A Monstrous Mother

Her Sons Wife
My Virago copy features Nahende, Rue des Belles Feuilles, by Felix Vallotton on the cover.

Today’s post is by way of being a tribute to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who was born on this day in 1879, and is one of the Underappreciated Lady Authors being celebrated by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock – you’ll find her explanatory post here.

Mary Bascomb, the central character in Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Her Son’s Wife calls to mind Evangeline in The Home-Maker. She must be one of literature’s most monstrous women. A widowed teacher with a grown-up son she is perfect at everything she does, at home and at work, and she keeps a tight hold on all those she comes into contact with – fellow teachers, pupils, their parents, and her son. Especially her son. She has his future all mapped out: she’s selected his future career (a lawyer, like his father before him) and has a suitable girl lined up to marry him… But Ralph throws a spanner in the works when he writes to say he has just got marrried, and is throwing up any idea of the law so he can get a job as soon as he graduates. To say she is devastated is an understatement; Ralph has been the centre of her universe for some 20 years or so, and the phrase ‘possessive mother’ doesn’t come anywhere near describing her relationship with him.

Now she felt a frightful limitless energy, felt that she could have risen from her chair, and walked forty times around the world, if that would unmarry Ralph and give him back to her as she had had him… as she had thought she had him.

But nothing could now give her back Ralph. The deadly certainty of this was what was being served to her as she sat there straight in her straight chair, her arms laid on her well-polished dining-room table.

She felt the deadly poison of this certainty filling her body. But she did not die. There she sat, Mary Bascomb, who must go on living. By nine o’clock the next morning she must have found have found some way of going on living.

Ralph has warned her: “Lottie’s not your kind, but she’s all right.” Lottie certainly isn’t Mrs Bascomb’s kind.

She stepped into her hall and saw hanging on her hatrack a bright green hat of an eccentric shape, made of very shiny, varnished, coarsely-braided straw, which she recognised as one of the cheap models of that season. Below it, leaning against the wall, stood a bright green cotton parasol, with a thick, bright green tassel hanging from the handle. Mrs Bascomb, gazing at it fixedly, saw that the fibers of the artificial silk had worn off in places and showed the rough jute thread of which it was made. The air was heavy with perfume… the sort of perfume that would go with that hat.

That hat, and the parasol, and the perfume, defines her opinion of her daughter-in-law before she even meets her, and Lottie does nothing to change her view. Poor Lottie has had few chances in life. Her mother died when she was young, she has been given little in the way of love and affection, and values people only for the material possessions she can get out of them. She’s badly educated, silly, flirtatious, and isn’t interested in cooking or cleaning. The reason for the hasty marriage soon becomes apparent, but Lottie is no better at looking after her baby daughter than she is at caring for house and husband – and he is no help because his mother has always done everything for him.

At one point, Mrs Bascomb moves away, leaving the couple to muddle through as best they can. Eventually she returns, determined to create a better life her grandaughter Dids and to ensure that the child doesn’t end up like Lottie.

Soon everythng in the house is running more or less smoothly, but Mrs Bascomb needs to do somethng about Lottie – and a visit from a quack doctor gives her the opening she needs. Plump, pretty Lottie is a bit of a hypochondriac and is persuads that bed rest will cure her ailments. In reality there is nothing wrong her that wouldn’t be cured by sensible shoes, diet and exercise, but its only a short step from bedrest to becoming a permanent invalid, and Mrs Bascomb softens the pill by ensuring that Lottie has the best everything – the latest books and magazines, the choicest morsels of food, the most fashionable dresses, and the softest slippers. With Lottie confined to her room, Mrs Bascomb has a free hand to bring up her grandaughter as she wants. She does everything in her power to make Lottie’s life pleasant and happy, and to ensure she won’t want to resume normal life. But she is not proud of her actions and stops wearing the locket that contains a photo of her husband.

Aas the book progresses Mrs Bascomb becomes more human and more compassionate. She rebuilds her relationship with her son, and comes to realise that she never let him make decisions for himself or stand on his own feet, and that he felt intimidated by her high expectations. She can say he is frustrated, stuck in a job he hates, and works subtly behind the scenes to help get him a job as a sports reporter – and he turns out to be cery good at it, because spot is his one big passion.

