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.
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.
Babe Gordon leaned against the crumbling red brick wall of the Marathon Athletic Club in Harlem, at 135th Street off Fifth Avenue, and pulled at a cigarette. The Saturday night fight crowd picked its way under the glaring arc lamp in front of the main entrance like a slow-moving blackbeetle. Babe scanned the humans with an eye to business. Babe was eighteen and a prizefighter’s tart, picking up her living on their hard-earned winnings. Her acquaintances numbered trollops, murderers, bootleggers and gambling-den keepers. Two well-modelled bare legs were crossed at the ankles; her waist pressed to the wall rose to voluptuous breasts that almost protruded from the negligible neck of her black dress. Babe waited for Cokey Jenny.
The opening paragraph of Mae West’s The Constant Sinner sets the tone for the whole book, and the blurb on the back (where, by the way, Virago spell her name wrong, calling her Babes) fills out the picture a little more, describing it as a ‘spirited lowlife novel’ and telling us, in the author’s own words, that Babe is a broad who ‘would not have known what a moral was if it could be made to dance naked in front of her’.
You may deduce from this that Babe is not a good girl – good time girl is nearer the mark.. This is the 1920s I think, Prohibition is at its height, and the novel is peopled with dope pedlars, racketeers and prostitutes. When they have money (generally ill-gotten) they blow it all on having a good time; when the cash is gone they move on to something or someone new. Occasionally they even try their hand at a proper job – Babe briefly works as a model and a shop assistant. But there other ways of making money, all of them quicker, easier, and far more rewarding! Instant gratification is the order of the day, and the characters, especially Babe, live for the moment, moving from one experience to another, without any thought for the future or regret for the past.
Babe hooks up with the Bearcat, a prize-winning boxer who has the makings of a champion. She also attracts the obsessive attention of Wayne Baldwin, son of a chain store owner. And let’s not forget Money Johnson, a mobster with a flamboyant lifestyle. As long as they have money and are willing to spend it on Babe she can’t keep away from any of them: she shuffles her men like a pack of playing cards. But they’re not enthusiastic about sharing her favours, and tragedy is inevitable…
Set on the mean streets of Harlem, featuring murder, drugs, drink, and prostitution, it could be a grim read, but this is Mae West and it’s a racy story told in a racy way, packed with the wise-cracking, witty quips you would expect from this legendary star. She portrays the glamour and excitement of rackety lives played out on the wrong side of the law and makes it seem almost like fun – but it’s not something you’d ever want to experience for yourself, and were you to meet any of these characters you wouldn’t trust them as far as you could throw them.
Racism and poverty are barely touched on and black and white live, work and party together, but there are moments when West gives a clear picture of the social mores of her day, and the hypocrisy of the wealthy middle and upper classes, such as when Wayne’s horrified family are told his young mistress is a common street-walker whose former lover was a black man who is now in jail. In fact, Wayne’s desire for Babe is fuelled by her association with Money Johnson – while the black mobster flaunts the white woman as a symbol of his power and wealth.
In some ways the book, first published in America as Babe Gordon in 1930 (it changed its name the following year), is very much of its time – these days you wouldn’t be able to use the word nigger, or reproduce the speech of Harlem’s black residents the way Mae West does. But The Constant Sinner isn’t patronising, and her people are just people, irrespective of colour. Indeed, when the novel was published it must have been controversia, for not only does Babe break the rigid moral code of the day, but one of her lovers is black – at a time when stringent segregation laws were enforced in many states, and inter-racial relationships were not acceptable, even in New York.
I bought the book partly out out of curiosity, and partly because it’s a Virago edition, and didn’t expect it to be all that good, which just shows how wrong you can be. It romps along at the most tremendous pace and is great fun. I guess you’d have to call it pulp fiction, but it’s really not that bad: I’ve read far worse. West has a good ear for dialogue and creates great characters, even if they are one-dimensional, and our lusty heroine seizes life (and love) with zest and enthusiasm. As Babe hurtles from one situation to another it reminded me of those picaresque novels of the 18th century, built up from a series of loosely connected incidents, or a fast-paced Hollywood B movie.
The pace, and the light-hearted touch, are maintained until the very end, when the feel of the novel suddenly alters, like a piece of music changing from major to minor, and you realise that mo matter what happening now, there can be no happy-ever-after because Babe will never be happy with one man, in one place for very long.
PS: For those who’ve not heard of Mae West (1893-1980), she was a famous American vaudeville artist, comedienne and film star who sang, danced and acted. A busty, blonde sex symbol, she had a reputation as a bit of a bad girl – she was known for her bawdy double entendres and her many lovers, and was immortalised by WW2 fighter crews who named their life jackets after her! But there was more to her than that, because she also wrote plays, novels and film scripts, and in doing so fell foul of the censors – at one stage she was jailed for a short term for obscenity.
