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That is definitely one to be avoided Hayley

Burley Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker

This is an epistolary novel of sorts. It is set in Yorkshire in a village near Ilkley, up in the moors. The local post box has been broken into and some letters stolen. The book starts with a local police sergeant writing to a local police constable, enclosing the letters, 26 of them and asking him to investigate. The book then consists of the letters themselves, some of them quite long. It ends with a couple of other letters which give alternate explanations of the whole thing. It is set around 2007/8. In this day of e-mails I’m not sure you could write this again.

The whole throws light on an array of typical village characters, many of whom are obsessive, eccentric and really rather disturbing. If you remember the recent headlining Handforth Parish Council you will get a flavour. This is where the book stands or falls.  Over the course of the novel you build up a picture of the community and some characters recur. There is a strong comic element to it and a great deal of caricature which doesn’t always work and becomes rather tedious. There is a very long letter about the problems of dogshit in the village by a very pernickety writer. Way too long.

There are some amusing asides, like the member of the Burley Cross Toilet Watch (devoted to ensuring the local gay community can’t misuse toilets) managing to get himself arrested for what he is guarding against. There is a promises auction that goes horribly wrong. Sometimes it moves into Archers territory (A British rural radio soap), sometimes it is more League of Gentlemen, but mostly it didn’t work for me. A couple of them I was rather uncomfortable with, a few were mildly amusing. I seem to be having a poor run of books at the moment!

5 out of 10

Starting Oh Happy Day by Carmen Calil

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On 10/04/2021 at 5:38 PM, Books do furnish a room said:

I seem to be having a poor run of books at the moment!

 

On 10/04/2021 at 5:38 PM, Books do furnish a room said:

Starting Oh Happy Day by Carmen Calil

I hope this one breaks the trend for you!

 

I generally really like epistolary novels so I was intrigued by this review but I don't think I'll be rushing out to buy it now!

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Sadly, I wouldn't Hayley

Rite Out of Time: A Study of the Churching of Women and its Survival in the Church of England in the Twentieth Century

This is a study of what is known as “The Churching of Women”. A service in the Book of Common Prayer with roots back in the Old Testament, Judaism and Hellenic traditions. It is a ceremony which takes place after childbirth originally intended as a form of purification (going back to the nonsense that sex is essentially sinful and there is need of purification for women: not men of course). It was also linked of course to menstruation. Views within the Church changed and developed and ceremony in many quarters became one of thanksgiving. Puritan women had a problem with the rite in the seventeenth century and the rite was abolished whilst Britain was a republic, only to be reintroduced with the Book of Common Prayer. It has more or less died out now and over the twentieth century many clergy gradually resisted doing it.

This study looks at the twentieth century history of churching by looking at records in three areas of England: Berkshire, Staffordshire and the Southwark diocese in London. Houlbrooke looks at parish records, clergy records, diocesan visitation and some records of what women themselves felt when it was recorded. There were also some contemporary interviews with older women looking back on how the rite was used. There is a brief history of its use in England and a good deal of examination of the records and charting of its decline.

I was a priest in the Church of England in the late 1980s and I remember women asking for this ceremony. The response when I asked why was that “my mother and grandmother won’t let me back in their houses until I’ve been done.” There was little sense of what the ceremony was for, just that it was something to be done to get back to normal life. It tended to be a tradition running through generations of women. Thankfully it really has gone now with changes in society and religion.

This study is informative but lacks any real analytical edge. There is a good deal of what, how and when but very little why. It’s easy to get bogged down in all the statistics!

5 and a half out of 10

Starting Black and British: A forgotten history by David Olusoga

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The Anarchy: The relentless rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple

I think it is important to be clear what this account is not. It is not a history or India, nor is it a history of the Raj. It is not a complete history of the East India Company. It pretty much ends in about 1803, there is nothing on the first war of independence in 1857. What this actually does is chart the growth of the East India Company from its founding to the point where it gained ascendancy in the subcontinent.

This is a very different telling of that tale than the one in British history books in the last century, as Dalrymple says:

“The Company’s conquest of India almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history.”

