Posted in 20thC

The Wedding Group

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The cover of this old hardback is much nicer than the modern paperback.

Oops! I had a brainstorm when I mentioned the 1968 Club and forgot to say that I’d also read The Wedding Group, by Elizabeth Taylor, so I’m writing about it now, and will try to squeeze Muriel Spark in before the week ends. Taylor’s writing, like many of her characters, tends to be understated, restrained and gentle. But there’s nothing cosy or comforting about her work; no-one dissects the middle classes quite like her, and she can be every bit as cruel and acerbic as Muriel Spark or Beryl Bainbridge, with a dark edge that is not always apparent at first reading. The Wedding Group isn’t generally regarded as one of her best novels, but I loved it. Like Bainbridge’s  Another Part of the Wood, the storyline is slender, and it’s the interplay of emotions between the characters which is important. Again, the characters aren’t necessarily likable, but Taylor writes with a warmth and understanding that Bainbridge lacks. 

Quayne is an island of self-sufficiency in a consumer world. It’s a cloistered, quasi-Catholic community created by artist Harry Bretton, commonly known as the Master. He had a period of notoriety when he first produced his paintings of religious scenes peopled by those in his inner circle. Over the years his fame has faded, but he continues to dominate his family, friends and acolytes. He wears a smock, sandals and shepherd’s cloak, talks about humility in art, and humility in life, thinks feminism is an ‘ungainly aberration’, and has opinions on everything. He has established the ‘good life’, with home-grown vegetables, home-baked bread (in vast quantities) and hand-woven clothes. Taylor tells us:

“Here, at Quayne, everything was all of a piece, everyone, everything, fitted into the Master’s scheme; for Harry  Bretton had views on every aspect of life, and had, with what seemed to be the greatest of luck, found that all formed part of the whole vision, Here, there was nothing he thought of as spurious, nothing meretricious, nothing counterfeit. All was wholesome, necessary, simple, therefore good and beautiful, too.”

St Francis and the Birds 1935 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959
Apparently Harry is based on Stanley Spencer or Eric Gill (or both).  Spencer is mentioned in the novel, so I’ve included his painting of St Francis and the birds because I like it, and I imagine Harry looking a little like this in his smock and sandals.

But there is one dissenter among his band of followers: as he himself observes, Cressida, his 18-year-old granddaughter, no longer sings in tune with the family. It’s the swinging sixties, and Cressy doesn’t want to wear home-made sack-like dresses and eat beans (and who can blame her). “She dreamed of Wimpy Bars and a young man with a sports car, of cheap and fashionable clothes that would fall apart before she tired of them,” says Taylor. Cressy leaves home, and gets a job in an antique shop where she lives in a room in the attic.

She drifts into marriage with journalist David (who she first met when he wrote a feature on life at Quayne), they move into a damp, cold dilapidated cottage, and produce a baby son. David is smitten by Cressy’s other-worldly charms, her gallantry in starting a new life, and her joy and enthusiasm embracing her new world – she loves popular culture, television, junk food and trashy, throw-away possessions. However, her isolated upbringing means she is an innocent cast adrift in an environment she doesn’t understand, and married life is not what she expects. She’s no good at cooking or housework, is nervous of the baby (who cries constantly and is sick a lot), and is lonely, for David commutes to London every day and often stays overnight, allegedly with a photographer friend because it’s so late he can’t get home, but in reality visiting Nell, his former girlfriend who is now his mistress. And his mother Midge is a force to be reckoned with, although she masks her true intentions under a guise of helpfulness.

Midge is another lonely woman. She is desperately, desperately lonely since her husband walked out and her elder sons moved away. Now she lives her life for and through David, and has re-invented herself to become the perfect housewife and companion, caring for him so well that, hopefully, he will never leave. She is devastated by his marriage, but lays her plans carefully. On the face of it she is kind and supportive, but there’s a brilliant moment when Taylor describes how Midge stops her car to give Cressy a lift: “Oh, you are the most thoughtful woman I ever knew,” Cressy said, getting in. Indeed, Midge did have a great number of thoughts. Few could have more.” 

