Posted in Uncategorized

Mum, Memory, and Jane Austen

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Jane Austen, painted by her sister Cassandra c.1810.

My mother rings. She is reading Jane Austen (again) and would I like to join her (again). My mother reads a lot of Jane Austen – she always did. But her reading habits have changed. Once upon a time she would read (and discuss) Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Walter Scott, the Brontes, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell to name but a few (she always liked the classics best). But these days she finds the plots too complicated, and there are too many characters, and the books are too long. They scramble her brain she says, sadly.

But Jane Austen remains a constant, perhaps because her novels are shorter, with tighter plots, and fewer characters, and Mum knows them so well that I think the printed pages are a kind of aide memoire for the words inside her head, which is why she keeps reading them. Apart from that she mostly reads books from her childhood – Winnie the Pooh, Ballet Shoes, The Railway Children, Milly Molly Mandy, The Secret Garden. Again, these are things she knows almost by heart, and she can remember her mother buying them for her, and connect them with long-ago events. And the same goes for poetry. She reads a lot of poetry, but it has to be the poetry she learned in school when she memorised a poem a week, which adds up to an awful lot of poems. With a book to prompt her she can still recite many of them, as well as great chunks of Shakespeare. However, she can’t tell you what day it is, or what she ate for breakfast.

As her dementia advances her reading matter shrinks, along with the boundaries of her life, but she still gets so much pleasure from books, as long they are very, very familiar, fairly simple, and quite short.

When I visit we chat about books and chant poetry aloud – the strong, rhythmic, rhyming verses that she loves and remembers. Fortified by tea and cake, we read The Highwayman, The Listeners, The Rolling English Road, The Smugglers Song, William Allingham’s The Fairies, part of Hiawatha, some of Wordsworth’s work, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets, Christina Rossetti’s work, a selection of John Masefield, and lots from AA Milne’s When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six… the list is endless, and she refers to the words much less than I do. We talk about poets and poetry, discuss highwaymen, smugglers and travelling, and she tells me about her childhood and the distant past.

Sometimes we discuss novels over the phone, and though her reading matter has become more limited she still finds something apposite to say about characters, politics, social issues, how people lived. Again, literature seems to jog her memory and she relates the books and people in them to her own life, however tenuous the connection may be.

Books and poetry are never going to restore my mother to the person she once was, but I’ve been surprised at the positive impact they have had, and how important it is to her, and to the family, that she should continue to read, and to talk about books. And since I love my mother, and I love reading as much as she does, I’m more than happy to join her in reading Jane Austen for the umpteenth time. She says we will begin with Persuasion, because it was Austen’s last book, so I have dug out my copy and started reading, and will report back on our progress as we go along.

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My younger daughter sent  this card, because I read to her and her sister when they were small, and Mum read to me, and her mother read to her.

 

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Posted in 20thC, Novels

In Which I Discover Shirley Jackson Is Brilliant!

We have always lived in the castle

If anyone is interested Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle is available on Kindle today for only 99p, and I urge anyone who has never read it to remedy the situation immediately.  I know this sounds odd – after all, I read Jackson’s short story The Lottery and hated it so much I swore I’d never read anything else by her. But for some reason I clicked on this to look at the free sample, and found one of the greatest openings to any novel I’ve ever read:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenent, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

Intriguing, I thought. Doesn’t it make you want to know more about Mary Katherine (or Merricat, as she is known)? And what happened to the Blackwoods? And what happens to Merricat and her sister? And what about that sinister reference to the death cap mushroom which creates such an air of unease…

I must have come across this before, because I’ve read other bloggers’ reviews, but maybe I didn’t notice what they said, because I just dismissed Jackson out of hand. Anyway, I bought the book, and now I’m a convert. I’ve not finished it yet, but I’m so engrossed I can’t put it down and the housework remains undone – we need ironed clothes and clean dishes, but I don’t care!!! However, I am taking a quick break  just so I can tell everyone how brilliant it is, and how wrong I was to ignore Jackson. She writes like a dream, but the tale she tells has something of a nightmarish quality: it’s a fairy tale I guess, but a very, very dark one. Gothic is the word usually used to describe the novel, and I don’t think you could disagree with that.

We learn that six years ago the Blackwood parents were poisoned with arsenic and Constance was tried for murder, but acquitted through lack of evidence, although she’s generally regarded as guilty. However, it soon becomes apparent that all is not what it seems. For it is even more obvious that Merricat, with her protective charms and rituals, is deeply disturbed…

The suspense builds from that very first paragraph, and I can’t wait to see how things pan out – so far the novel gets better with every page. A proper review will follow at some stage. Meanwhile, if you go to Stuck in a Book you can read Simon T’s thoughts and Margaret at Books Please wrote a very nice piece here where she said the book was ‘weirdly wonderful’, which it absolutely is.

