Tag Archives: Kate Macdonald

Some books to help you through the night

As with many people, the pandemic has disrupted my sleep patterns. I often fail to go to sleep or wake at about 2.30am and can’t fall asleep again. I often read at that time (also listen to podcasts, or just fret). For these bouts of insomnia I like books of short stories, or with short sections. I am not trying to be bored to sleep but to occupy my restless mind. These three books have answered the need recently. 

  • Rose Macaulay: Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life
  • Zora Neale Hurston: Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick
  • Marina Benjamin: Insomnia

Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life by Rose Macaulay

Ideal for dipping into, Rose Macaulay presents sixty essays on a range of topics. She gives us something on Cows, Flattery, Hatching Eggs, Elephants in Bloomsbury, Heresies, Logomachy, Solitude, Reading, Writing and many other subjects. Some are short, less than a page, others much longer or with subdivisions. 

Notice the sub-heading: essays on enjoying life. What is on show is a writer who is confident that she has something to say, and that she can showcase her wit, her love of words and her erudition. She enjoys using arcane words and constructing them as well.

The lightness of touch reflects her position at the time: a respected and confident writer, in a steady if clandestine relationship, and earning enough from her writing to be independent. Personal Pleasures was published in 1935, and much was yet right with the world, or at least not yet of great concern in Europe (although there are several references to the Nazi Party and her objections to their policies and actions.)

Handheld Press has been responsible for reissuing many of her books, some of which I have reviewed on the blog (see below).

Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1935 and a new edition has been issued by Handheld Press (2021). I found the introduction and notes by Kate Macdonald to be invaluable.256pp

Related posts

Non-Combatants and Others: writings against war (1916) by Rose Macaulay

Potterism (1920) by Rose Macaulay

The Towers of Trebizond (1956) by Rose Macaulay

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston

This is such a good title, for it immediately conveys something to be considered, something unexpected. Besides it is much longer than most titles. Genevieve West, who collected and edited these stories, made a good choice there. And it matches the title of her best-known novel: Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The twenty-one stories in Hitting a Straight Lick are told in a mixture of phonetic colloquialisms or dialect and more conventional narrative style. You might imagine that they were difficult to read, but I soon got used to the rhythms of the voices.

Most of the stories feature Black people living in meagre conditions. The women have endless household chores to do while earning money at the same time. The men work in the docks, or in other industrial settings often in very low paid posts. The men woo women, often younger women who are newly arrived in their community, and they try to use violence to discipline and control the women to whom they are married. I enjoyed most the stories when the women get their own back. One character who appealed to me was Caroline Ports in The Country in the Woman. She had some amusing and innovative ways of deterring women from messing with her husband. Here’s the best example:

Delphine Hicks – Caroline had waited for her beside the church steps one First Sunday (big meeting day) and had thrown her to the ground and robbed the abashed vampire of her underthings. Billowy underclothes were the fashion and in addition Delphine was large. Caroline had seen fit to have her pony make the homeward trip with its hindquarters thrust into Delphine’s ravished clothes. (197)

There is genuine tension in Sweat, a story about a man who provokes his wife with a snake. And some stories feature very human situations, such as the older man who marries a much younger wife only to find that his much-loved son and his wife fall in love in Under the Bridge

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891 and raised in Eatonville, Florida. She died in 1960. Her grandparents had been slaves, but she made the best of new opportunities in the 20s and ‘30s. Her name is often associated with the Harlem Renaissance (along with Nella Larsen and Langston Hughes). 

There are some less appealing stories in this collection, but overall it has been a pleasure to share my waking hours with this innovative and witty writer.

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston, her collected short stories, first published together in 2020 by HQ (Harper Collins)Collected and edited by Genevieve West253pp

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

The first two books were written around the same time but are sharply contrasted. In March last year I wrote a post for this blog on the theme of sleep. I included this slim and invaluable volume:

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin (2018)

Recommend by Deborah Levy:

A sublime view of the treasures and torments to be found in wakefulness. Entertaining and existential, the brightest star in this erudite, nocturnal reverie in search of lost sleep, is the beauty of the writing itself. 

This book sits on my bedside table and I continue to dip into its paragraphs and reflections on insomnia and sleep as required. 

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin, published by Scribe in 2018. 144pp.

You can find the post Sleep in Fiction by clicking on the link.

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Filed under Books, Essays, Reading, Reviews, short stories, Women of Colour, words

The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote seven novels, each one very different. The Corner that Held Them was published just after the war in 1948. You may have read Lolly Willowes, a curious but engaging story about a single woman who escapes dependence on her family by becoming a witch, published in 1926. This book is quite different, except that it also considers women’s lives, this time in the fourteenth century, in a convent in Norfolk. 

