Tag Archives: Stuck in a Book blog

Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden 

It is a great time to be reading Irish writers at the moment. I’m looking forward to reading The Wren, The Wrenby Anne Enright. It is my suggestion for our reading group later this year and has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. Our group has enjoyed The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan (2022) as well as Claire Keegan’s short fiction. Deirdre Madden was not familiar to me until I read a review on Jacquiwine’s blog earlier this year. I am pleased to say that the author has written seven other novels which I expect to sample because I enjoyed this novel a great deal.

Molly Fox’s Birthday

Molly Fox’s Birthday unwinds over one day, Midsummer’s Day, in the early years of this century, possibly in 2006. There are no chapter divisions, very little dialogue, to break the momentum, only occasional gaps in the lines. It is told in the first person, but we never learn the narrator’s name. 

She is a friend of the actor Molly Fox and is staying in her flat in Dublin. She wakes in Molly’s flat, notices her belongings, remembers their shared past, meets her neighbours, brother and friends, and as the day moves on, she tries to understand how well she knows Molly and these other people and what people reveal to each other.

Our narrator is a playwright and she has planned to work on her new play during the time she is staying in Dublin. The novel explores how people perform themselves, how their interior and exterior selves match or are mismatched, and how they are seen and remembered by others. 

Molly and the narrator meet when the narrator’s first play is being performed, and both their careers take off at this point. They have been friends ever since, but the writer puzzles over how well she knows Molly, even after 20 years. For example, the day is Molly’s birthday, but the actor never celebrates it and it is only late in the novel we realise why this is. The writer has assumed wrongly it is because Molly does not want to damage her career by revealing her true age. 

They have a mutual friend, Andrew, who is a TV art pundit and has taken on a very different presentation of himself since his student days. The writer watches one of his programmes, and later he turns up himself and reveals an episode which the writer had known nothing of, although she knows about his marriage and fatherhood. She also considers how the murder of his brother in the Troubles impacted upon Andrew’s life. 

Molly’s brother Fergus calls on her during the day. She realises that he is not as Molly has presented him, and that she has never met him without Molly being present. She had understood him to be very dependent upon Molly, his mental health being severely damaged and spending time in and out of mental institutions. After talking with him her view alters.

This new Fergus was a man of wisdom and acute moral knowledge. He had had the courage and insight to inspect his own life more closely than most would dare to do, and he had compassion and forgiveness for those who had hurt him. […] It didn’t matter that his life, in social terms, was not a success. To expect someone to gain a mature perspective on their troubled life, as he had, and to also expect them to have worked out to their advantage all those other things such as property, relationships and career that we mistakenly confuse with life itself – that would have been unreasonable. What he had achieved seemed to me more precious by far. (155-6)

She spends time thinking about her own brother, who is Catholic priest, and who seems to be the person nearest her own interests in her family, despite her lack of religion. And so it goes on. The paragraph quoted above is characteristic of the writer’s musings.

The writer finds it harder and harder to settle down to work and instead she surrenders to the quest to understand her friends and their family. Towards the end of the day she decides that it won’t be a play she writes, it will be a novel – implying this novel.

Such a novel, focused on the question of how we know people, depends upon the depiction of the characters, rather than the narrative drive. Deirdre Madden manages this very well. The characters are distinct, they change, they influence each other in an authentic manner. 

§§§

Recommended by Jacquiwine in her blog in March 2024. Her praise for the novel encouraged me to read it.

Simon on his blog called Stuck in a Book also has high praise for this novel (December 2019).

It is interesting that this book appears to have rested on people’s bookshelves for some time, and yet still impresses.

Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden, published in 2008 by Faber. I used the paperback edition published in 2013. 221pp

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Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan

How refreshing after some lacklustre reading to find this novel, first published in 1937 and neglected until it was reprinted in the Recovered Books series by Boiler House Press. The novels of Gertrude Trevelyan have all but disappeared, and we have Brad Bigelow to thank for the recovery of this one. I came across Two Thousand Million Man-Power on Twitter, struck first by the cover and then by the many reviews praising this book. I am joining in the praise.

Two Thousand Million Man-Power

In this novel the narrative follows two ordinary, rather boring people from 1919 to 1936. Robert is a laboratory chemist in a cosmetics company on the edge of London. Katherine is a schoolteacher in a council school in south London. They come together at a political meeting. They claim to be communists and so avoid getting married, but eventually, after treading the streets of London together for several years, and avoiding landladies, they get married. This costs Katherine her job as there is a bar on married women teachers in council schools to help address male unemployment. 

Gertrude Trevelyan explores the effects of events in the world on ordinary people. These events are political, social and economic. Although they begin their married life in relative prosperity, Robert loses his job as the effects of the Great Crash affect his company. He has difficulty, for 18 months, in find another job. Katherine takes on teaching in a private school. They become less happy with each other and the world they live in.

This world is shown by the interpolation of lists of events spread throughout the novel. Such sections frequently refer to the new communist state of Russia, and the gradual disenchantment of the idealistic couple with communist ideology. The events are reported within a paragraph or fill a page. 

Now the World Economic Conference meets at Geneva, the Soviets take part by invitation, the Conference fails; the French Minister of the `interior speaks on the Communist Menace, Soviet headquarters are raided at Peking, British Government breaks off trade relations with Russia; ten Socialist MPs entertain members of the Russian Trade Delegation to luncheon at the House. “It’s all very well,” Robert says. ”You can’t get away from it, they’re enemies of law and order.” (88)

Such a technique, it has been claimed, originated with John Dos Passos’s trilogy U.S.A. which was published two years before Two Thousand Million Man-Power. As I understand it the earlier novel had separate sections while Gertrude Trevelyan integrates her references with the events in the wider world. I found this aspect of the novel, the integration of the lives of Robert and Katherine with the ‘real’ world of the 1920s and 1930s, both innovative and effective. 

