Oh joy! The latest Persephone Biannually has dropped through the letterbox, complete with a bookmark for The Journey Home by Malachi Whitaker, whom I have never read, but this edition includes her short story Smoke of the Tide, so I can give her a try! And there are all sorts of other articles, including one on Guard Your Daughters and its author Diana Tutton. Persephone remains one of my favourite publishers, and the bookshop in Lamb’s Conduit Street is always worth a visit, even if you don’t buy anything, though personally I don’t think it’s possible to come away empty-handed. On my last visit a few weeks ago I gave up all pretence of succumbing to temptation on the spur of the moment, and went armed with a list. But I was very restrained and only bought three titles – Minnie’s Room, Tea With Mr Rochester and Greengates. Then, when I was at my mother’s last week I found a copy of the Persephone edition of Someone at a Distance, by Dorothy Whipple, in a charity bookshop for just £1! I queried the price, because it’s worth more, and it’s in pristine condition although, alas, there is no bookmark… still, you can’t have everything. Anyway, I’m half-way through Someone at a Distance, which is very good indeed, and I’m planning a bit of a Persephone marathon at the moment fortified, as I always say, by tea and cake!
The blurb on the back of Hilary Bailey’s Hannie Richards or The Intrepid Adventures of a Restless Wife describes it as a ‘pastiche’ of John Buchan, and I suppose that’s right to some extent, because the connection is clearly visible in our heroine’s name – Hannie Richards/Richard Hannay. And the author subverts the male world of adventure by having a female protagonist who is less interested in righting wrongs than in making money.
Hannie, tall, slender, red-haired, good looking, is married to a gentleman farmer and appears to be the perfect wife and mother, as well having a career which takes her all over the world. But she is leading a double life, for she is really a highly sought after international smuggler, commanding extremely high fees for her services. She’s cool-headed, courageous, well organised – and says her success is down to the fact that people don’t look at women. But she’s completely amoral, with no scruples about the jobs she undertakes. She works for the money, to fund a nice lifestyle, and to keep the farm going, her mother in a nursing home, and her daughters at an expensive school.
She relates her adventures to fellow members of the Hope Club, a women’s version of the ‘grander gentlemen’s clubs of Mayfair or Belgravia’. Her successes include finding the evidence for a poor, black family to prove their ownership of a Caribbean island, and rescuing a strange child from war-torn Chad on a secret mission for the Vatican. There is lots of danger, and lots of action – chases, shootings, killings, a volcano…
Despite her own extra-marital exploits (which, apparently, mean nothing), she is devastated to discover her husband has embarked on an affair with their neighbour. So she plans one last job to earn enough money for a new life with her twin daughters, and travels to the Bolivian jungle to acquire a rare plant for a dying millionaire who believes it will cure his cancer. But her luck is running out. She finds herself involved with some particularly vicious villains (there’s a nasty scene where she is raped and beaten which, quite frankly, I thought was unnecessary and didn’t add anything to the story), and ends up in a Brazilian jail because someone puts drugs in her luggage.
However, all ends well because her friends at the Hope Club, worried by her disappearance, seek help from a former arms dealer, who turns out to be the mysterious stranger who has aided Hannie the past. He rescues and, naturally, they fall in love and live happily ever after (probably). Oh, and she finally develops a social conscience.
This was one of those books that sounded much more enticing than it turned out to be. It just goes to show that the lovely Virago apple is not always a mark of excellence – I didn’t hat this (it was interesting), but I wouldn’t read this again, and I’m not sure I want to read anything else by Hilary Bailey. Published in 1985, it’s very much of its time, and very much a feminist novel, though there’s nothing wrong with that – my bookshelves are packed with feminist novels that I love. I just didn’t love this one. To start with I thought perhaps it was meant to be a comedy, because the adventures were so ludicrous, but Bailey obviously has a serious message to make, not just about women’s subservient position, but about poor and oppressed people everywhere. And that’s part of the problem I think, because she takes a pop at so many institutions and attitudes – big business, organised religion, patriarchal society – which dilutes what she’s trying to say. And she’s very heavy-handed in the way she says it.
And I didn’t like Hannie or any of the other characters. None of them came to life, and there was a curious lack of emotion, so I never felt I knew what made Hannie tick, although we do learn that she started smuggling when she evaded quarantine laws by bringing a cat back from France for friends of a friend, and she says she didn’t want to be a woman waiting for her husband to come home, hanging about, trying to make ends meet (though her idea of making ends meet is somewhat different to mine). So there you are. Amazing what bored housewives can do when they put their mind to it!
Somewhere in this novel is the germ of an idea about women trying to make it in a man’s world, to support themselves and their families through their own efforts, and to live life on their own terms, whatever the cost. But as far as I’m concerned, it didn’t quite come off.
My mother rings. She is reading Jane Austen (again) and would I like to join her (again). My mother reads a lot of Jane Austen – she always did. But her reading habits have changed. Once upon a time she would read (and discuss) Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Walter Scott, the Brontes, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell to name but a few (she always liked the classics best). But these days she finds the plots too complicated, and there are too many characters, and the books are too long. They scramble her brain she says, sadly.
But Jane Austen remains a constant, perhaps because her novels are shorter, with tighter plots, and fewer characters, and Mum knows them so well that I think the printed pages are a kind of aide memoire for the words inside her head, which is why she keeps reading them. Apart from that she mostly reads books from her childhood – Winnie the Pooh, Ballet Shoes, The Railway Children, Milly Molly Mandy, The Secret Garden. Again, these are things she knows almost by heart, and she can remember her mother buying them for her, and connect them with long-ago events. And the same goes for poetry. She reads a lot of poetry, but it has to be the poetry she learned in school when she memorised a poem a week, which adds up to an awful lot of poems. With a book to prompt her she can still recite many of them, as well as great chunks of Shakespeare. However, she can’t tell you what day it is, or what she ate for breakfast.
As her dementia advances her reading matter shrinks, along with the boundaries of her life, but she still gets so much pleasure from books, as long they are very, very familiar, fairly simple, and quite short.
When I visit we chat about books and chant poetry aloud – the strong, rhythmic, rhyming verses that she loves and remembers. Fortified by tea and cake, we read The Highwayman, The Listeners, The Rolling English Road, The Smugglers Song, William Allingham’s The Fairies, part of Hiawatha, some of Wordsworth’s work, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets, Christina Rossetti’s work, a selection of John Masefield, and lots from AA Milne’s When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six… the list is endless, and she refers to the words much less than I do. We talk about poets and poetry, discuss highwaymen, smugglers and travelling, and she tells me about her childhood and the distant past.
Sometimes we discuss novels over the phone, and though her reading matter has become more limited she still finds something apposite to say about characters, politics, social issues, how people lived. Again, literature seems to jog her memory and she relates the books and people in them to her own life, however tenuous the connection may be.
Books and poetry are never going to restore my mother to the person she once was, but I’ve been surprised at the positive impact they have had, and how important it is to her, and to the family, that she should continue to read, and to talk about books. And since I love my mother, and I love reading as much as she does, I’m more than happy to join her in reading Jane Austen for the umpteenth time. She says we will begin with Persuasion, because it was Austen’s last book, so I have dug out my copy and started reading, and will report back on our progress as we go along.
If anyone is interested Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle is available on Kindle today for only 99p, and I urge anyone who has never read it to remedy the situation immediately. I know this sounds odd – after all, I read Jackson’s short story The Lottery and hated it so much I swore I’d never read anything else by her. But for some reason I clicked on this to look at the free sample, and found one of the greatest openings to any novel I’ve ever read:
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenent, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
Intriguing, I thought. Doesn’t it make you want to know more about Mary Katherine (or Merricat, as she is known)? And what happened to the Blackwoods? And what happens to Merricat and her sister? And what about that sinister reference to the death cap mushroom which creates such an air of unease…
I must have come across this before, because I’ve read other bloggers’ reviews, but maybe I didn’t notice what they said, because I just dismissed Jackson out of hand. Anyway, I bought the book, and now I’m a convert. I’ve not finished it yet, but I’m so engrossed I can’t put it down and the housework remains undone – we need ironed clothes and clean dishes, but I don’t care!!! However, I am taking a quick break just so I can tell everyone how brilliant it is, and how wrong I was to ignore Jackson. She writes like a dream, but the tale she tells has something of a nightmarish quality: it’s a fairy tale I guess, but a very, very dark one. Gothic is the word usually used to describe the novel, and I don’t think you could disagree with that.
We learn that six years ago the Blackwood parents were poisoned with arsenic and Constance was tried for murder, but acquitted through lack of evidence, although she’s generally regarded as guilty. However, it soon becomes apparent that all is not what it seems. For it is even more obvious that Merricat, with her protective charms and rituals, is deeply disturbed…
The suspense builds from that very first paragraph, and I can’t wait to see how things pan out – so far the novel gets better with every page. A proper review will follow at some stage. Meanwhile, if you go to Stuck in a Book you can read Simon T’s thoughts and Margaret at Books Please wrote a very nice piece here where she said the book was ‘weirdly wonderful’, which it absolutely is.
