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.
“We are a photograph, the same photograph of every year with me a summer older, so a summer taller: lanky Joan, outgrowing the world around her. It is always Selsey Beach, a stretch of bare sand on the South Coast, and there are certain constants: myself, Granny, in her tight-bodiced dress, crocheting or gazing out to sea, and Mother with her green Antarctic eyes, cross-sectioned and sepiad by the camera. Mother, as beautiful as ever under her hat but with her cruel stare frightening even the seagulls off the beach. Or was it just empty? Out of season?”
It’s Virago time! Library Thing is running its traditional ‘All Viragos, All August’, so my first offering is Joanna, by Lisa St Aubin de Teran, which I loved – it had me hooked from that first paragraph.There are moments when this novel feels overly melodramatic – positively gothic in some ways – and it explores some disturbing issues, including child abuse, mental illness, and what happens when the relationship between mother and daughter is damaged or twisted beyond repair. But it is a powerful story, beautifully written, and not easily forgotten.
It’s the story (actually, stories would be more accurate) of Amazonian red-haired Joan, her tiny, fragile mother Kitty, and her grandmother, Florence, and it’s written in four sections, with each member of the family telling her own tale (starting and ending with Joan), so you view them from three perspectives – as they perceive themselves, and as each of the other two see them.
I’m not sure this necessarily makes them more rounded, and I wonder whether any of the trio are reliable witnesses of the past, but they each tell the truth as they see it, and while parts of the narratives overlap, there are some discrepancies in the accounts, but together they build a picture of the events and circumstances which have gone to make the women what, and who, they are.
Florence and Kitty have been raised in luxury on the island of Jersey – Florence in the closing decades of the 19th century, and Kitty in the early years of the 20th century. But by the end of the First World War their charmed life comes to an end. Florence, newly widowed, discovers her husband has gambled the family fortune away, so her home and possessions must be sold to pay the debts, leaving her with what is described as a ‘pittance’. At the same time pregnant Kitty (who is obviously suffering from some kind of mental health issue) abandons her husband of just a few months and returns home. So mother and daughter move to London, where they live in self-imposed exile, and where Joan is born.
Towering over everyone else (in character, if not in stature) is diminutive Kitty with her glittering green eyes, her spite, her rages, her cruelty, her psychic ability to foretell a death – and her psychotic hatred of her daughter. It is a wonder that Joan is born at all, and nothing short of a miracle that she survives and thrives, despite Kitty’s violence towards her. Kitty is a monster. She has to be just about the worst mother you are ever likely to find. Her attitude towards her daughter goes way beyond dislike, or fear, or lack of bonding – she seems to see her as an abomination. She attacks Joan with her fists, and anything else that comes to hand – a broken, jagged-edged record and, finally, a carving knife. On that occasion (the incident which finally forces Joan to leave home), she tells the girl: “Red is the colour of the Devil. You are red inside and out.” And when she tells the story of her life she refers to her daughter as ‘it’.
As time passes Kitty’s behaviour worsens, and to protect the girl from her mother’s uncontrolled rages Florence packs her off, first to a Catholic boarding school run by French nuns, and then to another, run by German nuns who support Hitler.
There is a brief respite when Kitty marries again, but we know the marriage is doomed to failure and she cannot sustain the relationship.
Throughout everything Florence continues to protect Kitty – from herself, and from the world around her – fearing that if people realise her daughter is mad she will be shut away in an asylum. As I read this book, I kept wondering whether Kitty was always ill, or whether it was her traumatic marriage that tipped her over the edge, or the pressure of living up to the fact that she looked exactly like her mother’s adored, sweet-natured, beautiful sister, who died young.
And how culpable is Florence for covering up Kitty’s behaviour, and keeping quiet about her abuse of the child? And how much does her silence affect what happens to Kitty and Joan and shape their future lives? Is she doing the best for them – or for herself? “I have always been needed, and that has made my life seem full,” she tells us. She has always known her daughter is not like other people. “Kitty was a victim of circumstance, a beautiful flower transplanted into the wrong soil,” she says.
Bonjour mes amis! It’s Paris in July again, thanks to Tamara at Thyme for Tea, who has been running her annual glorification of all things French for seven years, and I’m always amazed at how many different books, films, foods and songs people come up with. I love to see their contributions and, since there is no chance of me making it across the Channel for a holiday, I tend to view this as a kind of ‘virtual trip’ that is not as good as the real thing (obviously) but is, nevertheless, interesting and enjoyable.
