of his ideas about Catherine and turns her out of the house. Henry follows her and declares his love. All are reconciled.

Believing what you want to believe

A number of people in this story believe what they want to believe. Catherine wants some mystery and drama and so mistakes what she finds in the Abbey. The General has expectations for Catherine in Mr Allen’s imaginary fortune. And when he learns her true situation he is unable to admit to his own mistakes and treats her shockingly. While she was wrong about his capacity for murder, she had rightly suspected that he was capable of great cruelty.

Isabella and John Thorpe both believe the best of themselves, larding their conversations with Catherine with obvious untruths and self-flattery. And their selfish and careless behaviour places her in some embarrassing and unwanted situations.

Of all the people that Catherine meets it is only the Tilneys, Henry and Eleanor, who do not use her to flatter themselves or to fulfil their wishes. And Catherine herself, when she relies on her feelings rather than her wild imagination has good judgement. She also learns from her own hot-headedness and from the betrayal of her ‘friend’ Isabella Thorpe.

And the writing tells us …

Much of the book is written in the negative: what you shouldn’t think about the heroine or her story, how her origins are not mean, her experiences not dire, and how the story does not end. It is an achievement to have made a novel about a heroine who is hardly remarkable, indeed has many faults. The first page is a teasing account of all the reasons why Catherine does not make a good heroine. She has attractions however, which we finally learn on p 41, with a light twist in the final line.

…her heart was affectionate, her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind – her manners just removed from the awkwardness and shyness of a girl; her person pleasing, and when in good looks, pretty – and her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is. (41)

And this teasing continues throughout the book, especially when Catherine’s imagination gets the better of her. 

And throughout, Jane Austen reminds us that in novels we are often invited to expect the unreasonable and the heroic. When General Tilney sends Catherine away, without even a servant to accompany her on a complicated journey, it will look to the world as if she is in disgrace. The author takes a moment to remind us that Catherine is not a romantic heroine.

A heroine returning, at the close of her career, to her native village, in all triumph of recovered reputation and all the dignity of a countess, with a long train of noble relations in their several phaetons, and three waiting-maids in a travelling chaise-and-four, behind her is an event on which the pen of the contriver may well delight to dwell: it gives credit to every conclusion, and the author must share in the glory she so liberally bestows. – But my affair is widely different: I bring back my heroine to her home in solitude and disgrace; and no sweet elation of sprits can lead me into minuteness. A heroine in a hack post-chaise is such a blow upon sentiment, as no attempt at grandeur or pathos can withstand. Swiftly therefore shall her post-boy drive through the village, amid the gaze of Sunday groups, speedy shall be her descent from it. (230)

There is a great deal in Northanger Abbey about books and reading and Catherine’s excitement at the latest sensational novel and at the prospect of visiting a real Abbey is evidence of her lack of judgement. 

The author herself has a short rant about how novels and novel-reading are disrespected by reviewers and readers and aspirational society. Towards the end of Northanger Abbey Henry contradicts Catherine’s suggestion that reading novels is not undertaken by gentlemen …

‘… because they are not clever enough for you. Gentlemen read better books.’

‘The person, be it a gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.’ (121)

And I might just draw your attention to Jane Austen’s very post-modern device of drawing attention to the novel’s structure and devices as you read, in other words, adding a little meta-fiction.

A British film adaptation was made in 2007, screenplay by Andrew Davies and directed by Jon Jones. I have not seen it. 

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen first published in 1818. I read the Penguin English Library edition from 1972. 252pp

Related posts

Lady Susan by Jane Austen (April 2015)

Pursuing Jane Austen (June 2019)

In the society of Jane Austen (December 2019)

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, Reading, Reviews

In the society of Jane Austen

Don’t we all have something that we are very enthusiastic about? I hope so. Enthusiasm is a great thing. For some people it is steam trains; for others its chocolate or wine; I know people who enthuse about football. For me it’s the books of Jane Austen and even Jane Austen herself.

I own copies of all her novels, even those she did not complete. Some in duplicate. And the collection of her letters. And several biographies. And a lovely book called Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 300 years of classic covers by Margaret Sullivan.

I have visited her house at Chawton, looked at her legendary writing table and the patchwork bed quilt she made with her female relatives. I own and use a Penguin Pride and Prejudice mug

I am not a fan of tv or cinema adaptations of the novels. For one thing they focus on the story and must occasionally take liberties by showing details where the text would explain all. For example, some people may be surprised to learn that Mr Darcy did not dive into his pond wearing a loose shirt just before he met Elizabeth Bennett at Pemberley. And adaptations can limit the imagination. It is hard not to see Colin Firth at Mr Darcy, and it even made a jolly good joke when filming Brigit Jones. And the adaptations focus on story, story, story, leaving out so much. 

And I’m not a fan of sequels or finishings off of the unfinished. However much we want to write fan fiction I think it is better left unpublished. Nor am I a fan of some covers. What scene in Pride and Prejudice does this cover depict? 

And is this your view of Captain Wentworth of the red face?

Jane Austen Society

But I do love to talk about her novels. And I like to read them. And I like to hear other people talking about them and about Jane Austen herself. And so I joined the South West branch of the Jane Austen Society. There are more than 80 of us. We meet four times a year, and we listen to two people talking to us about some Jane Austen-related things. 

There are lots of things I enjoy about this group. There are some very well read people, scholars and experts in the group. And the officers arrange for experts from other parts of the country or even from abroad to address us. We learn about such things as dress and its social implications in Bath, her schoolteachers, the seaside, members of Jane Austen’s family, and her interest in music. We enjoy close textual appreciation, or hearing about the fate of the many editions of her books since they came out of copyright. 

It was with 27 other members of the society that I went to Kent in search of Jane Austen and wrote about it on a post, wondering why we undertake cultural tourism. I’m going on another trip next year. 

The friendliness of the group, mostly women, mostly of my age, all sharing an enthusiasm, is another reason to enjoy this group. 

And it’s a wonderful place to overhear remarks:

I didn’t even know there was a Jane Austen Society until I was having lunch with a friend.

I have a friend who’s very keen on Jane Austen.

I need to belong to the Migraine Society.

And to pick up useful bookish phrases:

… read to bits …

Cheap books lead hard lives.

Smoocher (meaning a borrower but not returner of small things, C19th)

And to gather reading suggestions. 

And following our most recent meeting I have started to reread Northanger Abbey

Does anyone share my enthusiasm for a writer in the same way?

Related Posts on Bookword

Lady Susan by Jane Austen (April 2015)

Pursuing Jane Austen (June 2019)

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, Reading, Reviews

Must Writers live in Beautiful Places?

The association of writers and beautiful places seem boundless: Jane Austen in Bath, the Brontes in Howarth in Yorkshire, Wordsworth in the Lake District, Elizabeth Bowen in Bowen’s Court in Ireland and Elizabeth Taylor lived beside the Thames near Reading. One of the pleasures of moving to Devon is the wealth of lovely places to visit. On a recent trip to Greenway in South Devon I mused on the connection between writers and their homes.

Greenway

Greenway May 2017

On the heights near the mouth of the River Dart is the house that Agatha Christie built for her summer holidays, referring it to the most beautiful place in the world. Now a National Trust property, Greenway is an impressive place to visit. And the house is more or less as it was in the 1950s.

Hall in Greenway, May 2017

What this offers the writer

For the writer’s leisure the following delights are on offer

  • Tennis counts
  • Croquet lawn
  • Boating on the river
  • Garden walks
  • Local archaeology
  • Piano playing
  • Board games

The Greenway house is full of boxes, collections of decorative boxes of all sizes from snuff boxes in display cases to other boxes in all styles. This seems fitting for a writer of mysteries. Without the boxes Greenway would seem quite empty.

And for inspiration?

The house itself would have been a pleasure to write in; the library, the sitting rooms, the tables and chairs set up around the house, the gardens in fine weather, all these would be a delight.

Then there’s the view, the gardens and the sea less than 2 miles away.

Agatha Christie used the house in 1956 as the setting for one of her Poirot mysteries: Dead Man’s Folly, in which a local girl is found murdered in the boat house on the eve of the village fete.

Being a best-selling writer Agatha Christie enjoyed considerable wealth, which meant she could afford this level of luxury.

Other houses

Jane Austen’s Writing Table, Chawton

Few writers receive the rewards from their writing at the level of Agatha Christie. For example, Jane Austen lived off her brother’s charity in Chawton, Hampshire. It is pleasant, but not on a grand scale.

Elizabeth Bowen held her house in such regard that she wrote a history of Bowen’s Court in 1942. It featured in her early novel The Last September, which I reviewed.

Home of Emily Dickinson, Amherst, Mass in 2007

No writer was more closely associated with her home than Emily Dickinson, largely because she rarely stepped out of it. Now a museum, I visited the house in Amherst, Mass and was charmed.

For a collection of photographs of writers’ houses see this Guardian feature: Temples of Literature by Nick Channing.

I’m a bit of a romantic and like to imagine writers in garrets and humble rooms, suffering for their creative talents, penning their works of art, making beauty in difficult circumstances. But I can see that inspiration and creativity are fed by living in beautiful places, or just from the writer’s imagination.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Travel with Books, Writing

Walking in Four Novels

Writing and walking work together very well. I explored some connections for writers in a recent blogpost: Steps to Improve Your Writing. Here I explore four novels to consider how walking features in them.

Few characters walk in novels to get from A to B or for the good of their health. These aspects of walking do not contribute to interesting plots. Instead, some characters walk to escape, such as the woman in white, Rosaleen along the Green Road, or Harold Fry. Some characters need to walk to be connected to other people, the history in their surroundings, or their memories. Frequently by walking, characters assert their independence, as in the case of Elizabeth Bennet.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

279 The_woman_in_white_Cover_1890

Who can forget the first meeting with the woman in white? The narrator has visited his mother in Hampstead and is returning on foot at night to London. He is, indeed, walking from A (Hampstead) to B (back to London). The stage is set: dark, isolated and already a bit weird.

I had now arrived at that particular point on my walk where four roads met – the road to Hampstead, along which I returned; the road to Finchley; the road to West End; and the road back to London. I had mechanically tuned in this latter direction, and was strolling along the lonely high-road – idly wondering, I remember, what the Cumberland young ladies would look like – when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my young body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.

I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening around the handle of my stick.

There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road – there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven – stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her. (23-4)

It is dramatic and weird. Who would not read on to find out the mystery of the pointing Woman in white?

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, (1860), I used the Penguin Classic edition.

The Green Road by Anne Enright

231 Gr Rd cover

In the second novel, Rosaleen also takes a night walk. This walk shapes a dramatic scene, towards the end of the novel, as if it will lead to a reconciliation or final departure. It is late on Christmas Day, in west Ireland near the Flaggy Shore. Rosaleen, an older woman, leaves her disconnected family for a solitary walk she has taken many times along the Green Road. It is cold and dark and she is plagued first by the wind and then by reflections on her life.

She had been waiting, all her life, for something that never happened and she could not bear the suspense any longer. (259)

Like many walkers, she responds to the elemental atmosphere.

Rosaleen spread her arms wide and flung her face up.

‘Hah!’ she said.

In the middle of nowhere, on Christmas Day, when no one was out, not one person was walking the roads.

‘Hah!’

Old women were not given to shouting. Rosaleen did not know if she still could, or if your voice went slack like the rest of you, when you got old.

‘Oh, don’t mind me!’ she said. She roared it. She stuck her fists down straight by her sides. ‘Don’t mind me!’ (260)

She is walking along the Green Road in response to her fractured family, the loss of her husband, her advancing years.

This is why Rosaleen had come up here, to this wild place. She had come to cleanse herself of forgetfulness and of fury. To shout it loud and leave it behind. To fling it away from herself. (265)

Rosaleen gets into trouble in the dark and the cold and her family must find her. It should lead to reconciliation. This novel is highly recommended, by the way, for many other qualities too.

The Green Road by Anne Enright (2015), published by Vintage and winner of several prizes including the Man Booker Prize. My full review can be read here.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

136 Pride & Prej

Elizabeth Bennet is a walker, energetic and undeterred by poor weather. Her walks are associated with key plot moments in Pride and Prejudice. She walks to Netherfield Park to take care of her sick sister, Jane. The reactions of those in residence reveal a great deal about each of them, as well as about Elizabeth. Mrs Hurst, Bingley’s sister, makes the following comment.

‘To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ancles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.’

‘It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing,’ said Bingley.

‘I am afraid, Mr Darcy,’ observed Miss Bingley, in half a whisper, ‘that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes.’

‘Not at all,’ he replied; ‘they were brightened by the exercise.’ (82)

Elizabeth walks a great deal in the grounds of Rosings and here is met by Darcy the day following his disastrous proposal and he must give her a letter. She next meets Darcy accidentally when she is walking in the grounds of his great house, Pemberley. And finally Darcy and Elizabeth ‘get it together’ on another walk near her own home. As Willoughby says, in his cheerful way, ‘Mr Bennet, have you no more lanes in which Lizzy may lose her way again today?’ (383)

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, published in 1813. Edition used: Penguin English Library.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

279 Harold Fry

The fourth novel is structured by Harold Fry’s walk, He is an older man, retired, who has lost his energy, emotionally and physically. Harold receives a message to say that an old friend he lost touch with is dying. He sets off from his home in Kingsbridge, Devon to post a letter to her, but just keeps on walking, and after 87 days arrives in Berwick-upon-Tweed. He walks 624 miles and along the way, as is the case with pilgrimages, he meets other people and has adventures which help him understand his life and other people. He is reconciled with his wife and learns a great deal about himself including his own resilience.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce published by Black Swan in 2012.

