Tag Archives: 20th century British fiction

Puffball by Fay Weldon

With its emphasis on fertility, infidelity, bad parenting and the ancient magical pull of Glastonbury Tor, Fay Weldon’s novel Puffball illustrates the human capacity for creating turmoil. The drama begins when Liffey and Richard, childless Londoners who’ve been married for seven years stumble upon Honeycomb Cottage during a weekend in the country.

Many people dream of country cottages. Liffey dreamed for many years, and saw the dream come true one hot Sunday afternoon, in Somerset, in September. Bees droned, sky glazed, flowers glowed, and the name carved above the lintel, half hidden by rich red roses, was Honeycomb Cottage and Liffey knew that she must have it. A trap closed around her.

And so all the trouble begins. At first Richard, the breadwinner, insists that they can’t leave London, but Liffey, an office temp and the possessor of a small inheritance, argues that at last she’ll be able to write that novel. Eventually a deal is struck between Liffey and Richard; they’ll buy the cottage if she’ll have a baby, and he’ll stay in London and return on the weekends. The rational reader knows, of course, that this is a recipe of disaster, but since this is a Fay Weldon novel, we also know that we’re in for some fun as the characters scramble around and make a mess of their lives.

puffballOn the day Liffey and Richard discover the seemingly idyllic cottage, they romp around in the grass for a quickie. Little do they realize that they’ve attracted the attention of the neighbours Mab and Tucker.

“Isn’t she skinny,” said Mabs, watching through field glasses from the bedroom of Cadbury Farm. Her husband Tucker took the glasses.

“They grow them like that in the city,” he said. They both spoke in the gentle, caressing drawl of the West Country, mocking the universe, defying its harshness. “You don’t know they’re from the city,” Mabs objected. “They’re not from round here,” said Tucker. “No one round here does it in public.”

Liffey, eager to begin her new life in the country decides to rent the London flat, a wedding present from Richard’s parents, Mr & Mrs Lee-Fox to a couple she’s known for a short time. Liffey, already established as an impractical character with little sense of finances, imagines that the rent (which she immediately discounts) from the flat will cover the cost of rent for the cottage and that there’ll be a profit besides. Fat chance of that happening….

Mory and Helen moved in a couple of hours after Richard and Liffey had left. With them came Helen’s pregnant sister and her unemployed boyfriend, both of whom now had the required permanent address from which to claim Social Security benefits.

With Liffey stashed in the country in the life of her dreams, everything begins to go to hell. Richard, resentful and on the loose in London, begins a period of sexual experimentation. Liffey, pregnant and stranded, relies on the help of her neighbours Mabs and Tucker. Mabs, at Cadbury Farm, is the daughter of Mrs Tree, a herbalist, and whereas Mrs Tree’s concoctions are supposed to heal various ailments, Mabs, who has more than a streak of malevolence, fancies herself as a bit of a witch. Mabs sees Liffey as a “candy on the shelf of a high-class confectioner’s shop. Mabs would have her down and take her in and chew her up and suck her through, and when she had extracted every possible kind of nourishment, would spit her out, carelessly.” With her husband and gaggle of half-starved, neglected children in her thrall, Mabs, who “seemed to have a hot line to the future,” dominates the farm and tends to get her way. Liffey and Richard’s friends Bella and Ray who “wrote cookery columns and cookery books” in the throes of mid-life crises have marriage problems of their own, and while they actively encourage the move to the country, behind Liffey’s back they ridicule country life.

I really liked the way Fay Weldon sets up the story of a seemingly happily married couple whose lives are derailed by Liffey’s desire to move to the country. This decision creates a fissure in the marriage, and then most of  the other characters exploit the situation in one way or another. There’s the sense that the universe is somehow out of balance, but all throughout the marital mayhem, the presence of Glastonbury Tor in the distance seems to provide a positive influence, and when Liffey is tuned in to her unborn child, a healthy almost supernatural force comes into play.

One of Fay Weldon’s favourite themes is the viciousness of women towards each other, while men, little more than troubling nuisances who philander their way in and out of women’s lives, are the prizes women battle over. That theme is dominant here too with Mabs feeling threatened by Liffey, and Liffey’s friends Bella and Helen ripping Liffey’s life to shreds behind her back. It’s as if Fay Weldon tells us that if women would only cease squabbling over male spoils, then the world would be a much more productive, albeit less interesting place.

Another theme here is fertility seen through Liffey’s pregnancy which is recorded in almost excruciating gynecological detail. You could definitely hand this book to someone as a 101 on pregnancy.  Nature, in the world around us, is seen to be an unstoppable force, but there’s also human nature with its powerful sex drive, and the desire to nest and raise a family. By the time the novel concludes, there’s the sense that much of our behaviour is defined by powerful hormonal drives.

This is the second reading of Puffball for this die-hard Weldon fan. The first time I was busy laughing at the way these characters almost insanely wreck their lives (the sub-plot which follows the renters/squatters in Liffey’s old flat is hilarious). This time I paid more attention to the various examples of parenting in the book. Liffey’s mother, Madge, a “lean, hard-drinking prematurely white-haired teacher of chemistry in  a girls’ school in East Anglia,” is a ‘hands-off’ parent. She’s sees motherhood as a type of trap, an obligation, and agrees to visit her daughter reluctantly  “I suppose it is the kind of thing a mother is expected to do. Once you’re given a label you never escape it.”

Richard’s mother is a bundle of “nervous energy,” and the news of an impending grandchild spurs her to action, “as if some trouble, pacing for years behind at a steady distance, had suddenly broken into a jog and overtaken her. She started knitting at once, but there was a tenseness in her hands, and the nylon wool cut into her fingers.”

Continuing on the spectrum, Bella and Ray are benignly neglectful parents. If they can fob their children off on other people, they’re happy. The presence of an au pair releases them to pursue their self-indulgent affairs, and their children appear to grow up in spite of their parents–although their diet deteriorates drastically when the au pair leaves. Mabs and Tucker have differing views on parenting. He thinks it’s ok to kick the poorly-fed dog whereas she’d rather whack her poorly fed children. Of course all these examples of less-than-perfect parenting (another favourite theme from this author) makes you wonder why people have children in the first place, but they are the natural fall-out of the confused coupling of the adults. In spite of the fact that this is a comic look at marriage and parenthood, the book is full of Fay Weldon’s wise, cryptic humour. She boldly rips the shallowness of female friendships, the inauthenticity yet convenience of the office affair, the results of a parent who fails to love a child, and so often in a Fay Weldon novel, chaos must be endured before any sort of rationality can be achieved.

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Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

I distrust patriotism; the reasonable man can find little in these days that is worth dying for. But dying against–there’s enough iniquity in Europe to carry the most urbane or decadent into battle.”

Geoffrey Household novel’s Rogue Male had been recommended to me several times, but I delayed reading it; part of the delay came from the mistaken idea that it was some sort of spy novel. It wasn’t.

The novel, told by a first person narrator, begins with a simple sentence: “I cannot blame them.” And this sentence is the epitome of the narrator’s attitude to most of the people he meets and most of the brutality directed towards him. In essence, he accepts that we are what we are, that most of us are caught in roles not necessarily of our own making, and in those roles, we are driven towards certain actions. Amazingly generous and Zen really when you consider what happens to him.