But this is not your run-of-the-mill historical novel. There are no velvet-clad heaving bosoms, not much sex and no romance, but instead we read of daily lives, a murder, a running away, the collapse of the newly built spire and several loose ends. I was very taken with it.

The Corner that Held Them

For neither might the corner that held them keep them from fear [The Wisdom of Solomon xvii 4]

This is history, but not the royal progress of male actions, not the events that made Britain great, not even the plucky pulling together of the war just won. Instead it is a view of women’s lives, and not of one heroine, but of a community. 

Nor is it a religious history. While they observe the rituals of convent life, the concerns of the nuns are mainly to do with survival and comfort. Their convent is not well endowed. It was set up in dubious circumstances, to do with adultery, murder and grief by the very impious Brian de Retteville on the death of his wife Alianor in 1163. The convent was established on a small rise near a stream and some villages  in Norfolk. The nuns depended upon any dowries brought by novices and the rents from a few local properties, which were far from reliable. 

After a shocking first chapter the novel settles down to relate the events of the three decades following the Black Death, the rise of each prioress, the arrival of a new priest (who wasn’t) and several bailiffs, and novices. The nuns may individually have admirable skills, embroidery or writing, but they disappear with the nuns’ eyesight, senility or death. Indeed, Oby has nothing going for it.

The Black Death was fearsome. It carries off many of the villagers who have to serve the convent, and sees the flight of their priest. In the decades that follow its terrible cull in 1349 we see the coming and going of four or five prioresses, the careers of novices as they become nuns, the arrival of Ralph Kello who claims to be a priest and stays until his death, the building of a spire, its collapse, the changing bishops and their treatment of the nuns, a sympathetic custos and a runaway. There is a murder, attempts at levitation, a vision and a rape.

There is always the necessity of finding more funding. This takes one prioress to a Christening, the custos to a parish that owes rent, the non-priest to find a new hawk and one nun to the death bed of a relation who is a bishop. Far from being cut off from life around them, the ‘corner that held them’ is exposed throughout the novel to the changes of the time, in society, traditional relationships, music and literature. 

In historical fiction events often hold great significance. But in this novel Sylvia Townsend Warner almost plays with the reader to suggest that this event was no more significant than any other. Small episodes reveal aspects of daily life, relationships within the community that continually change, the worries about funding, the economies or the luxuries. At page 310 novel simply stops. 

It is importantly a view of women’s history. Sylvia Townsend Warner had no sympathy for the established church, but the community of women, mostly without vocation, mostly living in Oby through convenience to them or their family, provide interesting material for this novel. We read of the everyday business of living and dying. For example, as a bishop’s visitation approaches a villager is drowned in the Oby fish pond. The carp will no longer be suitable to present to the bishop. There is a storm.

The storm broke the drought. But on the morrow it was as hot as ever – a steaming, oppressive heat. Everything began to go wrong. The cream soured. The food in the larder spoiled. Doors stuck. Patches of mildew came out on walls. The house was invaded by ants. Feeling as though she had been hit over the head by a pole-axe the prioress drove on through these various calamities, hearing of each new disaster with the grinning patience of despair. (176)

One of the charms of this novel is that it is without the prithhees and other anachronisms we imagine inhabited the speech of medieval people. They do use metaphors and images from their daily lives. For example, on his arrival the bishop meets the prioress and… 

… saw what he was prepared to see: a burly old woman whose air, at once imperious and jovial, made her seem better fitted to rule a brothel than a nunnery. (177) 

Another example:

William Holly was one of those small, tight men like a knot of wood, his cross-grainedness seemed a warrant of longevity. (219)

And her descriptions of the countryside are joyous as she describes some of the inhabitants of the nunnery as they strike out on their journeys. 

The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner was first published in 1948 and reissued as a Virago Modern Classic in 1988. This is the version I read, which includes an introduced by Claire Harman. 320 pp

Some other observations on The Corner that Held Them

On Vulpes Libris blog in January 2010 Hilary posted her reactions. She refers to Sylvia Townsend Warner‘s exuberant power’ as a novelist.

Kate Macdonald, of Handheld Press, wrote a very interesting post on her blog in 2017 exploring how innovative Sylvia Townsend Warner was in her historical fiction writing. Here is the link

There is an annual Sylvia Townsend Warner Reading week hosted by A Gallimaufry blog. You can find the round up for 2020 here

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews