Welcome to this my blog - a record of my life with books and pictures

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Daffodils in February and putting the cart before the horse with Antonia White

I have photographed my copy of Jane Dunn’s “Antonia White: A Life” with a vase of daffodils not because they reflected my mood whilst reading the book, but because I needed cheering up. A dear friend has been bullying me for years to read White’s classic novel of convent school life Frost in May. I finally acceded and thought it deserving it of its reputation. I can understand why this book was chosen as the very first Virago Modern Classic. Aware that Frost in May is heavily autobiographical, I then jumped feet first and with much speed into its author’s biography.

As a cursory glance at this blog will show – I do love a good biography. But sometimes, just sometimes, reading a biography of a writer before one has read most of their work can be a shame. I suppose that the reason for this is that knowledge of the life and demons of a writer can taint the way we see their work. Jane Dunn’s biography of Antonia White is excellent, but I wonder if I should have waited.

Antonia White – the first Virago lady was a remarkable talent. Born in the last year of the 19th century, Antonia’s life changed when her father converted to Catholicism when she was seven years old. Her father’s conversion was the defining spiritual event of Antonia’s life and she would turn it and its implications over in my her mind for many years and in the midst of doubts, rebellions and reconversions. Her father took to his new faith with gusto and Antonia was sent to be educated at the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Roehampton. Her account of the cruelties and bigotries of convent school life – where children were encouraged to fall asleep with their hands clasped in prayer lest they should die in the night still has the power to shock us today.

It was not simply Antonia’s spiritual landscape that was laid out at Roehampton. So too, her identity as a writer was formed. The dramatic events at the end of Frost in May (which I will not spoil for readers who have not read it) left Antonia with a profound, tormenting sense of personal victimhood and an inability to write fiction. Although her writing was outstanding, she would never, even as a grown up woman be able to write purely fictional work. Like another Virago writer of the same period – Barbara Comyns – her writing was cathartic and based on her own life. For Antonia – writing was associated with the greatest injustice of her life and this changed the way she worked forever. She suffered from extended periods of appalling writer’s block. She destroyed huge amounts of her work. This account of her life as a writer has left me wondering what she would have produced if she had been able to tackle fiction. Was it her early experiences at the convent that put the fire into her writing? Or did the convent partly stymie a talent that was always there?

This tussle between pain and creativity speaks of the dominating factor in Antonia White’s life. As was evident from her very early adulthood, Antonia White was severely and brutally bi-polar. She suffered from extended periods of crushing mental illness which sapped years from her life and poisoned most of her relationships with others – even, or rather especially – those closest to her. For me, the most striking part of Jane Dunn’s biography was where she compares the medical reports from Antonia’s most dramatic breakdown, with her own fictionalised rendering of the same event. The clarity of vision and vivid language that White used to describe her darkest moments are staggering and the reader will watch anxiously for the strange interlacing of her depression and her startling creativity throughout this splendid record of her life.

The other pictures that I have used here are a publicicty shot of the adult Antonia White - and also a school photograph of one of the Scared Heart's other famous old girls - Vivien Leigh.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Deep love and dark troubles: the “Red Pottage” of Mary Cholmondeley

My trip home from London was not as readerly as I had planned. My seat turned out to be next to a little girl whose questions to me never ceased from St Pancras to Gare de Nord. I soon gave up on the idea of reading and allowed myself to be interrogated. I was only slightly taken aback when she looked at me after a short pause and said, “What’s it like to have orange hair?” I said that I had always enjoyed it. So, it was for this reason that Mary Cholmondeley’s “Red Pottage” sat unread on my lap for the journey. Back at home; I have devoured it eagerly and with much enjoyment.

