This month’s Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, begins with Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, a satirical novel published in 19 monthly instalments in the mid 1840s.
Thackeray’s novel follows the life of Rebecca Sharp (“Becky”), a strong-willed, cunning, moneyless, young woman who is determined to make her way in society. She comes to a sticky end, unlike the protagonist of another work which deals with the issue of upward mobility and what it means to be a lady.
In Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, (adapted for screen as My Fair Lady) the flower-seller Eliza Dolittle is taught how to adopt the mannerisms and speech of a lady. She’s so successful she can pass herself off as a Duchess.
Someone who doesn’t need to be taught the right way to behave is Isabel Archer, the central character in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. This tale of a free-spirited young American woman who travels from New York to England to confront her destiny but finds it overwhelming. The novel has an ambiguous ending where we’re uncertain whether she returns to an unhappy marriage with her snobbish husband Osmond or opts for freedom.
Freedom is what Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, desires. Being a wife and a mother are not enough but in the Louisiana community where she lives, there are few other choices she can make. The path she takes is one which has stimulated much debate since the novella was published in 1899 – the first reviewers castigated Chopin but feminist critics since have celebrated The Awakening as a landmark in feminist literature.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah also revolves around a woman’s desire for freedom. Like many of Nigeria’s educated middle class young people, Ifemelu cannot wait to get away from the country and its stultifying atmosphere. But the brighter future she anticipates as a student in America proves problematic as she contends with racism and racial distinctions. She feels truly free only when she stops trying to hide behind an assumed American accent and refuses to artificially straighten her hair.
For strength of character, there is no finer example than Maya Angelou. I Know How the Caged Bird Sings, is the first part of an autobiography in which she describes the challenges of her early years and the racial abuse and sexual abuse she experienced while growing up in the Southern States of America. She also shows how her love of literature helped her deal with her trauma and develop into a self possessed young woman capable of dealing with prejudice.
Sexual abuse figures large in my last book in this chain: Emma Donaghue’s The Room. This is a tale, told by five year old Jack whose entire life has been spent shut inside a 12-foot-square room he occupies with his “Ma”. She is the victim of an abduction and Jack the product of her rape. Despite her confinement “Ma” proves to be a stellar mother but she knows that they can survive only by one supreme act of courage and determination.
And with that this chain comes to an end. I didn’t plan it this way but somehow ended up with a theme about courage and tenacity in many forms.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, begins with Shopgirl – a novella written by the comedian Steve Martin (who then turned it into a film). Since I’ve never heard of it, nor read it, nor have any interest in doing so, I’ve had to rely on an internet search to tell me its meant to be a love story.
Well of course the obvious link would be to the novella based on the film of that name, yes i’m talking about Love Story. The one written by Eric Segal that includes the immensely sugary line “love is never having to say you’re sorry’ and whose film version has Ali McGraw looking stunning even when she is dying (how insensitive of the producers to all the cancer patients who end up ravaged by disease). But yes, I confess I did read the book and watched the film. And yes I did cry. But I’m sure you’ll forgive my youthful folly…
So lets hop quickly to another death-bed scene which comes trailing clouds of sentimentality. For this I have to turn to the master of sentimentality himself, Mr Charles Dickens. Death crops up a lot in his novels – not surprising given the mortality rates experienced in the 19th century – and he seems often to wallow in those scenes. One that comes to mind for me is the death of Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son. His demise doesn’t come as any great shock – Dickens drops enough hints for us to know he is never going to fulfil his father’s dream of a son to inherit the Dombey trading empire. Paul’s deathbed scene comes with the kind of lush prose beloved of Dickens.
When the sunbeams struck into his room through the rustling blinds, and quivered on the opposite wall like golden water, he knew that evening was coming on, and that the sky was red and beautiful. As the reflection died away, and a gloom went creeping up the wall, he watched it deepen, deepen, deepen, into night. Then he thought how the long streets were dotted with lamps, and how the peaceful stars were shining overhead. His fancy had a strange tendency to wander to the river, which he knew was flowing through the great city; and now he thought how black it was, and how deep it would look, reflecting the hosts of stars — and more than all, how steadily it rolled away to meet the sea.
