Saturday, 28 August 2010

St Deiniol's Residential Library

I'm just back from a few restful but productive days at St Deiniol's, Britain's only residential library.  The library was started by Gladstone to provide an opportunity for scholars to consult his personal library; 32,000 of Gladstone's books formed the core of the collection, and he left £40,000 in his will to develop the library further.  The current library building went up in 1902, and became residential in 1905.  The current collection develops Gladstone's interests in theology and history, but has been continually increased and improved over the years, and there is a good variety of stock in literature and the humanities.  I've spent the last few days reading various histories of English feminism and consulting biographies of leading twentieth century feminists, all in good supply; last time I was there I spent most of a day reading E M Delafield's Victorian Ladies and Gentlemen, and there is a section of twentieth-century fiction that came as a bequest and has the largest collection of Melvyn Bragg novels that I've ever seen in one place.

Anyone can stay there - you don't need to be a scholar or a member of the clergy, although those two groups probably dominate among the visitors - and for a very reasonable rate you get half-board accommodation and access to the library from 9am to 10pm each day.  It is a marvellous place to work; the distractions are few, the responsibilities of daily life are all dealt with, and the library itself is a peaceful and beautiful environment, rather Arts and Crafts in style.  I did the amount of reading in three and a half days that would normally take me three weeks.  Coffee break chats with fellow residents are enlivening - one of our fellow guests was researching transvestite women monks in Egypt - and there's a fair amount of gossip about bishops to be overheard.  St Deiniol's started as an "inclusive Anglican community" and the Warden is always a minister of the Church of England, but proselytising is not allowed and the library welcomes those of all faiths and none.  Godless heathens like me will not find the atmosphere uncomfortably spiritual.
 
The Library is in Hawarden, a few miles from Chester; Hawarden has its own station but it's quicker to get the bus from Chester station, which will also take you back into Chester again if you fancy an outing.  There are walks in the park of Hawarden Castle, Gladstone's family home, and through the nearby woods, provided you can tear yourself away from the library and its tempting books. 

The Chip and the Block by E M Delafield

Delafield's 1925 novel is part Bildungsroman, part family drama, combined with some ironic contemplation of the lot of the writer.  The Bildungsroman element concerns Paul Ellery, the oldest child of Mary Ellery and her husband Chas, a novelist.  Paul is around ten at the opening of the novel, and we follow him through family trauma, school and university until he attains the adult pleasures of work and sex.  Paul, like his creator, is very interested in people and their psychology; he analyses those around him, searching after their motivations.  The family drama concerns the eponymous chip and block.  Chas Ellery, the block, is a determined egotist and intolerably pretentious; his youngest son Victor, very like his father in many ways, constitutes a perpetual challenge to Chas's authority and status.  Victor remorselessly exposes his father's pettinesses and stupidities, until a final confrontation and literal battle of wills allows Victor to demonstrate the significance of his forename.

The Provincial Lady, during her wartime adventures, comments that "writers are too egotistical to make ideal husbands for anybody", and Chas Ellery bears this out.  His ceaseless attention-seeking - when one of his children is ill, he invariably takes to his bed - and self-dramatisation are, it is implied, behind the early death of his kind and attentive first wife Mary; they nearly finish off her successor, the calm and rational Caroline.  As a writer, Chas is initially committed to the principles of realism; this commitment does not make him rich.  But the approach and content of his work change, and he begins to gain recognition and status.   Chas seeks constantly to maintain his position as the artist of the family, the representative of high culture; he defends this position against the predations of low culture arising from his children's reading material and the praise of servants for his work.  The public needs to buy his books to ensure his success, but when they do he dismisses them as mere sheep, following a literary trend.

Covering the period from the mid-1890s to 1913, this novel does not engage with the First World War; as with many of Delafield's Edwardian-set novels, the presence of the war hangs over the future of Victor, Paul and their sister Jeannie at the close of the book, when they have reached adulthood and found ways of living that suit them.  An unusual aspect of this novel is its frankness about sexual matters.  Jeannie professes a chaste sort of sexual freedom, declaring that kissing young men to whom one is attracted is only natural; after she makes an advantageous marriage to a rich, older man, it is strongly suggested that she continues an affair with her first love.  Paul has been "shown life" in Paris and London, a reference to "soiled pink ribbons" equating "life" with visits to brothels; later, he will enjoy a lighthearted sexual relationship with his widowed landlady, Mrs Foss, who shares and develops Jeannie's views.  The Times Literary Supplement suggests that the "episode with Mrs Foss is discreetly handled", which is true, although the straightforward way in which their relationship is presented, with none of Delafield's customary ironies, seems to me uncharacteristic.

For the novel to work,  the reader needs to agree that Victor is more likeable, and Chas more tiresome.  Delafield achieves this through Paul's narrative viewpoint; his affection for Victor is clear-sighted but genuine, but his love for his father is very muted.  Victor does not crave attention in the way Chas does, but rather shuns intimacy and dependency, and is committed to his ideals and principles, which Chas discards as soon as their glamour is worn off.  Paul himself is a likeable and interesting character, and the interactions between Victor, Chas and old Mrs Ellery, Chas's mother, provide considerable humour.  Paul's story is interesting enough to merit its place in the spotlight, but it has to be balanced with the war of attrition between Chas and Victor, of which sometimes there is more than enough.   The novel also has to move easily between sad and serious events, such as the death of Mary Ellery, and high comedy, and sometimes you can hear the gears changing.  Delafield handled this aspect better in Mrs Harter, although perhaps she had the advantage there of a retrospective narrative in which the first-person narrator already knows what will happen and can draw more heavily on irony to adjust the tone. 

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson

Another beautiful translation of a Tove Jansson work for adults, this was a lucky Oxfam Bookshop find.  In Jansson's usual cool and lucid prose, we read about Katri and her slightly simple brother Mats, who live in a small coastal village; Mats works, informally, at the local boatbuilders, and Katri worries over how to establish a secure life for them.  The answer seems to come through a local artist.  Elderly Anna Aemelin lives alone in her family's house on the edge of the village; she is wealthy, drawing pictures of the ground in the woods near her house; with the addition of flowery rabbits, these drawings form the basis for bestselling children's books and all the marketing paraphernalia that goes with this.  Anna seems naive and unworldly; Katri takes advantage of this to establish herself as a prop and support for Anna, and before long Katri, her large dog, and Mats are all established in Anna's house.  Jansson explores the peculiar ambiguities of this situation.  Who is relying on whom?  Who is being exploited, and how?  Can good things arise from bad intentions?

The timing of the novel moves from the frozen certainties of deep winter to the fluid possiblities of spring.  Katri, blessed with an analytical and mathematical mind, is forced to consider irrationalities such as love and conscience; the innocent Anna discovers new reserves of guile.  The genuine affection that both women have for Mats - and that he has for them - controls their subdued power play and pushes them on towards resolution.  Around the three protagonists, the villagers watch and comment on events at Anna's house and in the boatyard.  And throughout the story Anna's relationship with her art is shifting and changing, leading to exciting and novel possiblities.

Anna's work as an artist echoes some of the themes of Fair Play, but this book considers different themes, of negotiating, comprehending and telling the truth.  It is written in a blunt, exposed style that contrasts with the ambiguities of the story, almost to the point of disingenuousness.   The snowy landscape and Jansson's prose are both pure and cool, but conceal as much as they reveal.  This gives the novel a compelling quality; you are constantly drawn on by the need to comprehend, to see what is underneath the frost.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Turn Back the Leaves by E M Delafield

Turn Back the Leaves does not start well.  Its first sentence runs like this: "In an era when hansom-cabs still jingled their way through the streets of London, and to the rollicking air of 'The Man Who Broke the Bank' and the rock-swing-crash of 'Ta-ra-ra Boom de Ay!' Edmunda Floyd and Charles Craddock fell in love with one another".  Not at all enticing, but thankfully things improve very quickly.  I'm going to discuss the outcomes of the plot in this post, so look away now if you don't want to know what happens.

The story of Edmunda's seduction by Charles is the prologue to the main part of the story.  Edmunda is the much younger wife of the fervently Catholic Sir Joseph Floyd, owner of Yardley who always wished to be a monk, but has been persuaded by his confessor that his duty is to marry and produce little Floyds who will inherit his estate and continue the Catholic family line. This same tactic persuades him to take back Edmunda even after she has given birth to Charles Craddock's daughter; Edmunda bears four more children in as many years and dies after producing the much-desired son and heir.  Sir Joseph, after a decent interval, marries Edmunda's older friend, Teresa Delancey, mainly to provide a good Catholic stepmother for his children.

The novel then proceeds episodically, with the narrative point of view shifting between central and peripheral female characters.  We meet the ten-year-old Stella, living an odd life with a nanny, a housemaid and a governess in a London flat, through Chloë Bourdillon, a New(ish) Woman still hoping for matrimony at 28; when Teresa succeeds in persuading Sir Joseph to accept Stella at Yardley, we see the house and meet the children through Stella's eyes.  Later chapters will pass the point of view to Cassie Floyd, the youngest daughter.  The novel has no real protagonist: Stella's story fades out of sight as other family dramas take precedence, and minor characters move in and out of the novel in a realistically contingent way.  Delafield handles the changes of point of view skillfully, never allowing her younger characters to understand more than is likely; the shifting point of view, and the long timespan of the book from 1890 to 1923, allow layers of meaning to be built up both for the reader and for the Floyd children.