She insisted on creative control in all her films, and refused to sign contracts unless they contained a clause stating that the completed movie must, in every way, be to her satisfaction. Just think what an achievement that was when male actors had little or no control over the films they appeared in, and women had still less say, and even today stars would have trouble getting that kind of agreement.
Famous lines attributed to her include ‘Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?’ and ‘It’s not the men in my life that count, it’s the life in my men’.
Yay! The latest Tea Or Books podcast, hosted by Simon T at Stuck In A Book and Rachel from Book Snob, is out and it’s a real goodie, considering the virtues of novels which take place during the course of just one day against the attractions of sagas where the stories unfold over many years. And in the second half of the episode the duo discuss a couple of chunksters – The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy, and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, both of which I’ve read.
This last charts the history of three generations of the Cazalet family, from 1937 through to the post-war period but the timescale seems longer, as there are multiple viewpoints, and past events are disclosed. I bought the books (All Change, Casting Off, The Light Years, Confusion and Marking Time) because I enjoyed the Radio 4 dramatisations, but I was disappointed. I’ve never really been a huge fan of Howard’s writing and, unlike Simon and Rachel, I couldn’t get along with the Cazalets at all. I couldn’t engage with the characters in any way but I kept reading in the forlorn hope that thing would get better (they didn’t). I even had trouble differentiating between the various people and had to keep flicking back to check who was who and how they connected with each other and, quite frankly, I couldn’t have cared less what happened to them, and when I turned the final page of the last volume I was so relieved to see the back of the family that I immediately carted them off to Oxfam!
But The Forsyte Saga is another matter altogether. I LOVE this but, again, my view is the reverse of Rachel and Simon – perhaps it’s an age thing! Anyway, it feels like serendipity is at work here, because I’ve been re-reading Galsworthy’s epic, on and off, for some months. I picked up my mother’s copy during one of my visits, then downloaded a version to the Kindle so I could read it on the train, and dug out some of my old Penguin editions of the individual novels. I haven’t finished the last three books in the saga (where the focus shifts from the Forsytes), but it seems an opportune moment to try and record some thoughts.
I’ve always been aware that Galsworthy is very critical of the upper middle classes, but having read Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph, with its emphasis on the clash between bourgeois respectability and bohemian creativity, I’m struck by the fact that he uses similar themes (though he’s more good humoured). He mocks them with wry self-amusement, acknowledging that he too is a member of the great Galsworthy clan, while exposing their absurdity. But the saga (comprising nine novels and four short stories) is also about relationships, highlighting sexual attraction and love and it touches on subjects like marital rape which are just as controversial more than 100 years later, as well as highlighting the importance of equality within relationships.
The Man of Property, the first book in the saga opens in 1886 as three generations of the wealthy family gather to celebrate the engagement between June (granddaughter of Old Jolyon) and penniless architect Philip Bosinney. Central to the novel (and, indeed, to the first two sections of the saga) is the doomed relationship between Soames Forsyte (June’s uncle) and his beautiful wife Irene, who cannot return his feelings – but she falls passionately in love with Bosinney, and he with her. They plan to elope, Soames rapes her (this is implicit rather than explicit) and Bosinney is killed falling in front of a tram.
I love the tongue in cheek way Galsworthy pokes fun at middle class values and people. And there are some wonderful characters here, especially among the older generation, particularly Old Jolyon, who is a hard-headed businessman, but is also kind, warm-hearted, generous, and tolerant. His son Young Jolyon (June’s father) is estranged from the family after ‘making a mess of things’ by running away with the governess and fathering two more children. He’s interesting because he has a foot in both camps as it were – he is an artist, a bit of a rebel, an outsider who condemns the Forsytes for their love of possessions whilst retaining some of their characteristics.
And, of course, there is Irene, with her golden hair, dark eyes and perfect figure. She’s a skilled musician (she plays the piano) and is obviously well educated and cultured – an artistic woman, who enjoys beautiful things because they are beautiful and give pleasure, not because they have monetary worth. And she hates Soames with every fibre of her being. Yet she marries him, knowing she doesn’t love him. She even persuades him to agree that if the marriage doesn’t work he will let her go – a promise he later denies. You might wonder why she marries him, but you have to look at it in the context of the times. She is very young, she has no money, her father is dead, and her stepmother is about to marry again, and doesn’t want Irene in her life. So, after refusing him on previous occasions, she yields to Soames and escapes her home life. What else can she do, and where else would she go?
