Category Archives: Forster Margaret

It’s a Wrap: 2019

Three novels

Time for my best-of-year round up. For some reason, this year the choices seemed easier.

Three Novels: The Resurrection of Mozart, The Waiter and the Slut, Astashev in Paris: Nina Berberova. 

Berberova never disappoints. 3 novellas here–all quite different from each other, yet they each weave in the theme of  Russian displacement. Berberova deserves far more recognition than she gets.

A Severed Head: Iris Murdoch

My first Murdoch novel and I hit a winner. This is the nastily funny tale of bored privileged people who create drama in their lives by unpleasant, selfish self-focused behaviour. I love reading books about nasty people, so it’s no surprise that I loved this.

Olive Kitteridge: Elizabeth Strout

Ahh… Olive Kitteridge. What a woman. Of course, we wouldn’t want her as a mother or a wife but she’s great to read about. Olive seems the epitome of a person possessing good and bad characteristics. Someone may make a great teacher or neighbour but a lousy relative. It’s no wonder that Olive elicts strong reactions from people. Olive Again is also highly recommended.

The Children: Edith Wharton

It’s been too long since I read Edith Wharton. The Children isn’t considered one of her greats, but it’s wonderful–a study in subconscious human behaviour and how we get what we want without quite confronting our own negative drives.

The Travels Of Maudie Tipstaff: Margaret Forster

Narrow-minded, inflexible, pious Maudie finally leaves Glasgow to visit each of her three children. Her first visit is awful but it goes downhill from there–until finally Maudie finds herself in a surreal situation, living in a primitive hut (without plumbing) on an isolated island.

A Very Scotch Affair: Robin Jenkins

A married man decides to ditch his wife and family in Glasgow and run off to Barcelona with his mistress. The book focuses not so much on his escape but the fallout of his actions.

Artists’ Wives: Alphonse Daudet

I’m glad that a short story collection makes my list this year. The range, the wit, the understanding of human nature–all these things make for marvellous reading.

The Hotel: Elizabeth Bowen

My first Elizabeth Bowen wasn’t that great but The Hotel is a treasure. I like books set in hotels anyway but this story is subtle, rich and entertaining.  Post WWI, a hodge-podge of guests, mainly British, socialise with varying results.

Three Obscurities from the Borderlands: Werner Bergengruen, Adalbert Stifter, Maria von Eschenbach.

A fluke find for German Literature month. One story is outstanding, another is excellent and the third has redeeming characteristics. In spite of the fact that I liked these three stories to varying degrees, it still makes my best of year list.

So Evil My Love: Joseph Shearing

I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. It’s not my typical read but this gaslight noir is very well done indeed. The main character is a missionary’s widow. She’s always led a pious religious life but it was never a choice. When the widow gets choices, her real nature emerges.

Dodsworth: Sinclair Lewis

Certainly not an exciting book, but nonetheless still relevant 90 years later… This is an American Abroad book. It addresses American materialism and subsequent lack of quality of life. Get off the hamster wheel in retirement and boom… what are you left with?….

 

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Filed under Berberova, Nina, Bergengruen Werner, Daudet Alphonse, Fiction, Forster Margaret, Jenkins, Robin, Lewis Sinclair, Murdoch Iris, Shearing Joseph, Stifter Adalbert, Strout Elizabeth, von Eschenbach Marie, Wharton, Edith

The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff: Margaret Forster (1967)

When Margaret Forster’s book opens, 69-year-old Glaswegian Maudie Tipstaff’s bags are packed and she’s preparing for a year long trip–spending 4 months with each of her three children. Now that Maudie is alone (and what happened to her husband exactly?) it’s possible that she may end up moving in with one of her children permanently as “they had all written and pressed her to come and live with them for good.” Now there are several things fundamentally wrong with this idea. Maudie Tipstaff is an inflexible, domineering, pious misery, and since her children have more or less run off or made themselves scare, Maudie hasn’t seen them in years and has no idea how they live.

the travels of Maudie Tipstaff

Pleasure and happiness are foreign states of mind to Maudie. There’s simply ‘Duty,’ and as she tells her ‘friend’ (“it required depths of loyalty known only to Eastern despots” ) Mrs McAllister, “I’m not going to enjoy myself,” said Maudie sternly. “I’m going because it’s my duty.”

Things immediately go wrong. Maudie insists on travelling by bus rather than by train due to the cost–even though Maudie’s daughter Jean, the daughter she has yet to forgive for getting married 25 years earlier, is paying for the ticket. By the time Maudie arrives in London, she’s in a state. Kind strangers try to help the seemingly weak, upset older woman, but after they feel lashings of her vicious tongue, Maudie is left to fend for herself.

