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There were No Windows by Norah Hoult

There were No Windows is a powerful novel. Perhaps everyone who survives into their seventies begins to think of the threat of dementia. It’s a cruel condition that appears to rob the person of themselves bit by bit. There have been some excellent fictional accounts of older women with dementia. For example, I found Emma Healey’s depiction of Maud in Elizabeth is Missing to be respectful and well-imagined. Many novels treat older women as comic characters, forgetful to the point of amusement. As long ago as 1944 Norah Hoult presented readers with Claire Temple in There were No Windows, a woman who barely understood that there was a war on, and that the blackout and rationing had implications for every household. It is a sympathetic depiction of a women in her 70s who is at a loss to manage herself in the world. It is also a difficult and sad read.

Where can you hear the voices of older women? How often do you hear them or read them? I began the series, older women in fiction, on this blog assuming that I would not find many books featuring the lives of older women. I was wrong. Thanks to many readers I have compiled a list that now contains more than 100 titles, with 68 of them linked to reviews on this blog. This is the 68th post in the series.

There were No Windows

Britain is at war and Claire Temple is an older woman, in her 70s, living in a nice house in Kensington, looked after by one general servant who she addresses as ‘cook’. This is Kathleen, a young Irish woman who can stand up for herself. She needs to because Mrs Temple has become very forgetful and not very nice. Also, the war is on and they must both cope with new requirements: blackout, rations, disappearance of items such as cream and so forth. In addition, Claire is very lonely as so many of the people she once knew have died or moved away from London for the duration.

Claire was once a successful writer, of ghost stories, and knew all the literary set. She had been proposed to by Oscar Wilde, and lived with Herbert Temple, (apparently modelled on Ford Maddox Ford) whom she claimed to have married. She lives inside her head and her house as if nothing has changed: she has got older and is energetic and lonely. She realises that she has a bad memory. Gradually she understands that everything, including London, has changed. One afternoon she finds that a store, possibly on Kensington High Street, is closing although the clock says the time is ten-past four. She learns it is the effect of a war-time regulation in London.

‘O London, where have you gone?’ she cried out in her heart. The London she had known, of smart tea-shops, of taxis which appeared when one raised one’s finger, the London of theatres where one sat in a stall, and waved to one’s friends, and went over to talk to them in the interval, the London of book-shops, where one had only to ask for the manager, and say who one was, to be treated with respect. She had imagined that all that went on, though, of course, without her, because she was now shabby and old and, having lost her memory, had lost her friends. But the clock that said ten-past four had opened a crack in her world through which she viewed with horror for a few moments an abomination of desolation that was all about her. If one got on one of those red buses travelling east, she would see, she believed indeed she had seen, sandbags in Kensington Gardens. Kensington Gardens, sentimentalised by dear Barrie into a nursery for Peter Pans, Wendys and Nanas in perpetuity. Or so one had thought. But Kensington Gardens had not, after all, been made secure by Barrie. Was Barrie dead? Very probably, since everyone she had known, or even known of, seemed to be dead. (221)

In part one we read of Claire Temple’s experiences as she struggles with her diminished capacities, mostly through her battles with Kathleen. The reader can see what hell her life has become, how Claire cannot see beyond her own world. In the second section she is visited by three people from her past: a former friend, a former employee and her publisher. She is so lonely she entreats everyone to stay longer. But they find her company very difficult. She repeats her complaints, forgets who they are and makes unreasonable demands upon her visitors. In the third part ‘The Dark Night of the Imagination’, Claire’s imagination overtakes reality and she suspects cook and her paid companion, Miss Jones, of plotting together, to steal stuff and then to murder her. She visits the police to report them. She is treated like a mad old lady, a nuisance. In her own home she becomes more and more fraught. 

One night, when she has left the house in a temper, she sits on a seat and in the blackout, without her torch it appears to her that the houses have no windows. But no one sees what is inside Claire either, except perhaps her doctor, and she cannot see beyond her own sense of entitlement and disappointment in the world. 

Claire finds her paid companion boring and dull and she is provoked into making cruel and mean remarks about her to her face. After a scene of confrontation and violence, she is sedated and retires to bed until she dies. This is one lonely, old, deluded woman, with no one to help her. A friend told me that it may be the saddest novel she had ever read. Hoult modelled Claire on a real literary star she had known: Violet Hunt. She managed to convey the pathetic nature of Claire Temple’s way of dealing with her situation alongside the exasperation that everyone felt having to deal with her.

There were No Windows by Norah Hoult, first published in 1944 and republished by Persephone Books in 2016 with an afterword by Julia Briggs. 341pp

Older Women in Fiction Series: you can find the list of about 100 novels here.

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The Rector’s Daughter by FM Mayor 

How were a certain class of single women to achieve the satisfaction of a life well lived? This is the central question of the novel, published by the Hogarth Press in 1924. It is not that Mary Jocelyn is unable to attract a husband. She meets at least two men who considered her suitable. But she is not beautiful or appealing in the usual way and has profound beliefs that mean she feels a duty to care for her father, a widower, while he is still alive. The man she falls in love with becomes attracted to a more lively and more beautiful young woman and she is passed over. What is her life to be?

The Rector’s Daughter

Here is the inauspicious opening paragraph of The Rector’s Daughter. It describes the place where the main character, Mary Jocelyn, lives. The reader can see that this is not a place of drama.