Once married she obviously feels trapped, like a wounded bird in a cage. She’s very passive, and remains an enigma – you never really feel you know her. But in his preface Galsworthy tries to explain:
‘The figure of Irene, never, as the reader may possibly have observed, present, except through the senses of other characters, is a concretion of disturbing Beauty impinging on a possessive world.’
It is Soames, the ‘man of property’ himself who dominates. A tragically flawed character who can only see the world in terms of financial value, he views his wife as one of his possessions. When I was younger I had no sympathy with Soames and thought him a villain, but it’s not as simple as that, and the older I get the more I pity him, although I certainly don’t condone his behaviour. He is an unlovable man, and if you read on through the saga you will find he has no better luck with his second wife than he does with Irene.
However, he cannot understand why she hates him so much.
‘The profound, subdued aversion which he felt in his wife was a mystery to him, and a source of the most terrible irritation. That she had made a mistake, and did not love him, and had tried to love him and could not love him, was obviously no reason.’
As he keeps saying, he does nothing wrong. He’s not bad looking, he’s decent, honest, upright, and has plenty of money. He puts her feelings down to nerves and emotion puts her hatred down to nerves and emotion. But in an odd sort of way I think he really does love her – he’s possessed by her beauty, by the idea of her (and the need to have a son), but she’s only thing in his life that he can’t fully possess or control.
The house he employs Bosinney to build for him becomes a symbol of the different outlooks. To Bossiney it’s about artistic freedom, creating something that’s the best of its kind, irrespective of cost: to Soames its worth is purely financial.
Reading through this it’s a bit bitty and lacks cohesion – it’s one of those posts that seems to have changed direction along the way, but it’s impossible to write about the entire saga, and equally difficult to stick to one book, because your view is affected by the whole.
I’m not quite sure what to make of The Constant Nymph, by Margaret Kennedy, and I’m not even sure I like it – but despite my reservations I sat up until 3 am to finish it, so it can’t be all that bad! It is, I think, a difficult book for modern readers. For a start there’s the vexing question of the relationship between a 14-year-old girl and an older man, not sexual, but disturbing nonetheless. Equally unsettling is the casual anti-Semiticism, which was surprisingly widespread when this novel was published in 1924. And the racism extends to a more general xenophobia, where foreigners are viewed with great suspicion by all true Englishmen – and Englishmen who consort with these strangers are the subject of even greater distrust. Additionally, there’s a pervasive ‘classism’ which I find very distasteful; for example, working class characters and peasants are regarded as stupid and hardly human, and are treated accordingly. To be honest, I feel a little mean highlighting class and race issues because they are not themes within the book – this is just the way people are, part of everyday life, and no-one questions it.
The story itself gets a little convoluted. Albert Sanger is a brilliant, tempestuous, avant garde musician living out the final years of his life in the Austrian Alps, with his mistress, a collection of children by various mothers, and a motley crew of hangers-on. The children are known collectively as ‘Sanger’s Circus’ because of their:
“…wandering existence, their vulgarity, their conspicuous brilliance, the noise they made, and the kind of naptha-flare genius which illuminated everything they said or did. Their father had given them a good, sound musical training and nothing else. They had received no sort of regular education, but, in the course of their travels, had picked up a good deal of mental furniture and could abuse each other most profanely in the argot of four languages.”
The description seems more than a little unfair on Caryl and Kate, the children of Sanger’s first wife (who died) as they are by far the
most sensible members of the household, doing their best to keep things running smoothly and care for everyone else. Antonia, Teresa, Paulina and Sebastian are the offspring of Evelyn, his second wife (also dead), while Susan is the daughter of his current mistress, the stunningly beautiful but enormously fat Linda, who spends all her time in bed or in a hammock.
When Sanger dies unexpectedly, the children are left penniless, but the family of Evelyn, Sanger’s second wife, step in to help, and Cousin Florence is dispatched to bring the four orphans to England so they can be sent to school. Florence is beautiful, wealthy, well educated, and well dressed. Gentle, polite and sensible, she’s a devoted daughter – she’s looked after her father since her mother died. However, there are hints that Florence is not quite the paragon of virtue she appears to be, and her father’s reflections on her behaviour do not bode well for the future:
“From infancy she had always done exactly what she pleased with a persistance which belied the sweet placability of her manner. In the face of criticism or protest she exhibited none of Evelyn’s flaming defiance, only a pleasant disregard which had always vanquished him. Sometimes, viewing her unswerving pursuit of a chosen course, he was compelled to liken her to something slow, crushing, irresistible – a steam-roller.”