I always say I’m a bit of a bookish magpie, stealing ideas from other people when they catch my fancy, and I came across this ages ago, thanks to Pam at Travellin’ Penguin, and filed it away in my brain for future use, where it rattled around for several months until the other day, when I found myself singing along to David Bowie but substituting the words ‘Star Map’ for ‘Star Man’, and was prompted to dig this out.
It is a Literary Constellation, created by artist Nick Rougeux who uses the opening lines of famous books to make beautiful images. And, in case you’ve forgotten, the first sentence of Alice in Wonderland is:”Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?”
Rougeux, who describes himself as a ‘designer, data geek and fractal nut’ makes his maps from the opening lines of novels, and the first lines of chapters in short stories. I gather that the maps are basically sentence diagrams, based on grammatical structure, and words are linked according to the part of speech they are (verbs, nouns, adjectives etc) and their length.
He has a brilliant website where he explains the technique:
“Constellations were created from words of first sentences of each chapter in classic short stories to draw a paths based on word length and part of speech. The directions of lines were based on part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc.) and length is based on the length of the word. Star sizes are also based on word length. Constellations were hand-arranged in a loose clockwise pattern starting at the top with a faint highlight connecting each in the order chapters appeared in the story representing the cloud of the galaxy usually shown in vintage star charts.”
He also produces artwork from punctuation:
Talking about this on his website he says:
“Between the Words is an exploration of visual rhythm of punctuation in well-known literary works. All letters, numbers, spaces, and line breaks were removed from entire texts of classic stories like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Moby Dick, and Pride and Prejudice—leaving only the punctuation in one continuous line of symbols in the order they appear in texts. The remaining punctuation was arranged in a spiral starting at the top center with markings for each chapter and classic illustrations at the centre.”
Among other things he also uses musical staves, colour palettes of illustrations in the New Yorker magazine, and sonnet signatures, which are visualisations of Shakespeare’s sonnets as signatures based their letters.
His says he is fascinated by data visualisation and fractal artwork, which I assume means it is done on a computer, and I dare say purists will claim it is not ‘real art’, but I like his work – it’s a very different way of looking at things, and makes you think.
Today’s book is The Street, by Ann Petry, chosen because it is set in Harlem, just like The Constant Sinner, and makes an interesting companion piece. As you might expect, some of the themes are very similar: there is crime, prostitution, even murder. But there the similarity ends for this novel, written in 1945 and published the following year, is much bleaker and much more of a political protest. And Petry is a far better writer than West. She doesn’t glamorise the street and its inhabitants: life there is hard. It’s sordid and shabby, and people are downtrodden and disillusioned, with no hope left. Some turn to crime because its the only way they can survive, and it offers a way out of the dirt, the degradation, and the poverty. But they show no mercy to anyone weaker.
The street itself is almost a living entity, as much a character as the people. It’s malevolent, overwhelming and oppressive, grinding the residents down, killing their last vestiges of joy, optimism, pride and independence.
‘There was a cold November wind blowing through 116th Street… It found every scrap of paper long the street – theatre programmes, announcements of dances and meetings, the heavy waxed paper that loaves of bread had been wrapped in, the thinner waxed paper that enclosed sandwiches., old envelopes, newspapers. Fingering its way along the kerb, the wind set the bits of paper to dancing high in the air, so that a barrage of paper swirled into the faces of the people on the street. It even took time to rush into doorways and areas and find chicken bones and pork-chop bones and push them along the kerb.
It did everything it could to discourage the people walking along the street. It found all the dirt and dust and grime on the pavement and lifted it up so that the dirt got into their noses making it difficult breathe; the dust got into their eyes and blinded them; and the grit stung their skins.’
Into the street and the wind walks beautiful Lutie Johnson looking for a flat, and you feel the wind is trying to warn her off, to chase her away. Lutie knows this is not a good place. The flat she takes, like other flats in this house, in this street, is small, dark, dirty, and noisy. and everywhere smells of garbage. Jones, the sinister Superintendent (Supe or Super, as he is known), looks at her with lechery in his heart and mind. Then there is Mrs Hedges, enormously fat, with a bandana around her head, sitting by her window watching the world with her snake eyes. Sharing her flat, acting as her maids, are young girls who are not quite what they seem, for Mrs Hedges is a brothel keeper and, as she tells Lutie, a good-looking black girl can always earn extra money if she is especially nice to a white man.