Dedmayne is an insignificant village in the Eastern counties. There were no motor buses in the days of which I write, and Cayley, the nearest station, was six miles off. Dedmayne was ashamed of this, because without a station the most interesting feature for a picture postcard was not available. There was no great house with park or garden to give character to the village. Progress had laid hold of it fifty years before, and pulled down and rebuilt the church, the Rectory, and most of the cottages. Part of Redmayne was even ugly; there was a bit of straight flat road near the church, with low dusty hedges, treeless turnip fields, and corrugated iron roofs of barns which might rank with Canada. Dedmayne was on the way to nowhere; it was not troubled by motors or bicycles, except native bicycles. The grimy ‘Blue Boar’ did not induce anyone to strop for tea. Artists and weekend Londoners wanted something more picturesque. Still, being damp, it was bound to have certain charms; the trunks were mossy, and the walls mouldy. There were also those tall bowery trees in the hedgerows, and little pleasant risings in the meadows, which are so common in England one forgets to notice them. (1)

We are not to expect much from Mary’s home either. The Rector, Canon Jocelyn, is a man who is very happy to be in such a backwater as he can pursue his literary interests (Virgil and St Augustine) and be little disturbed by change. Mary, while popular with the villagers, is unlikely to cause much disturbance to her father or to Dedmayne.

Her uninteresting hair, dragged severely back, displayed a forehead lined too early. Her complexion was a dullish hue, not much lighter than her hair. She had her father’s beautiful eyes, and hid them with glasses. She was dowdily dressed, but she had many companions in the neighbourhood, from labourers’ wives to the ladies of the big houses, to share her dowdiness. It was not observed; she was as much a part of her village as its homely hawthorns. (3)

The first 35 years of Mary’s life have produced loss and sadness, even before the narrative begins. Her brothers have emigrated (to Canada), and her older sister Ruth is described as an ‘imbecile’. Their mother died young, and Ruth was sent away. Their Aunt Lottie cared for them for some time, and then Ruth returned home requiring constant care by Mary. When Ruth dies Mary is left alone with her father.

He feels but does not express affection for his daughter, which adds to her isolation. She turns to books.

In October, as regularly as the leaves fell, she began the winter habit of reading her favourite novels for an hour before dinner, finding in Trollope, Miss Yonge, Miss Austen, and Mrs Gaskell friends so dear and familiar that they peopled her loneliness. (17)

Canon Jocelyn is a fine figure of a Victorian father. It does not occur to him to express emotions, such as at the loss of his wife or older daughter, or to complement Mary on her attempts to distinguish herself. She begins a reading group in the parish, but it fails. She sends samples of her writing to a publisher, but they are rejected. His response is not to comfort her for her disappointments but to suggest she is less ambitious.

Mary is appreciated. She has a close relationship with the faithful Cook. While she is away with Aunt Lottie at Broadstairs, Cook reveals that her father missed her care very much, but he wasn’t able to say this. And while at Broadstairs she captures the attention of Mr. Maltby, who is regarded as a great bore by the other guests in the boarding-house. She becomes friends again with Dora, who had previously lived in the Dedmayne area. And then a new vicar comes to the parish of Lanchester, Mr Herbert, and Mary and he fall in love. They are well suited, both quiet people, serious and responsible. But Mr Herbert goes away briefly to Buxton for his health and meets and becomes engaged to the. More glamorous Kathy Hollings. 

Poor Mary, she must endure the return of Mr Herbert and all the celebrations consequent on his marriage. She had previously met and been rudely ignored by Kathy and now she had to defer to her as a bride. Following the wedding Mary devotes herself to her father, and to her friendship with Dora. It emerges that Kathy and Mr Herbert are not well suited, and Kathy’s friends enjoy rather wild outings and holidays, not appropriate for a clergyman’s wife. Kathy goes to the French Riviera with her cousin and nearly runs off with an unsuitable young man. 

While she is absent, Mr Herbert is lonely and afraid that his wife’s affections are not strong and he becomes more consumed by his mistake in passing over Mary. One day the Canon asks Mary to visit Mr Herbert on a literary matter. Emotions run high and Mary burst into tears at Mr Herbert’s unhappiness.

He put his hand on her shoulder, and said, ‘Don’t Mary, don’t cry.’ Their eyes met. Before they knew what was happening he kissed her. (172)

They both have strong reactions to the kiss, seeing it as marital transgression. And they both resolve not to see each other again. But when Kathy returns from her ill-judged stay in Monte Carlo, badly disfigured by botched dental treatment, Mary is asked by Kathy’s aunt to help her. She does so and continues to support Kathy through a pregnancy and the birth of twins. 

The Herberts are reconciled and they are grateful to Mary. After her father’s death Mary goes to live with Aunt Lottie in Croydon and is valued in her new social circle for her qualities. 

FM Mayor shows how Mary had to rely on tiny crumbs of comfort because her father or Mr Herbert were the focus of her life: a brief kind word, a voluntary interruption to routine, a saved note arranging an appointment, one kiss. This is the small fare of single women dependent upon men. She never escapes them, even after her father’s death and she has moved away from Dedmayne.

There were two people in the world she wanted – her father and Mr Herbert. Nothing besides existed for her. She had felt beyond the verge of feeling: at present she could feel no more. (294)

The Rector’s Daughter by FM Mayor, first published in 1924 and reissued by Persephone Books in 2021 with a new preface by Victoria Gray. 313pp

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Doreen by Barbara Noble

War is no place for children. Before the Second World War plans were made to evacuate children from major targets of air raids and evacuation began soon after war was declared in September 1939. The air raids did not start until September the following year by which time many children had returned to the cities. But when the Blitz got going, in the Autumn of 1940, parents had difficult decisions to make. 

This novel considers the theme of separation, children from adults, but also adults from their children. And a second theme is the influence of class. Decisions by Mrs Rawlings and her former husband are influenced by class differences. Inner city folk took the brunt of the bombings, while the more affluent as well as the country poor lived in relative safety.

This novel, published in 1946, describes the rawness and attrition of those early war years when London and other cities were subjected to bombs, and when children and parents were often separated.

Doreen 

Mrs Rawlings is a proud woman, a single mother with a 9-year-old daughter Doreen. When the first call is made for Doreen to be evacuated out of London, she refuses to let her go. Mrs Rawlings cannot imagine living without her daughter, but as the raids intensify and the consequent damage persists, a chance opportunity presents itself. Mrs Rawlings works as a cleaner and a conversation with Helen, a secretary in the same offices, produces the suggestion of a private arrangement. Doreen is sent to live in the country with Helen’s brother and his wife, the Osbornes. 

Francie Osborne has been very unhappy that she and her husband have not had children, and the arrival of Doreen into their house brings the opportunity to care for a child. Mr Osborne has asthma and so has been excused combat duties. He works as a solicitor. He too finds Doreen a very acceptable companion and enjoys teasing her and encouraging her confidence while engaged together in gardening and countryside walks.

The child and the foster parents quickly become very fond of each other. But Mrs Rawlings, who visits for Christmas, is worried that Doreen is becoming too familiar wigth the middle-class ways of the household. She eats with the family, for example, instead of in the kitchen and she has her own bedroom. Mrs Rawlings is afraid that the child will not be satisfied with their home when she returns. She is also jealous of the affection between Francie and Doreen.

Doreen’s emotional response to her arrival at the Osborne’s house is very well described. I remember the horror of being sent away to boarding school, at the same age as Doreen. Everything was strange. She gradually relaxes, encouraged by her foster parents, but the confidence she begins to show is the very thing to fuel her mother’s fears.

Everything comes to a head when Doreen’s father, hitherto a murky and an unknown person in Doreen’s life, arrives at the foster home. He shares his former wife’s anxiety, and he confronts the child with his fears. 

“You don’t take long to settle down, do you?” he said curtly. “Well, I reckon it is all a bit different to what you’ve been used to – posh house, maid to open the door, everything cushy. It seems to me your mother made a big mistake in sending you down here. You get too used to living soft and next thing you’ll be thinking home’s not good enough.”
Doreen began to cry, silently, her face puckered, her heart sore. She understood perfectly well that she was being accused of disloyalty, and no scolding could have hurt her as much as that reproach. (125)

Mr Rawlings’s subsequent actions create chaos and eventually trigger a resolution of sorts.

We see a world where children are used by adults: Mrs Rawlings is single, lonely, isolated from the world with nothing to enjoy in life but Doreen; Francie really wanted a child; Geoffrey felt guilty that Francie had no child and was happy that he supported his wife with their foster daughter; Mr Rawlings wants revenge upon his former wife and for the snobbish treatment, as he sees it, with which he was greeted by Geoffrey Osborne. All these adults have reasons for making decisions about Doreen in which she has no say. As a result her life is put in danger in London, and she has to react to intense and conflicting adult emotions.

The writing is very immediate and accessible. The air raids and their effects are vividly described, and since Barbara Noble lived in London during the war we can assume she was writing from experience.

When they arrived at the darkened frontage of the hotel, Geoffrey pressed the Night Bell, expecting to be let in by a sleepy, grumbling porter. But the lounge hall seemed full of people, wide awake, fully clothed and trailing blankets. The receptionist booked them a room rather grudgingly but without demur. Geoffrey felt that everyone was staring at them, as if the place were not a hotel but a private club. There was curious atmosphere abroad, a kind of solidarity which shut out strangers. From scraps of conversation overheard, he gathered that the raid had been a sharp one, mostly concentrated on the West End. (137)

Barbara Noble is excellent at describing the small things in a scene which give sense to the bigger picture as this example shows. And the understanding of the child’s experience is very poignant and powerful.

Doreen by Barbara Noble, first published in 1946. Reissued by Persephone in 2005, with a preface by Jessica Mann. 238pp

Also on Bookword Blog by Barbara Noble: The House Opposite, reviewed in March 2021.

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Out of the Window by Madeline Linford 

A few weeks ago I visited the Persephone Bookshop in Bath, on a visit to the Gwen John exhibition at the Holburne Museum. Some years ago the bookshop and I were based near each other in London. I would visit in my lunch hour, enjoy browsing among the republication of so many novels and memoirs by women from the last century. I had been missing this experience and was pleased to find that the relocated bookshop provides the same satisfaction. I bought one of the most recent Persephone publications.

Out of the Window

This novel was first published in 1930, between the wars. It reflects some social changes that were brought by the First World War, but also the conventions that still dominated social interactions between the wars. The author, Madeline Linton, was born in 1895, and brought up in Manchester. She worked for the Manchester Guardian and became the editor of the Women’s Pages. She wrote five novels and a biography of Mary Wollestonecraft between 1923 and 1930. It seems that criticism of Out of the Window led to her giving up that part of her writing career. What a shame! This novel shows signs of a competent and interesting writer. She died in 1975.

I don’t understand the title of this novel. Are we seeing the young heroine as someone looking ‘out of the window’ in her small council house, or is her life being thrown ‘out of the window’? It doesn’t seem to me to be a very effective title, that is it gives no clue to the author’s intentions or approach.

It is the story of the marriage of an upper-middle class young woman, Ursula, and a working-class man, Kenneth. Their marriage results from her boredom with her life in the comfortable countryside, with admirers and tennis clubs and parties. She is a bit of a rule breaker. She meets Kenneth when he is speaking about the hardship experienced by some the strikers at an event organised by one of her friends. He is very good looking and she is bright and brave.

After a brief period they decide that they are in love and they marry despite the disapproval of everyone who knows them, and each of them having a more suitable person ready to pair up with them They live on a new council housing estate where money is always tight, but he is too proud to accept any money from her family. She is hopeless at managing, cooking, cleaning and gardening. Ken’s mother, Mrs Gandy, thinks that she is a spoiled and lazy young woman. They have a row:

‘Mrs Gandy, I know you didn’t want me marrying Kenneth, but you might at least be fair to me now.’
‘And who’s to blame for me not wanting it. When there was a decent, hard-working girl who would have given her eyes for him and made as good wife, too?’
‘I don’t know what you mean, and in any case, there’s no point in saying that now. My mother didn’t want me to marry him either, but at least she always treats him civilly when we go to her house.’
‘I suppose she thought he wasn’t good enough for you?’
‘I didn’t say so, but that’s what you think of me, isn’t it?’
‘And good reason, the way things have turned out.’ (240)

Bitter words have been exchanged and Ursula leaves Mrs Gandy’s house, with Kenneth still eating his tea. We can see that there was a difference even in how the families argued. 

The two Gandys were unused to abrupt decisions and to quarrels abandoned in the very heat of their fury. (240) 

Ursula is hurt because her husband had not defended her. Ken feels a loyalty to his mother. The quarrel illustrates what the young couple are up against. It is never resolved, for events overtake the young people.

Much of this novel is about assumptions, expectations and conventions, mostly unexplored and undiscussed by the young couple. Ken is quick to take offence, and Ursula fears losing his affection and showing up her inadequacies in front of her family and friends. He sees no reason why Ursula should be dissatisfied with her home, and with motherhood. Ursula is used to having help in the home and sees motherhood as a further burden. The only person she can confide in is her ‘maiden aunt’, a ‘virtuous spinster and a member of the Church of England’. 

‘You know, there ought to be some other solution for girls in love. It isn’t fair that they should be tied all their lives and have children, just because they once felt passionate about some man and were blind to everything else. The marriage service should be postponed until they had lived together for a while and the glamorous side of it got less interesting.’ (250-1)

For Ursula it is too late. Such solutions were transgressive even who I was growing up in the 1960s. Reliable contraception and a changing view of relationships and the role of women were needed before Ursula’s vision became possible. 

The differences between the classes were difficult to manage. The parents who oppose their marriage, however, speak in terms of contrasts in education, money, circle of friends and occupations. The couple cannot see a way to make the contrasts work for them.

The wider social context does not help them either. While things are changing – better housing, job prospects, education and votes for women – the promise of more change does not seem to allow the couple to step out of the restricting expectations of their class and gender.

Out of the Window by Madeline Linford, first published in 1930. Reissued by Persephone in 2023 (#148). 284pp 

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Heat Lightning by Helen Hull 

The name of this author, Helen Hull, was not familiar to me, but I wanted to read something from the Persephone list, and this one (and two others) caught my eye. She wrote 17 novels (20 if you believe her New York Times obituary) and this one was made Book of the Month in 1932, when it first appeared. Those two recommendations, published by Persephone and chosen as Book of the Month were enough for me.

Heat Lightning

It’s 1930, and in the searing heat of summer Amy returns to the town of her childhood. She travels by train from New York to the midwestern town of Flemington. Amy’s life is in a turmoil as she and her husband Geoffrey appear to be drawing apart. Her children are at summer camps, so she returns to her parents’ house to rest and think about her life.

But Amy finds no rest for she is immediately plunged into family issues: her sister has just given birth to her fifth daughter; the effects of the Crash are rippling towards them; her father and his brother and sister are at loggerheads; and her cousin Tom appears to be in some kind of trouble. 

The novel follows Amy as she meets up with her parents, brother and sister, aunts and uncles and many cousins. The family is dominated, from the house next door by her grandmother, Madam Westover. She is a widow, but she is cared for by Lavinia, a faithful servant, and by Curly the devoted odd job man.

Amy is not able to devote any time to her own problems, but she observes the activities of her family and reflects on how they approach life. The Westover family is a large one, and there are incomers as marriages have taken place. There is a lot of grasping behaviour, motivated by greed, jealousy, and need. 

The Westover family appear to be tolerant of unconventional behaviour. Amy’s cousin is clearly gay. She wears a tie, tweeds, and sensible shoes, she smokes, and she refers to a waiting female friend. Although she is not very kind, the family bear with her cruel comments. Amy reflects:

Poor Harriet was a muddle. Her well of loneliness had brackish waters. (256) 

The notorious novel by Radclyffe Hall called The Well of Loneliness had been published in 1928. Amy’s parents’ maid, Lulu, is pregnant by Tom. But no one believes that they should marry. It turns out that Amy’s grandfather had an illegitimate son, born around the same time as her father Alfred. Madam Westover appears to take this in her stride, acting as problem-solver and peacemaker. She is the most vivid character in the novel, old but not staid, wealthy but also generous and big hearted.

The central crisis of the book sets off many unsavoury behaviours. Some members of the family are revealed as selfish, desperate, entitled or plain stupid. But others turn out to be generous, helpful, and ready to take on change. Amy’s parents have a good relationship with each other and are among the good guys.