Some other novels that feature walking

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, compared to her short story Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

The Long Walk by Stephen King

Over to You …

Can you recommend other novels that feature walking?

 

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

23 Comments

Filed under Books, Books and Walking, Reading, Reviews

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?

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

20 Comments

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

A little rant about … Spoiler Alerts

This post is about spoiler alerts, what they mean and why they are so common. I am asking whether we need them. Are we in danger of saying that the story and its surprises are the most important thing about reading a novel. Really?

The donkey dies in the end

I cheered when I read this by David Rain.

Think of the phrase ‘spoiler alert’, so common in discussions of films, television series and even, nowadays, novels. What kind of work is ‘spoiled’ – used up, made redundant – once its surface narrative is known? A classic story can be told again and again. Shakespeare is never read for the last time; nor is Jane Austen. In Platero and I, we ‘spoil’ nothing by saying that the donkey dies in the end.

He was recommending Juan Ramon Jimenez’s novel Platero and I in Slightly Foxed (No 46, Summer 2015).

Recently I saw a spoiler alert on a blogpost about Mrs Dalloway. If Virginia Woolf were alive today she’d be turning in her grave! Now I ask you, would your pleasure in Pride and Prejudice be reduced if you knew that Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy get it together? Or that Jane Eyre is able to say of Mr Rochester, ‘Reader, I married him,’ and you already knew? Or even that in Rebecca, Maxim … no I’ll leave that one.

Cartoon from Amy Lynch tweet 28.5.15

Cartoon from Amy Lynch tweet 28.5.15

The surface narrative is not the novel. Although the surface narrative may be the film, I’m not sure about that. But perhaps the reason why films of good novels are so popular may be connected to this primacy of the narrative. Here’s a link to the blogpost on novels that are ‘major motion pictures’.

A and B Readers and Writers?

Anthony Burgess divided writers into two kinds:

A writers are story tellers.

B writers are users of language.

For B writers prose is foremost and without it ‘you are reduced to what are merely secondary interests: story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form,’ according to Marin Amis in The Art of Fiction, 1998, Paris Review interview. Hmmm

Could we apply the same categories to readers?

A readers focus on the story.

B readers look at how writers express ideas.

If this division works I would say that A Readers dominate the blogosphere with their spoiler alerts.

But although I would say I am more of a B reader, the novel is nothing without those things: story, plot, characterisation etc. I’m sure there are exceptions, some experimental French novelist of the last century probably.

While novel reading is about the pleasure of the story, a great deal of that pleasure comes from how the writer writes. The writing presents and supports elements of the story. Literary fiction is about the art of the writer to tell us the story in a skilful way. For readers the manner or style of the telling is part of the experience.

And novels need tension to carry the reader to the end, but the tension doesn’t have to be about what on earth will happen? Whodunnits use the tension of clues and McGuffins to draw the reader on. Thriller readers want the hero to escape, with one enormous bound. That’s why it may be important not to reveal the plot twist in Rebecca, but reader she (not Rebecca, who was at the bottom …) got her man.

45 catch-22

Some novels aren’t written for suspense, for what happens. Reading can simply be watching the protagonist come to terms with the events. This is one of the strengths of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, who in scene after scene, character after character convinces us of the many absurdities of war. Perhaps the writer is suggesting that nothing much gets resolved in the story: see The Green Road by Anne Enright for example, reviewed recently on this blog.

I know of one reader who always turned to the last page. She wanted to read the novel without the surprises that the story might bring, to know the outcomes so she could see how they got there.

To spoil or not?

225 S&S coverSometimes it seems important not to reveal the plot. For example, I did sidestep reviewing Sugar and Snails, by Anne Goodwin. The significant reveal is designed to get the reader to think about their assumptions. I love a novel that makes you think, but I didn’t feel I could review the novel without discussing what is revealed. Anne Goodwin’s own discussion of spoilers can be found on her blog, Do spoilers Spoil? We are all Completely Beside Ourselves. Anne quotes some research about spoilers (that weren’t) and readers of short stories. They preferred them spoiled!

I took a different line when I reviewed at We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, where the central issue of the novel is disclosed on p77. Again, it challenges the reader: what were you assuming? And says, now you know THAT look at what it does to my story.