Posted in Not Books!, Sunday Snippets

Sunday Snippets: Star Maps

I always say I’m a bit of a bookish magpie, stealing ideas from other people when they catch my fancy, and I came across this ages ago, thanks to Pam at Travellin’ Penguin, and filed it away in my brain for future use, where it rattled around for several months until the other day, when I found myself singing along to David Bowie but substituting the words ‘Star Map’ for ‘Star Man’, and was prompted to dig this out.

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It is a Literary Constellation, created by artist Nick Rougeux who uses the opening lines of famous books to make beautiful images. And, in case you’ve forgotten, the first sentence of Alice in Wonderland is:”Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?”

Rougeux, who describes himself as a ‘designer, data geek and fractal nut’ makes his maps from the opening lines of novels, and the first lines of chapters in short stories. I gather that the maps are basically sentence diagrams, based on grammatical structure, and words are linked according to the part of speech they are (verbs, nouns, adjectives etc) and their length.

He has a brilliant website where he explains the technique:

“Constellations were created from words of first sentences of each chapter in classic short stories to draw a paths based on word length and part of speech. The directions of lines were based on part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc.) and length is based on the length of the word. Star sizes are also based on word length. Constellations were hand-arranged in a loose clockwise pattern starting at the top with a faint highlight connecting each in the order chapters appeared in the story representing the cloud of the galaxy usually shown in vintage star charts.”

He also produces artwork from punctuation:

alice punctuation

Talking about this on his website he says:

“Between the Words is an exploration of visual rhythm of punctuation in well-known literary works. All letters, numbers, spaces, and line breaks were removed from entire texts of classic stories like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Moby Dick, and Pride and Prejudice—leaving only the punctuation in one continuous line of symbols in the order they appear in texts. The remaining punctuation was arranged in a spiral starting at the top center with markings for each chapter and classic illustrations at the centre.”

Among other things he also uses musical staves, colour palettes of illustrations in the New Yorker magazine, and sonnet signatures, which are visualisations of Shakespeare’s sonnets as signatures based their letters.

His says he is fascinated by data visualisation and fractal artwork, which I assume means it is done on a computer, and I dare say purists will claim it is not ‘real art’, but I like his work – it’s a very different way of looking at things, and makes you think.

 

Posted in 20thC, Novels, Uncategorized, Virago

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.

Posted in 20thC, Novels, Virago

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.

 

Posted in 20thC, Novels

Mae West and The Constant Sinner

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Mae West: Vaudeville artist, film star, sex symbol, novelist and playwright. I imagine Babe Gordon looking very like her.

Babe Gordon leaned against the crumbling red brick wall of the Marathon Athletic Club in Harlem, at 135th Street off Fifth Avenue, and pulled at a cigarette. The Saturday night fight crowd picked its way under the glaring arc lamp in front of the main entrance like a slow-moving blackbeetle. Babe scanned the humans with an eye to business. Babe was eighteen and a prizefighter’s tart, picking up her living on their hard-earned winnings. Her acquaintances numbered trollops, murderers, bootleggers and gambling-den keepers. Two well-modelled bare legs were crossed at the ankles; her waist pressed to the wall rose to voluptuous breasts that almost protruded from the negligible neck of her black dress. Babe waited for Cokey Jenny.

The opening paragraph of Mae West’s The Constant Sinner sets the tone for the whole book, and the blurb on the back  (where, by the way, Virago spell her name wrong, calling her Babes) fills out the picture a little more, describing it as a ‘spirited lowlife novel’ and telling us, in the author’s own words,  that Babe is a broad who ‘would not have known what a moral was if it could be made to dance naked in front of her’.

You may deduce from this that Babe is not a good girl – good time girl is nearer the mark.. This is the 1920s I think, Prohibition is at its height, and the novel is peopled with dope pedlars, racketeers and prostitutes. When they have money (generally ill-gotten) they blow it all on having a good time; when the cash is gone they move on to something or someone new. Occasionally they even try their hand at a proper job – Babe briefly works as a model and a shop assistant. But there other ways of making money, all of them quicker, easier, and far more rewarding! Instant gratification is the order of the day, and the characters, especially Babe, live for the moment, moving from one experience to another, without any thought for the future or regret for the past.

