Tag Archives: Serpent’s Tail

Passing by Nella Larsen

Published in 1929 Passing was the second and final novel by the American writer Nella Larsen. The title refers to a ‘Negro’ (her term) passing as a white person. Set in Chicago and New York among the middle classes, Passing exposes the damage done by definitions and categorisation by race. The novel provides a challenge to the concept of race altogether.

This is the third book for the Decades Project (see below for more details), being my choice of books from the decade 1920-1929 highlighted in the Virago collection called Brilliant Careers.

Passing

The novel is set in the 1920s in the USA. Irene is taking tea in a department store in Chicago. To do this she is ‘passing’ for Irene is light enough in her colouring to appear to be white. ‘Negroes’ were not accepted in the restaurant. Irene was born and brought up in this city. A childhood friend, Clare, recognises her and they sit together to talk about old times. Clare is also ‘passing’, not just in the store for convenience, but she is married to a white man (unlike Irene who is married to a doctor who could not pass). Clare is a risktaker, lively and beautiful.

She is keen to spend more time with Irene, because she misses the company of ‘negroes’. She  invites Irene to tea and there Irene meets Clare’s husband. There is a shocking scene when Bellow laughingly explains why he calls his wife ’nig’- because she is getting darker with the passing of the years. And then, when Irene enquires whether he has ever met a ‘negro’ he replies:

“Thank the Lord, no. And never expect to! But I’ve known people who’ve known them, better than they know their black selves. And I read in the papers about them. Always robbing and killing people. And,” he added darkly, “worse”. (172)

There is so much to be shocked at here. The open, bragging way in which John Bellow dismisses ‘negroes’; that Irene did not challenge him; that there is such a casual racism in his criticism; and he is standing next to his wife who has been ‘passing’ for many years.

Irene is glad to return to her home in Harlem, New York where her husband is a doctor. Irene reappears some months later, wanting to mix with the lively inhabitants of Harlem. At first resistant to her troublesome former schoolfriend, Brian warms to Clare’s charms.

Fearing an affair, Irene contemplates what can be done, when she accidentally meets Clare’s husband again while she is in the company of a ‘Negro’ friend. John Bellow begins to understand and becomes very angry. This sets off a chain of events that leads to a death from a 6th floor window. Was the victim pushed or did they jump? We are not sure.

‘Passing’ in other ways

While the story of the novel is tied to the passing of ‘negroes’ there are some other kinds of passing that Nella Larsen reveals in this novel. We should also note that Irene, from who’s point of view the novel is written, is happy to pass in order to get a decent cup of tea, in other words, when it suits her, but condemns Clare’s more radical form, by which her whole married life is constructed around passing.

The term could also be used to describe other compromises people make. Irene is concerned to preserve her marriage to Brian at all costs. She would be prepared to pass as a happy wife, keeping up the nice home and the plans for their two children even while knowing Brian was sexually unfaithful. 

And what are we to make of the white folks who like to visit Harlem and mix in with the black culture? This was the time of the Harlem Renaissance after all. 

And finally passing might also refer to death.

And the reader cannot help noticing that all these other aspects are connected to the overall idea that race was a defining social category from which other issues arise.

Race in Passing

In Passing Clare has to perform being white, not being ‘negro’. This is what categorising by race does to people; also categorising by other ‘isms’. When we were writing about our ageing population we spent some time thinking about the pressures on people to act old, perform being older members of the community. Sexuality, gender and other categories must also be performed or hidden. The first two books in the Decades Project for 2020 were about young women who refused to perform as required by their families and insisted on leading their lives in their own way. 

The damage done by the category and labelling of race is exposed in Passing. The the main characters, Irene and Clare, and their husbands are all living lives that are lies. 

Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen was born in 1891. She died in 1964. She was part of the so-called Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s – 30s. She wrote only two novels because she gave up writing when she was accused of plagiarism. She was the daughter of a black father who deserted her mother who then married a Danish émigré like herself. So Nella grew up in a white family, although she was bi-racial. 

In some ways this book is dated, but it still has relevance today. I thoroughly recommend it. My book group read this a few years ago and it provoked some very interesting discussion. I know of another book group that had the same experience.

Passing by Nella Larsen was first published in 1929. I used the edition published by Serpent’s Tail (with her first novel Quicksand) in 2014. 105pp

The Decades Project 2020

This year I have returned to adult fiction and to my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20thCentury Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. I am choosing one from each decade every month. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The first two choices for the project were

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

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Five great covers for five recommended novels

According to Charles Dickens, ‘There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.’ On the whole the best I expect is that a book’s cover does not detract from its contents. But some book covers enhance what lies inside. And a few are works of art on their own. In this post I celebrate some excellent covers together with links to my reviews of the books.

Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter

This short but lyrical novel plays with the idea that Crow, from the poems of Ted Hughes, comes to assist a family through their grief when the mother dies. Sometimes it is amusing, sometimes poignant, and everybody I know who has read it has been moved by it.

The sparseness and simplicity of the cover design exactly matches the book’s contents. The cover was designed in-house by Faber using an illustration by Eleanor Crow.

Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter, published in 2015 by Faber & Faber 114pp

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Among its many achievements, this classic novel displays Virginia Woolf’s perceptiveness. Here is an example, as Mrs Ramsay concludes the book she reads to her youngest son James.

