Tag Archives: Virago

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair

Here is another book about a spirited young woman who rejects what her parents intend for her: a life of submission and sacrifice. Just like the heroine and writer of the first in this series of the Decades Project, My Brilliant Career, May Sinclair describes how her protagonist, Mary Olivier, broke through to her own freedom. She also rejected marriage. This novel was first published in 1919.

This is the second book for the Decades Project (see below for more details), being my choice of books from the decade 1910-1919 republished by Virago.

Mary Olivier: A Life

We follow the life of Mary Olivier from her early years until her maturity, 1865 – 1910, in five books, written from Mary’s point of view but in the third person (or from time to time in the second person). We follow her through her struggles as the youngest child and only daughter in a middle class Victorian family. Here she is as she reached puberty.

Mamma whispered to Mrs. Draper, and Aunt Bella whispered to Mamma: “Fourteen.” They always made a mystery about being fourteen. They ought to have told her.

Her thoughts about her mother went up and down. Mamma was not helpless. She was not gentle. She was not really like a wounded bird. She was powerful and rather cruel. You could only appease her with piles of hemmed sheets and darned stockings. If you didn’t take care she would get hold of you and never let you rest till she had broken you, or turned and twisted you to her own will. She would say it was God’s will. She would think it was God’s will.

They might at least have told you about the pain. The knives of pain. You had to clench your fists till the fingers bit into the palms. Over the ear of the sofa cushions she could feel her hot eyes looking at her mother with resentment.

She thought: “You had no business to have me. You had no business to have me.” (124)

In many ways this is a book about the struggle between a mother, who is staunchly Christian and believes in a duty of sacrifice and submission for women and her daughter who is more independently spirited. Her mother is also very controlling using her meekness and dependence to manipulate her brothers and Mary into taking care of her, especially after the death of their father. In the book the love of ‘little mamma’ for Mary is always conditional and always comes after her devotion to her three sons.

In the chapter entitled Maturity, Mary is rejected by a man because she is no longer compliant. She herself would have rejected him, but for a while it makes her miserable, being jilted.

Mamma had left her alone with her [maiden] Aunt Lavvy.

“I suppose you think that nobody was ever so unhappy as you are,” Aunt Lavvy said.

‘I hope nobody is. I hope nobody ever will be.”

“Should you say I was unhappy?” 

“You don’t look it. I hope you are not.”

“Thirty-three years ago I was miserable, because I couldn’t have my own way. I couldn’t marry the man I cared for.”

“Oh – that. Why didn’t you?”

“My mother and your father and your Uncle Victor wouldn’t let me.”

“”I suppose he was a Unitarian?”

“Yes. He was a Unitarian. But whatever he’d been I couldn’t have married him. I couldn’t do anything I liked. I couldn’t go where I liked or stay where I liked. I wanted to be a teacher but I had to give it up.”

Why?”

“Because your Uncle Victor and I had to look after your Aunt Charlotte.” (221)

The novel is also about how, against the wishes of her mother, she teaches herself languages and philosophy and turns away all suitors. Sometimes this is because she is too independent, but when she finds a man she can love deeply and who is free to marry her, she still cannot bring herself to sacrifice her inner life. 

Reflection on Mary Olivier

Much of the novel is Mary’s discussion of competing religious or philosophical positions. It’s a long book – too long – and some of her dilemmas about men’s affections or philosophy are repetitive. But it must have been something of a shock at the end of the WW1 to see a woman’s intellectual life so favoured. Nevertheless she was a much-read and popular writer. 

The protest against a life of sacrifice for women has a long history. Here we see the pressures from social convention, religious beliefs, and lack of role models for young women to pursue education at that time. In this novel the restrictions are policed by the mother. I was reminded of Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton (1953). 

Another view of this novel, looking at May Sinclair’s neglected status, can be found on Heavenali’s blog last January.

May Sinclair 1863-1946

In some ways this novel is autobiographical, although it might be more accurate to say that it drew on the author’s experiences. She knew what it was to have a father who suffered from alcoholism, and to have brothers who died young. She also cared for her mother, earning their living by writing. And she too educated herself. 