I had stuff all planned out, and was going to a post a week but, once again, life has got in the way so I’m late to the party, but I’ve time to get some reviews done before the end of the month.. Originally I aimed to write about The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George, because I’d read reviews which made it sound sound delightful and charming. Books and Paris. What’s not to like, I thought. Quite a lot as it turned out. However, since this is supposed to be a celebration of Paris, all I will say is that it was like drowning in marshmallow. Initially I gave up at around chapter 15, but I did go back and struggle through the rest of it, and wished I hadn’t.
I needed an antidote, so I turned to Jean Rhys who, thank goodness, is neither charming, nor delightful, and exactly suited my mood at that point (I’m a contrary creature, and much as I love her work there are times when I require cheerfulness, and on those occasions she simply will not do). Anyway, if you’re looking for happy endings you won’t find them here. In fact you won’t find happy anything in her work – it is unremittingly bleak. But no-one portrays seedy, Bohemian Paris quite like Rhys, and seedy, Bohemian Paris is exactly what you get in a selection of short stories from The Left Bank (subtitled Sketches and Studies of present-day Bohemian Paris). Her first published work, it was issued in 1927, with 22 short stories, of which nine appear in Tigers are Better-Looking, a later collection which also includes a selection of her other short stories.
I’ve concentrated on some of the tales from The Left Bank which appear in my 1982 Penguin edition of Tigers are Better-Looking. The book also has part of the original preface by Ford Maddox Ford – who gave Rhys her nom de plume (she was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams), launched her literary career, and had a corrosively torturous affair with her (which they both wrote about). Describing her work as ‘very good’, he says her business is with ‘passion, hardship, emotions’ and explains that ‘these sketches begin exactly where they should and end exactly when their job is done’.
I think that’s spot on, especially the last comment. These slender stories are almost snapshots, where events have coalesced at a particular point in time, and Rhys’s pared down writing means there is never a word too many. Come to that there is never a word too few either. There is no back story, and no future – just the grim present, with barely enough information to form a picture of what is happening. And Rhys never judges: she offers neither praise nor censure. Her characters are as they are, and you must accept them that way, however uneasy it may make you feel.
She writes mostly (but not always) about women. They are outsiders, not quite accepted by society, down on their luck, living in cheap hotels or the equivalent of boarding or lodging houses. They are blown hither and thither by the winds of fate, desperately searching for love. Mostly they have no inner resources or strength, no will of their own – they can’t take positive action to change their life, they need a man who who will look after them, tell them what to do, make them feel loved, cared for, needed. Yet the men they meet are no good. They are rotters, on the make, equally adrift in a world they cannot understand. We know know it, and so do the women. Despite everything, on the whole Rhys’ women are survivors, even when they hit rock bottom. In an odd way they are curiously naive, never quite losing hope that something will turn up, while at the same time being honest and clear-sighted enough to know it won’t. And there are odd glimpses of beauty, and you get the feeling that tough though things may be, these women have lived life to the full, and would not have things any different. Like Edith Piaf, they have no regrets.
A handful of the tales are set elsewhere, but they are still peopled with Bohemian drifters, and have that unmistakable ‘left-bank’ feel. Like the women of Paris, alcohol gets these women through their days, and Veronal gets them through the nights. (Veronal was a widely available barbiturate sleeping powder).
One of the few women who makes her own way in life is Miss Bruce, who we meet in Illusion. Tall, thin, and quite old, with large hands, bones and feet and a ‘gentlemanly’ manner, she’s an Englishwoman living and working as an artist in Montparnasse (with limited success). She always wears a neat serge dress in summer, and a neat tweed suit in winter, both outfits completed with low-heeled brown shoes and cotton stockings. And for special occasions she has a black gown of crepe de chine, ‘just well enough cut’.
But her hidden secret is revealed when she is rushed to hospital and the narrator goes with concierge to collect a nightgown, comb and other necessities for the sick woman. They open the door of the plain, sturdy, utilitarian wardrobe and the drab room gives way to ‘a glow of colour, a riot of soft silks… everything that one did not expect. There are cosmetics, perfumes and the most beautiful clothes imaginable – but Miss Bruce has never been seen wearing any of them. Your heart goes out to this plain, sensible, elderly woman who craved a little beauty in her life.