But Lutie is not interested. She wants a better, safer life for herself and her nine-year-old son Bub, and she aims to raise herself out of poverty by her own honest endeavours. For the moment, this is all can can afford and anything – well, almost anything – is better than life with her drunken father and his current girlfriend.
Lutie once worked as a live-in a maid/housekeeper/cook for the wealthy, white Chandlers, but in her absence her jobless husband acquires another woman. So Lutie takes her son and moves in with her father. She takes a dead-end job, and scrimps and saves so she can learn the skills needed for an office job.
Proud and independent, she vows she will never be defeated and dejected like others in the street for her time with the Chandlers has given a glimpse of a better way of life (she is particularly impressed with their kitchen) and exposed her to new ideas. She has learned that America is the land of the free, and believes that if she works hard and saves her money she can be independent and will be able to move out of the Harlem slum and create a new life with improved opportunities for Bub.
She has the chance to earn extra money singing in a nightclub for band leader Boots Smith, but nothing is ever finalised, and the cash is never forthcoming. The story gets more complicated, because Jones, the Superintendent at the flats, has initially befriended Bub in the hope that this will endear him to Lutie, but she makes it clear she is not interested, and he is warned off by Mrs Hedges, a friend of Junto, who owns and controls everything in the area and wants to sleep with Lutie… To get his own back, Jones sets Bub up as the fall guy in a scheme to steal letters from tenants in neighbouring blocks, luring the boy with the promise of payment – and Bub, knowing that Lutie needs more money, agrees. He is caught by the police, and Lutie must raise 200 dollars to get him released and keep him out of reform school, so she turns to Boots for help. But she will only get paid if she is nice to Junto – and she won’t sleep with him. Finally, when Boots tries to have his way with she snaps, grabs a candlestick and beats him to death…
The story is told in multiple viewpoints and flashbacks, and there are back stories for many of the characters, so as their pasts are revealed you can understand why they are as they are, even if if you cannot warm to them. Big, fat Mrs Hedges has faced tragedy and destitution with fortitude and courage, and her business may not be legal (or morally acceptable) but she provides a safe home for her girls and ensures they are well fed and well dressed. In many ways she’s as much a victim of life as her girls or Lutie.
Then there’s Jones, the abusive superintendent, who has spent his life in the bowels of ships and buildings, unable to form friendships or relationships with people, but desperately lonely and yearning for a woman. And there is Min, the meek, shapeless woman who lives with Jones and turns to Prophet David for help, though I’m a little unclear whether she wants to him love her or to keep away. At any rate, she recieves a cross to go above the bed (which certainly keeps Jones at bay) and a potion to put in his drink.
And there are the Chandlers, who have their own problems and tragedies, which proves that money can’t buy happiness. And it’s interesting to see how Mrs Chandler’s attitude towards Lutie changes when other people are around – when the two women are alone she is quite friendly, but as soon as people appear the barriers go up and they are employer and employee again.
But the social divide can never be crossed – there’s a gulf between black and white, rich and poor, male and female. The issues that are so much part of Harlem life cannot be overlooked. Towards the end of the novel Petry writes of Lutie:
‘Her thoughts were like a chorus chanting inside her head. The men stood round and the women worked.The men left the women and the women went on working and the kids were left alone. The kids burned lights all night because they were alone in small, dark rooms and they were afraid. Alone. Always alone. They wouldn’t stay in the house after school because they were afraid in the empty, dark, silent rooms. And they should have been playing in wide stretches of green park and instead they were in the street. And the street reached out and sucked them up.’
And she adds:
‘The women work because the white folks give the jobs – washing dishes and clothes and floors and windows. The women work because for years now the white folks haven’t liked to give black men jobs that paid enough to support their families. And finally it gets to be to be too late for some of them. Even wars don’t change it. The men get out of the habit of working…’
And we know, and she knows, that it’s too late for her, and too late for Bub. There will be no rescue for either of them because they are black and poor, and the system is weighted against them. And it’s such a tragedy, because Lutie is so feisty, and has courage and principles and determination, and she is trying to protect her son and open up a new, better future for him, yet in the end her dreams are shattered and it is she who will be responsible for damaging him beyond repair and ensuring that he will never get that brighter future.
