Category Archives: Classics

Why Nancy Mitford’s “genius” novel left me underwhelmed

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate is supposed to be the novel that best displays her reputed “genius” for sharp and provocative wit.

Naturally, I was expecting to encounter writing that fizzed, crackled and sparkled as Mitford pricked the bubble of complacency surrounding rich, aristocratic families.

What I got instead was a slightly funny book parading the absurdities of a bunch of people who are supremely confident in many things, but particularly their superiority above all other mortals.

I felt cheated. Much like you do when you pull the Christmas cracker but end up with nothing more than a feeble pop and an empty roll of coloured cardboard. Not even a tiny packet of playing cards or a giant paper clip to make the effort worthwhile. 

An Unsuitable Match

Love In a Cold Climate brings us the tale of Polly Hampton, more properly known as Lady Leopoldina. She’s the only child of an immensely rich and very aristocratic  Earl of Montdore and his wife, Sonia.

Polly shines amid the debutants who have flocked to London for the ‘season’; the annual series of glittering balls and big social occasions whose real purpose is to find a marriage partner.  Much to her mother’s frustration, however, Polly shows little interest in the London season and the men she meets consider her cold and aloof.

The cause of Polly’s indifference is revealed to her shocked family: she’s been in love with  her uncle, “Boy” Dougdale since she was fourteen. She’s hell bent on marriage to a man considered by all and sundry to be eminently unsuitable as a husband; he’s a serial womaniser and known for his lecherous behaviour towards young girls.

Polly is determined to have her own way. Her punishment is banishment and disinheritance.

Mitford’s characters 

You won’t find a lot of humour in the plot.  The wit resides instead in Mitford’s characterisation, in particular the figures of Lady Montdore and Uncle Matthew.

Matthew is great fun as a character. because he’s so over the top.  He plays the role of a conventional English Lord very well, with his love of hunting, fishing, shooting and his firm belief in the importance of lineage. He has little tolerance for silly, ignorant women and even less for the business of bringing girls out into society (expensive nonsense in his eyes).

The most fascinating character is however Lady Montdore.

A portrait of egotism

She’s a woman who is so easy to dislike with her  “worldly greed and snobbishness, her terrible relentless rudeness.”  The forcefulness of her personality  generally ensures that she gets her own way, whatever the situation though she can also exploit the social status conferred by her husband’s title and wealth.

So wrapped up in her desires to be the hostess with the mostest and to secure a brilliant marriage for her daughter, Lady Montdore has no idea how condescending she can appear. Marriages of acquaintances and relatives are dismissed as inferior and inappropriate unless they involve solid assets like “acres, coal mines, real estate, jewels, silver, pictures..”  All of the things in fact that her husband has in vast quantitites.

She’s not afraid to use her influence to prevent such a social calamity. Upon discovering  that her daughter’s friend Fanny has made a  “quite ridiculous” engagement to a professor, she offers to call the editor of the Times on the girl’s behalf, to retract the announcement.

Masterclass in how to patronise

One of the funniest scenes in the novel is when Her Ladyship makes an unplanned afternoon visit to  the – now married – Fanny.  It’s a master class in how to be patronising.

I suppose your husband is a clever man , at least so Montdore tells me. Of course it’s a thousand pities he is so dreadfully poor –  I hate to see you  living in this horrid little hovel, so unsuitable.

And with that she wrinkles her nose at the weak tea and broken digestive biscuits served without the nicety of a plate or napkin.

But worse is to follow when Lady Montdore puts on her “we’re hard done by” act:

It’s all very well for funny little people like you to read the books the whole time, you only have yourselves to consider, whereas Montdore and I are public servants in a way, we have something to live up to, tradition and so on, duties to perform, you know, it’s a very different matter. A great deal is expected of us, I think and I hope it’s not in vain. It’s a hard life, make no mistake about that, hard and tiring but occasionally we have our reward  – when people get a chance to show how they worship us, for instance when we came back from India and the dear villages pulled our motor car up the drive, Really touching!

If only all of the novel could have been as delicious as this episode.

The saga of this odd romance and its consequences are related by Fanny Wincham, a distant cousin of Polly and a frequent visitor to the family’s home.

And therein lay my biggest issue with this novel: Fanny is a very dull girl. Fanny is the sensible one, the friend who longs for a stable life (understandable perhaps when you’re mother is known as ‘The Bolter’ because she left so many men in the dust)

I suppose Fanny had to be rather ordinary, in order to make a sharp contrast with the larger than life characters of her Uncle Matthew and Polly’s mother, Lady Montdore. But I would have appreciated a narrator with a little more to her than this ‘nice’ but tepid individual. Perhaps then her observations would have helped the book live up to its much vaunted status as the work of a genius.


Footnotes

About the author

Nancy Mitford was one of six daughters of a British aristocratic family (the very class she features in her novels). The siblings achieved fame/notoriety in 1930s, three of them because of their political affiliations. A journalist for The Times, Ben Macintyre, labelled them “Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur”.

Why I read this book

I added Love in a Cold Climate to my Classics Club list having seen it described as a “masterpiece’ of witticism. I also included her earlier novel The Pursuit of Love but now I’m wondering if that will be just as disappointing.

Want to know more

  • Read more about the Mitford family in this BBC article.
  • Vanity Fair has a published an interesting feature  exploring why the six Mitford sisters continue to fascinate people.
  • Ali who blogs at HeavenAli is more of a fan of the Mitford writers, than I seem to be. Check out her reviews here. 

