It’s Emily Hilda Young Day!

The Critics Harold Harvey
I thought it would be nice to show the complete picture of The Critics, by Harold Harvey, rather than the cropped version which appears on the front cover of my Virago edition of EH Young’s William. It is apparently, in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, so next time I’m there I’ll see if it is on display.

Today I am celebrating another of the Underappreciated Lady Authors gathered together by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock. Emily Hilda Young, was born on this day in 1880 and, like many of those old ‘green’ VMC authors, has had the misfortune to be forgotten not once, but twice. In her heyday, during the 1920s and 30s, she was enormously popular, but fell into obscurity after the war, when the public’s reading tastes changed. There was a brief renaissance when Virago published some of her novels in the 1980s, but it didn’t endure. More recently the tide seems to be turning, and once again there is an upsurge of interest in her work, so perhaps someone will republish the books – I certainly hope so.

EH Young Good Reads
Emily Hilda Young.

Between 1910 and 1947 Young wrote 11 novels, which are primarily domestic, and are very much of their time and place, mostly portraying life in Radstowe, a fictionalised version of Bristol, where she lived for many years. The plots are slight, the story-lines slow, and her writing very quiet, with subtle depictions of the delicate nuances of class and social structure, and the tension caused by the need for public proprietry balanced against private desires. Her observations of relationships are equally acute as she exposes the feelings between man and woman, parent and child, sister and sister. In some ways she’s quite subversive because she’s not afraid to question the moral values of her day.

I have to admit, that whilst running around doing bits and pieces for my mother I forgot about this anniversary, but I wanted to post something, because EH Young is one of my favourite authors, and Jane has gone to all the trouble of organising a ‘Birthday Book’, so fans of forgotten female authors ought to support her. So here are a few rather garbled thoughts on William, which I enjoyed immensely.

It focuses on the relationships within the Nesbitt family – shipping magnate William, his wife Kate, and their five grown-up children, Dora, Mabel, Lydia, Janet and Walter. On the face of it the Nesbitts are a happy, conventional family. Then Lydia leaves her husband for another man, and the scandal affects everyone in different ways (the novel was written in 1925 when such behaviour would have made Lydia a social outcast and brought censure on her family). And as the novel unfolds become cracks appear in other relationships.

There is Dora, miserably married to Herbert, who is a bully, but a wealthy bully, and she remains with him for the sake of the children and her luxurious lifestyle. And there is Mabel, something of an outsider in the family, who marries mean-minded, penny-pinching John and makes a virtue out of wearing ugly shoes. dowdy clothes, and running everywhere because she cannot afford a taxi. Then there is lonely, unhappy Janet, craving independence, but still living at home and in love with Lydia’s husband Oliver. And there is Lydia herself, who remains something of a cipher, seen through the eyes of others, her motives a mystery but, seemingly, no happier for leaving her husband than she was with him.

And, of course, there are William and Kate, and the rift whiich opens between them when Lydia runs away. William is the chief protagonist, and we see things mainly from his point of view. Obviously a shrewd businessman, he’s a self-made man who has worked his way) up in the world, and is satisfied with his achievements (but never smug). Quiet and unassuming, he is, at heart, a family man who loves his wife and children, but is not blind to their faults, or his own – he’s very self-aware, always slightly detached and amused, but never judgemental. And although he wants his children to be happy he realises they must make their own decisions, and that those decisions may not always please him. And although he doesn’t want to interfere he is tempted, on occasions, to nudge things along in what he hopes is the right direction…

His wife Kate is no match for him intellectually, and is inclined to seek refuge in ill health when she thinks she is badly used by family and friends. Social position and doing the right thing are very important to her, and she has her own aspirations for the children, urging them to fall in with her wishes, and she doesn’t agree with William when he says: “I’ve told you, Kate, we can’t have them as we want them. We’re lucky to have them as they are.” She is devastated by Lydia;s behaviour, and is hurt and angry when he supports his favourite daughter. It would be easy to dislike Kate, but I felt sorry for her – I think there’s a bit of empty nest syndrome going on here, and she’s very much a woman of her time and class, with too much time on her hands, and not enough to do.

