Striking the right note…

I’ve heard there’s this nasty bug going around… No, that’s too trivialising. EVERYONE’S GOING TO DIE! Alarmist, untrue. All things must pass: cliched but almost certainly correct. How are you all, blog followers (unless you’ve dropped out for which I wouldn’t blame you)? I haven’t posted for months, partly due to a second glaucoma operation (fitted in just in time) and partly now due to, well, this bug that’s going around. It’s high time I checked you’re all ok out there, and shared some positives from how I’m passing the locked down time.

This is normally a books and writing blog. books for blog 2Reading does help, it’s true. I’ve finished the latest Philip Pullman – very entertaining, very dark, perhaps a few too many meetings of the Magisterium to hold my interest and I’m not sure he’s quite as secure writing the young woman Lyra as he was writing the child – but as always brilliantly inventive, perceptive, unpatronising, chilling. I needed a complete change after that, so am in the middle of Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women. Just as chilling, in its way. Women are 47% more likely to die in car accidents, because safety trials use male dummies as default. Female pianists are 87% more likely to suffer from RSI due to the size of a standard keyboard. A male investor, faced with a business plan for an  innovative breast pump that outclassed the commonly used standard US models, recoiled in disgust. It’s wittily written, informative, and just as you’re despairing, it has messages of hope. Books for blog 2.4 (2)Then when I’m ready to return to fiction, my pile is not for the faint-hearted. Just as well we’re in lockdown.

I finished the 3rd edit of Novel 3 and sent it back to Agent X. Agent X expressed irritation the other day because authors were clamouring along the lines of “you must have loads of time for reading now”. So I won’t nag Agent X, but y’know, if I don’t have a publishing deal by midsummer, I’ll…I’ll…well, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

Still with an eye to words and writing, I signed up for the Curtis Brown Creative Weekly Writing Workout, if only because I have absolutely no idea how to follow Novel 3 and some of their ideas may help. I’m playing online Scrabble with old friends and relations – this site is marvellous because you can swap tiles, use outlandish dictionaries no one else has ever heard of, search for bingos and definitions…It’s more about placement and less about your own skill than the traditional board game, and there are no adverts to distract you, with unlimited games, languages and combinations all for $15 a year.

walk for blog (2)Every day we go for a walk. Sometimes in countryside within walking distance, sometimes through streets. We seem to be noticing more, and valuing it. Here is a garden in the next road, complete with sculptures and cowslips. On our walks I surreptitiously break off cuttings of overhanging plants, as I was all set to order for empty spaces in our garden when what one choirmaster calls “The Great Adjournment” began.

The ex infant teacher in me is lapping up the online ideas posted to help (or pressurise) parents trying to homeschool their children. As soon as we finish the next plastic milk carton, I’m going to make an Elmer. I don’t happen to have a stock of coloured tissue paper, but there’s wrapping paper, old magazines to cut up, my partner’s clothes…I may unearth my neglected mosaics kit, perhaps when I’ve exhausted the puzzle I bought in Kyoto art gallery (those were the days). Simple pleasures: a jigsaw, a good cup of coffee, and Jenni Murray’s rich, reassuring voice on BBC Woman’s Hour.

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Credit for the Elmer design goes to Amy Trow from https://www.facebook.com/groups/houseboundwithkids/

The days start with my home made version of yoga and stretches and then I practise my piano, fortuitously delivered just before lockdown. That means it hasn’t had its inaugural tune, but the friend with whom I swap 5 minute recordings of what we’ve managed today hasn’t complained so far. I’m not posting a recording here as I do have some pride, but the regular, extra time will surely result in a better technique and wider repertoire by the time lockdown ends – won’t it?

I’m very sad there’ll be no Wimbledon and no Dartington this year. I’m apprehensive about catching the virus. I’m concerned for people who were vulnerable before any of this even started – refugees, domestic violence victims, the mentally ill and the disabled. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like to see my children, friends and Hackney Singers in real life rather than on Zoom, but otherwise the piano (2)simple life is rather appealing to me. I’m hoping we’ll all reset our values and habits as a result of this episode. Perhaps we’ll value home cooking more, and fashion that lasts, the company of our partners and our own company. Perhaps wildlife will thrive with less polluting traffic, and have you seen how clear the sky is without aircraft? Maybe our government will at last resource our NHS as it deserves and recognise how much low paid and low prestige workers contribute to society. In the West, at least, some of us had become decadent and spoilt. Perhaps as a species we’ll learn some timely lessons.

I don’t underestimate the difficulties, and I do sincerely hope you all come through unscathed. Take care, wash your hands, stay at home, count your blessings, and if you are a key worker of any kind, I particularly thank you and wish you well.

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©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

The right to write

My blogging friend Mary Smith commented last post, re Edna O’Brien’s Girl, on controversy surrounding white authors using the voice of black characters. Girl was so fast paced and compelling I finished it in three sittings. Then, looking it up on Goodreads, I found a question from a member:

Who else thinks a young, black woman would have been a better authorial choice for this topic/concept?

There were three very different answers (plus the point that authors choose topics for their fiction rather than the other way round).

1. If we start to say that only young black women can write about young black women, where does that eventually take us? To more constraints on what women can and can’t do and there’s more than enough of them out there already.

2. I feel uncomfortable with a white woman telling this story and making any profit from it whatsoever.

3. (recommending a non fiction account): Helon Habila may not be a woman, but he is a highly regarded author and poet from Nigeria.