Mary Barton: A bold novel of social turmoil [review]

Mary Barton By Elizabeth Gaskell 

In the early 1840s, the city of Manchester was the engine house of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

Its huge cotton mills were a magnate for people from the countryside who saw in them an opportunity to improve their lives, particularly since industrial employees were paid more than agricultural workers.

But when demand for cotton began to fall away in the mid 40s, thousands of workers were put on reduced hours or dismissed. Dissatisfaction mounted as newly unionised workers began to demand a better deal.

The social turmoil of strikes and lockouts added to the misery of overcrowded streets, inadequate water and poor sanitation.

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell, the wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester, saw at first hand the consequences: starvation, disease, early death.

In the preface to Mary Barton: a Tale of Manchester Life she confessed that she knew nothing of political economy or the theories of trade, but she had always felt ” a deep sympathy with the care-worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want.”

Her intent in the novel was to give a voice to those care-worn men in order to reveal the common humanity that could serve to unite social classes.

The more I reflected on this unhappy state of things between those so bound to each other by common interests, as the employers and the employed must ever be, the more anxious I became to give some utterance to the agony which from time to time convulsed this dumb people.

Driven to desperation

Gaskell uses the figure of John Barton, a mill worker, to illustrate how even honest men are driven to desperation in such a climate.

At the start of the novel Barton is an intelligent, thoughtful man who cares strongly about two things: his family and his livelihood. He goes into a rapid decline when his wife dies in childbirth and  then the factory where he works is closed. He cannot find a job anywhere else.

He is a proud man. When his daughter asks why he does not accept money from the town so he can buy food, he replies angrily: “I don’t want money, child! D — n their charity and their money! I want work, and it is my right. I want work!”

In anger and frustration he succumbs to the temptation of opium and becomes heavily involved in the burgeoning trade union movement and the Chartist cause.

When all efforts fail to get politicians and mill owners to listen, he concludes that the only way to get their attention is through an act of violent rebellion.  He turns murderer, killing Harry Carson, the handsome but arrogant son of a mill owner.

Is violence a solution?

Gaskell rejects such violence as the solution to the problems of the working poor of Manchester.  The core of the issue for her is that workers and employers simply don’t understand each other.  As John Barton says early in the novel:

The rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds …

Through her narrator Elizabeth Gaskell openly pleads for the two sides to come to a meeting of the minds through communication. In the final stages of the novel she puts this idea into the mouth of one of her worker characters, an intelligent and rational man. After a meeting with the mill owner Mr Carson, father of the murdered man :

You say our talk has done no good. I say it has. I see the view you take of things from the place where you stand. I can remember that, when the time comes for judging you; I sha’n’t think any longer, does he act right on my views of a thing, but does he act right on his own. It has done me good in that way.

It’s a worthy sentiment but it’s hard to see how improved communication can have any practical application as a solution to poor wages and slum conditions.

Love and devotion

Gaskell’s other solution to the problem of the poor is revealed in the novel’s parallel plot of the problematic love life of John Barton’s daughter Mary.

Mary Barton is a good girl at heart, a hard working seamstress who is devoted to caring for the father. But she has her head turned when Harry Carson, the mill owner’s son begins paying her attention.

The silly girl thinks she can marry him and thus secure a comfortable life for herself and her father. Only after she rejects a proposal from Jem Wilson, a hard working boy she’s known all her life, does she realise it’s Jem she loves after all. But it’s almost too late.

Jem gets arrested on suspicion of Carson’s murder and it takes all of Mary’s courage to find a way of saving him. It all ends happily ever after with Jem, who had been a much respected foreman at a forge, and Mary setting up home in Canada.

It’s meant to seem a reward from his boss for his loyalty and dedication but is Gaskell suggesting that the only way out of the poverty in Manchester is to leave the country? It’s not exactly a vote of confidence in England and can surely only have limited application. Emigration was for sure an escape route for many (particularly the Irish) but how many of them really found live on the other side of the Atlantic a bed of roses?

Power of redemption

The book’s conclusion, with its emphasis on the power of redemption and heavily sentimental tone,  is the one flaw in an otherwise perfectly constructed and engaging novel that depicts real, rather than idealised Victorian family life.

The world of Mary Barton is one in which mothers die in the agony of childbirth, children suffer starvation and scarlet fever and women abandoned by their lovers end up wandering the streets as gin-soaked prostitutes. Gaskell’s characters speak in a natural voice using Lancashire colloquialisms and dialect.

It’s a bold move.

Other Victorian novelists, such as Charles Dickens, often had their protagonists and most virtuous characters speak in ‘standard English’, regardless of their social or regional background. But Gaskell’s decision gives her novel an added dimension of realism. Some of her most frequently used words such as ‘clem’ which means to suffer from extreme hunger and ‘frabbit’ which apparently means peevish, convey sentiments that would be difficult to fully capture in ‘standard English’.

Mary Barton is a novel with multiple elements.

It has a love triangle, a murder,  a tale of a wronged woman and a life and death chase, all set in a city in the grip of an industrial revolution.  It does tend towards the polemic and the melodramatic at times but fortunately it doesn’t spoil what is otherwise a powerful and moving picture of working-class life in Victorian England.

