Category Archives: Biography
I remember vividly the first time I read Middlemarch. It was my second year in university and the reading list for the module on nineteenth century literature was HUGE. They didn’t come much bigger than Middlemarch. With a seminar and then essay looming the only way to get through this text was to lock myself in my room and read – from morning until evening. No time to really absorb the text etc, I just had to get enough of a sense of the plot and themes so I didn’t sit in embarrassed silence in the seminar. I made it but I wasn’t enamoured. And then within a few months had to read the whole thing again in preparation for the end of year exam. I packed it away with a feeling of joy that I’d not have to plough through it again.
Well that wasn’t really what happened. Many years later when I felt the grey cells gathering dust I embarked on a Open University degree which had a module on nineteenth century literature. Which, guess what, had Middlemarch as a set text. I couldn’t avoid it since it featured in a compulsory question. I gritted my teeth and embarked on my third read.
Whether my more mature self was able to more fully appreciate Eliot’s writing I’m not sure. Virginia Woolf did describe this as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people” so that may well be the case. The development of literary criticism in the intervening years also helped because they opened up new ways of reading the text. To my my surprise I found I was enjoying this chunkster. I enjoyed it even more on a fourth reading. I’ve now read it seven times and my appreciation of Eliot’s masterpiece deepens every time.
Given that experience I opened Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch wondering if she too had gone through the same learning curve. Part biography, part autobiography, part bibliography, it’s a personal reflection on the novel and how it has impacted her life. She first read it as a 17-year-old living in the southwest of England who, each week went to the home of a retired teacher of English literature to talk about books and prepare her for university entrance exams. From the first words she was enraptured, continuing to read it through her early career years as a journalist and into love, marriage and a family. Sometimes the connections she makes between an episode in her life and an episode in Eliot’s life or that of one of her characters, feel laboured. As for example when she draws a parallel between her own role as a stepmother to three sons to George Eliot’s devotion to the children of her partner George Henry Lewes.
Mead is conscious however of the dangers of over identification with characters one encounters in fiction: “such an approach to fiction – where do I see myself in here? – is not how a scholar reads, and it can be limiting in its solipsism,” she declares. Eliot herself was scornful of women readers who imagined themselves as the heroines and the most admirable character in the novel.She hoped for a more nuanced engagement from her own readers. What Mead argues is that the book is different for each individual reader who makes and re-makes it according to their own experience. So Mead’s Middlemarch is not the same as my Middlemarch or of yours but is no the less valid.
Identification with character is one way in which most ordinary readers do engage with a book, even if it is not where a reader’s engagement ends. It is where part of the pleasure and the urgency of reading lies. It is one of the ways a novel speaks to a reader and becomes integrated into the reader’s own imaginative life. Even the most sophisticated readers read novels in the light of their own experience. and in such recognition sympathy might begin.
As I experienced personally, Mead learned that favourite works can mean different things to us at different stages in our lives. In her twenties she empathised with Dorothea’s admiration of Casaubon as a man of knowledge and experience who could lead her out of the narrow world in which she had lived so far. Bent time she reached her thirties she felt the same scorn towards Casaubon as do Ladislaw and most of the Tipton community aghast that a young woman like Dorothea should ‘throw herself away’ on this dusty old scholar. As a mature reader however she feels more tender towards a man fearful that the academic work to which he has devoted his life will not be acclaimed by his peers. Moreover a man who feels his wife, in pressing him to publish the work, is deliberately trying to undermine him. Fear of failure seems more tangible as the years advance finds Mead.
This is a thoughtful book which argues for the transformative power of art and of reading in particular. For people who know Middlemarch well, the book may not offer then a significant amount of new information but for those relatively new to the book and Eliot well, there is a lot to discover. Mead has done her research thoroughly, visiting houses and other places associated with different points of George Eliot’s life, delving through archives, holding the pen with which she wrote her novels and letters and reading Eliot’s letters themselves.
