#100WomenNovelists: Clare Chambers

Blog Post 25: Back Trouble (1994)

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I felt so groggy when I woke up that I decided to leave the hearse at Tim’s and walk home. I had been celebrating New Year’s Eve there with my brother Raymond who was over from Canada.

Clare Chambers is one of my favourite contemporary writers. when I first read one of her novels, ‘The Editor’s Wife’, I felt that finally I was reading the type of book I was trying to write. I soon devoured all of her novels. I recognised my experiences in the lives of her characters. The same childhood, the same teenage years, the same slightly dysfunctional families with Baby Boomer parents and Generation X kids. The aunties and uncles, the boring sunday afternoons, the humiliations of growing up. Heartbreak and loss and yet the possibility of new beginnings and a brighter future.

‘Back Trouble’ is a classic of Clare Chambers, with her usual narrative technique of the present sandwiching the past in a dual time frame. Her male narrator, Philip, is completely convincing as a man about to turn forty, forced to face up to his mediocre life when he slips on a chip and ends up bedbound for three months. During this time, he writes his life story and in so doing turns up some surprises and secrets which make him realise what is important and precious to him.

It’s such an accessible read, with deft humour and poignancy, like all of Clare Chambers’ novels. The characters are irrepressibly flawed but you completely want the best for them. I can’t understand why her novels aren’t more widely read and why they haven’t been turned into TV dramas or films. They encapsulate a class of suburban family that so many readers would empathise with – the extraordinariness of small, quiet lives.

Mum seemed to know only seven recipes, and they appeared inexorably on their designated day week after week, year after year. In fact it was impossible to forget what day it was in our house because we were always surrounded by indicators as inflexible as any calendar of our precise position in the routine’s pitiless cycle: what one was wearing, which relatives were visiting, whether or not one had recently had a bath, what was cooking on the stove or left over in the fridge. Habit was a sort of religion with my parents and there was no escaping its rigours. In fact the only way to avoid Saturday’s hotpot was to drown in Friday’s bath.

If you were born in Britain in the sixties into a lower class suburban family with some aspirations, you will identify with these novels. You will understand the petty squabbles between siblings, the harsh injustices of the school caste system, the chasm between adults and children and the frightening and confusing bridge of adolescence.

I should also add that Chambers uses the best verbs and imagery, and brilliant subtext. When Philips’s dad takes up DIY , he is somewhat slapdash, reflecting his approach to marriage, fatherhood and life itself.

…instead of stripping paintwork, or even washing it, he would set straight to work, brushing gloss over old gloss, dust, mould and even, in one instance, a dead spider which lay preserved like a Pompeian relic in its shell of green paint.

Every time I read one of these fabulous novels, I feel both comfortably and uncomfortably at home.

 

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#100WomenNovelists: Agatha Christie

Blog Post 24: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962)

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Miss Jane Marple was sitting by her window. The window looked over her garden, once a source of pride to her. That was no longer so. Nowadays she looked out of the window and winced. Active gardening had been forbidden her for some time now.

Agatha Christie, author of 66 novels, hundreds of short stories and many plays, is outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. I read all of Christie’s crime novels as a child and teenager. My grandfather had the whole collection and I’d read one every time we went to stay at my grandparents’ house. After Grandpa died, he left me the books and I still have them all. They are classic whodunnits and after reading maybe half of them, I worked out the formula. And there is a formula. Which I won’t tell you. But this novel, along with ‘Death on the Nile’ and ‘Then There Were None’, is perhaps a bit different.

‘The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side’ is one of Agatha Christie’s later novels, written at a time when society was on the brink of great change in the early 60s. Miss Jane Marple, the spinster detective, is getting on in years and is largely housebound. Her nephew has employed a bossy Miss Knight to look after her and she is not happy about this. Miss Knight treats her like a child and gets on her nerves. Miss Marple has to send her on pointless errands just to get some peace and quiet. Her doctor recommends that she find a juicy murder to solve. And this is exactly what happens.