Publication history of Mary Barton

Elizabeth_Gaskell

Mary Barton was the first novel to be published by Elizabeth Gaskell.  She wrote it at the suggestion of her husband as a response to the death in infancy of  her  son from scarlet fever. It was published anonymously in 1848 though relates the events of a few years earlier and is believed to have been based on the real-life murder of a progressive mill owner in 1831.

Why I read this novel

The first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that I read was North and South which I thoroughly enjoyed.  But having been disappointed by Wives and Daughters and Cranford, I wanted to get back to her gritty realism. Mary Barton features in my Classics Club list.

Best selling novel or a classic? What I’ll read next

Time for another  WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

What are you currently reading?

I’m almost at the end of The Salt Path by Raynor Winn.  This was one of the books I received as a present last Christmas having heard about it via one of the national newspapers in the UK. It’s proving as superb as their review indicated. It’s the true story of a couple in their fifties who lose their farm, their home and their business after an investment in a friend’s company went belly up. Then they get told the husband (who labours under the strange name of Moth) has a serious brain disease for which there is no cure. Homeless and penniless they decide to walk the South West Coastal Path – a trail of 630 miles, camping wild as they tramped. It’s a fantastic tale about courage but also makes some insightful comments about the way in which homeless people are viewed in the UK.

I’m also reading Punch, a collection of short stories by Kate North, one of the authors from Wales I’ve highlighted in my Cwtch Corner feature. Kate described the book as “A collection of strange and unsettling stories exploring the unexpected in the everyday.” I’ve read two so far and they are definitely strange – one involves an author who takes a rental cottage in France to complete her latest commission but has to share the premises with a very unfriendly mask. Another is about a man who develops a weird growth on his hand….

 

What did you recently finish reading?

Mary Barton was the first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell although her authorship was not known at the time of its publication in 1849. It’s set in Manchester and is partly a romance but, far more interesting, is that depicts the problems experienced by the working class in the city and the growth of trade unionism. The final sections do become a little heavy on the message of redemption and the need for increased understanding between workers and employers but otherwise this was a beautifully written and constructed tale.

 

What do you think you’ll read next?

I don’t have to think too hard about this for once. We have a book club meeting at the weekend and I haven’t yet opened the chosen novel – Kate Atkinson’s Transcription.  My last experience with Atkinson via Life After Life wasn’t a good one so I’m hoping Transcription proves to be more akin to the earlier Atkinson novels that I loved.

 

After that comes Evelina by Francis Burney which was the novel I ended up with as a result of the last Classics Club spin and which I’m *supposed* to read by end of May. But I won’t feel compelled to read it if I don’t feel in the mood at the time. I keep eyeing all the books I’ve bought in recent weeks and they’re calling to me more than Miss Burney.

 

#Classics club spin lands on Evelina

The latest Classics Club spin has landed on number 19.

EvelinaThat number on my spin list is allocated to one of the oldest books on my original Classics Club list: Evelina by Frances Burney. Strictly speaking the book is called Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World. 

It was first published as a three volume novel in 1778 but Burney’s authorship became known.

Told in epistolary style, it traces the experiences of an unacknowledged but legitimate daughter of a dissipated English aristocrat who lives a secluded life in the countryside until she is seventeen.  She gets her guardian’s consent to visit London for a holiday, an adventure which opens her eyes to the perils and pitfalls of  18th-century society. The novel  is a satire on Georgian society.

I included it on my Classics Club because it’s been described as a significant precursor to the work of Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth and deals with some of the same issues.  It’s the first – and the best known – of Burney’s published novels.

I’ve found an interesting article by Chloe Wigston Smith on the British Library website which casts light on Burney herself and the origin of the novel. Interesting to discover that she was very anxious to keep her identity a secret because she was worried about the public reaction. She didn’t even tell her father until six months after the novel was issued and she’d received positive reviews.

I was rather hoping to have landed a more recent novel from my spin list since my last venture into eighteenth century literature (via The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith) wasn’t a great success. I hope this one proves more enjoyable.

South Riding by Winifred Holtby #bookreview

South RidingIf I had relied entirely upon the back cover synopsis, I doubt I would have read Winifred Holby’s final novel.

The blurb gave me the impression the focus was on Sarah Burton, the idealistic new head of a girls’ school in a fictional Yorkshire seaside town and her clashes with conservative locals. It sounded rather tame.

Fortunately there are plenty of bloggers around whose opinions I have learned to trust more than a publisher’s synopsis.

South Riding is a novel that evokes the lives of people in a Yorkshire community that is trying to recover from the tumult of the First World War. Former soldiers, local politicians, religious leaders and the working men who struggle to make a living: all are conscious that their world is changing. They just have different ideas about what should change and how.

One of the chief advocates for change is the outsider Sarah Burton. She’s a spirited woman whose idealism is matched with an eminently practical nature.  Faced with a tumble down building and a school that doesn’t have the greatest of academic reputations, she decides her first battle ground will be the toilet arrangements.

I don’t really mind a hall the size of a cupboard, a pitch dark cellar-gymnasium and laboratories housed in a broken-down conservatory; but these beetle-hunted cloakrooms I will not have. They’re enough to constipate any child for months. I will have those altered.

Sanitary provisions are but a step towards her greater goal of a world from which disease, poverty and ignorance have been eradicated. In her opinion that will take government  intervention.

