The blurb on the back of Hilary Bailey’s Hannie Richards or The Intrepid Adventures of a Restless Wife describes it as a ‘pastiche’ of John Buchan, and I suppose that’s right to some extent, because the connection is clearly visible in our heroine’s name – Hannie Richards/Richard Hannay. And the author subverts the male world of adventure by having a female protagonist who is less interested in righting wrongs than in making money.
Hannie, tall, slender, red-haired, good looking, is married to a gentleman farmer and appears to be the perfect wife and mother, as well having a career which takes her all over the world. But she is leading a double life, for she is really a highly sought after international smuggler, commanding extremely high fees for her services. She’s cool-headed, courageous, well organised – and says her success is down to the fact that people don’t look at women. But she’s completely amoral, with no scruples about the jobs she undertakes. She works for the money, to fund a nice lifestyle, and to keep the farm going, her mother in a nursing home, and her daughters at an expensive school.
She relates her adventures to fellow members of the Hope Club, a women’s version of the ‘grander gentlemen’s clubs of Mayfair or Belgravia’. Her successes include finding the evidence for a poor, black family to prove their ownership of a Caribbean island, and rescuing a strange child from war-torn Chad on a secret mission for the Vatican. There is lots of danger, and lots of action – chases, shootings, killings, a volcano…
Despite her own extra-marital exploits (which, apparently, mean nothing), she is devastated to discover her husband has embarked on an affair with their neighbour. So she plans one last job to earn enough money for a new life with her twin daughters, and travels to the Bolivian jungle to acquire a rare plant for a dying millionaire who believes it will cure his cancer. But her luck is running out. She finds herself involved with some particularly vicious villains (there’s a nasty scene where she is raped and beaten which, quite frankly, I thought was unnecessary and didn’t add anything to the story), and ends up in a Brazilian jail because someone puts drugs in her luggage.
However, all ends well because her friends at the Hope Club, worried by her disappearance, seek help from a former arms dealer, who turns out to be the mysterious stranger who has aided Hannie the past. He rescues and, naturally, they fall in love and live happily ever after (probably). Oh, and she finally develops a social conscience.
This was one of those books that sounded much more enticing than it turned out to be. It just goes to show that the lovely Virago apple is not always a mark of excellence – I didn’t hat this (it was interesting), but I wouldn’t read this again, and I’m not sure I want to read anything else by Hilary Bailey. Published in 1985, it’s very much of its time, and very much a feminist novel, though there’s nothing wrong with that – my bookshelves are packed with feminist novels that I love. I just didn’t love this one. To start with I thought perhaps it was meant to be a comedy, because the adventures were so ludicrous, but Bailey obviously has a serious message to make, not just about women’s subservient position, but about poor and oppressed people everywhere. And that’s part of the problem I think, because she takes a pop at so many institutions and attitudes – big business, organised religion, patriarchal society – which dilutes what she’s trying to say. And she’s very heavy-handed in the way she says it.
And I didn’t like Hannie or any of the other characters. None of them came to life, and there was a curious lack of emotion, so I never felt I knew what made Hannie tick, although we do learn that she started smuggling when she evaded quarantine laws by bringing a cat back from France for friends of a friend, and she says she didn’t want to be a woman waiting for her husband to come home, hanging about, trying to make ends meet (though her idea of making ends meet is somewhat different to mine). So there you are. Amazing what bored housewives can do when they put their mind to it!
Somewhere in this novel is the germ of an idea about women trying to make it in a man’s world, to support themselves and their families through their own efforts, and to live life on their own terms, whatever the cost. But as far as I’m concerned, it didn’t quite come off.
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.
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.
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.
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.