“In the middle, hanging in the place of honour, was an evening dress of a very beautiful shade of old gold; near it another of flame colour; of two black dresses the one was touched with silver, the other with a jaunty embroidery of emerald and blue. There were a black and white check with a jaunty belt, a flowered crepe de chine – positively flowered! – then a carnival costume complete with mask, then a huddle, a positive huddle of all colours, of all stuffs.”
There are more clothes in Mannequin we meet Anna on her first day working as a model for fashion house, where she is to wear the ‘jeune fille’ dresses. At the moment she is wearing the black cotton, chemise-like garment of the mannequin off duty, and she wouldn’t be out of place as a modern super-model:
“… the garment that she wore was very short, sleeveless, displaying her rose-coloured stockings to the knees. Her hair was flamingly and honestly red; her eyes, which were very gentle in expression, brown and heavily shadowed with kohl; her face small and pale under its professional rouge. She was fragile, like a delicate child, her arms pathetically thin. It was to her legs that she owed this dazzling, this incredible opportunity.”
The salon where buyers view the clothes (and the girls who wear them) is sumptuous in white and gold, but elsewhere is dingy. And the glamorous ‘goddess-like’models, with their ‘sensual, blatant charms, and their painted faces’ are envied by the the saleswomen, the dresser, and the sewing girls. But, like the decorated public salon, it’s all artifice. Anna spends an hour putting her make-up on, an hour being draped in a dress. One of the saleswomen pinches her, and she and the other mannequins seem perpetually bored, though they complain they are tired and the work is hard.
Anna tells herself she can’t stick it, but we know she can and she will. She will do this until she loses her figure and her looks, and faces an uncertain future. But, for the moment, she is happy, and walks into the ‘great, maddening city’ clad in a beautifully cut tailor-made and beret. I am not sure what a ‘tailor-made’ is – a suit, or a coat perhaps? Obviously something stylish though.
Actually, looking at what I’ve written so far, this post has changed direction again, because it’s much more about clothes than it should be! This was a re-read, and I’d never noticed before how important clothes in Jean Rhys’ work, and it’s sent me scuttling off to look at some of her other books again. Personally I blame Moira at Clothes in Books, which is one of my favourite blogs, for making me obsessive about clothes.
I’ll just mention one more tale, La Grosse Fifi, and yes, I am going to mention clothes again – Paris is famed for its fashion industry, after all. Here we’re in the Riviera. Roseau has no money, no man, no close friends. She’s bruised by life, tired and depressed. She’s befriend by Fifi, a wealthy older woman with a toy boy in tow. This Fifi.
“… she was stout, well corseted – her stomach carefully arranged to form part of her chest. Her hat was large and worn with with a rakish, sideways slant, her rouge shrieked, and the lids of her protruding eyes were painted bright blue. She wore very long silver earrings; nevertheless her face looked huge – vast…
“Her small, plump hands were covered with rings, her small, plump feet encased in very high-heeled , patent leather shoes.”
Her night attire is just as outrageous. “She was wonderfully garbed in a transparent nightgown of a vivid rose colour trimmed with yellow lace.” But the effect is spoiled by a dirty dressing gown, with the sleeves tied around her neck. Can’t you just visualise her? She sounds grotesque, but she has a heart of gold, and is as needy for love as anyone else – but there is a cruel fate in store for her.
Since I am still in catching-up mode I am trying to cobble together a hasty review on Margaret Kennedy’s Troy Chimneys, so I can take part in Margaret Kennedy Day over at Jane’s blog, Beyond Eden Rock. I must admit I know nothing about Margaret Kennedy, and I’ve never read anything by her, although this has been languishing on the bookshelves for years. I bought it it because:
a) It is a green-spined Virago, and you know how much I love them.
b) I liked the cover. It is, apparently, a detail from Captain Robert Orme, painted by Joshua Reynolds in 1756, and is held by the National Gallery in London. For some reason it made think of DK Broster’s Flight of the Heron, and I guess I’m not far out in that, because the Jacobite Rebellion was just 11 years earlier.