Opposing her is the book’s representative of the gentility; local squire Robert Carne. He’s conservative by nature, opposed in principle to the idea that local government should expand its sphere of influence. Carne is very much a man of the past not the future. He sticks to traditional methods of farming but despite his best efforts he cannot make his estate pay its way and his manor home is crumbling about his ears.

His conservatism also puts him at odds with  other members of the local county council, Alderman Snaith and Councillor Joe Astell, who connive to push ahead with their own plan for change. But their desire to replace a slum area with a new town, complete with new job opportunities, is not motivated entirely by altruistic principles.

The clash between the forces of tradition and progress is played out in the chamber of the county council. This is where decisions are made affecting the lives of everyone in South Riding:  whether roads will be built, slums cleared, a new maternity hospital established. But anyone expecting to hear lively debates about critical issues, quickly gets their ideas squashed. When young journalist Lovell Brown witnesses his first meeting of the county council, he discovers it is far from an exciting spectacle.

Without emotion, without haste, without even, so far as Lovell could discern, any noticeable interest, the South Riding County Council ploughed through its agenda. The General mumbled; the clerk shuffled papers, the chairman of committees answered desultory questions.

It’s a testament to Holtby’s skills that she makes us care about what happens in this mundane world of local politics.

Politics aside, South Riding is a very human novel. Holtby isn’t afraid to show life as it really was in the 1930s and that there are no easy answers.  Sarah declares she wants her pupils “to know they can do anything,” but the case of one girl, Lydia Holly, shows the gulf between her desire and what is possible. Lydia is a bright and intelligent girl who lives in “the Shacks” – a set of disused railway carriages. She dreams of a scholarship and learning but her ambitions have to be set aside  when she is required to become a substitute mother for her many younger brothers and sisters.

All of human life is depicted in South Riding. Almost every character in this novel (there are some 160 of them) has a problem. Cancer for one, poverty for another, a loveless marriage for a third. We feel for all of them but Winifred Holtby shows that a happy ending is possible for only a few. Rather than the plot it’s the way Holtby brings these characters to life and shows them as distinctly human with their shortcomings as well as seams of goodness, that makes South Riding such an enjoyable read.

 

10 favourite classics

This week’s Top Ten meme hosted by the Broke and Brookish is about a few of our favourite things. I’ve neglected my Classics Club project this year but looking back at the list of books I put together 5 years ago reminded me of so many other classics I’ve loved over the years. So here are my top ten classics .

From the Seventeenth Century

1. Paradise Lost by John Milton  (1667). I can remember sitting on my bed in

Lucifer-The-Fallen

Depiction of Satan, illustration of the central character of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. 1866.From Wikepedia under creative commons licence

my university halls of residence feeling daunted by having to read this for a tutorial. It was a monster of a book because of the extensive notes to explain Milton’s references. And boy did I need those explanations not being blessed with a deep knowledge of the Bible or the classics. But I still found this epic a gripping read with its rebel angels, the clash of good and evil, creation of the world and then the fall from grace of Adam and Eve. Yes it’s long and the prose is often convoluted but well worth tackling.

From the Nineteenth Century

This was the century that saw the greatest change in the form and nature of the novel. From early realist texts of the early part of the century, by the end we’re in the realm of stream of consciousness. So many wonderful novels from which to choose that I could easily have just done a list of 10 favourite 19th century novels. But I’ve tried to pick ones that are novels I never tire of reading.

2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813) There is no way that a list of favourites from the nineteenth century could ignore Jane Austen. This one can be read as a story about romance but as the title indicates Austen was more concerned about social issues. In this novel we get issues of social class and the precarious position of unmarried women.

3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847) This was one of the first classics I ever read and it’s still giving me pleasure 50 years later. Obviously my understanding and interpretation of Charlotte Bronte’s most famous novel has changed over those decades. But that’s one of the beauties of this novel, that it can be read in many different ways. At it’s most basic level it can be a story of a put-upon orphan to finds love and happiness. Delve deeper however and you can find ideas about women’s right for independence and a fulfilling life; the unenviable position of governesses and 19th century attitudes towards science in the form of phrenology.

4. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871) Another novel that lends itself to multiple readings and interpretations. I know so many people who have started to read this book but struggled because it’s a bit slow to get going and has a very large cast. One way to read it is to think of it like a soap opera with a few key relationships – the ‘eternal triangle’ of Dorothea, Casaubon and Ladislaw and the predatory Rosamund who snares Dr Lydgate and almost bankrupts him. Look beyond that however and you’ll find  a novel about ambitions for great medical discoveries, altruism and electoral reform. All are thwarted. This is a novel about big ideas but one that also shows how gossip can bring a man down.

5. Germinal by Emile Zola (1885) My first experience of reading Zola and, though I’ve gone on to read a few others by him, this is the one that has  a special place in my affection. It’s hard reading not because Zola’s prose is impenetrable but because of the subject matter –  a struggle for survival by impoverished miners in France. They take strike action  in the hope of a better future but their rebellion is violently crushed by the army and police.  Uncompromisingly harsh this is a novel that is unforgettable.

6. The Awakening  by Kate Chopin (1898) A novella about a woman who feels trapped in her role as wife and mother that was deplored at the time of publication but has come to be viewed as a key feminist text. Edna Pontellier’s process of “awakening” and self-discovery that constitutes the focus of the book takes several forms: she learns to swim, has an affair and leaves her husband and children. But her freedom doesn’t provide her with happiness. The ending is enigmatic – does Edna’s action represent a failure of her bid for freedom or is it a liberating triumph?

From the Twentieth Century 
8. A Passage to India by E. M Forster  (1924) Set against the backdrop of the British Raj and the Indian independence movement in the 1920s, Forster’s novel traces the disastrous consequences when well-meaning but clueless representatives of the colonial class mix with those who are subjects of the Raj.   It features a tremendous set piece of an expedition to the Marabar caves where something happens (exactly what is a typical Forsterian ‘muddle’ that causes the disgrace of an Indian doctor and inflames the ruling Sahibs. The novel might feel a bit dated at times but it’s on the ball in its depiction of the difficulties in bridging cultural divides.
Heart of the Matter9. Heart of the Matter  — Grahame Greene (1948). Few authors do a better job of portraying people undergoing a moral crisis and tortured by their consciences. Greene himself didn’t care much for this book but I find his story of a British police officer who becomes embroiled in a moral crisis when he tries to do the decent thing for his wife who has had to endure years with him in a decaying, rotting African outpost of the British Empire. In the end there is no way out for him, except one of eternal spiritual damnation.

 
10. Cry, the Beloved Country  — Alan Paton (1948). I’m staying in Africa for my final choice. This novel is set in South Africa on the eve of apartheid,. Paton uses the story of a clergyman who travels to Johannesburg from his home in a small rural village and discovers racial tension, economic inequalities between black and white and a breakdown of traditional values.  Paton uses multiple voices to expresses his love for South Africa and his fear for the future of his homeland. This is a novel of protest in a sense but its also an appeal for justice.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf [book review]

room of ones own-1Virginia Woolf’s essay  A Room of One’s Own is a landmark text of feminist literary criticism and, as such, is required reading for students of literature around the world. But I was a student at a time when feminist criticism was not even in its infancy so though we studied Woolf’s fiction, no lecturer ever thought to direct us to her seminal non-fiction output. My experience of this essay has been fragmented as a consequence; I’ve mostly encountered it as references in other works such as Elizabeth Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own.

Now I’ve read the essay in its entirety I could better appreciate the full impact of Woolf’s assessment of the difficulties and obstacles facing women writers and how they have risen above those challenges.

The first challenge Woolf identifies is one of attitude. Woolf dramatises this through her narrator’s experience of undertaking research at one of the Oxford colleges. First she is told in no uncertain terms that it is forbidden to walk on their grass (is there a fear she might contaminate them?) and then that as a woman she has no right of entry to the college – such hallowed halls of education are reserved for male students only.  After a day at the British Library perusing the scholarship on women, she discovers that little has been documented about the everyday lives of women; what does exist has come from men who seemed to have been writing in anger.

What I find deplorable … is that nothing is known about women before the eighteenth century. I have no model in my mind to turn about this way and that. … I am not sure how they were educated; whether they were taught to write; whether they had sitting rooms to themselves; … what in short they did from eight in the morning till eight at night.

The second issue is one of practicality. Reflecting on the different educational experiences available to men and women as well as on more material differences in their lives, she concludes that women were kept from writing because they had no money of their own. Significantly Woolf is writing at a time when the law had only recently been changed to allow married women to own any money they earned.   Without money of their own, and without any space of their own (out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble), their creativity is stifled she argues. And she points to the Romantic poets and those of the nineteenth century for evidence – all but three of them were university men and of those three it was only Keats who was not well to do. Poverty and poetry were impossible bed fellows.

“Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from what the beginning of time . . Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves.”

In Woolf’s view the lack of money and lack of privacy influence also what women wrote. Women turned to the novel form ( considered  a very poor second to the art of poetry) because it was easier to put down and pick up again without loss of imagination. If you had to do your writing in a public space like a drawing room rather than in the private male space of a study or library, then you would have to contend with frequent interruptions. And learn, as did Jane Austen, to hide her manuscripts and cover them with blotting paper when anyone approached her corner of the communal sitting room.

Woolf seemed to then suggest that the quality of what women writers produced was somehow inferior to that of male writers. Having highlighted people like Austen, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters ( Woolf rated Emily as superior to Charlotte) she ponders how much better their work could have been if their experience of life had not confined to house and hearth. How enormously their genius would have benefited if only they could have travelled or gone to a war as did Tolstoy. In Woolf’s mind, War and Peace could not have materialised if Tolstoy had spent his life in domestic seclusion. Well clearly not – it would have been nigh on impossible to write so vividly of battles if he hadn’t witnessed them at first hand during the Crimea war.

There were a few points in Woolf’s argument I found myself challenging. One was the premise that these leading female writers seldom moved beyond the house yet Charlotte’s portrayal of the plight of Victorian governesses is all the more real because it came from her own experience. I doubt Tolstoy could have written so astutely about the position of a woman who was on close intimate terms with a family yet not regarded as one of them or as a servant. Nor does it allow for the role of the imagination – Wuthering Heights owes much of its power to the evocation of the wild moorland Emily Bronte knew well but the portrait of evil and malice in Heathcliff came from her imagination, not knowledge.

Then there is the idea that the challenging conditions under which such novels were created gave rise to a style of sentence alien to women’s nature..

“To begin with, there is a technical difficulty -so simple, apparently; in reality, so baffling- that the very form of the sentence does not fit her [the woman]. It is a sentence made by men; it is too loose, too heavy, too pompous for a woman’s use.”