Rogue MaleOur nameless narrator, a wealthy Englishman, has been caught just as he was about to assassinate a European dictator. He had the man in the sights of his rifle but hesitated, and that hesitation led to his capture (the word ‘arrest’ would dignify what happens) and torture. According to our narrator he thinks his captors are “beginning to understand that a bored and wealthy Englishman who had hunted all commoner game might well find a perverse pleasure in hunting the biggest game on earth.” There are people, difficult as it is for this reader to understand, who actually enjoy hunting rare and endangered species.

They must have wondered whether I had been employed on, as it were, an official mission, but I think they turned that suspicion down. No government–least of all ours–encourages assassination. Or was I a free-lance? That must have seemed very unlikely; anyone can see that I am not the type of avenging angel. Was I, then, innocent of any criminal intent, and exactly what I claimed to be –a sportsman who couldn’t resist the temptation to stalk the impossible?

The narrator is horribly tortured, and since he does not give his captors any valuable information to implicate any one else or reveal that he’s part of some sort of conspiracy, they are left to conclude that he is probably just what he claims to be–a hunter who wants to bag the ultimate big game. But no matter the reason behind his assassination attempt, his captors, and the narrator, know that there is little choice but to kill him. Under the circumstances–flayed skin, a badly damage eye, and fingernails ripped out, he can hardly be set free to return to England. Instead he is left to die. Badly wounded, our narrator is a survivor, or perhaps even a survivalist. Resourceful and intelligent, he flees for his life….

Rogue Male is superb–the best action-adventure novel I’ve ever read. We know every little about our narrator–except that he’s a member of the British upper class with plenty of leisure time (there’s a wonderful rift about Class X ,) who has wandered into a volatile Europe, crossing over from Poland into the unnamed country on the brink of WWII. We can, of course, guess just who is the object of the ‘big game’ hunt; the question is why.

I’m not going to say a great deal more about this extraordinary novel as to dissect it too much would give away the pleasure that awaits for the next reader. Suffice to say that our man makes it back to England, and while I thought that he would feel safe in his native land, the action only  intensifies, and the figurative broad net created to capture the narrator becomes much smaller, much more defined as the escape and arena for safety becomes increasingly more claustrophobic.

Leaving plot aside–something that is, after all, relatively easy to discover for oneself, I’ll say that at first I thought the narrator was an assassin, perhaps the classic unreliable narrator, but rather his motives remain opaque even when aiming his rifle. It’s only much later that the narrator finally comes to understand his own motivations.

The narrator begins the novel in a very bad spot, and it goes downhill from there as he tumbles down even his own society, reverting to the status of a homeless man, a drifter, and finally an animal. Household cleverly reverses the roles of the hunter and the hunted, and sometimes those roles reverse in a mere second, and there’s even a comment made about unnecessary death, the slaughter of a helpless animal that is a statement on the value of life.  The narrator does, of course, make a mistake or two, but the book is written so that we suspect immediately that a mistake has been made. This all builds incredible, almost unbearable suspense.

For this reader, some of the greatest fun of the novel came from two distinct sources: the characters the narrator meets who help him along the way–unsung heroes who, at great risk to themselves, show a little kindness. But the greatest source of delight came from Geoffrey Household’s incredible main character who honestly puts the James Bond types with all their techno toys to shame. Not only is our narrator extremely resourceful, but he’s physically tough and highly intelligent. He also applies the skills of a hunter to his escape and his slippery ability to evade the men who seek his death. Of course, though, it’s inevitable that he meets someone whose craft and stealth may match his own.

One significant theme of the novel is individualism. Here we have an individual outside of any government or official channels, who acts on his own, thinks on his own, and takes his actions to their ultimate conclusion. His individualism is apparent immediately from the simple fact that he’s the object of massive man-hunt, but as the novel continues and the action intensifies, the narrator, abandoning the resources of society, has no one to rely on except himself and his own considerable skills.

I can admire such an individualist as you. What I respect in you is that you have no need of any law but your own. You’re prepared to rule, or to be suppressed, but you won’t obey. You are able to deal with your own conscience.

Rogue Male was published in 1939, and here in the 21st century, it seems remarkably ahead of its time. If you read the NYRB edition (as I did) I’d recommend leaving the introduction until after you’ve finished the book. It contains spoilers galore.

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An Academic Question by Barbara Pym

If all the pages identifying its author were removed, I’d still be able to tell that An Academic Question was written by one of my great favourites, Barbara Pym. The book includes many of her types of characters: dissatisfied wives, potty animal lovers, peevish, backstabbing academics, supportive mother-in-laws, lonely spinsters, and vain, asexual men who frequently assume the role of confidantes. While Pym often writes of the world of the clergy, there are no confused vicars here, but the church appears in the background for its role of stepping in for that end-stage of death and dying.  The matter of author ‘identification’ is important as An Academic Question is an unfinished novel but it’s still quintessential Pym, put together from two drafts and Pym’s notes after her death by her biographer, literary executor and “editorial associate,” Hazel Holt. When I came across the novel, I was a bit puzzled. How could I have missed a Pym Novel? Why hadn’t I noticed it before? Of course, these questions were answered when I read the flyleaf. It’s certainly not Pym’s best, and I hope that first-time readers don’t find this Pym title first. Publishing an unfinished novel raises the question whether or not the book should have been released. As a Pym fan, I’m glad I read it, but this reading comes after enjoying all of her other titles, and I’d recommend leaving this to the end.

an academic questionThis is the story of Caroline, “changed to Caro,” for her identification with “poor Lady Caroline Lamb, who said she was like the wreck of a little boat for she never came up to the sublime and beautiful.”  Caro is married to Alan, an emotionally-remote academic, but there’s a lot that’s remote about Caro too. In her youth, she had a “Byronic affair,” and while there are no details, it’s clear that the relationship ended badly. We know, because he pops up later in the book, that this “Byronic suitor” was David, her “first love,” and it’s possible that the embers still burn. Did Caro marry Alan because he was dull and reliable, the polar opposite of that first wild and miserable affair?

Caro and Alan have one child, 4-year-old Kate, who’s mostly taken care of by the physically impressive Inge, the au pair, and Caro seems to have a horror of taking care of her own child. The few glimpses we see of Kate aren’t flattering. There’s a slyness to the child that’s vaguely repugnant.  Part of Caro’s dilemma is that she feels useless, but she’s also discontent. She married Alan right after finishing university, and while she doesn’t want a career, she’s aware that she’s “lacking any special maternal feeling and this seemed an even greater inadequacy.” She feels inadequate in all regions of her life: as a wife (her husband works with Iris, a very attractive, divorced woman), and as a mother (she thinks that Inge is much better with Kate). The subject of Caro taking a part-time job is discussed, and because of this desire to occupy her time, at the suggestion of one of her friends, Dolly, Caro finds herself reading to the elderly at Normanhurst, an “old people’s home.”  (Now there’s a term from the past)

“Alan thinks I ought to have a job,” I told her, “and as I can’t really help him with his work I suppose I’ll have to look for something else–something to do with research and card indexes he would like, but I’d prefer something unusual that I could make my own.”

“What about the old people’s home?” Dolly suggested.

My dismay must have shown itself on my face, for she went on to say that some people there were quite interesting.

“It’s for gentlefolk, as Sister Dew never tires of pointing out, and most of them have their own furniture with them.”

The idea of elderly persons of gentle birth surrounded by their own bits of Chippendale and Sheraton, not to mention Chelsea, Waterford and Meissen, was not one that attracted me, and I said so.