Midge’s help highlights the difference between her own well-ordered home and the chaos at the cottage, and the more she does the less able Cressy becomes. Her moment of of rebellion is diminished as Midge becomes more powerful, and she loses herself, unable to fight back because she doesn’t even realise that a war of wills is under way. And just as the young couple are thinking of fulfilling their dream and escaping to London there is a mysterious burglary… there are no fingerprints or other evidence… but Midge’s diamond earrings have been stolen… so David and Cressy cannot leave her…

Despite this crisis the novel ends on an upbeat note, and one can only hope that David and Cressy finally find happiness and make a life for themselves, though neither of them is very good at looking after themselves, let alone others.

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Novelist Elizabeth Taylor.

There’s a host of other characters brought to life with deftness and humour. People speak in clichés which convey new, hidden meanings, and Taylor is a master of elusion, obscuring certain facts, just as people do in real life, but somehow this lack of precision serves to make things clearer. What she doesn’t say is as important was what she does, and she tells us exactly what we need to know, no more, and no less, and in so doing rapidly establishes personality. For example, there’s Mrs Brindle, the gossipy charwoman who works for Quayne and Midge, and can’t help overhearing what she shouldn’t know and having heard can’t forget!

And there’s the beautiful, sophisticated brother and sister who run the antique shop and are strangely close. One wonders what is going on there, nut nothing explicit is ever revealed, and we’re left to draw our own conclusions.

Then there is David’s father, old before his time, with a quaint, old-fashioned turn of phrase. Just like Midge (who he is ‘keeping in gin’) he seems to have created a version of himself that may or may not be real (which of us ever knows who a person truly is).and this may account for the fact that he looks and sounds like an actor playing part – even his bald head looks like a wig. David’s conversations with his father are very funny, but there are some heart-stoppingly sad moments.

And, of course, there is the community at Quayne, which finds itself under threat as new houses invade the surrounding woodland, and Cousin Pet falls prey to an older man and gives birth, much to Harry’s delight since he needs a model for his Madonna and Child! Apart from Harry, who dominates the group, the most memorable character is their tame priest Father Daughtry, who likes ‘fillums’ and alcohol. Mostly the family and their hangers-on are meek, mild, and very quiet – years of living with Harry have ground them into submission, though you can see that Cressy’s father must once have been more lively than he is now. And there’s a poignant moment when she realises that if she had been a better daughter then unemotional Rose might have been a better mother.

The novel is very much about loneliness, and people’s response to it, and the way they cope – they may live together, and there are ties that bind them to others, but somehow they still lead solitary lives and never form trusting, sharing relationships.

PS: You can see what everyone else at the 1968 Club has been reading by clicking here.

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Posted in 20thC

Another Part of the Wood

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Right. It’s 1968 so I can party along with everyone else at the ‘club’ organised by Simon over at Stuck in a Book, and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. The dedicated duo have been working their way through the decades, celebrating books issued in 1924, 1938, 1947 and 1951, and for each of those years there are novels I know and love – but I have failed to join in because Life, The Universe and Everything got in the way!

This time around I was determined to make an effort, but when I looked at the list my heart sank because I’ve read virtually none of the fiction titles, with the exception of Tigers are Better Looking, a collection of short stories by Jean Rhys (which I mentioned here), and Christa Wolf’s wonderful novel The Quest for Christa T, which I planned to re-read, to refresh my memory But, alas, I but couldn’t find it, so I put Plan B into operation and bought Muriel Spark’s The Public Image and Another Part of the Wood by Beryl Bainbridge, and read them last week, while I was cat and rabbit sitting for my elder daughter.

Both authors are known for their sharp wit, their ability to put uncomfortable relationships under the microscope, and their dark humour. And Another Part of the Wood is very dark indeed. Here we have a disparate group of people staying in ramshackle huts in an isolated Welsh wood where facilities are pretty basic. And in this wild setting the thin veneer of civilisation peels away from the enclosed group and human failings are exposed – spite, cruelty, selfishness, carelessness, neglect, self-delusion…

Another part of the wood

They are damaged people whose behaviour damages others, and none of them is likable, but for once this doesn’t matter; it’s the interplay between the characters that’s important, and the tension this creates, and it means there are no heroes or villains, just people. From the outset there’s a sense of impending doom and disaster as normal life is thrown into chaos, but there’s no redemption or resolution as the story makes its way to a shocking – and very abrupt – end.