I’d never heard of Ann Petry, but I spotted this Virago edition in Astley Book Farm (the best second-hand book shop I know). Apparently, sales of the novel topped a million and it was the first time a black, female writer achieved success on this scale. She was also the first black, female writer to explore the problems of slum life in a novel. The book was based very much on what she saw during the six years she spent as a reporter in Harlem, and the work she undertook investigating the effects of segregation on children.
If you want to know more about her there’s an interesting (but short) article here and the website also has a video giving a brief history of Harlem, which I found really interesting.
Mother and Son, by Ivy Compton-Burnett was bought at the same time as Mae West’s The Constant Sinner, and bears out my theory that you should never make assumptions about books. I bought the West book out of curiosity and, against all expectation, thoroughly enjoyed it. On the other hand I had high hopes for Mother and Son, and absolutely HATED everything about it – the characters, the story, and especially the way it was written. Sometimes, even when I don’t like book, I can appreciate the way it is constructed, and understand why other people would praise it, but not in this case. In fact I can’t understand why Compton-Burnett is so highly esteemed, and I was disappointed, because she’s admired by so many people, including Simon T over at Stuck in a Book, whose recommendations usually turn out to be excellent.
Plus IC-B gets a mention in Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader (which is brilliant – all book lovers should read it). He describes how the Queen, in pursuit of barking corgis, stumbles upon a mobile library van. Consequently, she discovers the joys of reading, and her first book, by Ivy Compton-Burnett, is selected because she made the author a dame. “Yes, I remember that hair, a roll like a pie-crust that went right round her head,” she recalls. And when I looked at photographs of the author I realised how apt that description that is – but how terrible for a writer to be remembered for her hair rather than her prose!
Anyway, the novel opens as Miranda Hume, a strong-willed 80-year-old matriarch, is interviewing an applicant for the post of companion. But Miss Burke is as strong-minded as her prospective employer. During the course of the conversation we learn that Miss Burke believes housework has very little to do with companionship, which is very true, and made me recall Max de Winter’s first meeting with the nameless heroine of Rebecca, when he says: “I did not know one could buy companionship,” and adds: “It sounds a strange idea.” The nature of companionship, and fear of being alone seem to be the main themes of the novel. The characters, as Hilary Spurling observes in her introduction, are not satisfied with the companionship on offer – but are unable to manage without it.
Until she can find a suitable person, Miranda falls back on the companionship of her middle-aged, son Rosebery – they seem almost unhealthily close. And there is her husband Julius, her orphaned teenage nephews and niece, Bates the maid, and Mr Pettigrew the tutor. It’s a strange, constrained sort of household, very different to the nearby establishment run by friends Miss Greatheart and Miss Wolsey (who take Miss Burke on as their housekeeper).
The book was written in 1955, but reads like something from an earlier age – it’s difficut tell when it is set. There’s not much of a plot, although hidden secrets are revealed, and none of the characters came to life for me; I found them unlikable, unrealistic and not very clearly defined.
I must admit that since Compton-Burnett is known for her strong use of dialogue, while I love lots of description, this was never likely to be my ideal read. I adore Dickens and Trollope and all those Victorian novelists who covered page after page with details of the weather, a dinner party table, slum housing and all sorts of other stuff. I want to know what people looked like, and where they lived and what they wore, and I like to find out what they thought and what made them tick. As far as I am concerned dialogue is fine, in small doses, and it should help reveal plot and character. But you don’t get that with Compton-Burnett. What you do get is a book full of dialogue, to the exclusion of all else. And very stilted dialogue it is. The speech patterns, words and language seem terribly old-fashioned, which could be due to the passing of time, but I refuse to believe anyone ever spoke like this in real life and especially not in the mid-50s.
On occasions I wondered if it was meant to be a parody: if Stella Gibbons had written things like ‘truly the flesh is weak’, ‘my watch informs me of the hour’, or ‘do not look at me with an expression that pierces the heart’, we would know absolutely that this is not serious. In fact that last quote could just as easily come from Oswald Bastable, or any of Edith Nesbit’s other child heroes and heroines, using fantastical.high-flown language when playing together or describing their adventures.
And all the characters have the same voice, which is really, really irritating (and confusing). Everyone, whatever their age or social class, speaks in exactly the same fashion, without any hint of character or experience. If you read a page with the attributions removed you would have no idea who was speaking. In fact, there are great chunks of this novel where I was totally confused as to who said what. And there’s no emotion or feeling, or insight into character. It’s as if the’re bad actors mouthing lines which are witty but meaningless.