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From terror to persecution in six links

We start this month’s Six Degrees of Separation with Stephen King’s It.  But first I have a confession. Not only have I not read this book, I have never read anything by Stephen King. I know he’s a master storyteller but I have a low tolerance level of anything horrific so never had much interest in his work.

If I were ever to overcome my fear and pick up a Stephen King novel, I doubt that it would be It, based on the fact that it’s about a town where children are terrorized by an entity that takes on the form of a clown. Apparently some of the key themes are the power of memory, childhood trauma and its recurrent echoes in adulthood.

RoomA traumatic childhood is the key element in my first link: Emma Donague’s multiple award-winning novel Room. Inspired by the true life case of Josef Fritzl in Austria, Room tells the story of a five-year-old called Jack, who is held captive in a single room with his Ma. He has never been outside. The room is his entire world.  Despite its subject matter Donaghue has said that Room is not a horror story or a tear-jerker, but a celebration of resilience and the love between parent and child.

L shaped roomFor my second link I’m heading to a different room for another story about resilience in the face of challenges.  In The L Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, Jane, an unmarried, out-of-work rep actress is turned out of the family home when she becomes pregnant following an affair with an actor. She moves into a dingy room at the top of a smelly boarding house in London, inhabited by bed bugs and a mix of exotic characters. Ultimately her time in the L-shaped room is just a phase in her life before she finds happiness and independence. The people she leaves behind are not so fortunate however; they are so steeped in poverty that they have little hope of escape.

English authorsThere doesn’t seem much hope of escape either for the characters in the novel that provides me with my third link: Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. In the Victorian era if you couldn’t pay your bills you could end up an inmate of the Marshalsea prison. It was nigh on impossible to pay off the debts because inmates were not allowed to work. Such becomes the fate of William Dorrit who moves his entire family into the Marshalsea when he becomes a bankrupt. His youngest daughter Amy (the Little Dorrit of the title) is born within its walls but like her siblings is sent out to work while her father grows increasingly proud of his status as the prison’s longest-serving resident.

thedevilinthemarshalseaantoniahodgsonFather Dorrit was fortunate that his children’s efforts meant he never ended up in the prison’s most fetid section,  known as the “Common Side”, where inmates were highly likely to die from starvation or fever. Such is the fate that faces Tom Hawkins, the rakish protagonist of the fourth link in my chain: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson. He can save himself if he can solve the mystery of who killed another prisoner but he also has to keep out of the way of the brutal governer and his henchman.

dorian grayTom is a gambler, a drinker and a womaniser but like all rakes he has a charm that entices. The figure of the lovable rogue and the bad boy abounds in literature so I am spoiled for choice for my fifth link. I’m plumping for a book that featured a handsome, narcissistic young man who indulges in every pleasure and virtually every ‘sin’:  The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Wilde of course was one of the ‘bad boy’s himself, and his book so offended the moral sensibilities of British book reviewers, many of them said he should be prosecuted for violating public morality. He did end up going to prison, for gross indecency.

petalsWilde was not the first – and certainly not the last – writer to be imprisoned. Some like the Marquis de Sade were accused of sexual offences; others like William S. Burroughs and Paul Verlaine for violent assualt. Still more writers have been incarcerated for their political beliefs and their refusal to stay silent. Petals of Blood  by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o so incensed his country’s government because it criticised the newly-independent nation, that they imprisoned him without charges. His arrest provoked a worldwide protest and led to his adoption by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience. He left Kenya upon his release after a year in custody.

And so we end on a sombre note. Having started with a fictional horror I somehow ended up with a real-life situation that I find truely frightening: imprisonment without trial and due process of law.

Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate of Books Are My Favourite and Best  is where we start with one book and link in stages to six other books to form a chain. I’ve adopted my own rule to link only to books that I’ve read, even if that was many many decades ago.

 

 

10 literary mothers – the good, the bad and the ugly

It’s Mothering Day in the UK today – or to give it its secular name, Mother’s Day. A day when we are asked to show our appreciation for the women who brought us into the world. Mothers in books, just as they do in real life, come in all shapes and sizes. Some epitomise wisdom; love and thoughtfulness; others, well shall we say, reflect less desirable qualities.

To mark this day here’s a list of the good, the bad and the decidedly horrid mothers in literature.

