Tag Archives: Sarah Waters

Post-War Novels

Change is implicated in all novels’ plots. No change is greater than that brought by war: physical change to bodies, buildings and landscapes; social and economic change to families and other communities large and small.

In the exploration of human relations, emotions, loss, change and survival after an armed conflict fiction has an important role to play. There may be no peace as delayed, new or latent issues emerge. Characters shift from a communal effort towards one objective – winning the war – to a focus on their own personal lives and difficulties.

Such change and conflict is fertile ground for novelists as these recommended post-war novels demonstrate, all set in the years following the Second World War.

  • Shirley Hazzard The Great Fire
  • Marghanita Laski The Village
  • Marie Sizun Her Father’s Daughter

Survival and guilt

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (2004) published by Virago. pp314

296-gr-fire-cover

The title of this novel put me off but a writer friend recommended it and now I believe it is one of the best novels I have read. The fire refers to the engulfing flames of the Second World War, the involvement of so many countries, the explosion of the first A Bomb in Hiroshima and the scorched emotions of characters in the novel including a consuming love. And this novel considers the damage brought by survivor guilt.

Aldred Leith is an Englishman in Japan in 1947, physically and emotionally scarred. He meets a much younger Australian woman, Helen, and falls for her. The narrative follows Leith’s love for Helen, so strong, so necessary for his survival that it affirms the importance of love for humans, for a decent life, in war or peace. But it is much more than a love story, being peopled by the wounded victorious, the accidental survivors, the chance encounters, the generosity of strangers, the bitterness of war.

Here’s Adam Mars-Jones’s review from the Observer in Dec 2003: ‘surely an outright masterpiece’.

Social Change

The Village by Marghanita Laski, first published in 1952, reissued by Persephone Books in 2007. 302pp

This novel looks at post-war village life in England, the changes and frictions left after conflict. These are explored through the relationship of Margaret Trevor and Roy Wilson, one from the declining and impoverished middle class and the other from a respectable working class family. Roy is a compositor, a man of the future. Margaret’s family disapprove of their relationship, but they have hardy a penny to their name. Their reference points are pre-war.

For Wendy Trevor it is the worst social embarrassment to have her daughter engaged to a working class man. Mrs Trevor is prepared to do stupid and destructive things to ensure her daughter doesn’t marry Roy. But the reactions of the other villagers shows us how things have been changed by the war and also about values that were maintained despite so much destruction.

The value of property, the inability to maintain large houses, the changing relationship between workers and ‘masters’, even the contrast between Negroes in the North of the US and the working class are revealed.

A reunited or divided families

Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun, first published in French in 2005 and published in English in 2016 by Peirene Press. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter. 150pp

296-fs-daughter-cover

It’s Paris in the dying embers of war. A little girl lives with her mother in a close and rather spoiled relationship in a flat; her father is absent – a prisoner of war. Only her grandmother makes any impression on the child, with a memory of a holiday in Normandy and the birth of a baby sister. Back in Paris, without the baby, the child is told that the episode was a dream. The father returns, damaged, but happy to be back. The child reveals her mother’s lie and the father leaves and later marries someone else.

Told from the child’s point of view, her relationships within the family are charted through devotion to the mother, hostility to the father, changing into reluctant pleasure at her father’s presence, then devotion to him. When he leaves the little girl is forlorn, but then reinstates her relationship with her mother. Later in life she reflects on what her father has given her.

Rather a sad tale of change brought by war.

Some Other Post-War novels

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey is set partly in the present and partly in the austerity years immediately after the Second World War. This novel deals with memory, dementia and loss. You can find my review here.

296-sm-island-cover

Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004) is partly set in the post WW2 era, and explores how people reacted to West Indian immigrants, among other things. It celebrates the West Indian contribution to the war effort and the attraction of the Mother Country.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009) is a ghost story – or is it? – set around a dilapidated and declining country house in Warwickshire in the late 1940s, at the start of the National Health Service. The characters emerge from the trauma of the war to experience yet more difficulties in peacetime.