But on the whole I want fewer spoiler alerts.

BTW

Slightly Foxed is a quarterly and subscription details can be found on their website.

Over to You

We have energetic debates about spoiler alerts in one of my reading groups. Where do you stand?

Please subscribe by entering your email address in the box. You will receive emails about future posts.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Writing

On the tricky topic of titles

Titles – they are very difficult to get right – for a short story, a blog post, our book, the chapters in our book, my draft novel, the writing group’s anthology. The title has to do so much work that it requires hours of discussion, days of rumination and much experimentation.

101 RWA coverEileen and I rejected many, many titles for our book on retirement: The Golden Hours, How to Retire with Dignity, Retiring Now, Not your usual Retirement Guide. Our working title up to the point where we were about to hand over the manuscript was The New Retiring Book. It was our editor and publisher that found the right title: Retiring with Attitude. It says exactly what’s in the tin.

So what is the work of the title?

  1. Announcing the genre and subject

212 Fl B coverThe title is assisted by the cover design in indicating the book’s genre to the purchaser/reader as well as what the book is about and whether it’s the kind of book they want to buy/read. It helps if it is memorable for recommendations, word of mouth and requests in bookstores. You know, that book about the butterflies: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. There is a whole book about this: Weird Things Customers say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. Check out Jen Campbell’s website here for more stories (such as ‘Have you got a signed copy of Shakespeare’s plays?’)

2. Invitation

The title can also entice or invite the reader. It might imply a question: The Aftermath (by Rhidian Brook) of what? The Secret of the Gorge (Malcolm Saville). So what is the secret? asks the title.

Or it might be intriguing like these examples: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor, The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker.

3. Directing the reader’s attention

Pride and Prejudice might have been called The Bennet Sisters or How to get your Husband. But that would have been to misdirect attention. Jane Austen knew a thing or two about what impedes good relationships. She originally had First Impressions in mind but when she revised the book the title went further.

Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller) is such a good title it has become a figure of speech. It directs the reader to the madness and illogicality of war that binds everyone.

4. Snagging the blog reader’s attention

There is particular art to getting the right title for a blog post. Like in a bookshop it needs to capture attention, but in a very brief time. Apparently 8 out of 10 users will read the title, only 2 out of 10 will read the content. Guidance for bloggers abounds and I will add to the advice in a post next month, but here’s a teaser: it’s about questions and numbers and dire warnings!

It’s hard getting the right title

Every book I have ever been involved in publishing (all non-fiction) has involved much agony and hours of discussion about the title, jokey titles, working titles, disparaging titles and anti-titles until the point where the right one arrives. Or perhaps that’s just one right one among several.

I recall a very creative lunch when Eileen and I brain stormed the most silly and excellent ideas for the chapter titles in Retiring with Attitude. We quickly found Retirement ain’t what it used to be and went on to This is your rainy day. It felt very creative in a way that endless chapter revisions did not.

Until a month ago the book I am currently involved in writing (there are three authors) was called Ageing Now. We persuaded the publisher that this was a working title when we negotiated the contract, and we have become increasingly aware of its limitations as we have engaged with the writing: it doesn’t say much about the book; it’s too vague about content, readership, and purpose. We have a better one now. WATCH THIS SPACE!

And not having a title says something too, gives the reader more work to do. One of the writers in my writing group recently read a poem with no title and we had a lively discussion about that: what it did to the listener to have no title, did it need one, what the title might be, why she had not given it one. Thanks to the group for the discussion.

And some that got away

212 1984 coverTrimalchio in West Egg by F. Scott Fitzgerald became The Great Gatsby.

Strangers from within by William Golding became Lord of the Flies.

The Mute by Carson McCullers became The Heart is a lonely Hunter.

The Last Man in Europe by George Orwell became 1984.

At This Point in Time by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward became All the president’s Men.

These come from a blog by Anne R. Allen in a post called 10 Tips for Choosing the Right Title in the E-Age.

Can you spot the Alternate Titles in the quiz on The Reading Room blog?

 

How do you go about finding or creating the titles for your writings?

 

To receive emails about future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, My novel, Publishing our book

Fallen Women

It’s an old story. It’s women’s story. To tell it is a feminist act. The fallen woman was seduced, became pregnant and faced the consequences alone. Abandoned by her seducer and by her family many of these women left their babies and committed suicide, often by drowning.