Dombey and Son is about commerce and the dehumanising effects of industrialisation on society. But the real force of the novel comes from the way he depicts the coming of the railways and how it transforms a nation. “There were railway hotels, office-houses, lodging-houses, boarding-houses; railway plans, maps, views … There was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in.”
Dickens was a rail enthusiast but he also recognised its destructive power. An early chapter gives an unforgettable description of how railway construction is a kind of “earthquake” that destroys the old community of Camden Town in London. He turns it into a force that bursts with energy and ultimately into a monster that brings death to one of the characters.
One memorable scene has a train that seems out of control and it shriek, roars and rattles through the English countryside. It reminds me of Emile Zola’s novel La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast) which has a tremendously vivid and exciting scene involving a runaway train. Railways are central to the plot of this novel – the main character Jacques Lantier (the human beast of the title) is an engine driver who has a passionate affair with his cousin Flore. And as in Dombey and Son the train proves to be a means of death. You’ll just have to read the book if you want to know who dies. If you’ve not read it yet, I urge you to do so soon because this is a wonderfully taut psychological tale about madness and obsession and whether murderers are the result of nature:
As if one killed by calculation! A person kills only from an impulse that springs from his blood and sinews, from the vestiges of ancient struggles, from the need to live and the joy of being strong.
And therein I find the clue to my next link. I first read Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola long before I was introduced to his Rougon-Macquart series. It was riveting from the initial introduction to Thérèse herself as a young woman, unhappily married to her first cousin, Camille, a sickly and egocentric man. When the opportunity arises, Thérèse enters into a turbulent and sordidly passionate affair with one of Camille’s friends. But their clandestine meetings are not enough for the lovers – Camille must be despatched toute suite. And then their troubles really begin for the pair are haunted by their actions:
He knew that, from now on, every day would be alike, that they would all bring the same sufferings. And he saw the weeks, the months, the years that awaited him, gloomy and implacable, coming one after the other, falling on him and suffocating him bit by bit. When the future is without hope, the present takes on a vile, bitter taste.
I don’t know how Zola’s first readers could bear the suspense as they waited for the next installment of this story to appear in the journal L’Artiste. I know I could not put the novel down until I’d devoured every word.
Thérèse Raquin is of course a novel about retribution and guilt which gives me an easy transition to the fifth book in my chain: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The whole premise of this novel is that it explores the question of whether there are circumstances under which it’s acceptable to commit a crime ? Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished student living in St Petersburg, certainly thinks so. He believes he is one of the “extrordinary people” which means not only is he permitted to murder two women, but can do so without fear of consequence. The novel introduces us to the theory of ‘Superman’ propounded by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche but don’t let that put you off – you can easily read this as a psychological cat and mouse tale. My review is here.
And now we come to the sixth and final book in this chain. I could take an easy option and go for a link based on place via The Man in St Petersburg by Ken Follett, one of his early (and best) novels. But I rather think I’ll stick with the classics and head back to France to a protagonist whose actions, like those of Raskolnikov, have caught up with her. Poor Emma Bovary. All she only wanted in life was to be surrounded by beautiful things and live an exciting life.
“At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.”
But poor Emma is married to a very dull provincial doctor. In search of excitement she begins borrowing money to satisfy her fancy for luxury goods and indulging in a few illicit affairs. When everything collapses about her she sees no way out other than suicide. Hers will be a beautiful death she imagines as she lies on her bed having swallowed arsenic. But Gustav Flaubert shows how, as with so much of her life, Emma suffers from dillusions.
I know we are meant to be critical of Emma, particularly for the way she abandons her daughter, but I also feel very sorry for her. Instead of marrying a doctor she might have had more fun in her life if she’d become a shop assistant. I can imagine her in her element behind the counter of some department store discussing the niceties of leather and lace gloves with society ladies. But then it would have been a very different book and more akin to the version with which this chain started.
#6Degrees of separation, hosted by Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best starts this month with The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. I’ve not read this book though it gained so much publicity when it was published that only sequestration in a remote mountain retreat sans phone, tv, newspapers, would have prevented me getting to know about it. This was a controversial book that puts liberal, middle class attitudes towards child control under scrutiny, via an opening chapter in which an adult slaps another person’s kid who is misbehaving at a Melbourne barbecue. We’re talking here about consequences.