Red Pottage is a subversive and thoughtful novel that traces the fortunes in love and work of two closely bonded women of the fin-de-siecle. The plain but self possessed Rachel is mainly concerned with love. She is a woman of vast fortune, who has been through a formative period of poverty. Her misfortune is to fall in love, against the wiser counsel of all who know her, with a reforming philanderer whom she knows to have been involved in the most bizarre morality scandal that London society doesn’t yet know about. Rachel is a listening character – she is a magnet for confidences and a calm and intelligent presence. Her friend since the earliest days of childhood is the worldly delicate novelist, Hester. Hester is fragile of body and robust of mind. She has grown up under the wealthy and cosmopolitan tastes of an old aunt and at a young age has written a novel which has been acclaimed in every corner of intelligent society. The death of her aunt has forced her into residence at the parsonage of her self righteous and doctrinaire brother – the vicar of Warpington – in the aptly named “Middleshire”. Here she will battle against the constraints and pretensions of parochial society – but will she be able to write what is within her?

The text bristles with an array of superbly drawn characters. Our two heroines stand tall but around them are a host of others ranging from vacuous society ladies, insecure middle class women who feel envy and call it disapproval and displaced outsiders who will show more bravery than any reader would expect. Their men folk are no less varied. There are those that are weak minded and uncomprehending and care only for the avoidance of scandal. On the other hand – many of the male characters reach out to both Rachel and Hester and respect them as thinking women who are entitled to love and work as they wish. In particular the wonderful “Bishop of Southminster” deserves a special mention for kindness and intelligence – he has more than a hint of E. M. Forster’s “Mr Beebe” (from A Room with a View) about him. The Bishop is an important character because it is he who prevents “Red Pottage” from being a work of anti clericalism. Like Rachel and Hester, he is a character who shows that it is possible to live well and morally, without resorting to dogma.

It is easy to see how Red Pottage caused a scandal upon publication in 1899. It is deeply subversive of church, family and social conventions. Bubbling beneath the personal stories of its narrative are much grander themes – themes of women and society. It imagines a world where one who was “a born gentleman spoke to ‘em as man to man, not as if we was servants and childer”. It is a world where a woman can be as creative and more so than a man, and where the profound friendship between two women may prove to be stronger than any other social tie. It is a revolution indeed, and its power has not entirely been lost by time and social changes. Much of the force of Cholmondeley’s message still comes through in the text, even though the world we now live in is so different.

The narrative switches artfully between the two women, interlacing their stoires and themes. There is a powerful cinematic quality to the story and the novel would make excellent material for a film or a TV adaptation. The drama is heightened throughout by the dark shadow of a pact between the object of Rachel’s love and a male friend of Hester. It is a pact of death – but who will die and how? Red Pottage manages to be both dark and extremely funny. The height of Cholmondeley’s humour is undoubtedly an ill fated meeting of the Middleshire temperance society which takes unexpected turns under the vicarage roof and which left me laughing out loud. Cholmondeley writes with a knowing eye of the nonsense of her age. She satirises people mercilessly and illustrates what we all know: that we can all be unconscious comedians.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Warm-Hearted Detective: Michael Holroyd’s Basil Street Blues

There is nothing like a long lonely journey for a spot of introspection. On this basis, I am convinced that I chose the right read for my latest trip on the eurostar. Here I am curled up in a corner window seat, with the flats of Northern France whipping past the train window and a copy of Michael Holroyd’s Basil Street Blues, just finished, sitting in front of me. I am on my way home, mostly on family duties and so I feel that this was a timely book to pick up. Basil Street Blues is a family saga and a work of fascinating autobiography, written by one of the great biographers of our time. In this book, Michael Holroyd turns the scholarly scepticism, searching curiosity and profound human sympathy that we know from his biographies of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John and George Bernard Shaw onto his own family and on to himself. Basil Street Blues is a thing of many sides and many pleasures.

First and foremost it is a family saga of colourful characters, eccentric households and their faltering passage through changing times and changing fortunes. It illuminates that corner of the human experience that we all know: where those we love manage to be both outrageously unpredictable and infuriatingly consistent. The story focuses on Holroyd’s parents, the frustrated entrepreneur Basil and the beautiful, hyperactive Ulla. We see his parents through the prism of their own parents and ancestors, from English Earls and tea importers to Swedish army majors and overbearing heiresses. Through the parents we come to know, tangentially the endless string of step parents whom Holroyd describes as passing in and out of his life “like minor characters in a badly managed melodrama”. We add to this the figure of Holroyd himself, who emerges from the narrative of his family, blinking into the light of adulthood with intelligence, thoughtfulness and humour.