There are some experimental aspects of this novel. For example her use of language to reflect the age of the protagonist: simple vocabulary and short sentences in infancy. She moved freely between using the 3rd person (he/she) and the 2nd person (you) and this seems to signal a moment of reflection about her inner life. In the last two pages she uses the first person: If it never came again I should remember. (380) 

She had written her first novel in 1897, Audrey Craven, and Mary Olivier: a life was her 13th published novel. She wrote 23 in all. She was a poet, critic and essayist. She moved in literary circles in London, unlike Mary Olivier, and was an active suffragette. With such achievements she deserves to be rescued from obscurity.

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair was first published in 1919. It was reissued by Virago in 1980. 380pp

The Decades Project 2020

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

The first choice for the project was My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

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My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

My Brilliant Career, written by 16-year-old Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin and published in 1901, is the start of a new series on the blog. This precocious writer grew up in New South Wales and knew something of the hardship of pioneer life. The title is ironic, the career of her main character, Sybylla, like her own, was not brilliant at the end of the novel.

Welcome to the Bookword 2020 Decades Project. This year I return to adult fiction and to my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. To shape my choices I am using 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. I will choose one from each decade every month. My choices will include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. I hope you enjoy this as much as I plan to.

My Brilliant Career

Sybylla’s story forms the narrative thread of this novel, told in the first person. Her circumstances change dramatically several times before she is 18, starting with the idyll of her early life in the bushlands, the family’s decline due to her father’s dissolution. The poverty that the family endure on a selection, trying to run a dairy farm, is grinding and Sybylla escapes when her grandmother invites her to live in her house, Caddigat. Here she meets Henry Beecham, who is as good a man as any and they are attracted to each other. But Sybylla refuses to commit to marrying him, preferring to retain her freedom. 

Her mother soon requires her to work as a governess to a family who have lent her father some money. She leaves the comfort of her grandmother’s house and takes up her position. But she finds the conditions too awful and has a breakdown. She returns home and Henry follows her, vowing he still wants her. She tells him that she does not want the servitude of marriage. She wants a brilliant career!

The main driver for this story is how this uppity, not beautiful young girl will evade or succumb to marriage. Her mother, aunt and grandmother all pressure her to make the best marriage she can. Her grandmother makes her views very clear, as here when she responds to a young man suggestion that Sybylla has the talent for a career on the stage.

‘Career! That’s all girls think of now, instead of being good wives and mothers and attending to their homes and doing what God intended. All they think of is gadding about and being fast, and ruining themselves body and soul. And the men are as bad to encourage them.’ (64)

Soon after Sybylla explains to her grandmother why she has rejected an offer of marriage.

‘… I would not marry him or any one like him although he were the King of England. The idea of marriage  even with the best man in the world seems to me a lowering thing,’ I raged; ‘but with hum it would be pollution – the lowest degradation that could be heaped upon me! I will never come down to marry any one –‘ here I fell victim to a flood of excited tears. (72)

It seems surprising to me that a sixteen year old writer dared to put these thoughts into the mouth of another young woman in 1901. This sentiment was hardly expressed until much later in the century I believe. At times Sybylla’s life is very hard, but she is never tempted to escape the drudgery of a woman’s lot in Australia in the 1890s by making a favourable marriage.

Another theme is the grinding difficulty of surviving, as a family and as an individual. One’s standing in the community matters and is guided by known truths (eg that women will marry or that a clean home is a godly home). Assistance when necessary comes from community and family although no one has much to spare. Another notable feature of the book is the political implication of the struggle to make a living in very difficult circumstances. She has a sympathetic reflection on those who pass through Caddagat as tramps, for example.

Sybylla appears to be a headstrong and opinionated girl, who  believes she knows better than those who are more experienced and educated than she is. To some extent she voices every girl’s experience of chafing the norms of girlhood, but Sybylla lives by her principles and will not marry. Her brilliant career was nowhere in sight at the conclusion of the book. Miles Franklin never missed an opportunity to send up her protagonist’s ambitions and failure to achieve them.

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin

Google Doddle 2014

Miles Franklin was born in New South Wales in 1879. She lived a long life, publishing many novels before she died in 1954. My Brilliant Career was assumed to be her autobiography and she refused to allow it to be republished following its first reception. She went to America and Britain before returning to Australia in 1932. She never married. 

This is not a sophisticated novel. The storyline follows the history of the writer, written with a great deal of energy and brashness. According to the introduction by Carmen Callil, the author said that she ‘conceived and tossed it off in a matter of weeks’. I am tempted to describe the writing and the main character as ‘spirited’, but I am conscious that only girls get described in this way. 