One of the lasting impressions for me was a vignette in which Mead asks us to imagine a stout couple waddling along a road in London. To most passers-by they would not have attracted even a glance yet Eliot and her partner Lewes were some of the finest minds of their era and their unconventional lifestyle was considered scandalous. Together this unremarkable looking pair ambling along in suburbia were responsible for some of the most pleasurable moments in my life.
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead was published in USA 2014 by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House.
Rebecca Mead is a staff writer for The New Yorker. My Life in Middlemarch started life as an essay in that magazine.
Review: Mrs P’s Journey by Sarah Hartley
Have you seen the old girl who walks the streets of london
Dirt in her hair and her clothes in rags
She’s no time for talking she just keeps right on walking
Carrying her home in two carrier bags
“Streets of London” Lyrics by Ralph McTell 1974
Phyllis Pearsall wasn’t dirty or dressed in rags. In fact she was a product of a very upmarket girls’ boarding school in England and the Sorbonne in Paris. But she did walk the streets of London for a year from dawn to dusk, dressed in woollen stockings and sturdy shoes. She carried a satchel stuffed with pencils and paper marked in one inch squares with which she meticulously documented every one of its 23,000 streets, and avenues, cul de sacs and mews.
Through dogged persistence she produced the London A-Z guide, the first book of its kind to help local inhabitants and visitors navigate their way around the city. At least that’s what Mrs P’s Journey would have readers believe.
I have a copy of this guide myself. For years I couldn’t set out on a trip to London without the assurance that I had packed my copy of the London A-Z. It’s consequently rather dog eared and stained and some of the detail no longer as accurate because of redevelopments in various parts of the city. But if I’m venturing beyond the central tourist hotspots or going to an unfamiliar part of the city, it’s still an essential companion.
In all those years however I never gave a moment’s thought to how this guide came to exist. If it wasn’t for a member of my book club I would never have discovered the extraordinary story of its origins and the remarkable story of Phyllis Pearsall. Journalist Sarah Hartley was in a similar state of ignorance until August 26, 1996 when she heard of Pearsall’s death via a radio report and discovered she was the brains behind the A-Z. In the foreword to her book Mrs P’s Journey she recalled that moment:
I remember thinking to myself, a woman put together the cabby’s bible, the book that lies on every Londoner’s bookshelf and in every desk drawer. Who says we can’t read maps?
Her research uncovered the tale of a woman so frustrated by the lack of street maps of the city that she felt she had to act. While not an immediate success, sales of the resulting guide (the first published in book form and including an alphabetical index) increased to the point where she created the Geographers’s Map Company in 1936. The firm exists today, still publishing the London guide and similar guides to most major British cities.
The idea of any individual so determined to get a job done that walked for 18 hours every day regardless of swollen, blistered feet and inclement weather, was the hook that got me reading this book. How disappointing then that it took 204 pages before we reached that part of Pearsall’s story.
What we were presented with instead was a very detailed account of her parent’s history and her childhood. To call this a miserable existence would be an understatement. Her father, of Hungarian Jewish descent, was a bit of a con man but he had a good eye for a business opportunity. He created a map making business just in time to take advantage of the march towards World War 1 and the thirst of newspaper readers for information about the location of various places in the conflict. He was also an egocentric figure who resented his daughter’s success while his own business went bankrupt. Even when his daughter was recovering from a near fatal plane crash, he harangued her to get out of bed and get back to work. Her mother wasn’t any better, being so infatuated with her second husband that when Phyllis returned home from boarding school she didn’t even allow her in the house. She simply told her to go straight to the employment agency and find a job which included accommodation. Phyllis was just 15.
While some of the history was interesting and I knew I was reading a semi-fictionalised account, the more I read the more I began to have doubts. Did Pearsall really get sent to work at a French school or did her parents pay for her to attend as her brother claimed? Did this girl at seventeen years old spend four weeks sleeping rough on the streets of Paris before starting her classes at the Sorbonne? And what exactly was the nature of her relationship with Vladimir Nabokov whom she met when they both stayed at the same boarding house in Paris?