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One of the nice things about green-spined Viragos is that they include less literary titles alongside acknowledged classics

Babe hooks up with the Bearcat, a prize-winning boxer who has the makings of a champion. She also attracts the obsessive attention of Wayne Baldwin, son of a chain store owner. And let’s not forget Money Johnson, a mobster with a flamboyant lifestyle. As long as they have money and are willing to spend it on Babe she can’t keep away from any of them: she shuffles her men like a pack of playing cards. But they’re not enthusiastic about sharing her favours, and tragedy is inevitable…

Set on the mean streets of Harlem, featuring murder, drugs, drink, and prostitution, it could be a grim read, but this is Mae West and it’s a racy story told in a racy way, packed with the wise-cracking, witty quips you would expect from this legendary star. She portrays the glamour and excitement of rackety lives played out on the wrong side of the law and makes it seem almost like fun – but it’s not something you’d ever want to experience for yourself, and were you to meet any of these characters you wouldn’t trust them as far as you could throw them.

Racism and poverty are barely touched on and black and white live, work and party together, but there are moments when West gives a clear picture of the social mores of her day, and the hypocrisy of the wealthy middle and upper classes, such as when Wayne’s horrified family are told his young mistress is a common street-walker whose former lover was a black man who is now in jail. In fact, Wayne’s desire for Babe is fuelled by her association with Money Johnson – while the black mobster flaunts the white woman as a symbol of his power and wealth.

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In one scene in the book Wayne visits a nightclub and sees Babe ‘enveloped’ ermine. I know the furs her creator  is wearing in this picture are not ermine, but I think the effect must be pretty nuch the same.

In some ways the book, first published in America as Babe Gordon in 1930 (it changed its name the following year), is very much of its time – these days you wouldn’t be able to use the word nigger, or reproduce the speech of Harlem’s black residents the way Mae West does. But The Constant Sinner isn’t patronising, and her people are just people, irrespective of colour. Indeed, when the novel was published it must have been controversia, for not only does Babe  break the rigid moral code of the day, but one of her lovers is black – at a time when stringent segregation laws were enforced in many states, and inter-racial relationships were not acceptable, even in New York.

I bought the book partly out out of curiosity, and partly because it’s a Virago edition, and didn’t expect it to be all that good, which just shows how wrong you can be.  It romps along at the most tremendous pace and is great fun. I guess you’d have to call it pulp fiction, but it’s really not that bad: I’ve read far worse. West has a good ear for dialogue and creates great characters, even if they are one-dimensional, and our lusty heroine seizes life (and love) with zest and enthusiasm. As Babe hurtles from one situation to another it reminded me of those picaresque novels of the 18th century, built up from a series of loosely connected incidents, or a fast-paced Hollywood B movie.

The pace, and the light-hearted touch, are maintained until the very end, when the feel of the novel suddenly alters, like a piece of music changing from major to minor, and you realise that mo matter what happening now, there can be no happy-ever-after because Babe will never be happy with one man, in one place for very long.

PS: For those who’ve not heard of Mae West (1893-1980), she was a famous American vaudeville artist, comedienne and film star who sang, danced and acted. A busty, blonde sex symbol, she had a reputation as a bit of a bad girl – she was known for her bawdy double entendres and her many lovers, and was immortalised by WW2 fighter crews who named their life jackets after her! But there was more to her than that, because she also wrote plays, novels and film scripts, and in doing so fell foul of the censors – at one stage she was jailed for a short term for obscenity.

She insisted on creative control in all her films, and refused to sign contracts unless they contained a clause stating that the completed movie must, in every way, be to her satisfaction. Just think what an achievement that was when male actors had little or no control over the films they appeared in, and women had still less say, and even today stars would have trouble getting that kind of agreement.

Famous lines attributed to her include ‘Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?’ and ‘It’s not the men in my life that count, it’s the life in my men’. 

Posted in 20thC, Novels

Tea, Books And The Forsytes!

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Yay! The latest Tea Or Books podcast, hosted by Simon T at Stuck In A Book and Rachel from Book Snob, is out and it’s a real goodie, considering the virtues of novels which take place during the course of just one day against the attractions of sagas where the stories unfold over many years. And in the second half of the episode the duo discuss a couple of chunksters – The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy, and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, both of which I’ve read.

This last charts the history of three generations of the Cazalet family, from 1937 through to the post-war period but the timescale seems longer, as there are multiple viewpoints, and past events are disclosed. I bought the books (All Change, Casting Off, The Light Years, Confusion and Marking Time) because I enjoyed the Radio 4 dramatisations, but I was disappointed. I’ve never really been a huge fan of Howard’s writing and, unlike Simon and Rachel, I couldn’t get along with the Cazalets at all. I couldn’t engage with the characters in any way but I kept reading in the forlorn hope that thing would get better (they didn’t). I even had trouble differentiating between the various people and had to keep flicking back to check who was who and how they connected with each other and, quite frankly, I couldn’t have cared less what happened to them, and when I turned the final page of the last volume I was so relieved to see the back of the family that I immediately carted them off to Oxfam!