In her later life Miles Franklin encouraged other writers and especially Australian writers. She left a bequest that initiated the Miles Franklin Award in 1957. This award is given annually to a work of fiction of high literary merit which promotes Australian life. 

There is a second award in her name: the Stella Award for Australian women writers. 

Two blogs with reviews of My Brilliant Career:

Heavenali reviewed it on her blog in November 2013, noting its extravagant expression.

BookerTalk also reviewed it, in January 2019. She enjoyed it but regrets a tendency for Miles Franklin to get on her soap box in this novel.

The Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction includes an extract from the opening pages of the book where she describes the excitement of being a girl in the bush with her father.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, first published in 1901 and published as a Virago Modern Classic in 1980. 232pp

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Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther

I accidentally omitted this book when I wrote my recent post about fiction with titles in their titles: Books with Mrs or Miss in the title. In a rather pointless act of atonement I thought I would reread it and review it for the blog. And I was surprised that it was less about the Second World War than I had remembered. And just as charming as I remembered, a charm that captured readers and admirers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther

The short pieces from The Times newspaper were collected together and first published as Mrs Miniver in 1939. At the time, Britain was experiencing the phoney war. And the US was still holding on to its neutrality. Famously Churchill claimed that this book had ‘done more for the allies than a flotilla of battleships’, and by FDR to have hastened the entry of the US into the war.

The short blog-like pieces collected together as Mrs Miniver were originally written for periodic publication in the newspaper, and were very popular from 1937-9. It is often said that in creating Mrs Miniver Jan Struther was celebrating the ordinary in life at least as she knew it in the years towards the end of the peace and at the start of the war. And indeed the heroine does frequently refer to her everyday life – a visit to the dentist, the first day of spring, taking the children to Hampstead Heath, visiting London Zoo, social engagements with her friends. This is the everyday life of a small section of British pre-war society, a very comfortably off section. The social life consists of dinner parties and weekends in country houses; the family lives in London and also owns a cottage in Kent large enough to take in seven evacuees as well as their three children. They employ a nannie, a cook and a maid as well as Mrs Downce who looks after their weekend cottage.

Mrs Miniver, or is it Jan Struther, is aware of her privilege. In a letter to The Times, included in the Virago edition and dated December 1939, she considers the plight of the war’s biggest casualty list:

– the small bookseller, the small upholsterer, the garage proprietor, the man who sells old prints, the woman who sells home-made cakes. … the world that we are going to build up out of the revolution has got to be a world in which this kind of distress doesn’t arise. (142-143)

And she adds that in the short-term ‘people are being forced to focus all their attention on wobbly stepping-stones in order to save themselves from drowning’. One can imagine that she might have supported Beveridge’s report in 1942 and the subsequent establishment of the Welfare State.

As it is, there is no bomb damage yet, no Blitz, no defeat before Dunkirk, no real war. Some of the earlier pieces refer to the war scare of 1938, now known as the Munich Crisis. She records the relief that everyone felt when they could continue as before.

In Mrs Miniver the people from the working classes only appear in long-suffering and comic parts, like Ealing comedy extras. The dour Scottish cook Mrs Adie, or the stranded cockney Mrs Downce, or the farmers they help with the hop harvest in the autumn of 1939.

Jan Struther had a positive outlook on life, and she found herself appreciating the spirit of cooperation and new learning in the first months of the war. In a piece entitled London in August Mrs Miniver sits down on a bench next to a woman who is having difficulties learning to tie a reef knot for her First Aid class. She offers her way of thinking about the knot. And when the First Aider has left she reflects as follows:

That is one great compensation for the fantastic way in which the events of our time are forcing us to live. … almost everybody you meet is busy learning something. Whereas in ordinary times the majority of grown-up people never try to acquire any new skill at all, either mental of physical: which is why they are apt to seem, and feel, so old. (111)

She writes about the cooperative spirit she observes everywhere and hopes that

afterwards, when all the horrors are over, we shall be able to conjure up again the feelings of these first few weeks, and somehow rebuild our peacetime world so as to preserve everything of war that is worth preserving? (123, letter to The Times, September 1939)

Jan Struther

Jan Struther went to the US at the outbreak of the war, and was popular on the lecture circuit because Mrs Miniver celebrated life before the war, and by implication what was to be lost. A sentimental propaganda film, an Oscar-winner, was made by MGM from an adaptation of the collection in 1942. It starred Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon and took the viewer into the war and to the deaths that resulted from it.