Hartley acknowledged this issue of authenticity in her foreword, noting that there were gaps and inconsistencies in her sources, in particular Pearsall’s own memoir and reminiscences from her best friend Esme Wren. She argues that the fictional elements were less fantastical than the true elements and what she had written was to Pearsall, the truth.
Having finished the book I discovered that Pearsall’s life has been surrounded by controversy and questions about authenticity for many years. English Heritage declined to award her a blue plaque because they were not confident enough that her story could be verified. There were questions raised by the British Library too. Their head of maps Peter Barber has completely debunked Pearsall’s account of how her map book came to exist. “The Phyllis Pearsall story is complete rubbish. There is no evidence she did it and if she did do it, she didn’t need to,” he said. Instead of walking the streets all she needed to do was ask London’s local authorities for their street plans. Nor was she that original in Barber’s view since her father Alexander Gross drawn up a very similar A-Z years before.
Is Hartley’s book another example of the myth making engine that has grown up around Pearsall – some of it likely the result of her own endeavours? It’s certainly a larger than life story but that doesn’t necessarily make it untrue. However, the lack of detail about the actual process of making the maps was a huge red flag. How good is the book overall? For me it fell down in a few areas. The time frame kept jumping about without any real purpose which meant I had to keep flicking back to try and work out how old Phyllis was at a particular time. The point of view similarly kept changing; sometimes third person narrative and sometimes supposed dialogue or Pearsall’s own words. Most confusing.
But I was in the minority since everyone else in the club thought this was wonderful. You’ll just have to read it and make up your own mind.
It’s been months since I tackled one of the monthly questions posed by the Classics Club. I look at the question at the start of each month, decide it will take some thought – and then spend the rest of the month cogitating but never coming to any conclusions. Procrastination is definitely not helpful in this case.
I’ve only just seen this month’s question so let’s see if I can do better if I just answer it right away.
Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author’s writing? Why or why not? // Or, if you’ve never read a biography of a classic author, would you? Why or why not?
I don’t read many biographies but one that stands out for me is The Unequaled Self, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys. I already knew something of Pepys’s life by reading some extracts from his diaries as part of my history studies at school, mainly the sections in which he wrote about the Great Fire of London and the plague. Being adolescents of course we went searching for some the more bawdy entries.
What I hadn’t realised until reading Tomalin’s book was just how powerful a figure he was in the seventeenth century, becoming Chief Secretary to the Admiralty under both King Charles II and subsequently his brother King James II. It was Pepys apparently who laid the foundations of professional standards in the Royal Navy. Not bad for a tailor’s son who at various times was accused of bribery and of secretly following the Catholic faith.
As you would expect, Tomalin includes many extracts from the diaries to illustrate some of her themes. Some of them deal with his time at the Navy, others with the many women with him he has liaisons. But what Tomalin shows, and what interested me most, was the side of Pepys as a cultivated man, an avid theatre- goer who could compose music and play several instruments and wo enjoyed a few glasses of wine (well rather more than a few it seems). Oh, and this was the clincher for me; he was an avid collector of books. He’s someone I want to get to know better. We may have a few things in common…
See my review of The Unequalled Self
Hands up all of you who have one of the following: iPod, iPad, Mac computer, iPhone. Keep those hands up while I count how many of the rest of you have wished you had one?
I see a sea of hands. Millions of you have one of these devices ( 47million iPhones were sold in the first three months of last year and almost 23 million iPads). Not bad for a company whose former CEO John Sculley once said that there was no future in computers for ordinary punters like you and me.
