Tag Archives: Shiny New Books

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

It is a very significant conjunction of women’s lives, social change and geography that are linked in this absorbing account of five women who lived in Mecklenburgh Square, not all at the same time, from the years after the First World War and into the Blitz. They were pioneers in their own literary fields and also in the way they chose to live their lives. 

I loved this book, for the details of the five lives:

  • HD (Hilda Doolittle), an imagist poet and novelist;
  • Dorothy L Sayers, one of the first Cambridge graduates and mostly known for her mystery novels;
  • Jane Harrison, a classicist and scholar in Cambridge who revolutionised idea about women in the archaeological past;
  • Eileen Power, who became a historian of the Middle Ages, specialising in the economic and female histories of that time, a professor at the LSE;
  • and Virginia Woolf, bombed out of Tavistock Square, an important novelist, essayist and publisher.

Further, the manner in which Francesca Wade brings the lives together in this one London square enriches the account. The subtitle of this book reveals something of its contents: Square Haunting: five women, freedom and London between the wars.

The women in this book were hungry for knowledge in all its forms: knowledge of history and literature, knowledge of the wider world, and self-knowledge, no less difficult to obtain. A drive to expand ‘the province of women’ into new realms characterised all these lives, manifesting in their search for education, in their travels, their friendships, their work and in the way they made their homes. Their pursuit of a fulfilling way to live has resounded through the twentieth century. (337-8)

We read of their struggles to  be treated on an equal footing with men in educational institutions, as students and teachers. We read of their passionate involvement in issues of the day, especially in securing a lasting peace after the end of the First World War. And most poignant perhaps, their attempts to find relationships with men that did not subsume their independence or their careers. All of the women, except Jane Harrison, married but often late in life, after negotiating terms that would allow them to continue their fulfilling lives. One thinks of Harriet Vane’s struggles with Lord Peter Wimsey’s regular marriage proposals in Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers.

Each of the women lived for a time in Mecklenburgh Square, with its mixed housing, including boarding houses, near to Bloomsbury. They were each seeking freedom from expectations of dependence in marriage and they enjoyed the intellectual society which allowed each of them to find a way to live. They struggled with the Victorian messages of their childhoods, and they tried to carve out more satisfying approaches in their personal lives as well as in their different literary and professional spheres.

Virginia Woolf permeates this account, setting the tone with the title which comes from her diary:

I like this London life in early summer – the street sauntering & square haunting. (20th April 1925)

She famously argued that women needed a private income and a room of their own in order to write. 

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. [A Room of One’s Own, 1928 (6)]

Mecklenburgh Square was Virginia Woolf’s last London home. It is pleasing that Francesca Wade did not define Virginia Woolf’s life by her death (suicide), but shows us how her life interacted with so many literary people of the time, and how her work as a publisher was important in promoting their writing. 

Their stories are well told, especially Virginia Woolf’s. And I was presented with some surprising information about Dorothy L Sayers’s life in the square. We learn of their contribution of all five women to the emancipation struggle, and to women’s literary achievements. An excellent book. 

Square Haunting: five women, freedom and London between the wars by Francesca Wade published in 2020 by Faber & Faber. 422pp

Related posts

An excellent review of Square Haunting by Karen Langley (of the blog Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) can be found on the Shiny New Books review site, in which she points to the research that enriches Francesca Wade’s accounts of the lives of these women by relating it to the history of the square.

I reviewed Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers last year on Bookword, asking whether it is a who dunnit, or a romantic novel, or a feminist book? 

Another look at A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf was posted on Bookword in March 2018. 

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, Virginia Woolf

Outline by Rachel Cusk

I’m in a phase of rereading books, and I’m really enjoying it. There are still lots of new and unread books I want to read, but they can wait. I first read Outline when it was published in 2014, but it was recently recommended to me by a friend who writes and it received more attention when Rachel Cusk added the second and third volumes to the trilogy: Transit and Kudos. The rereading has led me to appreciate the writerly intelligence of this novel even more.

Outline by Rachel Cusk

The novel is described as ten conversations. It is narrated by a writing tutor who flies to Athens to provide some classes for aspiring writers. Just about everyone she meets tells her a story about themselves, either because they meet her – sitting next to her on the plane, or socially for dinner, for example – or because they are students in her class. The narrator’s own story is not explicitly told, but the reader must divine her responses and her situation from what is not said. The ten conversations create her outline.

Most of the stories are presented in reported speech, with occasional direct speech. Most of the people she meets are concerned with the failure of intimacy and the difficulty of coping with change. We are given details about their physique, clothes, how they interact with waiters, the sea, other students. There appears to be little direct engagement by these people with the narrator. When one of the students complains bitterly about her lack of direction in the lessons, or when a man tries to kiss her, her emotional reactions are only relayed to us later. Everything seems to be mediated.

So the outline of the title is what surrounds Faye, but who Faye is she does not tell us. Even her name is only revealed casually towards the end of the ten chapters. We know she is a writer, has a son and needs money and she is trying to borrow more. We get a sense of great sadness and recent loss. Even to achieve that outline we must pay attention to the text, to what is and to what is not said. The novel, then asks, some important questions about what we call identity and the place of telling our story or stories in the forming of our identity for ourselves and for others.