The common association of Mrs Miniver with the war and especially with the Blitz is very strong, thanks to that film. Even in 1989 the Virago cover picked up the theme of the Blitz (see above).

Jan Struther’s husband became a prisoner of war for many years and their marriage did not survive his return. She made a second happy marriage with Adolf Placzek. She also wrote several well-known hymns. She died of cancer in 1953.

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther, the collection was first published in 1939. I read the Virago edition of 1989, which includes some additional letters and an Introduction by Valerie Grove. 145pp

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The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler

And today we have naming of parts. When I taught sex education I would begin with an activity called ‘naming of parts’. The students were encouraged to say all the words they knew associated with sexual parts of the body. Then we would agree on the terms we would use, having clarified what each of them meant. I am reminded of this activity when I read The Vagina Monologues.

The Decades Project on Bookword has arrived at the 1990s. The project features non-fiction by women from each decade from the start of the 20thCentury. The Vagina Monologues was performed and published in the 1990s in New York. How far we have come since the first post about a book on gardening for the 1900s: Ms Jekyll and her Garden.

The Vagina Monologuesby Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler began TVM (as her theatre piece gets called) like this:

I bet you’re worried. was worried. (3)

Vagina is harsh-sounding word (‘it sounds like an infection at best’ 5), but it has been, and maybe still is, in need of reclaiming. Eve Ensler is an American feminist activist who began performing TVM in part to reclaim and respect the word and female sexuality. The piece has been described as an episodic play, and as political theatre.

In her foreword Gloria Steinem suggests that reclaiming the word, using it, can help rescue and revise the symbols of women’s sexuality. Establishing more respect for women and their bodies is part of a bigger project, as she says:

If overthrowing some five thousand years of patriarchy seems like a big order, just focus on celebrating each self-respecting step along the way. (xviii)

Being explicit about the term, rather than referring euphemistically to ‘down there’, is about self-respect and about reclaiming women’s power over their own bodies and combatting violence against women and young girls.

In her introduction Eve Ensler claims she was an obvious person to begin this project. She had experience as a playwright who used interviews as the basis of her pieces, and she was a feminist. She found herself asking women about their vaginas and soon had more than 200 interviews to draw on. These form the basis of the monologues.

If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?

A beret. A leather jacket. Silk stockings. Mink. A pink boa. … (15)

This is one of the first monologues and it is followed by more like that and stories and experiences told to Eve Ensler in her interviews. TVM was performed in NY City and later in many other cities of the world.

I attended a performance in London probably 12 years ago. I am ashamed to say that I can’t remember who performed it. I can remember that it was a joyous, participative and energizing event. Before I re-read the text I thought that it would be dated. But the violence and abuse of women seems to be even more evident now than back then, and anyway the play is still being updated and performed every year, to coincide with V-Day (V standing for Violence, Vagina and Valentine).

V-Day is a non-profit organisation that provides funds to organisations around the world aimed at stopping violence against girls and women. Many well-known actors have performed in TVM, including Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg, Jane Fonda and Oprah Winfrey.

Eve Ensler is still writing in support of women. For example she wrote a moving appreciation in the Guardian of the joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, Dennis Mukwege, earlier this month, which you can find here.

The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler were first performed in 1994 at HERE Arts Center New York City. A version of the text was first published there in 1998. I used the Virago edition of 2001. 188pp. A 20thanniversary edition was produced by Virago this year.

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 for the Decades Project I am featuring non-fiction by women having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc).

Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:

Silent Springby Rachel Carson (1962)

84 Charing Cross Roadby Helene Hanff (1971)

The March of Follyby Barbara W Tuchman (1984)

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The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

I failed. I got to page 93 out of 185 and I stopped reading. I have tried. For several weeks I have picked up this book and read the first chapter. Then put it down and later tried again. Now at the half-way point, ten chapters out of 20 have been read, but I can’t go on. I’ve weighed up the time it was taking to read this novel against what I felt I got out of it. I’ve decided to move on to other books.