She is still controlling people, but she has managed to find Ralph something that will make him happy, rather than something which makes her happy. And, surprisingly, it turns out that Lottie is perfectly satisfied with he life as an invalid, where she can be the centre of the attention and have all the pretty things she craves without having to lift a finger to get them. Like a small child, she enjoys being petted and fussed by her friends, is adored by her daugher, and likes having Mrs Bascombe to ‘mother’ her.

Even more surprising is the way she treats Dibs, providing love, encouragement and advice, but never imposing her own will on the girl. She has learned from her past mistakes, and the measure of her success is that at the end of the novel Dids is clever, intelligent, compassionate, caring and independent, and is able to set off for college with her friends, to make a life of her own, on her own terms.

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Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

I think I enjoyed this more than The Home-Maker, and it was interesting to see how a mother’s obsessive love for a child can be a destructive force that can wreck lives – but can also be used for good. There are themes of possessive love, emotional manipulation, and the need for people to find thir own place in the world, doing what they are good at and what makes them (and the people around them) happy. I think this last point was an ongoing concern for the author. And while the characters may not always be very likable, you can sympathise with them and see how they got to be as they are, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher is not afraid to let them grow and develop.

And a word about the cover, which features Nahende, Rue des Belles Feuilles, by Felix Vallotton, Nine times out of ten I think the pictures on those old green-spined books are well-chosen and fit the theme or the feel of the novel. But this is the tenth time, and while I don’t dislike the painting, I think the lady looks too plump and cosy. It needs someone taller and thinner, who makes you feel a little uncomfortable.

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Poor Cow

poor cowPoor Cow, by Nell Dunn, was one of those iconic ‘social reality’ books of the 1960s. Published in 1967, it passed me by at the time (I was probably too young), but later I remember seeing the film, starring Terence Stamp and Carol White. It was controversial, presenting a picture of East End life that many people didn’t know existed – it was more than 20 years since the war had ended, and 10 years since Harold Macmillan’s famous ‘we have never had it so good’ speech, so there was an assumption that ‘homes for heroes’ had been built and a new social order established. But Dunn revealed the world of the urban poor, with bad housing, inadequate education, ill-paid jobs and little opportunity for improvement, and I think this book still has relevance today, when the gulf between rich and poor seems greater than ever. But it’s not overtly political, and Dunn doesn’t judge or campaign. Dunn simply presents a slice of life, telling it like it is.

At the novel’s heart is Joy, 22 years old, with a baby son (Jonny), and a husband who is a thief. We see the world from her perspective – her thoughts, her dreams, her relationships, her friends, her jobs. She is, as Margaret Drabble points out in the introduction to my 1988 Virago edition, both immoral and amoral; but she’s also warm, loving, passionate and gutsy, getting by as best she can, just like everyone else, seizing life with both hands and embracing what fate offers, whether it’s good or bad. She’s a curious mix of street wise and innocent, but she makes her own decisions about her life, refusing to see herself as a victim and, since she never stops to think, the story has a vibrancy and immediacy.

Poor-Cow
Carol White and Terence Stamp in the film version of Poor Cow.

“I’ve always been a daydreamer, me Joy – Joysy as my Auntie calls me, Daydreamed about – oh, loads of things – just to have something, to be something. I don’t want to be down and out all the time,” Joy tells us, which is kind of sad because you just know it’s never, ever going to happen. For a short time things start to look up and the couple get a luxury flat in Ruislip, financed by Tom’s ill-gotten gains. Joy doesn’t have a very high opinion of Ruislip. “The world was our oyster and we chose Ruislip,” she says. But they don’t stay long because he’s sent to prison and Joy moves in with her Auntie Emm, who lives in one room, ‘off National Assistance and pills’.

Then she gets together with Tom’s mate Dave, who is quite nice, but a bit dopey, and a very inept buglar. He arrives home one night with pockets full of necklaces, and relates how the ‘old girl’ wasn’t away after all, so was locked in the toilet while he and his friends took her jewellery. “I gave her a glass of water when we finished,” he tells Joy (but omits to say that one of them hit her over the head). The police are hard on his heels, and as they hammer on the door he tries to climb out of the window – until Joy begs him not to leave, at which point he returns and lets them in!