This technique also served the big picture of this novel: it is hinted at in the rather esoteric title. Capitalism, the size of everything, the juggernaut of preparations for war, for progress, for economic growth (and decline) is represented by the idea of the machine. Towards the end of the novel, when we have reached 1936, Robert reflects on what lies before them, and how their lives had been taken over by the actual as well as the metaphorical machine. Their enthusiasm for progress has developed into an enthusiasm for consumerism.

In time Livingsby would retire and Robert might get his job, he’d be a little bit older and a bit more tired and he’d have a little less hair and he’d care a little bit less that he’d never done any of the things he’d wanted to, and they’d be able to have a bigger flat, and a newer and newer flat, and Kath would want a plane instead of a car. There’d be regular air services to New York and stratosphere races for aviators, and he’d be a bit older and pretty bald and Kath would have a transformation, and then there’d be regular stratosphere services and the record breakers would be higher up still, in rockets, and Kath would want a stratosphere cruise in the summer instead of a trip by air. (278-9)

There is a bit of a risk in taking two rather boring and unsympathetic characters to carry the novel over nearly twenty years. The narrative becomes less about what happens to Robert and Kath, more how international events profoundly affect ideals, ambitions and love. The hardest section of the novel concerns Robert’s daily search for work, with no prospects, until he is faced with the attraction of suicide in the London Docks, in sight of the City of London.

And although some of her (or Robert’s) prophesies do not manifest in the way she imagined, Gertrude Trevelyan also had some prescience about the way the machine uses the world’s resources.

Because the resources of the earth were being used up: coal, oil and finally water: water being used for power. Power being gradually drained from the earth, used up for speed and armaments and an increasing number of trivial, unnecessary purposes. Every housewife putting on an electric iron in her kitchen using up a bit of power from the earth’s centre. Like a lunatic on a tree, sawing off the branch he sits on. The world living on its capital. (266)

I loved discovering this innovative, creative and thoughtful writer. I look forward to reading more of her novels. Thanks to Brad Bigelow and Recovered Books for discovering this one.

Gertrude Trevelyan

Portrait of Gertrude Eileen Trevelyan July 1937 by Bassano Ltd. from the National Portrait Gallery Licensed under Creative Commons agreement

Born in Bath in 1903, Gertrude Trevelyan aspired to ‘a position of total obscurity’. She attended Oxford University (Lady Margaret Hall) after the First World War and claimed to enter the Newdigate Prize for undergraduate poetry as a joke in 1923. Julia, Daughter of Claudius won. She was fortunate enough to have a small private income that allowed her to live independently in a flat in London where she wrote seven novels between 1932 and her death (from injuries received in the Blitz) in 1941. Two Thousand Million Man-Power was her 5th novel. She was celebrated for her different experimental approaches in her novels, both the subject matter and her style. But she avoided the literary scene in London, took on no reviewing or teaching. This partly explains why she and her novels were so quickly forgotten.

Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan. First published in 1937 and reissued by Recovered Books in 2022. 297pp.

Related posts and articles

Neglected Books Page by Brad Bigelow (December 2018)

HeavenAli (November 2022)

JacquiWine’sJournal (February 2023)

StuckInABook (November 2022)

Guardian article: If She was a Bloke, She’d still be in Print: the lost novels of Gertrude Trevelyan by Alison Flood (December 2022)

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David Golder by Irène Némirovsky

The author, Irène Némirovsky, is frequently defined by her death in Auschwitz in 1942 at the age of 39. When she published David Golder, she was 26 and just setting out on her successful career as a writer. David Golder was the first novel to bring her success and was published in French in 1929. It was made into a film just two years later. At the time she was taken to Auschwitz she had written 14 novels. 

David Golder is my choice for the 1929 club (see below).

David Golder

This novel is very much of its time, written just before the Great Crash (1929) that changed economics and the world for ever. And the novel appeared before the Nazis had a strong hold on Germany and Europe and before they made anti-Semitism official state policy. It was a time of reckless pursuit of great wealth. There was a kind of internationalism of the wealthy as they moved from country to country in search of more lucrative deals. This even included Soviet Russia (barely a decade into its existence) and the US. The action of the novel takes place mostly in France, but the characters mention or move between many European countries and many, like the author, have migrated to live in a new country in the turbulent post-war world.

David Golder is a ruthless Jewish businessman living in France but with origins in the Russian Empire in Ukraine. He has made his money through deals in oil. The story opens when his friend and colleague of many years asks him for help and Golder refuses. Marcus commits suicide.

Unsettled by the death of his former colleague and the depressed state of his various negotiations Golder decides to take a break in Biarritz where he has a house, and where his wife, Gloria, and his daughter, Joyce, live lives of indulgence in idle luxury. On the train he falls ill with a heart attack but recovers for a while. Pushed by his daughter who is demanding a new car he visits a casino but faints and is confined to bed. Here he is forced to consider his life, especially as his wife and daughter are even more money-grabbing than he is. 

Joyce begs him for a new car when he arrives in Biarritz, but he claims not to be able to afford it. She responds:

‘It’s just that I have to have everything on earth, otherwise I’d rather die! Everything! Everything!’ she repeated with an imperious, feverish look in her eyes. (50)

Later she is prepared to marry a rich old man rather than live without money. Her mother has the same, entitled attitude. As Golder is recovering from another heart attack and preparing to travel again for business, she approaches him:

‘Make some arrangements [for me]. To start with, put this house in my name. If you were a good husband, you would have made sure I had a proper fortune of my own long ago! I have nothing at all.’ (94)

Golder is contrasted later to his only friend, Soifer, with whom he plays cards while recuperating in Paris. Soifer is so mean (‘a meanness bordering on madness’) that he walks on tiptoe to save shoe leather, takes public transport rather than spend money on taxis, and refuses to buy dentures. But when he dies, he leaves ‘a fortune of some thirty million francs, thus fulfilling till the end the incomprehensible destiny of every good Jew on this earth.’ (117)

The pursuit of wealth is without merit, Irène Némirovsky is suggesting. It poisons relationships, it brings little joy, it distorts ambition, and imprisons the fortune hunter. Golder, his wife Gloria and his daughter Joyce, and his friend Soifer, are reprehensible human beings. 

