Tag Archives: Virago

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim

To begin with I thought Mr Skeffington was about ageing. It was recommended as an addition to the older women in fiction series. Then I thought it was about how pre-war society calculated a woman’s value by her looks and how losing her beauty meant losing her status. Then this book turned very dark, with a denouement suitable for the time of publication – 1940. It is about all these things, moving from one theme to another, sometimes in a rather schematic way.

Mr Skeffington

At the start of the novel Fanny Skeffington is rich, approaching 50 and recovering from a bout of Diphtheria. She was rich because of the generous settlement of her husband at their divorce following his infidelities. As she recovers, she finds herself thinking of him a great deal, even imagining him in her house, behind the fish-dish.

Fanny, who had married Mr Skeffington, and long ago, for reasons she considered compelling, divorced him, after not having given him a thought for years, began, to her surprise to think of him a great deal. If she shut her eyes, she could see him behind the fish-dish at breakfast; and presently, even if she didn’t shut her eyes, she could see him behind almost anything. (1)

Up until this point she has been beautiful and men have loved her for it and she basked in their admiration. Fanny enjoyed her independence, which meant being rich and therefore not obliged to remarry.

She seeks the advice of her former admirers in order to set her life right again, which means no longer seeing Mr Skeffington in her house and regaining the admiration of admirers. Here is the formulaic aspect of the novel. She meets her admirers in turn and each one thinks how her beauty is ruined and they no longer wish to put themselves out for her. They recognize no qualities in her, only that she is no longer a beauty. 

Fanny comes to realise that she has lost her looks, and that her beauty was an empty commodity.

Beauty; beauty. What was the good of beauty, once it was over? It left nothing behind it but acid regrets, and no heart at all to start fresh. Nearly everything else left something. Husbands, for instance, left, or ought to leave children, and then one could be busy with them, and with their children. It was, she felt, one of her most just grievances against Job [her former husband] that she was childless. (57)

She finds it hard to know what she can do with her life, her beauty gone, no children or grandchildren to be interested in and her cousins wanting to provide her with a quiet party to celebrate her half century. 

The novel follows Fanny as she is gradually disabused of her value to society, of her beauty and she begins to take account of her advancing years as she meets strangers and former acquaintances and admirers. These meetings are the occasion for a great deal of gentle and comic writing. For example the sister of Miles, an especially eloquent admirer who has become an inspirational preacher in Bethnal Green, is led to believe she is a fallen woman – a prostitute, which in some senses she has been. Then there is the leerily disgusting colonial, a man used to getting his way at all times, who has come back to reclaim and marry the Fanny he remembers, only to fail to recognise her. As they disabuse her of her former powers, she comes to more fully appreciate her strengths. 

Job Skeffington is Jewish. In the early part of the novel we learn that he found it easy to attract money, and her marriage to him helped Fanny to secure her own family’s financial stability. There are also many references to the European Situation, which we learn is bad and getting worse. Finally Fanny learns from George that Mr Skeffington had been in Vienna

Vienna wasn’t exactly a healthy place for a Jew, and he was soon in serious trouble – for a moment George didn’t seem able to go on, seemed to be staring, with horror in his eyes, at something he could hardly credit, – such serious trouble that he was lucky to get away with his bare life, if bare life, said George, his eyes full of that incredulous horror, could be called lucky, and was now in London, and on the rocks. (221) 

By the time her friend and cousin George brings Mr Skeffington to her in person she finds herself able to understand how her life might have more meaning in the future than she had feared. She wants a future being of use to him.

The Older Women in Fiction series features women over 60, so Fanny does not qualify being about to turn 50. But this novel is about ageing and how women brought up to trade on their looks have little currency if that is all they have. Fanny turns out to be made of more.

Elizabeth von Arnim

This was Elizabeth von Arnim’s final novel. She died in 1941 at the age of 74, having escaped the European war for America. She seems to celebrate independent woman, and then to criticise those who value beauty in a woman above all else. But the novel ends on a note warning against valuing appearances. It is somewhat uneven in its tone, with plenty of gentle humour and also a very sombre tone to end as Mr Skeffington returns.

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1940 and reissued by Virago in 1993. 233pp

Related posts

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (on Bookword in August 2017)

Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings reviewed Mr Skeffington and remembered the 1944 film starring Bette Davies and Claude Rains.

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Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston

What can we learn from the experiences of women in the past? How can their reflections help us think about the occurrences of our own lives? The so-called Blitz spirit has been evoked since the Coivid-19 pandemic began to take hold earlier this year. We even celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE Day in May at a distance with scones and little union flags.

