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365 days of women's lit

Archive for the ‘Published 1950-99’ Category

Mary Stewart: Wildfire at Midnight

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Every now and then you are introduced to a writer (thanks stuartblessman) who you can’t believe you’ve managed to get so far through life without discovering. Such a one for me is Mary Stewart, the English popular novelist famed for knitting together the romance and mystery genres (and author of the Merlin trilogy), who was awarded an honorary doctorate by Durham University in 2009 for her lifetime’s work.

Advised to read ‘pretty much anything’ by her, I picked out Wildfire at Midnight on the strength of Amazon’s breathless blurb about ritualistic murders and webs of fear and suspicion (I am not nearly as high-minded as I sometimes like to think).

Stewart did not disappoint. Sweeping me along with her heroine Gianetta, a recent divorcee and former model still in her early twenties, she immersed me in her deliciously nostalgic scene setting, homing in on a lonely hotel on the Isle of Skye where a large cast of characters is struggling to come to terms with the sacrifice of a crofter‘s daughter up on the neighbouring mountain.

What I hadn’t expected was how funny Stewart would be. Easy and conversational, her narrative style is peppered with jokes and gentle swipes at the idiosyncrasies of many of her creations, while losing none of the suspense required to make the story work. Reading her at her best is like reading Agatha Christie with a healthy dollop of Nancy Mitford stirred in.

There are one or two blots on the copybook though: the plot relies on a series of apparent coincidences that bring a lot of people who know each other together in a remote location, straining credulity early on (although some of this is later explained away), and the whole thing turns on Gianetta’s adherence to a rather quaint moral code, which although attributable to her Roman Catholic background is not adequately explained for the modern reader to buy into wholesale.

I could also have lived without a few of the more unfortunate turns of phrase: it will be a while before I manage to get the thought of ‘the excited hands of the butcher coming behind me’ out of my head.

However, much of this is probably down to the fact that Wildfire at Midnight was only Stewart’s second book and it doesn’t take away from how downright enjoyable the experience of reading her is. It would be interesting to see how Stewart’s style and the moral universe of her characters shifted as her career progressed. Doubtless I’ll be back for more.

Photo by Y Ballester

Written by londonchoirgirl

November 28, 2011 at 2:26 pm

Diana Wynne Jones: Howl’s Moving Castle

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You’d have to have been taking part in a three-year BBC 4 social documentary recreating the living conditions of 18th century crofters not to have picked up on the YA hype that’s been going around lately. Young adult fiction (just in case you are still struggling out of your smock) is massive and, as one literary agent tweeted breathlessly from the Frankfurt Book Fair last month, even publishers who would never have dipped their toes into the teen lit market before are crying out for dystopia, fantasy, werewolves and vampires.

Bloggers are on to it too. In fact many of the comments and feedback I’ve had for this site have involved recommendations of YA books to read. And one name has cropped up again and again: Diana Wynne Jones.

Published in 1986, one of the English writer’s most famous novels Howl’s Moving Castle has been reaping the benefits of the YA surge. Set in the magical kingdom of Ingary, it follows Sophie Hatter as she sets out to seek her fortune in the wake of being turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste. Sophie is thrown on the mercy of Wizard Howl, whose moving castle has been menacing her town, and who has a nasty reputation for sucking out the hearts of young girls. But of course nothing is quite as it first appears and before long she is striding around the country in seven league boots, casting all sorts of spells in an effort to defeat the witch and return Ingary to its happily ever after.

So far, so conventional. What lifts the narrative out of its fairytale formula, though, is the wit and verve with which Jones sets out her stall. We hear that magical folk only wear cloaks and buckled boots on festival days and would never dream of putting them on for work, and that ‘it is quite a risk to spank a wizard for getting hysterical about his hair’. And when Sophie makes it through the castle’s mysterious black exit to the weird land of Wales (where the provenance of Howl’s name — Howell — suddenly becomes clear) her response to cars and computers is a joy to read.

I loved it. But one of the things I loved most about it was how familiar it felt. Far from being part of a brave new genre, this book took me back to the children’s stories I got from my Mum’s collection — forgotten classics such as Marion St John Webb’s The Little Round House (London, 1956), which, for all their political incorrectness, managed to spin engrossing yarns with wit and clever observations layered on top.