Jean married dentist Edward, and although they’ve been married 25 years, Maudie has only seen her son-in-law twice, and she hasn’t seen her 15-year-old grandson since he was 6 weeks old. For Maudie’s stay, Jean and Edward have converted the attic into a flat complete with basin and cooker, and a sense of obligation drives them to offer Maudie a permanent home. Dallying with the idea that Mauide “might have changed,” and in spite of assuring themselves that they won’t bend to Maudie’s schedule, Edward and Jean find that Maudie’s presence chills and dominates the already fragile household.

Maudie consoles herself that life with daughter Sally will be better as there are 5 grandchildren in the house:  ages 15 months to 7 years old. Maudie has one soft spot: and that is for children. “She couldn’t remember having experienced what one would call pleasure in the bringing up of her children,” there were too many worries and concerns, but now it’s known in the neighbourhood that she “wasn’t right in the head about children.” Her home is the neighbourhood hangout for children, but she tells her neighbours “that she didn’t want anything to do with them [the children] and didn’t know how they got into her kitchen.”

They accepted the food and the judgments as gospel, and took Maudie’s breath away with their simplicity. They plagued her with questions, but they never queried any final pronouncement. They told her anything and everything and caused her endless, heavily concealed mirth

As miserable as Maudie’s visit was to Jean, there are fresh tortures in store at Sally’s. Sally is a fertile woman who drinks, carouses with her ‘cleaner,’ and lives in filth and squalor while the children haphazardly raise themselves. Moving from Jean’s prim, clean affluent middle class London life to the chaos of Sally’s country cottage is a shock, but at least Maudie is needed.

They all crammed into the kitchen and Sally began shouting at them to sit themselves down and be ready to eat. Maudie was pushed on to a rickety bench between Sammy and Richard, the next in age, who plucked immediately at her sleeve to show her how far he could get his index finger up his nostril. Feeling faint, Maudie wrenched the finger out, only to see it plunged into the mound of shepherd’s pie which had suddenly appeared before him. As she opened her mouth to protest, a scalding helping appeared on her own plate, grazing her right ear as it passed from Sally’s hands over her shoulder. To the left and right and all around children were devouring the mixture without forks or knives, shovelling it in with spoons, or like Richard, with their fingers. She felt she might faint. 

Even Maudie’s iron will is eroded by Sally’s wanton fecklessness and then it’s onto son Robert, who is living a Bohemian lifestyle as a painter in a primitive hut on a remote island. Robert is Maudie’s favourite, and he seems to pay her a lot of attention through his lengthy weekly letters. Yet Maudie is baffled when she meets Robert again, and there are even more shocks in store.

Robert’s relationship with Maudie was a very strange one. His letters to her were designed to be famous, but they were not, as anyone with any knowledge of Robert ought to have realized, letters to her at all. They were essays, weekly essays most painstakingly executed, beautifully written,. They were stylistically perfect–and quite unreal. They were, in fact, letters from Robert to Robert. True, they showed a most touching concern for the person they were ostensibly sent to, but on examination this concern consisted mainly of a string of endearments, quite foreign to Robert’s nature, and certainly to Maudie’s. But he enjoyed putting them in. He thought they read well, and he liked to begin and end with something informal. When he read the copy over, as he regularly did, he thought them rather a master touch. They would look well in book form when the collected edition was published. 

Maudie has many admirable characteristics, but when the book begins they are swamped by rigid piety, judgement and inflexibility. By the time the book ends, I had sympathy for Maudie thanks to the behavior of her children (Sally and Robert). But it’s with Robert’s girlfriend, Eleanor, that Maudie is at her worst (rude) and her best, and it’s also through this relationship that we see how parents and children all too often fail to connect as individuals. Perhaps the collective weight of childhood and parenting is too heavy, perhaps it obfuscates individualism.  How can we spend decades as parents and children and not know each other? Whatever the reasons, in The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff, an extremely witty, lively book, Margaret Forster argues that parenting–being a parent, being a child, isn’t easy.

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Mr Bone’s Retreat: Margaret Forster

“A large, creased, gray American, he began the minute he eventually arrived to describe to the assembled throng the state of his bowels, with which he had been having some trouble.”

Bachelor William Bone, a retired civil servant, has lived happily in the same Regency house opposite Richmond Park  for 40 years. William, after purchasing the house finally a few years ago, has spent a lot of energy carefully renovating it, and now it’s perfect.  The house is divided into three flats with William living on the top floor flat, while Agnes Joliffe, a widow and an acquaintance for over 50 years lives, as his tenant, in the ground floor flat. The middle flat is finished but empty.

mr-bones-retreat

William and Agnes get along well, but some tension exists between them. This is mostly manifested in the way Agnes teases William about his cleaner, his routines and his belief system. Autocratic and critical, Agnes is the sort of woman who “had been born to have servants,” and she terrifies everyone–including her lumpish, unattractive daughter, Germaine.