G>F Watts Found Drowned c1848-1850 Watts Gallery. Used with permission

GF Watts Found Drowned c1848-1850 © Watts Gallery. Used with permission

The Fallen Woman Exhibition

The inspiration for this post comes from an exhibition The Fallen Woman at the Foundling Museum, London. Established by Thomas Coram, supported by Hogarth and Handel, the Foundling Hospital took in babies from 1741.

The exhibition explores what led mothers to leave their babies at the Foundling Hospital, and draws on the petitions the mothers made to the hospital committee to persuade them to take in their children. A sound installation by Steve Lewinson uses the words of women, found in the petitions, in a moving addition to the paintings. The paintings are by men and largely show the shame the women had to endure, the rejection and the suicides.

Fallen Women in Fiction

Fear of becoming a fallen woman has haunted novels since the genre became established. As the term suggests it refers to a woman who had some respectability but lost it through sexual relations – ‘criminal conversations’ as they were referred to in the petitions. The title of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (1850) says it all. In the Victorian era the prospects for a fallen woman were assumed to be prostitution, disease and death. There was, of course, no such thing as a fallen man.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

A character who seemed destined to fall is Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. So keen is she to get a husband, so enthralled by Wickham that she runs off to London with him. The family’s concern is entirely to get him to marry her, to save the family from public shame. It is Darcy, as a kindness to Elizabeth, who uses his wealth to persuade Wickham to do the right thing. His own sister, Georgiana, was almost seduced by Wickham. Lydia is a wild and silly girl. She has absorbed her mother’s obsession to marry off her daughters, and on her return home, safely married, wastes no time to show off her wedding ring to the neighbours. Elizabeth Bennet comments to Lydia, ’I do not particularly like your method of getting husbands.’

136 Pride & PrejIn contrast, Charlotte Lucas accepts the awful Mr Collins’s proposal. Elizabeth is shocked by the prospect of her dear friend marrying such an ass. Charlotte makes it clear that her future depends upon her having an establishment of her own, and this was only possible through marriage.

‘I only ask a comfortable home; and considering Mr Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.’

Women of a certain class were so entirely dependent upon finding a husband, any husband, that Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr Collins makes some sense. Lydia risked everything by her escapade with Wickham.

A fallen woman, Jane Austen reminds us, can bring social opprobrium not only upon herself but also upon her family. This explains the rejection of the fallen woman by her own parents. I found The Outcast by Richard Redgrave to be the most shocking thing in the exhibition. The father’s dramatic and incontrovertible gesture was echoed by another father who gave evidence to the committee at the Hospital:

He had rather been dead than have to deal with his daughter’s disgrace.

The Outcast by Richard Redgrave 1851 © Royal Academy Photographer John Hammond. Used with permission

The Outcast by Richard Redgrave 1851 © Royal Academy Photographer John Hammond. Used with permission

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

Jane Eyre had no family to consider, but she refuses to fall. Mr Rochester and Jane are in the church for their wedding when it is revealed that he already has a wife. To the humiliation of being publically unable to marry him, Mr Rochester adds a proposal: ‘you shall be my wife – both virtually and nominally and I shall keep to you so long as you and I live’. But Jane rejects the status he offers. ‘Mr Rochester, I will not be yours.’ The narrator (Jane herself) makes it clear just how hard it was for her to leave him. Her resolve is strengthened by the apparition of her mother. ‘My daughter, flee temptation.’ And off she goes to other adventures.

When I first read Jane Eyre in the 1960s I could not understand why she did not follow her heart and take Mr Rochester’s suggestion. Being with the one you loved was more important than anything, I believed. Since then I better understand the control exerted by the church and social norms, controls on women.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles: a pure woman faithfully presented by Thomas Hardy (1902)

Tess famously becomes the ‘victim of seduction’ by Alec D’Urbeville. She lives in seclusion through her pregnancy and the baby survives only a short time. She reveals her past when she marries Angel Clare but he finds it unacceptable, despite his own ‘criminal conversation’ and what follows is Tess’s inevitable descent into abandonment and ultimately murder. This novel depends upon a double standard: men can be excused a fling, even rape, but a woman is fatally blighted. As I said, no such thing as a fallen man.

The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks (1960)

207 cover LShapedRoomSet in the late 1950s this novel considered the fate of the mother of a child born out of marriage. Jane Graham is cast out by her father when she reveals that she is pregnant and experiences hardship in finding a room and coping with a small child. She is helped by the other boarders in the house she found, misfits themselves. The book was considered shocking perhaps because it did not treat marriage as the conclusion of a woman’s story. An unhappy love affair resulted in a baby instead.