Over to you

Can you recommend any more post-war novels? What makes it such a good time setting for a novel?

 

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The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

The Franchise Affair, a classic mystery, was published in 1949. Its mystery is not in identifying the criminal, but in uncovering the lies and flaws in young Betty Kane’s story to exonerate the two women she has accused. The task falls to Robert Blair, an established country solicitor.

216 Fr Aff coverThis is the 18th review in the Bookword series about older women in fiction. Thank you to the reader who suggested the character of Mrs Sharpe from The Franchise Affair.

The story

Marion and her mother, Mrs Sharpe, are accused by Betty Kane of abduction and ill treatment. 15-year old Betty claims that they imprisoned her in the attic of their house, The Franchise, which stands outside the small country town of Milford.

Robert Blair is living a very comfortable bachelor life in Milford, cared for by his aunt. The narrative follows his search for the truth, but we do not find much out about his previous life: not married although he had opportunities, his wartime occupation not indicated. His comfortable life is not usually disturbed by criminal cases, but he is attracted to Marion Sharpe and her gypsy-like looks, and motivated to put right the injustice done to her and her mother. The narrative pull of the novel comes from his dogged pursuit of the truth about Betty Kane’s missing month.

Mrs Sharpe

Mrs Sharpe is introduced to the reader though Robert Blair’s eyes.

She [Marion] drove a battered old car, from which she shopped in the mornings while her white-haired old mother sat in the back, upright and delicate and incongruous and somehow silently protesting. In profile old Mrs Sharpe looked like Whistler’s mother; when she turned full-face and you got the impact of her bright, pale, cold, seagull’s eye, she looked like a sibyl. An uncomfortable old person. (6)

Marjorie Fielding played Mrs Sharpe in the 1951 film The Franchise Affair

Marjorie Fielding played Mrs Sharpe in the 1951 film The Franchise Affair

Mrs Sharpe is a gentlewoman, enduring less good times in The Franchise. She knows about good furniture and architecture, and she comes from horse-breeding stock. She inherited The Franchise from a relative, which allowed her to move out of London where she had lived in a boarding house with her daughter. Neither woman has entered the social life of Milford. They enjoy peace and isolation, although it works against them when Betty Kane’s story is published by the mud-raking, strangely-named tabloid – Ack-Emma.

Mrs Sharpe is rather a forbidding woman, and she also has an intelligence which sees to the heart of matters as we find out early on when Mrs Sharpe demands to know if Betty is a virgin. She earns respect from Blair by her refusal to be unsettled by the accusations. He observes to the reader that ‘it was no small achievement to steal the interest from an outraged heroine.’ (29)

She is from the time and class that requires older women to keep their composure in the face of life’s difficulties. We discover that her husband was always speculating and that his suicide left her with a very young child and no money. Even when the Sharpes are arrested and brought to trial Mrs Sharpe remains steady.

The relationship between mother and daughter is easy, based on observing strict boundaries. Marion explains this to Robert late in the novel.

Mother and I suit each other perfectly because we make no demands on each other. If one of us has a cold in the head she retires to her room without fuss and doses her disgusting self until she is fit for human society again. (274)

Her role in the novel is to make it clear that Betty Kane’s story is unfounded from the outset. She represents common sense. Such a strong and intimidating woman would not treat a young girl in the brutal manner of which she is accused. Mrs Sharpe’s steadfast dignity and denial provides the reader – and Robert Blair – with the certainty that Betty Kane is lying. This is older woman as moral authority.

A few other things about The Franchise Affair

An interesting feature of The Franchise Affair is the discussion reading a person’s character in their appearances. Their appearance and especially the eyes are claimed to indicate criminality. Marion tells Blair that Betty Kane’s eye colour indicates that the girl is over-sexed, a post war notion.