“Besides, what could I do there?”

“Read to them,” said Dolly.

“Read to them? How appalling! What should I read?”

“Novels and biographies, poetry, the Bible–do you know that Professor Maynard sometimes looks in on a retired missionary there?”

So Caro begins reading to former missionary, Reverend Stillingfleet, a man who guards a chest full of unpublished manuscripts that both Alan and his department head, Crispin Maynard want to get their hands on….

Caro finds herself involved in some morally questionable shenanigans, and while that might seem to be the novel’s central dilemma, an unexpected problem also appears in her relationship with Alan. Caro is very jealous of  Alan’s relationship with his  colleague, the very attractive and available Iris. Is she a threat or is Caro imagining an attachment where there is none?

An Academic Question is clearly much less polished that Pym’s other superb (perfect) novels. Caro, as the book’s central character lacks a solid centre. She’s sometimes sympathetic, but at others quite repellent. In common with other Pym heroines, she’s a little lost, not sure of her role in life–she’s more an appendage to her husband than anything else. She contemplates taking a lover, but an accidental meeting with an old beau seems to reinforce the tepidness of such a move.

One of the wonderful things about Pym as a novelist is that she is always very generous to her characters, and this author’s novels of manners are, above all, gentle. Somehow, An Academic Question is a little harsher and there’s some definite ugliness. There’s an abortion, an affair, and some cruel words spoken. Written at a point in Pym’s career when she was used to publisher rejections, she stopped work on this novel as she considered too much like all the others. Instead she continued to work on A Quartet in Autumn which is my very favourite Pym novel, and makes my all-time favourite book list. A Quartet in Autumn is one of the best books on the subject of aging that I’ve ever read, and while it’s sad in its depictions of the lonely lives of 4 retirees, An Academic Question gives us a peek under the layers of society on some of the same issues: those who are young, vigorous and on their way upwards in their careers, and those who are facing death. Alan can’t wait for Crispin Maynard to retire, and although Alan may not directly benefit from Crispin’s departure, he has the notion that Crispin stands in the way of his career.  The old must make way for the young.  Caro sees Crispin as kind and thoughtful, but Alan sees him as an archaic thinker, a backstabber of the first order.

The book’s best scenes are those of the nastiness of Academia. The dinner parties, the lectures–they’re all opportunities for conceit and snide insults. Pym understood the worlds she created, and so the scenes of academic life–the two-faced smiles and the backstabbing at faculty dinners and parties are perfect.

The biggest problem with the novel is that some of the characters are undeveloped and underutilized. One of my favourite characters is Dolly, a spinster who pours her love and her life into hedgehogs. Whatever else is going on in the world matters little when compared to Dolly’s colony of hedgehogs she nurtures in her back garden. She is the epitome of Pym’s belief that we all need something to love–no matter the object. Dolly’s sister, Kitty, a vain woman who lived on a Caribbean island  and misses the privilege of her colonial lifestyle, is mostly talked about and not seen. Her asexual, gossipy, vain son, Coco is in his 40s but still lives with his mother; his relationship with Caro is complicated and could have been developed. The most troubling problem with the novel, however, is that the two central dilemmas in Claire’s life are unresolved. They are both biggies and yet they just seem to melt away….Of course, it’s impossible to guess how Pym would have finished this novel before submitting it for publication. We can only speculate.

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Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

Great Granny Webster by British author Caroline Blackwood came recommended by commenter, Leroy. The novel also had the advantage of being from New York Review Books, and since I’ve had such good luck with their titles, I decided to read it. This is a largely autobiographical tale written by Blackwood, the heiress to the Guinness fortune. The introduction from Honor Moore notes that the book was a finalist for the Booker, but that it did not win thanks to “the decisive vote cast from Philip Larkin who reportedly insisted that a tale so autobiographical could not stand for fiction.” Well so much for the Booker. I always seem to prefer the losers anyway.

great granny websterAt a mere 108 pages, it’s a deceptively slim read, and it’s a story that you think is taking you in one direction, but then by the final page, you realize that the destination was rather unexpected, and instead of a coming-of-age story, Great Granny Webster is the story of a search for identity through one’s relatives.  The story starts in 1947 with a 14-year-old girl, our unnamed narrator, who following an operation, is sent to the home of the fearsome Great Granny Webster to convalesce after the doctor advised that she would benefit from sea air. Great Granny Webster, who lives preserved in strict Victorianism, is attended by the crippled-one-eyed maid, Richards, in her mausoleum of a house in Hove. Just a few miles away from the “staid and wealthy gentility” of Hove was the “gay and tempting paradise of” Brighton, “tantalizingly near” but considered common and vulgar by the joyless, unbending Great Granny Webster:

Great Granny Webster knew that I was meant to need sea air, and this suited her very well because apparently she needed it herself. At four o’clock every afternoon a hired Rolls-Royce from a Hove car firm appeared at her door with a uniformed, unctuous chauffeur, who would then drive both of us, as if he was driving two royalties, at a slow creep along the misty sea-front of Hove. To and fro, to and fro, we would drive for exactly an hour while one of the windows of the Rolls-Royce was wound down just enough to let in a very small sniff of salt and seaweed-smelling air. 

Marooned for several months with her implacable, pessimistic elderly relative, the narrator finds the “grim and fiercely joyless” Great Granny Webster a curiosity–a woman with a “passion for pointless suffering,” and yet in spite of the tedious days of stiff propriety, there’s some undefined bond between the narrator and her great-grandmother. For her part, Great Granny Webster finds that the girl is quiet and “retiring.” While the girl is “chilled” by the frightening thought that she “would turn out to be exactly like her,” nonetheless she feels an inexplicable sense of panic when she finally leaves Great Granny Webster and returns home.

Ultimately this stay with Great Granny Webster sparks the narrator’s curiosity about her dead father, Ivor, killed in WWII, and his insane mother (Great Granny Webster’s daughter) safely locked up in an asylum. The narrator learns that her father visited Great Granny Webster frequently when he was on leave, and this, initially seems puzzling since the narrator can’t imagine why her father chose to spend time with his dour grandmother during his all-too-precious leave.  Unfortunately  “Death had obscured him as a reality,” and the narrator seeks the answers through his history.

The narrator’s Aunt Lavinia, Ivor’s sister, is a brilliant, glittering butterfly of a woman who’s worked through several millionaire husbands, and she is perhaps the ‘missing link’–a human antidote to Great Granny Webster.

A play-girl in the style of the ‘twenties, she was famous for her beautiful legs and for the fact that she had been married briefly to three millionaires while taking at the same time a large selection of lovers, who were not only friends of her husbands’ but almost as well-endowed financially. Her attitude to life appeared so resolutely frivolous that perversely she could seem to have the seriousness of someone with a driving inner purpose. She believed in having “fun” as if it was a state of grace. Taking nothing seriously except amusement, she caused very little rancor, and although she was considered untrustworthy and wild and was reputed once to have gate-crashed a fashionable London party totally naked except for a sanitary towel, she managed to slip in and out of her many relationships, which she invariably described as “divine,” like an elegant and slippery eel.