On the boat to Constantinople David Golder meets a young man, from his own village, who is setting out on the same path that Golder followed years before. He warns the young man of a grim future.

‘You know you’re going to starve to death, don’t you?’ he said sharply.
‘Oh, I’m used to that …’
‘Yes … But over there, it’s harder …’
‘What’s the difference? It won’t be for long …’
Golder suddenly burst out laughing, a laugh as dry and sharp as a whip.
‘So that’s what you think, do you? Well, you’re a fool! It lasts for years, years … And after that, to tell the truth, it’s hardly any better …’
‘After that …’ the boy whispered passionately, ‘after that you get rich …’
‘After that,’ replied Golder, ‘you die, alone, like a dog, the same way you lived …’ (152)

Despite Golder’s warning, we know that the young man will follow the same path, and indeed he takes Golder’s wallet and abandons him.

Irène Némirovsky

Irène Némirovsky

Irène Némirovsky  was born in Kyiv in 1903, then part of the Russian empire. The Némirovsky family fled to Helsinki when the Revolution of 1917 saw the end of the empire. After a year they settled in Paris, where her father rebuilt his business as a banker. Despite her origins, Irène Némirovsky wrote in French and believed herself and her family safe in France from anti-Semitic feeling. 

Some readers have suggested that Irène Némirovsky hated Jews and have suggested that the character of David Golder, and of Soifer, are evidence of this. While Soifer is something of a caricature, it is a caricature of meanness, not of Jewishness. And Golder represents the ruthless, amoral pursuit of wealth through speculation that brought Western economies to their knees in the Great Crash the same year in which this book was published. 

In my view David Golder is a novel that explores the corruption of personal standards, of moral values, of human relationships that the pursuit of wealth brings with it. No-one in this novel is happy. Only the young man has hope of a better future, and he has been warned that this is a chimera. In my view Irène Némirovsky was writing about a world with which she was familiar, not expressing anti-Semitic sentiments.

The 1929 Club

The 1929 Club, organised by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings bloggers post their responses to books published in 1929 on their blogs and these are listed on the organisers’ pages.

Stuck in a Book reviewed this novel in March 2010, and you can find the review by clicking on this link.

Heavenali also reviewed David Golder, in August 2016, and admired it. Her review is here.

David Golder, first edition cover

David Golder by Irène Némirovsky, first published in French in 1929. English translation by Sandra Smith published by Vintage in 2007. 159pp

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Keeping up Appearances by Rose Macaulay

I have observed before on Bookword Blog that Rose Macaulay is a witty, playful and amusing writer. Keeping up Appearances has all these attributes, and brings to mind her collection of short pieces, Personal Pleasures (1935), for she takes a swipe at several cherished perceptions of her times, and of ours: sexism, the press, concern with presentation, identity, class and so on.

The novel was published in 1928 and republished in the British Library Women Writers series. The new version comes with a Preface by Alison Bailey and an Afterword by Simon Thomas, the series consultant.

Keeping up Appearances

Keeping up Appearances is a difficult novel to review for there is an important plot reveal about halfway through, and although I am not one to worry about spoilers, I have no wish to impair the enjoyment of readers. The revelation itself is designed to get the reader to question any assumptions they have made about the characters up to that point. 

I found it quite a difficult book to read because its structure was so uneven. It begins by featuring two women: Daisy and Daphne, and contrasting the way they appear to the world. When the story starts the two young women are staying on a Mediterranean island with the Folyots, a well-off family with three offspring. Daisy and Daphne leave the island suddenly when Daisy is unable to face a charging wild boar and is ashamed of herself. We follow these characters over the next few months as they meet again in London.

Rose Macaulay assembled an interesting cast of characters to make her points.

Daisy is illegitimate, which in 1928 was a social aberration. She had been brought up by her father’s sister and was well educated. She earns her living as a hack writer for a newspaper, producing silly pieces under her pen name Marjorie Wynne about

… those absorbing problems that beset editorial minds concerning the female sex and young persons.

The Morning Wire encourages her to write on such topics as The Best Age for a Woman, Can Women have Genius? Do Men Like a Girl to Fix her Face on the Street? After Love’s Rapture – What? She publishes a successful popular novel called Summer’s Over.

Daphne is younger than her half-sister and from a better class. She is a steadier person than Daisy, who would like to be more like her. For example, Daphne saves the youngest Folyot child from drowning.

The Folyots: Mrs Folyot rescues refugees from right wing regimes in Europe (we are in the late 1920s so there is a real issue here) and campaigns on their behalf.

What she held should be done with life was to help revolutions. (9) 

She is always organising craft sales to raise funds or writing letters the newspapers or calling meetings. Although her cause is worthy, Mrs Folyot is busy achieving nothing.

Her husband is happy to support his wife as she goes about her philanthropic activities, but more concerned with his own interest in sculpture. Their son, Raymond is interested in animal life, but not politics or sculpture.

The daughter Cary is one of the most interesting characters, for she is intelligent and perceptive, and sees through Daisy. She is very much her own person, reads, asks penetrating questions and actually listens to what the adults say.

Daisy’s mother and family live in East Sheen, although she tries to pass them off to the Folyots as inhabitants of Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Her mother is warm and generous, her stepfather has straight forward intelligence, her brother is a crime reporter for another newspaper and her sisters are growing up and have much less ambition and more sense than Daisy.

The interactions between these characters, and the plot twists as Daisy confuses everyone are the occasion for the author to make some very pointed comments about England in the late 1920s. The titles for Daisy/Marjorie Wynne’s articles are an example of this: the sexism in the press. Most of Daisy’s contortions come from her acute awareness of class divisions between her mother’s family and the Folyots. 

There are several amusing and silly plot twists. The lumping together of people by class, sex, age, or anything else is strongly criticised, and Rose Macaulay was making the case for people to be what they wanted to be, not defined by their characteristics. The title challenges the idea that an individual’s life work is to maintain the appearance they wish to project. Here is Daisy contemplating Mr Folyot’s concern that he was not the first speaker at a dinner.

