Monday, 28 February 2011

Not so quiet ... by Helen Zenna Smith

Helen Zenna Smith was a pseudonym of Evadne Price (1901-1983), a jobbing writer whose career encompassed this novel and its sequels, romantic fiction, stage plays, working as a war correspondent for the People during World War II, and acting as astrologer for She and Australian Vogue.  She was commissioned to write a parody of All Quiet on the Western Front, but proposed instead a serious war-story from the point of view of a woman war-worker.  She used as her source material the unpublished diaries of Winifred Constance Young, who had been an ambulance driver in France, and drew on Remarque's original novel for aspects of the form and language of her work.  Published in 1930, the novel can be grouped with other works that spoke frankly and critically about the Great War, often from a pacifist viewpoint, such as Testament of Youth and Goodbye to All That.

Written in diary form, the novel opens with an unflinching description of Helen Smith's life as an ambulance driver in northern France.  The accommodation is filthy and uncomfortable, the food disgusting, the work exhausting both physically and mentally. Their Unit is overseen by the Commandant, an older woman with a decidedly cruel streak, fond of autocratic whims and demeaning punishments. Helen (or Smithy or Nell; as a generic figure, her names are mutable and interchangeable) contrasts their war service bitterly with the campaigns run at home by women like her mother, and the self-satisfaction mothers take in their sacrifice of daughters to this work, with no idea of the sufferings they endure.  The idea that the older generation, and particularly older women, are responsible for the horrors of war is strongly expressed throughout the text.

War service brought together women of various classes and backgrounds, and the novel engages with this theme.  The ambulance drivers were recruited from among "refined women of decent education" but this still allows for a certain amount of variation, from lower-middle-class gentility through to members of the aristocracy familiar to their fellow workers from the pages of the Tatler.   This variation, and the cramped conditions in which the women live, cause inevitable conflict.  Helen bitterly resents the fact that the ambulance drivers also do all the cleaning work at the Unit; she frequently wishes that working-class girls could be recruited to do this.  Given the long and strenuous hours she spends driving the ambulance, she has something of a point, but doing work she sees as demeaning is as much of a trial as the additional physical labour.   Helen's attitude towards other women war-workers is highly variable: while she values the especial skill of women ambulance drivers, she is scornful of the "Seeing-Francers", the vast majority of volunteers who last only a few weeks in the service, suggests that women in positions of command invariably become megalomaniacs, and despises the amateurism of middle-class women undertaking war-work in England.  This is, however, consistent with her view that the majority of war-work exists only to perpetuate the war machine and to allow manifestations of self-sacrifice, rather than helping to alleviate suffering or bring about an end to the conflict. The novel also deals frankly with heterosexual desire and obliquely with lesbian desire.  While politically this is not a feminist text, nonetheless it has a great deal to tell us about the lives of women in wartime.

Helen's is an angry, bitter story; she sees the youth and joy crushed not only in herself, but also in her friends and lovers.  She exposes a hollowness at the centre of notions of the nobility of war and self-sacrifice, and the extreme cost of war service for both men and women.  Barbara Hardy's introduction to the novel tells us that Evadne Price wrote it in six weeks, and this sometimes shows in the text; this is not an elegant or poetical rendering of war experience, but raw and immediate, intended as a popular novel - which indeed it was, as a bestseller in its time. Not So Quiet ... is still in print, and there are also lots of secondhand copies of the Virago edition around.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

High Wages by Dorothy Whipple

It's Persephone Reading Weekend in literary blog land, hosted by cardigangirlverity and Paperback Reader, who have some tempting competitions for Persephone enthusiasts.  I've read all my Persephone editions, but I did have a Penguin edition of High Wages knocking about, and decided this was a prime opportunity to give it a try.

High Wages opens in 1912, when seventeen-year-old Jane Carter gets a job in Chadwick's, a draper's shop in the fictional Lancashire town of Tidsley.  Jane is bright and ambitious, and the novel tracks her successful progress at Chadwick's; the war is good for the drapery business, and Jane becomes a valuable employee, if a constant thorn in the side of cautious, dim Mr Chadwick.  Jane longs for a shop of her own, and thanks to her friendship with motherly Mrs Briggs, who has come up in the world but doesn't much like it, Jane is able to leave Chadwick's and set up her own dress shop.  In other ways, however, Jane's life runs less smoothly.  Her friendship with Maggie, who also works at Chadwick's, is lost when Maggie's young man Wilfred shows a preference for Jane.  Jane likes Wilfred, who works at the library and is well-read and intelligent, but her eventual passion is for Noel Yarde, a young solicitor who marries the local heiress.