The main theme of this book is the disastrous effect of Sir Joseph Floyd's extreme form of the Catholic faith.  He is ascetic, convinced that everyone s eating too much; obsessed with an idea of sex as sinful; terrified that his children's innocence may be corrupted in some way.  The young Floyds are condemned to wear exceptionally modest clothing and forbidden to make friends with non-Catholics.  As the Catholics in their immediate area are thin on the ground, their social lives are necessarily limited, and their chances of marriage very slim.  When Sir Joseph's piety tips over into religious mania, this is explained in part by the marriage choices of previous generations: he is the son and grandson of first cousins, clearly desperate to find a Catholic spouse.  Delafield provides a preface to the novel, stressing that it is not intended as a criticism of the Catholic faith, but certainly it can be read as a criticism of the practice of Catholicism in upper-class English society at that time.

Doing your Catholic duty has particularly negative implications for the women of the family.  Edmunda is killed by repeated childbearing; Teresa Floyd attempts occasionally to rationalise with her husband, but when that is beyond use she must dedicate herself to caring for him; Cassie, who hoped to escape Yardley into some sort of work, and managed this for a while during the war, is trapped there when Helen, her only unmarried sister, becomes a nun.  Their other sisters are estranged from their parents after their marriages: Veronica marries a Protestant who will not promise to bring up their children as Catholics, and Stella marries a divorced man.  However, Catholic duty  certainly does not favour Joey, the youngest and only boy.  Unspecified trouble at school (possibly an episode of homosexual behaviour) causes great difficulty between Joey and his parents; before leaving for the Western Front, he tells Cassie that he hopes a bullet will solve all his problems.  There are relatively few male characters in the novel, but those from outside the family, particularly Tom and Peter Neville, represent and articulate the views of worldly rationalism to the Floyds, opening the eyes of some of the children to alternative points of view.  The novel is fair-handed, however, and characters such as Cassie and Veronica give a sense of the value of their faith without being unreasonably pious. 

There is an underlying strand in the novel that suggests that frustration of sexual instincts is unhealthly.  Both Sir Joseph and Helen fear sexuality and its expression and will go to immense extremes to avoid it.  The Yardley standards of modesty extend to social behaviour, with fairly innocent acts being characterised as "fast" or "disgusting".  Chloë Bourdillon ages into a plump and pop-eyed spinster, still yearning for male attention and sublimating this desire into sentimental friendships with much younger women.  The characterisation of Chloë is harsh and unattractive, and conveys no sympathy for the plight of the surplus woman.

Turn Back the Leaves is unusual among Delafield's novels set in the Edwardian period in that it includes the First World War in the narrative; most of these novels end without engaging with the war, leaving a sense that the books are unfinished in some way, that the triumphant marriage or exciting new career is about to be cut short by world events.  Including the war helps Delafield emphasise the fossilised nature of Yardley and Sir Joseph, both of them unable to adjust to a rapidly changing modern world, as well as dramatise more intensely plot strands like the estrangement of Veronica.  It is also a war event that pitches Sir Joseph into insanity; the loss of Joey in combat is more than his fragile psyche is able to bear.

The novel has obvious parallels with Brideshead Revisited, which - in elegiac rather than critical terms - also seeks to show us upper-class Catholicism.  Sir Joseph is an extreme version of Bridey, who wanted to be a monk but, as eldest son, could not; Joey has echoes of Sebastian Flyte; and elements of Julia Flyte's struggle between love and duty can be seen in the stories of all the Floyd daughters.  I wonder if Evelyn Waugh ever read the novel.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

Another of Sarah Dunant's historical novels, this book is set in Ferrara in 1570.  At the city's Benedictine convent of Santa Caterina, a young and unwilling novice, Serafina, is resisting her induction into convent life.  For a while, she works alongside the dispensary sister, Suora Zuana.  Zuana has been sixteen years in the convent, entering when the death of her doctor father left her unprotected and  unmarriageable.  A reluctant entrant herself, she has come to value the regime, its stabilising repetitions and rituals, and the opportunity it has given her to continue her study of medicine and herbalism.  For most of the novel, the narrative point of view switches between these two women, as they grapple with the politics and complexities of the convent, the city that holds it, and the changes affecting the Church itself.