The usual imperial heroes (Clive, Hastings, the Wellesley brothers etc) are shown for what they really are. Clive certainly was a thug and a bully and it still remains a scandal that all of his plunder and loot from India remain at Powis Castle: even though it is now in the ownership of the National Trust.

Of course the EIC was one of a number of competing companies from Europe. There were similar companies from France, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Sweden and so on. After its inception it was by no means the strongest and the French and Portuguese companies were more entrenched in India. Of course there were also other “foreign powers” in India over the course of this account. For example the Afghans and Nadir Shah of Persia.

The complex politics of India itself is addressed and, of course there are ongoing debates here about the various roles of the Mughals and Marathas. Dalrymple provides a character driven account, but doesn’t always enter the ongoing historical debates like the interpretation of what happened after the death of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb; was there decline and chaos or rather a delineation into tiers of powers. Dalrymple draws together many complex strands in this history and he manages to explode many of the myths about the rise of the Company. By the late eighteenth century:

“One in three British men in India were co-habiting with Indian women and there were believed to be more than 11 000 Anglo-Indians in the three Presidency towns. Now Cornwallis brought in a whole raft of unembarrassedly racist legislation aimed at excluding the children of British men who had Indian wives … from employment by the company.”

Students of American history will remember Cornwallis, and yes he turns up in India as well!

This is a well written account, but I think there are gaps and some lack of contextualisation. It should though perform the function of exploding some of the lingering Imperialist myths in Britain about the Empire and India. This is more British history and Dalrymple does provide a good amount of economic facts to show how India was plundered. I would have liked more analysis of the impact on the British economy and the Industrial Revolution.

 As to the effect on India: as Mughal historian Fakir Khair ud-Din Illahabadi put it, “the once peaceful realm of India became the abode of Anarchy”.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Pornography by Andrea Dworkin

 

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Thanks for the review, I’ve got a copy of The Honourable Company by John Keay to read which is on a similar subject but seems to end around sometime in the 1830’s. 

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It's a pleasure Brian

The Glass House by Monique Charlesworth

I bought this from a second hand shop, partly because I had never heard of the book or the author. It is set in Hamburg in the 1970s and is (apparently) a novel about “revenge, desire, death and searing need”! Well, it wasn’t quite as bad as that sounds. It has its roots in the devastation following the war where Ludwig Levenstein starts to help orphan boys who live on the streets. He helps to house and feed them and in return they do odd jobs for him. There are other strings as well, mainly implied. Cut to the early 70s and Victor is one of Ludwig’s protégés who has made good and is a partner in an import export business: wealthy and well respected. There is quite a significant cast of other characters, including Johanna, twenty years old and a former fiancé of Victor, puzzled by his sudden breaking off of the engagement. Ludwig discovers Victor has made good and so begins a rather intricate plot, which leads to a somewhat unclear ending.

Most of the characters are fairly forgettable, as is the novel. So, if you find a second hand book whose title and author are unknown to you: maybe check before you purchase  

5 out of 10

Starting Merle and other stories by Paule Marshall

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Women of Sand and Myrrh by Hana Al-Shaykh

 

This novel is set in an unnamed desert state (looking suspiciously like Saudi Arabia). It examines the lives of four women, telling its tale from each of their points of view. There is Suha, a Lebanese woman, who has moved with her husband and son because of his new job. Nur has led a life of privilege. Suzanne is American and is also in the country because of her husband’s job and is discontented with her lot. Tamr wants to be independent and to get an education. The themes that are explored are fundamental and include feminism, sexual desire and sexuality, patriarchy, religious fundamentalism, materialism, culture and the complexities of power.

The reader is quickly drawn into the worlds of the four women and the narratives sort of interlink. There is a connection with these women. These are in a way household dramas, as one of the women says:

“Everyday life existed in the desert, but it was the daily routine of housewives and didn’t go beyond . . . the neighbour who only half-opened her door because she had wax on her thighs, fortune-telling in coffee grounds, food on the stove and gossip and knitting and babies’ nappies.

The men in the book are pretty two-dimensional and limited in their vision, but they are part of the universal journey of the women. The work is presented simply, but the issues are complex. There have been some negative reviews, but I found this powerful and some of the usual western criticisms unconvincing. This felt more like the reality of lived experience than portraying Arab women as victims. Tamr in particular is an example of agency and will. Al-Shaykh 's characters are diverse, complex, empowered and real.

8 out of 10

Starting Good Behaviour by Molly Keane

 

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The setting is the 1890s and it moves between Victorian London, Colchester and the Essex marshes. The title indicates something of what the novel is about. There is an old seventeenth century Essex legend about a leathery sea serpent in the marshes and Perry adapts this. The book revolves around Cora Seagrave, who is a new widow, relieved of an abusive husband and with an interest in palaeontology. Her son Francis was perceived to be eccentric, but would now be described as on the autistic spectrum. Francis has a sort of governess, Martha, who is a socialist and as much a companion to Cora as a governess. The other touchstone in the novel is the Rev William Ransome the vicar of the village of Aldwinter on the Essex marshes. He has three children and his wife Stella is developing consumption. There is also Luke Garrett, a friend of Cora, who is a very talented surgeon and who is in love with Cora. There are a few other significant characters, including some rather colourful villagers.

Cora goes to stay in Aldwinter with a letter of introduction to the vicar. She is a sceptic and he is rather worried about the rumours of the serpent and the tendency of his parishioners to revert to pagan superstition. Cora and Will meet and there is an attraction (inevitably) and Cora and her son become friends of his family. Rumours of the serpent and the toing and froing of relationships move throughout the book. There is an interesting intersection between religion, scepticism and pagan superstition and also a side plot about slum housing in London.

This reads easily, but I felt the characters felt 21st century rather than 19th.  There are plenty of loose ends at the end, which I didn’t mind. Perry does send characters in interesting directions, but doesn’t quite take them where you think she is going to (Cora and Martha, Spencer and Luke).

Perry sets her scene well:

"Since the discovery on New Year's morning of a drowned man down on the Blackwater marshes - naked, his head turned almost 180 degrees, a look of dread in his wide-open eyes - the Essex Serpent had ceased to be merely a device to keep children in check, and had begun to stalk the streets."

and she can write descriptively:

"Autumn's kind to Aldwinter: thick sun aslant on the common forgives a multitude of sins. The dog-roses have gone over to crimson hips, and children stain their hands green breaking walnuts open. Skeins of geese unravel over the estuary, and cobwebs dress the gorse in silk."

There are lots of ideas and hints. Socialism and women’s issues as well as the religion/science debate. I didn’t dislike this at all, but I was left feeling the ideas could have been taken further. I appear to be sitting on the fence a bit. I liked Perry’s grasp of the religious mind-set but the periodic letters were a bit irritating. The gothic tension surrounding the alleged serpent comes and goes with the fog. This is a good read and is atmospheric, but a little muddled: a bit like this review.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

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1 hour ago, Books do furnish a room said:

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

I've had this sitting on my shelf for an embarrassing amount of time. Maybe I should take this reminder as a sign to just try it! I do love the nineteenth century and folklore/superstition.

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I did enjoy this book but ultimately felt slightly let down, as Books... says above, I felt the London storyline didn't really go anywhere - I felt it almost seemed to belong to another book and would have made a good story of it's own - and in that way it did sort of fizzle out a bit at the end. I did like the characters though, and the setting is great - the Blackwater estuary is an area well worth visiting.

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I loved it - it's on my favourites list. I read it back in 2016, and wrote:


Set in nineteenth century England, recently widowed of a domineering, perhaps abusive, husband, Cora Seaborne moves out of London into coastal Essex to follow her interest in natural history, in particular to investigate a rumoured sea serpent, the stories of which are threatening to terrorise the local neighbourhood. This sounds like the basis of a Victorian mystery, but whilst the plot, and other sub-plots, bubble along, the real centres of focus are the characters and their relationships, particularly that between Cora and the Ransome family, Will Ransome being the local vicar.  I absolutely adored this book, wrapped up in it from the opening page. I loved the language (regarded as rather too florid by some, but to my mind simply wonderfully coloured and evocative), I loved the characterisation, and I loved the setting, all crowned by a series of plot lines that gently intrigued me. As close to a perfect read as I'm ever going to get from modern fiction - with the most fabulous dust cover to boot!

So, rather simplistic compared to the fascinating review above, but hope it's of some interest.

Edited by willoyd

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On 10/05/2021 at 7:13 PM, willoyd said:

I loved it - it's on my favourites list. I read it back in 2016, and wrote:

I think it was your review that made me want to read it in the first place! I have started reading it and so far I have to agree with you about the language! 

 

On 09/05/2021 at 2:28 PM, Madeleine said:

and the setting is great - the Blackwater estuary is an area well worth visiting.

I have to admit, I don't think I'd heard of it before this book! It's nice to know that it's as interesting in real life :) 

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It seems to have created some discussion and I have found that there are varying opinions about it. I do think I wanted to like it better than I did.

My name is why by Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay is a poet, author and broadcaster. He was the official poet of the London Olympics. He is fairly regularly seen on British TV. He now also advocates for children in care and is involved in a number of organisations concerned with their welfare. This is a memoir of his childhood in the care system: in a foster home until he was 12 and then in a series of children’s homes. Coincidentally as I write this he is on Mary Beard’s culture show talking about memory. Sissay’s mother was from Ethiopia and had come to Britain to study. After he was born, his mother had to go back to Ethiopia to see her dying father. Sissay was taken into care and his name changed to Norman Mark Greenwood. His mother wrote to try to get him back, but to no avail. He was 16 before he discovered his real name.

Sissay only managed to get hold of file from social services in Wigan n 2015, after thirty years of asking. He used what was in his file to help tell his story and there are extensive quotes from it in the book. Sissay also intersperses the book with poetry:

“I am not defined by darkness/Confided the night/Each dawn I am reminded/I am defined by light”

This is a searing indictment of the care system and the way children are treated. Of all the professionals in the book, there was only one who really tried to help Sissay and he was usually over-ruled by his superiors. There is a history of neglect and racism. The foster family were very religious and initially things went ok until they had children of their own and things went gradually downhill. Sissay also records how the care homes he lived in affected his mental health and identity:

“Memories in care are slippery because there’s no one to recall them as the years pass. In a few months I would be in a different home with a different set of people who had no idea of this moment. How could it matter if no one recalls it? Given that staff don’t take photographs it was impossible to take something away as a memory. This is how you become invisible. It is the underlying unkindness that you don’t matter enough. This is how you quietly deplete the sense of self-worth deep inside a child’s psyche. This is how a child becomes hidden in plain sight.

Race obviously played a central role in Sissay’s upbringing and he charts how he was affected by it, even it subtle ways: his foster family nicknaming him Macavity (after Eliot, Macavity was quick, dark and a thief).

Some of this is heartbreaking and difficult to read, but it clearly shows how a child can be lost in the care system. Read it and weep.

9 out of 10

Starting Genius and Ink: Virginia Woolf on How to Read

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Merle and other stories by Paule Marshall

This consists of a novella (Merle), an essay and a few short stories. The essay is “From the poets in the kitchen”. Here Marshall talks about her influences, the women who raised her and taught her the power of words. The short stories range over her whole career and although interesting are overshadowed by the novella. The protagonist, Merle, also appears in Marshall’s novel The Chosen Place, The Timeless People. This is in fact a condensed version. It is set on a fictitious island in the Caribbean. Merle is the daughter of one of the last plantation owners, a servant who is a bit of an enigma. She has some English education, a husband and child estranged and in Africa. She is a victim of colonialism and is bitter, having experienced the racism of England. She meets a Jewish anthropologist (Saul) who has come to Bourne to survey and to look at ways of improving the lot of the inhabitants. An affair follows. This sounds trite but isn’t as Marshall creates complex characters and interesting juxtapositions.

Marshall creates a tension between the shadows and inheritance of colonialism and the very present threat of dollar imperialism. Marshall also conveys Merle’s voluble support for those who are poor and oppressed and her own problems with her mental health; holding the tension between the two well. It also gives the sense of the radicalism of the late sixties and early seventies, which is destined to fail. Marshall in her own expositions of Merle says she does intend the juxtaposition of black and white feminism as portrayed by Merle and Harriet. She also admits to using the Prospero/Caliban trope and extends it to illuminate how the tensions within feminism are linked to issues of white supremacy.

This is certainly worth reading and for myself I am convinced that I ought to read the longer version (over four times as long).  

7 and a half out of 10

Starting The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

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Eva Luna by Isabel Allende

Set in an unnamed South American country with the usual magic realism, an assortment of generals and dictators, a good dose of sensuality and an eclectic cast of characters, the novel moves from the 1950s to the 1980s. It is told in the first person and is the story of Eva Luna, told in parallel with the much less detailed story of Rolf Carle. It is the story of a storyteller and has lots of twists and turns. It has been described as picaresque. Allende challenges the usual male hegemony she finds through her storytelling.

The characters do jump off the page and even the less sympathetic characters have some humanity. But it is the women are strong:

“I stopped examining myself in the mirror to compare myself to the perfect beauties of movies and magazines; I decided I was beautiful for the simple reason I wanted to be. And then never gave the matter another thought.”

There are elements of Scheherazade in Eva and this is followed up particularly in the volume which follows this, The Stories of Eva Luna. I didn’t love this as much as The House of the Spirits. The ending felt rather rushed and forced and somewhat melodramatic.

The opening is certainly strong:

 ‘My name is Eva, which means “life,” according to a book of names my mother consulted.  I was born in the back room of a shadowy house, and grew up amidst ancient furniture, books in Latin, and human mummies, but none of these things made me melancholy, because I came into the world with a breath of the jungle in my memory’.

Eva combines fiction and life and through the section on the escape of the guerrillas from prison towards the end Allende illustrates a device often used in oppressive regimes, telling the truth in a work of fiction. Allende charts the birth of a writer:

“I awakened early. It was a soft and slightly rainy Wednesday, not very different from others in my life, but I treasure that Wednesday as a special day, one that belonged only to me. I took a clean white sheet of paper-like a sheet freshly ironed for making love-and rolled it into the carriage. . . . I believed that that page has been waiting for me for more than twenty years, that I had lived only for that instant.... I wrote my name, and immediately the words began to flow, one thing linked to another and another. . . .1 could see an order to the stories stored in my genetic memory since before my birth, and the many others I had been writing for years in my notebooks”

Memory sustains life and this is certainly a life enhancing novel, despite the loss of focus at the end.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

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Good Behaviour by Molly Keane

Molly Keane had two careers as a writer. She took up writing out of sheer boredom at seventeen when she was confined to bed with an illness in the early 1920s. She wrote as M J Farrell, a name she had seen over a pub door. She wanted to keep her writing secret as it would have been disapproved of in her social circle in Ireland:

"for a woman to read a book, let alone write one was viewed with alarm: I would have been banned from every respectable house in Co. Carlow."

Keane was part of the decaying Anglo-Irish aristocracy/middle class.  She wrote until 1946 when her husband died, and didn’t start again until 1981 when this novel was published and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

When this came out Keane spoke about her upbringing in an interview:

“Mother’s father governed various little islands like Mauritius and she came back from there to marry my father. She loved her sons but she didn’t love me. I was jolly hard to love. Totally disobedient. She feared for me as she would if I had been a hippy and taken drugs. She never stopped being a Victorian. It was a class thing I grew up with, good behaviour. Don’t whine and don’t make a fuss. If you broke your neck you must pretend you hadn’t.”

This novel at its heart has conflict between mother and daughter and starts with murder by rabbit mousse! It concerns the St Charles family and particularly the daughter Aroon. This is the 1920s and Aroon is tall, clumsy and by societal norms unlovely. It is narrated by Aroon and has one reviewer has said:

“..everything is explained and nothing is said.”

So there is sex, murder, suicide, pregnancy, masturbation, nannies, class, queer characters and much more. But nothing is directly named. The satire is sharp as is the dissection of emotional relationships:

“Our good behaviour went on and on, endless as the days. No one spoke of the pain we were sharing. Our discretion was almost complete. Although they feared to speak, Papa and Mummie spent more time together; but, far from comforting, they seemed to freeze each other deeper in misery.”

The title is important and Kean has a way of using words effectively to put across a feeling with sinister undertones:

“I had time to consider how the punctual observance of the usual importances is the only way to behave at such times as these. And I do know how to behave –believe me, because I know. I have always known. All my life so far have done everything for the best reasons and the most unselfish motives. I have lived for the people dearest to me, and I am at a loss to know why their lives have been at times so perplexingly unhappy.”

I was pleasantly surprised by this one as I am always wary of books portraying impoverished aristos these days, but there is an edge to this.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Once upon a Time in the East by Xiaolu Guo

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Genius and Ink by Virginia Woolf

A collection of articles by Woolf, all published in the Times Literary Supplement anonymously (as all articles were). They range over twenty years and some have appeared in other collections. There are essays on Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Conrad, Hardy, Marryat, James’s letters, Montaigne, Elizabethan plays, re-reading novels and a few others. Inevitably there is some variability and things to disagree with; I don’t have Woolf’s appreciation of Conrad’s earlier novels for example. But there is much to ponder and comment on:

“There is one peculiarity which real works of art possess in common. At each fresh reading one notices some change in them, as if the sap of life ran in their leaves, and with skies and plants they had the power to alter their shape and colour from season to season. To write down one’s impressions of Hamlet as one reads it year after year, would be virtually to record one’s own autobiography, for as we know more of life, so Shakespeare comments upon what we know.

This also contains her brief and now rather famous assessment of Ulysses:

“a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster”

She can also be sharply perceptive, looking at Eliot and issues relating to gender and women writers:

“In fiction where so much of personality is revealed, the absence of charm is a great lack; and her critics, who have been, of course, of the opposite sex have resented, half-consciously perhaps, her deficiency in a quality which is held to be supremely desirable in women. George Eliot was not charming; she was not strongly feminine; she had none of those eccentricities and inequalities of temper which give to so many artists the endearing simplicity of children.”

Her criticisms are generally balanced, she talks about Hardy’s uncertain genius and focuses on his early novels. She also suggests his rural scenes and minor characters are his real strength, warning against sentimentality. She clearly sees Jude the Obscure as problematic (an understatement I think), but glosses over the problem pretty briefly. Nevertheless she made me think I ought to revisit Hardy’s early works.

The essay on the ridiculousness of Elizabethan plays is very funny and well worth reading. All in all a pretty good collection and it’s interesting to see the development over twenty years

8 out of 10

Starting Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens James Boyce

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The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

A hefty slice of eighteenth century gothic famously satirised by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey. It is set in the late sixteenth century and follows the fortunes (and misfortunes) of Emily St Aubert. It is set in southern France and northern Italy and there are lots of descriptions of majestic landscapes, all of which came from travel books as Radcliffe never went to the areas she described. Here’s a description of a castle, which looks, well, very castley:

“Emily gazed with melancholy awe upon the castle, which she understood to be Montoni’s; for, though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object. As she gazed, the light died away on its walls, leaving a melancholy purple tint, which spread deeper and deeper, as the thin vapour crept up the mountain, while the battlements above were still tipped with splendour. From those, too, the rays soon faded, and the whole edifice was invested with the solemn duskiness of evening. Silent, lonely, and sublime, it seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign. As the twilight deepened, its features became more awful in obscurity, and Emily continued to gaze, till its clustering towers were alone seen, rising over the tops of the woods, beneath whose thick shade the carriages soon after began to ascend.

There is a significant cast of characters with suitably villainous villains and the noble and good are very much so. There are plenty of crumbling castles with hidden corridors and tunnels, gloomy tombs aplenty, a few humble cottages (populated by humble cottagers), sinister portraits, nuns, a touch of what might be the supernatural (although as Radcliffe herself says it is more terror than horror). Theses bits I am afraid reminded me a little of a cartoon series from my youth called Scooby Doo. Emily’s servant Annette provides the comic relief. There is a bit of redemption for the villainous female characters, but most of the male villains meet nasty ends.

There are strong female characters here, even though Emily spends a significant proportion of the novel crying and fainting away and as always good triumphs, eventually. The male lead Valancourt is certainly the most irritating character. It has often been said that it is easy to create flawed characters and difficult to create convincing good ones.

One piece of advice, skip the poetry. Although if you do you will miss the immortal line:

“Hail! Mildly pleasing solitude!”

There is a certain entertainment value to this, but it is very long. I recognise that it was ground-breaking and there were strong female characters, but I do understand why Jane Austen parodied it.  

5 and a half out of 10

Starting Emma by Jane Austen

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Pornography by Andrea Dworkin

Dworkin was a radical and uncompromising feminist. Her views are clear. This is from a speech in 1983:

“The power exercised by men, day to day, in life is power that is institutionalised. It is protected by law. It is protected by religion and religious practice. It is protected by universities, which are strongholds of male supremacy. It is protected by a police force. It is protected by those whom Shelley called “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”: the poets, the artists. Against that power, we have silence.”

The most common approach to Dworkin’s arguments have been abuse and ridicule. She has been variously called a man hater, anti sex, ugly, overweight, hating sexual freedom, insane and following her death, a “sad ghost” that feminism needs to exorcise. I have read a few reviews of this book and can confirm this.

Dworkin believed that pornography led to violence against women:

“a celebration of rape and injury to women.” Pornography incarnates male supremacy.”

Dworkin manages to draw from literature and art in this analysis. Here is a quote from D H Lawrence:

“And it is this that makes the cocksureness of women so dangerous, so devastating. It is really out of scheme, it is not in relation to the rest of things. So we have the tragedy of cocksure women. They find, so often, that instead of having laid an egg, they have laid a vote or an empty ink-bottle, or some other absolutely unhatchable object, which means nothing to them.”

Dworkin spends a whole chapter looking at De Sade. She shows he is still much admired by all sorts of thinkers, male and female. Dworkin portrays him as an Everyman type:

“Sade’s importance, finally, is not as dissident or deviant: it is as Everyman, a designation the power-crazed aristocrat would have found repugnant, but one that women on examination, will find true. In Sade, the authentic equation is revealed: the power of the pornographer is the power of the rapist/batterer is the power of the man.”

She also analyses Sade’s writings and the sort of things he ended up in prison for. Here is De Sade defending himself to his wife in relation to five fifteen year old girls whom he abused. He had procured them from a woman of his acquaintance:

“I go off with them: I use them. Six months later, some parents come along to demand their return. I give them back {he did not}, and suddenly a charge of abduction and rape is brought against me. It is a monstrous injustice. The law on this point is …. As follows: it is expressly forbidden in France for any procuress to supply virgin maidens, and if the girl supplied is a virgin and lodges a complaint, it is not the man who is charged, but the procuress who is punished severely on the spot. But even if the male offender has requested a virgin he is not liable to punishment: he is merely doing what all men do. It is, I repeat, the procuress who provided him with the girl and who is perfectly aware that she is expressly forbidden to do so, who is guilty.”

For De Sade raping a fifteen year old virgin was not an offence. Dworkin draws the links to modern pornography and provides examples in passages of descriptive analysis. The availability of pornography has changed since the advent of the internet, but maybe not its nature. For Dworkin pornography stems from patriarchy and the nature and role of men and this is also from the 1983 speech:

“Equality is a practice. It is an action. It is a way of life. It is a social practice. It is an economic practice. It is a sexual practice. It can’t exist in a vacuum. You can’t have it in your home if, when the people leave the home, he is in a world of supremacy based on the existence of his cock and she is in a world of humiliation and degradation because she is perceived to be inferior and because her sexuality is a curse.”

Dworkin is also very critical of the left:

"The most cynical use of women has been on the Left—cynical because the word freedom is used to capture the loyalties of women who want, more than anything, to be free and who are then valued and used as left-wing 'ladies of the night': collectivized cunts"

Ultimately I think that Dworkin is right in her assertion that until the fundamental inequality and injustice between men and women is addressed, nothing else is sorted out.

8 out of 10

Starting Black writers in Britain 1760-1890

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