Instead of trying to ape male writers, Woolf encouraged her sisters to turn their exclusion from the opportunities afforded men to their benefit – by learning to write what she calls “a woman’s sentence.”

It’s a point which I found hard to grasp because Woolf never really gives any examples of what she means. Jane Austen’s work as a guideline (but which one of Austen’s sentences we want to ask!) What is more clear for Woolf is what a woman’s sentence is not: it is not the same as a man’s sentence.

Im confident that I have merely scratched the surface in trying to understand Woolf’s essay and to fully do so I would need to spend many hours taking it apart point by point ( it gets convoluted many times as she wrestles with her own thoughts). But she ends strongly by positioning fiction by women as on the verge of something unprecedented and exciting, and exhortating ther audience of women to take up the baton bequeathed to them and to pass to their own daughters.

Footnotes

About the Book: A Room of One’s Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf. First published in 1929, the essay was based on lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College,  Cambridge the previous year. The title of the essay comes from Woolf’s conception that, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.

Why I read this book: Partly from a sense of guilt that I claim to be keenly interested in literature yet have not read this essay. Hence why I added it to my #20boksofsummer reading project.

The many sides of Jane Austen

jane austen noteTwo hundred years after her death, the world has not yet had enough of Jane Austen. The Bank of England marked the bicentenary by unveiling a new version of the British  £10 note complete with  Jane’s portrait and a quote from her novel Pride and Prejudice. Winchester Cathedral where she was buried opened a new permanent exhibition about Jane Austen and her life while the town of Basingstoke, near her birthplace of Steventon unveiled what’s believed to be the first statue of Austen. All this in addition to a host of commemorative events in Bath, the city that features in more than one of her novels, and Hampshire where she lived for much of her life.

What is it about her novels that holds such attraction for readers? Is it the fact, as the Wall St Journal asserted, that they deal with universal themes of “love, money, power and status.”? Or that so many of the plots revolve around the desire for personal happiness; something to which we can all relate? Is it the fact her characters are often people  we can recognise from our own communities: the pushy mother (Mrs Bennett); the shy and self-effacing young girl (Fanny Price); the wrong-un (George Wickham) or the romantic idealist (Marianne Dashwood)?  Or is a question of how she tells her stories with their subtle undercurrent of wit and satire that punctures the pretensions of anyone who gets above themselves?

It’s surely all those components.   Austen’s work has so many dimensions that there’s sure to be something that resonates with our individual interests, whether that’s romance, or the social conventions of Georgian England; or the difficulties of being an unmarried woman in a world which offered few prospects of earning your own income.

One of the critiques often levelled at Austen is that her work is circumscribed in its social and emotional range; that her uneventful, retiring life within the domestic circle of her family meant she was secluded from the larger world of political and social affairs. Consequently her novels are concerned only with the domestic affairs of two or three families in a tranquil English neighbourhood. It’s true her plots largely deal with the affairs of the heart rather than the ideological conflicts that characterised English culture during the years that followed the French Revolution. But I don’t think she ignores these issues —running through her work for example are questions about the individual and society: what should their relationship be and what  are the consequences for the individual, for others, and for society when the individual ignores or even deliberately transgress society’s rules?

She also considers the relationship of the imagination/fancy versus reason/judgment; a pertinent issue given the cult of sensibility which had arisen during the late 1700s in reaction to the emphasis on reason and intellect that had predominated during the earlier part of the century. So we have Austen debating in Sense and Sensibility the consequences of Marianne’s yielding to imagination, rather than listening to the dictates of reason that characterises her sister Elinor.

And then of course we have Austen’s concern with income, property and marriage (look carefully at her text and you’ll find repeated references to someone’s wealth). This isn’t in the novels because she had nothing else to write about but because Austen recognised this as one of the big social issues of her time.

In a social world where the only moment accorded importance in a woman’s life was marriage, the choice of a partner was a serious business.  Upon the rightness of that choice depended their entire future well-being. Their ability to actively seek a partner was however severely limited to the number of social acquaintances that came within their social circle. Mrs Bennett boasts that she dines with “five-and-twenty families” but that’s not sufficient to get marriage partners for five daughters so when Lizzie rejects what would be considered a very desirable offer from Mr Collins, her mother’s concern and warning is understandable:

if you take it into your head to go on refusing every offer of marriage in this way, you will never get a husband at all — and I am sure I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead —  shall not be able to keep you.

Understandable therefore that Lizzie’s friend Charlotte takes the more pragmatic approach and positions herself to accept the same offer from Mr Collins though he is a few years her junior. Being neither young, pretty, or rich Charlotte cannot afford to view love as the most vital component of a marriage. She knows she has to marry someone  to avoid a life of dependancy on her family but her choices of husband are limited. She is too wealthy, educated, and upper-class to marry a working man—that would represent a social demotion for her family—but not rich or good-looking to attract a truly wealthy one. She can’t marry up or down—she can only marry sideways. Mr Collins, for all he is the “conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man” Lizzie despises does offer respectability and a secure future. As Austen puts it:

Mr. Collins, to be sure, was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. Without thinking highly either of men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.

Austen’s primary theme of marriage is thus far from trivial. She understands the reality of her age that marriage is women’s best route to financial security and social respect.