Role model mothers

Mrs March: Little Women by Louisa M Alcott

Idealised motherhood as seen in this 1949 film version of Little Women

If you’re looking for a vision of maternal perfection, look no further than Mrs March (also known as Marmee) in Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. She’s left to look after the home and her four daughters while her husband goes off to provide religious comfort to troops in the American civil war. Using a mixture of common sense and homilies she nurtures the girls to adulthood and encouraging them to be fine, upstanding young women of whom their father would be proud. The saccharine levels in this novel are at maximum setting but if you can get beyond that, it’s easy to appreciate a woman for whom there can be “no greater happiness” than to see her daughters happy and fulfilled in life.

 

 

Helen Graham: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

The obstacles Mrs March had to overcome to realise her dreams for her daughters, are as nothing compared to the obstacles facing Helen Graham, the mother figure in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Her escape fromArthur Huntingdon, her womanising, alcoholic husband, wasn’t simply going against every standard of behaviour at the time, it was illegal. Bronte’s first readers would have been well aware that Helen, as a married woman had no independent existence in English law. She had no right to enter into contracts unless under her husband’s name; no right to sue for divorce and no rights over the control and custody of her children. When Helen thus decides to leave her husband to protect her son from his father’s corrupting influence, she exposes herself to the threat of arrest as a kidnapper.

Ma: Room by Emma Donoghue

Protection of  her son is also foremost in the mind of the mother in Emma Donoghue’s Room. Ma lives in a small space with five-year old Jack, the child born from repeated rape by her abductor. All Jack has ever known is Ma and Room; he has no concept of the world outside except what comes via their television set. It takes every ounce of courage and resourcefulness to protect and nurture her son, making the best of  the limited resources at her disposal.

Questionable behaviour

Paula Hook: Tomorrow by Graham Swift

Late at night a mother mentally rehearses a conversation that will take place the following morning when her husband will reveal a secret that’s been kept hidden for sixteen years. Paula traces the history of her marriage, from the time when as students in Sussex she first met the biology student Mike. She holds nothing back – tomorrow will be a revelation that might destroy their family so she believes her children need a full understanding of the background. Her marriage has been a very physical relationship she imagines telling 16-year-old Nick and Kate. And then goes onto provide the kind of details  I suspect most teenagers simply don’t want to know about their mother.

Mrs Bennet: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Alison Steadman as Mrs Bennet in BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice

Austen portrays Mrs B as “a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper”. She’s made a comic figure, a gossip who has a habit of putting her foot (or in her case her mouth) in it to the detriment of her elder daughter’s hopes of marrying an eminently desirable wealthy young man. But despite her flaws, it’s difficult to be too harsh on this woman. Her actions, as crass as they are on times, are driven by economic necessity.  She has five daughters and lives in an age where, if they do not secure a good marriage, they will be reduced to earning their own income as seamstresses or governesses.  Faced with that precarious existence, even marriage to a scoundrel like George Wickham is better than spinsterhood in her eyes.

Lady Arabella Gresham: Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope

Another mother who plots and schemes to get her offspring married. Lady Gresham is married to a squire whose estate is in a precarious state so it’s imperative that the heir Frank Gresham, marries a wealthy woman. It matters not to his mother that his heart is set on a sweet young lady from the village. She will do everything possible to see that Frank comes to his senses and puts his own family’s needs ahead of his own interests. This is a woman who risks alienating her son, her husband, her medical adviser as a result of her determination.
Emma Bovary: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Does Emma deserve sympathy or condemnation? Is she simply a hopeless romantic who yearns to escape marriage to one of the dullest men on earth? Or a manipulative little minx who runs up debts because she can’t stop spending money on frivolities?  Whichever way you choose to look at Emma’s character, the reality is that her frustrations with the banalities and emptiness of her provincial life  have a long term impact on her daughter Berthe. Left an orphan, the young girl is taken into the care of her grandmother. But when she in turn dies, Berthe is despatched to live with an impoverished aunt who forces her to work in a cotton mill; exactly the kind of life Emma was desperate to avoid.

Beyond redemption? 


‘The Mother’: Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Pity the girl who has this woman for a mother. Ostensibly a devout woman of her fundamentalist religious community, this is a woman whose zeal disguises a lack of compassion and goodness. Having adopted Jess she plans to make her a servant of God. But when the girl doesn’t conform to the required behaviour is locked in her room without food and subjected to physical assault. Later when the girl discovers she is a lesbian she is publicly condemned by her mother and forced to go through two lengthy exorcisms.

 

Corinne Dollanganger: Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews 

Few readers get to the end of this novel viewing Mrs Corrine Dollanganger as anything but a horror figure. Ok so she is left in debt when her husband, the father of her four children, is killed in a car accident. Understandable that, with no skills of her own to help her get a job, she moves in with her estranged wealthy parents. But when her mother Olivia, insists the children must be hidden from their grandfather, and confines them to an attic wouldn’t you think any self-respecting mother would say no way? Not Corinne. But then what mother would abandon her children for weeks and then poisons them so she can keep her inheritance.?  And what kind of grandmother is this that no only colludes in this horrific behaviour, but is one of the main perpetrators?

Medea: Medea by Euripides

If only Corinne and Olivia were the worst models of motherhood it would be possible to imagine. But we have only to look back a few centuries to find a figure of equally horrific proportions. I wonder if William Congreve had Medea in mind when he wrote:

“Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.” (The Mourning Bride)

When Medea discovers her husband Jason has abandoned her for a younger model, she unleashes her fury on his new bride, sending her a dress soaked in poison. Jason reproaches her but she’s having none of it and in revenge kills their two sons. Medea’s rationale is that when a woman “is wronged in the matter of love, no other soul can hold so many thoughts of blood.”  Now you’d think this would be the kind of behaviour guaranteed to make the Gods extremely angry with her. What they actually do is to send a chariot to pick her and and transport her to a new life in Athens. I wonder what the Greeks in the audience thought of this benevolent outcome?

 

Room by Emma Donoghue

RoomEmma Donoghue made a brave decision when she chose as the subject for her seventh novel Room, the seven-year imprisonment and sexual abuse of a young woman.  Donoghue was accused of sensationalism and voyeurism because of the affinity between her novel and the real life story of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian who held his daughter captive and sexually abused her for 24 years. She admitted that Room was triggered by the Fritzl scandal but firmly denied that her novel was in any way ‘based on’ that case.

What interested Emma Donoghue most was not the experience of the abuse or the confinement in a soundproofed garden shed but how the victim and the son Jack that is born as a result of rape, deal with the challenges of life outside.

This is the story told by Jack. He’s five years old, born in captivity, whose knowledge of the world is limited to the 12-foot-square room he occupies with his “Ma”. Their only contact with the world outside comes via their captor  “Old Nick”, who delivers their food, a weekly “Sundaytreat” (new trousers, painkillers, the occasional candy bar) before raping Ma. She uses every ounce of her energy on nurturing and teaching her child, creating rituals that help preserve her sanity. Theirs is a very private world, with its own language and cast of characters that Ma creates out of the sparse items in their room. “Melted Spoon”, “Rug”, “Wardrobe” and “Plant” become friends as real for Jack as the cartoon characters he loves to watch on TV. Ma limits his tv time though so his “brain doesn’t turn to mush” and makes him do “phys-ed” every morning which consists of running around the room and bouncing on the bed. In between they make up poems, sing Kylie songs and create a snake from old egg shells.

For Jack every day is a day of wide-eyed discovery and joy. Ma however can recall life “outside”.  Not surprisingly some days she just succumbs to despair, days when in Jack’s eyes she is “gone” and he is left to his own devices. Ma however is an exceptional woman, one whose love for her son gives her the courage to make a bid for freedom.

When the second half of the novel moves to “outside” it loses some of its intensity but gains a new dimension in which the close mother-son relationship is put the test as Jack has to share his mother with other people.  He has to learn that what was acceptable ‘inside” the room is not acceptable “outside” and to acquire skills he never needed before like tackling stairs and wearing shoes. Jack’s introduction to this confusing new world and to gradual removal of his previous dependency on his mother is handled with remarkable skill and insight.

While it was almost impossible not to shudder at the plight of this pair it was equally impossible not to be totally enthralled by Jack. It’s not easy inventing a credible child narrator but in Jack, Donaghue delivers one whose voice is so memorable  I could hear him long after I closed the book each day. He is the figure whose sweet innocence mitigates the horror, the figure that ensures the book never descends into the simplistic mode of villain versus victim pure monster  It’s one of the reasons this is a novel like no other I’ve read in recent years.

 

End Notes

Emma Donoghue was born in Ireland but now lives in Canada. Room was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010. It was released as a film in 2015.

Emma Donaghue talks about the writing of her novel in an interview with the Guardian 

 

 

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