She would not have guessed that Mr. Folyot, as delightful, self-controlled, and humorous, so gifted a scholar, so gentle and kind a man, had these feelings, ambitions and resentments about the order of speaking at dinners. What else had he that she had never divined? Had everyone, then, some different self, that only a few people, that sometimes only they themselves, knew? How know anyone? (131)

This is the lesson that Daisy and the reader must learn.

Rose Macaulay

Rose Macaulay

Born in 1881, Rose Macaulay wrote 23 novels before her death in 1958. She was a well-regarded novelist, perhaps most famous for her final novel The Towers of Trebizond (1958). She also wrote poetry, short fiction and many nonfiction works, including biographies and travelogues. Keeping up Appearances was her 16th novel. She was a woman of strong opinions and an unconventional personal life.

Keeping up Appearances by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1928 and reissued in the British Library Women Writers series in 2022. 261pp

Related Posts

Potterism by Rose Macaulay (August 2020)

Non-Combatants and Others: writings against war by Rose Macaulay (September 2020)

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay (October 2020)

Some books to help you through the night, including Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life by Rose Macaulay (January 2022)

Heavenali’s review refers to Keeping up Appearances as clever and entertaining and notes that it is still relevant today. (April 2021)

Stuck in a Book blog also reviewed it favourably in February 2010. Simon, the blogger, is the consultant for British Library Women Writers

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School for Love by Olivia Manning

This short novel has been on the Older Women in Fiction list for some time, years. On holiday in Sussex recently I spotted a copy in a second-hand bookshop, supporting the Roman Archaeology at Fishbourne. And, because I associate Olivia Manning with the rather fearful idea of double trilogies, I was surprised and pleased at how accessible it was. It cost me all of £2.

This is the 59th novel in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the link at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed on Bookword Blog.

School for Love

At one level School for Love is a coming-of-age novel, as the central character is a 14- or 15-year-old boy. We are never told his exact age. His family was living in Iraq, but his father was killed in fighting there in the war, and soon after his mother died of dysentery. Felix has to travel from Baghdad to Jerusalem in the early days of 1945, where it has been arranged for him to stay with Miss Bohun until he can get a passage from Palestine (as it then was) to England. Miss Bohun is loosely related to his father by adoption.

The pension where he is accommodated has a very varied set of people living there. This reflects the movement of people through the Middle East during the war years. Frau Leszno and her handsome son Nikky are from Poland. They had been running the pension but got into financial difficulties. Miss Bohun arranged for them to stay on as servants, while she took over. There is old Mr Jewel in the attic, and later Mrs Ellis, a pregnant young widow, who take rooms. One room in the house is always kept empty, but ready.

Very much on his own in this adult household, Felix grieves for his mother and learns to think about a life without her. He observes the behaviour of the adults and is inclined at first to credit them with good motives. Gradually he learns that they mostly have mixed motives. He develops a kind of puppy love for Mrs Ellis, which at first she indulges, but then tires of. And he learns about how sex is viewed. And he learns to love the Siamese cat, Faro, who seems to be the only creature who pays any attention to him in all the world. 

It is thanks to the scheming and comings and goings at Miss Bohun’s house that Felix gradually learns something that is encapsulated in the title of the novel: School for Love. Mrs Ellis quotes Blake to him:

And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love … (166)

Felix asks her what the lines mean.

‘I suppose it means that life is a sort of school for love.’ (166)

Another major theme of the novel is that of the time and place: Jerusalem at the end of the Second World War. The hostilities end in Europe in the summer months that Felix spends in the city. People are on the move. And the young Palestinians are waiting to regain their country from the British Protectorate. Israel does not yet exist. The novel captures the sense of a year of change, and a year after which things will become very different in Jerusalem. There is a quiet theme of the destructiveness of British colonial power, and the uncaring behaviour of the administrators. 

Miss Bohun

My interest was in the characterisation of Miss Bohun. She is almost a comedy villain, but not quite. For she does hurt people. As we see her through the eyes of Felix, we are at first inclined to treat her as slightly eccentric, but basically kind, as she has provided a home for him when no one else would. But a conversation about the rent and her treatment of Frau Leszno are early warnings for the reader. 

When Felix first meets her he is struck by how tiny this woman is. He has arrived just after a snowfall and expresses his pleasure at the snow.

‘You wouldn’t think so if you had to do the housework.’ Miss Bohun moved ahead with irritable quickness so Felix could not keep up with her. She paused on the stairs. Her face – featureless, like a long egg, in the gloom: her hair the same colour as her skin – was turned towards him but Felix was sure she was not looking at him.
‘I’m so busy,’ she said. (10)

And she leaves him abruptly. 

It emerges that Miss Bohun has many schemes for apparently doing kindnesses to people, but then exploiting them and kicking them out. She appears to be something of a miser, but generous when there is an advantage to her. 

She teaches English to adults, while getting them to do jobs for her, like harvesting the mulberries. These scenes are among the most comedic in the book.

Among her most arcane occupations are the ‘Ever-Readies’. This is something of a cult that flourished in the Middle East, a cult that expected the second coming any day. It is for this purpose that Miss Bohun keeps her empty room. She holds some kind of office and is often just off to preach to the group she calls ‘my Ever-Readies.’

Gradually the reader, and then Felix, come to see that Miss Bohun is not a nice character. But as Felix gets ready to leave, she is prepared to let him take the cat and she is about to take in Mr Jewel again. Felix has managed to track down the old man’s inheritance, but Miss Bohun is taking the credit for this. Miss Bohun’s behaviour towards the very young Mrs Ellis, pregnant and alone, is quite terrible. 

One explanation for Miss Bohun’s monstrous character is provided by Mr Jewel: no-one has ever loved her.

Olivia Manning

Born in 1908, Olivia Manning spent her childhood in Portsmouth and Ireland. In 1939 she was introduced to her husband, and they married and immediately left for Romania where he worked in the British Council. She spent the war years moving from Romania to Greece, on to Egypt and finally to Jerusalem where she spent three years. Their itinerant life was determined by the advances of the German and the Axis armies in the area. She fictionalised her experiences in the six volumes that make up The Fortunes of War.