Soon Joy’s back with Antie Emm, working as a barmaid, doing some nude modelling (for £2 an hour, which seems like a fortune), and having lots of sex – she says she was never bothered before, but now she takes her pleasures when and where she can. and is hard-headed enough to get what she can out of the encounters, but she has her standards, and refuses to prostitute herself, maintaining that ‘you lose the pleasure of it if you turn professional’. She also writes long, ill-spelt letters to Dave, vowing eternal love, promising to wait for him, and giving him an (edited) acount of her life. Eventually Tom is released from jail and she resumes her wifely duties, and although he doesn’t seem to appreciate her efforts she remains optimistic about the future:

“Then sometimes, when he’s home, he’s good to me, that’s another thing. If he were rotten all the time I could go but sometimes for a week at a time he’s all over me. I can’t do no wromg – I’m a smashing wife – he even lets me wear me pony tail – and I feel a proper mum, I feel great. I go up the park with Jonny and buy daffodils for the table and put a red tulip in the toilet to make it smell nice and the place looks smashing and we’re happy again.”

The one constant in her life seems to be her fiercely protective love for her son (although I’m not sure she would be regarded as a good mother by today’s standards) and it’s hard to think of a similar lterary heroine – the nearest equivalent might be Babe Gordon in Mae West’s The Constant Sinner. But Joy is warm-hearted and much more human – basically, she just wants someone to love her. And Dunn is a better writer. Oddly, her writing probably has more in common with Virginia Woolf than Mae West: the life she portrays is a world away from the rarified atmosphere of Woolf’s world, with its well educated, well-heeled characters, but Poor Cow is written in a kind of up-dated stream of consciousness, using colloquial language. It moves between the author’s words, to Joy’s thoughts and her ill-written letters to her jailed lover Dave (her spelling is idiosynccratic), but it is always about her or from her point view, creating a very personal picture of a of a poor, ill-educated working class girl. According to Drabble the ‘elegance’ of the prose ‘conceals the craft’ but I don’t think elegance is the right word at all. Woolf may be elegant, Dunn is not. But there’s a freshness to the writing and the novel, which moves from episode to episode in an almost picaresque fashion, is actually quite tightly structured.

Dunn came from a ‘good’ background, but lived in Battersea, worked in local sweet factory for a time, and listened to local women talking about their lives. This, presumably, provided material for Poor Cow, and Up The Junction. Today she seems to be somewhat forgotten, but she deserves to be remembered as a pioneering author. She was one of the first novelists (male or female) to write a grittily realistic novel about working-class women in the 20th century, showing their relationships and sexual desires while exposing social issues.

This has been languishing among the TBRs for ages, and I thought it would make a nice start to the The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by https://roofbeamreader.com/2017/11/07/announcing-the-official-2018-tbr-pile-challenge/ but I forgot to sign up while I was ill. So I;m having my own unofficial TBR Pile Challenge!

The Innocents

the-innocents-margery-sharp-001I have, as they say, been somewhat in the wars in recent weeks. First there was a bad tooth which got infected and the infection spread into my jaw and throat, then there was the lurgy (a bad cough and cold which wouldn’t clear up), then I slipped on an icy step, landed face down on concrete paving slabs, and ended up in casualty having a CT scan to check everything was OK. Fortunately there’s no serious injury, just severe bruising and a lot of pain, but I feel a little sorry for myself!

Anyway, today is Margery Sharp Day, the first anniversary in a year-long Birthday Book of Under-Appreciated Lady Authors being run by Jane over at Beyond Eden Rock. So I’m posting a hastily scrawled piece about The Innocents, which I have read before, but never written about. However, it’s well worth reading again. On the face of it, it’s a simple tale, but there’s a darker edge to this than some of Sharp’s other work, and the ambiguous ending leaves you wondering about the nature of innocence, and whether a bad act committed for a greater good can ever be sanctioned.

Telling us about the child, the narrator says: “I have spoken of her, describing our first encounter, as a baby. Antoinette was in fact three. At three, she should have been able to untie my shoe-laces quite easily. She should have not only uttered, but prattled. At three Antoinette had still no more language than – a baby.”

And she is as clumsy as baby, easily frightened, and when she is scared she is sick. But gradually Antoinette comes to trust her elderly carer, a relationship develops between the two of them, and the child is accepted by villagers who ‘do not blame her for being an innocent’. “Spoken to always quietly and slowly, Antoinette understood perfectly. All that was needed was patience,” says the unnamed narrator (I’m sure her name is never mentioned – if it is, I missed it). Later she tells us: “Antoinette slowly but surely developed from a small animal into a small child.”