Could there be two more diametrically opposed people: Aunt Lavinia–who surrounds herself with luxury in a life which is an endless, irresponsible party and a pursuit of pleasure, and her indomitable grandmother, Great Granny Webster, a woman who takes pride in a joyless life of deprivation? Through recollections from Tommy Redcliffe, a family friend, the family tree is completed with memories of Lavinia and Ivor’s parents. Tommy was an old school friend of Ivor’s and an unfortunate visitor to the ramshackle inhospitable eccentricities of the family home, Dunmartin Hall in Ulster. Eventually the layers of memory are peeled back to reveal three generations of bizarre women: the gothic misery of Great Granny Webster, fey, quite mad grandmother Dunmartin who’s sure that the “evil fairies”  have stolen her children and replaced them with changelings, and Aunt Lavinia, whose superficial, relentless pursuit of fun and pleasure masks a dark desperation.  Not the greatest legacy, then, if you are that next generation.

For its incredible depictions of decaying Anglo-Irish aristocracy, Great Granny Webster serves as a wonderful companion piece to J.G. Farrell’s superb novel, Troubles, as the two novels could be describing the same family. Through Tommy Redcliffe’s recollections of his visits to Dunmartin Hall, “a gigantic monument to more prosperous and eternally lost times,” we see eccentricities cross the line into madness. Everyone in the Dunmartin family seems to have entered into a silent conspiracy that life there is ‘normal.’ The “grandiose and unwieldy” mansion comes with “crippling inherited debts,” so every year the house falls into deeper and deeper decay.

Having tried to exist by aping an English feudal system most unsuccessfully, it was only the scale of the diminishment of this enormous Ulster house that remained impressive in its period of retribution and impoverishment. Its vast stone-carved swimming pool, surrounded by busts of Roman emperors, still remained somehow imposing, though it rotted in a scum of dead leaves and insects. The same was true of Dunmartin Hall’s once valuable libraries, though many of the pages of their books had become glued together and blued with mildew.

Into this damp, rotting house with its leaky roof, rank, inedible food, and practically non-existent plumbing, Grandfather Dunmartin, in an insane effort to maintain standards hires an English butler and footmen. The result of this are horrifyingly, sadly hilarious.  And through it all, everyone pretends that daily life isn’t torturous despair.

When my grandmother spent most of the day shut up in her bedroom , she sat cross-legged on the floor and cut out coloured pictures of elves and fairies from her enormous collection of children’s books. What everyone found blood-curdling was that she herself had started to look very like the model fairies that you see on the top of Christmas trees. She had the same frozen blank expression, the agelessness that made her seem neither child or woman.

Through mordant and perceptive detail, the narrator exposes the deep, dark secrets of the generations that have gone before her. We are left wondering where the madness began, for while one woman is locked up in an asylum, arguably for violence more than anything else, is there anyone normal here–except possibly Ivor who died before he had time to prove his sanity. This deliciously wicked exposition of the grubbier side of the Webster/Dunmartin family argues that we cannot escape our pasts, and that we are more a product of past generations and our upbringing than we’d sometimes care to admit. Yet while our narrator learns about her family, there are many questions left unanswered, and Great Granny Webster manages to have the last word in her farewell to the world.

Thanks for the recommendation, Leroy.

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The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories by Saki

This New York Review Books edition of The Un-rest Cure and Other Stories by Saki is a compilation from several different collections. There’s a total of 26 stories here:

From Reginald:

Reginald at the Carlton

Reginald on Besetting Sins

Reginald’s Drama 

From Reginald in Russia:

The Reticence of Lady Anne

The Strategist

From The Chronicles of Clovis

Tobermory

Mrs. Packlehide’s Tiger

The Stampeding of Lady Bastable

The Unrest-Cure

Sredni Vashtar

Adrian

The Quest

The Peace Offering

The Talking-out of Tarrington

The Hounds of Fate

From Beasts and Superbeasts:

The Boar-Pig

The Open Window

The Cobweb

Fur

From the Toys of Peace:

The Guests

The Penance

Bertie’s Christmas Eve

Quail Seed

Mark

Fate

The Seven Cream Jugs

the unrest cureSaki, whose real name was H. H. Munro (1870-1916), was a British satirist best remembered for his many short stories which skewered and satirized Edwardian society. New York Review Books took a chance with this volume as these collections are free for the kindle, but in this volume, the wit of Saki is paired with the art of Edward Gorey, and it’s an excellent match.

You can’t read these droll stories and imagine for a moment that you are reading anything but a British novelist, and the amusing Reginald stories, full of one-liners, reminded me of PG. Wodehouse more than anyone else. Reginald’s wit is often at the expense of his listening audience–people who just don’t ‘get it.’ In Reginald at the Carleton, the duchess and Reginald converse and touch on the subject of Lady Beauwhistle’s aunt, a woman the duchess claims is “sweet.”

“And so silly. In these days of the overeducation of women, she’s quite refreshing. They say some people went through the siege of Paris without knowing that France and Germany were at war, but the Beauwhistle aunt is credited with having passed the whole winter in Paris under the impression that the Humberts were a kind of bicycle….”

But for this reader, the best stories in the collection are The Chronicles of Clovis. These hilarious, subversive tales, rife with mischief & savage wit, are superb. I simply loved Clovis, a young man who undermines the decorum of Edwardian society at every opportunity, and behind that comment comes the thought that I would love to be Clovis, stirring up mayhem every chance I got.

In the title story, The Unrest-Cure, Clovis is traveling when he overhears a conversation between two men on a train. One of the men named Huddle, complains to his friend that although he’s only a little over 40, he’s become “settled down in the deep groove of elderly middle-age.” For Huddle and his sister, everything in life must remain the same; they loathe change of any sort, even if it’s a “trifling matter.” The latest disturbance in routine involves a thrush who has built its nest in a new location. To Huddle, the change is “unnecessary and irritating.” Huddle’s friend suggests an “unrest-cure.

“You’ve heard of Rest-cures for people who’ve broken down under stress of too much worry and strenuous living; well, you’re suffering from overmuch repose and placidity, and you need the opposite kind of treatment.”

“But where would one go for such a thing?”

“Well, you might stand as an orange candidate for Kilkenny, or do a course of district visiting in one of the *apache headquarters of Paris, or give lectures in Berlin to prove that most of Wagner’s music was written by Gambetta; and there’s always the interior of Morocco to travel in. But, to be really effective, the unrest-cure ought to be tried in the home. How you  would do it, I haven’t the faintest idea.”

Clovis, while he appears to have a languid nature, is never short of ideas and energy when it comes to creating mischief and social sabotage, so he decides to impersonate a bishop’s secretary and visit Huddle who is subsequently provided with the dastardly “unrest-cure.” The outcome is maliciously hilarious, but underneath all the humour, Saki seems to be making a statement about the passivity of the average person when confronted with “authority” and a particularly nasty agenda.

In “The Stampeding of Lady Bastable,” Mrs Sangrail tries to pawn off her son Clovis on Lady Bastable for a few days while she goes to Scotland:

It was her invariable plan to speak in a sleepy, comfortable voice whenever she was unusually keen about anything; it put people off their guard, and they frequently fell in with her wishes before they had realized that she was really asking for anything. Lady Bastable, however, was not so easily taken unawares; possibly she knew that voice and what it betokened-at any rate she knew Clovis.