Florence, at almost 28, is on the verge of becoming an old maid but she falls in love with composer Lewis Dodds, a friend of the Sangers. The couple marry, and back home in England Florence packs the children off to boarding schools (with the exception of Antonia, who marries another family friend, Jacob Birnbaum, a wealthy Jew, who has seduced her, on the grounds that if he doesn’t someone else will). Florence determines to to establish a kind of musical salon, using her connections to further Lewis’s career. But Lewis doesn’t want his career furthered. And, having opted out of polite society, he has no intention of rejoining it. A battle of wills develops, and to make matters worse the children run away from their schools, and the schools refuse to take them back…
In fact, the marriage is doomed to failure, as everyone except Florence realises, for not only are their values and outlook on life very different, but Lewis is in love with Teresa, and Teresa (or Tessa as she is generally known), is in love with him, although she is only 14. As I said earlier, there’s no sexual element – their relationship is a a kind of pure meeting of minds. They are soul mates, destined to be together (think Cathy and Heathcliff rather than a conventional love story).
When the two are together even Charles, Florence’s father (and one of the nicest characters in the book) can see that Tessa and Lewis are a perfectly well-matched couple with the kind of rapport that Florence and Lewis can never achieve. Considering the situation he tells us:
“Teresa was, probably, the only woman in the world who could manage this man; she would respect humours without taking them too seriously, she would never require him to behave correctly, and, if he annoyed her, she would reprove him good-humouredly in the strong terms which he deserved and understood. How could they have failed to see it? Lewis was a fool! If he had married little Teresa she would have made a man of him, whereas mated with Florence he was nothing but a calamity.”
It’s a clash of worlds as much as a clash of personalities: natural versus artifice; conformity versus rebellion; order versus disorder; outsiders versus those who belong… Lewis, Tessa, Tony, Lina and Sebastian are wild, anarchic, passionate creatures who know no rules and trail chaos in their wake. Set against them is the conventional, well ordered society created by Florence and her friends, where appearance is everything, and talking about feelings is more important than the feelings themselves. The difference is shown in their approach to music: for Lewis and the Sangers music is part of the air they they breathe or the food they eat, and is every bit as necessary, but for Florence it is something to be taken up and enjoyed on special occasions, like a best dress. And there’s a poignant moment when Lewis recalls a magical moment in his childhood, when he heard a bird’s wings, and the response of the two women is very different, for while Tessa can feel the beat of the wings, Florence can only ask about the location.
It’s difficult to like the characters. On the whole they are not kind people – they are insensitive, thoughtless, and cruel to each other and to other people, and they are contemptuous about anyone they regard as less clever, or of a lower social order. But they drag you into their story whether you will or not, and although I didn’t enjoy this as much Troy Chimneys, there’s a lot to enjoy and admire, and Kennedy can be wonderfully satiric about people and situations.
I read this a while ago, but posted it today so I can take part in Margaret Kennedy Day, which takes place today, and is being hosted by Jane, at Beyond Eden Rock.
It takes courage to write a novel with an unlikable heroine – but that’s exactly what Noel Streatfeild set out to do in It Pays To Be Good. “A tendency in my other efforts to make everybody lovable, has caused me, for the good of my soul, to produce Virginia,” she wrote to her friend Selene Moxon in 1935. “Obviously you are not meant to take her seriously; she is presented only to dislike and to entertain. She is also the answer to kind requests for a happy ending, I hope she amuses you.” Intriguing, I thought. However will she manage that?
Virginia, born Flora Elk, is known as Floss or Flossie to her parents, neighbours and school-mates (not friends – she’s not the sort of girl who has friends, especially not female ones). Flossie has two claims to fame. Firstly, it’s a miracle that she was born at all, and secondly, she is extraordinarily beautiful, with moonlight-silver curls and guileless blue eyes, which fill with tears when she doesn’t get her own way.
Her beauty is all the more startling because her parents, George and Fanny are so very plain. George a hard-working greengrocer, spends his spare time on the allotment, and has few aspirations in life, for himself or his family. He wants his daughter to be a nice, sensible girl who will make a good wife for some man. And, as a stalwart member of the mission church, he fears beauty is a lure of Satan. But his wife, a remarkably silly woman, takes a different view.
Mrs Elk read serials in the papers, and knew the astounding power wielded by the beautiful. The possession of beauty might not make for goodness and sensibleness, in the sense that Mr Elk and the minister meant, but it did make for a life which was very much more exciting than that led by Fanny Elk in the Fordham Road.