Dorothy Whipple crams a lot of interesting stuff into High Wages.  Jane's progress and development are interesting in their own right, but Whipple also brings in the social constraint of small-town life, and the ways in which the Great War chips away at notions of rank. We get an insight into how a lively young man like Noel can be reduced to a silent, uncommunicative husband, hiding behind his newspaper.   But her main theme is that of business, and how business and its success and failure can have far-reaching effects on the personal lives of those who rely on it; it is the vagaries of business that really drive the plot.  Her characterisations have depth, and even when a character appears only briefly - like the seaside landlady that Jane and Mrs Briggs stay within Blackpool - she gives colour and texture to the depiction.  There are also some entertaining comic episodes, particularly Jane's regular battles with Mr Chadwick and the moment of high farce when she encounters a cad at the Tidsley Hospital Ball.

If I have one quibble about this book, it is that I was unconvinced by the ending.  I won't give it away, but Jane's choices at the end of the book seem slightly out of character to me.  I also thought the ending rather rushed, as if Dorothy Whipple had run up against her publisher's deadline, and hurried it to a close.  But in terms of interest and enjoyment, High Wages sits alongside Someone at a Distance and The Closed Door among Dorothy Whipple's fiction, and I can quite see why Persephone have published it.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Mrs Tim of the Regiment by D E Stevenson

I'd been meaning to read this for a while, having read other bloggers' enthusiastic responses to the book, and having greatly enjoyed Miss Buncle's Book, so was very pleased to get a copy as a present. Unfortunately, however, I found in Mrs Tim a rather disappointing hybrid of the Provincial Lady and Mrs Miniver.

The diary form, Mrs Tim's domestic and social concerns, especially with her appearence, and her social position are all strongly reminiscent of the Provincial Lady.  But the text lacks the satirical bite of Delafield's work and also its economy. Delafield can evoke (and skewer) a pompous bore in a few sentences; Stevenson tells us, strenuously and at length, why awful characters are so awful.  Mrs Miniver shares a definite smugness, one of her least attractive characteristics, with Mrs Tim. I did, however, enjoy Stevenson's characterisation of Mrs Tim's Scottish neighbour Mrs Loudon, whose robust good sense and direct manner lifted the narrative whenever she appeared.  Fortunately, for the last third of the novel, she appears a great deal.

Perhaps I've just missed the point of the book, but the sharpness, humour and outlandish cheek that made Miss Buncle's Book so good seemed to me to be absent almost entirely.  There are some interesting aspects to the novel: the portrayal of army life, the complex relationships between sectors of the middle-class, and the frequent references to money were all enlightening to some extent.  It may be that the later volumes, which deal with the war and its aftermath, do not need to resort to clearly contrived romantic plots and sudden outbursts of nature-worship to keep the narrative going.  But currently I don't feel inspired to find out for myself if they do.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Without My Cloak by Kate O'Brien

Without My Cloak was Kate O'Brien's first novel and this Victorian family saga draws heavily on her own family background in Limerick.  Limerick becomes Mellick in the novel, sitting in a sheltering, well-watered landscape called the Vale of Honey, and the home of the Considines.  The family dynasty was founded by Anthony Considine, a horse-thief, who comes to Mellick with a stolen thoroughbred horse in 1789.  By 1860 his son Honest John Considine has established a successful and respectable business trading in animal feed.  His youngest son, another Anthony, takes over the running of the business, and is even more successful.  The large Considine family - eight of Honest John's children make it to adulthood, and several of them have children - are rich, well-housed, and influential.  One is a doctor, another a priest; Anthony Considine becomes mayor of Mellick.  The novel will explore the progress of the Considines, as a clan and as individuals, and in particular the perpetual struggle between family loyalty and self-fulfilment.