Anyway, the novel tells the story of Miles Lufton, who is, as the blurb on the back explains, a self-made politician in Regency England. His father is a clergyman, and his mother is generally regarded as an Angel. The couple have learning, taste and high moral principles – but no money. They are poor relations of the great family at the nearby Park. However Miles is brought up alongside his cousin Ned (heir to the house and fortune), learns to ride, hunt and shoot, and acquires a taste for luxury that is way above his station, though he does not realise this at the time. It must be said that Miles has a very high opinion of himself.
“There was not a single activity in which I could not count myself superior to Ned,” he tells us. “I could out-ride him, out-shoot him, bowl him at cricket and beat him at cards. That I rode his ponies, and shot his fathers coverts did not occur to either of us. For Ned admired me almost as much as I admired myself.”
His education enforces that sense of superiority, for he is sent to Winchester, by the good offices of an altruistic gentleman who admires his mother at church … such things happen in novels, especially in the early 18th century. At school he learns that however clever and good-looking he may be, without money and position he is no-one, and will never get on in society. So he sets out to make himself charming and amenable to the people who matter. He’s a very honest narrator, and makes no effort to dissemble, or disguise his behaviour and motives.
“… I worked and played, cultivated popularity, studied the foibles of the masters, and strove to recommend myself myself in that quarter where the most powerful influence was likely to be felt.”
At Oxford he is just as canny, and his friendship with the rather peculiar Ludovic (more correctly known as Lord Chalfont) provides a springboard for him to launch himself into society. With his charm, wit, intelligence and , with pleasing manners, he becomes the darling of the fashionable and wealthy – but the class distinction is always maintained. He is never their equal: he may flirt with their daughters, but marriage would never be allowed, and he knows this. He becomes what we would call a gofer, running errands for his new ‘friends’. Nothing is ever too much trouble and he’s always willing to arrange something, or fill an empty seat at the theatre or a dinner party. He is, basically, enjoying the good life by sponging off people. But he remains very clear-sighted about himself.
“I liked to stay with people who had nothing to do save amuse themselves. I liked that kind of life very well. I had no wish to be rich; I only wanted enough money to dress well, travel post, and purchase civility from the servants. Had I possessed an income of a thousand pounds per annum I don’t believe that I should have sought any profession. But I had not a hundred pounds, and it was clear I must do something.”
That something turns out to be politics. His friends help him find him a place in Parliament and, as an MP, he has ample opportunity to sybaritic lifestyle and promote his own self-interest.
Somewhere along the line he has acquired the nickname Pronto (after a character in a play, we are told) and develops a kind of split personality, in which Miles stands for decency and goodness, the opposite of his alter ego Pronto. He talks about himself largely in the third person (or perhaps I should say third people), almost as if he doesn’t exist, and he is telling a story about someone else. And as Pronto, the created character, begins to take over he is very aware of what is happening to him, though he tends to blame others for the changes which bring out aspects of his character which always been there, but to a lesser degree. Talking about his society friends, he says:
“They liked me for my interesting poverty, my sensibility, my freshness, my innocence. They were therefore in great haste to destroy in me every quality which they had praised and found delightful, to corrupt Miles and conjure up Pronto in his stead.”
He is unable to let one or the other take over completely, and equally unable to merge the two halves of his personality into a complete whole. He cannot decide who, or what, he wants to be be, or what kind of life he wants to lead. And because of this, I think, he never fulfills his potential, and never achieves his goals. Late in the novel he meets up with Caroline Audley, who he knew years before. In those days, we learn:
“Her good graces might be valuable to Pronto, and he set himself to secure them. He paid her a good deal of attention, – not so great as to arouse expectations, he was too sharp for that, – but he certainly took more notice of her than other people did (… ). He may have indicated a little more admiration than he felt; most women expect that and like it. And he had a genuine regard for her, so that Miles was not entirely banished from the scene…”
But his regard is not great enough for a proposal of marriage. When they meet again he falls in love. He is haunted by Caroline, and dreams of making her his wife, so they can together at Troy Chimneys, the beautiful house in the country which he has bought, but never lived in. However, the dream is unattainable, because he hurt Caroline so badly in the past.