Amy observes all of this and draws conclusions for herself. Some of this is rather turgid reading as characters provide her with little lessons about their own codes or lack of them. Today we are more likely to use the phrase moral values, I think. Here Amy’s mother reflects on the two things she lives by:

‘… one is acting so I don’t feel ashamed of myself, so I feel comfortable with myself. Sometimes I’m driven into saying or doing things I know I’m going to be ashamed of. The other – that’s people. Loving them. Loving them enough, now, so you feel alive. Not a vague love for everybody. That’s nonsense. But for your special ones.’ (300)

This wisdom is imparted towards the end of the novel, and Helen Hull has shown the reader that Catherine behaves with integrity. She has also shown us plenty of family members not following this code. Amy comes to realise that there is a future for her marriage as a result of her brief stay.

I have seen this novel described as domestic, a family novel. But one reason for the large cast of characters seems to have been that Helen Hull was using the family to stand for American society, especially as it faced the outcomes of the 1929 Crash, and all the other social changes of the ‘30s.

The preface is helpful in this respect.

Eventually she [Amy] realises that her family – into which ‘foreigners’ have married – is a microcosm of the larger society. … The plot is driven by her struggle to identify values that persist, even though norms of behaviour may vary among ethnic groups, social classes or generations. (Preface xi)

Some of the description and the similes are rather overwritten, but I can forgive Helen Hull this for most of the book is pacey, rich, and thoughtful. It kept me occupied while a suffered my stonking winter cold!

Helen Hull

Born in Michigan in 1888, Helen Hull lived until 1971. She wrote many novels and short stories, and taught creative writing at Wellesley, Barnard and Columbia. She edited The Writer’s Book, a collection of 50 essays by prominent writers, described as practical advice by experts in every field of writing. Heat Lightning was her sixth novel.

Despite the unflattering depiction of Harriet in the novel, Helen Hull herself had a lifelong relationship with a woman, Mabel Louise Robinson. 

Heat Lightning by Helen Hull first published in the US in 1932. I used the edition from Persephone, published in 2013 with a preface by Patricia McClelland Miller. 328pp

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Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim

Here are three short extracts from the first three pages of Expiation. They set the scene of a social milieu that is smug and critical and which provides the material for a novel of folly and lies, in which Elizabeth von Arnim has a great deal of fun at the expense of a large bourgeois family called Bott, known collectively as the Botts. We imagine that the family’s and suburb’s names are intended to be absurd.

Not only were the Botts kind, but the whole of Titford was kind. That important south London suburb appreciated the Botts, so financially sound, so continually increasing in prosperity. They were its backbone. They subscribed, presided, spoke, opened. Titford was full of Botts, and every one of them a credit to it. (1-2) 

And here she was at forty-five, a little cushiony woman, fair-skinned and dove-eyed, with dimples on her plump hands where other people had knuckles, and a smooth head, sleekly covered with agreeable hair the colour of respectability. (2-3)

What a wife. What a nice place the world would be if all wives were more like Milly, the male Botts had frequently thought – whispering it to themselves, for it wouldn’t do to say it out loud – when they had been having trouble with their own wives. (3)

Expiation

The novel opens as the family have just buried Earnest Bott who has been killed in a motor accident. His will has been read and the family are shocked. He has left his substantial everything to a charity for fallen women, except for £1000 to his wife Milly. ‘Only my wife will know why’. What had Milly done?

The Botts are concerned to keep the dreadful business of the will (not so much Milly’s offence) from being known in Titford. Milly must be treated as though she has done nothing wrong. But they don’t know what she has done. They begin to have suspicions. The family decide to give her houseroom in rotation. There are four remaining brothers and five sisters, and their discussion about how to support Milly resembles the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility, talking each other down in the matter of their contributions to support a less fortunate family member.

When they go to tell her this, Milly has disappeared. 

Milly is mortified to realised that Earnest had known that she was conducting an affair and added the codicil to his will 2 years before. Milly leaves very early the morning after the will was read, to get her £1000 and go to live with her sister in Switzerland, also estranged from the Botts because she eloped with her lover from Earnest’s home 25 years previously. The story goes on from there, with Milly giving her sister Agatha the money because she has lived in great poverty since she eloped. Milly, now penniless, realises that she will have to marry Arthur, much against her inclination, for the affair long calmed into a generous friendship. But when they meet for a final time, she realises that he has found a young girl with whom he is in love and plans to marry. 

And so, with no means of support, she returns to Titford and to the Botts. Milly finds she must atone for what she has done. Not to Earnest, who is dead, but to his family – for Milly also suffers from that double standard: 

It is the woman, the Botts considered, on whom the duty has been laid of walking steadfastly along the straight path of virtue, thus persuading man, that natural deviator, to walk along it too. Sometimes he won’t, the Botts admitted, and then the woman’s duty is to continue along it alone. (38)

Milly begins living with each of her brothers-in-law and their wives in turn, and this causes severe strains upon their marriages, as each makes deductions about Milly and what she has been doing, the money, the cause of the dreadful will and the identity of Milly’s paramour. There is a great deal of hysteria and suspicion, and Milly is understood to be guiltless or extremely full of guile by different Botts in turn. All is resolved by the patience and good sense of the matriarch.

This is a novel that looks at hypocrisy, especially of the smug family Bott. It’s about the cost of lies and deception. We follow Milly, indeed sympathise with her as she tries to do the right thing by the Botts, but find ourselves questioning with her when it is okay to lie, why are some lies not punished (I’ll make you the happiest woman ever) and others are (finding happiness outside marriage). Frequently the family have to halt their discussions because it does not do to talk before the servants, from whom the truth must be hidden. It’s told with Elizabeth von Arnim’s trademark wit, her ability to reveal hypocrisy and with a certain amount of daring since she was writing in 1929 when adultery and divorce were not words to be breathed in mixed or polite company. 

Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1929 and republished by Persephone Books in 2019. 362pp

Related posts

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

Fallen Women, a themed post on Bookword

Heavenali’s blog delights in the absurdity of the Botts, in February 2021.

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The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins wrote in the late 19th Century, publishing The New Magdalen in 1873. He had very enlightened ideas about the treatment of women for his time. His most well-known novel, The Woman in White, revealed the practice of inconvenient women being placed in lunatic asylums for the convenience of their families or their husbands. 

Asylums, diagnoses of madness and incarceration have a long history as a method of dealing with inconvenient people of whom the powerful disapprove:

  • Dissidents in Soviet Russia,
  • Unmarried, pregnant women in Ireland
  • Refugees and asylum seekers in the UK today.

In The New Magdalen Wilkie Collins takes up the issues of women who are deemed to have fallen, and in particular how society at that time did not understand how women in poverty might become prostitutes and did not allow her to redeem her reputation. She was forever judged by the lowest point of her life, not by her character.

The New Magdalen

Wilkie Collins was known as a sensational writer, that is one who could provoke sensations or emotions through writing. Since the novel was originally published as a weekly serial there needed to be many cliff-hangers. The novel is full of will she/will he? moments, or of people listening outside doors, decisions needing to be made immediately, and if only she had known moments.

Mary Magdalene is a New Testament character, who travelled with and supported Jesus and the apostles. Very early commentators interpreted her as a reformed prostitute or a promiscuous woman. Mercy Merrick is the new Magdalen, and her character is contrasted with Grace Roseberry. 

We meet the two women as their paths cross in a cottage in France in the middle of a French war with Germany. Grace is returning to London after the death of her only close family to find refuge in the household of a wealthy relative. Mercy is a nurse caring for some French soldiers. She tells Grace her story and her despair at being a permanent social outcast.

‘… Society can’t take me back. You see me here in a place of trust – patiently, humbly, doing all the good I can. It doesn’t matter! Here, or elsewhere, what I am can never alter what I was. For three years past all that a sincerely penitent woman can do I have done. It doesn’t matter. Once my past story be known, and the shadow of it covers me, the kindest people shrink.’ (16)

The able-bodied French retreat and Mercy and Grace remain with the injured until a bombardment is launched by the Germans. Grace is wounded and pronounced dead by the French surgeon before he flees to escape the German advance. Mercy is rescued by a journalist who provides her with safe passage. Despite some misgivings she has decided to take on the identity of Grace Roseberry. 

And so the scene is set for the contrast between the two women to emerge, and especially for reactions when the real Grace appears, having been restored to health. In the interval between her escape and the second section of the book, Mercy has established herself as a much-loved companion to Lady Janet Roy and the fiancée of her nephew, Horace, the journalist who rescued her. But when the real Grace arrives to claim her position in the household the dilemmas and tensions begin.

Around the same time as Grace reappears, so does Julian Gray, an unconventional preacher who has previously inspired Mercy. He too is a nephew of Lady Janet Roy. The true Grace is at first dismissed as a mad woman, so convinced is Lady Janet that Mercy is her relative, and Horace that his fiancée is who she says. But Mercy finds that her honesty will not let her maintain the fiction for very long, even if Grace is spiteful and vindictive and judges her according to the history she heard in the cottage.

‘Lady Janet! Lady Janet! Don’t leave me without a word.’ Illustration by George du Maurier

When Mercy finally confesses, each of the characters in turn must decide how they react. Lady Janet Roy wants to sweep everything under the carpet and maintain the fiction that Mercy is her ‘adopted daughter’. Horace is horrified and cannot imagine being married to such a woman, influenced in part by his mother and sisters who would never accept a wife from a disreputable background. Julian Gray supports her, and eventually falls for her, inspired by her bravery and determination.

It falls to Horace Holmcroft to articulate the prevalent view of society at the time in a letter in the epilogue which he writes to Grace Roseberry.

‘The existence of Society, as you truly say, is threatened by the present lamentable prevalence of Liberal ideas throughout the length and breadth of the land. We can only hope to protect ourselves against imposters interested in gaining a position among persons of our rank by becoming in some sort (unpleasant as it may be) familiar with the arts by which imposture too frequently succeeds. ‘ (374)

In the first scene, in the French cottage, when Mercy had told her story to Grace, the reader is reminded of the Christian attitude to sin. Mercy tells Grace that she had heard Julian Gray preach and it gave her the courage to persist in trying to make a good life for herself.

His text was from the words, Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over nine and ninety just persons which need no repentance.  …From that time I have accepted my hard lot, been a patient woman. (18-19)

Even when she becomes the wife of a man of standing and good reputation and is supported by Lady Janet Roy, Society does not relent. Mercy and her husband are forced to emigrate from England because she is not acceptable.

The novel was also produced as a play, and many scenes of the book can be visualised in this way: the French cottage, the room through which people can pass unseen, or hide from those meeting there. Some of the speeches were designed for theatre audiences.

Wilkie Collins

It is not irrelevant that Wilkie Collins himself ran two households, two women and their children, marrying neither woman. Both were acknowledged in his will: Caroline Graves was his ‘constant companion’, Martha Rudd as the mother of his children.  I suspect that such an arrangement would still be frowned upon today.

The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins, first published in 1873. I read the edition from Persephone Books, published in 2020. 397pp

Related post

Fallen Women about ‘fallen women’ in fiction, on Bookword October 2015

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Mrs Dalloway on Dalloway Day

I had planned my summer around a week in Cambridge joining others to think about Virginia Woolf and her women. You know what happened to that. I am hoping that I can do it in 2021. Meanwhile, whatever else happens, it is DALLOWAY DAY today, Wednesday 17th June 2020.