Of the older generation, it is siblings Eddy - who has managed a partial escape from the family by acting as London agent for the business - and Caroline who fret most against the constraints of family life.  Eddy is presented as a cultured hedonist, and the narrative strongly hints at his homosexuality.  Caroline has married a man that she does not love for the sake of family advantage and respectability, and when she does fall in love, her world is shattered.  But their stories act as preludes for the story of Denis Considine, eldest son of Anthony Considine the mayor.  Denis is handsome, intelligent, and greatly beloved by his widowed father; he has a passion for landscape gardening that his father is rich enough to indulge.  Hoping to make gardening his profession, Denis nevertheless enters the family business as a clerk; already compromised, when he falls in love with an illegitimate peasant girl. Christina, he is plunged into a confusion of loyalties that only Christina herself can resolve.  The novel ends with Denis's twenty-first birthday, a day that will see both a violent rejection of the family and a tentative acceptance of his social role.

The narrative is long and leisurely.  Kate O'Brien's inexperience as a novelist shows through occasionally; there can be a lot of dense exposition rather than the more distanced evocation of character familiar from her later novels, and there are some over-long scenes, especially the innumerable family parties.  The introduction of Christina is particularly awkward; we know Denis very well by the time they meet, and O'Brien spends several pages making sure we know Christina just as well, which diverts attention from their growing love for one another.  There are also some rather clunky snobberies: much is made of Christina's aristocrat father as the source of her beauty, grace and intelligence.  But despite this, the novel is a rich, satisfying read.  I'm not much of a fan of family sagas on the whole, and the book kept me interested in the Considines and their fate until the last page.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Dreamers of a New Day by Sheila Rowbotham

Sheila Rowbotham's history of women's activism  covers the period from the 1880s to the 1920s, and her dreamers and visionaries are drawn from both sides of the Atlantic.  This makes her book extremely comprehensive in scope and allows her to tell us about a large number of women, some still well known, others new to me at least, who worked to effect social change and, in doing so, changed the position of women in society forever.  It also plainly shows how an idea needs the right context and conditions to flourish: campaigns and initiatives that worked in America failed in England, and vice versa; issues that seemed crucial in one country could be trivial or invisible in the other.

Rowbotham's approach is thematic, and covers topics such as sex, gender, work, domesticity, consumption and politics; she takes in the work of radical minorities and more mainstream campaigners, allowing us to grasp the range and complexity of ideas and arguments about these issues.  There are detailed analyses of the development (or lack of it) of sex education for young women and of the growth of consumer power.  The stories of consumer boycotts, organised and sustained by women, to reduce prices were particularly eye-opening, as one of them led to the kosher meat riots of 1917 in New York, in which women attacked butchers physically to register their protest about rising prices:  one Mrs Teibel Shimberg was seen "beating a peddler's head with her shopping bag".

Possibly my favourite dreamer in this book is Sarah Lees, a liberal suffragist from Edwardian Oldham.  Infuriated by the failure of Oldham council to address the housing needs of its citizens, she "formed a co-operative building society among the better-paid mill workers.  Within six years, they had built a garden suburb of 150 three-bedroomed houses, each with a bathroom, offered at rents which were affordable to working-class families." Like Sarah Lees, many of Rowbotham's dreamers had a strong pragmatic streak which allowed them to make a real and lasting difference to the lives of those around them.

Rowbotham's transatlantic approach allows us to see the differences between the needs of women in the UK and America.  Many activists proposed a communal approach to reduce the burden of domestic labour, and set up communal kitchens and laundries as a result.  Communal kitchens were relatively popular in America, but failed in the UK, because they were too much like the hated and feared workhouse.  Notions of communality of this sort have all but died away in current society, now that individual homes have (allegedly) labour-saving devices installed, although are perhaps being revived by community garden schemes in parts of the UK.  Another advantage of the focus on American campaigners is that it includes the work of black women in the wider history of women's activism.  Often separated by racial prejudice from white reform workers, black women established radical and innovative means of effecting social change.  Entrepreneurs like Maggie Lena Walker, who established a women's insurance company and a department store before revitalising a friendly society, show how purchasing power helped support the black community and resist the effects of institutionalised bigotry. 