The title of this post should really read: The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

The Quest for Christa T

Christa T is not an especially remarkable woman. Like the narrator, she grew up in eastern Germany during the war, and like many in that area, fled before the advancing Red Army. Living in East Germany (the DDR), as normality is resumed, the girls meet again in university and form a loose friendship. The narrator reconstructs Christa T’s life from the documents she left when she died young of Leukaemia.

Part of the novel seems to be about the impossibility of recreating anyone’s life, fictional or real. She opens the novel with doubts about memories.

The quest for her: in the thought of her. And of the attempt to be oneself. She speaks of this in her diaries, which we have, on the loose manuscript pages that have been found, and between the lines of those letters of hers that are known to me. I must forget my memory of Christa T.- that is what these documents have taught me. Memory puts a deceptive color on things.

But must we give her up for lost? (1)

It’s this kind of elliptical yet lyrical prose that made reading it so hard. And the novel continues by exploring witness evidence, documents, and conjecturing what happened in the gaps. There is very little narrative, more a series of events alongside the narrator’s suggestions of what might have been happening in Christa T’s mind and explanations of her responses.

What are we to make of the author’s name being shared with the main character? Why has Christa Wolf embarked on this search, the quest for her namesake, at all? I guess I’ll never know because I am moving on to other reading.

Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf lived 1929 to 2011, mostly former East Germany. The area in which she was born is now in Poland, and when her family fled the advancing Red Army at the end of the war they ended up inside the Russian Zone.

She worked as a literary critic and journal editor and although critical of the DDR leadership during the Cold War period she remained a socialist. She won many awards for her writing. From reading her obituaries and about The Quest for Christa T it seems that Christa Wolf was interested in individuals who make their own way rather than following the crowd. This had obvious implications for the East German state. Her book was not banned when it appeared in 1968, but only a limited number of copies were printed.

A Novel in translation

Well, I am sorry for my failure to get beyond half way. The Quest for Christa T was my October choice for the Women in Translation project. I chose it because it appeared in several lists of recommended reads for #WIT and others had responded positively. For example, on Heavenali’s blog and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. I plan to read another, but more recent, text by a German writer: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2017) in November.

I would like to hear from people who got further with Christa T than I did, and who got more out of it.

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf, first published in English in 1970 by Hutchinson & Co. The translation from the German is by Christopher Middleton. I read a library copy from Exeter Library stacks. Virago also published a version.

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Five great covers for five recommended novels

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

Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter

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

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

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

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

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

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

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

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

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

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

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

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

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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

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

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

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

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

Related post

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

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

Over to you

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

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In which some memoirs are recommended

What’s the attraction of reading memoirs? Is it envy for a life one might have wanted, or relief of a life avoided? I studied history and for me its attraction has always been the lives of people, the details, the narratives, their stories. These have enlivened the most recent books I’ve been involved in writing: Retiring with Attitude and The New Age of Ageing.

What’s the difference between an autobiography and a memoir? It is suggested that while an autobiography is the story of a life, memoirs are stories from that life. In other words, memoir has a narrower focus than an autobiography, and it is often more interesting because it is selections.

It occurred to me then that the memoirs you truly fall in love with have less to do with the people that write them and much, much more to do with who you are when you read them. Memoirs are blueprints. They are maps to the lives we wish we had, or cautions from the ones we’re glad we avoided. [Caroline o’donaghue in Memoirs to Change your Life. See below]

From time to time I read memoirs and in this post I recommend a few. The common characteristic is that they are all from the lives of bookish people: all writers or editors.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

How well I remember the BBC tv series of 1978, which coincided with the republishing of these memoirs. It spoke directly to my emerging feminism. The book was not exactly a feminist tract but it reminded us of the role women can play in war and peace, and in politics, and this can produce another generation to follow them.

I read Testament of Youth after finishing my history degree, and perhaps more than any other book Vera Brittain showed how history, especially the history of war is not only about men and their suffering. The Testament of Youth made me understand that the First World War defined the twentieth century, and that Britain before it was utterly different. It was one woman’s story, but she tells of the sacrifice of a generation and its aftermath. The scars are with us still as the current centenary has revealed.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. First published in 1933, republished by Virago in 1978. 661pp

Many volumes by Diana Athill

Alive, Alive Oh! (2015) By Diana Athill was the book choice for one of my reading groups in November. It encouraged some very interesting discussion, about her description of her miscarriage, her family home, her approach to relationships, her life in old age. A volume I go frequently return to is Stet for her stories of the writers she worked with as an editor at Andre Deutsch, including Jean Rhys.