Lady Bastable still has memories of Clovis’s last stay and isn’t too keen to take responsibility for him again. Mrs. Sangrail’s assurances that Clovis has matured don’t impress Lady Bastable who argues that “it’s no use growing older if you only learn new ways of misbehaving yourself.” But in spite of Lady Bastable’s wariness of Clovis’s “irrepressible waywardness,” she agrees to babysit Clovis in exchange for the cancellation of a gambling debt. Clovis, however, has his own reasons for wanting to go to Scotland, and so he forms a diabolical plan…

There were moments when Clovis could easily have been a character in an Oscar Wilde play. His glib, confident, impromptu fabrications reminded this reader of The Importance of Being Earnest. Full of caustic, yet eccentric wit, these short stories are best savoured slowly, one at a time.

Review copy.

* Apache gangs, known for their savagery, operated in Paris from the late 1800s but disappeared during WWI

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Girl, 20 by Kingsley Amis

“I advise you to retire to one of those places in California where nobody knows anything or notices anything.”

Girl, 20, of the title isn’t actually 20–Sylvia, the latest in a long line of extra-marital affairs indulged in by middle-aged composer and conductor Sir Roy Vandervane,  is a mere 17 and a great deal of trouble. Still no matter, what she lacks in years, she makes up for in ferocity. It would be false to say that Sylvia is Sir Roy’s latest conquest, as in this case, it seems that Sylvia is the conqueror and Sir Roy the eager booty. Anyway, the novel starts with our narrator, music critic Douglas Yandell finding himself dragged into the domestic tribulations of the Vandervanes. Douglas chronicles Sir Roy’s troubled home life with his delightfully neurotic wife, Kitty–a woman who usually tolerates Sir Roy’s clumsy affairs, but in this instance, he has simply gone too far. Kitty monitors her husband’s affairs by counting the pairs of underwear in his drawer, so when the number is depleted, she knows there’s another woman. This latest affair or “goes” as Kitty calls them, seems to be serious.

Girl 20Kitty, herself a product of an “ancient go,” which resulted in Sir Roy’s divorce from his first wife, is very familiar with her husband’s MO. He seems to regard extra-marital affairs as his right, so he doesn’t bother to cover his tracks, and there’s also the argument that his refusal to hide these affairs is a provocation. Kitty summons Douglas to the Vandervane mansion, north of Hampstead, and demands his help–although Douglas’s  first inclination is to support his own sex, “on ordinary male-trade-union grounds,” in these matters. After a few hours at the Vandervane home spent in the company of the family, particularly the obnoxious brat, Ashley, Douglas has only sympathy for Sir Roy’s desire to escape his domestic situation.

Kitty, at forty-six or seven, must feel, and could not understand why Roy, at nearly fifty-four (twenty years my senior to within a week), should have to grow sillier as he grew older, except that his growing wiser would have been unbelievable.

Sir Roy’s affairs have been indiscreet, numerous, and sometimes disastrous. Kitty says she doesn’t “mind him just having a go occasionally,” it’s his long disappearances she objects to. He’s considering taking a “tour of Brazil” no doubt with his latest paramour (whose identity remains a mystery) as part of the luggage.  Kitty is adamant that her husband mustn’t “throw himself away on some filthy little barbarian of a teenager.”

“I don’t know anything at all about her, but they’re been running at about twenty to twenty-six over the last three years or so. Tending to go down. Getting younger at something like half the rate he gets older. When he’s seventy-three they’ll be ten.”

I checked the last bit mentally and found it to be correct, given the assumptions. It seemed to me extraordinary that anyone capable of making these in the first place, and then of following through to their ‘logical’ conclusion, should (as Kitty clearly did), see the final picture as nothing but tragic or repulsive.

“And when he’s eighty-three they’ll be five,” I said experimentally.

“Yes,” she agreed, glad that I had followed her reasoning.

That quote gives a taste of the sort of humour found in Girl, 20. Aging, sexuality, and infidelity all come in for a ribbing here, and when the book is funny, it’s very funny. Poor Douglas is recruited to discover the identity of the other woman as well as determine how serious the affair is, and according to Kitty then  “we can sort of make a plan.” Led on by his curiosity, Douglas becomes embroiled in the private lives of the Vandervanes.  Douglas makes a good narrator for this tale–he’s used and abused by all sides–Sir Roy, Kitty and even other members of the Vandervane household. Although Douglas is ostensibly the wobbly moral centre of the novel, he has a peculiar ‘arrangement’ of his own–he ‘shares’ his girlfriend, Vivienne with the “other bloke,” who gets “every Tuesday and Friday.” So while Sir Roy is in a triangular relationship, being tugged back and forth between wife and mistress, our narrator, Douglas is juggled with another man, but then Douglas begins juggling another woman with Vivienne. Douglas occasionally tries to take the moral high road with Sir Roy, but it doesn’t work, and Douglas, who has a lurid attraction to Sir Roy’s grubbier exploits, doesn’t really have his heart in any firm moralizing.

Author Kingsley Amis stated that the book is about irresponsibility, and the monstrously irresponsible Sir Roy is the larger-than-life character who carries the novel. While he’s exactly the sort of person you wouldn’t want in your life–an egoist, supremely selfish, a champagne socialist with a penchant for pontificating, he’s fun to read about as he careens from one disaster to another. Everything seems to be falling apart, so we see Penny, Sir Roy’s daughter from his first marriage, experimenting with drugs even as her father experiments with a series of young women.  Sir Roy feels that he’s come of age in the 60s and can take a leap just as much as any 20 year-old. He’s convinced that “the whole generation-gap idea’s just an invention of the media and the Yanks.” He’s out to prove he’s just as hip and swinging as … well … Sylvia. According to Sir Roy, he hasn’t been breaking the law “much,” and this is how he describes his torrid relationship with Sylvia:

Ageing shag tries to stimulate jaded appetite by recreating situation of days of firse discovery of sex plus whiff of illegality, corruption of youth, dirty ole man luring child into disused plate-layer’s hut and plying her with dandelion-and-burdock to induce her to remove knickers and slake his vile lusts

This is the swinging sixties, and the novel feels like it with the disintegration of traditional values, sexual experimentation, alternative lifestyles etc, and this novel is so 60s, at times it has an anachronistic feel. Everything that was so successful in Lucky Jim, isn’t quite as successful here. Lucky Jim, Amis’s first novel, gives us the backdrop of academia and a young don who tries to flatter his boring boss–even as he self-sabotages his attempts at sycophancy.  In Girl, 20, we have a younger man who has no idea what married life is about, telling an older married man how to behave, and sometimes he even means it.  Douglas and Roy’s misadventures are very funny, but the spaces between these social explosions are not so interesting, with the result that  Girl, 20 published in 1971, is a much less even novel than Lucky Jim.  Still this is classic Amis, and that means when it’s funny, it’s very funny. And a word of caution for foreign readers who wish to read this in English. Some of the dialogue is written to reflect upper class accents, so there are occasionally sentences such as:

I’m really moce grateful to you two for doing this.”

“What a terribly nice fluht.”

“Uhbsolutelty different.”

I can see foreign readers scrambling for their English dictionaries….

Review copy

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Bleeding London by Geoff Nicholson

After reading several novels  written by Geoff Nicholson for  a Year of Geoff Nicholson (which is extending into a Year and a Bit), I’ve thought a great deal about obsession. The driving force behind Nicholson’s characters is obsession in one form or another, and  I’ve begun to wonder if being an obsessive is necessarily a bad thing. After all if nursing an obsession saves you from going around the bend or blowing your brains out, then what’s the problem?