Which leads me seamlessly into another book in which one action, one mistake, has long term repercussions: Atonement by Ian McEwan. The mistake is made by Robbie, the son of housekeeper at a posh country house. He’s passionately in love with Cecilia , the eldest daughter of the household though she’s well above his station in life. He writes her a letter expressing his feelings. He asks Cecilia’s impressionable younger sister Briony to deliver this missive. But he gives her the wrong version, the one that is sexually explicit. Briony opens it and completely misunderstands what she reads. Before the night is over two children have gone missing, a young girl is raped, class prejudices come to light, Robbie is in custody and his relationship with Cecilia seems doomed. I say doomed because this is a novel which ends with a twist … if you want to know what that is, you’ll just have to read the book.
The tempestuous relationship shown in Atonement reminds me of another remarkable novel which deals with class divisions: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. There are other parallels between these two novels: both include a pivotal, emotionally charged scene at a huge fountain in the grounds of a country mansion and both see one of the principal characters go off to fight for their country in a global conflict.
From here it’s but a short step to another novel where an illicit, highly charged relationship is set against the background of war. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks takes us to the theatre of conflict in France during World War 1 and the preparations for what will become the mass slaughter of the Somme. Part of this involves the digging of tunnels underneath no-man’s land and into the enemy’s own defences where the idea is to listen in to their plans. Who could be more suited for this work than coal miners from Wales who are experts at lying on their backs, in the dark, setting explosives and chipping away at the rockface?
Mention of Wales of course brings me back to my homeland. For my next link I could take the easy way out and choose one of the many novels set in the coal-mining area but I thought it would be more interesting to show rather less predictable facets of our Principality.
So let’s start with the fact much of Wales, was – and in many parts still is – prime farmland. Farming and the pull of the land feature heavily in On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin. The title might give you the impression this is about the ‘hills’ formed from the black waste of coal mining but in fact it refers to the Mynydd Ddu (translated to Black Mountains) range in Mid Wales, on the border between England and Wales. This is the location of an isolated upland farm called The Vision farmed by twin brothers Lewis and Benjamin Jones, between whom a special and very strong bond develops. They till the rough soil and sleep in the same bed well into their eighties, touched only occasionally by the advances of the twentieth century and the call for Benjamin to serve his country in World War 1. At times they resent each other yet they are too tightly entwined to be wrought apart and too closely bound with the land to ever leave.
Many of the places mentioned in the novel exist in reality including the market town of Hay on Wye (yes this is the place that hosts the Hay Literary Festival). Mention of Hay-on-Wye and borderlands takes me to Owen Shears’ debut novel Resistance which imagines that the Germans defeated the Normandy landings of 1944. In the sparsely populated farmlands of the Black Mountains, all the men have disappeared, leaving their wives to run the farms and look after the animals. At first they are hostile when a German patrol arrives in the valley but as a harsh winter takes hold they have to find an accommodation of sorts with the invaders.
During the course of the novel we learn that the farmers are all in hiding underground, preparing to become members of a secret British resistance movement. Shears connects their endeavours with an old Welsh legend in which a Prince of Wales sleeps with his solders in secret caves, readying them for a call to arms.
Welsh royalty and conflict between Wales and England brings me to the final novel in my chain: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman. This is the first of her trilogy about the medieval princes of Gwynedd (an ancient county in North Wales) and their long-standing conflict with the monarchs of England during the12th and 13th centuries. Over the course of the three novels we meet two figures who are central to Welsh history – Llywellyn the Great (known in Welsh as Llywelyn ap Iorwerth) and his grand-son Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, the last native born Prince of Wales. The trilogy is a well researched account of the conflict and battle of wills between the Welsh nobility and the English kings, played out in the castles stretching along the border between the two nations. It feels over-written at times but Penman does show clearly men who have to contend with competing loyalties to family, king and country.
And there the chain ends. We started at a barbecue in Australia’s second largest city and end at a castle in Wales. As always, the books I mention are ones I have read even if, in the case of Sharon Penman, it was some 20 years ago.