I’m one of the millions who’s helped Apple become a technology powerhouse. I’m writing this on my Apple MacBook Pro laptop. An Apple iPad is by my side, quietly downloading some e-versions of magazines as a result of a new service offered by our library system. Earlier on today, an hour’s session with the ironing board was made more palatable because I could plug in my iPod to catch up on some podcasts. Across the hallway comes the sound of music from the iPod sitting in the docking station next to my husband’s iMac workstation, helping him meet a tight deadline from a client.
The point is really to illustrate how much Apple and its products have become a way of life, made possible by the vision of one man — Steve Jobs — whose authorized biography I have been listening to over the last few weeks on my commute to work.
I already knew some of the basic info about the extraordinary story that saw him ousted from Apple, the company he founded, only to buy it back again when it was on its knees 12 years later and turn around its fortunes with a series of breakthrough innovations. On his death in 2011, President Obama called him a visionary who “transformed our lives, redefined entire industries, and achieved one of the rarest feats in human history: he changed the way each of us sees the world.”
Walter Isaacson’s biography presents a very different picture however; a portrait of a man who would score zero for inter-personal and people management skills. Present your latest great idea to him and he would either dismiss it as ‘shit’ or get so enthused he’d want to control every aspect of it. This is a man who having insisted the only university he would attend was the liberal, but ultra expensive Reed College in Oregon, (causing his parents to use their life savings to fund his education) dropped out within the first year in protest at having to attend lectures. He was also a man who in his twenties believed so strongly in the power of a strict vegetarian diet that he didn’t feel any need to shower/bath regularly.
It’s a fascinating story and Isaacson does a great job of capturing the tension and drama of the internal machinations that led to his departure from Apple.
I’ve reached the point where his next passion; for animation, took the small and almost unknown Pixar company to a series of box office successes with Walt Disney and made Jobs a billionaire even without any interests at Apple.
One night in their [her sons’] bedroom with all their clutter and paraphernalia, painted soldiers laid out on trays for battle yet to be, Paul McCartney entered.
This is just one of the wonderful examples of understated prose found in Edna O’Brien‘s memoir The Country Girl, published last year. Many lesser writers would have changed the order of words in the anecdote to put the emphasis on McCartney rather than banal domestic details. But such was Edna’s life while in Swinging Sixties London; a life so replete with encounters with the great and the good that she can treat individual episodes with nonchalance.
There are many examples of this nature in the middle of the book as famous names from stage, screen and the literary world flit into her world and onto the pages. She cooks dinner for Len Deighton, Richard Burton recites Shakespeare in her kitchen, Lee Marvin is a guest at her son’s birthday party and she dances with the then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
The names are not there to impress. These people were simply part of an ever-extending circle of friends and acquaintances who gravitated to her home in Chelsea and more particularly gravitate to this vivacious young woman from southern Ireland. A party girl she may have been but The Country Girl is no kiss and tell memoir. In fact she is remarkably silent on the identity of some of the men who played a part in her life, including someone who seemed to have been an eminent British politician.
The memoir is instead a warm and frank account of a life that was anything but carefree. O’Brien’s early years in County Clare, Ireland were lived in fear of a father who had drunk away the family’s wealth and in the stultifying atmosphere of a strict Catholic community serviced by the church and 27 pubs but no library. “There was only one book in the village apart from the Bible — du Maurier’s Rebecca,” she told an audience at the 2013 Hay Literary Festival. “We used to share it around but you only got one or two pages at a time and they didn’t always come in the right order.”
It wasn’t until she broke away and moved to Dublin to work as an assistant in a pharmacist’s shop that she discovered literature along with pierced earrings and men. Finding T. S. Eliot’s “Introducing James Joyce” in a quayside stall marked the beginning of what she calls the “two intensities” of her life — writing and reading. Freedom came at a price — her family tried to kidnap her when they learned of her affair with a married man, forcing the pair to flee the country. In London, married to a poet and the mother of two boys, she began to write. The Country Girls was completed in just three weeks. Her tale of two girls who leave their small Irish village and convent education for the bright lights of Dublin met with critical acclaim everywhere except in Ireland and by everyone except her mother and her husband.