But The Forsyte Saga is another matter altogether. I LOVE this but, again, my view is the reverse of Rachel and Simon – perhaps it’s an age thing! Anyway, it feels like serendipity is at work here, because I’ve been re-reading Galsworthy’s epic, on and off, for some months. I picked up my mother’s copy during one of my visits, then downloaded a version to the Kindle so I could read it on the train, and dug out some of my old Penguin editions of the individual novels. I haven’t finished the last three books in the saga (where the focus shifts from the Forsytes), but it seems an opportune moment to try and record some thoughts.

I’ve always been aware that Galsworthy is very critical of the upper middle classes, but having read Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph, with its emphasis on the clash between bourgeois respectability and bohemian creativity, I’m struck by the fact that he uses similar themes (though he’s more good humoured). He mocks them with wry self-amusement, acknowledging that he too is a member of the great Galsworthy clan, while exposing their absurdity. But the saga (comprising nine novels and four short stories) is also about relationships, highlighting sexual attraction and love and it touches on subjects like marital rape which are just as controversial more than 100 years later, as well as highlighting the importance of equality within relationships.

Nyree Dawn Prter
Nyree Dawn Porter as Irene in BBC television’s 1967 adaptation of The Forsyte Saga. She looked the part and really captured the spirit of Irene. I still think it was a brilliant production.

The Man of Property, the first book in the saga opens in 1886 as three generations of the wealthy family gather to celebrate the engagement between June (granddaughter of Old Jolyon) and penniless architect Philip Bosinney. Central to the novel (and, indeed, to the first two sections of the saga) is the doomed relationship between Soames Forsyte (June’s uncle) and his beautiful wife Irene, who cannot return his feelings – but she falls passionately in love with Bosinney, and he with her. They plan to elope, Soames rapes her (this is implicit rather than explicit) and Bosinney is killed falling in front of a tram.

I love the tongue in cheek way Galsworthy pokes fun at middle class values and people. And there are some wonderful characters here, especially among the older generation, particularly Old Jolyon, who is a hard-headed businessman, but is also kind, warm-hearted, generous, and tolerant.  His son Young Jolyon (June’s father) is estranged from the family after ‘making a mess of things’ by running away with the governess and fathering two more children. He’s interesting because he has a foot in both camps as it were – he is an artist, a bit of a rebel, an outsider who condemns the Forsytes for their love of possessions whilst retaining some of their characteristics.

And, of course, there is Irene, with her golden hair, dark eyes and perfect figure. She’s a skilled musician (she plays the piano) and is obviously well educated and cultured – an artistic woman, who enjoys beautiful things because they are beautiful and give pleasure, not because they have monetary worth. And she hates Soames with every fibre of her being. Yet she marries him, knowing she doesn’t love him. She even persuades him to agree that if the marriage doesn’t work he will let her go – a promise he later denies. You might wonder why she marries him, but you have to look at it in the context of the times. She is very young, she has no money, her father is dead, and her stepmother is about to marry again, and doesn’t want Irene in her life. So, after refusing him on previous occasions, she yields to Soames and escapes her home life. What else can she do, and where else would she go?

Once married she obviously feels trapped, like a wounded bird in a cage. She’s very passive, and remains an enigma – you never really feel you know her. But in his preface Galsworthy tries to explain:

‘The figure of Irene, never, as the reader may possibly have observed, present, except through the senses of other characters, is a concretion of disturbing Beauty impinging on a possessive world.’

Eric Porter Soames
Eric Porter as Soames in the 1967 BBC television production. 

It is Soames, the ‘man of property’ himself who dominates. A tragically flawed character who can only see the world in terms of financial value, he views his wife as one of his possessions. When I was younger I had no sympathy with Soames and thought him a villain, but it’s not as simple as that, and the older I get the more I pity him, although I certainly don’t condone his behaviour. He is an unlovable man, and if you read on through the saga you will find he has no better luck with his second wife than he does with Irene.

However, he cannot understand why she hates him so much.

The profound, subdued aversion which he felt in his wife was a mystery to him, and a source of the most terrible irritation. That she had made a mistake, and did not love him, and had tried to love him and could not love him, was obviously no reason.’

As he keeps saying, he does nothing wrong. He’s not bad looking, he’s decent, honest, upright, and has plenty of money. He puts her feelings down to nerves and emotion puts her hatred down to nerves and emotion. But in an odd sort of way I think he really does love her – he’s possessed by her beauty, by the idea of her (and the need to have a son), but she’s only thing in his life that he can’t fully possess or control.

The house he employs Bosinney to build for him becomes a symbol of the different outlooks. To Bossiney it’s about artistic freedom, creating something that’s the best of its kind, irrespective of cost: to Soames its worth is purely financial.

Reading through this it’s a bit bitty and lacks cohesion – it’s one of those posts that seems to have changed direction along the way, but it’s impossible to write about the entire saga, and equally difficult to stick to one book, because your view is affected by the whole.