I loved the way Margaret Kennedy writes, her portrayal of the characters, the delicate balance of their relationships, and the snippets of period detail.I had no idea what to expect, but I really enjoyed this book, and liked the structure, which had an early 19th century feel to it, very much in keeping with the period in which it is set, and epistolary novels were very popular. It opens with letters written some 50 years later, by which time Miles/Pronto has become a skeleton in the family cupboard, and is never spoken of. Then his memoirs come to light, and it is these that form the main part of the novel. Part diary, part reflection on life, they reveal his inner conflict, his hopes and fears, his desire to be something more than he is, and his bitterness that man of ability should be considered nothing and nobody if he has no money or position. At the end are more letters, in which you find out what eventually happened to Lufton.
Actually, he is much more likable than I’ve made him sound. He does have some very unattractive traits, but I ended up feeling sorry for him. In her introduction Anita Brookner gives the impression that he is a gifted man, from a loving family, who through some fatal flaw in his character wastes his talents and cannot push anything through to its conclusion. However, I’m not sure I agree with that, because he does seem to be so self-aware, and there are moments when he knowingly makes decisions which could have gone the other way. And I keep wondering whether the duality in his nature was always there, or whether it was something he created.
The obvious comparison, from a psychological viewpoint, would be Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but I think it would be more interesting to look at Margaret Kennedy’s novel alongside something like Edith Olivier’s The Love Child, or Frank Baker’s Miss Hargreaves, where imaginary people become real and take on a life of their own. Miles’ alter ego is like that, but within himself, rather than an external manifestation.
Now I’ve finished I’m not at all sure that I’ve done justice to this novel – there are so many aspects I haven’t mentioned, and other people will probably take issue with some of the things I have commented on, and really I should go through it again and whittle it down, but I’m going to leave it as it is.
A quick update for those of you who love Beryl Bainbridge! Annabel (Gaskella), over at Annabel’s House of Books has now posted links to all the reviews people wrote for Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week. It’s always interesting to read other people’s ideas about authors and books, and there are some lovely reviews which make me want to dash off and Buy More Beryl! So a huge thank you to Annabel for organising the Week, and if you haven’t already seen it, please dash over to her blog and take a look at the wrap-up post.
And, finally, the third Beryl Bainbridge novel. The Dressmaker. Full details of the week, organised by Annabel, can be seen on her blog, Annabel’s House of Books. The link to her first review is here. Here we have 17-year-old Rita, a lonely, old-fashioned girl, brought up by her aunts after the death of her mother. There is Nellie, a dressmaker, rigid in her outlook on life, who raises Rita exactly as she herself was raised, and keeps everything in the house the way it was when her own mother (Rita’s grandmother) was alive, and still follows the code of conduct laid down by her mother. And there is widowed Marge, who smokes, and works in a factory, and likes a good time (when she can get it), and wears unsuitable, rather flamboyant clothes. Her chance of remarrying was wrecked by Nellie and their brother Jack, who is actually Rita’s father, although she calls him Uncle Jack.
Apparently most (if not all) of Bainbridge’s early work was based on her own childhood, and one can only feel sorry for her if her home was as cold and cheerless as Rita’s. As with so much of her work there is no warmth or cheer in this house, no love or human contact. At one point Marge reflects:
“Jack and Nellie had moulded Rita, cramped her development, as surely if they had copied the Chinese, binding the feet of infants to keep them small.”
Small wonder that Rita falls in love with an American soldier (this is World War Two, and the Yanks are camped just down the road). Immature for her age, she is obsessed by Ira, and imagines a future where they will lie side by side as husband and wife (but her imagination doesn’t take her any further than that). All her life she has been waiting for him. He, as everyone else can see, is no good, but she is convinced he must love her, and refuses to take the hint when he tries to drop her. It is heart-breaking to read how she chases him, writes to him, begs and pleads.
In contrast we also follow the fortunes of neighbour Valerie Mander, much-loved daughter of wealthy parents, who is everything Rita is not – good looking, well-dressed, smart, clever, confident, able to take care of herself and is about to become engaged to American Chuck, who is handsome, polite, thoughtful, and well to do (and not at all like Ira). They are a golden couple with, one hopes, a golden future ahead of them.
But we know there is no such happiness for Rita. The story moves inexorably towards the climax, which is both shocking and unexpected, and is precipitated by Marge, which is ironic since she is the aunt who appears to be more loving and sympathetic towards Rita. But Marge knows about men, and Ira, who wants a woman rather than a callow, inexperienced girl, recognises that fact, and it leads to disaster.