Germaine was one of life’s visitors–as far as her mother was concerned there was no permanent place for her anywhere. She flitted. The jobs she had had were endless and not a decent one among them. She had not had the brains to go to university, easy though it now was compared to Mrs. Joliffe’s day, but she could at least have trained herself for some worthwhile auxiliary profession. Nor had her personal life been any more commendable. Unmarried till the age of thirty-two, she had then married a Hungarian refugee who upped and went back to Hungary three weeks later. Farcical. Quickly she had taken up with an elderly insurance clerk, who had in due course married her, then stepped in front of a tube train at Mornington Crescent. Apparently he had been wearing bifocal spectacles for the first time or something ridiculous. Then there had been Homer. 

Agnes, a widow after just two years of marriage, loved William and at one time expected to marry him, but William, who has a terrible fear of love, sex, and commitment, has always managed to keep Agnes (and the world) at arm’s length. William is a creature of habit, and his solitary life is one of ordered routine with “normal activities which he loved so much that even a day away grieved him.” People tend to bully William, and that includes his housekeeper, so perhaps it’s just as well that he has no intimate relationships. He’s long since made peace with his choices.

Other people oppressed him if he had to put up with them more than half an hour-a discovery that had made him sad when he was young but was now his strength.

William only has one friend, Pullen, William’s architect, a dreadful bully who terrorises his secretaries. Every time William goes to Pullen’s office, there’s a new secretary, usually in tears. When it comes to employees, Pullen’s  “turnover was impressive.” Not only does he shout, bully and deride, he also dangles one leg over his chair in a way that “called attention to his bulging crotch.” Pullen is rather cruel to William, but William never seems to get it, or perhaps Pullen’s barbs don’t trouble William–a man who seems very comfortable with his life.

The sport lay in the vicious teasing Pullen gave William. He teased him, nastily, about everything. He teased about sex, pretending William was a well-known poof, or about Mrs. Joliffe, pretending she was his mistress. He teased him about his running, pretending he ran in the park only to rape young girls and not to keep fit.

So here is William in his late 60s, a fussy man whose spartan routine means everything, a slippery man who has avoided commitment and messy emotional entanglements. One Christmas Eve, a young couple, Alex and the very pregnant Sophie, show up on William’s doorstep, attracted by the glimpse of an empty flat. William, driven by manners and politeness, allows the couple to stay the night, and then gradually, Sophie, talks William into allowing them to rent the flat…

A gentle comedy ensues from William’s fateful decision. He loathes noise and mess, has very strict rules for cleaning common areas and using the bathroom (no using the toilet after ten at night,) and communicates through letters and notes in order to avoid confrontation. Meanwhile Alex, Sophie’s unemployed artist boyfriend who has no understanding of responsibility or manners, tramples all over William’s ‘rules.’  This situation rapidly becomes untenable for William, but he’s torn between avoidance and good, responsible behaviour–two dominant aspects of his character.

When I first came across Mr Bone’s Retreat, I was concerned that I wouldn’t enjoy the book as I tend to become annoyed with passive or door-mat characters. But William is anything but passive. Alex’s bad behaviour spurs a frenzy of letter writing as William tries to reel in his tenants. Mrs. Joliffe, of course, becomes involved. On one hand she befriends Sophie, and on the other, she pushes William to do something about the situation before a baby breaks the formerly peaceful routine at the house. And of course, before too long, William, who has a lifelong avoidance of relationships finds that he has two women dependent on him.

This is my second Margaret Forster novel. The first was The Unknown Bridesmaid which I loved. Both novels are intense character studies–although Mr Bone’s Retreat is rather comic as we see William struggle with conflicting values. There’s a sadness to the unrequited love affair between Agnes Joliffe and William–although by the end of the book it seems as though William probably did the right thing in avoiding marriage to the domineering Agnes. Sophie acts as a catalyst in the novel, shaking up Agnes and William’s lives, telling Agnes some painful truths, and illuminating William’s generosity long hidden under his fussy, obsessive routines.

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The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster

“There had always been in her this meanness which every now and again got out of control.”

Ignore the sweet-looking hints of the cover. The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster is the story of Julia, a strangely disaffected child who becomes a successful child psychologist. It’s Julia’s job to explore the hidden corners of culpability in her patients’ anti-social, self-destructive and sometimes deviant behaviour, and yet this is the very thing that Julia sidesteps so neatly in her own past and present. The Unknown Bridesmaid, the twenty-sixth novel from the author, is subtle and intelligent, but far more than that, this is a dark tale of self-deception and motivation in which the murky impulses of the main character lurk just beneath the surface of her actions.