However, that is all she will ever be – a small child. And a very odd small child at that. She spurns toys and games for things like rabbit droppings, and frogs and toads (alive and dead) and although she acquires some language (tureen, vermin, rucksack, pepper) she cannot communicate. The local doctor says she is retarded (a commonly used word when the book wa written in 1971), not autistic, and she needs lots of TLC – and that’s just what she gets with her aging protector. For the spinster, who has little or no experience of children, accepts Antoinette as she is and has no unrealistic expectations or ambitions for her. She loves the little girl, wants her to be happy, and is willing to let her set the pace.

But their idyll is threatened when the war ends and Cecilia, now widowed, returns to England. She aims to take’Tony’ back to America, and employ an army of specialists to turn her into a normal child – a transformation that, as everyone else realises, is simply not possible.

Antoinette is uprooted from her usual routine and environment to stay with Cecilia at the local hotel. Unable to understand what is happening she loses her joy in life, and retreats into dejected, passive acceptance. And as the day of leaving draws closer the narrator becomes more and more concerned that the future being mapped out for Antoinette is not in the child’s best interests, but there is nothing she can do to prevent it… Then, at the 11th hour fate steps in – or, possibly, is nudged in the right direction…

Margery Sharp

I loved this. It’s warm and sensitively written, hitting a balance between light-hearted humour, serious issues, and ethical dilemmas, while exploring the problems involved in caring for a child with special needs, a topic that still tends to be overlooked. Additionally, the characterisation is excellent Margery Sharp can establish a personality in very few words, and builds on the picture as the story progresses, with a word here, and a hint there, until the complete person emerges. Margery Sharp is also very good on descriptions, giving a real sense of place so you can build a picture of the locations, as well as the people.

 

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

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

The blurb on the back of Hilary Bailey’s Hannie Richards or The Intrepid Adventures of a Restless Wife describes it as a ‘pastiche’ of John Buchan, and I suppose that’s right to some extent, because the connection is clearly visible in our heroine’s name – Hannie Richards/Richard Hannay. And the author subverts the male world of adventure by having a female protagonist who is less interested in righting wrongs than in making money.

Hannie, tall, slender, red-haired, good looking, is married to a gentleman farmer and appears to be the perfect wife and mother, as well having a career which takes her all over the world. But she is leading a double life, for she is really a highly sought after international smuggler, commanding extremely high fees for her services. She’s cool-headed, courageous, well organised – and says her success is down to the fact that people don’t look at women. But she’s completely amoral, with no scruples about the jobs she undertakes. She works for the money, to fund a nice lifestyle, and to keep the farm going, her mother in a nursing home, and her daughters at an expensive school.

She relates her adventures to fellow members of the Hope Club, a women’s version of the ‘grander gentlemen’s clubs of Mayfair or Belgravia’. Her successes include finding the evidence for a poor, black family to prove their ownership of a Caribbean island, and rescuing a strange child from war-torn Chad on a secret mission for the Vatican. There is lots of danger, and lots of action – chases, shootings, killings, a volcano…

Despite her own extra-marital exploits (which, apparently, mean nothing), she is devastated to discover her husband has embarked on an affair with their neighbour. So she plans one last job to earn enough money for a new life with her twin daughters, and travels to the Bolivian jungle to acquire a rare plant for a dying millionaire who believes it will cure his cancer. But her luck is running out. She finds herself involved with some particularly vicious villains (there’s a nasty scene where she is raped and beaten which, quite frankly, I thought was unnecessary and didn’t add anything to the story), and ends up in a Brazilian jail because someone puts drugs in her luggage.

However, all ends well because her friends at the Hope Club, worried by her disappearance, seek help from a former arms dealer, who turns out to be the mysterious stranger who has aided Hannie the past. He rescues and, naturally, they fall in love and live happily ever after (probably). Oh, and she finally develops a social conscience.