She and her husband returned to London after the war where she continued to be a very prolific writer. She was always rather a diffident person and envied the recognition given to other writers. She died in 1980.

School for Love by Olivia Manning, first published in 1951. I used the Penguin edition from 1982. 192pp

A new edition was published by NYRB in 2009 which has a very lovely and fitting cover.

Related posts

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

JacquiWine’s blog review can be read here. She describes Miss Bohun as ‘a manipulative monster’.

HeavenAli’s review refers to Miss Bohun’s behaviour as ‘monstrous’. You can find that review here.

Stuck In a Book blog also reviews this novel, here.

These three bloggers were contributing to the 1951 Club, featuring books published that year.

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Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

This novel was Iris Murdoch’s first and I chose it as my contribution to the 1954 Club (see below). I was at first reluctant because I am more than a little intimidated by Iris Murdoch. I think it’s the words ‘moral philosopher’ that are often coupled with her name. I don’t know what that is. And when I began reading about this novel, Under the Net, I came across the name of Wittgenstein, and something about his lectures in Oxford. 

All the same, I enjoyed many aspects of this novel, although I am not sure that I will read more of her fiction any time soon.

Under the Net

I believe that it Under the Net is a picaresque novel. The hero, Jake, and his friends certainly dash about London and meet with some very surprising adventures, coincidences and strange characters. Jake tells his own story, and thus provides us with insights into his attitude to life.

We first meet the Jake on his return to London from Paris (he works as a translator) when he finds that he and his side-kick Finn have been kicked out of the flat they were living in – rent free. It belonged to Jake’s girlfriend Marge.  Jake is a writer, not very energetic, and not very successful. Being without accommodation precipitates a series of crazy adventures: Sammy wants to move into Marge’s flat, but it appears that he steals a manuscript from Jake, and is involved in a plot with the sister another of Jake’s ex-girlfriends, Anna, to make a film. Sadie is a well-known film star. The plot becomes crazier as Jake and his friends kidnap a performing dog, Mr Mars, to hold hostage against the return of his manuscript. Jake’s old friend Hugo, with whom Jake fell out some years before and who is extremely rich and big in the film business, gets involved too, as does Lefty …

The scenes include a shop near Charlotte Street, run by Mrs Tinckham, overrun with cats, but a place where Jake can leave his luggage while he chasers Anna, and searches for somewhere to live. Mrs Tinck acts as a poste restante which is useful at a time when there were no mobile phones. Mrs Tinck doesn’t appear to sell anything.

The props room at the mime theatre provides some strong visual images (see the cover of the Penguin edition). The scene where Mr Mars is kidnapped is quite hilarious as they are forced to take the cage as well as the dog, put it in a taxi and then release the dog. Mr Mars becomes a faithful companion to Jake, but not suitable for ransom demands. There’s a riot caused by the police breaking up one of Lefty’s meetings on the set of a film. There is a midnight swim in the Thames when the friends have failed to find Hugo, despite following the note on his door which says, ‘Down the Pub’. Jake takes a job as a hotel porter, and when an injured Hugo comes onto his ward, he hatches a plot to spring him, which involves a great deal of complication. 

Jake is also averse to chance, contingencies, but constantly falls over them. 

There are some parts in London which are necessary and others which are contingent. Everywhere west of Earls Court is contingent, except for a few places along the river. I hate contingency. I want everything in my life to have a sufficient reason. (26)

Everything that happens to Jake is contingent, always seeking someone, rarely finding them and never where he expects them to be. He chases Hugo without success but comes across him unexpectedly at the studio and in the hospital. Perhaps Iris Murdoch is reminding us that whatever theory we use to understand the world, we are at the mercy of whatever life sends our way. 

As he rushes about, we see that not everything is as it appears: the aftermath of the riot on the film set of the Roman city is a good example.

All was changed. The whole of Rome was now horizontal and out of its ruins an immense cloud of dust was rising, thick as a fog in the glare of the lamps. In the arena, like a formal picture of the battle of Waterloo, stood a mass of black figures, some mounted on horses, others standing on top of cars, and others on foot marshalling into neat groups. A voice was saying something blurred through a loudspeaker. The foreground looked more like the moment after the battle. The ground was strewn with legless torsos and halves of men and others cut off at the shoulders, all of whom, however, were lustily engaged in restoring themselves to wholeness by dragging the hidden parts of their anatomy out from under the flat wedges of scenery, which lay now like a big pack of cards, some still showing bricks and marble, while others revealed upon their prostrate backs the names of commercial firms and instructions to the scene shifter. (169)

Even the final explanation for all these misadventures is misunderstood by Jake, who manages to mistake the reference to ‘she’ for a whole page, before he (and us) backtrack and understand that Jake has misread everything. 

I enjoyed the escapades across London, the Holborn Viaduct and the pub crawl, the river at Hammersmith, the Goldhawk Road area. He even chases the elusive Anna in Paris. It’s what Michael Wood called ‘a very sprightly read’ in his LRB article.

Iris Murdoch

Born in 1919 Iris Murdoch pursued a career in philosophy, teaching at St Anne’s College, Oxford from 1948 – 1963. Under the Net was the first of the 26 novels published by Iris Murdoch between 1954 and 1995. She died in 1999.

I have always been a little reluctant to engage with the philosophy in Iris Murdoch’s fiction. This is quite light, but the title refers to notion from Wittgenstein about how we know and describe the world. Apparently, he referred to as net and she challenges this by saying look under the net where real life happens.

Another from my mother’s books from the World Book Club.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch published in 1954. I used the edition from the World Book Club 286pp. A recent edition has been published by Vintage.

Related posts

Don’t Worry about the Pronouns by Michael Wood on London Review of Books website in January 2019.

JacquiWine’s Journal review of Under the Net from November 2019.

The 1954 Club, organised by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings Bloggers post their responses to books published in 1954 on their blogs and these are listed on the organisers’ pages.