This form is daring, experimental, challenging to the reader. There is little story here, at least in the usual sense of a narrative beginning, middle and end. Yet the attentive reader is rewarded with a view of the world that is moving and intelligent. I plan to read Transit and Kudos, the next parts of the trilogy, over the next few months.

This review by Shoshi Ish Horowicz on Shiny New Books blog in 2018 extols the novel’s writerly value.

Outline by Rachel Cusk, published in 2014 by Faber & Faber. 249pp

Shortlisted for Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction 2015.

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Writing

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Why is this book so popular? And what has it to say about older women? The judges of the Costa First Novel Award in 2014 said of Elizabeth is Missing

This outstanding debut novel grabbed us from the very first page – once you start reading you won’t be able to stop. Not only is it gripping, but it shows incredible flair and unusual skill. A very special book.

151 E missiing cover 3It’s doing really well in the best seller charts: #9 in the Guardian Bookshop list and #6 in the London Review of Books list. 17,443 copies sold to date and #3 in overall paperback fiction chart.

It’s included in the list for the Richard and Judy WH Smith Book Club and the Radio 2 Book Club.

Congratulations to Emma Healey.

(This is the 12th in the series of Older Women in Fiction reviews that I post every two months. For the full list see here.)

The Older Woman

Maud is old and becoming very forgetful, suffering from dementia. She is the narrator, which is an ambitious aspect of the novel: the ultimate unreliable narrator? At the start of the novel she lives on her own, cared for by her daughter Helen and a professional carer, Carla.

She [Carla] picks up the carers’ folder, nodding at me, keeping eye contact until I nod back. I feel like I’m at school. There was something in my head a moment ago, a story, but I’ve lost the thread of it now. Once upon a time, is that how it started? Once upon a time, in a deep, dark forest, there lived an old, old woman named Maud. I can’t think what the next bit should be. Something about waiting for her daughter to come and visit, perhaps. It’s a shame I don’t live in a nice little cottage in a dark forest, I could just fancy that. And my granddaughter might bring me food in a basket. (3-4)

The forgetfulness is evident from the first chapter when she buys yet more tinned peaches to cover her memory lapse in the local shop. Her condition worsens as the novel progresses. She moves to live with Helen. A strategy to cope with her growing confusing used by Maud is to write herself notes. However, these accumulate and she is unable to make much sense of them.

The thing is to be systematic, try to write everything down. Elizabeth is missing and I must do something to find out what’s happened. but I’m so muddled. I can’t be sure about when I last saw her or what I’ve discovered. I’ve phoned and there’s no answer. I haven’t seen her. I think. She hasn’t been here and I haven’t been there. What next? I suppose I should go to the house. Search for clues. And whatever I find I will write it down. I must put pens in my handbag now. The thing is to be systematic. I’ve written that down too. (22)

The dominant thought in Maud’s head is her friend Elizabeth. She repeatedly tells her daughter, ‘Elizabeth is missing’.

We also come to see Maud as a young girl, through her memories (more reliable) and of the tragedy in her teenage years when her sister Sukey disappeared. This second disappearance is Maud’s concern and shapes the novel’s narrative.

Maud is an interesting character, therefore: a forgetful old woman but also a lively teenager.

The Story

The title suggests that the mystery to be solved is the disappearance of Maud’s friend Elizabeth. But it becomes apparent that she is still bothered by the unanswered question of what happened to her sister. Was she murdered by Frank, her spiv husband? Or did she disappear to escape some problem? And why has half of her compact case turned up in Elizabeth’s garden after all these years?

151 E missing cover 1Maud can remember all the clues she uncovered when she searched for her missing sister. Eventually both mysteries are more or less resolved, but not before Maud has got into trouble for her inappropriate behaviour, especially towards Elizabeth’s son. It is revealed that she has been told several times that her friend Elizabeth had a stroke and is in hospital, and that she has even been to visit her.

The early part of the novel is concerned to establish Maud’s limitations. I found that it took some time to move further into the story and for the twin problems of the two missing women to emerge. In some ways this reconstructs Maud’s understanding of events, fragmentary, disconnected, illogical, always just out of sight. The first person narrative carries this well.

What we find

We get a good look at the importance of memory in managing everyday life, in learning, how change affects people, and the experience of dementia. It also reveals the generosity of Helen, and of her daughter Kate who treats Maud with respect. Some of the muddles are amusing, and reveal that dealing with Maud can be frustrating while other responses are abusive and abrupt.