The three main characters in Nicholson’s brilliantly funny novel Bleeding London are all obsessives, all people on a mission for one reason or another. There’s Mick, a bouncer whose stripper girlfriend, Gabby, a hard-as-nails, “taut redhead,” claims she was gang-raped by six men, “in-bred toffs,”  following a performance for a private stag party in London. Armed with a list of names, Mick travels from Sheffield to London on a mission to hunt down the offenders and deliver painful, humiliating punishments. Sounds fairly straightforward, right?

Bleeding LondonThen there’s Judy who works in a bookshop and is obsessed with having sex in every London location possible. She has a map hanging on her wall marked for each event, and after quizzing each of her lovers, she creates their maps of past sexual adventures for comparison. The men in Judy’s life have a range of responses to her enthusiasm for sexual geography: they find her hobby exciting, erotic, and puzzling. Judy relentlessly pursues her obsession, and yet at the same time feels an emptiness. No wonder she calls late night radio chat shows to discuss her sex life.

Then there’s Stuart who founded a walking tour business called The London Walker. Business was limp at first until Stuart met and married Anita. She’s transformed the business into a phenomenal success, but in the process Stuart has become superfluous. Anita calls Stuart’s tours  “a little recherché,” and he’s eventually moved to a management position while Anita creates London walks designed to appeal to tourists.

At first he continued to lead walks. But Anita had been right. His knowledge of London was detailed and profound, his love of it real, yet as the years went by he had an increasing distaste for the obvious. He genuinely wanted to reveal London to the people who came on the tours but he was bored with its more obvious features. He wanted to show its eccentricities and unknown quarters. Rather than take them to the Tower of London he’d have preferred to take them to the abandoned Severndroog Castle near Oxleas wood. For Stuart it increasingly wasn’t enough to tell a few old anecdotes and point out a few sights and locations. He felt the truth was more profound in the obscure corners than in the grand sweeps. And on a good day he would find these corners, even while ostensibly showing the punters the more orthodox aspects of London. His tours became increasingly abstract, free form, improvised, often turning into a sort of mystery tour. A crowd that had signed up for a canal walk might be treated instead to a tour of sites connected with leprosy. There were a few complaints, some dissatisfied walkers who demanded their money back.

If pressed to tell the truth, Stuart was happy with his small business, but that’s swept aside by Anita’s drive, efficiency, and emphasis on “cash-flow forecasts.”

For a while he conceived of his consultative role as thinking up new and original ideas for tours, but this was not an area where novelty and ingenuity were particularly welcomed. The Henry VIII walk and the Jack the Ripper Walk were always likely to do better business than Stuart’s fancier inventions such as the Thomas Middleton Walk, the Post-Modernist Walk, the Anarchists’ Walk. In fact it was a guide in her first week with the company who came up with the idea of the London Lesbian Walk, which for a while was one of the most popular tours.

Driven to despair and a feeling of uselessness, he falls into an affair that is now over. Depressed and withdrawn, Stuart, decides that he needs a “Big Idea” as a “reason for being.”

Once it had arrived there was an inevitability about it, something undeniable. he was sitting in the coffee bar of the Museum of Transport in Covent Garden thinking how much he disliked buses and tubes when the idea finally struck, and the moment it was there he couldn’t see why it had been so long coming. It felt so completely right. What he had to do was utterly clear. He was going to walk down every street in London.

Armed with a A-Z book of London, Stuart takes off every morning exploring London in a way he’s never explored it before, and we get some of the stranger less-well known episodes of the history of London with an emphasis on sexual tourism.  Naturally, since this is a Geoff Nicholson novel, all three characters, each with a different version of London, collide with tangled connections of sexual obsession. Bleeding London is a very funny book with Mick delivering his creative, humiliating punishments to the men on his hit-list, Judy trying to find meaning in her life by plotting geographical markers of sexual encounters, and poor Stuart who is dazzled and amazed by London even as he realises that it’s a city that is greater than a sum of its parts. Once again Nicholson explores the pathology of obsession in this story of characters whose raison d’être is obsession–characters who finally understand that obsession, a harsh exacting mistress, can never be satisfied. Once down that rabbit hole, you’re a goner.

Geoff Nicholson, by the way, has a blog called The Hollywood Walker.  Which makes perfect sense if you think about it.

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Praxis by Fay Weldon

“The funny farm, the loony bin, the mental home. The shelter for the mentally disabled. I have visited them all, over the years.”

Another Weldon re-read and this time it’s Praxis, a novel I read for the first time some decades ago. It’s an interesting book to come back to for many reasons, but as I read it in tandem with Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, the two books worked, rather curiously with no small amount of synchronicity–odd really as the books are about entirely different things, for while Life after Life explores alternate lives and brings up the possibly of changing fate, Praxis focuses on a character who rarely exercises her Free Will. It was pure accident that I read these two books simultaneously, and while both books focus on the lives and the choices of two women, time wise, Praxis extends into the late 20th century, whereas Life After Life is rooted in the first half of the 20th century.

Weldon, a feminist writer who’s been the centre of some controversy, concentrates on the lives of women with themes that include: female identity & self-image, transformation & reinvention, gender inequality, female madness and the vicious relationships between women. While Weldon’s work, full of bitingly wicked humour, obviously fits in any feminist canon, her work can also be considered Transgressive fiction for the way her marvelous characters subvert societal norms. Praxis is the story of a 20th century woman who’s transformed (not for the better) by her relationships with men. A female chameleon with little sense of just who she really is, Praxis subsumes herself in her relationships, becoming what her lovers expect/want her to be. Becoming what is expected or desired brings only unhappiness and confusion, and through this character’s transformations, we see Praxis struggling with her identity, her own worst enemy as the years fall away spent on some meaningless daily life that fulfills someone else’s demands and expectations. And then the day comes when Praxis acts spontaneously and as a result goes to prison. Is she a feminist hero or a monster?

praxisThe Praxis of the title is the youngest daughter of Lucy Duveen and her common-law husband, Benjamin. The story is told by a now elderly Praxis, a woman who has apparently spent a few years in prison for an unspecified crime. Praxis writes down her story, going back in time to at age 5, “sitting on the beach at Brighton,” with her mother and her older sister Hypatia. Lucy and her two daughters give an idyllic impression to passer-bys including WWI veteran and former bombardier, Henry Whitechapel, who now lurks on the beaches pretending to take photographs for tourists with film (if he actually has any) that he never develops.

Praxis, Henry noticed, was easily bored. When other diversions failed she would run  shrieking into the sea, still wearing her shoes and socks, to the distraction of her mother, and the distaste of Hypatia, who was content for hours staring at the sea and making poetry in her head.

“If that young one were mine,” thought Henry Whitechapel, “I’d belt her one.” Later he was to have the opportunity of doing so. He had never married, and had no children of his own; his lungs and his concentration were not what they had been before the war; nor certainly at that time was his sexual capacity. But a romantic interest in the opposite sex remained, and Lucy Duveen, sitting on the pebbly beach with her hamper, her parasol, and her two little girls, made for him a romantic image.

Told in both first and third person narration, we follow Praxis through her life, through her university days, her lovers, marriages, divorces, children, step-children, endless cooking and cleaning, and there are several points at which Praxis finds herself in a life she didn’t plan and doesn’t want. With a ‘how-did-I-get-here’ feeling, a stupefied Praxis marvels that lacking a sense of self, she’s been molded into a person she no longer recognizes in order to please whichever man is in her life.