‘And that’s the end,’ she said. And she saw in his eyes, as the interest of the story dies away in them something else take its place; something wondering, pale, like a reflection of a light, which at once made him gaze and marvel. Turning, she looked across the bay, and there, sure enough, coming regularly across the waves first two quick strokes and then one long steady stroke, was the light of the Lighthouse. It had been lit. (71-2)

The cover of the first edition was by Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. It was published by the Woolfs’ own Hogarth Press.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927) published by the Hogarth Press. Available in the Penguin Modern Classics edition (1964) 237pp

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

Not a traditional fairy tale, but The Sleeping Beauty is the story of an awakening. The central characters are not in the first flush of youth but love manages to awaken them from inner deadness. It is set in a seaside backwater and begins with a dreamy walk along the cliff. This cover was an inspired choice for an early Virago edition. By Winifred Nicholson it is called The Gate to the Isles (Blue Gate) and was painted in 1980. It is on display at the Falmouth Gallery until mid-September.

Many readers find the more recent cover designs for Elizabeth Taylor’s novels insipid in contrast to the original Virago choices such as this one.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor was published in 1953, now available in the Virago Modern Classics series.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

It was the cover that first attracted me to this novel. Its intricate, dense and convoluted patterning of natural objects reflects the storyline. It was designed by Peter Dyer, with acknowledgement to William Morris. Morris was contemporaneous with the setting of the novel. It’s a mystery and an investigation about beliefs and science all at the same time.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, published in 2016 by Serpent’s Tail. 418pp

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

I reviewed this children’s classic recently accompanied by a photo of the cover of my copy. Many people commented on it, saying they had read it in a much drabber schools editions. This cover captures the rituals of the Seal people north of Roman Britain. It was also inspired by the mysteries and dark dangers of the ancient world. It is by C Walter Hodges.

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1954 by Oxford University Press and still on their list.

Related post

Thinking about … Book Covers was a blogpost from January 2014, which includes more examples and links to archives etc.

A post from Louise Harnby’s blog The Proofreader’s Parlour: The Design Essentials: creating a stand-out book cover. Advice for authors. It draws on work for Salt Books that frequently have captivating covers.

Over to you

Do you have any covers to nominate as adding something to the book? Or is an exceptionally pleasing cover?

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reviews, Virginia Woolf

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The cover of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is outstanding. I would probably have read it because of the cover alone. But last year The Essex Serpent and its cover took Twitter by storm. And it has been the centre of attention since as it racked up the awards:

  • Waterstones Book of the Year 2016
  • Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award
  • Long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize
  • Long-listed for the Wellcome Book Prize
  • Long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize
  • British Book Awards Fiction Book and overall Book of the Year in May 2017.

And it is now out in paperback.

The Story

The story is set in London and Essex, of course, in 1893, and spans twelve months. We begin as Cora Seabourne is widowed. The marriage has been abusive, so there is relief as well as grief. In his last days he had been attended by the brilliant surgeon, Luke Garrett. Nicknamed The Imp for his unusual appearance, Luke has few social skills, few friends, but total confidence in his medical abilities and falls for Cora.

Cora also has a son of about 7. Francis is also distant, and perhaps has a compulsive obsessive disorder. His main support is Martha, Cora’s companion.

Cora inherits enough money for an independent life, and she decides to follow Mary Anning in pursuit of palaeontology, but in Essex rather than Dorset. This is the era when religious faith was challenged by Darwin’s ideas. In the Essex village of Aldwinter the vicar, William Ransome, is struggling with a population who believe that strange goings-on are God’s punishment for their failings. There is a belief in an Essex Serpent, who lives in Blackwater Estuary, in the liminal space between river and sea. There are reports of strange sightings, unexplained disappearances, sickness and dark shapes in the water …

Cora and William are attracted to each other by their lively interest in the world and explanations of how life is. Their story runs alongside the unravelling of the mysteries of the Serpent.

A gothic style?

Genre is not my strong point, but I have frequently read that The Essex Serpent is gothic and it does have a dark mystery or two and an unseen monster, and many characters, many of whom don’t fit well into Victorian society, odd balls, radicals, misfits, and a beautiful woman wracked with TB.

The mysterious, mythical and malign Essex Serpent is attractive to many of the people in the novel, being in some cases the receptacle of their fears. The characters are suitably complex, not sure what they want or believe, or able to dispense with alternative beliefs that contradict each other.

Not everything works out as one might expect. For example, marriage is not considered by Cora or Martha as the next desirable step in life. Martha has socialist ideas, and sees marriage as a form of prison. Cora is enjoying an unconventional life allowed by independence in widowhood.

And sexual love, while present, is not the main motivation of the various relationships in this novel. Rather, friendship between men, women, adults and children is the most positive force, along with a sense of community.

This novel has a great deal to do with rationalism and superstition. While they are in opposition some of the time, it is also clear that they are not exclusive, and one human can entertain both simultaneously.

What I liked about The Essex Serpent

The cover, designed by Peter Dyer, with acknowledgement to William Morris.

The rich cast of characters, some rural and some enjoying the privileges of Victorian wealth. It must have been an exciting time for medicine, geology, palaeontology and socialist ideas.

I love it that the women in this novel are not sweet and swoony.

I liked the way that life moved through these people and left them with more understanding.

And I enjoyed the setting: the landscape of coastal Essex, the estuary, the natural life, the sounds and sights that unfold throughout the year. Essex is an underrated county. Here we are in June as Cora takes a walk:

Essex has her bride’s gown on: there’s cow parsley frothing by the road and daisies on the common, and the hawthorn’s dressed in white; wheat and barley fatten in the fields, and bindweed decks the hedges. (230)

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, first published in 2016 by Serpent’s Tail. Now available in paperback. 418pp

 

Related posts

Booksnob reviewed The Essex Serpent in July 2016. She had some criticisms of the sub-plotting, but generally thought it was a marvellous read.

Helen Parry reviewing for ShinyNewBooks was similarly enthusiastic.

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