Tag Archives: Virago Books

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Do you have this experience? It doesn’t happen very often, but when I finished The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard I felt that I had been lifted onto a different plane. In part it was the accomplishment of the writing, its elegance, sparseness and the observations of human relationships revealed in the prose. And in part it was the breadth of Shirley Hazzard’s observation and of her imagination of the post-war world.

The Transit of Venus is my choice for the 1980s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). The novel captures something of the international influences happening in the decades following the Second World War. 

The Transit of Venus

The novel’s narrative stretches over 30 years allowing the characters and their relationships to be played out with the inevitability of the transit that gives the book its title.

Two Australian sisters have come to Britain in the 50s and are staying in a house of an eminent astronomer, Professor Thrale. Grace is the younger, very pretty, engaged to the son, Christian. Caroline is older and with more purpose in life. There is a third sister, a half-sister Dora who is an eternal victim who has cared for Caroline and Grace since their parents died. We follow Grace and Caro through several decades, and mostly Caro because Grace leads a calm and largely unexplored life. 

Ted Tice is a young astronomer come to spend time with Thrale and he falls for Caroline, a love he nurtures beyond the end of novel. Caro however is seduced by a friend of the family, a young playwright, Paul Ivory who in turn is engaged to Tertia who lives in grand style nearby. Paul and Caro begin an affair. The reader is sure that Paul is untrustworthy and that Tertia knows about the affair but has other motives for continuing with her engagement and marrying Paul. 

Paul Ivory is the bad boy, cynical, calculating, enjoying power and influence. He has a secret, known to Tice (and he knows Tice’s secret too). He breaks up with Caro.

She works in an office, subjected to the taken-for-granted sexism of the time. She is very hurt by the end of her affair with Paul but eventually marries an American benefactor and goes to live in NY. Christian Thrale has an affair because he believes he should. Grace falls in love with her son’s doctor, but he refused to compromise her. The marriage is not made better or worse by these episodes. Ted Tice goes on loving Caro from a distance until two important secrets are revealed. 

Themes

Although the transit of Venus across the sun is predictable it is an event that occurs only every 120 years, and then twice in 8 years. Captain Cook’s voyage to Tahiti in 1768 was designed to coincide with one transit to help with astrological measurements, specifically the size of the solar system. His measurements were inaccurate. The next transit will be in December 2117.

Shirley Hazzard understands that our lives are influenced by both predictability and chance, by those we meet and the moment we meet them. The important thing is what we do with our experiences: perhaps use them to manipulate others as Dora does. She turns every situation into a story of wrong being done to Dora. She is the saddest of all the characters.

Dora sat on the corner of the spread rug, longing to be assigned some task so she could resent it. […] Dora was not one to lie down under the news that a veranda was called a loggia, or a mural a fresco. Let alone villa for house. (45)

Grace lives a life of conventional comfort, with her husband making steady progress in the Foreign Office, and children and a nice house with beautiful things. A mirror bought in Bath is frequently mentioned, yet towards the end of the book Caro reflects that

It was not clear now, as formerly, that Grace was satisfied with chintz and china – with Christian saying, “A wee bit fibrous,” or hoisting his trousers at evening and announcing, “Must get my eight hours.” It was not quite certain Grace had remained a spectator. Those who had seen her as Caro’s alter ego might have missed the point. (324)

The reader has seen Grace’s thwarted love for her son’s doctor and noted the dignity ascribed to her by Shirley Hazzard.

With these prospects and impressions, Grace Marian Thrale, forty-three years old, stood silent in a hotel doorway, with the roar of existence in her ears. And like any great poet or tragic sovereign of antiquity, cried on her Creator and wondered how long she must remain on such an earth. (289)

Caro’s life has also contained much hurt and loss. She had not remained a spectator, but engaged with the experiences life sent her with dignity, reflection and generosity.

Writing

Reading The Transit of Venus one could not fail to notice the quality of the writing. The novel’s plot is skilfully managed and the tension is held to the final chapter. Some of the sentences are beautifully constructed. Look at what she wrote about Grace’s reaction to the departure of her would-be lover quoted above. And as I typed Caro’s reflections I noted the provisionality of the sentences: ‘not clear now’, ‘not quite certain’, ‘might have missed the point’. 

Within her sentences the choice of words, especially adverbs and adjectives, add complexity, depth and nuance to the novel. She writes on a wide canvas: across several decades and across the globe: Australia, Britain and New York as well as parts of Europe and South America. It has been described as an unbearably sad book, but I felt moved by it, as if the experience of reading it had added to my own life. In part this is because of her ‘huge charity towards the people’ (Kirkus Review 1980). 

Perhaps you have felt uplifted by this novel and are only surprised that I mention it. Or perhaps you have yet to experience one of Shirley Hazzard’s novels, in which case you have a great treat in store for you.

Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzard was born in Australia and died in 2016 in New York. She had spent time in the Far East after the war, before being employed by the UN from 1951. She was posted for a while to Naples, and developed a love of Italy. 

It wasn’t until 2003 that she published her next and final novel, The Great Fire, which was also much acclaimed by the critics. I am currently reading some of her essays in a volume called We Need Silence to find out What we Think.

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, published in 1980) and reissued by Virago in 1995. 337pp The novel also won the National Book Critics Award.

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I am exploring previously published novels by women. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century 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. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The most recent choices for the project are

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)

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So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ

What happens when you are 50, mother of 12 children, still coping with the humiliation of the second wife and then widowed? Mariana Bâ was writing in French, and her novel is set in Senegal in the 1970s. Published in 1979 it still speaks to us about the position of women, the legacy of colonialism and the subjection and exploitation of women allowed by an interpretation of Islam and cultural traditions.

Every month I read and comment on a book by a woman in translation, usually works of fiction.So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ is a short novel, translated by ModupéBodé-Thomas.

A summary of So Long a Letter

The novel is framed as a letter, written by Ramatoulaye, who is 50 and has just been widowed. Like her creator, she lives in Senegal and is well educated. She writes her letter to her long-time friend Aissatou. The friend left Senegal to live as an independent woman in the US when her husband took a second wife.

The husband of Ramatoulaye had also taken a second wife, the friend of their oldest daughter. Like Aissatou, Ramatoulaye refuses to be cowed by these events although her husband abandons her and her twelve children. She had decided to stay in Senegal as his first wife. On his death, in the Islamic tradition, it is revealed that he spent his wealth on his new wife’s family. The letter begins as the widow tries to understand the events of her adulthood, including her marriage which took place against the wishes of her family. Some of the most delightful parts of this novel are the descriptions of happy times, with their husbands holidaying on the coast.

Ramatoulaye refuses the offers of marriage that come her way as a widow, instead waits for her 40 days of mourning and seclusion to be over, and to be able to meet with her old friend.

The novel ends on a note of optimism, implying that these two women will support each other from the effects of polygamy and the patriarchy of their society.

Feminism in So Long a Letter

Mariama Bâ(1929-1981) was born in Dakar, Senegal, and brought up by her grandparents after the early death of her mother. They planned to educate her only to primary school level. Her father persuaded them to let her continue her education. She trained as a teacher and was employed in the classroom from 1947 – 1959, after which she became a school inspector. She had nine children and divorced her husband, a Senegal politician and minister.

Mariama Bâ was a feminist activist in Senegal until her early death in 1981.  Senegal achieved independence in April 1960 and the novel is full of the tensions between the old and new ways, African ways vs the European, traditional vs modern.

In So Long a Letter Ramatoulaye’s husband had worked as a lawyer for the trade union movement and she had been pleased to support his work, bear him 12 children, run his household and hold down her own job. But when he became older and obsessed with a younger woman he indulged himself by taking a second wife.

Whereas a woman draws from the passing years the force of her devotion, despite the ageing of her companion, a man, on the other hand, restricts his field of tenderness. His egoistic eye looks over his partner’s shoulder. He compares what he had with what he no longer has, what he has with what he could have. (41)

She reminds her friend Aissatou of the painful experience of being rejected for a younger wife. The pain is personal and no more bearable for being sanctioned under Islamic custom and the laws of Senegal. It is still legal in Senegal and in 57 other countries. Neither of these women accepted their situation, and one imagines that together they will represent a considerable force for change.

Mariama Bâ makes it clear that the new wife also looses a great deal in accepting her position, not least the pleasures of being young and in an equal partnership.

The women’s situations are not just problems of Africa or of Islam or of polygamy. Older women are often made to feel inadequate in the face of younger rivals in every culture – the toxic combination of ageism and sexism.

For Ramatoulaye being a mother is also important and when one of her own children finds herself in trouble she looses no time in deciding to support rather than reject her.

And also, one is a mother in order to understand the inexplicable. One is a mother to lighten the darkness. One is a mother to shield when lightening streaks the night, when thunder shakes the earth, when mud bogs one down. One is a mother in order to love without beginning or end. (82-83)

She does not need to spell out that her husband, the father of their 12 children, has not provided this unconditional and enduring love.

So …

I found So Long a Letter was a quick and easy read. I learned a great deal about feminism and women in Senegal and West Africa. I was surprised and shocked to find that polygamy is still legal in the world. I was impressed by Mariama Bâ’s feminism, and saddened that her life was cut short. At least we have this and one other posthumous novel, Scarlet Song, which I have not yet read. Copies are easy to find so I recommend you read this short book, if you haven’t already.