‘I have never known anyone – man or woman – with that colour of eye who wasn’t. That opaque dark blue, like a very faded navy – it’s infallible.’(36)

And appearance means Josephine Tey can link criminality to genetic inheritance, another background theme in the novel.

But Josephine Tey’s novel relies on this emphasis to mislead the reader. Much of the power of Betty Kane comes from her innocent appearance. The forbidding appearance, on the other hand, of Mrs Sharpe hides a sharp intelligence, a warm heart and resilience.

216 J TeyThe novel also reflects the dominant social attitudes of the time, not just towards an older woman. Although the Sharpe women are independent they are not capable of resolving their own difficulties and a succession of men have to do this for them. It is the men, the solicitor, the barrister, the garage owner (and former army sergeant), the private detective who must help the women out. And they do. Even the man in the case doesn’t lie.

It is set post-war with some references to the war (air raids, experience in the armed forces for example) and is quintessentially English in a warm beer kind of way, despite Josephine Tey being from Scotland. She used a historical event, the deceptions of Elizabeth Canning from the 18th Century, as a basis for the story.

216 Fr Aff gr coverThe Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey first published in 1949. The copy used in this post was published by Arrow Books in 2009. 278pp

Related posts and book

The previous posts in the older women in fiction series can be found by clicking on the category or by going to the page called about the older women in fiction series.

Sarah Waters says that The Franchise Affair provided some inspiration for Little Stranger, which is also set in a dilapidated large country house in the post war period.

Josephine Tey has her own website: www.josephinetey.net

Josephine Tey: A Life by Jennifer Morag Henderson was published in November 2015 by Sandstone Press. Jenny Morrison writes about her reclusive life in the Daily Record in October 2015.

 

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Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction Shortlist 2015

BWPFF 2015 logoAnnounced on Monday 13th April 2015, here is the shortlist for the Baileys Prize.

  • Rachel Cusk: Outline
  • Laline Paull: The Bees
  • Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone
  • Ali Smith: How to be Both
  • Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread
  • Sarah Waters: The Paying Guests

160 How to be bothThe winner will be announced on Wednesday 3rd June.

These books were on the longlist:

  • Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart
  • Patricia Ferguson: Aren’t We Sisters?
  • Xiaolu Guo: I Am China
  • Samantha Harvey: Dear Thief
  • Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing
  • Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven
  • Grace McCleen: The Offering
  • Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star
  • Heather O’Neil: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
  • Marie Phillips: The Table of Less Valued Knights
  • Rachel Seiffert: The Walk Home
  • Sara Taylor: The Shore
  • Jemma Wayne: After Before
  • PP Wong: The Life of a Banana

151 E missiing cover 3

And here’s the shadow shortlist from The Writes of Women blog:

  • Samantha Harvey    Dear Thief
  • Sandra Newman      Ice Cream Star
  • Ali Smith                    How to be Both
  • Sara Taylor                The Shore
  • Anne Tyler                A Spool of Blue Thread
  • Sarah Waters           The Paying Guests

 

Never mind the winner, here’s lots of lovely reading for us all!

 

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Books for Prisoners

I saw that every night that I read I was being cleansed of my sins, and that if I didn’t read I would rove the narrow, basalt-stoned, dank streets of the Castle of Sinners. I learned that not reading was to summon one’s sins. I learned that reading was the thing that tied me to life and rendered me sinless. As I read I saw that six-square-metre cell transformed into the world’s biggest centre for hermetic seclusion: a sanctuary, a colossal temple, a school where wise sages sat and debated.

As I read in prison I became myself, I returned to being myself, I added colour and harmony to my stagnant life. As I read I became myself.

(From Reading in Gaol, by Muharrem Erbey, translated from the Turkish by Erda Halisdemir. Published in The Author in Autumn 2014.)

Why does the Minister of Justice in the UK, Chris Grayling ignore the impact of the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme (IEP), which limits prisoners’ access to books. And why does he ignore the effects of staffing cuts on prisoners’ access to prison libraries? Access to books in prisons is part of a dubious behaviour control policy. I have written about this before, in March 2014, see Books in Prison.