In Wave Me Goodbye there are 28 stories, all written in English and from the experience of women from the UK or the ‘colonies’. All the stories were written at the time of the second world war (except one). This is a special and important collection. This is a special and important addition to the posts of the Decades Project 2020 (see below)

Wave Me Goodbye

Different experiences

The first thing to say about them is that these stories reflect the very wide range of women’s experiences of the war. They were not all staying at home and making do and mending, or fire watching, or working in war jobs. And the experiences here range from the so-called Phoney War, while everyone waited for the war to start, through to the first post-war visits to war-ravaged Europe. 

There are stories about

Working in a field hospital
The Blitz
partners leaving for active duty, and home on leave
adventures abroad in the Balkans
land girls
losing treasured things, such as letters from a lover
living with other women
the war in Africa
fantasy 
the aftermath.

In writing their stories they drew upon their experiences and reflected what was happening and how it affected their different lives. Some are about the acute experiences of departure and loss, others provide insights into the arrangements made by women in the absence of so many men.  

Quality of writing

The second thing to note is the quality of the writing, almost every mid-century writer of note wrote a short story that was included in the collection.

Rosamond Lehmann
Jan Struther
Mollie Panter-Downes
Rose Macaulay
Olivia Manning
Elizabeth Bowen
Elizabeth Taylor
Barbara Pym
Sylvia Townsend Warner …

It reads like a combined Virago and Persephone catalogue! 

In the introduction Anne Boston quotes Elizabeth Bowen:

All war-time writing is…  resistance writing. (xxi)

In a sense the resistance is oblique: it is to the distortions that war brings with it; distortions in relationships, time, clothes, food, careers, homes, life itself. And that is one of the parallels with the pandemic: that too is distorting our lives as well as killing thousands of people.

Some stories of resistance are triumphant. I loved Sweethearts and Wives by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which concerned a household of women managing their domestic arrangements, largely without men, in a haphazard and cheerful manner. 

Short stories and the war

And thirdly the short story was the genre of those days. Many of the writers were established novelists, but turned their attention to short stories during the war. The fragmentary nature of short prose captured the disconnected experiences that war handed out, rapid and catastrophic change. An example is Miss Anstruther’s Letters by Rose Macaulay, in which Miss Anstruther frantically tries to find her dead lover’s letters after she has been bombed out. This was Rose Macaulay’s experience, and it reflects the fragility of material belongings. With the quality of writing, it is easy to find insights, description, experiences narrated with great skill.

The depth of damage resulting from six years of war is beautifully captured in Elizabeth Taylor’s story of a couple visiting France and trying to reconnect after their different experiences of the war. It is called Gravement Endommagé and considers damage at many levels.

I can’t review individual stories here, but refer you to JacquieWine’s blog (see below) where she looked at many individual stories in two posts when she explored this collection earlier this year. 

Covid-19?

So what can we learn from the Second World War that might help us with Covid-19? We need to be resourceful and resilient. We need to adapt our lives to the profoundly anti-social aspects of the response to Covid-19. We can expect experiences as different as people are. We can expect great responses and more feeble ones. Humans, women have done it in the past. We can do it again. The values that underpin the good life must be held onto in difficult times: community, care for others, decency and integrity.

Related posts

On HeavenAli’s blog she recommends this quite marvellous collection in her review in June. 

Another enthusiastic reader is JacquiWine who provided two posts on her blog to do justice to the collection. 

Novels from the Home Front (on Bookword in November 2019)

The War-Time Stories and Letters of Molly Panter-Downes. (January 2019)

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther (November 2018)

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston, first published in 1988 by Virago and republished in 2019. 360pp

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I explored ten novels by women, one a month, 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. For November I have added this important collection. In December I will review the year’s blogs and consider a theme for 2021.

The post war choices for the project have been:

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)

In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes (1994)

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The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann

Do you know that Thurber cartoon: a stout woman is reading a book in a relaxed manner, legs hanging over the arm of her chair? Her middle-aged husband sits foursquare and has the paper open and looks startled. She tells him: ‘It’s our own story exactly! He’s a bold as a hawk, she’s soft as the dawn.’

When I first read this book, in the early ‘80s perhaps when Virago republished it, I felt that – it was my story. And rereading it recently that feeling has not changed. I knew what she was writing about. Perhaps more to the point, Rosamond Lehmann knew what she was writing about.