Judging by Wynne Jones, I couldn’t help wondering whether YA fiction is simply what used to be thought of as good children’s lit. And if, instead of creating a magical new genre, publishers have simply shrunk childhood and pulled off the greatest marketing trick of the 21st century to date.

Picture by laserbub

Written by londonchoirgirl

November 17, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Jilly Cooper: Prudence

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Yeah, yeah. I know what you’re thinking. I was thinking much the same when a friend thrust a copy of Prudence into my hands with instructions to read it for my blog.  Her attempt to reassure me that this was one of the early novels ‘before she got into threesomes’ and that anyway sex was only ever a tiny part of the Cooper experience only made things worse.

Who was she trying to kid? I’d seen the book jackets with the horse whips and basques and suspenders: Jump and Buck and whatever else they were called. Clearly — clearly — Jilly Cooper was all about sex. You didn’t have to have read her to know that. And if this was Jilly Cooper without the sex, it was definitely going to be very weak and very dull.  Like green tea without the… green.

Not a bit of it. From the gutsy opening scene at a raffish London party — complete with a guest who mistakes it for a fancy dress party and arrives togged up as a goat only to have his udders hurled out of the window — you know you are in for a witty, irreverent ride. As Prudence follows the mysterious Pendle to the Mulholland’s Bohemian family seat and tries to unpick the emotional knots that bind the family and herself, it’s impossible not to be drawn in. Forget the tea, this is gin and ginger wine with a whisky chaser to boot.

One of the best things about it is the humour, which comes not only from a number of neatly contrived calamities, but also from Cooper’s sparky prose. There are some excellent gags and oneliners (‘He’s been away all week shooting.’ ‘Grouse?’ ‘No. Butter commercials in Devon’) and some killer descriptions (the mother who’d ‘set like a pink blancmange on the sofa’, the dashingly serious journalist: ‘Each time he opened his mouth, I expected the Panorama signature tune to strike up’), some of which are every bit as good as Gibbons, Coward or Stoppard.

That said, it’s important to take the book on its own terms. High literature, this ain’t — no matter what the Harpers & Queen reviewer quoted as branding Cooper ‘the Jane Austen of our time’ on the jacket may think. Nor does it pretend to be. The plot is unapologetically predictable and the characterisation veers to fit it, much as the characters themselves must when they get behind the wheels of their expensive motors in a gin-sozzled haze.

The comfortable, upper-upper-middle-class horsiness will be too much for some readers to take. But those that can are in for a whole scullery-load of fun. This is a romp; a jolly; a lark. It is the definition of all those feel-good adjectives that have been worn thin on the jackets of a billion airport novels up and down the land. It is exactly the book to curl up with on a winter evening, to take to the beach or to stretch out with on the croquet lawn (whether you have one or not).

Thanks Anna — doubtless I’ll be back for more.

Picture by Walt Stoneburner

Written by londonchoirgirl

October 17, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Marilyn French: The Women’s Room

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When I was at university, a supervisor picked me up on one of my essay writing habits. ‘Why do you always call the reader “he”?’ he asked. I replied that it was shorthand, that I couldn’t be bothered with adding the cumbersome ‘or she’ every third sentence, that the Elizabethans used to use ‘he’ as a neuter form (I was a cocky so-and-so) and that, as a woman, I was aware I could get away with it.

He looked at me kindly but sternly. ‘I think you need to think more carefully about the battles that have been fought about this issue,’ he said.

Marilyn French wouldn’t have needed such a reminder. Writing in the seventies, a few years after the crest of the second wave of feminism broke on western shores, she made the struggles of women for equal recognition and a voice in debate the lifeblood of her work.

Told from the perspective of Mira, a bright but deeply conventional woman who gradually learns to test and then finally reject the status quo she has been brought up with in small-town America, The Women’s Room blows apart accepted structures and forces readers to question whether what is is what has to be. It brings in the lives of numerous female characters, each of whom eventually runs up and smashes against the limitations of the world in which she is obliged to exist.