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Reports of the Death of Book Blogs …

Reports of the Death of Book Blogs are a little premature, perhaps even exaggerated. The question being asked on this post is: is book blogging dying? Right, posing the question on a book blog provides the answer– the book blog is not dead. This book blog is not dead. This, after all, is my 721st post since I began Bookword in December 2012. 

I pose the question because three times in the last week I have come across reports of the demise of the book blog. I have never come across this suggestion before, but I can spot a trend. Three suggestions in one week – perhaps book blogging is on its way out.

Checking the possibility

So, I looked online. Actually, there was no evidence for the death at all, although it is claimed that other social media activities (TickTock or podcasting, for example) are pushing out blogging. There is no evidence for the claim which is perhaps based on individual experience and taste.

It’s a little like the promise of the paperless office. Remember that? In my experience workplaces use paper andon-line file management. In the workplace where I volunteer the IT is so unreliable that we have to manage with both paper and online files, and in every office there are piles of paper and people staring at computer screens. I suspect that there are an increasing number of podcasts about books now, but they exist alongside book blogs.

I asked Google (a typed question not a spoken query) if book blogging was dead. Google replied promptly by presenting me with a list of the top 100 book blogs based in the US, and several rather older and similar lists. I added UK to my question and came across another list of 100 top book blogs. If there are 200 top blogs in the US and the UK then book blogging is clearly not dead. 

The criteria for being top (or the best) are not provided. Nor was information about who compiled the list. My inner researcher (yes, I used to work in a university) was despairing of these lapses, but my basic question is answered. Book blogging is not dead.

Indeed, I couldn’t find any evidence that it is even ailing. Perhaps it arises from an assumption that if podcasts are increasingly popular, blogging will be less popular. People used to say that Kindle and other digital readers would spell the end of ‘real’ books. Again, both seem to thrive. It’s a question of plurality, of variousness not of a zero sum.

Book Blogs Live

I went back to the list of 100 top book blogs and noted some blogs that I am familiar with. And I noticed that among the ‘toppest’ were many corporate sites: publishers, periodicals, professional bloggers. I don’t think these existed in such great numbers when I started Bookword, but since their purpose is, among other things, to sell books I conclude that they see a value in blogging.

The more individual blogs, the ones where people just like to write about books they are reading, these blogs also appeared in the list. I enjoy these more. We often leave comments on each other’s blogs. We promote each other’s sites on Twitter. 

The list also included information on how often the blogger posts. The frequency ranged from 10 a week through to once a quarter (ie four times a year, or once every three months). These were the extremes, most seemed to post around once a week. (Here on Bookword it’s every 5 days, but I think I am going to slow down slightly to join the once a weekers.)

Flexibility

One of the great things about blogging is its flexibility: form, content, style, frequency, birth and death. There are no rules.

I began my blog to connect with other readers who like writing and talking about books. I keep going because I still want to do that. That’s why I read other blogs. Even if DoveGreyReader has disappeared, there are still many great bloggers out there. Here are some of the blogs that I keep visiting:

Book Bloggers: keep on blogging!

Related posts

Book Blogging Is Dead, But That’s Okay on FrappesandFiction. The blogger explains why she likes blogging about books (March 2022)

Being a Nice Book Blogger – a post looking at the claim that book blogging was harming literature (March 2017).

The death of real books/the end of e-books – a post looking at the sales of ebooks and real books, both holding up at that time (August 2017)

It was Mark Twain, btw, who said, ‘the report of my death was an exaggeration’. He is often misquoted.

Picture credit for Blog Cortega9 on WikiCommons.

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Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

Rereading this novel from 1976, I was reminded of how important books were in the women’s movement of the time – now rebranded as Second Wave Feminism. I found that the future world created by Marge Piercy was impressive and influential. It was the possibility of this or other futures that I remembered from my first reading, so much so that I had forgotten Consuela’s struggles with the mental health system of New York that carried the plot. I remembered Consuela visiting the brave new world, and her surprise at what she found and was shown. It was an effective vehicle for describing a different way of life. 

Now I have reread the novel, 45 years after its first publication, I can see that Marge Piercy was also suggesting that the way in which women were being treated in 1976 was laying the foundation for the dystopian futures that Consuela also visits. In those futures, sexual subservience, enforced by controlling women’s minds, was enabled by the experiments in which Connie was unwittingly and unwillingly enrolled. 

 

Woman on the Edge of Time

Consuela is a Mexican-American living in New York in the ‘70s. She is assaulted by her niece’s pimp and ends up in an asylum, where she had been incarcerated after a previous breakdown. This time she has just been tidied away, except that she might be useful in an experiment that one of the doctors is undertaking. Desperate to escape, when Consuela is contacted by Luciente she willingly goes with her into the future, returning now and again. At first, we do not realise that Luciente’s community called Mattapoisett hopes that Connie can stop the programme that she is about to be put on. From time to time she passes over to visit Luciente and her friends and learns more about the feminist-socialist community being developed.

Connie is identified as suitable for a new treatment for violent patients: implanting neurotransmitters to control behaviour. She is unable to resist becoming part of this programme, despite an escape attempt.

On two occasions Connie travels to the future but fails to arrive at the Mattapoisett of her friends, instead joining them in a war they are losing against robotic weaponry and on the second occasion finding a woman who has been physically enhanced and is controlled by sophisticated neurotransmitters to be a sex save, confined in a managed and artificial environment. 

Eventually Connie is due for her final fitting at the New York Neuro-Psychiatric Institute. Her ability to control her behaviour is about to be removed, and if she cannot prevent it, the community of Mattapoisett will not be able to establish itself. Their destinies have become entwined.

Reading Woman on the Edge of Time for the first time

It is one of the greatest gifts of good fiction, that the reader can be shown a different world, a different way that things can be. Marge Piercy has said that she wanted to show readers that there were choices about the future, that it did not roll out with inevitability. Science Fiction is especially good at this.