Miss Marple lives in a quintessential English village, St Mary Mead, but this too is changing with the building of the ‘Development’, a housing estate of semis bought and lived in by the upwardly mobile working class. Miss Marple is intrigued by the new people and goes exploring. After she has a fall on the pavement, she is taken into a house by one of the residents, Heather Badcock. Heather tells her about the film star, Marina Gregg, and her director husband who have moved into Gossington Hall, former home of Dolly Bantry and her late husband, Colonel Bantry (and the setting for the famous ‘body in the library’).

She never did mean harm, but there is no doubt that people like Heather Badcock are capable of doing a lot of harm because they lack – not kindness, they have kindness – but any real consideration for the way their actions may affect other people. She thought always of what an action meant to her, never sparing a thought to what it might mean to somebody else.

Marina Gregg, the film star, hosts a charity event in the gardens of her new home and receives selected guests into the Hall to meet her. This is when the murder of Heather Badcock takes place. In the film adaptation, Marina is played appropriately by Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, the plot of ‘The Mirror Crack’d’ was inspired by the real-life story of Hollywood actress Gene Tierney but I can’t say what that story was as it would be a massive spoiler.

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She had a great power of love and hate but no stability. That’s what’s so sad for anyone, to be born with no stability.

Miss Marple is an entirely different detective to Poirot who uses logic in order to solve murders. She is more interested in and driven by human nature. As an unmarried woman of a certain age, she is used to being an observer. Village life has given her the opportunity to see the world in a microcosm. And now there is another murder in St Mary Mead, who else could possibly work out whodunnit other than Miss Marple?

Out flew the web and floated wide-

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

“The curse is come upon me,”

cried The Lady of Shalott.

N.B. Interesting fact: Agatha Christie was a shopgirl at a chemist’s in Torquay where she learnt all about poisons. The sweet shop where I used to live and the setting for The Generation Game is directly opposite where the chemist’s used to be.

#100WomenNovelists: Carol Shields

Blog post 23: Larry’s Party (1997)

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By mistake Larry Weller took someone else’s Harris tweed jacket instead of his own, and it wasn’t till he jammed his hand in the pocket that he knew something was wrong.

‘Larry’s Party’ asks the question: what’s it like being a man at the end of the 20th century? Carol Shields spends the course of the novel trying to answer this question being asked, mainly unknowingly, by one ‘ordinary’ man, Larry Weller.

Larry Weller is born in 1950 in Winnipeg, Canada, to English parents, and we follow his reminiscences over the first 46 years of his life, the constant struggle he has with himself to construct his place in the world, and his yearning to find that most elusive of states: happiness.

The last half of the 20th century saw great changes in gender roles, social conventions, fashion, work, ideals, family life etc. and the novel is structured in such a way as to examine these issues separately – Larry’s Work, Larry’s Love, Larry’s Folks, Larry’s Penis, etc. – and yet everything is also entwined, as it is for any human being.

Much of Larry’s life happens by accident – after high school, he goes to college on a floristry course, basically because he was sent the floristry leaflet rather than the furnace mending one. He gets his girlfriend pregnant and they have to get married. He finds his passion on honeymoon in Hampton Court maze and in time becomes a world-renowned maze-maker. Shields doubles back and repeats herself in each section, as if she is leading us, the reader, through a maze. Which is the overarching image of the novel.

The whole thing about mazes is that they make perfect sense only when you look down on them from above.

Larry’s Party, the final chapter, is one of the best set pieces I have read. It’s almost a play, being nearly all dialogue, but the novel has been leading us in various directions and back tracks to this beautifully constructed end. Just like one of Larry’s beloved mazes.

Larry stumbles through life, knowing that he wants to be a good friend, a good son, a good husband, a good father, but he struggles to really live this life of his. Instead, it’s almost as if he’s an observer of it. But by the end, by the time of the dinner party that he and his girlfriend throw, Larry, who is always searching for more, maybe finally realises that he has enough.

Larry’s is a thoroughly convincing male voice, especially when he ruminates about sex. The writing is not cliched. It’s nuanced and complex and yet simple too. Shield wrote an incredible book. There are so many clever connections that you only make on a further reading of this novel. Like a maze, you can enjoy it in a different way each time. Brilliant.

Didn’t He Do Well? Farewell, Brucie.

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Have I Got News for You?

Since I started blogging back in 2011, I have written more posts about Sir Bruce Forsyth than anyone else. He’s been a constant in my life. My happiest memories are from when I was a child in Torquay, living above a sweetshop with my parents and two older brothers. It was the early 70s, a great decade to be a kid, and Brucie played a part in this. Every Saturday evening, we’d watch The Generation Game together as a family, along with over 20 million other Britons. It’s hard to explain to the next generation just how big a part he played in my generation and my parents’ generation. Seven decades of all round family entertainment, the likes of which we’ll never see again.

I was so sad to hear the news yesterday. My heart actually did stop beating for a few moments and I shed a tear or two. I thought of my lovely dad who I associate with those days, who died in 1978 when I was ten. Brucie has been a constant in my life which has known a fair bit of loss. But he lived a good life. A long life. With a close family and the love of a nation.

And I’ll always have my homage to him in the form of my first novel, The Generation Game. What else could I have called it?

 

 

Brucie’s Played His Cards Right

Ladies, Gentlemen, and Children

Yellow is the Colour

Good Game, Good Game

Arise Sir Bruce…

I Love Sir Brucie

Didn’t he do well?

Sir Bruce?

#100WomenNovelists: Tove Jansson

Blog Post 22: The Summer Book (1972)

Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

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It was an early, very warm morning in july, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed. the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.

‘What are you doing?’ asked little Sophia.

‘Nothing,’ her grandmother answered. ‘That is to say,’ she added angrily, ‘I’m looking for my false teeth.’

This novel is quite frankly a joy. Written by the creator of the Moomins, it is a classic in Scandinavia and far beyond, though I only read it for the first time about ten years ago. It is such a treat to revisit it.

The world loves the Moomins. In the words of Ali Smith from her review of ‘The Summer Book’ in the Guardian in 2003, ‘The Moomins are archetypes of tolerance and adaptability, creatures of curiosity and quiet philosophising who live in a Scandinavian setting of mountains, forests, seas and valleys. Joyful, melancholy and in the end uncategorisable, they survive terrible upheavals simply by their mild geniality. Their extended communal family is generous and inclusive, made up of outsiders from the calm to the anarchic.’

And the essence of the Moomins is captured in ‘The Summer Book’ which shows the complex and yet simple relationship between a grandmother and her young granddaughter. Tove Jansson lived her summers on such an island with her life-partner, Tuulikki Pietilä and this book is an homage to the islanders repetitive, rhythmic way of life and to the relationship between her own mother and niece, Sophia, on whom she bases the characters in this novel.

Grandmother, Sophia, and her parents spend their summers on a remote, tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. But this year is different. Sophie’s mother has died and so it is just the three of them. Her father is distant, either working at his desk, or out doing jobs, in his boat, in his own world of bereavement. There is only one mention of the mother’s death at the beginning but the knowledge of it informs the rest of the book, not in any maudlin way, but in the working out of grief for the young girl and in the grandmother’s acceptance of her own immortality. Grandmother is old and crotchety and fed up of being bossed around. She wants to swim, and smoke, and hike and feels her freedom is slipping away. But she is also weary and poorly. Sophia is also fed up of not being allowed to do whatever she wants and, between the two of them, they navigate this contradictory desire for freedom and safety.

‘You’re a very good climber,’ said Grandmother sternly. ‘And brave, too, because I could see you were scared. Shall I tell him (father) about it? Or shouldn’t I?’

Sophie shrugged one shoulder and looked at her grandmother. ‘I guess maybe not,’ she said. ‘But you can tell it on your deathbed so it doesn’t go to waste.’

Each chapter is an episode, a small adventure, a story in itself. They are simply written but Jansson is an expert in subtext. She shows us the surface of the water but gives us the space to stare down into the clear and sometimes murky depths. This might be a small, quiet book, but it is mighty and vast.

I had a fantastic grandmother. She took me and my cousins on adventures. She had a rusty old van and we would loll around on a mattress in the back. Because of the rust bucket we were able to go to places we weren’t technically allowed to visit. She said we’d look like workmen. So we would explore dilapidated country houses, fishing for her beloved newts in ponds with crumbling fountains. We’d have picnics of hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, and fish paste crusty rolls. She had a fruit knife and would peel apples from the garden. And there would always be a flask of coffee because tea was never the same from a Thermos.

If I asked her a question, she would generally answer it, though she might doctor the details to help me through, without ever patronising me. When I lost my father, at the age of ten, she didn’t talk directly about it, but like Sophia’s mother she continued to have adventures with me. I was lucky to have her until I was 41. Losing her was like having my heart cut out. But now, my heart has grown back and I think of the wonderful times we had and what she taught me. Which was much more than how to crochet (though she did that too).

If I am ever blessed enough to have a granddaughter, I hope I can be such a grandmother. And I will read this book to her.

#100WomenNovelists: Barbara Pym

Blog Post 21: Excellent Women (1952)

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‘Ah, you ladies! always on the spot when there’s something happening!’ The voice belonged to Mr Mallett, one of our church wardens, and its roguish tone made me start guiltily, almost as if I had no right to be discovered outside my front door.

I first discovered the simple joy of Barbara Pym a few years ago and I even blogged about my first impressions. Which haven’t changed at all. I adore her. So I am cheating this week and I’m going to repost the blog post from 2012 below:

Excellent Woman.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.’

Why has it taken me all these years to read the magnificent Barbara Pym?

I’d certainly heard of her, believed her to be a novelist who was of a certain era, one that has changed so much that she is not longer relevant. Well, I was most definitely ill-informed and it took a review, comparing This Holey Life to Excellent Women, to put me right.

Set in dreary post-war London, Mildred Lathbury is an excellent woman,‘capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life – birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fete spoilt by bad weather.’ (from blurb of Virago Modern Classics edition, 2012). Mildred, whose mother and clergyman father have passed away, lives the ‘spinster’ life, alone, in a flat. She works part-time for the wonderfully named Distressed Gentlewomen’s Fund, helps out at the vicarage, attends church and reads novels. When a married couple, the glamorous Napiers, move into the other flat in the house, she worries about how they will co-exist. ‘The burden of keeping three people in toilet paper seemed to me rather a heavy one.’

What follows is a charming, funny, and sometimes poignant telling of the way things go over the next few months as Mildred faces disruption to her ordered life. I was completely absorbed and won over.

Beware these excellent women. My great aunt is one such excellent woman. Like Pym she served in the WRNS. After  the war she looked after her ageing parents. Marriage never happened. She put her energies into the church, Greenpeace, Christian Aid and composting. It wasn’t until fairly recently, with the passing of the Official Secrets Act, that that we discovered she worked on the Enigma Code as a young woman.  She might not have been an Oxford Mathematical genius. She didn’t even know what was going on, the bigger picture, but she knew her small part made the whole machine work and who knows how the war would have turned out without the Code breakers. 

Pym’s excellent women may be consumed with the smallest things of life but these are the biggest things of life. As Alexander McCall Smith says in the introduction to the Virago Modern Classic edition of Excellent Women, it is ‘a novel that on one level is about very little, (but) is a great novel about a great deal.’

#100WomenNovelists: Alison Lurie

Blog Post 20: Real People (1969)

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Imagine a deserted estate in northern New England. Five hundred rolling acres, mainly forested with hemlock and white pine. Imposing stone gateposts; long sloping velvet lawns brocaded with the moving shadows of clouds; a thirty-five-room stone mansion in Victorian-baronial style: picturesque old stables and outbuildings; two Italian marble fountains, one indoors; three large artificial ponds stocked with fish and water lilies; and a once-famous rose garden. 

This opening paragraph is a description of Illyria, once a grand old private home which is now run as an artists’ colony. Writers, sculptors, painters, musicians, critics stay there for ‘extended visits of from a fortnight to several months’. The narrator is a short story writer called Janet Belle Smith and we see the action through her eyes, through the form of her journal which she keeps during her stay.

Janet yearns for her summer weeks spent at Illyria. The retreat gives her time off from her husband, their children, and the demands of home and enables her to focus on work, a job that her husband sees as a hobby. But this year, she has writer’s block. She believes her stories are too safe and predictable, writing as she does about small town family life which is too identifiable with her own life. She doesn’t want to offend. But over the course of her stay she realises she will have to dig deeper, ruffle some feathers, to be able to produce more profound work.

You can’t write well with only the nice parts of your character, and only about nice things. . . . I want to use everything, including hate and envy and lust and fear.

‘Real People’ examines what it means to be a creative person. (In fact a boy is overheard asking a question: ‘are those artists or are they real people?’) This is something Janet needs to work out and it is the unlikely catalyst, Anna May, who makes her – and the rest of the group – face some difficult truths.

Anna May, a pretty college student and niece of the owner of Illyria, comes to stay for a few days and brings mischief and havoc into the tranquillity that the artists need to work. One by one, the men fall for her charms and, as far as Janet is concerned, behave like teenage idiots. But she too is affected. She questions her own femininity, her relationships with the other residents are tested, and she even wonders whether she should give up her writing. Her usual peaceful, productive retreat is spoiled but she goes on an emotional journey and is quite changed, as a writer and a woman, by the time she leaves.

Fiction is condensed reality; and that’s why its flavor is more intense, like bouillon or frozen orange juice.

This is a novel to be enjoyed by writers and anyone who has been on a retreat. Well-observed, astute, witty stuff. And it leaves the question: Just who am I writing for?

#100WomenNovelists: Isabel Colegate

Blog Post 19: The Shooting Party (1980)

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It caused a mild scandal at the time, but in most people’s memories it was quite outshone by what succeeded it. You could see it as a drama all played out in a room lit by gas lamps; perhaps with flickering sidelights thrown by a log fire burning brightly at one side of the room, a big Edwardian drawing-room, full of furniture, tables crowded with knick-knacks and framed photographs, people sitting or standing in groups, conversing: and then a fierce electric light thrown back from a room beyond, the next room, into which no one has yet ventured…It was an error of judgement which resulted in a death, It took place in the autumn before the outbreak of what used to be known as the Great War.

My previous post was Nancy Mitford’s ‘The Pursuit of Love’, another story of the great country house, only ‘The Shooting Party’ is set before the first world war, rather than the second. And whereas Mitford’s novel was written a few years after the events, Colegate’s novel is written from the distance of nearly seventy years. When you read this novel it will come as no surprise that it was the inspiration for Julian Fellowes’s ‘Gosford Park’ and ‘Downton Abbey’.

It is a curious short novel, set over the course of a weekend in 1913, revolving around a shooting party at the estate of Sir Randolph Nettleby, a traditionalist who loves the land, and despises industrialisation and who longs to keep the status quo of feudalism because he believes it to be the best system for everyone. He certainly can’t abide the idea of ‘striking industrial workers, screaming suffragettes, Irish terrorists, scandals on the Stock Exchange, universal suffrage’.

Everything’s against us now. The politicians are determined to turn this country into an urban society instead of a rural one and in the course of the change they think they’ve got to take away the power of the landed proprietor. So they fling Acts of Parliament at our heads, set up town councils…do nothing to help agriculture out of its terrible problems—and now the Liberals are crippling us with taxes.…It will be the ruin of rural England.

This will be the biggest shoot of the year and amongst the lords and ladies, and the Hungarian royal, and the rich Jewish merchant, is one of the greatest shots of England who is in competition with a young barrister. And then there are various members of Sir Randolph’s family, including his wife Minnie (said to have had an affair with King Edward himself who was frequently a guest), his daughter and granddaughter, and his two sons.

Then there are the gamekeeper and his son, the beaters, the servants. This is a massive cast that Colegate handles with great deftness. She does not judge the aristocrats or tug at the forelocks. She treats each character, whether upstairs or downstairs, with the same authorial voice, with a sweeping omniscience, which carries the very essence of the Edwardian era, so that we could be in a Forster novel. This is not parody or pastiche though it is maybe somewhat satirical. Soon the shooting will not be of pheasants on a country estate in Oxfordshire; the killing will move to the trenches of Europe and a generation of young men will be wiped out. And though the novel could be seen as one whopping metaphor, it is much more than that.

…heavy birds, a flight of more than a few feet exhausts them — forced up and out to meet a burst of noise and a quick death in that bright air.

The increasing sense of doom is handled brilliantly. We are told from the outset that there will be death this weekend, but we have to anticipate whose death.  The child? His pet duck? Or will it be protestor and pamphleteer, Cornelius Cardew, (played by Gielgud in the film of 1985). Cardew with his ideas on vegetarianism and a new society is the outsider, the fool who shows us the ridiculous truth of the situation. He is powerless to do anything other than to wish he could ‘tell the players not just that they were using the wrong rules but that they were playing the wrong game.’

But thank goodness for Ellen, one of the maids, who gets herself wet and filthy helping Osbert look for his duck. She is perhaps the most likeable character of all.

Ellen knew as well as anyone that the last day of a big shooting party ended with a duck shoot by the river at dusk. She also knew that the rules of sport and the rules of entertaining were both inexorable. Even Sir Randolph could not be expected to refuse to offer his guests the opportunity of shooting at wild duck just because a child’s tame duck might have chanced to be among them.

 

 

#100WomenNovelists: Nancy Mitford

Blog Post 18: The Pursuit of Love (1945)

There is a photograph in existence of Aunt Sadie and her six children sitting round the tea-table at Alconleigh. The table is situated, as it was, is now, and ever shall be, in the hall, in front of a huge open fire of logs…There they are, held like flies, in the amber of that moment – click goes the camera and on goes life; the minutes, the days, the years, the decades, taking them further and further from that happiness and promise of youth, from the hopes Aunt Sadie must have had for them, and from the dreams they dreamed for themselves. I often think there is nothing quite so poignantly sad as old family groups.

‘The Pursuit of Love’ is narrated by Fanny, the cousin of the children in the photograph, the daughter of Aunt Sadie’s sister, otherwise known as ‘the Bolter’ who abandoned Fanny as a child and has lived her life bolting from one disastrous lover to another. Fanny is brought up by another of the sisters, Aunt Emily, but spends her holidays at the ancestral home of the Radlett family. Her closest friend and confidante is the beautiful, outrageous Linda who dreams of nothing but love and the story revolves around her. Will she be another bolter?

This is classic Mitford: Her cutting wit, her appalling but loveable characters, her portrayal of the interwar years in upper class society with its debs, distrust of foreigners, and hunting (lots of hunting). The backdrop of a country recovering from the first world war and the possibility of anther war to come, the education of girls, the peerage, marital dowries, the coming out season, all these issues are taken for granted. It is the individuals that matter, their hopes and dreams and their pursuit of love.

The fictional Radlett family are clearly related to the real life Mitford family and Alconleigh is surely based on Asthall Manor, the childhood home of the Mitfords. In fact the freezing cold pile of a house is a character in itself, just as Brideshead is in Evelyn Waugh’s novel of the same year, ‘Brideshead Revisited’. The tone of ‘The Pursuit of Love’ is perhaps more like Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’ but with more wit to soften the brittle edges. For this is not just a comedy of manners; there is a much darker undercurrent, highlighted with Linda’s attitude to baby Moira. But like Waugh, Mitford doesn’t comment or pass judgement on the behaviour of her characters; she leaves that for the reader to do.

My Uncle Matthew had four magnificent bloodhounds, with which he used to hunt his children. Two of us would go off with a good start to lay the trail, and Uncle Matthew and the rest would follow the hounds on horseback. It was great fun. Once he came to my home and hunted Linda and me over Shenley Common. This caused the most tremendous stir locally, the Kentish week-enders on their way to church were appalled by the sight of four great hounds in full cry after two little girls. My uncle seemed to them like a wicked lord of fiction, and I became more than ever surrounded with an aura of madness, badness, and dangerousness for their children to know.

To try and reach an understanding of the complicated Mitford sisters, you’d do well to read this novel and then follow it up with ‘Love in Cold Climate’. (Though it is very hard to understand Unity Mitford’s friendship with Adolf Hitler. That is quite another story.)

#100WomenNovelists: Jane Rogers

Blog Post 17: Mr Wroe’s Virgins (1991)

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Leah: ‘The Lord has instructed me to take of your number, seven virgins for comfort and succour.’

Seven? They say his wife is sickly, but seven? Judith touches my elbow, I know, I am trying not to giggle. It is so quiet, it seems no one breathes in the whole of Sanctuary. I must not laugh. I must not. Will he really? Will they let him? Who?

This is the story of nine months in the life of charismatic, self-proclaimed prophet, John Wroe – born in Bradford in 1782, the son of a woolcomber – as seen through the eyes of four of the virgins chosen from his congregation to live with him, ‘for comfort and succour’. He is the preacher of the Christian Israelites in Aston-under-Lyne, the New Jerusalem, a loosely Christian denomination who believe that the end of the world is nigh and that they are the chosen ones who will live through the end times and on into eternity.

Rogers tells the story deftly using four first person narrators, four of the seven virgins. Their perspectives overlap and intertwine and as a reader we have to put the pieces together and work out the truth. Though this novel throws up the questions: what is the truth? What is faith? What is real?

There is Leah, sarcastic and flirty, with an illegitimate baby who she passes off as an orphan so he can live with her in the house.

Hannah, sensible and competent, is a socialist who believes in a New World Order where everyone is equal, who fights against the inequalities brought into focus by the Industrial Revolution, and teaches the millworkers to read.

Sometimes a candle is set on the window-ledge. The little flimsy light against a world of darkness: what is it but an invitation? Here, it says. here I am, see my frailty, see how easy I may be extinguished. A breath of air, the touch of a finger and thumb will do it. And even if you leave me, at eh last I shall put myself out, guttering and flickering to death amongst my own shapeless melted remains. As those who live out their natural life span must go at the end, spread huge with dropsy or eaten to the skeleton wick by wasting. Better to show no light, than to clutch at the false comfort of a candle.

Pious, saintly Joanna desires nothing more than to do God’s will and yearns to be a preacher.

Have not we been despised and cast down from the first? Just so low as women were cast down, shall we now be raised up high. And those of the other churches, who believe women not fit to speak and preach and pass on the word of God, but that they must sit and listen with the children (for even the Wesleyans are against women preachers now): may they hear, and mark, how God’s favour has passed to women.

And Martha, horrifically abused and mistreated by her father, who comes with ‘a circle of sores around her neck, as from a chain. It is not hard to believe that whoever kept her before, kept her like a dog’. She has no speech, eats with her hands, appears to be stupid but it is Martha who evolves into someone extraordinary, achieving a sensitivity and mysticism denied the others.

There are new worlds. I grow to accommodate their size, as if I swallowed eggs that hatched and grew within.

And why does Brother Wroe require seven virgins? Well, really, there can only be one reason, but he is so manipulative that we never know if he is good, bad, deluded, or a mixture of all of these.

This really is a gem of a book and reminds me of the slightly later novel, ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ (1998), by Barbara Kingsolver.

‘Mr Wroe’s Virgins’ was brilliantly adapted for the BBC in 1993 with a script by Jane Rogers and directed by Danny Boyle. It is also a timely reminder of the way women are used in religion, with echoes of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.

Powerful stuff.