“If you ’ave the looks, you use ’em, my girl,” she tells Flossie. And that’s just what Flossie does, encouraged by her doting mother, who doesn’t have much joy or beauty in her life, and is a martyr to her ‘inside’ which has been ‘all of a drop’ since Flossie was born. As a small child Flossie soon realises she can use her beauty to get what she wants – toys, sweets, choice titbits of food, nice clothes. But she gives nothing in return, she doesn’t cook, clean, sew or help out in the shop for ‘it seemed to Flossie insulting that she, so lovely and so wonderful, should be asked to do menial things’.
When George marches off to war in 1914, Fanny enrols her daughter at the Madam Elise School of Dancing. George, of course, knows nothing of all this, and when he returns he is horrified: no daughter of his is going to dance on the stage. But he is no match for Flossie’s wiles.
Fast forward to the moment when Flossie is offered a leading role in a musical, purely on the strength of her looks. She can sing enough, and dance enough, but her accent is dreadful, and she can’t dress. Enter ‘Mouse’ (real name Margaret Shane), a beautiful, stylish, one-time actress, who is the ‘friend’ of an English aristocrat and knows everyone in the theatrical world and in society. She is persuaded to take Flossie under her wing and teach her how to speak, how to behave and how to dress. A band of professionals gather to help groom the future star, all with their own exotic back stories – and they create a new identity for her. Flossie becomes Virginia, a beautiful girl left in a convent who is, so the whisper goes, the daughter of mysterious foreign royalty…
She is, of course, a huge success with the general public, and attracts droves of adoring male followers who lavish money and expensive gifts on her. True to form, she gives nothing in return, and her heart – and virtue – remain intact. And she cuts her ties with the past and drops her parents without a qualm, just as poor George always knew she would. However, Mouse appreciates goodness and honesty and forms an unexpected friendship with the couple. There’s a kind of sub-plot going on with Mouse, her lover Jim (Lord Menton) and his wife Jasmine who, surprisingly, is friendly with Mouse. And there’s a host of other colourful characters, including Jim’s penniless nephew Derwent, who is in love with Virginia (as we must now call her); Mrs Hodge, a ‘sack of a woman held tightly in the middle by her apron strings’ who ‘does’ for Mouse, and newspaper magnate Ossie Bone, who has clawed his way out of the Liverpool slums.
Things get a little complicated, and I don’t want to give all the plot away (if I did that you’d never read the book), but Jim dies when a publicity stunt dreamed up by Virginia goes wrong, and Derwent (who’s pretty dozy really) inherits all the money, so you can probably guess the outcome.
The book is never going to be classed as a literary classic: there’s not a lot of depth to it, while settings and characters are a little stagey perhaps, but nevertheless the people are very engaging and it’s a hugely enjoyable read. It’s very light-hearted and humorous, although there are sad moments amid the laughter, and serious issues about relationships, identity and the nature of celebrity, though these are never overtly spelled out. Until fairly recently I hadn’t realised Streatfeild wrote novels for adults (I still have Ballet Shoes, White Boots and The Painted Garden on my bookshelves). Some of the themes, settings and characters are very similar to those in the children’s books with their rags to riches fairy tale approach, but Streatfeild, who was an actress for 10 years or so, obviously knew about the theatrical world and its larger-than-life inhabitants.
So, I hear you ask, did I like Flossie/Virginia? Well, she certainly amused and entertained me, and I couldn’t take her too seriously, because she’s really a little ludicrous, and that made me laugh, and you can’t dislike someone who makes you laugh. She’s a heartless, selfish, self-centred, manipulative monster, who treats people abominably (especially her parents). But I found it hard not to like her a little, and at times I almost pitied her – she’s like a greedy, grasping, over-indulged child who’s never quite grown up (Supernanny would have stuck her in the naughty corner and sorted out her problems in five minutes flat). And you have to admire her self-belief, her confidence, her focus, and her shrewdness. She’s certainly more likable (and much more capable) than Angel, in Elizabeth Taylor’s novel of the same name, who is the only comparable literary heroine I can think of – the defining characteristic of both Angel and Flossy/Virginia is an overwhelming belief in themselves. They are both totally self-obsessed.
Mouse recognises this and tells Jasmine that Flossie’s purpose is to see that she is treated as befits her perfection: “If you or I were half as sure of anything as she is, that her beauty and brilliance give her divine right to the best of everything, we’d be much happier. And believe me, she doesn’t pretend, that’s how she really feels, and she’s quite incapable of believing that other people don’t feel the same way about her.”
I think it’s that character flaw, the inability to understand how others feel about her, and her belief that she deserves the best of everything, that somehow makes her seem more human, and makes it hard to dislike her – basically, the girl can’t help herself.
My copy of It Pays To Be Good came from Greyladies Books, who publish ‘Well-Mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone’, which sounds delightful. There are four categories: vintage crime; adult books by children’s authors; girls’ school stories written for adults, and Scottish country gentlewomen (the company is based in Scotland).