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This was one of those books that sounded much more enticing than it turned out to be. It just goes to show that the lovely Virago apple is not always a mark of excellence – I didn’t hat this (it was interesting), but I wouldn’t read this again, and I’m not sure I want to read anything else by Hilary Bailey. Published in 1985, it’s very much of its time, and very much a feminist novel, though there’s nothing wrong with that – my bookshelves are packed with feminist novels that I love. I just didn’t love this one. To start with I thought perhaps it was meant to be a comedy, because the adventures were so ludicrous, but Bailey obviously has a serious message to make, not just about women’s subservient position, but about poor and oppressed people everywhere. And that’s part of the problem I think, because she takes a pop at so many institutions and attitudes – big business, organised religion, patriarchal society – which dilutes what she’s trying to say. And she’s very heavy-handed in the way she says it.

And I didn’t like Hannie or any of the other characters. None of them came to life, and there was a curious lack of emotion, so I never felt I knew what made Hannie tick, although we do learn that she started smuggling when she evaded quarantine laws by bringing a cat back from France for friends of a friend, and she says she didn’t want to be a woman waiting for her husband to come home, hanging about, trying to make ends meet (though her idea of making ends meet is somewhat different to mine). So there you are. Amazing what bored housewives can do when they put their mind to it!

Somewhere in this novel is the germ of an idea about women trying to make it in a man’s world, to support themselves and their families through their own efforts, and to live life on their own terms, whatever the cost. But as far as I’m concerned, it didn’t quite come off.

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

 

The Street (but not the TV show!)

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

Today’s  book is The Street, by Ann Petry, chosen because it is set in Harlem, just  like The Constant Sinner, and makes an interesting companion piece. As you might expect, some of the themes are very similar: there is crime, prostitution, even murder. But there the similarity ends for this novel, written in 1945 and published the following year, is much bleaker and much more of a political protest. And Petry is a far better writer than West. She doesn’t glamorise the street and its inhabitants: life there is hard. It’s sordid and shabby, and people are downtrodden and disillusioned, with no hope left. Some turn to crime because its the only way they can survive, and it offers a way out of the dirt, the degradation, and the poverty. But they show no mercy to anyone weaker.

The street itself is almost a living entity, as much a character as the people. It’s malevolent, overwhelming and oppressive, grinding the residents down, killing their last vestiges of joy, optimism, pride and independence.

‘There was a cold November wind blowing through 116th Street…  It found every scrap of paper long the street – theatre programmes, announcements of dances  and meetings, the heavy waxed paper that loaves of bread had been wrapped in, the thinner waxed paper that enclosed sandwiches., old envelopes, newspapers. Fingering its way along the kerb, the wind set the bits of paper to dancing high in the air, so that a barrage of paper swirled into the faces of the people on the street. It even took time to rush into doorways and areas and find chicken bones and pork-chop bones and push them along the kerb.

It did everything it could to discourage the people walking along the street. It found all the dirt and dust and grime on the pavement and lifted it up so that the dirt  got into their noses making it difficult breathe; the dust got into their eyes and blinded them; and the grit stung their skins.’

Into the street and the wind walks beautiful Lutie Johnson looking for a flat, and you feel the wind is trying to warn her off, to chase her away. Lutie knows this is not a good place. The flat she takes, like other flats in this house, in this street, is small, dark, dirty, and noisy. and everywhere smells of garbage. Jones, the sinister Superintendent (Supe or Super, as he is known), looks at her with lechery in his heart and mind. Then there is Mrs Hedges, enormously fat, with a bandana around her head, sitting by her window watching the world with her snake eyes. Sharing her flat, acting as her maids, are young girls who are not quite what they seem, for Mrs Hedges is a brothel keeper and, as she tells Lutie, a good-looking black girl can always earn extra money if she is especially nice to a white man.

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

But Lutie is not interested. She wants a better, safer life for herself and her nine-year-old son Bub, and she aims to raise herself out of poverty by her own honest endeavours.  For the moment, this is all can can afford and anything – well, almost anything – is better than life with her drunken father and his current girlfriend.

Lutie once worked as a live-in a maid/housekeeper/cook for the wealthy, white Chandlers, but in her absence her jobless husband acquires another woman. So Lutie takes her son and moves in with her father. She takes a dead-end job, and scrimps and saves so she can learn the skills needed for an office job.