And to celebrate, here again is the post I wrote after rereading Mrs Dalloway in preparation for my summer expedition, a slight revision from the version published on this blog in February.

Mrs Dalloway

In her diary as she was writing Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf expressed her ambitions for this novel.

In this book I have almost too many ideas. I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticise the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense. [June 19th 1923, p57]

The events of this novel take place over a single day in the summer of 1923. Clarissa Dalloway, the wife of a Conservative MP, living in Westminster, London, is giving a party in the evening. It is June and the day is hot. She leaves her house to fetch some flowers for the party. 

She meets various acquaintances who reappear later, as well as passing close to a damaged First World War veteran who is waiting to see the nerve expert Sir William Bradshaw. Before the party she is visited by a man who she last saw when she was a young woman, having refused to marry him. Peter Walsh has been in India. 

Clarissa is concerned because her husband has accepted an invitation to lunch with Mrs Bruton. This formidable lady seeks his help with a eugenics programme to send good quality people to Canada. And she has dealings with her daughter’s tutor, Miss Kilman, an evangelist, who seems to Clarissa to have stolen Elizabeth. 

The story moves easily through Clarissa’s thoughts as well as the points of view of other characters. Among the most striking is Septimus Warren Smith, the war veteran who is suffering from what we would call PTSD, then known as war neurosis. The doctors he consults say all he needs is rest. Both he and his wife Rezia are made desperate by the absence of help from the medical profession. Septimus commits suicide as Dr Holmes arrives to take him away for his rest cure. 

In the party everything comes together. Clarissa entertains her guests, even the Prime Minister attends (I can’t resist mentioning that he is a figure of gravity, much revered by those attending). Also present are the people she has met during the day and from her past. Sir William Bradshaw arrives, bringing news of his patient’s suicide.

And I am wrong to say that the plot is contained within one day. For of course, all those lives have pasts (‘beautiful caves’), some interleaved with each other’s and Clarissa’s. And these too we enter to understand the events of the day and the characters. In her diary the author referred to

… how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters [30th August 1923, p60]

And a year later she used a different image to describe this feature of Mrs Dalloway:

… But I like going from one lighted room to another, such is my brain to me; lighted rooms; … [August 15th 1924, p65]

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

Mrs Dalloway and the women in the novel.

Clarissa Dalloway is the central character bringing everything together. As the title indicates she is married. Her decision to marry Richard Dalloway rather than Peter Walsh determined the direction of her mature life. We learn that she is frail, a victim and survivor of the Spanish ‘flu epidemic that ravaged the country as the First World War ended. For this reason I do not like the ruddy-faced portrait on the Oxford edition. Clarissa had slight, thin features.

As she neared the end of composing the book Virginia Woolf worried about Clarissa. She refers to the design she has for the novel and how well it is all progressing.

The doubtful point is, I think, the character of Mrs Dalloway. It may be too stiff, too glittering and tinsely. But then I can bring innumerable other characters to her support. [October 15th 1923, p61]

While it does seem that the people in her circle see her as rather lightweight, Virginia Woolf shows that she has strong liberal values, but is not always well-informed. The character of Miss Kilman (note the name) stands in complete opposition to Clarissa, with her certainties, especially in relation to love and religion. Clarissa reflects on the damage wrought by these things as she contemplates Miss Kilman.

The cruellest things in the world, she thought, seeing them clumsy, hot domineering, hypocritical, eavesdropping, jealous, infinitely cruel and unscrupulous, dressed in a mackintosh coat, on the landing; love and religion. Had she ever tried to convert anyone herself? Did she not wish everybody merely to be themselves? (p107)

Many of the characters are shown up by contrast to Clarissa. The odious Lady Bruton with her ideas about eugenics; Clarissa’s childhood acquaintances, one of whom has remained a mouse (Ellie Henderson) and the other despite great liveliness and unconventionality in her youth is now married to a rich farmer and has many sons (Sally Seton). One feels that Clarissa would have supported Rezia if they had met.

Life, death, sanity, insanity, the social system is all in Mrs Dalloway as Virginia Woolf intended. This novel also prompts us to think about time, its passage and effects, as Big Ben tolls throughout the day. And it is set in London, which despite later bomb damage is still recognisable today. The richness of this novel cannot be overpraised. I look forward to yet another rereading.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf published in 1925. I used the Oxford World’s Classics edition. 185 pp

Diary extracts from A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf published by Persephone Books (2012)

Previous posts on Mrs Dalloway

I have twice before written about Mrs Dalloway on Bookword.

Mrs Dalloway is ageing in July 2015

The second Mrs Dalloway in July 2019

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Two Good Reads (in Lockdown)

As I write this (early May) no one has any idea how long the lockdown will continue. But one thing is sure: people will still want good books to read. And book groups will also still want recommendations. These two books, reviewed here, are both fairly long, and have been on my tbr pule for some months. And on my radar for longer, recommended by bloggers and others. So I bought one last year and found the second one in a second-hand book shop in February. 

  • The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles 

Both are recommended as longish and relaxing reads for book groups and for lockdowns.

The Fortnight in September

Set between the wars, the novel is about a suburban family as they go on their annual holiday to Bognor. As the title suggests it is THE fortnight in September, and they have been many times before. Not much out of the ordinary happens. 

Much of their pleasure in the holiday comes from everything being the same as all the previous years: their preparations, their timetable, the boarding house, the other customers in the pub, the way they spend their days. Each of these are experienced in loving detail by the family who believe in getting pleasure from each moment.