They deserve a mention because the book arrived very promptly (but I left it sitting on the TBR pile for ages and ages) and is beautifully produced, with easy-to-read print, good quality smooth paper, and a lovely cover. And I think we should support small, independent publishers, especially when they are reprinting forgotten books.
If you’ve not yet discovered the Tea or Books podcast hosted by the lovely Simon (from Stuck in a Book) and Rachel (from Book Snob), then pop over and listen to their latest offering, which is all about novels based on real events and real people. They’ve been looking specifically at A Pin To See The Peepshow, by F Tennyson Jesse, and EM Delafield’s The Messalina of the Suburbs, which are both based on a notorious murder case. Edith Thompson and her lover Frederick Bywaters were hanged in 1923, for the murder of her husband Percy the previous year, although it seems Edith took no part in the killing.
I gather the two authors treat the story and its characters very differently, and I’m intrigued to find out more, especially as the case itself is so well documented, which could inhibit any efforts to turn it into fiction. Anyway, I’ve downloaded the Delafield book to the Kindle, and have pulled Peepshow from the Virago bookcase and started reading, but I haven’t finished yet (the problem with reading several books at once is that it takes a long time to complete anything, so I’ll report back on this one later). Margaret Atwood tried something similar in Alias Grace, a fictional account of a double murder in 1843: I didn’t think this was as good as most of her other work, but it might be interesting to re-read it alongside these two.
It set me considering other novels based on real life – although not necessarily on crimes. To start with, I thought it must be quite difficult to write about real situations and people, because you while you can interpret things in your own way, you can’t alter known facts, and your portrayal of someone might vary from the generally accepted view. But many novelists mine their own lives or their family histories – think of Jeanette Winterson with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, or Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, or Antonia White with Frost in May and its ‘sequels’. Or does the fact that these books grew out of personal memories rather than public knowledge set them apart from books turning real life into fiction?
And what about historic fiction? If that’s not based (however loosely in some cases) on people who actually existed, and events that really did take place, I don’t know what is. For example, there’s Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, where we know exactly what happens, yet she keeps us on the edge of our seats, watching the machinations of the Tudor court, unable to warn the participants of the fate that awaits them. And Beryl Bainbridge also used real people as inspiration – you wouldn’t think there is much left unsaid about Dr Samuel Johnson, but in According to Queeney she revealed a lonely, vulnerable man, while still acknowledging his irascible temper and uncouth ways. .
All in all, I’m inclined to think that an awful lot of fiction is a retelling of real events, altered, presented from a different perspective perhaps, and related by narrators who are not always reliable.
Simon and Rachel covered a lot of ground in their discussion about books based on real life (though I don’t think they mentioned any of the ones I thought of). Books they highlighted included Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee, and Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar, as well as Gyles Brandreth’s The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries and Amadeus, Peter Shaffer’s controversial play about Mozart. Does anyone else have any ideas about fictionalised books based on real life and real people?
PS: I spent an enjoyable few hours catching up on some of the older podcasts I missed during my absence from blogging, and ended up adding things to the Wish List, though I ought to concentrate on the existing TBR pile.
PPS:If you’re signed up to iTunes, you can find Tea or Books on their iTunes page.
Next month sees the centenary of the birth of novelist Mary Stewart, so I’ve volunteered to host a Reading Week in her honour – mainly because she wrote what has to be one the best ever versions ever of the Arthurian legends. The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, The Wicked Day and The Prince and the Pilgrim (known collectively as The Merlin Chronicles) are just wonderful, especially the first three. I must admit, I don’t know the rest of her work all that well, but I remember reading and enjoying Touch Not the Cat when it first came out, and much more recently I liked Thornyhold, so this will be a bit of learning curve for me.
And hosting a Reading Week is unknown territory as well: I’ve never done this before, although I’ve taken part in events organised by other bloggers. I’ve no idea if anyone will support it, but I’ll be enormously grateful if you do – and if anyone has any advice that would be lovely! I realise I’m a little late with this introductory post, which should have been published much earlier, but since Mary Stewart was born on September 17, 1916, I thought we could kick off on her actual birthday (Saturday, September 17), and run until Friday, September 23, which would give us a bit more time.
Mary Stewart, who died on May 9, 2014, at the age of 97, was credited with creating (or
popularising) ‘romantic suspense’. In 1954, when her first novel was published, she was working part-time as a lecturer, but had always wanted to write. Encouraged by her husband she wrote a book , which she called Murder for Charity, and sent to Hodder & Stoughton under her maiden name, Mary Rainbow. The publishers liked it and issued it as Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart and the rest, to coin a phrase, is history. It was as an instant success and over the next 40 years Mary Stewart penned another 19 novels, as well as children’s stories and a volume of poetry.