Staring at herself in the mirror, at her doll’s face, stiff doll’s body, curly blonde doll’s hair, she wondered what experience or wisdom could possibly shine through the casing that Ivor had selected for her. She did not blame Ivor: she knew that she had done it to herself : had preferred to live as a figment of Ivor’s imagination, rather than put up with the confusion of being herself.

But while Praxis tries to hard to please the various men in her life, she fails to befriend women, and since Weldon is big on the betrayals of women towards their own sex, there are several times when Praxis’s peculiar, and very possibly mad, sister, Hypatia (“People fail you, children disappoint you, thieves break in, moths corrupt, but an OBE goes on for ever,“)  takes measures to ensure her sister’s unhappiness. It’s no coincidence that the very best things that happen in Praxis’s life occur on those rare occasions when women stick together.

While the style, tone and theme of Praxis were all vastly dissimilar to Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, there were connections. Life after Life gives us a protagonist who lives many versions of the same life. Choices made in a split second lead Ursula down different paths in an alternative universe sort-of-way. While Weldon’s Praxis is grounded in bitter reality, her life is segmented by divisions and a metaphysical connection with the star Betelgeuse–which signals death of one self and the rebirth of another ‘new’ Praxis. While Ursula has moments of disturbing deja-vu, Praxis feels a strong disconnect with her life–almost as though one day she wakes up and wonders just how she got to this place.

Praxis, who becomes entangled with the swinging sixties, also runs head-long into feminism, and Praxis has mixed feelings about feminists–initially repelled, they begin to make sense to her–although as the years pass, once again, Praxis feels out of touch:

The New Women! I could barely recognize them as being of the same sex as myself, their buttocks arrogant in tight jeans, openly inviting, breasts falling free and shameless and feeling no apparent obligation to smile, look pleasant or keep their voices low. And how they love! Just look at them to know how! If a man doesn’t bring them to orgasm, they look for another who does. If by mistake they fall pregnant, they abort by vacuum aspiration. If they don’t like the food, they push the plate away. If the job doesn’t suit them, they hand in their notice. They are satiated by everything, hungry for nothing. They are what I wanted to be; they are what I worked for them to be: and now I see them, I hate them.

I can’t conclude without mentioning one of my favourite characters in the book, Irma, a friend from Praxis’s university days. Irma is the sort of hard, driven woman who always seems to know what she wants and how to get it. She marries a man she thinks will be successful and she leads a rather terrifying life of social success and mental emptiness. At one point, for example she offers Praxis some practical advice:

“There’s only way to get out of the fix you’re in,” said Irma. “And that’s to sleep your way out of it. Sorry and all that.” 

Since this is a Weldon novel, Irma undergoes her own radical transformation, becoming a militant feminist and appearing on television while her ex-husband nastily argues that all “poor Irma” needs is:

  “a good lay. But where is she going to find that? Look at the way she dresses.”

Review copy

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Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

The title of Barbara Pym’s first published novel, Some Tame Gazelle, might not seem to have any connection to the plot, but the quote appears early in the novel:

Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:

Something to love, oh, something to love! (Thomas Haynes Bayly)

I happen to share that feeling–people need something to love, and if there’s no person available, then let it be a dog, a cat, a hamster, or a budgie. If push comes to shove, a plant will do. Even my neighbor has his Harley Davidson since his missus departed for less turbulent pastures. Anyway, the need to have something to love is evident in Some Tame Gazelle, the story of two spinster sisters, Harriet and Belinda Bede, in their fifties whose lives are built around the local church and its clergymen. The sisters live together in a life of genteel comfort, and while they can afford a maid, there’s a little nip and tuck when it comes to meals if no guests are expected at the table. The two sisters are completely different: Belinda, the eldest sister is a romantic introvert whose male ideal, somewhat incongruously is the “dear Earl of Rochester.” Yes, Belinda in many ways is someone who doesn’t get the nuances of character as we later see through Belinda’s decades long devotion to the unrequited love of her university days–now the local, pompous married Archdeacon Hoccleve. Harriet, on the other hand, is an extrovert, a plump flirt who obsesses about her appearance, and always has a crush on whichever young, pink-cheeked, innocent curate is assigned to the local church. She’s a groupie of sorts: “She was especially given to cherishing young clergymen, and her frequent excursions to the curates’ lodgings had often given rise to talk.”

Some tame GazelleThe novel begins with bubbling excitement over the new curate’s attendance at dinner. Belinda is fully expecting Harriet “to be quite as silly over him as she had been over his predecessors,” and the relationships Harriet has with the series of curates who’ve passed through seem to cover all sorts of roles from surrogate mother & sons to vague courtship.  One of Harriet’s problems is that she doesn’t know whether to mother the curate du jour or giggle and flirt with him. Needless to say she does both–but she’s not alone in the parish when it comes to fussing over the curate. This seems to be a popular pastime with the single women, and whether or not they are too old to be jealously possessive about the highly-prized curate is beside the point. But in spite of the slight awkwardness generated when a mid-fities spinster fusses over a single man young enough to be her son, those involved seem happy with the arrangement. It’s one of those ‘no damage done’ situations with everyone glossing over the possibly unhealthy ramifications of these relationships. Harriet immerses herself in questions such as ‘is the curate getting proper meals?’ and whether he needs a new of pair of hand-knitted socks. For their part, the curates benefit by getting regular free meals.

So while the novel opens with the exciting prospect (for Harriet, at least) of a fresh, young, curate, The Reverend Edgar Donne, Belinda faces the thrill of the Archdeacon’s wife, Agatha going away on holiday and leaving her obnoxious husband behind. To Belinda, of course, the Archdeacon, “dear Henry,” can do no wrong, but we get a glimpse of the domestic trials of being married to the Archdeacon–an immature man of insufferable ego and full of constant complaints:

Belinda recognized the voice as that of the Archdeacon. He was leaning out of one of the upper windows, calling to Agatha, and he sounded very peevish. Belinda thought he looked handsome in his dark green dressing-gown with his hair all ruffled. The years had dealt kindly with him and he had grown neither bald nor fat.  It was Agatha who seemed to have suffered most. Her pointed face had lost the elfin charm which had delighted many and now looked drawn and harassed.

Belinda cannot fathom the reason behind Agatha’s bad temper and thinks that “Agatha should humour dear Henry a little more.” This is a position of some naiveté as Belinda, who has never moved beyond idealized love, has no idea how grueling married relationships can be and just how taxing and demanding her idol Henry really is. The prospect of Henry alone creates no small amount of speculation between the sisters and raises the question whether or not the Archdeacon is upset or delighted by his wife’s absence.

When the day came for Agatha to go away, Belinda and Harriet watched her departure out of Belinda’s bedroom window. From here there was an excellent view of the vicarage drive and gate. Belinda had brought some brass with her to clean and in the intervals when she stopped her vigorous rubbing to look out the window, was careful to display the duster in her hand. Harriet stared out quite unashamedly, with nothing in her hand to excuse her presence there. She even had a pair of binoculars, which she was trying to focus.

With Agatha away, the Archdeacon makes more visits to the Bede household, and Belinda makes a few visits to the vicarage. Vague long-distant memoires and lost opportunities are stirred accompanied by just a whisper of mild discontent.