For me it was the idea that people did not need to live in a world where everything was defined by gender: two examples: the language can be changed (per/person instead of she or he is used in this book); Connie is not initially aware that Luciente is a woman because she doesn’t dress or move like one. More significantly, with the use of artificial pregnancy and birth, gender-based roles in society have been removed and in Marge Piercy’s imagined community persons are free to follow what they are good at. Furthermore, the community is organised for the benefit of all. It is not only feminist and socialist but also ecologically organised to care for a much-damaged earth. 

This vision of different possible futures was what I took away from this book on my first reading. It was powerful. It was not inevitable that we would march into such a destructive future. But we perhaps we have all the same. 

The future from the past

Some of her ideas have turned out to be well-founded. For example, everyone wears a ‘kenner’ on their wrists, familiar to Star Trek fans as ‘communicators’ and to Ursula le Guin readers as ‘ansibles’. We call them cell phones or mobile phones. And from time to time in Mattapoisett many people meet on one screen in a prediction that looks a lot like zooming.

Sadly, the treatment of women from ethnic minorities remains a subject of concern four decades on. There is much in the novel about how women, especially Mexican or Latino and also Puerto Rican women were treated in the ‘70s, and how women who wanted to take some control over their lives were often defeated by the men in their communities, using violence, incarceration and drugs. 

I have been asking myself how I initially came across this book. I think it must have been a combination of things: I was very fond of Marge Piercy’s poetry in the early ‘70s and would have been attracted to her fiction. Perhaps I was offered the book by the Feminist Press Book Club. My first edition was certainly published by them, now with its glue failing, and the pages all brown. Perhaps it was reviewed in Spare Rib, or I heard about it by word of mouth, or from my consciousness raising group.

Whatever, I was pleased to reread it for the 1976 Club, organised again by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, first published in 1976 and recently by Penguin in 2019. My first copy was published by the Feminist Press in UK in 1979. 417 pp

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At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

Written more than 50 years ago, this novel addresses the loss of dignity and agency that came with advancing age at that time. Is it the same today? Are our older citizens treated with the same slight attention and dismissive attitudes? Mrs Gadny is our unwitting guide, admitted to the Jerusalem, a care home for women. She is unhappy and has begun to lose touch with the present time. She develops dementia while the other inmates look on.

This is the 50th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women more visible. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books and reviews on my list here.

At the Jerusalem

Mrs Gadny is delivered to the Jerusalem by her step-son and his wife. This couple took her into their home, for seven weeks, after both her husband and her daughter had died. Those seven weeks were not successful as no one in the family had familiarity with or affection for Mrs Gadny. Sometimes grandchildren are seen as closer to the elderly, but these children are no more able to make the necessary adjustments than the adults. Thelma is monstrously selfish  and greedy and feels no obligation towards her husband’s step-mother, especially when it requires some sacrifices from her. What is the obligation of each generation to their parents? Today we are no nearer to a good answer to this dilemma. The section about the weeks that Mrs Gadny spends in her step-son’s home appears after we learn about her arrival and early unease at the Jerusalem. We can see that she is not comfortable here, but this section dissuades us from imagining that she was better off before. 

Mrs Gadny had been in service, and she knows how things should be done and what are the correct terms used by people of class. She is a bit of a snob, for example she hates Thelma’s use of the word ‘lounge’ for sitting room. And she knows what is good taste in a room’s décor – it is not floral wallpaper. Although many of the other residents of the Jerusalem have also been in service, Mrs Gadny finds them coarse or intrusive. She is also much more reserved than they are.

At Matron’s request Mrs Capes, who lets everyone know that she is above her fellow residents, tries to befriend the new arrival. Matron explains this arrangement to Mrs Gadny. 

‘Mrs Capes is what you’d call a “character”. She’s energetic, has a lively mind. You’ll take to her. She will amuse you, I can promise. […] I shall ask her to guide you round the Home: show you all the nooks, all the crannies. And she can introduce you to the other residents, describe their little ways.’ (8)

But in carrying out this task Mrs Capes manages to show her the worst aspects of the Home, even including the place where a former patient hanged herself with a lavatory chain. She also provides critical gossip about the other residents and recommends a spiritualist’s consultations. Mrs Gadny does not warm to her company and continues to feel isolated and unwanted. 

Eventually, despite the affectionate care of one of the nurses, she breaks down and has to be put in a room on her own and finally sent to an institution where they can care for an old woman with dementia. 

The older women

While Mrs Gadny lives both in the past and the present, for example she hears her daughter’s cough from time to time, and writes to a former neighbour who died some years before. Her fellow patients are also living reduced lives. They are an unlikeable lot: rather coarse, prone to airs, gossip and criticism. One constantly mislays her teeth, another says what everyone is thinking, another has raucous uncontrolled fits of laughter and so on. All of this behaviour is on show at the annual trip to Southend.

The staff, while kind, are unable to resist infantilising the residents. They call them patients. Even the food is like nursery food: jelly, junket, semolina. However, it is difficult to avoid seeing humour in the situations at the Jerusalem but it is not at the expense of the characters or at least it does not belittle them. For example, there is a 90th birthday party: it takes place in the dormitory where all nine women sleep and two of them remain all day. One of those has the birthday, and the celebration takes place round her bed. She has to be repeatedly nudged awake. The other bed-bound woman is fed birthday jelly from time to time.

Much of the narrative as well as the effect of this novel is conveyed through the direct speech which dominates the text. This is often very brief, and much of what is important is revealed by what is not said. In his introduction Colm Toibin praises Bailey’s ability to convey so much through speech. Here’s an example of the style:

A rumour had reached Mrs Gross’s ears. Had it reached Edie’s? Concerning a coloured nurse?
‘No.’
‘Nurse Percival told Maggy we might be getting one. She came to see Matron last evening.’
‘The nurse?’
‘What?’
‘He invented steam.’
‘Who did?’
‘Watt did.’
‘You’ve confused me.’
‘She come to see Matron, this nurse.’
‘Yes. What I gathered from Maggy is that she’s brown rather than coloured.’
‘Brown’s coloured, Nell.’
‘Not in my book. When I refer to someone being coloured, I mean black. Brown’s lighter than black.’
‘God help us!’
‘Take Daisy, that cleaner. The one who wears the trilby, she’s black. Maggy says this nurse isn’t a bit like her – no marks on her face. What I’m trying to tell you is Matron’s going to ask each of us in turn whether we approve. Of her looking after us.’
‘Oh.’
‘I don’t mind, do you?’ (164)

What care should be provided for older people? And how can care of people with dementia allow them dignity? As I suggested earlier, these questions are still with us today.