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâwas published in French in 1979, and in English in 1980. Originally published as Une si longue lettre, it was translated by ModupéBodé-Thomas. I read the edition published by Virago in its New Fiction series in 1982. 90pp

First winner of the Noma Award for publishing in Africa.

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

The Winterlingsby Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.

Memoirs of a Polar Bearby Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Love by Hanne Østavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken

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The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby

137 LofGG coverThe Land of Green Ginger is the name of a street in Hull, briefly glimpsed by Joanna when she was a child. Its intriguing name represents her ambitions for a life in a different place, for travel, excitement and exoticism. Joanna is an attractive heroine and a very flawed one. Her attraction comes from her otherworldliness and her desire for more than life has offered her. And indeed this belief carries her through to the novel’s conclusion.

Winifred Holtby came from Yorkshire and knew something of women’s lives. She was also a pacifist, conscious of the damage done by the Great War on the men who fought and the society they defended. I reacquainted myself with her through her poems, which I mentioned in a recent post about women poets of the First World War. The effects of the war echo through this book, in Teddy’s illness, in the Paul Szermai’s long story, in the grinding rural poverty of the Dales. It was first published in 1927.

137 St signThe Land of Green Ginger keeps the war in the background and is mainly concerned with the restrictions upon a young woman’s life. Joanna is a flawed heroine and I think a very believable one. Joanna has spirit and imagination, but they lead her into trouble and she is unable to make the best of them until the end of this novel. She suffers the restrictive view of what her neighbours believe is proper behaviour, their condemnation of her lack of ability to fulfil her roles as mother, housekeeper and farmer’s wife. Her ambition and lack of consciousness of what is proper scandalises them. She struggles to rise above her difficulties, especially as she and her family live in desperate poverty, dogged by the ill health of Teddy and their oldest child.137 Virago green cover

Those things that she wished for – travel, excitement and exoticism – come to her life as mixed blessings. She finds love with a young man, because he impresses her with a single comment:

‘I’ve just been given the world to wear as a golden ball.’ (18)

We might understand Joanna’s enthusiasm for Teddy a little more if he had been referring to her, but in fact he has just been passed fit to join up as a soldier in 1914. Later we find out that he was tubercular and being passed fit makes him briefly believe that he is cured. They marry and he returns from the war to Joanna and their two daughters with his health ruined and facing a slow death on their unsuccessful farm.

Deftly, Winifred Holtby paints their declining situation and Joanna’s response to their difficulties. We are being invited to admire her spirit, even if her lack of realism will cause problems.

Scatterthwaite lay two and a half miles from Letherwick in Lindersdale. Like many other farms in the North Riding of Yorkshire it had a house built of grey stone, with a steep roof of dark slate. The house faced a narrow strip of garden with some gooseberry bushes, a mossy path and a weed-grown flower-bed. The back opened onto a yard entered by two gates: one from the high road over the hills, one from the low road round the Fell. …

Joanna used to think that the house was like a ship, and the rolling curve of the moors like great ocean waves. Its windows at night shone like the port-holes of a tramp steamer, ploughing its way up the North Sea in dirty weather. She had never seen ships except in Kingsport Docks and from the esplanade at Hardrascliff, but she felt they were like this …

[They] had been here for five years, and he had lost money every year. (36-7)

Their poverty and difficult farm grind them down until a friendly neighbour supplies them with a lodger. The young man is Hungarian, and provides temporary financial security and some exoticism for Joanna. Foresters from the continent have been brought over to create woodland and their manager Paul Szermai invites Teddy and her to a camp dance. Joanna is captivated by the dancing of these men from unfamiliar countries. Paul has his own sad love story to which Joanna listens with sympathy. The villagers believe she and the Hungarian are having an affair, (even Teddy came to believe it) especially when it is known that she is carrying a third child after Teddy’s death.

This part of the book sits uneasily with present day sensibilities, for Teddy raped her before he died, an act she sees as his bid for life. Marital rape was not a concept in common use in the years between the wars. But we are left in no doubt that it was rape, even if Joanna ‘understands’ Teddy’s motivation.

Joanna eventually attains her ambition to travel and in doing this finds calmness and a companionship in the excitement of her younger daughter. And in a delicate touch, Winifred Holtby also indicates that Joanna was able to influence another younger women to embrace braver futures. Here is the description of a young girl looking at Joanna as they prepare to board a ship to South Africa.

Without being beautiful she conveyed an impression of beauty, and the young wife, watching her, felt new conviction that life was a wonderful and fine adventure, and that her voyage to Africa was going to be the cumulating experience of her youth. The sorrow which had marked the older woman’s face held no fear for the girl, and when, as the tender drew up to the side of the ship, the young wife accidentally knocked against her and apologized, she received a smile so friendly and assured, that the nervousness and emotion of parting from her family left her, and she climbed onto the ship behind her husband with a sense of confidence and freedom. (274)

The novels of Winifred Holtby deserve to be better known. Her women are real, have a vision of a better life and the energy to do something about it. But they are flawed and had to face economic, social and health problems of the inter-war years.

