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Deadlock by Dorothy Richardson

 

This is the sixth novel in the Pilgrimage series and for me it raises some more challenging issues. Richardson deals with race, empire and politics to some extent, although I think this may be the starting point for ongoing developments in later novels and Miriam is beginning to engage with a variety of ideas; her feminism also grows apace as well.

The bulk of Deadlock revolves around Miriam’s relationship with Michael Shatov, a Russian Jew. They become quite close and spend time at the British Museum where Shatov introduces Miriam to Russian literature. They discover a mutual love of philosophy and as they get closer marriage is clearer under consideration. Most of the misgivings are on Miriam’s side!

There are some interesting moments; such as the first time Miriam hears a phonograph and the descriptions of London are again quite vivid. However race and imperialism are central. There was little questioning of imperialism in late Victorian novels, but the development of the modernist novel combined with the effects of the war began a process of examination and questioning. There is a movement in this novel. Early in the novel Miriam and Michael argue about individualism and Englishness and Miriam tries to express what she means by being English in ways which are quite traditional. By the end of the meeting she is attending a socialist meeting and struggling with their ideas.

I am avoiding something. There was a time when I used to avoid unpalatable facts about people I admired. I don’t do that anymore. There is a passage in Deadlock which I have a real problem with; it runs as follows:

 

Miriam sat frozen, appalled by the presence of a negro. He sat near by, huge, bent, snorting and devouring, with a huge black bottle at his side. Mr. Shatov’s presence was shorn of its alien quality. He was an Englishman in the fact that he and she could not sit eating in the neighborhood of this marshy jungle. But they were, they had. They would have. Once away from this awful place she would never think of it again. Yet the man had hands and needs and feelings. Perhaps he could sing. He was at a disadvantage, an outcast. There was something that ought to be said of him. She could not think what it was. Every time she sipped her bitter tea, it seemed that before she should have replaced her cup, vengeance would have sprung from the dark corner. Everything hurried so. There was no time to shake off the sense of contamination. It was contamination. The man’s presence was an outrage on something of which he was not aware. It would be possible to make him aware. When his fearful face, which she sadly knew she could not bring herself to regard a second time, was out of sight, the outline of his head was desolate, like the contemplated head of any man alive. Men ought not to have faces. Their real selves abode in the expressions of their heads and brows. Below, their faces were moulded by deceit. …

While she had pursued her thoughts, advantage had fallen to the black form in the corner. It was as if the black face grinned, crushing her thread of thought.”

 

            

I am aware that part of the point of the passage is that Miriam was finding Michael Shatov in some sense alien and in contrast here he is not; the juxtaposition is the point. I have read a couple of closely argued, complex and detailed articles by Richardson scholars which attempt to explain this and Richardson’s attitude to race and conclude Richardson is questioning attitudes to race. Here is an interesting passage from Shawn Loewen’s thesis;

“Miriam is not truly representative of the late nineteenth-century emancipated woman. Richardson has grafted the context of the 1920s onto her heroine of the past, allowing Miriam to be conscious of her racial assumptions in a way that would not have been possible at that time. Deadlock ultimately reveals how a pioneering writer of the early 1920s could still be profoundly influenced by imperialism even, as she was breaking away from its worldview. Like Miriam herself: Richardson could only perceive imperialism and its assumptions from the inside.”

Yet contrast this passage when Miriam is walking down the street with Shatov and he begins to sing in Russian, They are passing a group of English workmen;

“'Go 'ome,' she heard, away behind .. .'Blooming foreigner'; close by, the tall lean swarthy fellow, with the handsome grubby face. That he must have heard. She fancied his song recoiled, and wheeled sharply back, confronting the speaker, who has just spat into the middle of the pavement. 'Yes,' she said, 'he is a foreigner, and he is my friend. What do you mean?' The man's gazing face was broken up into embarrassed awkward youth. Mr Shatov was safely ahead. She waited, her eyes on the black-rimmed expressionless blue of the eyes staring from above a rising flush. In a moment she would say, 'it is abominable and simply disgraceful,' and sweep away and never come up this side of the road again. A little man was speaking at her side, his cap in his hand. They were all moving and staring. 'Excuse me, miss,' he began again in a quiet, thick, hurrying voice, as she turned to him 'Miss, we know the sight of you going up and down. Miss, He ain't good enough forya.”

This assumption of racial superiority extends to Michael Shatov, who is her friend. The juxtaposition of Shatov’s Jewishness to Miriam has been compared to that of Bloom in Ulysses to Stephen Dedelas. An interesting direction of thought. Loewen goes on to argue that Richardson at the same time challenges and endorses imperialism’s approach to race. Miriam at the same time seems to believe that foreigners should in some way assimilate into society, but also seems to believe they cannot. Feminism at this time still had issues with extending the ideas to all races, although Miriam does recognise at the end of the novel the unfairness of the seating arrangements in the synagogue in terms of men and women. She seems to struggle more with the contrast of her own growing sense of emancipation with the situation of the Jewish woman; as yet there is no link made to the struggles of women in other cultures. Shatov is a foil to Miriam’s thoughts here as he points out to her that many of her prejudices are unconscious.

This is a work in progress and Richardson has set many plates spinning; time will tell how she manages them all. I am still left with the unpleasant feeling I had when I read the quote above. I know Richardson saw each of these novels as chapters, so I will leave my conclusions on race until the end.

7 out of 10

Starting novel seven; Revolving Lights

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Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge

 

An interesting historical novel which won loads of prizes and accolades and is a brief and straightforward read. Bainbridge uses the medium of photography to hang the novel on; six photographic plates. The first two plates are set in Liverpool in 1846 and 1850 and the rest in 1854 in the Crimea.

The Master Georgie of the title is George Hardy, a surgeon and amateur photographer. His story is told alternately by three other characters. Myrtle is a foundling brought up by the Hardy’s after being found by George. The exact circumstances are unclear, but Myrtle idolises George. By 1854, when Myrtle is 20, they have a sexual relationship, despite George’s marriage. Dr Potter is married to George’s sister Beatrice and is a Geologist; he is verbose and a little pompous, but does notice things. The last narrator is Pompey Jones initially a street urchin who crosses George’s path a number of times and by 1854 he is a photographer’s assistant in the Crimea. He is straight out of Dickens, overcoming his humble beginnings.

George is a complex character who is attracted to women and men and has the associated Victorian guilt in large amounts. Both Pompey and Myrtle have been on the receiving end of his attentions. The different narrative voices don’t disrupt the flow and it is interesting to have the change of perspective on a regular basis.

There are some points made by the author. At the beginning of the novel it seems that fate and destiny are in some degree under the control of those with some power and privilege. By the end with the horror and carnage of the Crimean war it is clear events are completely random. The satirical aspect is also clear. Tennyson glorified aspects of the campaign, remember the poem The Charge of the Light Brigade; there is no glorification here as we see what surrounds the occupation of surgeon. There is also a caricature of the British abroad with wander around the Crimean peninsula as though it was a Sunday School outing, and, of course the sheer stupidity of war is there for all to see. There is also a blurring of memory. When George is drunk and makes a pass at Pompey Jones, early in the book, their later recollections are very different and Bainbridge makes the point that we all construct our own past history.

This is a deceptive novel which seems quite simple, but has a number twists and turns and it could easily be managed on a wet afternoon.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting In Darkest London by Margaret Harkness

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The Blind Assassin by Margaret Attwood

 

The words Booker Prize winner don’t always fill me with confidence and I haven’t read any Attwood for some years; but I thought it was about time I tried. This one is quite hefty at over 600 pages. The narrative is complex and has a number of strands; a bit like those wooden dolls from Russia that fit inside one another. I disagree with the reviews that say it is badly written and too long. It reads very easily and keeps the attention and I’m always a sucker for good historical novels.

The plots revolve around sisters Iris and Laura Chase and their family history during the first half of the twentieth century. The backdrop is Iris in old age looking back on her life and back to her sister Laura’s suicide just after the end of the Second World War. There is a novel within the novel, the story of a love affair; but who is having an affair with whom? There is a science fiction novel verbally told.