And this is from Somewhere Towards The End (2008)

One doesn’t necessarily have to end a book about being old with a whimper, but it is impossible to end it with a bang. There are no lessons to be learnt, no discoveries to be made, no solutions to offer. I find myself left with nothing but a few random thoughts. One of them is that from up here I can look back and see that although a human life is less than the blink of an eyelid in terms of the universe, within its own framework it is amazingly capacious so that it can contain many opposites. One life can contain serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving – and also more particular opposites such as the neurotic conviction that one is a flop and a consciousness of success amounting to smugness. (177)

Diane Athill has led a remarkable life and has the gift to reflect on her experiences, and gift is the right word here for her readers and friends.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

This is Jackie Kay’s account of tracing and meeting her birth parents as an adult. It is also a tribute to her adoptive parents. This memoir explores what it means to be connected to families known and unknown.

It begins when she met her father in Abuja, Nigeria. He will not acknowledge her unless she agrees to join him as a born again Christian, and he behaves in a way that seems bizarre, praying for her for two hours. In his working life he is a noted tree specialist (having met Jackie’s mother in Glasgow University where he was studying), known throughout Nigeria for his work with trees and their healing properties.

Her mother is less obviously successful, moved away from her own tight family in the Highlands, and with a failed marriage and two more children, eventually disappearing into dementia in Milton Keynes. Both birth parents are reluctant to reveal Jackie’s existence to their own children.

The memoir questions what people are entitled to from each other – should Jackie collude in the secrecy, for the sake of the parents who abandoned her? The final triumphant scene is a meeting with her brother at the airport an hour before she needs to leave for her plane. She is embraced by him and his family.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay. Published by Picador in 2010. 287pp

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd

I read this memoir because of one of its themes, to which I was alerted by an article in the wonderful Slightly Foxed journal. It was about secrets and families. It is an account of a family’s unconventional relationships, although on the surface they are presented as quite smooth. This, I suspect, may not be that unusual: a Swedish mother, family with connections to Rajmai tea and Lalique glassware. These businesses gradually declined between the wars until there was nothing left for Michael Holroyd when he came to adulthood. His family lived together in ritualised hate and with some abuse.

Michael Holroyd is a distinguished biographer, so he knows a thing or two about stories from people’s lives. With interesting relatives he reflects what should or shouldn’t be revealed. Above all he makes it clear that stories from one’s life cannot be told without the stories of many other people.

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd. Published by Slightly Foxed in 2015. 364pp

Related Posts

Memoirs to Change your Life by Caroline o’donaghue in The Pool. November 2015. A list of suggestions from an American point of view.

And more recommendations

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, published in 2016 by Canongate. It is the author’s account of her flight from the Orkneys, into East London and alcoholism and returning to the Orkneys to haul herself back to sobriety.

In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (2016) published by Bloomsbury, being both the story of her troubled adolescence and living with Doris Lessing, and her account of terminal cancer.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell first published in 1959, reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow in 2016. This is Chelsea in the Blitz.

Do you have any memoirs to recommend?

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Post-War Novels

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

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

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

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

Survival and guilt

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

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

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

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

Social Change

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

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

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

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

A reunited or divided families

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

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

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

Rather a sad tale of change brought by war.

Some Other Post-War novels

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

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

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

Over to you

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

 

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The Squire by Enid Bagnold (a second visit)

The Squire deserves to be widely read, for although dated in its setting, the theme of the competent woman is relevant still. The main character is about to become a mother for the fifth time at the start of the novel, but maternity is set in the context of other responsibilities. Although sensually involved in her confinement motherhood is not her destiny.

A version of this post appeared on Bookword in July 2014. The Squire was first published just before the Second World War in 1938, and republished by Virago in 1987 and Persephone Books in 2013.

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The Main Character

The Squire is a curious title. It jars our class-consciousness, being more associated with the beery form of address, as in ‘Same again Squire?’ And it jars with the feminist consciousness of language, including titles. In Enid Bagnold’s novel the Squire is the main character, and a woman who is managing a large household, the manor house set in a rural village beside the sea.