Portrait of Winifred Holtby By Jburlinson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Winifred Holtby By Jburlinson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 Three other book blog reviews of The Land of Green Ginger

Juxtabook also liked Joanna – ‘one of the most startling and memorable heroines that I have had the pleasure to encounter in a long time’.

SheReadsNovels found it dark and emotional but it left her feeling hopeful.

Fleur in her World had mixed, but mostly positive, feelings about it.

The novels of Winifred Holtby

  • Anderby Wold (1923)
  • The Crowded Street (1924)
  • The Land of Green Ginger (1927)
  • Poor Caroline (1931)
  • Mandoa! Mandoa! (1933)
  • South Riding (1936)

 

Have you read this or other novels by Winifred Holtby? Or her poetry? What were your reactions?

 

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Do we need biographies of writers?

I used to think that a writer’s work should stand by itself, that biographies could not add anything to the reading of their books. But I find that I am changing my mind, especially as I have been reading about the lives of writers to whose work I often return.

I recently reviewed Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. As I prepared for the blog piece I found that other reviewers frequently referred to her character, her life and her reputation. It led me to read The Other Elizabeth Taylor, by Nicola Beauman, published by Persephone Books in 2009. Persephone Books have published exquisite ‘reprints of neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly women) writers’ since 1999. Fortunately for readers, Virago picked up Elizabeth Taylors books in 1982 and has been publishing and promoting them ever since.

20 other_elizabeth_taylor

And now I know much more about her work within the context of her life, the influences on her writing, something of her writing practices and a better sense of her skills as a writer.

Here she is in a letter to a friend in 1944:

‘Those are the happiest of times – sitting at the table in a warm room … some warm, weak gin & water & the words spilling from my pen. There is no happiness like it, I am ashamed to say.’

She struggled, as so many women do, with the conflicting demands of motherhood and their talents.

‘I feel instinctively that women who have children can’t write. A certain single-mindedness is denied to them. In the end, children and writing suffer. Women writers do not have children – Sappho, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Miss Mitford, Fanny Burney, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein.’ (From another letter in 1946)

But Elizabeth Taylor had two children and she did put them first. But she clearly found it hard:

‘Writers shouldn’t be mothers, for they cannot be ruthless.’

From this biography we learn something of her writing practices – not just the warm gin, but that she was a woman who thrived on her routines, sitting every morning in her armchair writing in her notebook.

We learn about her friendships (with Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Pym, Kinsley Amis) and how she suffered acutely from criticism. She might be described as self-effacing and chosing not to mix with the London literary set. In their turn they questioned the quality of her work, and she was hurt by this. But she had her champions, including her literary friends and the New Yorker Magazine which published a large proportion of her short stories.

We find she was not born into the middle class life that she came to represent in people’s minds, indeed was a member of the Communist Party until 1948. The reputation of having a life where nothing ever happened is contradicted by the revelation of an affair and abortions, the murder of a local friend and her son’s near-fatal accident. The experiences of the final months of the lives of her father and of her friend the author Elizabeth Bowen provided material upon which she drew for Mrs Palfrey.

However, she was in no sense an autobiographical writer. Each of her main characters is very different. Rather she is a very close observer of human behaviour, especially when her characters do not behave as society expects. In my review of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont I suggested that describing the residents of the hotel as eccentric was inaccurate; she observed how older people can behave when they are neglected and fearful.

Elizabeth Taylor’s reticence and concern for privacy extended to posterity. Most of her letters, for example, were destroyed at her request. And her two children have dissociated themselves from the biography, despite Nicola Beauman’s sensitivity.

I was reminded of two other biographies that helped me understand the writers and both have led me to reread their work with richer perspectives and understandings:

  • Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin, published by Penguin. I recommend the revised edition of 2000
  • Virginia Woolf, by Hermione Lee, published by Vintage in 1997.

And now I find that as I am thinking about WG Sebald’s life, as we approach the readalong of The Emigrants for late May. His writing appears to blur the distinctions between autobiography, memoir and fiction. He poses so many questions about memory, stories, survival, what the lives of other people mean … I have not heard that a biography is planned.

And so now I have a project to read Elizabeth Taylor’s novels in the order she wrote them, and have already finished the first – At Mrs Lippincote’s, published in 1945. Julia is it’s lively protagonist, more interested in experience than convention and must therefore encounter the double standards of expected behaviour by men and women (as Elizabeth Taylor did). The dilemmas of Julia and her husband are beautifully handled.

Next on my list is Palladian (1946).

So reading writers’ biographies leads me to read more … What other biographies would you recommend?

Now, I’ll just top up the warm gin with a drop of water …

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