As a detective of his own family, Holroyd discovers all sorts of truths. Amongst incidents of suicide, adultery, third class degrees and professional failures, he explores the gaping cavity which often exists between family legend and reality. Many of his characters – from the stoic family heroes to the bad tempered ladies of leisure – turn out to be not quite as they seemed to be. Every personality has an explanation although sometimes, we cannot quite get at it. Holroyd presents what is at times a lament for their lives and attitudes, whilst also celebrating their colour and interest. He skilfully maintains real intimacy with both his reader and the subjects of his detection.

The writer’s role as detective and biographer is another major concern of Basil Street Blues. For Holroyd, writing biography became a way of being invisible, and in many respects this book explores the space between visibility and invisibility in life and in writing. One of the most hilarious episodes of the book sees Holroyd, the confidante and scribe of both his mother and her estranged third husband, conducting a 18 month long correspondence with himself. He is central – and yet it is somebody else’s story. His account of the early years of a biographer and the moral dilemmas that emerge from life writing are engaging and amusing.

As well as being a super yarn. Basil Street Blues is also extremely funny and extremely touching. It plays with chronology enough to add interest and enrich its themes. It is written with an extremely light and self-effacing touch. What is more – it causes me to think, about my own family and where I come from and what my identity is. Not everyone has come a family like the one in Basil Street Blues, but we can all look at our relations and see a lot of ourselves. Who can look in the mirror and not see some shade of their parents, their grandparents, relations who may be legion, the places of childhood and the dramas of family? Michael Holroyd has written an excellent book about a universal human concern.

I have included as illustrations a couple of examples of lalique glass – one of several ill fated commercial enterprises taken up by the Holroyd family and treated, with suitable humour, in Basil Street Blues.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Good evening Mrs Craven: the unexpected triumph of the short story

There was a time when I did not like short stories at all. I found them limiting experiences in which the characters and the themes are never properly developed and all of the substantial parts of a good read are notable by their absence. I very much took the view that reading a short story was a bit like eating custard without crumble. So it is with some surprise and a little embarrassment that I admit that I have now changed my mind. When mastered, the short story form can be as compelling and touching as a novel, and nobody does it better than Mollie Panter-Downes.

“Good Evening Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes” is a collection of short stories originally published in the New Yorker during the second world war. They are now drawn together in the form of a Persephone Classic. The stories were written and published during the war and their focus is the home front. The constant motif is the middle class British lady - knitting socks for heroes, sitting by the wireless and sharing her home with strangers. The character’s concerns centre on the themes of survival and adaptation. For some of them survival simply means staying alive. For others it is the desperate urge to make a relationship, a family, a home live through the war. Together with the dream of survival comes the constant anxiety that accompanies each page: will my world still exist when the war is over? Will I still have a place at the table? Adaptation to the demands of war comes easier to some than to others. Panter-Downes captures marvellously a nation in the act of trying to adapt – it is only natural that some should succeed where others do not. Although these are heavy themes, she writes lightly and with knowing humour.

The stories to which my mind constantly returns are “Cut Down the Trees” from 1943 and “The Waste of it All” from 1944. In “Cut Down the Trees” Mrs Walsingham, an elderly society lady and her trusty maid Dossie struggle through the war in the company of 40 Canadian soldiers who have been billeted in the old lady’s grand home. While Mrs Walsingham is an adapter, the conservative Dossie is dismayed and not a little heart broken by the disintegration of her upstairs downstairs world. When Mrs Walsingham decides to eat in the kitchen instead of the dining room Dossie’s thoughts were that:

“It was all part and parcel of the unwarranted bad joke, the conspiracy against Dossie’s way of life, which they called a war and which had taken first the menservants and then the girls one by one, which had stopped the central heating, made a jungle of the borders and a pasture of the lawns, marooned the two old women in a gradually decaying house with forty Canadians, and made Mrs. Walsingham stop dressing for dinner”.