In Ireland it was considered immoral and its publication banned. “Filth” proclaimed the Archbishop and the Minister of Justice. Even the local postmistress in her home village weighed in – she should be made to run naked through the street as a punishment she claimed. O’Brien was summoned to a public meeting in Limerick to defend her book against accusations that it was little more than hard-core pornography.
Her husband’s response was more personal:
Yes he had to concede that despite everything, I had done it, and then he said something that was the death-knell of the already-ailing marriage —You can write and I will never forgive you.
What follows is one of the darkest periods of Edna O’Brien’s life. Separated from her children, she finds herself portrayed in a custody battle as a harlot, the writer of obnoxious and obscene literature and an uncaring mother.
Country Girl was a book O’Brien swore she would never write. She did so at the age of 78 in order to set the record straight about this and other episodes in her life including a published interview with Gerry Adams the Sinn Fein leader which led to accusations she was promoting the cause of the IRA.
There is a sense though there is much more to this memoir than simply recording the truth for posterity. There is a sense that in turning to the past, she found a reconciliation not just with the land of her birth, the land that never rated her as greatly as Joyce or Yeats and fought her attempts to build a home on its shores, but with herself. After a return visit to her childhood home that is now in ruins behind a screen of ivy and bramble she reflects on
“… for ever the need to go back,the way animals do, the way elephants trudge thousands of miles to return to where the elephant whisperer has lived. We go back for the whisper.”
Elegaic, moving and funny. A perfect example of how memoirs should be written.
Friday was St David’s Day here in Wales, the feast day of our patron saint. It’s a day when the nation is meant to celebrate our heritage and what it means to be Welsh. In my childhood, it meant going to school dressed in our national costume of a black and white check skirt, white blouse, red shawl and the most ludicrous of black hats, and spending hours singing and reciting poetry (in Welsh).
Fortunately these days I can mark the day in rather more refined fashion – which was why this week I indulged in A Few Selected Exits, the autobiography of one of most eminent writers Gwyn Thomas.
Gwyn was born in 1913 as the twelfth child of a coal miner in the Rhondda valleys of South Wales. His mother died when he was six and it was left to his sisters to care for the family, relying often on soup kitchens particularly during the depression years of the 1920s or when the miners went on strike for better working conditions.
For boys like him there was scant hope of escaping the desperate poverty of this area; he was destined like his elder brothers to follow them down the mines. But Gwyn miraculously escaped by virtue of a scholarship to read Spanish at Oxford university. It might have seemed his life had turned a corner but he struggled to find full-time work and to get his novels and plays published. Only in 1946 did his work come to the attention of the BBC and he was commissioned to write for the radio, then became a regular panelist on the prestigious BBC Brains Trust chat show and a regular presenter and respected commentator on Welsh politics and life in general.
His was a mellifluous voice that could ring with wit and humour one moment and then soar with passion the next. His oration at the commemoration service for the Aberfan disaster is a tremendous example of his ability to perfectly project the mood of a nation stricken with grief with humanity and gravitas.
In A Few Selected Exits, it’s his wit, his love of words, and his powers of observation that are most evident as he describes his life through a series of comic episodes and a cast of hilarious characters like Nim Jones a young neighbour who constantly dashes about the village with gossip.
However quietly, secretely, a thing might happen, Nim would get to know and he instantly became a vibrant wire stretched from one end of the village to the other, telling the facts. Ned was shouting my name and his face was blithe. This gave no clue to the nature of the news he bore. Rape, arson, theft, subsidence, all flowed with equal ease into the net of Nim’s enjoyment.