 

The Millstone by Margaret Drabble (1965)

207 Millstone coverThis novel was also very successful and shocking. A one-night stand results in pregnancy. Although advised by her older, married sister to get an abortion (still illegal) or to put the baby up for adoption Rosamund Stacey decides to have the baby. She finds support from a friend who needs accommodation and will provide childcare in exchange. Her difficulties are indicated by the title of the novel.

The fallen woman haunts many other novels: George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Adam Bede (1859), Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Bowles (1969). Other genres come to mind. The Inspector Called by J B Priestly, a play in which one element in the victim’s abuse is the seduction, exploitation and abandonment by the young man of the family. Traviata (1853) the opera by Verdi, based on La Dame aux Camelias by Dumas. One of the most beautiful arias is sung by Germont’s father who pleads to Violetta to give up his son. Their liaison is damaging his daughter’s chances of marriage. There are more examples.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

And then there is Mary Wollstonecraft, not a character in a novel but a writer herself. She refused to fall. Most often remembered as a key figure in feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft should have been a fallen woman. She had two children, both conceived out of wedlock. The first, Fanny Imlay, was the result of her liaison with Gilbert Imlay. When he made it clear that their relationship was over she threw herself off Putney Bridge into the Thames. This was a popular method of suicide, classic behaviour of a fallen woman. Mary, her biographers agree, was in despair at her rejection, not haunted by shame. She was rescued. Painters used the dramatic visual impact of suicide to push home the awful destiny of the fallen woman. Cruikshank blamed drink and one of his etchings shows ‘a destitute woman throws herself from a bridge, her life ruined by alcoholism’ (1848).

Mary recovered and went on to meet and fall in love with William Godwin, the renowned philosopher. They married before their child was born. Mary died in childbirth. The press reported her death as an appropriate end for such a dissolute woman.

The baby survived. She was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who later married Percy Bysshe Shelley and wrote Frankenstein.

The exhibition

The Fallen Woman continues at the Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ until 3rd January 2016. It was curated by Professor Lynda Nead, author of social histories of the Victorian period, including Myths of Sexuality, Representation of Women in Victorian Britain. To write this post I used the exhibition guide, including articles by Lynda Nead and Margaret Reynolds. I am also grateful for permission to use the images from the exhibition and to Hannah Thomas at the Museum for assistance with them.

Do you have any examples of the fallen woman to add?

To receive emails about future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

There are no sweet old ladies in Quartet in Autumn. Barbara Pym takes an unflinching look at two women and two men as they end their working lives, and face their futures in London in the late 1970s. All four are single. All four have small lives. Barbara Pym herself knew what it meant to be overlooked in later life, when her publisher turned down a novel because it was not adequately commercial. 204 4tet in Autumn cover

The Story of Quartet in Autumn

The four share an office and have jobs that are utterly dispensable. We never find out what their jobs are or the nature of the business in which they work. Whatever it is, computers will replace them. We are introduced to the foursome through their lunchtime habits and learn something of the smallness of their lives as they contemplate the prospects for their summer holidays. Their plans show that their connections to the world outside the office are almost non-existent. Edwin has his church activities, and Letty her widowed school friend with whom she will live when she retires. Marcia always spends her leave at home.

Change moves slowly through their lives. The women retire and Letty’s plans to join her friend fall apart because Marjorie becomes engaged. Letty moves out of her room to avoid the noise of her new landlord’s Pentecostal church. Edwin and Norman miss the women as they wait for their own retirement but still take their time to invite them to lunch.

In retirement Marcia retreats into her house, continuing to neglect it, the garden and her self. She has recently undergone surgery and the focus of her life is her visits to the surgeon, Mr Strong. Her death brings together the other three for only the second time since the women retired.

Ultimately Letty learns that her friend has been jilted and would like her to revive their plans of cohabiting. She has a choice of where to live for the first time and understands that this makes her significant in the lives of other.

In many ways Quartet in Autumn is a dismal story, as no one seems to care about these older people (see also Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont). But the final words of the novel are ‘life still held infinite possibilities for change’. 204 B Pym writer Gerson_cropped_op_298x311

The older women in Quartet in Autumn

Letty Crowe

Single women need to be ‘drearily splendid’. Barbara Pym was reflecting on her own situation when she used this phrase. Letty could be described as ‘drearily splendid’ as she comes to understand how little she matters to anyone in her old age. Her only family connection is a cousin she has not seen for years and who lives in the West Country. She has invested in her friendship with Marjorie and is deflated but not defeated by Marjorie’s plans to remarry.

