#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.

 

#100WomenNovelists: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Blog Post 12: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

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The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ often appears in Top 100 lists of must-read literature. It is technically a novella, 128 pages in my 1969 Penguin edition, with Maggie Smith on the cover, Jean Brodie herself in the film of the book, with her unforgettable cut glass Edinburgh accent. But it certainly deserves its place.

Jean Brodie is from the generation of women who lost fiances, husbands, and the possibility of a married life and children. The First World War claimed so many lives and its effects echoed on for decades. Miss Brodie is a victim of that war and in the run-up to the next war, she is hell bent on achieving immortality through her girls, the ‘Brodie set’.

Monica, Sandy, Mary, Eunice, Jenny, and Rose, all ‘famous’ for something, all encouraged to be individuals by Miss Brodie, make up the set, her ‘creme de la creme’.  In reality, they are as one, kept together due to the herd mentality sparked by this increasingly manipulative teacher, who admires Mussolini and has pictures of fascists goose-stepping across her classroom walls.

Miss Brodie is their teacher for two years, when the girls are aged between 11 and 12, still children but with puberty fast-approaching and inquisitive about adult life. The set is separate from the other girls at Marcia Blaine School, even when they move up to the seniors and have different teachers. They only exist as a group because of Miss Brodie; even the art teacher who paints each of the girls sees them as inseparable from each other and from their leader. (In the portraits they all creepily look like Jean Brodie.) She is the only thing they have in common and once she has been ‘betrayed’, the set falls apart.

Miss Brodie, based on one of Spark’s own teachers, is a snob. She is the epitome of hubris. She constantly bigs herself up, telling the girls that she is in her ‘prime’. ‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age,’ she boasts, ‘and she is mine for life.’ In the run-up to the outbreak of war in Europe, we can see that she is a dictator, like her beloved Mussolini . Her girls are her chosen ones but we see her nasty side in her bullying and scapegoating of Mary (who dies in her early twenties in a hotel fire). It is Miss Brodie’s political leaning, not her love affairs or grooming of the girls, that finally give her nemesis, headmistress Miss Mackay the munition she needs to dismiss her.

Back and forth along the corridors ran Mary Macgregor, through the thickening smoke. She ran one way; then, turning, the other way; and at either end the blast furnace of the fire met her. She heard no screams, for the roar of the fire drowned the screams; she gave no scream, for the smoke was choking her. she ran into somebody on her third turn, stumbled and died. But at the beginning of the nineteen-thirties, when Mary Macgregor was ten, there she was sitting blankly among Miss Brodie’s pupils. ‘Who has spilled ink on the floor- was it you, Mary?’

But we never really know Miss Brodie as a character. We see her through the eyes of the girls, especially Sandy. The narrative is a third person authorial voice, which jumps back and forth in time, sometimes even within the same paragraph – from the 30s, to post-war, to the 50s, and back again. This narrative device is so effective. We know early on that Miss Brodie will die young and that her ‘prime’ is over too soon. But strangely there is no lack of suspense. Knowing what will happen before it happens somehow piles on the tension. Kate Atkinson uses this technique and I think she must thank Muriel Spark for this.

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ also has a firm sense of place, and is one of the best stories set in Edinburgh. Miss Brodie might see herself as European, teaching the girls about the classics and art. But when she takes them around the Old Town to observe her city’s history we can see that the Calvinist influence of pre-destination is something she hasn’t managed to escape. She says that her raison d’etre is to inspire her girls but she is unable to avoid the fate that awaits her: a lonely, early retirement and cancer.

This is a cuttingly funny, disturbing book, not a word out of place, and one where the reader must work out what makes Miss Brodie. We never really know and this is its genius.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Laurie Graham

Blog Post 11: The Dress Circle (1998)

We was in the Tamarind Bar last night, drinking Ankle Breakers and waiting for Mary and Scouser to get back from the Jolly Roger Cruise. He said, ‘Ba, we’ve not done bad, have we? Twenty-nine years and still going strong?’

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Today is another 90s novel, also with a first person narrator, but quite different to the last blog post. Laurie Graham is an extraordinary writer and her novels are so varied in their settings and stories. But ‘The Dress Circle’ is probably my favourite, partly because it was the first of her novels that I read. And why do I love it so much? For Ba’s voice. She could’ve stepped right off the screen/pages of a Victoria Wood or Alan Bennett monologue.

Ba and Bobs are turning fifty. They met at school along with Scouser and Mary. The four of them come from working-class backgrounds, in the Midlands, and both couples have built up businesses from scratch. They are the nouveau riche with all their snobbery towards the middle-classes with their floorboards, faded rugs, and ‘granny’ furniture. They have moved up several notches and their life is now filled with new kitchens, cruises, and race horses.

Ba’s son is already married with two children. The daughter is on the verge of getting wed and Ba and Bobs are looking forward to having an empty nest. But then Bobs lets out his secret: he likes wearing dresses.

The novel deals deftly with this revelation and how family, friends, and the golf club react. But the brilliance of the writing is how Ba comes to terms with a side of her husband she never knew about.

I said, ‘There are men who wear dresses. They’re not poofters and they don’t interfere with kiddies and they don’t do nobody any harm, but when you find out you’re married to one you want to crawl into a blummin’ hole and die.’

The first person narrative makes the reader feel like they are actually in the room with Ba, listening to her confessions, her snobbery, her exasperation, her love for her family and the annoyance and hurt they shower on her. She thinks you should just get on with life, pull your socks up, count your blessings.