One of his best ideas was to have a set programme for every other day – leaving the days in between absolutely free for everyone to do what they liked. It was a wise plan from several points of view. The little squabbles you so often saw happening on the sands in the afternoon were not always due to the heat: more often they came from people being too much together, and getting on each other’s nerves. (166)

However, Mr Stevens is getting older and his hair is thinning. Mrs Stevens discovers that their landlady has had no other visitors that year, and frankly the digs are a bit below par. The oldest child Mary has a holiday romance and is a little burned by the experience. Her brother Dick has been depressed all year since leaving school and taking on a job his father found for him. He decides to take matters into his own hands and get a new job. It is clear that it will be their last fortnight.

It is a hymn to nostalgia. But it is also an account of change, its inevitability and the opportunities it brings. This novel was a great success when it was first published. It was one of the first books published by Persephone (no 67) and they have issued it in the Persephone classics series with a lovely beach on the cover: Algernon Talmage: Silver Morning, Alderburgh Beach (1931)

The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff, first published in 1931; I used the Persephone edition of 2006. 326pp

A Gentleman in Moscow

In 1920 the young Russian Count Alexander Rostov is placed under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. He has been deemed a former person, because he had private wealth, an aristocratic title and does not fit the Bolshevik ideas of a good comrade. He is a cultured man, and had written a poem that caught the mood of revolt in pre-Revolutionary Russia, so he was not executed.

For 34 years, until 1954, he lives in an attic room, befriends the hotel staff, becomes a waiter, adopts a child who becomes a great pianist, befriends a senior member of the Russian communist party and takes a lover. During this time he maintains his courtesy, generosity, culture, good manners and attention to detail.

But in setting upright the cocktail glass in the aftermath of the commotion, didn’t he also exhibit an essential faith that by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world? (459)

He manages to create a decent life, despite being confined. The history of the USSR is seen from the interior the Metropol. The story is told with considerable panache and extravagance.

It is charming, witty, funny and a good, well-told story. I was bothered by not knowing how he became a waiter, although I could see that it suited him, with his cultured attentive manner, courtesy and attention to detail. And I was uneasy that he slept in a tiny room with his adopted daughter until she was 25. 

This book was recommended for book groups by fellow travellers last year when I was in Nice. You can find their other recommendations here.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016) published by Windmill (Penguin Books). 462pp

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Don’t Look at Me Like That by Diana Athill

Diana Athill is something of a heroine in my eyes. Here are six reasons why:

  1. Her contribution to post-war fiction in the UK was enormous in her role as founding director of Andre Deutsch publishing. She worked with him from 1952 until she retired aged 75 in 1993.
  2. During that time she edited (among others) the works of Molly Keane, VS Naipaul and Jean Rhys, and without Diana Athill’s patience and care we would probably never have been able to read Wide Sargasso Sea.
  3. She wrote about all this in Stet (2000), and it is an essential insight into editorial work. Also into her relationships with some of the writers she had to deal with.
  4. She wrote about ageing in an interesting way, and in life managed her final years with dignity and generosity. Read Somewhere Towards the End (2008)
  5. Her short stories are highly enjoyable. Midsummer Night in the Workhouse was published in 1962 and republished by Persephone Books in 2011.

And the sixth reason is this novel Don’t Look at Me Like That which was published in 1967 and has been reissued by Granta.

Don’t Look at Me Like That

The novel is set in the early ‘60s, and mostly in London. Meg is the main character and the narrator of this novel. She is a clergyman’s daughter and up until the point she comes to London Meg’s life has been directed by her parents and by social expectations, reinforced by school. There she had had few friends, and it was only Roxane, who lives in Oxford with her widowed mother, who is willing to be close to her. Roxane’s mother invites Meg to live in her house while she attends art college in Oxford. Mrs Weaver, is a complete contrast to Meg’s mother. She directs Roxane’s life to the extent of picking out and grooming her husband Dick.

The novel is partly about how Meg from childhood feels out of place, a misfit, unable to consider marriage, unable to make friends easily, unable to find her way in the world. But by the end of the novel she found her own friends, living independently and in some poverty in a succession of rented rooms. She has come to belong within her own circle. But she has also carried on an affair with Dick and therefore comes into conflict with her own family and with Mrs Weaver. Eventually she makes a decision knowing that it will shock her family and people’s ideas about young women.

So this novel notes the changing expectations for generations during this time, and especially for young women. It reflects the different pace of social change in rural areas and London at the time. And it is about making good relationships, and the difficulties of doing this whether you reject the traditional social patterns or accept them.

The character of Mrs Weaver is carefully observed and built up. She is a shocker. Much of Meg’s reflections seemed to me to expose the dilemmas and tensions that develop for any young women at any time; the importance, or not, of marriage and relationships with men and with women; clothes; independence; having children; fidelity and loyalty; managing on limited resources; parental influence and so on. 

Diana Athill

Diana Athill was born in 1917 and died aged nearly 102 in January 2019. Her death was the occasion for obituaries, and the republication of this novel for reviews. For example John Self in the Guardian in December 2019 called it a ‘reissued gem’. Here is the link.

And this is from an obituary by Lena Dunham, which cacptures the spirit in which to read this novel and the other works of Diana Athill.

Perhaps her greatest legacy was her refusal to cede to societal expectations as she carved out a persistently unusual world for herself in which the demands of femininity — marriage and children, specifically — were rethought and redefined. (Lena Dunham in the New York Times. January 2019)

Other reviews can be found by bloggers: for example JacquiWine’s Journal in February; and A Life in Books in January.

Don’t Look at Me Like That by Diana Athill, first published in 1967 and reissued by Granta in 2019. 187pp

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