The Bottle Factory Outing – this is the second book I read for Beryl Bainbridge Week, and I loved it, but I’m going to try and keep my comments very short, because we are at the end of the week, and I haven’t got much time. And it is a very difficult to write about this book without including spoilers, so anyone who is bothered by that had better stop reading now!
Freda and Brenda share a room in a run-down lodging house in Hope Street, which is a bt of a misnomer really. You’d need to be pretty optimistic about life, the universe and everything to survive here for very long. The two women work in a wine bottling factory, where virtually everyone else is Italian, and they couldn’t be more different.
They met at a butcher’s shop,when Brenda burst into tears as the butcher asks: “Giving the old man a treat are you?” Her husband has left her, she says… so Freda takes her away. But it turns out that Brenda has been economic with with the truth and that she is the one who left, because she couldn’t stand her husband coming home drunk from the Little Legion every night and peeing on the front step..
Leaving the marital home must have been one of the few occasions that Brenda makes a decision and initiates any kind of action. Despite her respectable background (private school, music lessons) she is, as Freda says, a born victim. She has stringy red hair, a thin face and short-sighted blue eyes, and thinks all the men are after her. And so they are, despite her unprepossessing appearance and lack of backbone. Perhaps it’s her acquiescence they like. She wouldn’t say boo to goose. She doesn’t like chaos, or being the centre of attraction, or making a fuss, or upsetting people, or hurting their feelings – so she ends up doing and saying things she doesn’t want. But for all that she’s a realist, and doesn’t harbour any illusions about life has to offer. “She felt it was unwise to see things as other than they were,” Bainbridge tells us.
Freda, on the other hand, is a fantasist who refuses to see life as it is. Freda has a smooth, white skin, shining yellow hair, big blue eyes with curved lashes, and a rosy mouth. She sounds like a beautiful china doll, so it comes as a bit of surprise when you read on and find that:
“She was five foot ten in height, twenty-six years old, and she weighed sixteen stone. All her life she had cherished the hope that one day she would become part of a community , a family. She wanted to be adored and protected, she wanted to be called little one.”
Freda is in love with Vittorio, trainee manager and nephew of factory owner Mr Paganotti, and is convinced he reciprocates her feelings. But he has his eye on a nice, quiet, Italian girl, and is scared of Freda, whose personality is as overbearing as her figure – she is very assertive (some might say aggressive). And things come to a head when she organises a staff Outing so she and Vittorio can get to know each other better.
What follows is positively farcical, but the humour is very dark indeed. Nothing goes right on the day of the Outing. The van booked to transport people to a stately home in the country doesn’t turn up, so most of the staff are sent home. The favoured few set off in two cars, and end up at what I think must be Windsor Great Park – and Freda ends up dead (sorry about the spoiler). No-one wants to involve the police, so they take the body home and pickle it in brandy in a wine cask.
One of the party confesses to being responsible for her death, but questions remain. Is he really responsible? Was it an accident? Was it murder? Was he following orders? Or covering up for someone else?
We’re in classic Bainbridge territory, with two wildly disparate (and rather unlikable) protagonists, and a cast of others who are just as separated from society, including a randy Italian, a drunken Irishman, Brenda’s mad mother-in-law, who appears at the house in Hope Street flourishing a gun. As ever, none of these people listen to each other or make any kind of emotional connection. They are like trains running on single tracks which never converge, although they do occasionally cross each other.
Beryl Bainbridge Week was otganised by Annabel, at Annabel’s House of Books, and her first post of the week is here.
I wrote this earlier in the week, for Beryl BainbridgeWeek, which is hosted by Annabel at Annabel’s House of Books. and went off to my elder daughter’s for a few days, expecting to be able to neaten this up and add a bit more. I had stuff in draft, and copied into Google docs so I could use my tablet, but I can’t have done it right, because WordPress wouldn’t let me do anything, which means I am a bit late, but it is the 19th, and the week ends today, so I’m just in time. And I’ve got part-written posts for two other. Beryl Bainbridge books which I will try and post later this evening.