My one criticism of this book is that it does, occasionally, become a list of remarkable women, and it can be hard to keep track of them as they disappear and reappear from the narrative.  Some sort of genealogical chart, along the lines of Rock Family Trees, would have been much appreciated.  But this is a minor issue: the book is an enlightening read, and encourages both reflection on the achievements of "our adventurous foremothers" and speculation as to what today's dreamers might achieve.

For those who would like to know more about this book, here is a thoughtful and enthusiastic review by Kirsty of Other Stories, guest-blogging for the F-Word.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Pedant in the Kitchen by Julian Barnes

This delightful little book comprises seventeen essays on the act of cooking, the frequent shortcomings of cookery books and writers, and the manifold betrayals that kitchen gadgets visit on the cook.  Julian Barnes moves elegantly from his own clumsy first attempts at cooking (tinned peas, tinned potatoes and bacon chop, anybody?) through an engaging critique of some of the better-known cookery writers, concluding with some philosophical musings on cooking as a moral act.  Barnes is a self-taught cook - in his generation, boys were not routinely taught cooking - and he views his pedantry as a direct result of this: without the culinary instinct that some acquire through early involvement in cooking, he is entirely dependent on the recipe.  This leads to an understandable irritation with vague notions like the "medium" onion and with inaccurate timings in recipes; chefs are particularly prone to these, forgetting perhaps that the amateur cook does not have an army of sous-chefs at hand to chop the vegetables.

Barnes's text is witty and erudite. His sources include Edouard de Pomiane, whose recipe book La Cuisine en Dix Minutes attempted to adapt French tradition to mid-twentieth-century lifestyle, the doyennes of food writing Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Marcella Hazan, and writers less associated with food like Conrad, Larkin and Ford Madox Ford.  He takes issue with some other writers: Nigel Slater is neatly skewered, as is the River Café Cookbook's recipe for Chocolate Nemesis, which never, never works.  An enjoyable collection for anyone who likes to cook, the book also has charming illustrations by Joe Berger.  I love the one above, but my favourite is on page 123, and shows a sinister mincing machine attempting to escape from a kitchen drawer.  Joe Berger is partly responsible for the highly entertaining Berger and Wyse food cartoons that appear in the Guardian magazine every Saturday.  The paperback version of the book is still in print, but secondhand hardback copies are to be had for a penny. 

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen

This collection of short stories was published in 1945; thematically, the stories concern the psychic, social and material damage inflicted by the Second World War.  Many of the stories centre around houses changed by bombing, requisition, or disuse, and on the effect of these changes on the people who move around and through these houses.  A crack in a wall may act as a conduit to another world; disturbing memories and dreams are summoned by rediscovered objects; social structures are as cracked as the masonry.  Some of the stories are deeply sinister in effect - the title story in particular - and Bowen is very good at showing how close to the boundaries of madness her protagonists come.  Other stories deal, more humorously, with the frustrations that arise from the limitations of wartime, and in more than one story Bowen skewers the self-importance of the war-worker with great effectiveness.

This collection left me with the general impression that civilian life in wartime, with its dreary constraints, deprivations and shocks, allows long-buried sorrows to surface, almost as if one trauma calls up another, older one; and that war service required a mask, a persona, not just for the purposes of national security but also to sustain individual endurance of the intolerable.  It is these masks that slip, or are knocked askew, in Bowen's stories.  Being Bowen's stories, they are exquisitely written: there are some elegiac descriptions of the lost past, imbued both with beauty and with a deserved sense of unreality, as they are invariably the products of dreams or hallucinations.  Beauty can be read as another casualty of war, only to be accessed if one is prepared to peer beyond the limitations of sanity.

Bowen tends to focus on her particular milieu and class; if you are interested in fiction about the Blitz in the East End, you won't find it here.  There is even an Irish country house setting for one of the stories.  However, as with The Death of the Heart, the voices of the servant class and the lower-middle class do break through, and in some stories are symptomatic of the social disruption occasioned by the war.

The Demon Lover is no longer in print as a collection, although there are second-hand copies about - mine is a rather elegant volume that the title page tells me was "produced in complete conformity with the authorized economy standards" prevailing in 1945.  However, Vintage offer a volume of Bowen's collected short stories which includes 79 of her stories, including the stories in this book.