Brain picture via Wikimedia. This illustration is from "The Home and School Reference Work, Volume I" by The Home and School Education Society, H. M. Dixon, President and Managing Editor. The book was published in 1917 by The Home and School Education Society. This illustration of the parts of the Brain can be found on page 368. The parts are A. Cerebrum; B. Corpus Callosum; C: Medulla Oblongata; D. Arbor-Vitae; E: Cerebellum, F: Pons Varolii

Brain picture via Wikimedia. This illustration is from “The Home and School Reference Work, Volume I” by The Home and School Education Society, H. M. Dixon, President and Managing Editor. The book was published in 1917 by The Home and School Education Society.
This illustration of the parts of the Brain can be found on page 368. The parts are A. Cerebrum; B. Corpus Callosum; C: Medulla Oblongata; D. Arbor-Vitae; E: Cerebellum, F: Pons Varolii

Despite losing her memory and becoming increasingly confused, Maud is not a figure of pity. Rather we admire her determination to get to the bottom of both mysteries and to deal with her difficulties with determination and good spirit. But it is in the way she behaves that she implicitly claims the respect that is due, and the dignity of her age.

The purpose of fiction is to take us into new worlds and Emma Healey has done this. We hope for more books from Emma Healey.

More (some links)

Annethology reviewed a number of novels related to dementia in one post: Literary Dementia.

Emma Healey on the Alzheimer’s Research UK blog

Simon Savidge on Shiny New Books.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014) published by Penguin Books. 275pp

Have you read this book? What was your view?

 

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

The Liebster Award and the craft of blogging (4) … Why do it?

Some time ago Norah Colvin nominated Bookword (among other blogs) for the Liebster Award. Many thanks Norah. But I have delayed in meeting the obligations of the Liebster Award: answering some questions and then nominating others and asking them questions in turn. It’s like a chain letter, and it promotes less well-known blogs.

88 liebster2I have decided to delay no longer, and to flunk the Liebster test. Instead of the normal nominations I am identifying a few blogs that I enjoy and inviting them to answer the question of this post: why blog?

Please visit these blogs and see what you think:

  1. Jon Stein – a writer and musician and fellow member of a writing group. Jon wrote a guest post for me on being a writer in Andalucía. He also makes interesting comments on my posts.
  2. Norah Colvin – already recipient of Liebster Award. Such a lively blog about life, education, writing with added antipodean perspective.
  3. Annethology – for a great mixture of reflection, comment, and original writing. Anne is also the recipient of the Liebster Award, also nominated by Norah. Both Norah and Anne are frequent visitors to Bookword. I feel as if I know them, like members of a reading group!
  4. Anna Lodge Consulting – this is my daughter’s blog. She encouraged me to start with social media, being experienced through her consulting business. I like her human approach to setting up her own business. I wish she would post more on her own blog! Go Anna!
  5. And finally two for all booklovers, although they are probably too big to qualify for a Liebster Award I am sure – Vulpes Libris.
  6. Shiny New Books – a new blog subtitled what to read next and why.

 

Why blog? My answer

Citizens’ publishing, that’s what blogging is. Micropublishing, that’s another phrase I have heard used. It’s so hard for writers to get anything published in the traditional way these days, so doing it yourself is an obvious response. But also because the internet makes this democratic behaviour possible. There is an associated challenge in that there are few quality controls (unlike traditional publishing), so we have to hone our discriminating faculties. So the first answer to my question, why blog? is: I can publish my writing, so I do.

But this is far from the full answer to my question, why blog? I began because I planned to pitch for a blog to promote our book* (see below). The submission required familiarity with WordPress. At that time I had rarely read a blog, and so started it to gain the necessary experience. Another part of the answer is: to learn something new.

But as I have gained experience I have learned some of the additional pleasures that keep me posting every 5 or 6 days.

Connections

25 Stone AngelI love having connections with people who share my passion for books and read the blog. The most read of all the posts on Bookword is my review of The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. I read it because I had asked for ideas read older women in fiction. Litlove, from Tales from the Reading Room suggested it. I hope I have encouraged a few other people to read it as well. I’m glad I didn’t miss that one!

 

Improved writing

A number of people, including my two writing collaborators say that my writing has improved since I began the blog. They should know. I think revising the book* with my co-author and with the guidance of editors, has helped. You can argue that in reverse, so I guess that I can conclude that writing helps writing. Or, as many people have said (according to Google searches), all writing is rewriting.

Persistence and achievement

I have recently posted for the 100th time. I began about 18 months ago, and I have kept going at a regular pace. (Guidance on blogging always says you should be consistent. I don’t know if readers respond to consistency, but I am pleased to have achieved this.)

The number of visitors has risen steadily, along with the number of subscribers and those who add comments.

I’ve got a schedule with 20 ideas pencilled in, and a file filled with further ideas. And people keep publishing books. And I keep reading them. Why stop?

So finally: I blog

  • above all because I can share my love of reading and writing, and
  • to publish my writing
  • to learn new things
  • to improve my writing
  • and because it’s an achievement.

*And the book I refer to will be published on 24th July: Retiring with Attitude, by Caroline Lodge and Eileen Carnell. Published by GuardianBooks. (See also previous blogpost.) Much more in subsequent blogs about this book and the process!

101 RWA fan

So I’ve said why I write my blog. Why do you read it? Comments please!

 

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Filed under Books, Publishing our book, The Craft of Blogging