I don’t want to the Beryl’s week, because I love her work. I love her spikiness, the pared back prose, the dark humour, the acerbic wit, and the way her characters never quite seem to engage with each other. And there are few writers who can match her when it comes to portraying the small details of social class that might easily go unnoticed. So I’m posting this now, and hope that is OK
So here we are, my thoughts on A Quiet Life, where the sense of disassociation is very strong. Even the landscape seems alienated, with grim houses and a bleak beach. And the period is equally isolated – late 1940s, after the war, but well before any benefits of peace have arrived, so it’s neither one nor the other. However, the novel opens 25 years later, as brother and sister Alan and Madge meet for the first time in 15 years, following the death of their mother. Madge, never one to observe the social niceties of life, is late. Alan (as ever) is anxious and disgruntled. The tone is set from the outset:
“Madge hadn’t even bothered to turn up the funeral. Instead she had sent that distasteful letter written on thin toilet paper, from some town in France, suggesting that if they were going to put Mother in the same grave as Father it might be a waste of time to carve ‘Rest in Peace’ on the Tombstone.”
That one sentence tells you lots about the people involved in this tale. There’s Madge, who flouts convention, is very outspoken and doesn’t mind what people think. And there’s Alan (throughout the novel we see things from his point of view), who is conventional, strait-laced, and worries a lot about doing the right thing and what the neighbours will say. And then there are their warring parents.
Seeing Madge disturbs Alan, and makes him think of the past, which he doesn’t enjoy. In his opinion she hasn’t moved on and accepted the present.”She didn’t rearrange her face the way Joan had managed to do over the years, the way he had,” he thinks. And with that we’re back in post-war Liverpool, looking at their dysfunctional childhood, and pondering how the same events produce two people with such divergent views of the past and such differing strategies for coping with life.
The novel covers a few months leading up to the father’s death, Themes of perception and the nature of memory run through the novel. Just as Madge and Alan see the past from different perspectives, so each of their parents can give a different account of their tortured marriage. Is there a right or wrong way to view these things I wonder? And is anyone ever a reliable witness of their own past, I wonder? Or anyone else’s, come to that?
Alan is 17 and he wants a quiet life. He’s not a loner – he has friends. and even acquires a girlfriend. But he’s built a kind of shell around himself as protection from the quarrels and shouting at home. His own emotions become deadened as he tries to take no notice of what is happening around him, and ensures that others take no notice of him. Yet at the same time he craves affection, and wants recognition for the fact that he is good and causes no trouble. He goes to youth club, and church, and rides his bike; anything to get out of the house, which is as cold and cheerless as the relationship between his parents.
Madge, two years younger, is equally anxious to escape, and sneaks off, barefoot, to be with a German prisoner of war, much to her brother’s horror. Actually, he’s shocked by her behaviour generally. She doesn’t suppress what is happening at home – I think her only way of coping is to acknowledge the situation, and to be outrageous, to shock and embarrass. Unlike Alan, she doesn’t mind what other people think. She’s noisy where he is quiet, extrovert where he is introvert, very independent and more aware of people’s feelings.
In their own ways both youngsters are trying to come to terms with their parents’ animosity towards each other.It is one toxic marriage, and the couple are so wrapped up in their own hatred and misery they haven’t the energy or the inclination to provide anything remotely resembling a loving parental relationship with their children, or to take any interest in their emotional well-being. You wonder how such a disparate couple ever met (on a No 22 tram, apparently), and what drew them together.
The family once lived in a big house, with a maid, but the father (a businessman, though the exact nature of his business is never disclosed) lost his money, and now they live in genteel semi-detached poverty. However, they still have a car and Alan attends a private school (albeit a third rate one), but puts him a cut above the grammar school boys, so his girlfriend’s mother regards him as a good catch.
The father not well educated, and is fussy, controlling and frighteningly bad tempered. He thinks his wife (Connie) is having an affair with one of his friends – but she spends every evening reading in the railway station waiting room. She’s better educated, and from a higher social class, but everything seems to be for show: they live in the cramped kitchen, because the lounge reserved for visitors.
And when it comes to visitors there’s a hilarious description of a Sunday afternoon tea when Connie’s parents and the father’s sister (aunt Nora) visit. People talk, but no-one listens, and everyone seems to be having a lone conversation, so the things they say bear no relation to what anyone else says or the questions they’ve been asked. It’s quite surreal really, and very funny, but sad at the same time.