This alternating narrative allows Dunant to retell events from two viewpoints, and so doing to ratchet up the suspense and maintain a compelling plot which comprises both deeply personal and wider political matters.  The Council of Trent, held in 1563 to address the issues arising from the Reformation, threatened the liberty of convents to govern themselves, to work with local communities, and began to prevent nuns from pursuing study, art, and music.  Santa Caterina is famed for its choir and the musical settings composed within the Convent; it produces delicious cakes and sweetmeats for Carnival; and Zuana's remedies are greatly prized by the Bishop, a martyr to his haemorrhoids.  Zuana's medicines can be powerfully effective and are valued within the Convent as a means of helping the sisters stay well to do God's will.  But there are factions within the convent that seek a greater asceticism and more charismatic exhibitions of faith: ecstasies, visions and stigmata.  The current liberal doctrine overseen by the Abbess may be preventing the holy sisters from achieving closeness to God.  Serafina will find that she is a battleground for the conflicting forces within the Convent.

Throughout the book, Dunant and her characters use the metaphor of the Convent as a body, a single organism that must be nurtured, balanced and healed as necessary.  This metaphor is played out almost literally on the body of Serafina, who will be starved, drugged and purged over the course of the novel.  My complaint about the other Dunant novel I've read, The Birth of Venus, related to the cheekiness of the ending: I'm obliged to say that she is at it again in this book, but the final part of the story is perhaps a little more credible here.  In any case,  it does not detract from a highly enjoyable read.   There is also a helpful bibliography for those interested in the history of conventual life.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Who Was Sophie? by Celia Robertson

Celia Robertson has written a memoir of her maternal grandmother, known in her final years as Sophie Curly, but who started life as Joan Adeney Easdale in 1913. Joan published three volumes of poetry when she was a young woman; her work was published by the Hogarth Press and received positive critical attention. By the time Celia was growing up, her grandmother was a drunken, mad bogeywoman kept at bay through legal process; a solicitor dealt with correspondence between Sophie and Celia's mother Jane. When Celia was seventeen, Jane decided to take her to meet her grandmother for the first time; the squalor of her flat, and its bizarre arrangements for catching burglars, were frightening, but the physical reality of Sophie, a tiny and frail old woman, counteracted the images of Sophie as an insane and monstrous creature. Celia continued to visit Sophie regularly after that; following Sophie's death, she was inspired to write the book, to piece together the journey that took Joan/Sophie from young poet to a bag lady haunting the rougher pubs of 1980s Nottingham.

"Poignant" is the word from the TLS review chosen for the front cover, and the poignancy of this book is undisputed and powerful. Joan's descent into madness, her treatment at Holloway Sanatorium, the loss of her children (and their loss of her), and the poverty, violence and squalor of her final years are terribly sad. Celia Robertson's obvious affection for her grandmother, and kindly, loving attention to the story of her life, mitigates this sadness and exposes the value of Sophie's story even at the points where she is, apparently, at rock bottom. Joan is told repeatedly by psychiatrists that she should give up her writing and devote herself to domestic duties. She does, but Joan is a hopeless housekeeper, clumsy, forgetful and unable to budget at all; domestic work for her is no cure. Virginia Woolf appears several times in the narrative, and the story of Woolf's illness is an obvious parallel with Joan's, pointing up an underlying theme of the book: choices for women artists, in the first half of the twentieth century, were limited and often dangerous.

Celia Robertson is overt and frank about the gaps in Sophie's story, the things that can be known and learned about her, and the things that must be guessed at or assumed. This book seems to me to be a brave undertaking, to try to understand the truth of a chaotic life of such a close relative. Who knows what she might have found? What she did find can be disturbing enough. She is also clear that this is her story of Sophie, that other Sophies exist, and could be narrated, by those that knew and loved her. It is Robertson's approach to the narrative, as well as the twists of Sophie's story, that contribute to a richly enjoyable and consuming book.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

By a Slow River by Philippe Claudel

Claudel's novel (also available in English translation under the title Grey Souls) combines a mystery story - three young women will die during the course of the novel - with an extended contemplation of the workings of memory and the nature of truth.  Set in a village close to the front in World War I, the novel is narrated by the local gendarme, who is professionally involved in two of the deaths.  These two deaths - a murder and a suicide - will come to affect him as profoundly and as personally as the death of his wife Clémence in childbirth, and the unravelling of the cause of the deaths forms the structure of the novel.