She is regarded, first and foremast, as a superb story teller, but her heroines were utterly unlike most of the female protagonists featured in novels previously: they were modern women, who knew their own mind. They were intelligent, independent, and feisty, and were not afraid to seize life with both hands, make their own decisions, take the initiative in relationships, and cope with whatever problems came their way. The Guardian obituary says Stewart referred to this as her ‘anti-namby-pamby’ reaction to the ‘silly heroine’ of the conventional contemporary thriller who ‘is told not to open the door to anybody and immediately opens it to the first person who comes along’. Her books were well researched and her love of nature and Greek and Roman history, music, theatre and art is obvious.
As far as her private life goes, Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow (I can’t think why her publishers didn’t like that surname – I think it’s wonderful) was a vicar’s daughter, born in Sunderland, and claimed she learned to read at the age of three, writing her first stories (about her toys) when she was seven. She attended boarding schools, which she hated, studied English at Durham University, and was a teacher during WW2. Then, in 1945, she met Frederick Stewart at a fancy dress party in Durham Castle, and they were married just three months later. In 1956, they moved to Edinburgh, where he was a professor of geology and mineralogy, and they spent their time in Edinburgh and at their second home, by Loch Awe, in the Highlands. Frederick became one of the UK’s leading scientists, and was knighted in 1974, making his novelist wife Lady Stewart, though apparently she hated using the title. He died in 2001.
I would guess she was at her most popular during the late 50s, the 60s and the 70s, and I’m not sure how widely read she is today but, unlike some novelists who fall out of favour, she is still published and her work seems to be widely available. It has been said that she built a bridge between classic literature and modern popular fiction, which makes me curious to read more, and it would be nice to remember her on this special anniversary, so please join in if you can. Just write a review on your blog and leave a message here, with a link, and I’ll co-ordinate them.
Here we have another Virago (after all, LibraryThing’s All Virago All August is still running). The Blush, is a collection of 12 short stories by Elizabeth Taylor who, unlike Lisa St Aubin de Teran in my last post, could never, ever be accused of melodrama, although she can, on occasions, be much darker than you might expect.
Taylor is one of those wonderfully understated English authors whose work is notable as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. If you’re after thrills and spills and fast paced action then look elsewhere. Her novels and short stories are beautifully restrained observations on well-heeled, middle class life, failed relationships, disappointments and missed opportunities. And the 12 tales in The Blush are classic Taylor territory.
It’s a microcosm of the world she moved in, a world that even when she was first writing, in aftermath of WW2, must have seemed old-fashioned. With their home-counties settings, servants, and boarding schools they’re redolent of an earlier period of more gracious living. And, like people from that pre-war era (or, indeed, from the war itself) her characters know they must bear up, whatever the circumstances. They follow the unwritten rules of their social milieu, keeping up appearances and maintaining a stiff upper lip, unable to express strong passions or reveal their true feelings, even to their nearest and dearest, which is a kind of tragedy I think – but life goes on just as it always has.
And Taylor’s stories focus on the little things in life, the small things that seem unimportant to everyone else, but are everything to the people concerned, and the almost unnoticed moments on which a life can turn as a decision is made – or not made – and the future is mapped out.
I think my favourite in this collection is The Letter-Writers, where Emily and famous writer Edmund have been corresponding for 10 years, but have never met – until now. And both know it is a risky step, because the reality may not match the picture each has built of the other. And, sure enough, nothing goes according to plan. Before his arrival Emily, who is unused to alcohol, drinks a glass of sherry to steady her nerves, and the cat eats her carefully prepared lobster lunch. Over a makeshift meal of tinned sardines she runs out of small talk.
“The silence was unendurable. If it continued, might he not suddenly say. “You are so different from all I imagined”, or their eyes might meet and they would see in one another’s nakedness and loss.”
Then, just as you are thinking things can’t get any worse, local busybody Mrs Waterlow calls and refuses to budge. She’s never read any of his books, but she always reads the reviews in the Sunday papers (because, she says, ‘we’re rather a booky family’). She even appropriates Emily’s encylopedia and looks up tapestry, which has pages of close print, to (allegedly) settle a family argument.
“The hot afternoon was a spell they had fallen under. A bluebottle zig-zagged about the room, hit the window-pane, then went suddenly out of the door. A petal dropped off a geranium on the window-sill – occasionally – but not often enough for Edmund – a page was turned, the thin paper rustling silkily over.”