Right. This blog is primarily about books, so off we go. And I’m sorry to say the first review is a book I didn’t like, so I’m not sure this is a good start! It’s Philippa Gregory’s The King’s Curse, and to be honest I can’t think what induced me to buy it, because generally speaking I don’t like her books. My only excuse is that I wasn’t feeling well, and I was browsing Amazon, reading the excerpts they provide, and before I knew it I’d clicked ‘Buy’, and seconds later up it popped on the Kindle. It’s the final volume in The Cousins’ War, Gregory’s series about the Wars of the Roses, and tells the story of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, whose main claim to fame seems to be that she was 67 when Henry Vlll had her beheaded, which was pretty horrific even by 16th century standards.
I found Gregory’s portrayal of Margaret singularly unpleasant. She’s obsessed by status and her family’s position – she was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence (brother of Edward lV and Richard lll), who was (allegedly) drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine after being convicted of treason (he changed sides, abandoning his Yorkist family in favour of the Lancastrians). After his death she was brought up by Edward and then, following his death, by Richard. They were, as she never tires of telling us, the greatest in the land.
A Plantagenet, she considers herself vastly superior to the ‘upstart’ Tudors, but she’s not averse to currying favour with them, however and whenever she can. And it’s not only the Tudors she despises. She looks down her aristocratic nose at just about everyone else, including her husband. The only exceptions are Queen Catherine, Princess Mary, and her own family. In fact, family means a lot to her. I kept thinking what a marvellous East End matriarch she would make, and wanted her to suddenly start shrieking ‘get it sorted, ‘e’s family’, or ‘get aht of my palace’. It would have made her lot more interesting!
I think that was part of the problem. Margaret never came to life for me, and I just couldn’t believe in her as a character. We never really know what she thinks or feels, and even when it comes to family there’s no sense that she loves them. She wants her daughter and her sons to do well, but it’s not about happiness, or achieving something in life, it’s about money, power, status, position – and perpetuating the Plantagenet bloodline, even if the family name is lost.
I suppose her position at court must always have been precarious; the Tudor monarchs were quick to crack down on anyone with a rival claim to the throne who could provide a focal point for rebellion. However, for much of her life Margaret seems to have been pretty adept at looking after herself, though her fortunes waxed and waned over the years. She joined the Catherine of Aragon’s household, and became a kind of governess to the young Princess Mary, while her sons, for a time, were high in the King’s favour. It was the King’s ‘Great Matter’, his divorce from Catherine, break with Rome and marriage to Anne Boleyn, which brought about her downfall.
I hate being nasty about living authors and I know Gregory is a highly acclaimed writer and historian (though some historians, most notably David Starkey) dispute this. I have no idea how accurate her facts are in this book, but there were times when I wondered. For example, was Thomas Boleyn really Margaret Pole’s steward? Gregory’s focus always seems to be on controversial issues that make good headlines but are difficult to prove or disprove – witchcraft, incest, affairs, mystery over whether a marriage was consummated…
For all her talk about telling history from the viewpoint of women, especially ‘forgotten’ women, and her insistence that her work is well researched, she always manages to make her books sound more enticing than they turn out to be – they never live up to expectation, and I’m always disappointed, which is exactly what happened with this one.
There was a lot of repetition, and it was so wearisome listening to Margaret whinging on and on about how she came of royal blood, and was once one of the highest in the land. And I couldn’t care less about the other characters. None of them was clearly defined, which made it difficult to sort out who was who. And despite the references to people, food, clothes, travel, illness and lifestyle, it didn’t feel like Tudor England, though I’m not quite sure why.
I do hate writing nasty things about living authors, but I can’t find anything nice to say about this book at all. I persevered a good way in, then I asked myself: “What am I doing? I don’t have to read something I’m not enjoying.” So I abandoned it, and ended up feeling guilty. It’s probably a hang-over from my school days, but I always think I must finish a book.
Anyway, I was anxious to remind myself that there are far better novels about this period, so I am now re-reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, and it is every bit as brilliant as it was first time around. Plus, Mantel has not tried to pass off a work of fiction as a historical truth. She’s gone to some pains to explain that her tale is a version of what might have happened, woven together from available snippets of information, and that she used her imagination to plug the gaps between the known facts.
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.