A note: In his introduction to Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971) Paul Bailey noted that she had drawn on his habit of writing in Harrod’s banking hall to create the character of Ludo. Ludo was writing a book about elderly people called They Weren’t Allowed to Die There. She told him this after the publication of her book.

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey was originally published in 1967. It has been republished in 2020 by Head of Zeus with an introduction by Colm Toibin. 219pp

Simon had recently compared this book with Mrs Palfrey. He preferred the Elizabeth Taylor. Here is a review from Stuck in a Book from May 2017

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

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Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith

I’ve been reading novels, memoirs and other texts from the Second World War recently. It was a time when social norms were upended, and people were called upon to take up activities that they would not have dreamed of a few years before. And they hoped would never be required to again. Such upheaval is fertile background for novels and other writings. 

I published a post called Novels from the Home Front in WW2 in November. You can find some interesting fictional choices there. I particularly enjoyed Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It was Different at the Time by Inez Holden (1941/5), republished by Handheld Press 2019. The second half of this book is extracts from her wartime diaries. I am working on a short story set during the war so it was also research for me.

Originally published in 1948, Maidens’ Trip has the subtitle A wartime adventure on the Grand Union Canal. I read several reviews of Maidens’ Trip and I thought I would be interested to read about more wartime experiences. It finally got to the top of my tbr pile. I was looking forward to more wartime research.

Maidens’ Trip 

The account of the ‘wartime adventure’ is partly fictional but based on Emma Smith’s years as a boater. She describes it as ‘part fact, and part fiction’.

When, fairly soon after leaving the ‘cut’, I began to write the book, it seemed to me that the best method of describing the couple of years I had spent working narrow-boats on the Grand Union Canal towards the end of the Second World War would be to condense them into a single trip. For this imaginary portmanteau trip I invented as my two companions Nanette and Charity. I also, for the sake of balance and objectivity, exercised the novelist’s right by largely inventing the third member of the trio, named as myself, (sixty years on I deny ever having been so bossy). (vii Preface)

She assures the reader that everything that happened in the book took place. She reinforces this authenticity by frequently referring to ‘we’ but always referring to herself as Emma.

In 1943 three young women (18 years old) become crew of a motor longboat and its butty on the canals, plying their cargo of steel from London to Birmingham and returning via Coventry with coal. 

While the work was hard and at the beginning unfamiliar, it also provided freedom for these young women. And their enjoyment of their outdoor adventure is a recurring theme. We read no references to ‘home’. Their companions become the boating families and as they adopted the boaters’ life they developed friendships and affection for some of the families.

The work was dirty, hard and wet and twice one of their crew was nearly killed. It’s hard to imagine now but their conditions were pretty awful, sleeping in wet beds, always dirty and oily, and outsiders in the world of the boaters and the working men in the docks and locks. But with a heartiness and good grace they put up with terrible working and living conditions. Today we might assume that they felt obliged to do their bit for the war effort. But this was not their chief motivation according to Maidens’ Trip.

The war hardly intrudes, in fact. There is the mention of the blackout and occasional news shouted down to them by lock keepers. By and large they were not there  ‘because of the war’ although their cargoes of steel and coal were no doubt important. 

Recommended

I enjoyed the book for its references to some canals I used to know: Braunston and its tunnel, the Coventry and Birmingham canals and the London Docks. More than the familiarity of those canals I was attracted by the qualities of the young women who volunteered for this work. I think one appropriate word of the time is pluck.

It’s well-written too, despite the author’s claim to have written it very quickly. The decision to create one journey out of her experiences pays off. The rhythm of the journey, the flurry of working the  locks followed by the calmer more deserted stretches of canal, the tying up at night, the early starts with tea from water boiled on the primus, the days move by.

Immediately outside Leamington we passed by acres of allotments, the neat parcelling out of bean-sticks and cabbages on that flat unhedged and seeming, more especially in the failing light, a very attar of depression. One or two blurred figures, grey moth-like creatures surely with every spark of passion ground out of them, bent over spades or shambled down the nondescript paths. Yet behind them flared the giant sky, a citron yellow, massed with magnificent clouds which crowded together round the going sun, snatching up its dying heart to deck their black and purple edges. We passed them, these humble ghosts, like life rejecting death, and turned the bows of the Venus and Ariadne directly into the sunset, strong but tired, tired but still triumphant, and with several more miles to go and two more locks. (103)

The Silvers arrived. … The three old ladies all wore black hats of felt or crumpled straw, the sort of hats that grow on a head as naturally as an eyebrow above an eye. All three wore black button boots going high up round their ankles, and two of them had long black skirts with a motley of pinafores and jersies above. But the third, the one in the straw hat, wore a pair of men’s blue dungarees. She looked about fifty-five, but was probably short of forty, and her apparel was even more surprising in that trousers were seldom worn by the boating women – except the very bold or the very young – being considered unseemly. (104-5)

And reading her account of working as a team, managing the motorboat and its butty on a flight of locks – the bicycle, the windlasses, the pulling or pushing, the leaping, the tying, the shouting – leaves one informed and breathless.

I am ashamed when I think of how my generation told our predecessors they were so square, had made the world a mess for us, and we were going to do it better. Now I think we had everything to learn from these plucky young women. 

Maidens’ Trip: A wartime adventure on the Grand Union Canal by Emma Smith was first published in 1948. It has been reissued in paperback by Bloomsbury in 2011. 225pp

Related blog post

Tripping Over is a post on Stuck in a Book blog from 2009, but still valid and includes enthusiasm for Emma Smith’s book about growing up in Cornwall, The Great Western Beach. I liked his word ‘energetic’ for the writing in Maidens’ Trip.

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