The seismic social shifts caused by the war are also explored in “The Waste of it All” where a lonely middle class government worker whose husband is away fighting takes in an unmarried mother and her adorable child. As in “Cut Down the Trees” the path of social change is seen through the lens of personal loss and frustration. Frances, the lady of the house is tormented with worry for her absent husband and their marriage. Her affection for the husbandless Margaret and her beautiful baby Raymond quickly turns to resentment and confusion. Frances begins to feel displaced in her own home and she cannot understand how a girl could reject social norms – could taunt the respectable hand that feeds her. The truth is that the social changes which were taking place would never be reversed. Panter-Downes captures a world that has been lost.

The stories of Mollie Panter-Downes illustrate that everybody has to go on living even when there is a war on. They are vignettes of a society busying itself and trying not to think the worst. They acknowledge that most people managed remarkably well as much as they illustrate how nobody can keep up an act all of the time. Their form does not limit the stories – in fact their shortness lends to their power. With these tales the reader hears a resounding clatter of teacups on saucers, the click click of knitting needles and the slow and monotonous moan of the air raid siren. There is, in short, a wonderful sense of time and place. The “short story” part means that there is a sense of society as well. Thank you Persephone for another classic.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Business School Wives Book Club: Part One (America)

My husband took one look at Jay McInerney’s “How It Ended” and said “that looks awful”. I have to admit that I was inclined to agree. Maybe it was the picture of an electric blue swimming pool on the front cover. Or maybe it was the following words on the back that really turned me off: “A transsexual prostitute accidentally propositions his own father; Two young lovers spend Christmas together high on different drugs”. It looked to me to be the kind of book that bends over backwards to be controversial and that ultimately was unlikely to be my cup of Darjeeling.

But then the Business School Wives Book Club is not a place where you get to re read your old favourites over a glass of Chablis. The members of our club are the bookworm wives of MBA students at an international business school and as a result of that we are drawn from all corners of the globe. We have an American, an Indian, a Romanian, a Russian, a Japanese, a Pakistani and I am British. Our challenge, should we chose to accept it is to introduce to the group a book that in some sense represents the culture of our home.

And so that is how it came to pass that America was represented by the collection of short stories “How It Ended”. The focus of these stories is the underbelly of modern urban life in the states. Their narrators are the excluded, the dispossessed and the disillusioned. Most have brushed fame or notoriety and retreated into the hinterland between being a “somebody” and being a “nobody”. The “Big Guy”: fat, vulgar and corrupt is a character that stands tall in these stories and he is mocked as much as he is acknowledged as the victor of the urban underworld. He stands in contrast to the neglected guy, the guy who got stepped over, the guy who is never going to “make it”. This is a world of loneliness and falsehood and envy. Everybody here has a history and yet everyone is also anonymous, the city being the best place to transform a tired middle class life into a subversive one. McInerney captures the sprawl of the city with just a few words. He focuses in on the individual soul just as easily.

The quality of the writing is absolutely excellent. The language is taut, sardonic and spare. He manages in a few pages to deliver an electrifying sense of time and place and his use of the first person narrative is extremely powerful. It enables him to build a profound intimacy between the reader and the central character of each story. It is as though you the reader, are actually there, taking the drugs and the bribes and disguising your true identity with the rest of them. You as the reader will find yourself living a lie, consorting with prostitutes, sex addicted senators and convicts – there is no end to the reinvention.

So, I guess that I was wrong on the “awful” assumption. I thought that these stories were excellent. Now that I have completed my brush with the metropolitan grotesque I have two criticisms. The first is that whilst the male characters are masterfully developed, the females are generally two dimensional dolly birds who are simply foils for their men folk. The women do not feel “real” and this lets the stories down. Secondly, McInerney is something of a one trick pony. These stories are great, but they are all the same. So much so, that they can begin to feel rather formulaic. This may be a result of the limiting format of the short story and so, surprised though I am to be writing this: I think I will give McInerney the benefit of the doubt and try one of his novels.