She who had once been thirsty and gay, square-shouldered, fair and military, strutting about life for spoil, was thickened now, vigorous, leonine, occupied with her house, her nursery, her servants, her knot of human lives, antagonistic or loving. Twelve years married to a Bombay merchant and nearly five times a mother, she was well accustomed to her husband’s long absences, and to her own supreme command. (11)

She has seven staff in the house, two in the kitchen, four children and the birth of her fifth child is imminent. The story unfolds gently. We observe the Squire as she passes through the day’s precedings; during and following her confinement, dealing with domestic problems, finding a cook, managing the lazy butler, spending time with her four children, and conversing with her friend Caroline. The main event is the arrival of the Midwife, a woman of strong opinions. The novel ends with the baby safely born, the Squire taking up the running of the household again after her confinement, the departure of the Midwife and the imminent return of the Squire’s husband.

A plot of contrasts

There is little plot. Events happen: the Squire has to deal with the departure of the cook, an intrusive window cleaner, her butler’s holiday and drunken replacement, her children and a weekly letter to her absent husband on an extended business trip to Bombay. The Squire manages all with serenity.

Caroline, her friend from her more socialite past, is still interested in sex-love. She cannot believe that the Squire does not miss the wilder life of her younger days and the capricious attentions of men but is content with her situation. The contrast between these two is one of the strongest of the novel.

The principles of the midwife are a contrast to ideas current in the late 1930s. The Midwife and the Squire are in tune about how birth should be organised. The midwife would like to ‘palisade’ mothers, creating a secluded and calm environment, and a place for a newborn to emerge and form their character in the first days of life. Eventually mother and newborn son will be integrated into the teeming household.

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A New Woman writes

Enid Bagnold was ‘an authentic New Woman of dash and speed,’ according to Margaret Drabble. In The Squire she presents maternity as a great satisfaction in her life, but challenges the idea that marriage and motherhood are a woman’s destiny, the high point of her life, and towards which her youthful efforts should be expended. Much of the Squire’s ruminations are to do with the future, when the children no longer need her, and indeed what happens to them after her death.

Such explicitness about childbirth and maternity was rare and waiting to be challenged as this book does. According to Anna Sebba, in the introduction to the Persephone edition, Enid Bagnold once said that

If a man had a child and he was also a writer we should have heard a lot about it. (xv)

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The writing is ‘intense and passionate’ with ‘sensuous descriptions’ (Margaret Drabble again). A particular charm of this book is the portraits of the children, two in particular. First, little oddball Boniface. He is not the normal rumbustious male child, and his quirky take on the world and delicate relationship with the Squire are delightful. Lucy is the only daughter, and she is both insightful and caring of others, especially of Boniface. The intimacy of Lucy and her mother is delicately drawn.

… Lucy came in and hung over the writing table.

‘What are you doing?’ said the Squire dipping her pen in the ink.

‘Nothing.’

‘Why are you here?’

‘To talk to you.’

‘What about?’

‘Nothing.’

They smiled at each other. (168)

There is much to enjoy in this lovely and pioneering book. We are looking inside a closed and beautiful world. It is not sentimental, but robustly romantic (Anna Sebba).

The Squire by Enid Bagnold, published by Persephone in 2013, with an introduction by Anna Sebba. The glorious endpapers for The Squire are Magnolia, a design for cotton and rayon from 1936.

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Related links

Persephone Books suggests it is the only novel ever written about having a baby. Is this true? Do you know of other books? Is this the focus of this book? What do you think?

Margaret Drabble’s assessment can be found here, written in 2008 on the occasion of the revival of her play The Chalk Garden at the Donmar Warehouse.

The Squire was reviewed enthusiastically by Heavenali in April. You can link to her review here.

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Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor

I have commented on all Elizabeth Taylor’s novels on this blog. Just click on the category: Elizabeth Taylor’s Novels. She wrote twelve novels for adults and Mossy Trotter for children. She always did children really well.

Finally I have finished her collected short stories, a large volume of 626 pages, 4.5 cms, 65 stories. I’ve been reading these stories on and off for three or more years, usually if I wake in the night or when I am not ready to start a new book. Each story is a drop of Elizabeth Taylor’s art.

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The Collection

Elizabeth Taylor was writing these stories between 1944 and 1973, at the same time as her novels. Most of her short stories have been published, primarily in The New Yorker (especially between 1948 and 1965). Others appeared in Cornhill Magazine, McCall’s and Vogue.