The Weather in the Streets

The story is a kind of sequel to Invitation to the Waltz, in which Olivia Curtis was poised on the brink of adulthood, socially awkward at a ball, and rescued by Rollo Spencer. Ten years later she is now married but has separated from Ivor. This novel is the story of her affair with Rollo. 

At the start of the story she is going home to see her father who may be dying. He isn’t but he remains an invalid. On the train she meets Rollo. They have not met since Marigold’s coming out party. They are attracted to each other, and after Rollo has ensured she gets invited to his family’s country house for a party the die is cast. The affair is carried on for nearly a year, when after months of clandestine meetings and a holiday together in Austria Olivia finds that she is pregnant. Rollo has disappeared with his family for the rest of the summer. She endures the pregnancy until visited by Rollo’s mother. 

The affair ends because Olivia comes to see that she has always been in second place to Nicola, Rollo’s wife, always just a distraction for him. They had no future. They did have love and a good time. She returns to her artistic friends and moves on painfully. 

In love

Rosamond Lehman writes about the inner torments of isolated young women with great effect. This was the strength of Dusty Answer as well as Invitation to the Waltz. In this novel, Olivia is not yet self-assured, not yet happy in any social group. Being separated from her husband she is not welcome in most social circles, and out of tune with her family’s social connections. Rollo pays her attention, as he did at the party when she was 16, and she warms to him. They get on well and at first everything is ecstatic. But once established as his mistress she finds herself always waiting.

He’d manage to come for dinner once a week. I cooked it in the tiny cupboard of a kitchen, and he laid the table, awfully pleased with himself. I shall never like cooking, I’m not talented enough, but it was nice cooking for him, he appreciated it so. I bought a stylish new cookery book and dished up all sorts of mixtures. Sometimes when he couldn’t have dinner with me, he’d ring the bell late, about one o’clock. I never stayed out anywhere after midnight in case he did. It was rather wearing, the waiting, often after one had struck, I’d listen for the half-hour, then two, then the half-hour again, still keyed-up for the doorbell, the telephone, hearing in my brain his car come down the street and stop, sitting frozen in my chair – a listening machine. … I asked him how he explained when he came late. ‘I go to look up old George,’ he said. I knew that George was a habitué of the house – Nicola’s friend – it didn’t seem safe, but he and George had standing orders for the last ten years to provide an unhesitating alibi on all occasions with an element of doubt in them. George could be trusted. He was a very useful chap, never been known to ask a question. (191)

The dynamics of love

She’s an expert at describing falling in love, the invisible currents between two people, how each takes it a little further until it’s a settled thing. She illuminates the way love can put you into a bubble, when nothing exists except in relation to this wonderful thing that’s happening. And those little jolts, the sparks when one of the pair is offended, but the other hasn’t noticed. In the passage above I notice how smoothly Rollo uses his alibi, set up ten years ago. Has he needed it before, will he need it again? Is this a man of honour? And I notice how Olivia sacrifices her own freedoms, her own life to wait for him.

An accomplished writer

When she published this novel Rosamond Lehmann was well established. She had gained a reputation of being a little racy with Dusty Answer. Like a number of women writers of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor are two examples, she was able to convey so much in one sentence, one movement, one piece of dialogue and had the skill to convey the reactions people had to each other through their words. Here is the moment when Olivia and Rollo hesitate just before committing themselves to an illicit relationship.

Getting up from my stool to take another cigarette, nervouser and nervouser … He struck a match, saying very softly, in a funny, diffident, plaintive voice: ‘I’ve thought about this evening such a lot.’
‘So’ve I.’ Looking at the cigarette, puffing furiously.
He put his head down suddenly to give me a light quick kiss on the cheek. No good. What can break this down? How to melt, how to start? … Because here he is, he’s come for what I promised, it’s got to be made to be …standing side by side in Etty’s crammed room …
‘Darling, are you glad to see me?’ Coaxing …
‘Yes, Rollo.’
‘Don’t be frightened,’ he said.
It was all over before now, it could still be nothing, never happen … I don’t know how, there wasn’t one moment, but he made it all come right as he always did, saying: ‘She won’t be coming in, will she?’ (144-5)

In this extract there are no less than six ellipses indicating tentative moves, hesitancy which is put to an end by his practical (practised?) inquiry about her flat mate’s return.

The scene between Olivia and Rollo’s mother, as another example, expresses so much, not least through what is not said. It proves decisive.

Our own story exactly!