The Unknown BridesmaidJulia is just eight years old when she’s invited back to Manchester to be a bridesmaid for her cousin Iris. Julia’s mother is surprised by the invitation as she and her sister Maureen aren’t close. Even Julia recognizes that “her mother and her aunt were engaged in some sort of complicated battle,” and there’s the sense that Maureen’s life took a turn for the better while Julia’s mother’s did not.  We’re given an impression of Julia’s mother, and it isn’t pleasant:

Julia’s mother did not immediately accept the invitation for Julia to be a bridesmaid; she waited three days, and then she rang her sister up, saying she doubted whether Julia could accept because of the expense involved. There would be the dress, the shoes, the flowers, and she had no money to spare for any of those things. She reminded her sister that she was a widow on a small, a very small, pension. Her sister was furious, but she tried to keep the anger at Julia’s mother boasting of her poverty (which is how she regarded it) out of her voice. She reminded herself that her sister had had a hard time, and was indeed quite poor, whereas she herself was comparatively well off, and ought to be magnanimous. She said her sister was not to worry about the expense. She said that of course she would pay for Julia’s outfit and everything that went with it. She had always intended to and should have made this clear. If Julia’s measurements were sent, a dress would be made and shoes bought.

Julia as a bridesmaid is not the main gist of the story, but it is a pivotal event in which we see Julia for the first time. She’s an odd child. If we want to be kind we’d call her ‘quiet,’ and if we dislike Julia, we’d call her ‘sneaky.’ It’s at Iris’s wedding that we first grasp the idea that Julia has a certain emotional disconnect from the people around her. Iris is a wonderful young woman, warm, kind, loving and much-loved, “admired” and joyful, yet Julia, much like her own dreary, joyless mother, holds back, and “sees how everyone was in thrall to her cousin.”

The wedding is just the first event in a chain of tragedy that binds Julia to her relatives in Manchester. Financial circumstances and a dark secret involving Julia’s father bring Julia and her mother back to Manchester to live, and so the lives of the two sets of relatives twine together initially through the wedding and then through death. A horrible incident occurs involving Julia, and she may or may not be responsible.

She was the one who had always, as a child, wanted to ask questions but had been trained not to. She liked being asked them, too, or thought she did until the questions became tricky and she began to worry about what her answers were revealing, to herself, as much as to the questioner.

Julia shoves aside her involvement and the hint of guilt and plunges ahead into a childhood and adolescence full of emotionally disconnected acts of casual cruelty towards the other people in her life. As she grows into her teens, the acts becomes increasingly more serious and focused….

The Unknown Bridesmaid maintains a quietly restrained narrative tone while exploring how a close-knit group of people deal with a young girl who’s emotionally disturbed. As the narrative goes back and forth in time between the past and the present, there’s a fine film over all these events which covers & obscures Julia’s culpability and intentions. Julia’s childhood of increasingly abhorrent acts is spliced with her present as she counsels children with various emotional and behavioral problems. As a psychologist, Julia recognizes that “it was tempting to confuse a child’s evasion of the truth with a calculated piece of lying.” She’s good at uncovering the motivations behind various children’s destructive actions, and while this talent may spring from her own emotionally difficult past, the clarity Julia shows with her patients stops there. Her insight is towards others–not herself.

Author Margaret Forster includes weddings and bridesmaids a few times in the novel, and when these occasions emerge in Julia’s life, they illuminate Julia’s estrangement from the people in her life. She cannot participate emotionally and these happy celebrations always leave Julia on the outside, disinterested, bored, and yet aware that somehow she’s ‘different.’

The Unknown Bridesmaid, primarily a character study, is a stunning novel, and perhaps part of my admiration for the book comes in no small part to the fact that it plays into one of my pet theories: those of us who give the most to strangers, give nothing to our families and those we are supposed to love. It’s a version of Mrs Jellyby’s telescopic philanthropy. Structured differently, let’s say chronologically, the plot would not contain as much mystery, but the plot goes back and forth with the past and the present, so we see Julia as a damaged child and later as a well-functioning adult. But as Julia’s present unfolds we begin to question just how well-functioning she really is. As for Julia’s past, how should we judge the intentions of children when they don’t understand their own impulses? Julia very much remains an enigma to herself and her relatives, especially Elsa, a girl who once adored Julia and yet found herself the target of Julia’s malicious spite. Julia also remains a mystery to the reader–partly due to the novel’s clever structure and brilliant characterizations, but also due to the novel’s wonderful ending which while deliberately anticlimactic brings only deeper questions involving the elusiveness of the truth and multiple versions of events.  Should we admire Julia for how she managed to recoup her life and become a professional success or should we dislike her for treating her family badly and failing to overcome her emotional problems?

The Unknown Bridesmaid is going to make my best-of-year list. I’d never read Margaret Forster before and I’m delighted to have found her at last.

Finally this novel should appeal to fans of Penelope Lively.

Review copy

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