The book is so massive in scope (despite its domestic subject matter) that it’s tempting to think of it as a sort of female Odyssey, in which the heroine encounters a string of challenges in an effort to reach harmony and a true home. French would no doubt reject such a definition, however, as her narrative is nothing if not a struggle to find a way of articulating the mental fetters that bind women by breaking free of traditional masculine structures, Homeric epics and all.

Val, French’s most memorable and tragic character, puts it most succinctly:

‘We’re rebels against all establishments because we’re rebels against male supremacy, male surface bonding, male power, male structures. We want a completely different world, one so different that it’s hard to articulate, impossible to conceive of a structure for it’

And that’s the dilemma that makes the book so compelling: when all that’s biased and tainted is stripped away, precious little remains on which to build a new vision. Val has a stab at it, positing a sort of Utopian community not dissimilar to the Italian commune Germaine Greer sketches out in The Female Eunuch, but even she has to admit the vision is unconvincingly vague.

Witnessing the sad dissolution of the women’s lives, you can’t help but feel how difficult it is to envisage true equality in a system that is fundamentally constructed by and for men. We are all (men and women alike) so trapped in the world-view we’ve been fed and clothed in since we were born that imagining that there might be an alternative is challenge enough for most of us, let alone trying to thrash out what that alternative might look like.

Society, the book leaves you feeling,  would be entirely different if it had been constructed by women — not necessarily better, but very different. In such a world, instead of swallowing my arrogance and adding ‘or she’ into my assignments, I might not have been writing essays at all.

Picture by Galdo Trouchsky. With thanks to Georgina for recommending The Women’s Room.

Written by londonchoirgirl

June 25, 2011 at 9:06 am

Barbara Vine: A Dark-Adapted Eye

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There was a working gallows at Wandsworth Prison until 1992. It was tested every six months

Every so often as a rookie novelist, you come across a book that reads like a masterclass in what you want to do. For me, juddering my way up the London Overground line to work, still dazed from the six o’clock alarm and the hour spent plugging away at my second draft,  A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell) is such a one.

Centred around the execution of Vera Hillyard in the years after World War II, the novel examines the ripple effect of infamy, the way that ‘Murder reaches out through a family, stamping transfers of the Mark of Cain on a dozen foreheads’.

At least that’s one description. Another would be that this is a novel about maternity, about the things society expects of mothers and the things women expect of themselves in that role, and the gap between those ideas and the reality. Or you could say this is a novel about secrets, childhood, war, femininity, storytelling, and outsiders.

The reason for such multivalency is that the novel is told largely from the narrator Faith’s memories of her aunts Vera and Eden during the war years. As that period marked Faith’s transition from childhood to adulthood, her perspective and the things she noticed shifted with each stint at her aunts’ house, where she was sent to escape the London bombing raids. Coupled with this shift in perspective is the revelation of a number of secrets, which tilts the significance of events first one way, then another, and finally wrenches the focus away from the murder itself on to the mystery at the book’s heart.

It’s a complicated structure and one which (she says, thinking of the ragbag of events and motivations saved in a file on this computer) could easily get out of control. Vine steers it mistressfully, though, using two main techniques: she uses inquiries from a biographer interested in profiling Vera Hillyard as a spur and then series of guideposts for unfolding the narrative, and she makes sure each of the large cast of characters looms from the page with a startling set of needs, desires and grudges of his or her own. Most striking is Vera Hillyard — by turns the personification of Sartre’s Bad Faith with her obsessive adherence to rigid rules about deportment and manners, and the pathetic victim of a vicious game the rules of which she can only dimly recognise.

Now and then, the complexity of the structure does necessitate a bit of forcing to make the box click shut. The suggestion, for example, that Eden might have been reluctant to falsify a birth certificate because registry offices had lots of intimidating posters up in those days rings oddly when considered alongside the far more shocking things she is supposed to have done. It also seems strange that the biographer would eventually decide not to write his book because he was ‘defeated’ by the central mystery, a mystery so extraordinary  that, as Faith says, it is hardly ever encountered by normal people — just the sort of thing to have a jobbing hack’s ears pricking up, surely, even if it couldn’t be finally resolved?