Thomas tells these stories in a conversational tone that reveals little about himself but much about his love for his fellow countrymen and their eccentricities.There are so many passages that it’s hard to choose just one to illustrate his style but one of my favourite episodes from the early part of the book comes when Thomas is persuaded by his headmaster that the one thing he will need in Oxford is an overcoat. Not just any coat, but one made by the valley’s finest tailor. It will act as Gwyn’s armour against those in Oxford who will undoubtedly look down on him. On the day the coat is finished, Gwyn tries it on surrounded by eager neighbours. They all understand the symbolic importance of getting this coat just right.
A large group assembled to see me put the coat on for the first time, for between the ascension of a local boy to Oxford, and the sight of so much new fabric, the occasion was regarded s pretty glossy
When the garment fell into place, there was silence. My father looked at Mr Warlow [the tailor] as if he were the last instalment in some long purchase of perplexity. The coat came to within an inch or two of the floor. The buttons, of prodigious size, seemed to come down just as far as if afraid to let the fabric make the long journey south on its own. Mr Warlow did not seem to have taken my stoop into consideration and the great hoop of collar looked down at my neck either with contempt or just thoughtfully.
On the morning of my departure for the ancient university I marched down the hill to the coach station feeling like an emperor and looking like a cross between Sam Weller and a shrouded dwarf.
It’s passages like these, and many others, that remind me of the first lines of the poem by Brian Harris.
To be born in Wales,
Not with a silver spoon in your mouth,
But, with music in your blood
And with poetry in your soul,
Is a privilege indeed.
Gwyn Thomas certainly never had the the silver spoon but he most assuredly had poetry and music is his soul.
Plague, fire, civil war, treason, the fall of kings: Samuel Pepys experienced them all. His was a life that coincided with one of the most momentous periods of English history and he recorded his experiences in meticulous detail in leather-bound diaries writing every day for nine years.
While these journals tell us much about Pepys the man, they still cover only part of his 70-year life. His first entry is dated January 1, 1660 when he was 26 but he ends his endeavours on May 31 1669 when he was forced to stop writing because of an eye problem. We learn much about his daily domestic routine, (what he ate and drank, the books he amassed in his library, his suspicions of his wife’s relationship with a dance master) and about landmark events such as the Great Fire of London as well as his many encounters with Royalty and politicians.
Such a rich source of original material would be a gift for any biographer but for Claire Tomalin they didn’t go far enough because they tell us nothing of Pepys’ childhood and education or, after the Restoration, his public disgrace and humiliation. Through extensive research and examination of contemporary letters and diaries, Admiralty papers, judicial reports, memoirs and biographies, she seeks to fill in these considerable gaps in Pepys’ story.
In The Unequaled Self, the tale she tells is an extraordinary one: a story of a man who rose from humble origins as a tailor’s son of one of the most wealthy and powerful government figures in the seventeenth century. Tomalin shows how much of this was due to some wealthy and influential family connections to the Earl of Montague (later Lord Sandwich) who nurtured the education of the young boy and then helped him gain his first government position as Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board. He put his quick mind and aptitude for detail to work, supplementing his natural talents with private tuition in mathematics and using models of ships to make up for lack of real experience at sea.
His endeavours may have had lasting impact on the British Navy (he is credited with introducing a requirement that all new officers first pass an exam) but they did not endear him to many figures in the Establishment. They resented his close relationship with the Duke of York who later became King James II; his growing wealth and his elevation to a yet more senior role as Secretary for the Admiralty. Pepys was accused of bribery and threatened with incarceration in the Tower of London and then faced further humiliation when he was accused of harbouring Catholic sympathies. He survived both, continuing in his positions until his patron and friend, King James was forced to leave the country.
Tomalin tells the story with panache and energy. Although she has to resort to guess-work and surmise on some occasions, she never stretches credulity too far. Nor, although much of what she writes is necessarily full of facts, she never allows that detail to get in the way of telling a good story. One of the most memorable episodes she tells is of the operation Pepys underwent to remove the bladder stone which had given him excruciating pain for decades. In Tomalin’s imaginative re-creation we experience the same tension Pepys must have felt as he was trussed and bound to the bed and sense every moment of the operation he suffered without the benefit of anaesthetic or numbing alcohol.