How odd if Henry were a widower, she thought suddenly. How embarrassing, really.  It would be like going back thirty years. Or wouldn’t it? Belinda soon saw that it wouldn’t. For she was now a contented spinster and her love was like a warm, comfortable garment, bedsocks, perhaps, or even woolen combinations; certainly something without glamour or romance. All the same, it was rather nice to think that Henry might prefer her to Agatha, although she knew perfectly well that he didn’t. It was one of the advantages of being the one he hadn’t married that one could be in a position to imagine such things.

Some Tame Gazelle makes some interesting statements about love; we see Belinda still in love, decades past the initial onset, and she cannot see that the Archdeacon is flawed and not really worth her worshipful attention, and yet does that really matter? There are a couple of times when reality punctures Belinda’s image of the Archdeacon, but she turns away from her perceived disloyalty and criticism and chooses to keep her perfect image of the Archdeacon. Harriet, is a study is serial adoration, and she smoothly moves her infatuations from one curate to another. While no great crisis occurs in this delightful, humorous  novel of manners, nonetheless the calm, orderly world of the Bede sisters is threatened by the arrival of two eligible men including one of Harriet’s long-lost curates, now middle-aged Bishop Theo Grote,  who returns from darkest Africa. According to Belinda, Bishop Grote “doesn’t have all his goods in the shop window,” and as one of Harriet’s past pet-project curates, he’s now a eligible bachelor….

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Lives and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon

She devils are beyond nature: they create themselves out of nothing.”

I expect that many people who read this post will have seen the film, Lives and Loves of a She-Devil. The film is a lot of fun, but it doesn’t really do justice to the Fay Weldon novel on which it’s based. The film with Roseanne Barr and her rival in life and love played by Meryl Streep is really very funny, but the book is much, much darker, and while like the film version, this is a tale of revenge, the book is much more subversive and its humour is black. You’ll laugh at the film but chances are you won’t have the same reaction to the book. Lives and Loves of a She-Devil was the first Fay Weldon novel I read, and it sealed me as a fan. Weldon is an outspoken feminist writer who’s come in for her share of controversy, and simply because she is a figure of some controversy, she’s all too easy to misquote. 

lives and loves of a she devilWhile Weldon’s work obviously fits in any feminist canon, her work can also be considered Transgressive fiction for the way her marvelous characters subvert societal norms. Weldon’s frequent themes include gender inequality, female reinvention, female identity and self-image and the often vicious relationships between women. Lives and Loves of a She-Devil is a tremendously powerful story–the tale of how one woman, a wife and mother, is abandoned by her husband and replaced by a prettier, sexier woman. Rising from her despair and thrusting aside all societal norms, maternal concerns, & obligations the discarded woman eventually triumphs over her enemies. Yes, a story of female empowerment and a rather frightening tale of a woman scorned who, because she’s willing to go as far as necessary, learns to live her life according to an entirely new set of rules.

Ruth, an overweight, unattractive woman who’s 6′ 2″, is an excellent wife and mother. While she’s appreciated by her somewhat scatter-brained in-laws, she’s neglected and undervalued by her accountant husband, Bobbo, who at the best of times says that Ruth is “no beauty, but a good soul.” Ruth, who is virtually powerless in the relationship, does everything to please Bobbo, even tolerating his announcement that he wants an “open marriage.” She’s aware of his extra-marital affairs which he discusses with relish, but now Bobbo has fallen in love with one of his clients, Mary Fisher, a wealthy, prolific author of trashy romances. Ruth is trying her best to ignore the affair, but after a particularly degrading scene, Bobbo moves out of his home in the suburb of Eden Grove, abandons his wife and two children and moves to Mary Fisher’s splendid home, the High Tower.

Fay Weldon’s style is spare, low on descriptions and high on mythic qualities. This is how the novel, alternating between first and third person narrative, opens:

Mary Fisher lives in a High Tower, on the edge of the sea: she writes a great deal about the nature of love. She tells lies.

Mary Fisher is forty-three, and accustomed to love. There has always been a man around to love her, sometimes quite desperately, and she has on occasion returned that love, but never, I think, with desperation. She is a writer of romantic fiction. She tells lies to herself and to the world.

Is that hate or contempt lying under the description of Mary Fisher? Probably a bit of both, but add envy to the mix too as Mary Fisher is the embodiment of everything Ruth isn’t: small, petite, feminine and highly desirable. And here’s a quote that shows just how well Fay Weldon can write:

Now outside the world turns: tides surge up the cliffs at the foot of Mary Fisher’s tower, and fall again. In Australia the great gum trees weep their bark away; in Calcutta a myriad flickers of human energy ignite and flare and die; in California the surfers weld their souls with foam and flutter off into eternity; in the great cities of the world groups of dissidents form their gaunt nexi of discontent and send the roots of change through the black soil of our earthly existence. And I am fixed here and now, trapped in my body, pinned to one particular spot, hating Mary Fisher. It is all I can do. Hate obsesses and transforms me; it is my singular attribution.

While Bobbo and Mary Fisher have the looks, the power and the money on their side, Ruth is dumped with the two squabbling children, a gluttonous vomiting dog who humps anyone lower on the totem pole, a cat who fouls the house, and an unfortunate guinea pig. Bobbo and Mary live in sex-soaked idyllic bliss while Ruth suddenly has to worry about money–how to pay bills and buy food (there’s one great scene in which Ruth directs the children to search the house for coins). To add to the worries, Bobbo tells her to move to a smaller, cheaper home. Part of Ruth accepts what has happened to her–after all, she reasons “to those who hath, such as Mary Fisher, shall be given, and to those who hath not, such as myself, even that which they have shall be taken away.”

Ruth has always behaved well and put Bobbo’s needs before her own. Why shouldn’t she accept divorce, destitution and displacement and be happy for the few years she had? But Ruth doesn’t see it that way, and she doesn’t react the way Bobbo expects her to.  Strangely, once removed from the position of wife, something begins to happen to Ruth. Liberated from her own repressive behavior,  “Hate obsesses and transforms” her, and she has revenge in mind. As events unfold, it becomes clear that revenge is an emotion that can take you to the place you want to go. Ruth abandons the roles assigned to her: doting wife, patient mother and begins a transformative journey–both literal and figurative, and along the way she confronts other women in various miserable circumstances including a clueless welfare mother who’s impregnated by a series of transient rogue males, a group of Wimmin, and also the much-abused wife of a judge who has a secret “passion for bondage and whips.” As Ruth continually reinvents herself, she leaves an imprint on the lives of everyone she touches, and rather magnificently, she becomes all the things her husband, to assuage his guilt, accused her of. She becomes a She-Devil who “creates havoc and destruction all around,”  and by abandoning the roles she is expected to endure, and breaking all the “rules” she plots her revenge…

Since this is a Weldon novel, the economic poverty of women is evident, but Weldon is not a man-hater; rather she revels in the power of sexuality, and she’s also very funny:

She’s such a good wife,” said Bobbo’s mother, moved almost to tears. “Look at that ironing!” Bobbo’s mother never ironed if she could help it. In the good times indeed, she and Angus liked to live in hotels, simply because there’d be a valet service. “And what a good husband Bobbo has turned out to be!” If she thought her son was narcissistic, staring so long in the mirror, she kept her thoughts to herself.

But Bobbo looked in the mirror at his clear, elegant eyes, his intelligent brow and his slightly bruised mouth, and hardly saw himself at all; he saw the man whom Mary Fisher loved.

review copy

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