For my part, though, I couldn’t help but be grateful for these minor flaws. Seen in light of the overall accomplishment, they felt like the tiny symmetrical imperfections that prove the pearl is real. They hinted at the months of attrition the story must have undergone in its author’s head, and gave me conviction that such craftswomanship might be possible after all. Thanks for the recommendation, Sue.

Picture by Jaime Perez.

Iris Murdoch: The Black Prince

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Alas poor Yorick...

Only now, writing this up, do I realise the strange coincidence of going from a book about the court of Henry VIII to a book entitled The Black Prince. A quick go with Google (yes, the Black Prince is yet another of those cryptic historical names liable to send me into a clueless spin) tells me that the Black Prince was an Edward, eldest son of Edward III, that he lived between 1330 and 1376, and that he distinguished himself in the Battle of Crecy at the age of just 16. Bully for him. 

Not so bully for him was the fact that he caught some nasty bug in Spain and died before he had a chance to have a go on the throne. Apparently the nickname Black Prince only came in after he died and is a reference to the fact that he wore black armour (at least according to the good folk behind the BBC History website).

All of which, it turns out when you read the book, is totally irrelevant. Because the Black Prince of the title is a reference to Hamlet and nothing to do with good old Edward the wotsit at all.

Doubtless, if I were the sort of person who reads introductions, I would have had this in hand from the start. But for me introductions are things to be avoided at all costs, at the very least until you’ve actually read the book itself. They’re like the chatty PR you have to deal with before you get to interview someone – full of opinions and bias, slanting your judgement so that, unless you’re very careful, you miss the million-dollar point at the heart of it all.

In this case, however, my aversion to introductions did more than put me on the back foot with the Black Prince. It actually made me struggle to find the start of the book altogether. Clicking into the text on my Kindle, I flicked past the dreaded introduction only to find myself presented with an Editor’s Foreword.  This in turn gave on to Bradley Pearson’s Foreword. ‘Who he?’ I thought and flicked boldly on. Here was the title page – The Black Prince: A Celebration of Love. Somewhat un-Murdoch-like, perhaps but hey-ho, the old girl did write some 25 novels. I wasn’t going to begrudge her the odd flight of sentimentalism.

It was the first line that brought me up short:

It might be most dramatically effective to begin the tale at the moment when Arnold Baffin rang me up and said, ‘Bradley, could you come round here please, I think that I have just killed my wife’.

OK, yes. Full marks for dramatic effectiveness. But wasn’t it rather over-egging the pudding to state the technique in this way? In contrast to the deft, swan-like mechanisms of the other Murdoch novels I’ve read and loved (The Sea, The Sea – brilliant; The Bell – really, you must) this seemed awkward and clunky. There was a hollow ring to it.

Puzzled, I flicked back to the previous pages, fighting the novice Kindle-reader’s fear that one false click could lose me the entire book. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing and a reluctant skim through odd passages of the forewords, the truth became clear: the novel starts with the first foreword. The plunge into fantasy begins there.

This blurring of the lines between the real and the imagined is a staple theme for Murdoch and one of my favourite things about her. All of her characters are, to some extent, prisoners of their perceptions. But in The Black Prince, this is taken to extremes as we read the words of Murdoch’s creation, struggling writer Bradley Pearson, recounting his version of an extraordinary series of events that have overturned his dull existence.

Fencing from behind the shield of Pearson’s persona, Murdoch keeps us guessing. We cannot be sure how much of what Bradley Pearson narrates happened as he describes, if at all. The very idea of objective truth itself is taken apart by the postscripts from various characters, which point towards markedly different readings of events.

Equally, as Bradley holds forth on writing, we cannot be sure how much of it comes from him and how much is a release of the secret fears and obsessions of his creator.

For some, this sense of being perpetually at sea and the long rambling pensees on life, love and art will be too much. No-one is likeable, admirable or noble in Murdoch’s world because all are at pains to broadcast their versions of events regardless of the cost to others. People shift ground shamelessly, forming and breaking allegiances and accounts of reality as best suits their ends. 

Personally, as a struggling writer myself with all the neuroses and delusions of grandeur that that implies, I loved it.  

Picture by zizzybaloobah

Written by londonchoirgirl

April 17, 2011 at 1:13 pm