To wait, to be waiting always between the moments of aliveness, to give way with grace, to always look over your shoulder, to exercise discretion when you want to shout about it. This is what I recognised in this novel so long ago and what I recognised again. Rosamond Lehmann keeps our attention on Olivia and our sympathies with her conflicting emotions as the affair progresses. The impossibility of making a life around a doomed love affair, the million and one slights, offences, disappointments, as well as the ecstasy and belief that no-body else had loved as we did.

The novel is not short. The central section is written in the first person, but we move away again into the third person when things get difficult for Olivia and Rollo. We can see that none of the marriages in this novel are perfect. Compromises and sacrifices have been made. Some have endured. In her family circle her mother is now devoting herself to an invalid husband;  her sister has married a doctor and had four children after a bitter experience of love; her brother James is wandering Europe, a bit of a loner, possibly gay. 

The gender imbalance is obvious, but not emphasised. Rollo can do what he wants. He’s a nice enough chap. Doesn’t want to hurt anyone. But he can’t sustain the relationship with Olivia. She ultimately needs more than he is prepared to give.

I wanted more for Olivia as well. I wanted her to be able to embrace marriage. But it seems that marriage does not suit some people. As I didn’t quite say, ‘My story exactly.’

The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann, first published in 1936 and then by Virago in 1981. It has been reprinted 19 times since then. 372pp

Related posts

Invitation to the Waltz  by Rosamond Lehmann

Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann

In an enthusiastic review of Weather in the Streets posted in July this year, JacquieWine’s Journal says this novel ‘expertly captures the cruelty, frustration and devastation of a doomed love affair in the most glittering prose’. 

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In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes

I found the following story very funny when I was trying hard to be an intellectual 6th former. At an encounter group they are playing ‘who am I?’ to get to know each other. One person says: I have issues with my mother. All the participants think: that’s me! Mothers! We all have issues with our own and/or being one.

In a Country of Mothers is my choice for the 1990s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). It was published by Virago in 1994. AM Homes also wrote May We Be Forgiven, which won the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction. My notes when I read that book recorded that 

she is a vivid and brave writer, with a wonderful sense of the absurd, the absurd but possible, and with a tender aspect as well.

So as we reach the end of the century we recognise the world of this writer: therapy, aeroplanes, summer holidays, graduate education. We have come a long way through the twentieth century, from the first book in this year’s project, when the main character was battling with Victorian attitudes.

In a Country of Mothers

Claire is a successful therapist, with a lucrative if not satisfying practice in Manhattan. She is married to Sam, a lawyer, and they have two sons. They live in a small flat on Fifth Avenue. Her two boys cause her great concern and worry, to the point of obsession.

“Shit,” Jake said.
“What?”
It wasn’t like Jake to swear. The beginning of the end: in the morning he’d come down to breakfast with an unfiltered Camel hanging out of the corner of his eleven-year-old mouth. (15)

Claire gave up a child for adoption, under pressure from her parents, 25 years before. She thinks about this lost daugter every day, and later it is revealed has bought her birthday presents every year. 

Jody is her new patient. She is 25, and works as an assistant to a famous director and has just achieved her dream of a place at UCLA film school. She is finding difficulty with this career move. In therapy it emerges that Jody was adopted about 25 years ago, as a replacement for a son that died aged 7. She can never be sure that her parents love her enough, and she finds herself continually arguing with her mother, even though they speak every night on the phone. Her mother is not quite enough and too clingy all at the same time. 

Jody comes for therapy on the recommendation of her previous therapist (who once knew Claire). Claire is immediately attracted to Jody who is spikey, creative and very sharp. When the summer comes Jody moves to LA and Claire goes on holiday with her family to the beach for a month. Suddenly both women realise how much they are missing: Claire misses her ‘daughter’ and Jody misses her ‘mother’.

When Jody falls ill in LA Claire steps out of her therapist role and insists that Jody’s mother brings her back to New York. She becomes more and more intrusive in Jody’s life, finding her a physician, even meeting the parents not just to ensure the care of Jody but also to find out facts about the adoption. Jody does not recover, and Claire becomes more and more obsessed and neither of them can find a way out of the ties that binds them together. It all ends very badly. Neither understands themselves or each other. 

The obsessive need for a mother or daughter and the impossibility of anyone living up to the role becomes more destructive every moment. Jody’s mother can never get it right, always refers stuff back to herself. Towards the end of the novel Jody comes to see that she had wanted her mother to be different. 