Proud and independent, she vows she will never be defeated and dejected like others in the street for her time with the Chandlers has given a glimpse of a better way of life (she is particularly impressed with their kitchen) and exposed her to new ideas. She has learned that America is the land of the free, and believes that if she works hard and saves her money she can be independent and will be able to move out of the Harlem slum and create a new life with improved opportunities for Bub.

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

She has the chance to earn extra money singing in a nightclub for band leader Boots Smith, but nothing is ever finalised, and the cash is never forthcoming. The story gets more complicated, because Jones, the Superintendent at the flats, has initially befriended Bub in the hope that this will endear him to Lutie, but she makes it clear she is not interested, and he is warned off by Mrs Hedges, a friend of Junto, who owns and controls everything in the area and wants to sleep with Lutie… To get his own back, Jones sets Bub up as the fall guy in a scheme to steal letters from tenants in neighbouring blocks, luring the boy with the promise of payment – and Bub, knowing that Lutie needs more money, agrees. He is caught by the police, and Lutie must raise 200 dollars to get him released and keep him out of reform school, so she turns to Boots for help. But she will only get paid if she is nice to Junto – and she won’t sleep with him. Finally, when Boots tries to have his way with she snaps, grabs a candlestick and beats him to death…

The story is told in multiple viewpoints and flashbacks, and there are back stories for many of the characters, so as their pasts are revealed you can understand why they are as they are, even if if you cannot warm to them. Big, fat Mrs Hedges  has faced tragedy and destitution with fortitude and courage, and her business may not be legal (or morally acceptable) but she provides a safe home for her girls and ensures they are well fed and well dressed. In many ways she’s as much a victim of life as her girls or Lutie.

Then there’s Jones, the abusive superintendent, who has spent his life in the bowels of ships and buildings, unable to form friendships or relationships with people, but desperately lonely and yearning for a woman. And there is Min, the meek, shapeless woman who lives with Jones and turns to Prophet David for help, though I’m a little unclear whether she wants to him love her or to keep away.  At any rate, she recieves a cross to go above the bed (which certainly keeps Jones at bay) and a potion to put in his drink.

And there are the Chandlers, who have their own problems and tragedies, which proves that money can’t buy happiness. And it’s interesting to see how Mrs Chandler’s attitude towards Lutie changes when other people are around – when the two women are alone she is quite friendly, but as soon as people appear the barriers go up and they are employer and employee again.

But the social divide can never be crossed – there’s a gulf between black and white, rich and poor, male and female. The issues that are so much part of Harlem life cannot be overlooked. Towards the end of the novel Petry writes of Lutie:

‘Her thoughts were like a chorus chanting inside her head. The men stood round and the women worked.The men left the women and the women went on working and the kids were left alone. The kids burned lights all night because they were alone in small, dark rooms and they were afraid. Alone. Always alone. They wouldn’t stay in the house after school because they were afraid in the empty, dark, silent rooms. And they should have been playing in wide stretches of green park and instead they were in the street. And the street reached out and sucked them up.’

And she adds:

‘The women work because the white folks give the jobs – washing dishes and clothes and floors and windows. The women work because for years now the white folks haven’t liked to give black men jobs that paid enough to support their families. And finally it gets to be to be too late for some of them. Even wars don’t change it. The men get out of the habit of working…’

And we know, and she knows, that it’s too late for her, and too late for Bub. There will be no rescue for either of them because they are black and poor, and the system is weighted against them. And it’s such a tragedy, because Lutie is so feisty, and has courage and principles and determination, and she is trying to protect her son and open up a new, better future for him, yet in the end her dreams are shattered and it is she who will be responsible for damaging him beyond repair and ensuring that he will never get that brighter future.

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

I’d never heard of Ann Petry, but I spotted this Virago edition in Astley Book Farm (the best second-hand book shop I know). Apparently, sales of the novel topped a million and it was the first time a black, female writer achieved success on this scale. She was also the first black, female writer to explore the problems of slum life in a novel. The book was based very much on what she saw during the six years she spent as a reporter in Harlem, and the work she undertook investigating the effects of segregation on children.

If you want to know more about her there’s an interesting (but short) article here and the website also has a video giving a brief history of Harlem, which I found really interesting.