Tomalin treats her subject with warmth, enjoying his pleasure in ordinary human activities and admiring his curiousity, his love and support for learning and his intelligence. She acknowledges his egotism, his often bad treatment of the women in his life and his lecherous behaviour but concludes that these never dim his brightness so we ‘rarely lose all sympathy for him. His energy burns off blame.” It’s a credit to Tomalin’s skill that we come to share her enthusiasm for this ‘most ordinary and the most extraordinary’ of men.
Another week in which I ‘discovered’ another new author. I say discovered because Maya Angelou has been around for decades. I knew her name, the title of her most famous work (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) and the fact she was a leading figure in the African- American freedom cause. But that was it until this week when I read Caged Bird and found a podcast on the BBC World Service where she read some of her poetry. Her career as an actor make her a powerful performer but it’s the message itself that is even more impactful. Now my appetite has been well and truly whetted and I have to find out more about this remarkable woman.
My review of Caged Bird is here. If you want a taste of her poetry, this is the poem she read at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton (she was first woman poet to do such a reading).
On the Pulse of Morning
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Facedown in ignorance,
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.
The Rock cries out to us today,
You may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face.
Raped at eight years old; pregnant at 17. Not that great a start in life, particularly for a black American female living in Arkansas decades before the Civil Rights movement. But Maya Angelou is nothing if not strong. And it’s that strength of mind and character that comes forcefully to life in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first part of her six volume autobiography.
It’s a coming of age book which traces her life from the age of three when she is sent with her brother Bailey to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas after the breakup of her parent’s marraige. Living in the family general store, Angelou witnesses the realities of racial discrimination. One night she helps to hide a neighbour when alerted to possible Klan activity in the neighbourhood; another time she recounts the way a ‘powhitetrash’ girl taunts her grandmother, lifting up her skirts to insult her. Angelou herself is subjected to humiliation and racism. Working as a domestic servant to earn some pocket money, she is robbed of her name because Margurite (her birth name) isn’t considered by her white employer to be appropriate for one of her kind. When she experiences the intense pain of a rotten tooth and is taken to a dentist in the nearest town, he refuses to treat her because of her colour.
Set against this however is the way Angelou portrays the deeply held values of family, culture and faith in her community. And although much of what she relates is life at its most brutal, she is equally adept at describing its lighter moments whether its the uncontrollable laughter that bursts forth in the middle of a church sermon or the joy of discovering Charles Dickens, Shakespeare and James Weldon Johnson. It was through these authors and the careful nurturing of a family friend that helped facilitate her recovery from the traumatic effects of the sexual abuse and rape by her mother’s boyfriend. Angelou became mute for almost five years after that incident, convinced that somehow she was partly to blame.
I had sold myself to the Devil and there could be no escape. The only thing I could do was to stop talking to people….Just my breath carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d curl up and die like the black fat slugs that only pretended.
Much of the book is episodic, with events related in a non linear fashion, but the thread that holds them together is Maya’s growing sense of identity. She progresses from being a victim of racism with an inferiority complex to a self-aware individual with a strong sense of who she is and who responds to racism by refusing to acknowledge its existence. As a sixteen year old she becomes determined to be “in control of her fate’ by getting a job as a conductor on a trolley car, eventually becoming the first black person to hold such a job.
But though she matures, she reflects that the journey is not yet over for though she has graduated from school has beaten the odds to get some financial independence, and has become a mother, there is still a part of her that is unsure of what her journey has really meant.
I had gone from being ignorant of being ignorant to being aware of being aware. And the worst part of my awareness was that I didn’t know what I was aware of.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has long been on my bookshelf . I included it in my Classics Club list as a way of motivating me into actually reading it. And I am so glad I did, but only sorry I didn’t read it earlier.