As a kind of suburban satire it’s sometimes compared to Mike Leigh’s black comedy Abigail’s Party, but I think it’s more like Nuts in May, though maybe the setting which brought that to mind. In Bainbridge’s tale the holiday-makers are staying at Nant MacFarley Camp, so named by the owner’s son George MacFarley. Local resident Willie , who looks after the ‘estate’ when the family are absent, calls it the Glen, while George’s mother refers to it as The Family Resting Ground (because it’s a ‘haven to which they could retreat when the demands of city life became overwhelming). And his friend Balfour thinks of it as the Labour Camp, because there’s so much work to do.

George is a giant of a man who had a solitary childhood and is now a solitary man who seldom speaks and is obsessed with the Holocaust. He’s also strangely concerned for the welfare of Balfour, who is a tool turner in a factory (working with a machine, not with his hands) but spends much of his spare time helping George and running a boys’ club which provides lads with visits to the camp. Poor Balfour doesn’t have a lot going for him: he’s got no self-confidence, is shy, spotty, stutters, and suffers from some unspecified illness which causes him to have funny turns.

Also staying at the camp are George’s friend Joseph, with his young son Roland, his girl-friend Dottie, and Kidney, a grossly overweight youth who obviously has what we would now call learning difficulties. The exact nature of his condition is never explained. All we know is that he takes three tablets to sedate him, and that Joseph maintains there is nothing wrong with him and all he needs is diet and exercise – but, quickly loses interest in his protégé. And he shows an equal lack of interest in Dottie or his son – he doesn’t even know if the boy is 7 or 8. Poor Roland has to sleep in the barn and is generally left to his own devices.

Last to arrive are Lionel and his wife May, one of the most ill-matched couples I’ve ever encountered. Lionel’s obsession is the war, which he appears to have enjoyed (despite being shot in the buttock), and he’s very possessive and protective of his wife, who he always calls ‘Sweetheart’ – but he doesn’t make love to her. Instead he reads her stories… A vicious, spiteful bottle blonde, she is older than she would care to admit, thinks her husband is a fool – and has no qualms about telling him so.  She hates everything about Lionel, especially his small moustache, his bald head, his big belly, and the fact that he never calls her by her name: yet at the same time he makes her feel safe and protected.

You wonder how of these people ever came to be together, because none of them are able to connect with others. They are all self-obsessed, selfish and unreliable in the way they view themselves and others. Lionel, for example, ‘had no notion of himself before 1939’ and ‘couldn’t be sure that his memories were exact’.

Thinking about the others, Balfour, who has odd moment s of clear-sightedness, says: “They didn’t really feel they belonged to anyone any more.” But he is just isolated and emotionally stunted, and when tragedy strikes he feels nothing, and knows he will only be able to respond when he sees his mother’s reaction to the event.

Beryl Baainbridge

Another part of the wood was Bainbridge’s second novel but already her style was established. In her 1981 revision she cut her pared back writing even further, which may account for the sense of dislocation and alienation. It’s sly, funny, dark and tragic, and haven’t done it justice, but I’ll definitely read it again.

PS: You can see what everyone else has been reading by clicking here.

Posted in 20thC

Radio, Comedy and Cold Comfort!

md13044312300 (2)Talking of marathons (Persephone in the last post), Radio 4 Extra has been re-running the BBC’s 1981 edition of Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm, and the four one-hour episodes are still available – you can catch them here, but you need to be quick, because there’s just one day left to hear the first episode, although the others are available for a little longer (but not much).

I like to save up radio episodes and listen to the entire production in one fell swoop if I can or, failing that, over two or three consecutive days (I don’t like waiting to hear what happens). Anyway, Gibbons’ novel is one of the funniest I’ve ever read, and this dramatisation really captures the tone of the book, and I enjoyed it immensely, all the more so as I recently read Mary Webb’s The Golden Arrow and, as I’m sure everyone knows, CCF is a parody of Webb’s melodramatic works of rural mysticism.