Everybody’s got something these days. Everybody’s got syndromes. Messing around with doctors because the dark mornings get them down, or their kiddies won’t sit still and learn anything at school. The blummin’ strap. That was what made us sit still and learn. Everybody’s just got excuses these days. And allergies. I don’t know where they’ve all sprung from. I don’t think they even knew about hay fever when we were kids.

But she fervently hopes there’s some tablets Bobs can take to sort him out and let things get back to normal.

This is a novel you can read in a sitting and it will leave you wanting to devour more of Laurie Graham’s canon of work.

 

 

 

#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Arundhati Roy

Blog Post 10: The God of Small Things (1997)

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May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. the rivers shrink and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun. 

Re-reading ‘The God of Small Things’ after twenty years was a delight, though a delight tinged with poignancy. The story is still unspeakably sad, maybe more so on a second read. But the sadness is shot through with humour and the most beautiful use of language.

The novel is set in Kerala, in southern India, and moves back and forth between two time frames, 1969 and 1993. The story charts the decline and fall of a wealthy Indian family and is largely narrated by a seven year old girl, Rahel, who is one of the ‘two egg twins’, the other being her brother, Estha.  Their mother, Ammu, a Syrian Christian, divorced from their father, a Bengali Hindu, is forced to return home to Kerala to live with her mother and a collection of comic yet grotesque relatives. The story is set against a unstable, complicated political, racial and religious landscape – the Caste system, Communism, Catholic traditions, a post-colonial mess – and Rahel and Estha are bombarded with all these competing influences.

Ammu and her twins are also in a precarious position at home. The family who strongly disapprove of the divorce, despite them never wanting her to marry the Hindu in the first place, treat them as inferiors. Ammu is depressed and stifled and seeks solace in the arms of an Untouchable, Velutha, the family’s gifted carpenter. This messing with the ‘Love Laws’ has catastrophic consequences.

What is most striking about this book is the language. Roy has such a fresh voice, full of the weight of all these cultural influences. She uses those famous mid-sentence capital letters, quirky rhymes, unexpected tongue twisters, sensuous descriptions, repetition. The prose might be dense but this is a very accessible novel. However, it would be wrong to read it quickly; you have to savour it.

The structure too is surprising. The opening reminds me of ‘Rebecca’ and the narrator’s dream about returning to Mandalay and finding it overgrown and dilapidated. Both novels jump around in time and the reader must piece together the information to work out what exactly has happened. The narrative here starts with a little girl’s funeral, then weaves back and forth until we see more clearly the events that led to her death and its repercussions. Roy shows us, tells us, that things can change in a day, ‘a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes. And that when they do, those few dozen hours, like the salvaged remains of a burned house — the charred clock, the singed photograph, the scorched furniture — must be resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for.”

And this is at the heart of the novel. You must grab the small things as these moments of joy are fleeting. Life in its bigness can be too overwhelming. Rahel says: ‘…only the Small Things are ever said. The Big Things lurk unsaid inside.’

The secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and magic.

‘The God of Small Things’ won the Booker Prize in 1997, remarkable for a debut novel. I am looking forward to Roy’s second novel, finally published twenty years later, ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’.

 

#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Jilly Cooper

Blog Post 9: Octavia (1977)

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The moment I set eyes on Jeremy West I knew I had to have him. I was sitting in Arabella’s, watching a crowd of debs and other phonies undulating round the floor and thinking they were dancing, when suddenly the bamboo curtain was pushed aside and a blond man walked in and stood looking around for a waitress.

I first became acquainted with the novels of Jilly Cooper in the first year of secondary school, aged 12, circa 1980. Well-read copies of her stand-alone romantic novels were handed surreptitiously around the class. I remember reading bits of ‘Prudence’ with my friends and snorting with laughter, hiding the copy from our science teacher (which might be why I only got 12% in my physics exam that year). I’d never come across such wit and naughtiness. I went on to read ‘Emily’, ‘Harriet’, ‘Imogen’, ‘Bella’, and ‘Octavia’. And then of course I graduated onto the blockbusters of the mid 80s, ‘Polo’, ‘Rivals’, and ‘Riders’.

Octavia has stayed with me all these years as she is a character who goes on a moral journey, from being a sulky, spoilt heiress, to having to work and put others before herself. ‘Octavia’ would today be classed as Chick Lit. It has a feisty first person narrator who is ultimately saved by the love of a (not so) good man. The hero, Gareth Llewellyn, a swarthy completely un-PC Welshman who would be at home on Dragon’s Den, is the man she eventually falls for.

Octavia lives in a world of jet-setters and nightclubs, rich boyfriends and Sloane Rangers. It is a piece of social history which means that it also now has toe-curling sexism but at its heart is a story of a woman with an awful childhood looking for love in the wrong places and finally finding it in the most unlikely of (hairy) arms.

But what endures in Jilly Cooper’s novels is her wit. The one-liners are cutting and brutal. She holds up a mirror to the the world she inhabits as a journo and social commentator. The writing itself, despite the dated words like ‘bread’ (for money) and ‘birds’ (for women), is still fresh and surprising. Cooper also knows how to pull on the heart strings. She does emotion so well and this is why her books continue to appeal to me. I might cringe at some of the sexism but when I read ‘Octavia’ I remember what it was like to be a teenager giggling in the science labs. And even in these uncertain times, I marvel at how far women have come.