Our narrator is attuned to the workings of hierarchy in French society in general and in the justice system in particular. The caste separations between the semi-aristocratic or professional classes and the peasant/servant class are marked, but are being challenged by the effects of war and of the early twentieth century in general.  The narrator exemplifies this: he comes from peasant stock, but his work brings him into the world of the bourgeoisie, and he watches it defend itself against intruders, dismissing and abusing the proletarians that pass through its machinery.  The village he lives in is curiously untouched by the war; columns of soldiers pass through, and many young men have vanished, but enough are in trades that exempt them from war service. There is a new hierarchy to be negotiated, separating those who have fought and died in the war from those remaining at home.

 He also grapples with the slippery nature of memory and the elusiveness of truth.  On the first page, he speaks of "calling forth a lot of shadows"; the figures of memory can be insubstantial and two-dimensional, yet the narrative makes the key figures of the story vivid on the page.  He points up his own unreliability, yet throughout the narrative there are literal and metaphorical loaded guns, waiting to go off in the third act, that will both reinforce and subvert his assumed lack of control of his story.

It almost goes without saying that this book is profoundly sad.  Both plot and narrative style work to develop an air of melancholy, ennui and a fatalistic lack of agency that infects key characters with profound lassitude.  Because of this, I found it rather difficult to read for long periods, and had to approach it in short bursts.  Probably not a book to be picked up during low periods, but definitely one worth reading during happier times.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Jill by E M Delafield

The eponymous Jill (or Jacqueline; Jill is a nickname and the character is referred to by both names throughout the novel) is the nineteen-year-old daughter of Pansy Morrell, a demi-mondaine who has made a career of living off various gentlemen friends in America, France and England.  Jill comes into the lives of two married couples: stockbroker Oliver Galbraith and his highbrow, fastidious wife Cathie; and Oliver's second cousin Jack Galbraith and his fashionable wife Doreen.  Oliver and Cathie earn enough to pay super-tax, live in comfortable circumstances in Chelsea Park Gardens, even though the super-tax means they have to choose between a car and a lady's maid for Cathie.  Jack Galbraith served in the Great War but is effectively unemployed, living on his name and his status.  He and Doreen live at a Kensington hotel where they are supposed to lend tone and attract the right sort of guests in return for free accommodation; their daily post invariably comprises unpayable bills.  Jack attempts to interest Oliver in a scheme for extracting oil from shale beds in Cornwall; the trip to Cornwall, although it fails to secure a business deal, allows them both to meet Jill.

Delafield uses her familiar technique of doubling and mirroring characters in this book.  Oliver and Jack are two sides of the same coin, one successful, the other struggling; both, at the start of the novel, are cut off to some extent from their own emotional responses.  Cathie, serious and fastidious, is set against Doreen, who is not above extracting money from her admirers; prostitution is strongly implied if not explicitly stated.  Both women are unsatisfied with the condition of their marriages.  Jill moves between these two couples and in both cases is a cause of reflection and reconsideration of their relationships.  Jill herself is a free spirit; an unconventional upbringing has left her strangely naive in some respects and highly sophisticated in others.  Her candour and free emotional responses are liberating for some of those she encounters; others find them tiresome or dangerous.  Most of the characters project onto Jill; either their own emotions, or their own ideas of how she should behave; she is adaptable but retains, always, her own point of view.  Her outward mutability is perhaps a reason for the narrative's random use of her two names.  Jill/Jacqueline does not mind what she is called; her identity is secure enough to allow her to bear any number of names.

Delafield valued the observational quality of her writing and its strengths and weaknesses are reflected in this book.  Readers of The Way Things Are will recognise the accurate representation of a mildly unsuccessful upper-middle-class marriage in the portraits of Oliver and Cathie; her attempts to depict the seedy world inhabited by Jack and Doreen, however, suggest that she had observed this only from a considerable distance.  When the novel takes an odd turn towards the thriller genre in its later stages, Delafield seems even more unsure of her material.  However, there is much to enjoy here.  The characterisation of Oliver, in particular, goes further than many of Delafield's novels in its exploration of the reasons for a husband's lack of demonstrativeness; Cathie is, at times, an enjoyable satire of the serious committee member.  The book also contains one of the few depictions of pregnancy that I've come across in Delafield's work, and we hear several characters' views on motherhood and family planning.  The plot of the novel also has some interesting, and perhaps inadvertent, things to say on the value of paid work for women.

Jill is hard to find (three copies on AbeBooks at the moment) and rather expensive. My library copy has been helpfully annotated with blue pencil by an earlier reader, who points out when EMD has used the same word rather too many times on the same page, and inaccurately corrects her grammar on page 106.