She is discerning, is concerned for others and has spirit. She sets about making the best of everything with good cheer. Her new landlady is less than welcoming on her arrival but by the end of the novel the two women have developed a kind of friendship, based on sharing the kitchen and watching tv together.

204 B PymIt is Letty who will do best in this quartet, for she has created a situation where change is possible and it about her story that Barbara Pym makes that final observation that her ‘life still held infinite possibilities for change’.

Marcia Ivory

Marcia is a more troubling older women. She is ill and somewhat odd. Her oddness is represented by her cherished milk bottle collection kept in her garden shed. Marcia troubles the voluntary social worker who has decided to take her on. Janice, a do-gooder, is determined to get Marcia to eat better and to become more connected to the other older people of the neighbourhood. She is unable to understand Marcia’s resistance.

Marcia is inscrutable to the reader as well. She is a little like the old woman seen by Letty early in the novel who slumped on the tube and when approached by a friendly young woman was roundly told to ‘Fuck Off!’ We steer clear of such people, aware that they don’t invite or need our friendliness, and we don’t want to catch their eye in case they engage us in some crazy and embarrassing talk. We want to believe that someone else is looking out for them.

Marcia is not cut off entirely from the world. She had perceived Norman’s lack of any resources to deal with life while they worked together. It is her kind bequest that releases him from his retirement difficulties and makes choice and change possible for him.

204 My cover 4inAMarcia herself is neglected, avoided and abandoned as many older people are. She is a stark reminder of what it means to be alone, old and overlooked. There are more Marcias today than there were in the 1970s.

Barbara Pym and her Writing

The darker themes of Quartet in Autumn do not obscure Barbara Pym’s close and humorous observations of the small but significant moments in life, which skill brings inevitable comparison with Jane Austen. She admired her and studied her technique. And like Elizabeth Taylor she has an undeserved reputation for being rather twee, but they both are quiet and perceptive in their observations of the social interactions.

Here is a delightful example that tells the reader and Letty everything about Father Lydell, Marjorie’s fiance who has come to the country for his health. When they are introduced Letty asks if the country is doing him good.

‘I’ve had diarrhoea all this week,’ came the disconcerting reply.

There was a momentary – perhaps no more than a split second’s – pause, but if the women had been temporarily taken aback, they were by no means at a loss.

‘Diarrhoea,’ Letty repeated, in a clear thoughtful tone. She was never certain how to spell the word, but felt that such a trivial admission was lacking in proper seriousness so she said no more.

‘Strong drink would do you more good than the eternal round of parish cups of tea,’ Marjorie suggested boldly. ‘Brandy, perhaps.’ (34-5)

In the 1970s there was much talk about ensuring that less fortunate members of society should not ‘fall through the net’. All four people will fall through the social net, even if they do not need the services of the welfare state. Barbara Pym describes here a general attitude towards older people as they came to retire:

If the two women feared that the coming of this date might give some clue to their ages, it was not an occasion for embarrassment because nobody else had been in the least interested, both of them having long ago reached ages beyond any kind of speculation. Each would be given a small golden handshake, but the state would provide for their basic needs which could not be all that great. Elderly women did not need much to eat, warmth was more necessary than food, and people like Letty and Marcia probably either had either private means or savings, a nest-egg in the post office or a building society. It was comforting to think on these lines, and even if they had nothing extra, the social services were so much better now, there was no need for anyone to starve or freeze. And if governments failed in their duties there were always the media – continual goadings on television programmes, upsetting articles in the Sunday papers and disturbing pictures in the colour supplements. There was no need to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory. (86)

This passage draws attention to assumptions about older women: their uninteresting social lives, their needs, their financial circumstances and that other people would look out for them. Older people are perceived as ‘other people’ even today. In this passage Barbara Pym makes it impossible to accept this prevailing view by showing us life from their perspectives. By referring to the continual horror stories in the media she warns us that we do need to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory, and indeed the two men who have not yet retired. 204 B Pym + cat

Barbara Pym knew what it was to be neglected. Famously her reputation was resurrected when Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil both nominated her as the most under-rated author in 1977 in the TLS. Quartet in Autumn was published later that year. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Related posts

This is the 17th review in the series on older women in fiction. You can find them by clicking on the relevant category or by going to the page on the older women in fiction series.

An appreciation of Barbara Pym’s novels on the centenary of her birth by Philip Henscher was published in the Telegraph in June 2013

From the LA Review of Books 16th July 2015 by Mayotte, A Nice Hobby like Knitting surveys Barbara Pym’s career and novels.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym, first published in 1977 by Pan/Picador 186pp

 

To receive emails about future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews