#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.

 

 

#100WomenNovelists: Elizabeth Smart

Blog Post 16: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945)

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I am standing in a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire. Apprehension and the summer afternoon keep drying my lips, prepared at ten minute intervals all through the five-hour wait.

This extraordinary short work is based on Elizabeth’s Smart’s long term relationship with poet George Barker (they were on/off for eighteen years and she had four of his fifteen children). Smart first heard of Barker when browsing in a book shop on the Charing Cross Road as a young woman. She found a collection of his poetry and from that moment set about meeting the man, which would take her a few years to accomplish. She was from Canada, he was British but living in Japan. With his wife. As if this wasn’t complicated enough, the Second World War was raging. But Barker was the one she had ‘picked out from the world’. It is as if from this moment, Fate had decided; Smart was bound to Barker through hell and high water. ‘The trap is sprung, and I am in the trap.’

I hardly know where to begin with this one. How can you define ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept?’ Prose-poetry? Poetic prose? A novella? A short story? A lament? Whatever it is, it has most certainly divided opinion. Feminists question why an educated, intelligent, talented woman would need a man so utterly and desperately. Others have called Smart a marriage wrecker (despite the fact that George was the one with so many wives and mistresses). Some believe the writing over-wrought and melodramatic. Some are changed forever when they first read it. Others, like me, cannot quite decide. The reader response I have depends on where I am and how I am.

One thing for sure is that Smart’s work has a cult following. Morrissey’s lyrics are littered with homages to this text. I even found two from ‘Father Ted’ – ‘Down with that sort of thing’ and ‘Careful Now’! This is one of those books you carry around with you as a student, referencing it to your own life, wondering if you will ever know the ecstasy and despair and physical longing of love like this.

Its language is drawn from myth and legend but mainly from the Bible, in particular the Song of Solomon, but also from the Psalms which were often David’s lamentations, his cries out to God. Psalm 137 (celebrated by Boney M, no less) is the origin of the title of this extraordinary piece of work.

Under the redwood tree my grave was laid, and I beguiled my true love to lie down. The stream of our kiss put a waterway around the world, where love like a refugee sailed in the last ship. My hair made a shroud, and kept the coyotes at bay while we wrote our cyphers with anatomy. The winds boomed triumph, our spines seemed overburdened, and our bones groaned like old trees, but a smile like a cobweb was fastened across the mouth of the cave of fate.

Like ‘Wuthering Heights’ (also referred to) this is not necessarily a story of love, but of jealousy and obsession and betrayal. And yet, somehow, love seems to win through despite its huge emotional cost and long-ranging fallout. In the words sung by Paloma Faith: Only love can hurt like this.

Whatever you think of this book, you’ll be certain to want to talk about it.

#100WomenNovelists: Michele Roberts

Blog Post 15: The Wild Girl (1984)

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I was born and grew up in Bethany, a large village on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, about fifteen furlongs south-east from the holy city of Jerusalem, on the road to Jericho.

‘The Wild Girl’ (since renamed ‘The Secret Gospel of Mary Magdalene’) is another of those novels I read as a student as part of the Women Writers unit. This novel was held up as an example of how women’s voices have been silenced in the Christian tradition. If Mary Magdalene could have spoken, this is what she might have said.

We don’t really know who Mary Magdalene was. Roberts shows her as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, but mixes her in with other Mary figures who appear in the Gospels. And although it is no longer believed that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, here Roberts portrays this in a believable way – after all, there weren’t many ways for women to be able to live independently.

It has also been said that Mary was perhaps a woman of means, able to help financially support Jesus and his followers as they moved around. One thing for sure is that she is a pivotal character in the Gospels. We know Mary Magdalene was a follower of Jesus, that she stood at the foot of the cross, and that she anointed his dead body.  But most importantly it is to Mary Magdalene that the resurrected Jesus first appears. It is Mary that he sends to tell the others the good news. She is the first evangelist. Through Mary, we know Jesus valued women as equals. We know that he authorised women to preach, evangelise, and lead.

The stories that were canonised in the Bible in the early church were written from the male perspective. Women were second class citizens, without rights, seen as property and unable even to give witness in court. So Mary’s story would not have been chosen to go in the Bible. (Another interesting fact is that we don’t know who wrote the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament and I like to think this could have been written by a woman.) Roberts’ re-imagining is important.

I didn’t fully understand Jesus’ purpose in coming to us. He talked a great deal, on themes such as justice and the rights of the poor, and the love of the Most High whom he called our Father and Mother. But he was also often silent, and into this welcoming space people entered, pouring out their hearts, telling him all their thoughts. It was this, I thought, that made him different from our other visitors, and it was this which constituted him as a threat to the way of life our priests and rulers urged on us. Jesus was teaching us new ways. And so I began to fear for him.

Mary Magdalene, whoever she might have been, was a key figure in the life and teachings of Jesus. And while this novel has been see as blasphemous by some Christians, I believe it is an important book because it reclaims the good news for all. It reminds us that Jesus is what a feminist looks like.

#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Margaret Drabble

Blog Post 14: The Garrick Year (1964)

While I was watching the advertisements on television last night I saw Sophy Brent. I have not set eyes on her for some months, and the sight of her filled me with a curious warm mixture of nostalgia and amusement.

‘The Garrick Year’ is Margaret Drabble’s second novel written when she was 24. She was drawing from her experience from her marriage to Clive Swift who was a member of the RSC. Drabble followed him to Stratford where she too had some minor roles.

I’ve read Drabble’s 80s novels but this is the first time I’ve read ‘The Garrick Year’. As a writer she is a social realist and here she shows an honest view of early motherhood at a time when gender roles were clearly defined, even within the more bohemian lifestyle of a theatrical marriage. Emma struggles with the demands of breastfeeding, lack of sleep, boredom, and a loss of self, made far worse when her actor husband, David, ups and moves them from London to provincial Hereford. Under-stimulated and lonely, she seeks some solace in a half-hearted affair.

We were not separate, at that point: we were part of the same thing still. I like things to be orderly and distinct, I do not much like the mess of union, it made me angry that his ash should be in my ashtrays, that his movements should be my movements; and yet that was how it was. He said that he would go to Hereford, and I, self-willed, distinct, determined Emma Evans, I said that I would go too.

They have two very young children and David is working anti-social hours. Emma does have a live-in French nanny but parenting and domesticity is driving her to death by isolation. But what stops Emma being one of those moany women of fiction is her cutting edge. There is a sharp banter between husband and wife. She might give in to him, but inside she is fighting, striving for perfection, even though she is not quite sure why.

The novel has an array of exasperating and exasperated characters, bit-part players, but the star of the show is Emma’s young daughter, Flora. She is a delight.

Interesting Fact: Margaret Drabble is the sister of AS Byatt. What a family.

#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Toni Morrison

Blog Post 13: Sula (1974)

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In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighbourhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom.

I first read ‘Sula’ as an undergraduate back in the 80s. It was one of the texts studied as part of the Women Writers unit that I took, standing alongside ‘A Room of One’s One’, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, ‘The Awakening’, ‘The Wild Girl’, and ‘Ariel’. It was utterly mesmerising and so different to anything I had ever read.

Morrison’s language is lyrical, outspoken, surprising; the subject matter disturbing, violent, joyful. ‘Sula’ is a short novel, spare and yet dense, packed with vivid imagery and epic wonder, forty-five years covered, back and forth, in a flash.

Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossomed things. Heavy sunflowers weeping over fences; iris curling and browning at the edges far away from their purple hearts; ears of corn letting their auburn hair wind down to their stalks. And the boys. The beautiful, beautiful boys who dotted the landscape like jewels, split the air with their shouts in the field, and thickened the rivers with their shining wet backs. Even their footsteps left a smell of smoke behind.

This is the summer the main characters, Nel and Sula, turn twelve. The summer that ‘they became skittish, frightened and bold – all at the same time.’ The story revolves around their friendship. They are so close they are like one, two halves – Nel, the conformer and Sula, the free spirit. Their bond sets them apart. 

Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be. Their meeting was fortunate, for it let them use each other to grow on. Daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers (Sula’s because he was dead; Nel’s because he wasn’t), they found in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for. 

Set in rural Ohio from the First World War to the Second, this African American community has to live off the less fertile and more exposed hills than their richer white neighbours down in the valley. In a society of segregation, we are shown the reality of this systematic oppression. Sula and Nel, their mothers and grandmothers, are doubly oppressed. To be a woman and black is something Nel ‘gets on with’. But this is not an option for Sula. She leaves town, travels across America, and ten years later returns. And maybe there is only one way this can end for the friends? Especially where Nel’s husband, Jude, is concerned.

A breathtaking read.