The themes and settings will be familiar to readers of Elizabeth Taylor‘s novels. Many of the stories are set in the suburbs of London (men frequently travel up to town by train every day) and gardens are important. Some have children, marriages, or other relationships that have grit in the oyster. Some of the characters are very sad, lonely or deluded. One or two stories are located abroad, on holiday for example in France or in Tunisia. Here are some thoughts about four stories.

The Thames Spread Out (December 1959, published in The New Yorker)

This is the story of Rose, an isolated and not very happy young woman, ‘kept’ by a married man in a rented house on the Thames. Gilbert pays the rent and gives her some pocket money. He visits every Friday, and sometimes, when his wife goes to see her sister, spends a week with Rose.

The Thames floods and cuts Rose off from her usual routines. Letters are delivered by boat and boy scouts offer to get her shopping for her, but she forgets to ask for peroxide. Everything begins to look more and more strange as the water rises.

A swan had come in through the front door. Looking austere and suspicious, he turned his head about, circled aloofly, and returned to the garden. (334)

The disruption leads her to spend an evening drinking with two young men, her neighbours, who come and fetch her in their boat. In the morning, the waters receding, she realises how confined she is, and takes off.

I love the image of the swan circling near the staircase. Aloofly. What a great word! Many of Elizabeth Taylor’s plots include a slight change that shifts perspectives. The spreading out of the Thames helps Rose see the possibilities of her life differently and abandon the dreary Gilbert.

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Crepes Flambees

This is a tale about how Harry and Rose (not the same Rose) return to Tunisia to recapture the excitement of a previous holiday when they befriended the people in a local bar, above all the patron, Habib. Returning four years later they find that everything has changed. The bar has closed and Habib, when they find him, tells them he is now a respected chef in a local tourist hotel. The reader comes to see, long before Harry and Rose do, that Habib wants to present them with what they want to see, and the truth is less satisfactory. They blunder about in his life, his job, the hotel, his family, his friends. The differences between the lives of the tourists and the Tunisians are painfully revealed, even if Harry and Rose have good motives for befriending Habib. Elizabeth Taylor portrays both the pleasures of foreign holidays and the difficulties for any tourists who try to break down barriers with the locals.

Mice and Birds and Boy (February 1963, published in The New Yorker)

This is a sad story. A young boy visits an old and isolated lady. William himself is a bit of a loner, not much liked by other children. His curiosity about Mrs May’s early life develops into a nice friendship, but she becomes dependent upon him. He grows up and begins to move away from her. She is left more bereft than before. Elizabeth Taylor’s writing about children is always excellent. She knows what children think about, what takes their interest, and how they change.

Their estrangement grows.

The truth was that he could hardly remember how he had liked to go to see her. Then he had tired of her stories about her childhood, grew bored with her photographs, became embarrassed by her and realised, in an adult way, that the little house was filthy. One afternoon, on his way home from school, he had seen her coming out of the butcher’s shop ahead of him and slackened his pace, almost walked backwards not to overtake her. (419)

Hotel du Commerce (Winter 1965/6, published in the Cornhill Magazine)

This story is only 8 pages long, and follows a couple from their arrival during the evening in the small and disappointing French hotel on their honeymoon through to breakfast the next morning. The reader becomes aware that their marriage is doomed to unhappiness, revealed by their reactions to the rowing couple in the room next door.

She lay on her side, well away from him on the very edge of the bed, facing the horrible patterned curtains, her mouth so stiff, her eyes full of tears. He made an attempt to draw her close, but she became rigid, her limbs were iron. (547)

In her stories human failings are not catastrophic, but they do cause hurt, sadness or regret. Many have very poignant characters who do not thrive in life. Others seize their chances. Always there is a little nugget of truth of perceptiveness in each story.

260 Elizabeth_Taylor_(novelist)Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor, published by Virago in 2012. 626pp

 

Related posts

Two Elizabeths, two First Novels. This post comments on At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, alongside The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. This was the first in the older women in fiction series. It is one of the most read posts on Bookword blog.

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Mossy Trotter by Elizabeth Taylor: her children’s book.

The Other Elizabeth Taylor, looking at Elizabeth Taylor’s biography by Nicola Beauman.

 

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