Eventually, Edmund finds a novel way of forcing Mrs Waterlow to go, but the day is spoiled and his time with Emily curtailed. When he leaves, neither of them can speak about their feelings, or the events of the day.
“She shrank from words, thinking of the scars they leave, which she would be left to tend when he had gone. If he spoke the truth she could not bear it, if he tried to muffle it with tenderness, she would look upon it as pity.He had made such efforts, she knew; but he could never have protected her from herself.”
As he leaves she begs him: “If you write to me again, will you leave out today, and let it be as if you had not moved out of Rome?” And afterwards, with the last of the light, she sits down and starts writing him a letter… See what I mean about small things, and life carrying on the way it has always done. The life she writes about becomes more real (for for herself and her recipient) than real life and, unlike reality, it has no power to hurt her.
Then there is The Ambush, where Catherine is staying with Mrs Ingram, the mother of Noel, her dead fiance, in her riverside home. Mrs Ingram is one of those women who manages to arrange life to her own satisfaction, without seeming to lift a finger or exert her will on others.
“I love her, Catherine thought. I could never withstand her, no matter what she wanted of me.” Then she questions why such a thought came to her, and we consider what Mrs Ingram wants from Catherine. Does she want her to marry Noel’s brother Esmé (who is so obviously not the marrying kind)? Does she want the daughter (or daughter-in-law) she never had? Or does she want a family to replace the sons she has lost – one dead, and the other about to return to his life abroad. Eventually Catherine gives way to her grief, and cries for Noel and what might have been. And Mrs Ingram’s response is not so unexpected, because she has drawn Catherine into her orbit.
“You see, I can’t stay, You do see? Her heart had been twice ambushed in this house and now she was desperate to escape. Yet did Mrs Ingram understand? She said nothing. She simply took Catherine in her arms and kissed her – but with a welcoming, gathering-in gesture as if to one who has come home at last rather than to someone preparing to go away.”
On the whole these are sad stories, about lonely, shy, diffident people who never fully engage with others, but it’s tempered with a lot of humour. Take The Blush, the story which gives its name to this collection. Mrs Allen receives a visit from Mr Lacey, husband of the woman who comes every day to the housework. Slackly corseted Mrs Lacey, with her orange hair and domestic difficulties, has revealed she is pregnant, and Mr Lacey has called to ask Mrs Allen not to employ his wife as a baby sitter while she and her husband attend cocktail parties, because it is too much for her in her condition. But the Allens have no children, and don’t go out much. Mrs Allen is much too embarrassed and polite to try and explain, and nothing more is said, but I began to wonder if it made her wonder about her husband’s late nights in his London office.
And there is Perhaps a Family Failing, where new bride Beryl, ‘provocative in chiffon’ is in a hotel room preparing herself for her wedding night – she’s read all the advice in women’s magazines. Her husband Geoff has not, alas, read the magazines, and consequently has no idea what is expected of him on this momentous occasion, so he spends the evening drinking in the hotel bar, forgets where he is or what day it is, and returns (very drunk) to his parents…
I could write about all the stories, but there simply isn’t room, and you really should
read this yourself. But I will mention Summer Schools, which is the saddest of all. Here sisters Melanie and Ursula (the Misses Rogers) are growing old in their childhood home, unhappy together, but unable to live apart. Then Ursula receives an invitation yo stay with an old schoolfriend, so out of spite Melanie books herself on a Summer Lecture Course about literature. Neither enjoys their break – it merely highlights the emptiness of their lives. They are growing into the old ladies they must become, copies of elderly , spinster sisters they knew when they were young, laughably fussy, old-fashioned, unadventurous, set in their ways.
However, Ursula does have an adventure during her vacation, but it is not romantic, and she quickly brushes it from her mind. And Melanie invents a broken love affair with the lecturer in charge of the course (shades of Charlotte Bronte here I think). In reality she never really speaks to him, but I’m sure she convinces herself that they met, fell in love and parted in anguish because he is married. And somehow it is this that gives the sisters an interest and purpose in life. The fantasy will dictate their future and the way people perceive them, for Melanie will become Miss Rogers, whose life was blighted by a tragic love-affair, and Ursula can be the loving sister who gave up her life to care for her.
And, to finish, a brief comment about the lovely cover of this book, which is as delicate and restrained as Taylor’s writing. Sadly, I can’t tell you who painted this, because the book is very battered, and has an old sticker across the back, hiding the illustration attribution.
Diary of a travelling, scooter riding, wildlife rescuing, play reading, socialising penguin who lives in Tasmania and collects vintage Penguin books. See who I am, how to contact me and the list of all the vintage Penguin books I have collected dated 1935-1970. (See links just below.)
A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.