Iris relates her present life in old age and tells the Chase family history. A privileged childhood until the depression and the collapse of her father’s business. An arranged marriage to a cold and brutal man to save the family and the machinations of his sister. There are twists and mysteries before it is all played out.

Attwood covers the joys and cruelties of childhood, the turbulence of adolescence, the perils of the status of women in marriage, the playing out of dramas within the space created by family, revenge and much more. It is a real saga type tale, beneath it all it’s a good story told by a good storyteller. It is, of course, a story about storytelling. The heroic characters, although flawed are suitably heroic (not in an all-action sort of way) and the villains truly villainous. Loose ends are tied up beautifully.

This being Attwood, there is of course more going on. The use of power and its outworkings; both of the primary male characters, Richard and Alex are abusive. The capitalist and the socialist. There is an endless war of all against all and the balance of power shifts and moves. Elaine Showalter points out that the family nature of the saga over a couple of generations enables one to track the way women are treated over time and in the context of family. Iris is the survivor and puts it all together to pass onto her granddaughter, who isn’t known to her but who will inherit the saga.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

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Wedlock by George Egerton

 

George Egerton is the pen name of Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright. She was born in Australia and spent early years there and in New Zealand, Chile and Ireland. She identified herself as Irish. She spent time in New York and Norway. Egerton married three times and moved in literary circles. She was the first person to translate Knut Hamsun into English. She has been credited with being the first person to mention Nietzsche in English Literature; in her book of short stories and essays, Keynotes, she mentions Nietzsche. This was in 1893, three years before he was translated into English. Her novel The Wheel of God was an influence on Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Egerton also influenced Hardy who used her when creating the character of Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure. There was a breadth to Egerton’s learning and reading which is impressive and she packed a great deal into her early years.

Egerton was one of those writers who were part of the “New Woman” movement; a term invented by Sarah Grand, but taken up by others and holding ideas that women might want to do unheard of things like vote, get educated, have a career and even have sexual desire. She had work published in The Yellow Book and Wedlock dates from 1894. It is more a short story than novella and also appears in one of her collections. I can do no better at this point than copy some of the reactions at the time;

“Neurotic and repulsive”
Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine

“A deliberate outrage”
Athenaem

“Crazy and offensive drivel”
Saturday Review

 

Encouraging isn’t it! The title gives an indication; it is not titled marriage, but wedlock with the emphasis on lock. It has been described as proto-modernist and there is a fluidity in the narration which passes easily between unnamed characters. The plot is simple Susan Jones lives with her husband and his three children from a previous marriage (today that would point towards divorce, then death would most likely be the reason). Susan has a child born out of wedlock; the reason she married her husband is because he promised that her child would be able to join the family rather than live with Susan’s sister. This promise he has broken and Susan has descended into despair and alcoholism and she resents her husband’s children. Then she discovers, quite by accident that her daughter is dying and her husband has been intercepting letters and a telegram informing her. There is no happy ending.

The ending is horrific and delivered in a rather gothic way. It was published in the same year as Jude the Obscure, but earlier in the year. The serialisation of Jude did not start until December. There is one very striking similarity, so striking that it makes me think that Hardy must have been influenced by this.

The working class slang is hard work at times and it feels a little forced. The shock engendered in the reader is still there today; it must have been much sharper when it was written. The work explores power and control and the nature of matrimony, broken promises, depression and apathy and its effects.

Egerton’s particular interest was to explore what she saw as the wilder and more savage spirit in women which society tried to tame; she saw the structures of marriage and the family as being part of the problem. There is some contradictoriness in her views, but she is a fascinating character and far too little known.

8 out of 10

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I loved The Blind Assassin; I've read it a couple of times but can't remember the details unfortunately, aside from there being a bit of a twist. I much give it a re-read soon to see if my feelings have changed about it.


Edited by bobblybear

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It is a good read bobblybear.

 

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

 

First book read as a result of Daughters of Africa edited by Margaret Busby. I had been meaning to read Beryl Gilroy for some time and this was the impetus I needed. Gilroy was a Guyanese author with an interesting background. Qualifying as a teacher and moving to Britain in the 1950s she was initially unable to get a job as a teacher because of racism. Eventually following a series of unskilled jobs she returned to teaching in the 1960s and became the first black head teacher in London. She did a good deal of work in the area of education in the days of the Greater London Council (GLC); developing a psychotherapy practice principally for black women and children. She also founded the Camden Black Sisters Group. It is easy to forget how much good the GLC did until Thatcher abolished it. Gilroy turned to writing quite late and this, her first novel was published in 1986; she addressed family issues (the treatment of elders being particularly important to her) and went on to write about the African and Caribbean diaspora and the experience of slavery.

Frangipani House is a home for older people in Guyana. Mama King has been placed there by her family, who now live in America. Mama King does not like the home and finds it oppressive. The concept of house and home is very important in Caribbean literature, often representing cultural identity. Home as a space is used in a variety of ways, but here it is a space of confinement for the old. It is often only home for a short space of time before death and a number of strong and well-drawn characters move briefly through its pages. After working hard all her life Mama King finds the rules and restrictions stultifying and plans to escape; firstly through losing her sanity and then by physical departure. Mama King escapes and spends time with a group of beggars, who although very poor treat her as an equal and appreciate her. Eventually she is beaten up and is in intensive care. Her family travel from America and have to decide what to do with her.

One of the issues highlighted is that Mama King’s family are westernised in the US and their solution to the problems of age is a western one; a nursing home. The main antagonist of the novel is the matron of the nursing home, Miss Trask. Although she comes across as unsympathetic and uncaring, the reader does come to understand her over the course of the novel. Gilroy gives a voice to the voiceless; the old and poor and uneducated. Although Mama King is uneducated in a Western sense, she has knowledge, alternative knowledge and has brought up many children and survived an abusive husband. This novel finds a place for someone who society has no place, a role for a black, poor grandmother.

The care home is supposed to be a haven, but is not; it is a place of memories, partly because the boring routine ensures people are drawn into the past and recollection. The real heart of the novel is the wonderful character of Mama King, who tells us her story. The ending is left a little open, which is good. It is really a novella, so do try it.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Clarise Cumberbatch want to go home by Joan Cambridge

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Witness against the Beast; William Blake and the Moral Law

 

E P Thompson is one of my favourite historians and this was his last book. It is an analysis of the poet William Blake. Thompson looks at the origins of his thought and attempts a different approach to most academic studies of Blake. Thompson believes that the roots of Blake’s thought can be found in the seventeenth century radicalism that flourished in the Civil War period in England. The book is in two parts; the first looks at the backdrop to the radical ideas of the time Blake lived and their historical roots. The second half examines Blake’s poetry in the light of this.

Thompson treats the reader to a whole array of seventeenth and eighteenth century sectarians with some wonderful names. Anyone remember Behmenists, Swedenborgians, Muggletonians (this is not a Harry Potter reference!), Hutchinsonians, to name but a few. These along with more traditional dissent are examined to establish the origins of Blake’s thought. The Muggletonians are particularly interesting and the account of Thompson meeting the last living Muggletonian, Philip Noakes, in the 1970s and being given access to their archives (which date back to the seventeenth century) is quite moving. He describes their thought as “highly intellectual anti-intellectualism”. Thompson moves easily amongst these rather odd and strange groups. As he says, he is an atheist and the ideas they propound seem to be him to be no more ridiculous than the beliefs of established religion.

Thompson goes on to examine the origins of Blake’s strong antinomian tendencies which underlay his strongly negative views about established religion and the state. This tendency is amply illustrated by the poem Garden of Love;

 

I went to the Garden of Love,

And saw what I never had seen;

A Chapel was built in the midst,

Where I used to play on the green.

 

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,

And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;

So I turned to the Garden of Love

That so many sweet flowers bore.

 

And I saw it was filled with graves,

And tombstones where flowers should be;

And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars my joys & desires

 

Blake moved amongst the radicals and revolutionaries that grew when the ideas around the French Revolution crossed the channel He knew people like Paine, Bewick, and Wollstonecraft amongst others. Blake was a radical, but he was also very anti-reason, opposing the lines of thought from Locke, Hume and Newton, which set him apart from many of the radicals who were essentially Deist. One thing that Thompson does make clear is the complexity and sometimes contradictoriness of Blake’s thought.

This is not an introduction to Blake’s work or an interpretation of his poetry; Thompson is setting Blake within his historical context, the London of 1780 to 1820, showing how his roots in a radical intellectual tradition informed hid thought. Blake was a lifelong radical; many of his contemporaries turned to Toryism when the French Revolution went wrong; Blake remained radical. This book emphasizes the importance of dissent and in a world where the forces that dominate are unjust and unfair, maintaining radical dissent is very important. Thompson was never an armchair historian (one of the reasons I like him) and this analysis of Blake adds a good deal to the history of radical dissent.

9 out of 10

Starting Nina Hamnett, Queen of Bohemia by Denise Hooker

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Millennium Hall by Sarah Scott

This is an interesting novel published in 1762. It isn’t easy to read because it has that irritating eighteenth century habit of needing to be didactic and morally improving. It was written by Sarah Scott and describes a female run and populated community run on what might be described as utopian lines.

Sarah Scott was a well-educated woman from a good family. Her sister, Elizabeth Montagu is better known for setting up a female literary salon which became known as the Blue Stocking Society. Sarah Scott was married in 1751. This was short-lived and her family removed her from the marital home in 1752. She then lived with Lady Barbara Montagu where they pooled their resources and became active in helping the poor. Scott wrote primarily to provide an income, writing several novels and some histories. Millennium Hall is partially based on her life with Barbara Montagu.

The novel revolves around a community of women who hold their goods and income in common and whose primary pastime is education. Two gentlemen are touring the area (in East Anglia) and as one is distantly related to one of the women, they visit. They are given various guided tours and hear the histories of several of the women who reside there and how they came to move to the community. There are educational pastimes, music, education for local children, work for those with disabilities, local industrial enterprises, charities and much more.

There is no challenge to society’s structures. There is help and work for the poor and underprivileged, but according to their station. There is education for all children, but the lower orders are directed to appropriate manual work. However there is an interesting approach to disability. Those who are disabled are educated and there is a rehabilitative element to the approach and it is emphasized that they should be treated with respect and care and if they are they will contribute to society. It is also remarkable in that it welcomes older age and deformity in women as positives and bringing benefits.

Running through the novel is an element of divine providence/retribution which is active in favour of the women in the history. A striking example is in the history of one of the women where a man about to commit an act of rape has a stroke and is dies. This illustrates the nature of the men in the novel. Most of them are unscrupulous, self-centred, sexually predatory and generally unpleasant. There are some notable exceptions, but they tend to be older, having learnt from life. There is a redemptive element and for the two men visiting the community it is mediated through the community itself.

This novel has been rediscovered in this century, but is still little known and read. Admittedly it is not an easy read being couched in the sort of language used in novels like Clarissa and there is an irritating piety present. But it is striking and quite revolutionary.

7 out of 10

Starting Two Women of London by Emma Tennant

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In Darkest London by Margaret Harkness

 

This summer I’m reading some of the “New Women” writers of the late nineteenth century. Margaret Harkness is an interesting one; she has no wiki entry for herself. She was the daughter of a clergyman who trained to be a nurse, but instead of going on to marry well as her family wished, she opted to remain single and go into journalism and writing. Initially she wrote about historical topics, but in the mid-1880s she became influenced by socialism and feminism and began to write about the state of those who were living in the slums. She also became very interested in the work of the Salvation Army, who were one of the few organisations living and working in the heart of the slums. She wrote articles and a number of novels on the subject. She also worked with other like-minded women such as Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl), Olive Schriener, Annie Besant, Amy Levy, Beatrice Potter (later Webb), Clementina Black and Olive Birrell; all mostly forgotten today. Harkness often wrote under the pseudonym John Law and some of her books on GR are still recorded as John Law.

At the time Harkness was writing her more radical novels feminism and socialism were quite closely linked in Britain as social equality and gender equality were seen as inextricable. Therefore categorising Harkness as one or the other is not helpful as Sally Ledger points out;

“If Harkness can be described as a socialist and a nonconformist, then she also has considerable credentials as a feminist novelist, not least in her portrayal of the seamstress, Nelly Ambrose, in A City Girl. The tensions between feminism and socialism in late Victorian Britain are unresolved in Harkness’s novels, and it is for this reason, I would claim, that she is celebrated neither as a full-bloodedly socialist nor a whole-heartedly feminist writer, her fiction refusing to conform unequivocally to either paradigm.”

Harkness’s later life is shrouded in some mystery; she travelled extensively from the 1890s onwards, going to Australia, India, the US, New Zealand, Sri Lanka amongst others. She continued to write, but her later works are even less known than her earlier works.

In Darkest London focuses on conditions in the East End slums and primarily on the work of the Salvation Army and their slum workers, who lived and worked in the same conditions as the residents. Consequently there is a good deal of religion of an evangelical flavour in the book as the thoughts and motives of Captain Lobe, the main male character are laid bare. Harkness doesn’t pull her punches though and there are plenty of death bed scenes and all beliefs examined are questioned, as here in an exchange between a Salvation Army slum worker and a working man she is talking to;

““You must give up your sins; then God will send you food,” was the reply.

The man shook his head, and said, “The Bible calls God a father, and no father could starve his son for sinning. He would give him food first, and speak about his sins afterwards.”

“Gold and silver have I none,” was the girl’s reply; “but what I have, that I give unto you.”

“Then, my lass, you can carry your preaching somewhere else. Don’t come here to talk of salvation to a man like me. I’m hungry.” “

The capitalist factory manager is suitably wicked and sexually predatory. The woman who looks after the factory girls, Jane Hardy is an interesting character, well nuanced, flawed, but ultimately strong. She argues for socialism, sees men as the enemy and will constantly ask where people stand on the woman question. She works only to keep her elderly mother from the workhouse. Her strength at the end of the novel is telling. The whole thig revolves around Ruth, who is an interesting character who appears to be acted upon, but a careful reading indicates otherwise.

This is a good novel which combines sharp social commentary and description of the slums and an examination of the validity of socialism and feminism. There is even a little romance. Harkness’s writing at times is fragmented and the telling of the conditions of the poor is the most important factor. There are also references to all sorts of other issues which are sharp and to the point. A nameless East End doctor who Harkness refers to as “The Modern Prometheus” (a Frankenstein reference) who cannot gives his patients the drugs they need because they are so weak and undernourished that they would be killed by them. The title is a direct reference to a book just published by Henry Stanley called In Darkest Africa; the point being, that horror can be found just down the road, look what we are doing to the poor. The novel is set exactly at the time of the Ripper murders and in exactly the same area. They are not mentioned, a deliberate decision I believe. There is horror enough in normal daily life. There are also expressions of the view that it is all the fault of the foreign influx from Eastern Europe, using terms that I suspect were taken straight from the streets; very prescient for today. Death is desired and suicide is often the remedy for despair. It’s grim at times, but Harkness infuses the whole with humanity and passion.

8 out of 10

Starting Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

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Sexual Anarchy: Gender and culture at the fin de siècle by Elaine Showalter

This is a really fascinating analysis of the ends of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, looking at culture of all types and varieties, written in 1991; the main focus is on the late nineteenth century. Showalter is wide-ranging and her analysis is thought provoking. The topics include what Showalter terms Odd Women, those who did not marry, partly due to population pressures in the late nineteenth century, partly choice and partly the inability men who were self-aware enough not to be threatened by modern women. There is a chapter on the New Women writers and the influence of Eliot, Darwin and socialism; with a separate chapter on Eliot’s inheritance. Another chapter covers the male action romance type novel as written by Haggard, Henley, Stephenson, Kipling and their ilk; not to forget an emerging author by the name of Conrad. A whole chapter is devoted to Jekyll and Hyde and the sexuality contained within and this moves across the century looking and film representations as well. A further chapter looks at female sexuality and the portrayal of the female body, followed by another chapter on Wilde’s Salome and the veiling of women. 1890s decadence and the relationship between homosexuality and feminism are covered and the book ends with an interesting comparison between AIDS and syphilis.

There is too much to cover in one review, so I will pick out a few things which struck me. It is easy to forget how significant syphilis was at the end of the nineteenth century; there was no cure and no effective treatments at that time and the language written about syphilis is reminiscent of the language used about AIDS, especially in terms of judgement and punishment.

The chapter on the New Women writers was an eye-opener and so was the fact that more than 60% of novels being written at that time were written by women. If you look at the novels still widely read they tend to be primarily by men. Many of the novelists who wrote about women’s issues were collectively referred to as New Women. Writers such as Ella Hepworth Dixon, Margaret Harkness, Annie Holdsworth, Isabella Ford, Netta Syrett, Mona Caird, Charlotte Mew, Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner to name a few. Many of these writers were following in the tradition of George Eliot or reacting to her influence. Her death in 1880 was a watershed. Showalter also includes a hilarious description of a 1980 academic anniversary conference to commemorate her death (the book is worth reading just for that). Some of these writers are now little read outside academic circles whereas their male contemporaries (Kipling, Conrad, Stephenson, Conan Doyle, Wells, Haggard and even Wilde) are at the top of many reading lists relating to this period. One does have to ask if this is because the male writers were so much better or if their message fitted better with the ruling zeitgeist.

Showalter’s analysis of some of the popular male writers is incisive and at times very funny. In late nineteenth century fiction there was valourisation of male creative generation and a denigration of female powers of creation and reproduction. The poet Gerald Manley Hopkins saying “the begetting of one’s thoughts on paper is a kind of male gift”, sums up a particular and widely held viewpoint. The powers of creation and procreation were imagined into a male preserve;

In numerous texts, male writers imagined fantastic plots involving alternative forms of male reproduction or self-replication: splitting or cloning as in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; reincarnation as in Rider Haggard’s She; transfusion as in Dracula; aesthetic duplication as in The Picture of Dorian Gray; or vivisection as in The Island of Dr Moreau”

This made me look at some well-known novels in a new way. This was writing for boys and often women were largely excluded to combat fears of “manly decline in the face of female power”. It’s also the first time I’ve heard Heart of Darkness described as a masculine quest romance. Showalter describes a quest romance as an “allegorized journey into the self”. One of the more interesting examples is Kipling’s The Man who would be King, made into a film starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery. More interesting because it is also a satire on political and literary power. Then, of course, there is Heart of Darkness. Showalter argues that Heart of Darkness is not only an attempt at an expose of imperialism (not to mention racism), but also an allegory of male bonding and a flight from women. Marlow says, “It’s queer how out of touch with the truth women are. They live in a world of their own.” Showalter points out it is easy to see Marlow as Kurtz’s double. Orson Welles had planned to film the book in the late 1930s and he had intended to play both Kurtz and Marlow (might have made an interesting film). Showalter also provides an analysis of Apocalypse Now.

There is a fascinating analysis of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (which Showalter refers to as Gay Gothic) which is really about a personality that splits and of course about the repression of homosexual desire and the inevitable conclusion that it is better to die than let it loose. Not an unusual thought process. Remember what A E Housman said in the poem A Shropshire Lad;

“Shot? So quick, so clean an ending?

Oh that was right, lad, that was brave:

Yours was not an ill for mending,

‘Twas best to take it to the grave”

This was in contrast to the attitudes of the decadents of the 1890s (Wilde etc)

There really is a great deal in this book, especially if you are a fan of this period of history. What I appreciated most was the introduction to many writers I had not known before.   

9 out of 10

Starting Phoenix Fled by Attia Hosain                                                                                                                    

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Revolving Lights by Dorothy Richardson

 

This is the seventh instalment of Pilgrimage and I’m getting used to having Miriam around. Miriam continues to spend time with Michael Shatov and his friends and continues to ponder the ideas and philosophies she meets and attends a socialist meeting. There is a description of a house party she attends and the figure of Hypo Wilson is prominent. He is, of course based on H G Wells, with whom Richardson had an affair. The interplay between the two is fascinating and it is interesting to compare her relationships with Shatov and Wilson.

Again the city of London is central to this instalment; its public spaces and its lodging houses. The variety of experience on offer in a big city and the cultural breadth available are notable in this novel. This also ties in with my reading about the fin de siècle and the changes in the status of women. Miriam is single. This was the time when the Victorian idea that the appropriate space for women being the private domestic sphere was being eroded and women were moving into universities, the professions, demanding the vote and legal equality. Miriam is positioned as being part of this in her own small way. As her romantic attachment to Michael Shatov ends Miriam’s thoughts are quite telling;

“to-night the spirit of London came to meet her on the verge. Nothing in life could be sweeter than this welcoming […]. What lover did she want? No one in the world would oust this mighty lover, always receiving her back without words, engulfing and leaving her untouched, liberated and expanding to the whole range of her being”

Her real lover is the city of London itself; it represents her freedom and her individuality. The cosmopolitanism of London encompasses the foreign and the other in an unrestrictive way. Also the city provides a space for women like Miriam to live and function; it gives Miriam agency in a way the men in her life (though well meaning) do not;

“her untouched self here, free, unseen, and strong, the strong world of London all round her, strong free untouched people, in a dark lit wilderness, happy and miserable in their own way, going about the streets looking at nothing, thinking about no special person or thing, as long as they were there, being in London”

Miriam has been in London a few years now and it is her backdrop. Richardson’s writing when describing the cityscape is of the highest quality;

“Oxford Street opened ahead, right and left, a wide empty yellow-lit corridor of large shuttered shop-fronts. It stared indifferently at her outlined fate ... Oxford Street, unless she were sailing through it perched in sunlight on the top of an omnibus lumbering steadily towards the graven stone of the City, always wrought destruction ... Stay here, suggested Bond Street”

I enjoyed this particular outing in Pilgrimage and look forward to the rest.

9 out of 10

Starting The Trap by Dorothy Richardson (eighth novel in the series)

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Two Women of London by Emma Tennant

 

This is a late 1980s take of Stephenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, set in the Ladbroke Grove area of London. Emma Tennant gives it a feminist twist. The novella is not set out in a conventional way, having a narrators who use a variety of sources; journals, accounts from a variety of sources, interviews etc. Tennant is known as an author whose work has a post-modern edge. She is a member of the Glenconner family (Stephen Tennant was her uncle) who have long added a bohemian streak to the British establishment. Tennant has also written a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, a novel about Adele, the daughter of Mr Rochester (Jane Eyre) and Faustine, a feminist retelling of Faust, which sounds intriguing.

The tale of Jekyll and Hyde is well known and one of the most filmed novels. The double life/double psyche idea is very well used here with Ms Eliza Jekyll and Mrs Hyde. Ms Jekyll is an art dealer who is beautiful and fashionable, attracting sophisticated men. Mrs Hyde appears older, shapeless, a single mother, abandoned by her husband and damaged by prescription drugs. Of course they are the same person. Tennant says of the novel:

“the frequently intolerable pressures for one woman today—single parenthood, need to compete in the marketplace, a Manichean split between ambition and ‘caring’—can lead to disintegration and murder”

The news of the day is intertwined in the novel and the Notting Hill Rapist is in the background. Mrs Hyde becomes an avenger murdering a man who appears to be the rapist. Tennant handles the material in a clever way. When Eliza Jekyll hires a cleaner her name is Grace Poole (Bertha Mason’s keeper in Jane Eyre).

Tennant examines the nature of female anger and violence and I’m going to quote her comments again because they are apposite:

“Of course every single woman has had those very violent feelings, just like every man. It’s just odd to think that where we are today, what’s going on – I’m amazed that so many women seem to have given up on any form of expression of those violent feelings. The anger has been siphoned out into consumerism – it’s a cliché, but that’s what happened. Women today who are told they must be like dolls – what can they be making of it? What do they think as they slide down the lap-dancing pole? ‘I am a very angry woman’…? Maybe this is just one’s generation. But to me the point of everything is to get those feelings out and make something of them, not to conceal their existence or to allow what will happen if you leave them bottled up. Perhaps some new form of fiction could deal with this.”

The entire cast is female and the mix of different character types works well. Mrs Hyde is a victim whose deed is an act of self-defence and an act which is an attempt to free from the oppression which surrounds all women.

This is a good retelling of Stephenson’s original story from an interesting perspective and it is thought provoking. I really don’t understand why it isn’t better known and the retelling of Faust looks interesting as well.

8 out of 10

Starting A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

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Nina Hamnett; Queen of Bohemia by Denise Hooker

 

This is the only biography of Nina Hamnett. I feel like I know her quite well now having read her autobiography earlier this year and come across her in various compilations and analyses of the time. Hamnett is first and foremost a Welsh artist; well respected, but her art didn’t make her rich. However the list of people she worked with, was friends with and drank with is very impressive.

Hamnett’s childhood was dominated by a brutal father who was infuriated by his daughter’s headstrongness and independence of thought. She was a free spirit and lived life to the full. A closer examination might reveal reveals that her art was an escape from the difficulties of her childhood. She attended art schools in London and split her time between London and Paris moving in Bohemian circles.

Her friends and mentors included Gaudier-Brzeska, Modigliani, Sickert, Roger Fry, Augustus John, Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky, Picasso, Diaghilev, Vanessa Beel, Dylan Thomas, Aleister Crowley, the Sitwells, Raymond Radiguet, Lytton Strachey to name only a few. She was promiscuous with both sexes and eccentric in habits and dress;

“I wore in the daytime a clergyman’s hat, a check coat, and a skirt with red facings … white stockings and men’s dancing pumps and was stared at in the Tottenham Court Road. One had to do something to celebrate one’s freedom and escape from home”

Marriage was generally a disaster and Hamnett spent most of her life living alone, or more exactly tied to no one. Her approach to sex was straightforward as she told a friend;

“Can’t see anything in it myself ….. But they seem to like it so I let them get on with it”

She wasn’t a romantic and said in relation to one particular suitor;

“(so and so) said the other day, “You love me with your body, I wish I could think that you loved me with your soul” … What the hell do you think he meant?”

Hamnett did have more of an extended affair with Roger Fry and she worked on and off for a number of years on projects at the Omega workshop, putting her at the heart of Bloomsbury.

She was fascinated by life and took her work very seriously; “‘My ambition is to paint psychological portraits that shall represent accurately the spirit of the age’”

Her ability to live life to the full and more particularly to drink life to the full did affect her work and in the last thirty years of her life there was a tension between creativity and alcohol. Hamnett was a pragmatist knowing that the alcohol sometimes drove her on and fueled her creativity and sometimes held her back. As she grew older it held her back more and more.

The fund of stories about Hamnett is endless; many are amusing, like her propensity to sing sea shanties of a rather rude nature at the drop of a hat. More poignant and telling is a comment about her promiscuity and in particular her liking for sailors in her bed. When asked why she responded “they go away”.

Her time in Paris in the twenties brought her into contact with people like Djuna Barnes, Stein, Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford and others. She was taken to tea with Rudolf Valentino. She didn’t really know who he was as she did not often go to the cinema and wasn’t star struck. She entertained the company with some of her racier sea shanties and got on very well with Valentino. Hamnett was also friends with James Joyce; who referred to her as one of the few vital women her had ever known (That I think is rather an indictment of Joyce and a rather trite dismissal of half the human race). Soon after meeting Valentino she bumped into him again at a social function. Joyce was also there; Nina had the bright idea of introducing them, even though they had nothing in common and she thoroughly enjoyed the social awkwardness that followed.

The tale of her last years is heart-rending and sad and her reputation as a bon vivant has obscured her artistic talent. She sent much of her last years in the pubs and bars of Soho and Fitzrovia, especially the Fitzroy tavern.

I enjoyed my time spent with Hamnett, but I’m not sure I could have kept up with her indefatigable energy, not to mention her drinking. Hooker’s biography is good and there are plenty of reproductions of Hamnett’s art too. This review does feel rather disjointed and chaotic and this is probably a reflection of Nina Hamnett’s busy life.

8 out of 10

Starting Charlotte Mew: Collected Poems and selected prose

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Clarise Cumberbatch Want to go Home by Joan Cambridge

This is another book found through Daughters of Africa by Margaret Busby.

It is the story of Clarise Cumberbatch. Her husband of thirteen years, Harold, has abandoned her for another woman, leaving her with the children in Guyana and moving to America. Clarise saves money and after three years goes to America to look for him; staying with her longsuffering friend Mavis. The themes are universal; the strangeness of a foreign land, a longing for home, loneliness (even among friends), relationships, the nature of men, living under the radar (Clarise has no green card and is therefore trying to work illegally) and  not realising what you have until it’s no longer there.

The novel is written in Guyanese dialect, which can take a little time to read easily, but it does with a little concentration. Clarise is a wonderful character both comic (and there is a strong comedic strain in the book) and poignant. Clarise realises over the year she is in America that she misses her homeland, that she actually doesn’t need Harold (although that takes some time) and she can thrive in Guyana. It would have been easy to make Clarise into a victim but Cambridge gives her space to grow develop and learn. The men in the novel are rather a dodgy lot and even the kinder ones have a distinctly creepy edge.  There is a good twist close to the end in relation to Mavis and the last two chapters are quite dramatic.

Clarise struggles to make herself understood in New York and its foreignness to her comes across very well, as does the sense of culture shock; new food, social conventions, new experiences (the subway for example). Clarise learns self-reliance and the reader ends up believing Clarise will be better off supporting herself and what seems like defeat at the end is really triumph.

Tracking down information about the author Joan Cambridge isn’t easy and this appeared to be her only novel. She was married to Julian Mayfield writer, academic, actor and civil rights activist. They met when Mayfield spent time in Guyana (c1971) and worked as an advisor to Forbes Burnham. In 1974 they moved to the United States where Winfield died in 1984. There is mention of them writing together and working on a novel. Mayfield has a couple of novels published, so it is possible Cambridge may have had some hand in them. A bit of persistence led me to a letter in a Guyanese newspaper about Maya Angelou (whom Cambridge knew through her husband) in 2014 at her death. I’m reproducing the letter as it is fascinating;

 

 

Dear Editor,

What more is there to say about that ‘phenomenal woman,’ our sister Maya Angelou… just transitioned to join the ancestors? As the world bids farewell to this exceptional icon of our time with kudos flowing from fans everywhere, I am remembering her in a few very personal ways.

There’s that time I returned to the USA after a long time away; Maya Angelou was not gentle about rapping me over the knuckles demanding –

“Where have you been all this time? Since Julian’s death no one heard from you.”

Julian Mayfield was Maya’s dear friend and my husband. I can still see her now as she stood almost 30 years ago, on the Howard University Andrew Rankin Chapel pulpit delivering the eulogy at his funeral service. Maya Angelou’s tears flowed as she stressed over and over again

– “He was my Brother, he was my Very Brother!”

Here was a woman grieving for a compassionate friend, a buddy; a man who respected her womanhood. I recall, even when there was a brief falling out between them over a story Julian Mayfield wrote in the anthology Ten Times Black that fictionalized a real life romantic episode Maya felt clearly identified her as the protagonist, there were no serious daggers drawn; the rift quickly repaired.

I tried to explain my reason for “escaping” a scholar’s desk at the Library of Congress to make my way to the source of all those captivating accounts of Marches of El Dorado; expeditions through Guyana’s Rainforest, the least spoilt of the two pristine tropical forests left on Planet Earth.   That move meant losing touch with Maya and most of Julian Mayfield’s and my own friends. There were no mailboxes anywhere closer than twenty miles from Yukuriba Falls and in those times, the Internet was definitely not an option.

“…but I wrote you, Maya…have letters in a file I call ‘Letters That Never Got Sent’…I plan to… ”

“We all have those,” Maya Angelou snapped. She was scolding, a teacher accustomed to instilling her vision, instructing the way forward; she had no patience with drop-outs. I bristled a little and we lost touch again.

The night before his funeral, Maya Angelou had sat in a rocking chair in our apartment in Maryland, I on the floor beside her. That was when she asked me to turn over Julian’s papers to her Wake Forest University for a generous financial offer. I declined. “You work for a white university Maya, what would become of Julian’s papers if you were to drop dead?” I’ve always regretted putting it so bluntly (don’t believe Maya ever forgave me either), but never have I regretted my decision to choose the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library; especially since The Schomburg assured me that at one point The Julian Mayfield Papers were the most widely read among their collections.

My choice of Schomburg was influenced by a vision of widespread dissemination of information and education about that epoch in which Maya Angelou with Julian Mayfield and their African American brothers and sisters played a significant role; those historic years in Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana when they rallied behind the African leader’s policy of nonalignment and his vision for the unification of Africa. Maya Angelou wrote for The African Review; Tom Feelings, the late great African American artist, was illustrator and Julian Mayfield, Editor.

My personal memory of Maya that’s full of regret, is of the time just before his death when she called her friend to invite us to her home in Winston Salem, North Carolina. She wanted Julian to hear her read from her just completed manuscript. I should’ve been there with him, but, consumed with my work on the novel: Clarise Cumberbatch Want to Go Home, chose not to go. Julian returned home enthusing about meeting Dizzy Gillespie at a thoroughly enjoyable breakfast gathering in Maya’s kitchen. I had missed an invaluable opportunity to share with the gifted and prolific writer Maya Angelou, the first flush of her joy in completing the manuscript of her book: Heart of a Woman, as well as the chance to meet a phenomenal musician.

Another fond remembrance of Maya Angelou is of being with Julian Mayfield, a guest at a dinner party she hosted. Maya was married to Paul de Feu, and (it seemed to me) very much in love. They were living in San Francisco. Her other guests at the party were the political activist Angela Davis, Nobel Prize Author, Toni Morrison, at that time an Editor at Random House, and the late Jessica Mitford, author of The American Way of Death. Without a doubt, I was too much in awe to be anything more than speechless.

Apart from those two occasions – Julian Mayfield’s demise, and at that dinner party in San Francisco – I’ve never met Maya Angelou in person, but have kept up with her illustrious career the best way I could from here in Guyana. All our interaction beside has been by telephone; most recently (less than a year ago), to suggest she write a Foreword to the unpublished: Tales of the Lido, a manuscript in the Schomburg’s Mayfield collection.

The Lido, as it was described to me, was a club, a Ghanaian watering hole where African Americans mingled with other members of the international community in that momentous epoch of African history. WEB Du Bois was there; so was Malcolm X on a mission to establish the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and a guest in the Mayfield home when Julian was married to Dr Ana Livia Cordero. Herman Bailey, Alice Windom, the Doctors Calvin and Eleanor Sinnette, Leslie Lacey, Jim Lacey and Curtis Morrow were there also, and Dr John Hendrik Clarke passed through. These are some of the names that peopled the stories I recall, stories that Julian Mayfield loved to tell of that euphoric time when, according to Jim Lacey, “We could not wait to get up in the morning.”

And Maya Angelou was with them all.

This from an email I sent her before we spoke on the phone:

“… I recall Julian describing times you shared with the rest of the African American community that surged to Ghana to energize Kwame Nkrumah’s thrust to unify the continent… the bouquet of those heady times of The Lido and Ghana/Africa still lingers in my imagination.   A foreword… introduction (or whatever you choose to name it) in your inimitable voice, made even more effective by its empirical tone…would be an exquisite distillation. This is my personal conception of your contribution to this publication of Tales of the Lido.”

I believe Maya Angelou has written the Foreword to Tales of the Lido because she promised me she’d write it, declaring emphatically –

“…I will do it for Julian!”

Maya’s assistant Mrs Bettie Clay will know…perhaps Raphael Mayfield, Julian’s elder son, with the co-operation of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, will ensure that Tales of the Lido is published. It ought to be; it represents a slice of the colourful life that was Maya Angelou’s.

Maya Angelou! I see her now united again with her “very brother” Julian Mayfield; joining her own in unison with his and other significant ancestral voices addressing the condition of our people throughout Global Africa/Guyana still fighting for freedom, justice and basic survival on these endless plantations – then on to now; voices with “too much to claim” that will not be stilled.

Yours faithfully,
Joan Cambridge-Mayfield
aka Bassidy Dolly D Guyana

Rainforest Bag-Lady

 

This is a good and intelligent novel full of compassion and great humour.

9 out of 10

Starting Meat Market by Laurie Penny

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Rainsplitter in the Zodiac Garden by Penelope Shuttle

 

This novel fits firmly within the definition of the experimental novel. Shuttle is a poet primarily, but wrote several novels in the 1970s (this is the third of them). The primary character is Faustina and most of the novel takes place during her pregnancy. Also prominent is her husband Micah. The imagery used is unusual and often difficult to follow; much of it is rooted in nature and the natural world. Faustina sees herself as many different women throughout history. The timescale is past, present and future; often simultaneously. There is often a sense of dislocation about the landscape and settings. Faustina steps in and out of the fetters placed on her by marriage and her relationships and conflicts with Micah play an important role. Shuttle herself says that the story tells of a quest for a hera (not hero) escaping from stereotypical female roles to the underlying individuality.

Victoria Glenndinning in her review says that the novel is “an invitation to trace the mythology of a mind that has left the scheduled tracks and timetables”. The dreamlike nature of Shuttle’s prose has been compared to Anna Kavan.

To give a flavour of the nature of the prose;

 

“I ate the wheat of the dead. I had one fear, small shaped like a fir-cone, hard as a stone. I folded my hands around my fear once a day, usually in the half light of the winter afternoons, its coldness flowing into my imitational flesh: and I heard the fear speaking, calling to me, hagseed, hagseed ….. But I never answered. I am afraid of becoming his executioner.”

“There are trip-wires stretched across every day. I walked through a series of identical and aged rooms in a footfall house, a permanent retirement from the sea, my true skin’s temperature just above zero.”

There are images and metaphors that are thrown at the reader on every page; it’s a remarkable piece of work, not easy to find and not easy to read; but fans of experimental novels should feel very much at home with it.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting Shadow Box by Antonia Logue

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The Trap by Dorothy Richardson

 

This is the eighth novel in the Pilgrimage series and when I start the ninth I will move onto final volume in the virago four volume edition. Miriam by now is in her late 20s and she moves into an apartment which she shares with a Miss Holland. The title refers to the fact that this is not a successful move on Miriam’s part. She doesn’t get on with Miss Holland and the tenants downstairs are noisy. The Taylors, Michael Shatov and Dr Densley are all still around and Dr Densley appears to have hopes in relation to Miriam. Miriam also attends meetings of the Lycurgans. The Lycurgans are Richardson’s portrayal of the Fabian Society, a group which promoted socialist ideas.

The tensions within this section are really about Miriam realising that she is not really adapted to living with others; her attempt at a shared life with Miss Holland is a disaster. The end of the novel where Miriam says to herself “Away, Away” is an indicative of a change to come. The question at this point is what sort of a shift is to come. Will Miriam leave London or will it be a change of consciousness. We know at this point that Miriam is looking for a type of friendship; this is to find a female type of the male friendship outlined by Montaigne and Aristotle.

Miriam reads James’s The Ambassadors and announces that James had “achieved the first completely satisfying way of writing a novel”. She becomes obsessed with the novel for a time. Although Richardson was a fan of James, she denied any stylistic link. I felt this was very much a preparatory and intermediate novel. Miriam is testing out various things; eliminating what she doesn’t want to find what she does want.

8 out of 10

Starting the ninth novel Oberland

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Meat Market; Female Flesh under Capitalism  by Laurie Penny

 

This is a sharp, tightly written and polemical book on feminism and modern capitalism’s effect on female bodies, which approaches the issues raised with feminist thought from a perspective which reflects writers like Shulamith Firestone. Penny is concerned with capitalist patriarchy and addresses debates within feminism.

A personal note is needed here. I was brought up within a fundamentalist Christion context with very traditional ideas about gender roles. Men went out to work, women looked after the house and children. One significant theological aspect of my background had a lasting effect and that was the doctrine of original sin. Whilst this doctrine is rather negative and guilt inducing, there is an interesting aspect. With original sin everyone is absolutely equal in terms of sin. There is no gradation for race, gender, colour, class or creed. We are all the same. Once I lost the religious aspect and decided I was not religious, I still had the sense that all people were equal. I started addressing these ideas seriously when I was at university. I didn’t start by reading The Second Sex or The Female Eunuch. My way in was Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. Age and life experience have had their effect, but I still fundamentally accept the ideas Penny articulates in this text.

There are chapters on eating disorders, transgender, sexuality (including pornography and sex workers), and work within capitalism (including domestic work). Penny does not shy away from debates and disagreements within feminism and her stance is firmly within the left of politics seeing patriarchy and capitalism as being firmly intertwined. This is brief so there are inevitably areas not covered, but that is not the point, the arguments are set out clearly and are a good starting point for more detailed reading. The analysis is impressive and the synthesis of Marxist and feminist analysis is convincing. The Red Pepper review emphasizes the importance of the   arguments about body image and the sections about body image and eating disorders are very strong. This isn’t just a theoretical wander around the subject, it is a call to action as well. This is well worth reading and is guaranteed to make you think.

9 out of 10

Starting The Alice B Toklas Cookbook

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The Collected poems and selected prose of Charlotte Mew

I don’t read enough poetry, so every now and then I try to make amends. I’ve been reading a good deal from the late nineteenth century up to the 1930s recently. Charlotte Mew is a much neglected poet who spans the late Victorian and Modernist periods who attracted praise from people such as Woolf, Hardy and Sassoon.

I intend to read Penelope Fitzgerald’s autobiography of her in the near future and her life is rather sad. The poems reflect many of her struggles; her struggles with faith and religion, with mental health, alienation, those outcast from society and especially with death. There was a history of mental illness in Mew’s family and two of her siblings (a brother and a sister) were schizophrenic; an illness known at the time as dementia praecox. Mew and her sister Alice decided not to marry because of the history of mental illness in the family. They lived together until Alice’s death of cancer in 1927. Following her death Mew sank into depression and took her own life the next year.

Mew had always been concerned that her own mental health may be fragile as she illustrates in this stanza where the speaker in the poem answer the doorbell only to find no one there;

Tonight I heard a bell again –
Outside it was the same mist of fine rain,
The lamps just lighted down the long, dim street,
No one for me –
I think it is myself I go to meet
.

 

The poem On the Asylum Road follows the theme from a different angle and also shows Mew’s claim to be a nature poet in the tradition of Clare;

 

Theirs is the house whose windows—every pane—

   Are made of darkly stained or clouded glass:

Sometimes you come upon them in the lane,

   The saddest crowd that you will ever pass.

 

But still we merry town or village folk

   Throw to their scattered stare a kindly grin,

And think no shame to stop and crack a joke

   With the incarnate wages of man’s sin.

 

None but ourselves in our long gallery we meet,

   The moor-hen stepping from her reeds with dainty feet,

      The hare-bell bowing on his stem,

Dance not with us; their pulses beat

   To fainter music; nor do we to them

            Make their life sweet.

 

The gayest crowd that they will ever pass

   Are we to brother-shadows in the lane:

Our windows, too, are clouded glass

   To them, yes, every pane!

 

Mew is something of an enigma; she was first published in the 1890s when she had a short story published in the first yellow book; her poems came along twenty years later. She fell in love over the years with two women, Ella D’Arcy and May Sinclair, with no reciprocation. There is evidence of inner turmoil on many issues and Mew expresses her feelings brilliantly in her poetry. She often takes on a male voice as she does In Nunhead Cemetery, where she also ponders death and madness, considering the processes of a split mind;

 

It is the clay what makes the earth stick to his spade;
He fills in holes like this year after year;
The others have gone; they were tired, and half afraid
But I would rather be standing here;

There is nowhere else to go. I have seen this place
From the windows of the train that's going past
Against the sky. This is rain on my face -
It was raining here when I saw it last.

There is something horrible about a flower;
This, broken in my hand, is one of those
He threw it in just now; it will not live another hour;
There are thousands more; you do not miss a rose.

One of the children hanging about
Pointed at the whole dreadful heap and smiled
This morning after THAT was carried out;
There is something terrible about a child.

We were like children last week, in the Strand;
That was the day you laughed at me
Because I tried to make you understand
The cheap, stale chap I used to be
Before I saw the things you made me see.

This is not a real place; perhaps by-and-by
I shall wake - I am getting drenched with all this rain:
To-morrow I will tell you about the eyes of the Chrystal Palace train
Looking down on us, and you will laugh and I shall see what you see again.

Not here, not now. We said "Not yet
Across our low stone parapet
Will the quick shadows of the sparrows fall.

But still it was a lovely thing
Through the grey months to wait for Spring
With the birds that go a-gypsying
In the parks till the blue seas call.
And next to these, you used to care
For the Lions in Trafalgar Square,
Who'll stand and speak for London when her bell of Judgement tolls -
And the gulls at Westminster that were
The old sea-captains souls.
To-day again the brown tide splashes step by step, the river stair,

And the gulls are there!

By a month we have missed our Day:
The children would have hung about
Round the carriage and over the way
As you and I came out.

We should have stood on the gulls' black cliffs and heard the sea
And seen the moon's white track,
I would have called, you would have come to me
And kissed me back.

You have never done that: I do not know
Why I stood staring at your bed
And heard you, though you spoke so low,
But could not reach your hands, your little head;
There was nothing we could not do, you said,
And you went, and I let you go!

Now I will burn you back, I will burn you through,
Though I am damned for it we two will lie
And burn, here where the starlings fly
To these white stones from the wet sky - ;
Dear, you will say this is not I -
It would not be you, it would not be you!

If for only a little while
You will think of it you will understand,
If you will touch my sleeve and smile
As you did that morning in the Strand
I can wait quietly with you
Or go away if you want me to -
God! What is God? but your face has gone and your hand!
Let me stay here too.

When I was quite a little lad
At Christmas time we went half mad
For joy of all the toys we had,
And then we used to sing about the sheep
The shepherds watched by night;
We used to pray to Christ to keep
Our small souls safe till morning light - ;
I am scared, I am staying with you to-night -
Put me to sleep.

I shall stay here: here you can see the sky;
The houses in the street are much too high;
There is no one left to speak to there;
Here they are everywhere,
And just above them fields and fields of roses lie -
If he would dig it all up again they would not die.

 

The poetry is striking and Mew herself is intriguing; she dressed as a dandy in male clothing and was most likely a lesbian, but her inner turmoil is writ large in her writings. The prose in this collection has a gothic edge, a story of two sisters living together during the Napoleonic Wars and a short play about the tensions between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law with a sharp twist at the end which is most surprising.

Charlotte Mew doesn’t deserve to be neglected; give her a try

9 out of 10

Starting Family Skeletons by Henrietta Garnett

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Phoenix Fled by Attia Hosain

This is a good set of short stories which often focus on the mundane and the day to day. They also examine the tensions brought to bear by Partition. There are other recurring themes; the struggle between tradition and modernity, the role of women in the household.

Attia Hosain was born in Lucknow and was well educated; she moved to Britain in 1947 and worked as a writer and broadcaster. She is better known for her novel, Sunlight on a Broken Column. The title story relates to an old Muslim woman who will not leave her village when her family flees during Partition. Her confused mind makes her think back to the Mutiny of 1857. Two other stories (Time is Unredeemable and The First Party) examine how modernity affects Muslim women when their menfolk become more westernised. Many of the   stories combine   tragedy with stoicism. The problem of westernisation is addressed in Anita Desai’s perceptive introduction;

“”Westernisation” is seen as destructive of the old, traditional culture. The latter may be full of cruelties and injustices, but it is a pattern of life known and understood, therefor more acceptable and more fitting than an alien culture that has been neither fully understood, nor assimilated. Attia Hosain’s work is by no means an unreserved paean of praise for the old culture but is certainly full of an inherited, instinctive love for it.”

The stories are well written and structured, unsentimental with a few sharp twists and it’s well worth looking out for the virago edition.

8 out of 10

Starting Harriet Hume by Rebecca West

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The Alice B Toklas Cookbook by Alice B Toklas

 

Yes this really is primarily a cookbook with some reminiscences thrown in. It was written after her partner, Gertrude Stein’s, death. Food was clearly very important in their lives and it is written with great passion. Contributory to that may be that Toklas had jaundice when she wrote it and was on a strict diet. Most of the recipes are French because that I where Toklas and Stein spent most of their time. But there are some thrown in from the US and a sprinkling from most other European countries and a few from further afield. Toklas collected recipes all her life and this was her passion.

The arrangement of the recipes is idiosyncratic to say the least, with the order being more of when they were tried and cooked as Toklas takes the reader through the years. There are lots of asides about the various people they knew and places they visited; bit of a restaurant tour of France in the first forty years of the twentieth century. The tone can be waspish and rather dismissive and French cuisine is always the benchmark;

“The French never add Tabasco, ketchup or Worcestershire sauce, nor do they eat any of the innumerable kinds of pickles, nor do they accompany a meat course with radishes, olives or salted nuts”

The recipes are often complex and time consuming requiring oceans of cream and acres of butter. There is a recipe for a leg of lamb which requires the cook to inject the meat with orange juice twice a day for a week whilst it is being marinaded. It seems that most things that moved were eaten. There is even a recipe for Larks which begins, “Place 2 dozen plucked larks in an oven with 6 rashers of Parma smoked ham …”! Of course, the most famous recipe in the book is in the chapter which is recipes contributed by friends; Hashish Fudge, with the recommendation that two pieces are enough and a batch will cause great hilarity at any party. Incidentally, the fudge (more accurately a brownie), has its own facebook page!

The chapter on servants illustrates why the cooking could be so extravagant, as for most of their time together Stein and Toklas employed a cook/housekeeper. There are interesting recollections throughout the book of their friends (famous and less famous). The chapter on the Nazi occupation is interesting. Being both Jewish and lesbian, Stein and Toklas cannot have been very comfortable in Nazi occupied France.

It is an interesting read; the range of recipes is broad. There are plenty of vegetable recipes and a wide range of puddings, some good wit and a fascinating account of Toklas’s life with Stein. It won’t be to everyone’s taste and for me parts of it grated (maintaining the culinary theme), but it’s great fun as well.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting Fifty Shades of Feminism edited by Susie Orbach, Rachel Holmes and Lisa Appignanesi

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Oberland by Dorothy Richardson

 

This ninth outing of Richardson’s Pilgrimage series is an oddity; a description of a two week holiday Miriam has in Switzerland, in the Alps. It has been titled a “modernist travel narrative”, so if you ever wondered what one of those looks like; here’s your chance.

Viewed as a travelogue, the reader gets a sense of the wonder of new places and new people. This is less about Miriam’s interior life and more about experience of a new place. At the time critics felt that Oberland felt like an interlude and a change in direction, a light interlude, especially as the descriptions of the scenery and snow gives the whole a very “light” feel. The concept of an interlude means there is a before and after. The after involves Hypo Wilson, with whom Miriam is considering whether to have an affair. The holiday is based on a couple of trips Richardson made to Switzerland herself in the early 1900s and it was about this time that this sort of holiday ceased to be the preserve of the very rich and became more accessible to the middles classes and the adventurous.

The holiday is something of a rest cure for Miriam. It was written in 1926 and at that time there was something of a vogue for literature in mountain resorts/ sanatoria. The Magic Mountain was published in 1924 and the climax of Women in Love (Richardson met Lawrence about this time) was set in a mountain resort. In terms of characterisation Richardson sets up, there are the typical English stereotypes who interact with continental stereotypes with Miriam in the middle. The interactions are interesting and Miriam is as perceptive as ever. There are some set piece winter sports events. The whole setting up of Oberland reminded me a little of the way Proust uses the French seaside resorts in his novels.

An interesting interlude which could stand alone as a satire on the English abroad.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Dawn's Left Hand by Dorothy Richardson.

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Woolf woolf, I think Oberland can be read as a stand alone. Reading the previous novels helps as one has watched the development of the Miriam character. However she is the only character from the previous novels, all the others are new.

 

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

 

This is a debut novel set against the Bangladesh War of Independence; it’s not a historical novel, but the story is told through the medium of one family and those in their immediate circle. The plot has a personal inspiration and is the story of Rehana Haque. She is a single mother; her children are in their late teens and are part of the struggle for independence.

There is the brutality of war, mostly at a distance, sometimes present and political events intrude; but there is a continuum of family life, food, neighbours, love and loss. Sadly, I don’t know enough about the historical events to comment on the historical accuracy, but Anam tells an engaging story. Whilst there is warmth and empathy for those struggling for independence, the characterisation is very polarised and the Pakistan based characters tend to be generally evil. The violence and atrocities are there, but they are not overdone, nor too vividly drawn.

The novel is well written and easy to read; the main strength is the family drama and there is a good bit of tension as well. I enjoyed it and it covered an area that I know too little about.

7 out of 10

Starting The Ice-Shirt by William T Vollmann

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A Rebel's Guide to Rosa Luxemburg by Sally Campbell

If you consider the classical theorists of Marxism you will find they are almost all men; Marx, Engels, Lenin, Plekhanov, Bakunin and so on. There is a single significant female voice; that of Rosa Luxemburg. She was a Polish Jew who played a central part in the revolutionary left in Germany in the early twentieth century.

This is a straightforward and brief account of her life and thought; a taster really. It outlines the main fracture lines in Marxist theory and where Luxemburg placed herself. The author isn’t unbiased, but it is a good account of Luxemburg’s thought placed in the historical context which makes it more easily understandable.

Luxemburg was a polemicist and apparently a very fine orator; not afraid to challenge anyone (including Lenin at one point). She provided an analysis of the relationship between capitalism and imperialism, nationalism and had strong views on how change should come about. She argued for the importance of the mass strike; for those in the UK, she wouldn’t have been a Corbyn fan as she did not believe the left should compromise with social democracy.

During the First World War she tried to organise strikes against the war in Germany and as a result spent most of the war in jail. She died just after the war during an attempted revolution in Berlin.  

This is a good starting point for anyone interested in Luxemburg’s thought.

7 out of 10

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Fifty Shades of Feminism edited by Susie Orbach, Rachel Holmes and Lisa Appignanesi

This is an interesting collection of brief vignettes by fifty women commissioned in the wake of the fuss over Fifty Shades of Grey. They examine in very different ways the state of feminism and the progress of justice and equality. Inevitably there are gaps; as the editors say, they could have come up with a list of five hundred, never mind fifty. As it originates from Britain (published by virago) there is a something of a bias towards British writers; but there are writers from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. I think that most people will think of ways the list could be broadened or improved. That is a minor point though. The books shows that feminism is a broad church and some of the articles are brilliant. There is humour, tragedy and some perceptive reflections on the current state of things.

Tahmima Anam kicks things off with; "Things Your Mama Never Told You (for fear you would demand a sex change)", explaining that however difficult things are for western women, there are those who are worse off. Naomi Alderman, a novelist and computer game designer, concludes that she finds more sexism in the literary world than in the gaming world. Laurie Penny’s poetic offering is brilliant. Juliet Stevenson and Meera Syal make some perceptive comments about women in film and theatre. Jeanette Winterson’s analysis of porn is all the more scary because of the way she includes adverts and language found on the net in her arguments. Xinran examines five Chinese characters and how they impact on the way women are treated in Chinese culture (this is one of the best essays in the book). There is a heartfelt and well-reasoned statement by the members of Pussy Riot at the very end of the book. Barrister Martha Spurrier talks with great feeling about her work with rape and abuse victims; juxtaposing it with her first day as a lawyer and an awful joke told in a lift.

All of the contributions are worth reading and sometimes, because of their brevity there can be a sense of frustration that arguments are not developed, but that is a small caveat and it is easy to dip in and out of it as a result.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Great Friends by David Garnett

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