Sweet Aunt Jane writing gentle romances from her rose-clad cottage? Conservative Jane who mocked subjective feelings in Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility?  Master stylist Jane who invented the technique of free indirect discourse to gently mock her characters and undermine the persona they want to present to the world?  Many different Jane Austens have been celebrated since 1817. Just like that scene in the film version of 84 Charing Cross Road where Helen Hanff recalls “I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for”, we go looking for the Austen we want to experience and enjoy.

If you want further proof of how Austen continues to interest and intrigue take a look at a series of essays published by  Signature (a Penguin Random House site) in a free downloadable guide: Signature’s Essential Guide to Jane Austen. The guide features 12 essays on topics from the level of sexiness in her novels to book-to-film adaptations, from the challenges of  editing Austen fictionso that it resonates with  modern audiences and how Alexander McCall Smith came to write a new version of Emma.

austen in augustNot yet had enough of Austen? Then the Austen in August event at Roof Beam Reader might be your answer. Visit the intro page to find out more and access reviews and guest posts.

Classics Club spin lands on Grossmith

Diary_of_a_Nobody

Cover of first edition of The Diary of a Nobody. Creative Commons License, Wikipedia

The latest Classic Club roulette wheel has spun and landed on number 12 which for me is The Diary of a Nobody  by George Grossmith. It had to happen sometime – this poor book has been on the list for five previous spins and missed out every time. 

But now its day in the spotlight has arrived, what kind of book will I be reading?

First thing I can tell you is that it’s a comic novel, the sole output of  two brothers George and Weedon Grossmith. Both were stage entertainers – George often played the comic figure in Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Weedon was also an artist and it was his work that illustrated early copies of the text. 

The Diary of a Nobody records the daily events in the lives of a London clerk, Charles Pooter, his wife Carrie, his son Lupin, and numerous friends and acquaintances over a period of 15 months. They are a fairly ordinary family of lower middle-class status but have significant social aspirations. A lot of the humour apparently comes from Charles’ deluded sense of his own importance which is undercut by his propensity to make mistakes, many of which prove socially embarrassing.

Initially Charles’ exploits saw the light of day in a serial which appeared periodically in Punch magazine in between 1888 and 89. It was intended as a spoof that mocked the proliferation of diaries and memoirs at the time; the brothers taking the view that if Anybody could publish a diary then why couldn’t a Nobody? It wasn’t published in book form until 1892. The book had a lukewarm reception from the reading public and critics with The Athenaeum, declaring that “the book has no merit to compensate for its hopeless vulgarity, not even that of being amusing”. But by the time of the third issue in 1910 it was recognised as a classic work of humour – J B Priestley described it as “true humour…with its mixture of absurdity, irony and affection” while Evelyn Waugh considered it “the funniest book in the world”. Its tone and format have been emulated in many subsequent ‘diary’ novels from Sue Townshend’s Diary of Adrian Mole to Bridget Jones’ Diary. 

Why is the Diary of a Nobody  on my Classics Club list you might wonder? It’s certainly an unusual choice since I don’t tend to enjoy comic novels. But I happened to come across a copy, at the back of the bookcase, that seems to have been purchased sometime in the early 1990s and thought maybe it was time it got read….

 

 

 

 

Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope

Dr Thorne by Anthony TrollopeIs there no place to hid from news of (alleged) election shenanigans. First we had allegations of  voter fraud and wire-tapping in the US presidential race. Then came claims the British electorate was misled about the impact of the referendum on future membership of the EU. And now we have accusations about misuse of public funds against one of the candidates in the French presidential elections. Surely if I buried my head in Anthony Trollope’s Dr  Thorne, a novel set in a quiet English country village, I would be free from such issues?. Not a chance….  Mr Trollope had a surprise up his sleeve.

Dr Thorne is the third of the Chronicles of Barsetshire series. In the first two – The Warden and Barchester Towers  Trollope concerned himself with the insular ecclesiastical world of a cathedral town.  In Dr Thorne we move to the countryside and an entirely different pillar of society- the landed gentry in the shape of Squire Gresham and family. They’ve lived at Greshambury Park as the foremost citizens of this part of the county of Barsetshire for many generations but these are precarious times for the Greshams. They are beset by financial difficulties, most of which originate with the Squire’s wife Lady Arabella. As a descendant of the aristocratic De Courcy family she firmly believes she has a certain status in life that must be maintained. This means she absolutely must have a house in London so she and her daughters can enjoy The Season. And of course the said property has to be refurbished to the standard befitting her position. Her most damaging measure however was to encourage the Squire to seek election to Parliament. Now after two unsuccessful bids, both of which involved the outlay of vast sums of money, the Squire is having to sell off part of his land and take out a loan.

The family’s only hope for the future lies in the son and heir Frank. There is no doubt at all in Lady Arabella’s mind but that  “Frank must marry money’” if they are to avoid the unthinkable, the loss of the estate. There is just one obstacle in the way of her determination to find him a rich heiress as his wife: Frank is in love Mary Thorne, the niece of the local doctor. Though she’s been hitherto welcomed at Greshambury Park, she is considered totally unsuitable as Frank’s wife. Not only doesn’t she have a bean to her name, she comes with the taint of illegitimacy and murder. What the Greshams don’t know – and neither does Mary – is that she’s an heiress to a large fortune.