This was the woman who had loved her to the best of her abilities, however limited they might have been. She’d loved Jody to the limit of her fear. She’d taken a stranger’s child and claimed it as her own. How could Jody hope that her mother would magically become someone else? If Jody wanted someone else, she’d have to become that person herself. (161)

It is uncomfortable to realise that the therapist-client relationship may easily lead to difficulties, easily spill beyond the roles of therapist and patient. But, one is forced to ask, isn’t that what happens?

It’s an uncomfortable book, but that is the kind of writer that AM Homes is. She explores acute situations and characters at full stretch. Her novels are therefore often controversial.

In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes first published in 1993 and by Virago in 1994. I read the Granta edition published in 2013. 275pp

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I have been exploring novels by women. I framed 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 a book published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices have included rereads, classics and some new discoveries. In December I will review the year’s blogs for the project, but in November I will be looking at a collection of stories published by Virago during the Century.

The post war choices for the project have been:

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)

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Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns

Benefits was written by a woman almost exactly the same age as me. We were young at that time: 31 years old. It was Zoe Fairbairns’ third novel. In Benefits she presents us with a vision of the future, seen from 1979, in which women continued to be controlled by technical, political and chemical means. It’s always attractive to consider what a writer got wrong or right about  the future. The details are different, but we should remember that today withholding benefits, Universal Credit, is used to punish the poor for any transgressions: failed appointments, mistakes, and unreported changes in circumstances. 

Benefits is my choice for the 1970s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). The Female Eunuch had been published in 1970 and The Feminine Mystique in 1963.  Women were widely involved in feminism and women’s liberation. Consciousness raising groups of women were everywhere. Benefits rises out of the concerns of the late 70s.

Benefits

Set in a dystopian future beginning in the late 1970s, women are threatened by a government that starts off by awarding benefits to mothers and gradually begins to control their lives through the benefits and then through an even more sinister project.

The story follows two women. One is Lynn, a kind of middle of the road feminist, who is not unhappily married, has a daughter with a chronic illness, and who participates in the commune in the abandoned high rise: Collindeane Tower.

Marsha also drifts into the orbit of the commune, and takes up with Polly, a bossy Australian feminist who would like to take charge, but ultimately flees back to Oz, taking Marsha with her.

Another character is David Laing, a former social worker with a coffee habit and a controlling nature who becomes a minister. He is able to see the problems with the welfare system at the start of the novel, but is unable to engage sufficiently with the women who he knows. Peel, his subordinate and later his successor,  has a damning view of Laing, an early expression of the anti-boomers rhetoric we still hear today. 

He was of the soft generation, of the post-war guilt-ridden child-obsessed baby boom. They rode a roller coaster of gratuities: free milk, free cod liver oil, free schools, free medicine, free grants to go to college … it was Peel’s view that the trauma of the seventies, the sudden realisation that the party was over and they couldn’t get what they wanted by slapping on the label rights and howling, had blighted the generation for life, had rendered them incapable of understanding how life works. (168)

The policy shifts and changes, beginning with the benevolence of benefits paid into the purses of mothers, objected to by trades unions which were dominated by men who did not want to pay more taxes for the benefits; subsequently compliance was required to qualify for the benefits and ultimately to control women through narrow qualifications.

Any woman of child-bearing age seen on the streets without children in tow ran the risk of being stoned, spat on or refused admission to public buildings or transport. Some reported attacks by gangs of men who threatened a repetition if the women did not go back to their children. The policemen wrote down the details carefully. Then they said, ‘Are you sure you didn’t ask for it?’ (140)

Ultimately, as part of a shady deal with Europop to control women’s fecundity through chemical means, the whole thing unravels, helped by the violent death of Laing and the inspired children’s strike by women. 

Women’s issues

In the ‘70s women were struggling with question about organisation, living arrangements, leadership and how to improve their lives. Has that changed? Women’s lived experience must be put up against policy to check its value. By interweaving the stories of Lynn and Marsha and others, the author is able to show how distorted were the governments seeking to control women.

Of course Zoe Fairbairns did not know about Mrs Thatcher’s government and where it would take us in terms of cutting back the welfare state, and the industrial economy. She did not see the political division over the closing of the mines or the Falklands War, the Poll Tax and later the Iraqi war and years of austerity, let alone Covid-19. 

But the desire to control people, especially women, by those in political power remains. Today some of it is by the appeal to a past that did not exist, to ideas that are corroded and by denying or ignoring the outcomes of poor decisions and actions.

Zoe Fairbairns

Born in 1948, she began her writing career early, having two books published before she left university. She worked in women’s publications and journalism, including Spare Rib and continued to publish novels and short stories. Her most recent book is on writing short stories. 