Dartmoor Prison. Photo by Steve Daniels, from Wikimedia

Dartmoor Prison. Photo by Steve Daniels, from Wikimedia

And why do Conservative MPs (my MP anyway) not engage with the issues? Actually I know the answer to that question, but it’s still frustrating! And why is Simon Hughes, Lib Dem minister at the Justice Department openly challenging Chris Grayling about so much of his prisons policy, including limiting books to prisoners (reported in the Independent on 7th November 2014).

Why does it matter?

Cover of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, in Russian, from Wikimedia

Cover of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, in Russian, from Wikimedia

I care passionately about books and education. In Norah Colvin’s phrase I am a meliorist. They are civilising influences in a world where powerful forces seem to want to revert to the worst of human nature. This government seems to represent the view that a prisoner forfeits all rights to be treated decently, as if the person is the crime.

I do not believe it is wise to make prisoners resent their treatment. Rather we should provide all possible opportunities for them to read and learn and reflect on life, their own as well as their victims, and the lives of others – in short to return to their best selves. Everyone can benefit from reading about the world, how it is, how it could be and how people live in this world.

Muharrem Erbey kept his best self alive and provides the eloquent vindication of reading in prison quoted above. He was in Diyarbakir High Security Prison for more than four years as a result of his Human Rights activities in Turkey. He determined to turn his situation to advantage by reading.

In the new worlds open to me by the books there was beauty beyond my wildest fantasies. I was free in that world. And everyone was equal. There were no walls. There were no doors that shut on people.

I wrote to my MP

Channing Woods Prison, Denbury. Photo by Roger Cornfoot, from Wikimedia

Channing Woods Prison, Denbury. Photo by Roger Cornfoot, from Wikimedia

I try to take action when I adopt a strong position on an issue. In this case I did what active British citizens can do – I wrote to my MP – Anne Marie Morris. I complained about the reduced access by prisoners to books and libraries as a result of staffing cuts to the prison service. And I asked some pertinent questions about my local prison – Channing Woods.

In February 2013 an inspection report suggested that some prisoners were spending up to 20 hours a day confined to their cells. Since then there has been unrest among the prisoners. And this summer staff voiced their own worries about staffing levels.

I would like answers to the following questions:

How often can prisoners visit the library at Channings Wood Prison?

Who runs the library at Channings Wood Prison, and what is its budget?

From which outlets can prisoners buy books in the prison?

Can prisoners get specialist books from the library if they have a hobby or are doing a course?

I received no answer to these questions, no reference to Channings Wood at all in her letter. Rather my MP responded to some points I had not made, including this statement.

There has been a considerable amount of misinformation on this issue recently. Books are not banned [this I know] – indeed all prisoners have access to the professionally run prison library service.

That’s why I was asking about access to the library at Channings Wood, especially in the light of the prison staff’s own concerns about staffing levels.

I shall have to write again.

Can you take some action?

See what writers and others concerned about this issue have been doing:

  • Salman Rushdie, Jacqueline Wilson, Monica Ali, Mark Haddon, Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, Maureen Freely and Joanne Harris have called for the justice select committee to consider the impact of the IEP scheme in November 2014 (details from English Pen here);
  • There was a silent protest during a House of Commons justice select committee hearing in June 2014;
  • Leading writers (Mark Haddon, AL Kennedy, Rachel Billington), protested at Downing Street, also in June 2014;
  • Publishers led by Pavilion Books organised a fundraiser event called A Night in the Cells in May 2014.
Bedford Prison. Photo by Dennis Simpson, from Wikimedia

Bedford Prison. Photo by Dennis Simpson, from Wikimedia

Campaigning has brought a small concession: prisoners will not in future be limited to 12 books per cell.

See also The Howard League for Penal Reform and English Pen for details about the campaign activities.

Follow the hashtags on twitter #BooksForPrisoners and #noreadingingaol.

 

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