In Which I Find A Virago I Hate

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

Mother and Son, by Ivy Compton-Burnett  was bought at the same time as Mae West’s The Constant Sinner, and bears out my theory that you should never make assumptions about books. I bought the West book out of curiosity and, against all expectation, thoroughly enjoyed it. On the other hand I had high hopes for Mother and Son, and absolutely HATED everything about it – the characters, the story, and especially the way it was written. Sometimes, even when I don’t like book, I can appreciate the way it is constructed, and understand why other people would praise it, but not in this case. In fact I can’t understand why Compton-Burnett is so highly esteemed, and I was disappointed, because she’s admired by so many people, including Simon T over at Stuck in a Book, whose recommendations usually turn out to be excellent.

Plus IC-B gets a mention in Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader (which is brilliant – all book lovers should read it). He describes how the Queen, in pursuit of barking corgis, stumbles upon a mobile library van. Consequently, she discovers the joys of reading, and her first book, by Ivy Compton-Burnett, is selected because she made the author a dame.  “Yes, I remember that hair, a roll like a pie-crust that went right round her head,” she recalls. And when I looked at photographs of the author I realised how apt that description that is – but how terrible for a writer to be remembered for her hair rather than her prose!

Anyway, the novel opens as Miranda Hume, a strong-willed 80-year-old matriarch, is interviewing an applicant for the post of companion. But Miss Burke is as strong-minded as her prospective employer. During the course of the conversation we learn that Miss Burke believes housework has very little to do with companionship, which is very true, and made me recall Max de Winter’s first meeting with the nameless heroine of Rebecca,  when he says: “I did not know one could buy companionship,” and adds: “It sounds a strange idea.” The nature of companionship, and fear of being alone seem to be the main themes of the novel. The characters, as Hilary Spurling observes in her introduction, are not satisfied with the companionship on offer – but are unable to manage without it.

Until she can find a suitable person, Miranda falls back on the companionship of her middle-aged, son Rosebery – they seem almost unhealthily close. And there is her husband Julius, her orphaned teenage nephews and niece, Bates the maid, and Mr Pettigrew the tutor. It’s a strange, constrained sort of household, very different to the nearby establishment run by friends Miss Greatheart and Miss Wolsey (who take Miss Burke on as their housekeeper).

The book was written in 1955, but reads like something from an earlier age – it’s difficut tell when it is set. There’s not much of a plot, although hidden secrets are revealed, and none of the characters came to life for me; I found them unlikable, unrealistic and not very clearly defined.

I must admit that since Compton-Burnett is known for her strong use of dialogue, while I love lots of description, this was never likely to be my ideal read. I adore Dickens and Trollope and all those Victorian novelists who covered page after page with details of the weather, a dinner party table, slum housing and all sorts of other stuff. I want to know what people looked like, and where they lived and what they wore, and I like to find out what they thought and what made them tick. As far as I am concerned dialogue is fine, in small doses, and it should help reveal plot and character. But you don’t get that with Compton-Burnett. What you do get is a book full of dialogue, to the exclusion of all else. And very stilted dialogue it is. The speech patterns, words and language seem terribly old-fashioned, which could be due to the passing of time, but I refuse to believe anyone ever spoke like this in real life and especially not in the mid-50s.

On occasions I wondered if it was meant to be a parody: if Stella Gibbons had written things like ‘truly the flesh is weak’,  ‘my watch informs me of the hour’, or ‘do not look at me with an expression that pierces the heart’, we would know absolutely that this is not serious. In fact that last quote could just as easily come from Oswald Bastable, or any of Edith Nesbit’s other child heroes and heroines, using fantastical.high-flown language when playing together or describing their adventures.

And all the characters have the same voice, which is really, really irritating (and confusing). Everyone, whatever their age or social class, speaks in exactly the same fashion, without any hint of character or experience. If you read a page with the attributions removed you would have no idea who was speaking. In fact, there are great chunks of this novel where I was totally confused as to who said what. And there’s no emotion or feeling, or insight into character. It’s as if the’re bad actors mouthing lines which are witty but meaningless.

Ivy Compton Burnett
Ivy Compton-Burnett.

 

The Constant Nymph

constant nymph

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

Margaret_Moore_Kennedy_(1896-1967)
Author Margaret Kennedy.

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…

the delphic oracle michaelangelo
At one point in the novel Tessa is described as looking like Michelangelo’s  Delphic Sibyl.

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. 

Margaret Kennedy Day