Most of the novel is concerned with the romantic problems of Mary and Frank. Will Frank remain true to his childhood sweetheart or will the needs of his family prevail? it’s a story line that enables Trollope to weave in themes of class and lineage versus integrity and loyalty. Which matters most asks Trollope – to marry someone who is inherently good and honest even if they don’t have the right family credentials or to marry someone with money and breeding but without love? Lady Arabella’s view on this is quite clear and she’s prepared to take drastic action and sacrifice everything – her son’s happiness, Mary Thorne’s reputation and even her own medical treatment – to get her way. Her husband is more inclined to hope Frank’s passion for Mary is just a phase that will pass so he adopts more of a ‘wait and see’ stance. Two of the Gresham daughters fare very differently in the ‘money or love’ debate. One of them is jilted by her fiancé when he sniffs a chance to cut a more lucrative deal with a wealthy heiress but her sister, though also hampered by a very small dowry, gets to the altar because her fiancé declares he wants her and not her money.

anthony-trollope

Anthony Trollope

It isn’t just the Greshams who are concerned with status. Some of the other characters are equally keen to rise up in the world, such as Sir Roger Scratchard. Once jailed for murder this humble stonemason became a wealthy man as the developer of ports and railways. Proving of invaluable help to the Government, he gets rewarded with a baronetcy despite his predilection for vast quantities of alcohol. But this title is not enough for him – he wants to be an even bigger Somebody with Influence – a member of Parliament no less. And so he throws his hat into the election ring, giving Trollope a chance to satirise the dubious electioneering practices used by the aspiring politicians of his day.  During the campaign, Scratchard’s opponents paint caricatures of him around the area, portraying him as a labourer “with a pimply, bloated face …  leaning on a spade holding a bottle in one hand” and throw a dead cat at him at one of the hustings. Unfortunately one of his election team sails too close to the wind when trying to secure a key voter, leaving Scratchard facing a prosecution for bribery.

Every kind of electioneering sin known to the electioneering world was brought to his charge; he had, it was said in the paper of indictment, bought votes, obtained them by treating carried them off by violence, conquered them by strong drink, polled them twice over, counted those of dead men, stolen them, forged them, and created them by every possible, fictitious contrivance; there was no description of wickedness appertaining to the task of procuring votes of which Sir Roger had not been guilty, either by himself or his agents.

Now you might very well draw some parallels between that situation and some more recent events. But in the vein of House of Cards “I couldn’t possibly comment. “

It’s good fun though Trollope is using the election campaign and Scratchard’s fate to counterpoint Lady Arabella’s belief that money is everything. Having been disgraced, Scratchard is forced to acknowledge that though he is still a wealthy man, this is of little comfort – what he has valued all along is to rub shoulders with the great and the good.

Money had given him nothing but the mere feeling of brute power; with his three hundred thousand pounds he had felt himself to be no more palpably near to the goal of his ambition than when he had chipped stones for three siblings and sixpence a day. But when he was led up and introduced … when he shook the old premier’s hand on the floor of the House of Commons, when he heard the honourable member for Barchester alluded to in grave debate as the greatest living authority on railway matters, then indeed, he felt that he had achieved something.

Trollope packs a lot into his novel. Dr Thorne is consequently rather baggy, especially when it deals with the backstory of the Gresham’s declining financial situation. Trollope was so aware of this that he apologises to his reader for the fact the novel begins with “two long dull chapters full of description”.  He also acknowledges that readers might find the young, energetic Frank more interesting than the real hero, the middle aged country Doctor. Yet Dr Thorne is one of the two most interesting characters in the novel for me. He acts as the novel’s moral compass, confronting a personal ethical dilemma (should he reveal the secret of Mary’s impending fortune) with fortitude and refusing to instruct Mary in how to deal with Frank’s continued declarations of love, preferring instead that she work out for herself the best course of action. Even in the face of insults from Lady Arabella and Sir Roger’s wayward son, he shows great forbearance. Essentially he is an all round good egg. 

But pride of place as a character has to go to Lady Arabella Gresham. She’s a magnificent portrait of a thoroughly selfish woman, so imbued with notions of her status that she cannot see the damage she causes through her manipulative treatment of her daughters, her son and even her husband. The one person who is more than a match for her is the doctor. Despite her best endeavours to break off the relationship between him and the Squire, it’s the doctor to whom her husband turns for support and with whom, ultimately, she herself has to find a compromise. How would Lady Arabella fare when confronted with Trollope’s other superb harridan – Mrs Proudie the Bishop’s wife last seen in Barchester Towers. Now that would be an encounter I’d love to see……

Footnotes

The Book: Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope was published in 1858 as the third in his Barchester series. According to Ruth Rendell in the introduction to my edition, the idea of the plot was suggested to Trollope by his brother.  A television adaptation by Julian Fellowes (scriptwriter for many classic adaptations) was broadcast in the UK in 2016.

The author:  In addition to giving the world two series of best-selling novels, Anthony Trollope left a permanent mark on British society with his introduction of the Royal Mail pillar box in 1874. These were painted green initially but changed twenty years later to the red that exists today on every post office collection box in the country. Trollope was working as a civil servant at the Post Office at the time – an occupation he continued until 1866. More information about his career and writing can be found at the Trollope Society website. 

Why I read this novel: I enjoyed The Warden and Barchester Towers so much I decided to read all of the Chronicles of Barsetshire novels in order. Dr Thorne is one of the titles on my Classics Club list.

 

 

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