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979) published by Virago. 214 pp 

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

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

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The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

Sally Jay Gorce is a lively 20-year-old American in Paris, the narrator of this novel. She is being subsidised by her rich uncle, so does not have to worry about money. She is a fresh voice, relating the succession of disasters in her life with sparkle, wit, some insight, and with great style. Just right for the post-war world.

The Dud Avocado was the first novel by Elaine Dundy. It quickly became a best seller. It was published in America in 1958, and was reissued by Penguin Books in 1960 and by Virago in 1993. With this choice for the the sixth decade in the Decades Project 2020 (see below) we emerge from the Second World War. 

The Dud Avocado

I first read this in 1961, perhaps the very copy I still have in my possession. At the time I thought it was risqué, funny, modern, definitely the voice of youth. Now with a reread it feels dated, and I have to admit that I was a little bored at times. Too many evenings in the bars and nightclubs, pursued by men, following her dream of becoming an actress and hooking up with Larry Keevil. (Really, the name should have been the clue.)

Sally Jay appears to be lively and irresistible. She certainly attracts attention, not least because when she first appears she is wearing an evening gown and it is around eleven in the morning. 

‘It’s all I’ve got to wear. My laundry hasn’t come back yet.’ (10)

And her hair is pink, originally ‘dyed a marvellous shade of red so popular with Parisian tarts that season’. (9) A bit on the transgressive and scatty side then.

She decides to ditch the Italian diplomat with whom she has been having an affair. She wanted to lose her virginity and she thought it was rather dashing to have an affair with a man who already had both a wife and mistress. She moves on through many casual encounters, and a relationship with Paul, an American painter. He is serious, but she leaves him to spend the summer in a villa near Biarritz. This has been organised by Larry, who has brought along a hunky Canadian who is keen to take up with Sally Jay and a girl he wants to seduce. Sally Jay’s main objective is to secure Larry for herself. But he becomes very elusive. She acts in his theatre company, spends the summer in his, but never gets into his bed.

During the timescale of the narrative (September to the next late Summer) she joins in the lively young night life in Paris and near their villa. They go to bars and nightclubs, dance and drink, eat and drink, and get involved in acting in plays and the movies. Her impetus for this hedonism seems to be that she is young. Here she is explaining to Teddy, the rejected Italian diplomat, why he is so angry.

What you can’t stand is the whole new young adventurous population with either just a little money or no money at all, no jobs, nothing, just a desire maybe to see the world awhile. Then all the jealousy and envy in your mournful little unfulfilled life rises up inside you and you have to invent all sorts of dark sinister motives for everyone. (212)

She says some pretty unpleasant things to people from time to time. But there are two things I noted about this statement. One is that young people really did feel like this well into the late ‘60s. And secondly that some of her circle did have ‘dark sinister motives’ for their actions, as Sally Jay found out later.

She asserts her right as a young person (a well-off American?) to explore life as she wishes. I think we could see her as an early example of that trend that became almost obligatory in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s: to find yourself through life’s experiences.

I said that I tired of her, and it is true that the endless round of partying, name-dropping and wildness palled. I enjoyed its raciness more when I read it in my early teens. Her selfishness is only a little curtailed by the theft of her passport and the underhand and abusive behaviour of one of her circle.  She herself is rescued by a wealthy and glamorous man who only appears in the last 15 pages. 

Elaine Dundy

Elaine Dundy (1921-2008) was born into a wealthy family in New York and educated at home by governesses. After the Second World War she escaped to Paris and then to London, where she married the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan in 1951. (His name is dropped in the novel). They had a fraught marriage and separated in 1964. She worked on the satirical tv programme That Was The Week That Was, which had the reputation of being anti=Establishment. Back in the US she wrote two more novels and continued to make her name in theatre, journalism, films and writing biographies. 

The comparison with Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not resisted in many comments about Sally Jay. The novels were published in the same year. 

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy, first published in 1958. I used the Penguin edition from 1960.  255pp

Some relevant sites:

In the Guardian in August 2011, Rachel Cooke sees the Sally Jay’s life as ‘a complicated hoot’. She is not too bothered by the amoral aspects of the story. She rightly points out that no one reads this novel for the plot and enjoys the details of the heroine’s chaotic life. You can find her observations here

Simon in Tredynas Days, in May 2018, found that it was best to read the novel in small doses, to appreciate its qualities, like savouring chocolates in a box. Here are his comments in full.

The Decades Project 2020

This year I am indulging my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. 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 first five choices for the project were

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

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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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