And while she’s not as self-aware as William, deep down she knows that the children are their own people, with their own dreams and desires, and she does not really understand them. Young tells us: “It had been different when they were all young and at school. She had felt then that they were her own, but perhaps she had been mistaken, perhaps she had not known their secret selves, and she remembered, for the first time for years, how she had once found Lydia crying in the nursery and had not been able to find out what her trouble was. It seemed to her that what she had missed then might be evading her still. She had given birth to five bodies and she would always be a stranger to their souls. This was a terrible thought and it would have been more terrible still if she had known that it was William’s too.”

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The old Virago edition.

It’s very much a book about marriage and parenting, and how family life is not always happy, and how different people cope with the problems in different ways. The characters are beautifully drawn, and the relationships between them delicately and sensitively portrayed. And there are some wonderful moments exposing the snobbery and pretensions of middle-class life, and some very funny scenes (many of them involving poor Mabel and her three priggish sons) – the account of a family trip on William’s newest steamboat is absolutely hilarious.

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A Typing Ghost…

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The Comforters, by Muriel Spark, is probably the only novel to feature a talking typewriter. It ‘belongs’ to Caroline Rose, who is writing a book about the 20th century novel – Form in the Modern Novel, we are told. But she’s having difficulty with the chapter on realism… Which is hardly surprising when you consider that she now believes herself to be a character in a book and her life is turned upside down by Typing Ghost. Not only does she hear the ghostly tap-tappity-tapping of typewriter keys, she also hears a voice (or voices) reciting her every thought, word and action. It is, as I’m sure you’ll agree, most unnerving. Here is her first encounter with the Typing Ghost:

“Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped, and was followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any problem with Helena.

There seemed, then, to have been more than one voice: it was a recitative, a chanting in unison. It was something like a concurrent series of echoes.”

Is what she hears real or illusory, she wonders. Is she going mad? Being haunted? Imagining things? Spark famously described how the Typing Ghost was inspired by her own hallucinatory experiences whilst taking Dexedrine. In her case letters formed and re-formed on the page, a phenomenon that couldn’t be replicated on a printed page. And talking about her craft in the early 1960s she explained: “Fiction to me is a kind of parable. You have got to make up your mind it’s not true. Some kind of truth emerges from it.” I think that needs to be borne in mind when reading The Comforters.

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The Comforters, by Muriel Spark.

Published in 1957, it was Spark’s first novel, but she was already a very accomplished writer. Her trade mark pared-back prose is already there, and the theme of religious belief, that blurring of boundaries, the mix of reality and unreality, sanity and madness, goodness and evil. The novel poses philosophical questions about life, art, belief and creation, revealing layer upon layer of meaning. It’s difficult to establish what is fact and what is fiction, because this is a book about someone writing a book who is herself a character in a book. I loved this – Spark’s witty, elegant prose is second to none, and she’s very funny, but also very malicious, and a bit of an iconoclast, knocking down societal institutions and behavioural norms. And, as always with spark, there is a dark edge to the humour.

It dodges about in time and place as the perspective shifts from character to character, and the various threads of the plot twist, and pull apart, and twine together again, taking in smuggling, bigamy and blackmail, with passing references to the possibility of a Russian spy ring and black magic. The characters (presented with superb ironic detachment) fail to connect with each other in any meaningful way, although they all seem, somehow, to be linked. And they are, on the whole, self-consciously self-obsessed.

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Muriel Spark. (Pic from Wikipedia)

There is Caroline herself, recovering from a mental illness and converting to Catholicism, which appears to bring her little joy or comfort – her three days at the Pilgrim Centre of St Philumena are unforgettably awful. Then there is her boyfriend Laurence Manders, who finds diamonds in his grandmother’s bread and wants to know about the strange men who keep calling on her. Who are they, and what do they want? And what about sinister Georgina Hogg, who is the kind of Christian who gets Christians a bad name. A former employee of Laurence’s charitable mother, she is now catering warden at St Philumena’s, but pops up elsewhere when least expected, revealing an uncanny ability to winkle out secrets best left undisturbed.

*This is my first contribution to the year-long celebration of Muriel Spark being held by HeavenAli to mark the centenary of the author’s birth. It’s dead easy to join in and you don’t have to struggle with one of those link thingies – read her introductory post here

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

zoot-suits-1948
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.

Ann_Petry__Beinecke_Library__Yale_Univ__
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.