ColdComfortFarm

The drama is produced by Elizabeth Proud, who also puts in a creditable performance as the author herself and, thankfully, it follows the novel fairly closely (with the addition of a kind of introduction by the author to explain the connection with Mary Webb). Orphaned Flora Poste, possessor of £100 a year and ‘every art and grace save that of earning her own living’, takes herself off to her peculiar Starkadder relatives at run-down Cold Comfort Farm. There, amidst the dirt and grime she discovers hidden mysteries. What is the wrong done to her father by sorrowful Aunt Judith’s man?  And what was the ‘something nasty’ that Great Aunt Ada Doom saw in the woodshed long, long ago? Alas, we never learn the answers…

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And she gets to know her relatives, who are perfectly portrayed in this radio adaptation. Farmer Amos is a sanctimonious religious fanatic who preaches about sin and damnation, and leads his congregation in ‘the quivering’. Pin-up Seth hates farming and is obsessed by the ‘talkies’, while Elfine, who is obsessed with the son of a wealthy landowner, wears home-spun clothes, writes poetry and wanders the fields communing with nature. And there is Urk, who is obsessed with Elfine (and water voles). And let’s not forget the hired girl Meriam, daughter of Mrs Beetle the cleaner, and mother of four children because she cannot help herself when the sukebind is in bloom… They all sound exactly as I imagined they would, and the over-the-top country speech (Gibbons mocked the efforts of novelists who wrote phonetically in an effort to reproduce dialects) worked well against Flora’s cut-glass accents.

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Flora, a thoroughly modern young lady (by the standards of 1932 when the novel was published), likes everything to be neat, clean, tidy and well organised, So she decides to reform her cousins, do away with the family’s sorrows and curses, and banish mud, grime and ignorance. Nature, as she observes, is all very well in her place but she must not be allowed to make things untidy…

For all her dainty ways Flora brooks no opposition to her plans, and brings order out of chaos, setting various Starkadders on exactly the right path in life. Even Great Aunt Ada Doom, who rules the farm with a rod of iron and refuses to let anyone leave (because ‘there’s always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort’) succumbs to her charms.

Cold-Comfort-Farm

Listening to the radio version I was surprised at how well it brought out certain aspects of the book – the accents, the language, and all the made-up words, which are one of the delights of the book. And how crisp and polite Flora is, maintaining the decorum and conversation of the society she is used to, treating the Starkadders like children who need to be educated and shown a better way of life – she reminded me of those wonderful Joyce Grenfell ‘nursery’ monologues! I thought the whole cast were brilliant, especially Patricia Gallimore as Flora Poste, the inimitable Miriam Margoleys as Mrs Beetle, and Fabia Drake as Aunt Ada Doom.

I would find my copy of the book… but I’m staying at my elder daughter’s… so I’ll have to wait for a re-read until I get home.

Posted in 20thC, Virago

In Which I Find the Virago Apple Isn’t Always a Mark of Excellence!

Hannie Richards
The Virago edition of Hilary Bailey’s Hannie Richards: The Intrepid Adventures of a Restless Housewife, (published in 1985), features a cover with an illustration by Sue Hillwood Harris.

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.

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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.

Hilary Bailey
Author Hilary Bailey, who died earlier this year.. (Pic courtesy of The Guardian)

 

Posted in 20thC, Novels

In Which I Discover Shirley Jackson Is Brilliant!

We have always lived in the castle

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.

Posted in 20thC, Novels, Uncategorized, Virago

The Street (but not the TV show!)

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The cover of my Virago edition shows a detail from ‘Harlem, 1934’ by Edward Burra.

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.

Harlem 1934 by Edward Burra 1905-1976
This is a clearer image of the hole painting, created about a decade before Petrie wrote her book, but I can see why Virago selected it for the cover, because it has something of the feel of the book. Burra was English, but was known for his paintings of Harlem.

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.

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This is another of Burra’s paintings, set in London rather than Harlem, showing some of the Windrush immigrants clad in their zoot suits, which were very popular in the 1940s. I think Boots, the bandleader, might have worn an outfit like this.

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.

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Ann Petry began her working life as a pharmacist but became a journalist, novelist and short story writer.

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.

Posted in 20thC, Novels, Virago

In Which I Find A Virago I Hate

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Mother and Son, by Ivy Compton-Burnett is that unusual thing – a green Virago that I couldn’t get along with,

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.

Ivy Compton Burnett
Ivy Compton-Burnett.