46195759Girl is told from the point of view of one of the 276 schoolgirls abducted from a boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014, the best known of many such abductions. To me the novel is less about a black-only experience than one example of  what throughout history and all over the world men have done to women in the name of religion, power or both. Regardless of race or age, Edna O’Brien is a woman who, raised in Catholic Ireland, knows all about repression. Maybe this makes her a better “authorial choice” than a Nigerian man who would not experience rape or forced marriage in the same way, menstruate, become pregnant or breastfeed, all significant in the book? But, if we discourage men from imagining such lived experiences, how can we expect them to develop empathy? Maybe O’Brien’s just a different authorial choice. She’s quoted on the British Council Literature website: “Words seemed and still seem an alchemy, and story the true conductor of life, of lives.

I’m not sure you can open up the world with modern levels of migration and travel, then criticise eagle-eyed writers for using the material they find there. More stories become available. An author can only select one and write about that or the boundaries become too fluid. Even an author of the calibre and experience of O’Brien still needs a manageable story, a heroine, a resolution. She was 84 when the Chibok abductions happened; I do salute the research she did, her energy and will to shine a light on injustice in the way she knew best.

The example of male violence she chose is by black African men on black African women and children. If words are an alchemy and story does conduct lives, they should be a power anyone can develop. Black female writers are also theoretically free to use any subject matter they like, but they may have less chance of becoming writers in the first place, for educational and financial reasons, health, class, gender restrictions… all this will also vary depending whether they are rural, urban,  African, Caribbean or western black women. In 2019 they still have less chance of getting published by a wary, traditionally white industry than Edna O’Brien who was working for the publisher Hutchinson when her first novel, The Country Girls, was commissioned (!) in 1960. (Yes, dream on.) Were white people even having this conversation then, when authors were arguably less familiar with “other” cultures? Anyway after six decades of success no one was going to turn down her newest novel, whether set in Ireland, Nigeria or outer space. Whereas, any quick Google of publishing rates for authors of colour confirms the findings of this Publishing Research Quarterly article:

The narrative that there are just are not enough authors of colour writing is (…) used to explain their lack of inclusion in the publishing industry; however, numerous authors of colour have countered this, saying they have struggled to get agents or, if they do have agents, publishing deals. (…) many authors of colour felt pressured to write identity books (…) that reflected their ethnic or cultural heritage or to draw upon cultural stereotypes—in order to be, or continue being, published. (…). These books often had to cover topics such as “racism, colonialism or postcolonialism as if these were the primary concerns of all BAME people”. 

We all struggle to get agents, and if we are unknown as writers and not celebs in any other sphere the agents then struggle to get us published. But this and other research, for example carried out by We Need Diverse Books, confirms the more boxes you tick out of being minority ethnic, disabled, female, working class, unemployed, mentally or physically ill, LGBQT+, non Western, non white… the less likely you are to be published, and the more you are needed by readers.

When, in 1969, man walked on the moon, the boys at school were fascinated. I wasn’t: the protagonists wore boring spacesuits not pretty frocks, and I didn’t understand the physics. As a girl it made less impact on me, while my male contemporaries still remember it in great detail. I wasn’t reflected, didn’t feel I owned it. The closest the career suggestions I got came to astronaut was air hostess. So people of all backgrounds and abilities must appear in books. Everyone needs to be reflected and have ownership, everyone needs the opportunity to learn to write and publish them. The quality of writing is still paramount – you wouldn’t drive across a bridge built by hairdressers in a car designed by a first year apprentice, and equally writing is a craft that needs skill, training, practice and reward. It must say something interesting and say it well. There must be the freedom to write about anything and anyone, to use the “alchemy of words” to conduct anyone’s life or lives, and nobody should get published without redrafting, editing and perfecting. BAME writers should be free of having to write only about BAME people’s primary concerns, but if that’s true it follows that O’Brien too may write about what she likes.

Studies suggest that reading some kinds of fiction makes human beings more compassionate, enabling them to see life through other eyes. We have centuries of opportunity imbalance to correct, but let’s do it by bringing opportunities for diverse writers up to the levels enjoyed by white, cis, heterosexual, able bodied financially resourced middle class writers, not by building barriers to what each group may write about. Not by creating exclusive pockets that only insiders may occupy, but by welcoming everybody’s efforts to write about everybody else, even if some of us have difficulty and even pain recognising what they produce.

I did worry whether I knew my characters when writing The Magic Carpet and published it in trepidation, opinions having become more forthright since I started it in 2016. Last year an Asian-American YA author withdrew her work from publication following fierce online objections to how it was perceived to depict slavery. The RWA (Romance Writers of America) is embroiled in argument over writing judged racist. So I had grounds for worrying I’d be criticised (fine) or trolled (not fine) for representing characters from backgrounds not my own. Suffice to repeat my characters are fictional, from five different backgrounds which by definition can’t all reflect mine, and were researched with colleagues and friends from those backgrounds as well as other sources. I couldn’t have written about London children otherwise, since in 2016 when the book’s set, the primary school population, depending on area, had between 33-94% ethnic minority* pupils and between 14-75% bilingual or multilingual users. My intention was to respect and celebrate this, but if readers find factual errors I’m open to corrections and ready to discuss how I’ve made my fictional characters think and feel. Whew! *This means not White UK heritage and I’m not happy with the “otherness” of the term.

Zadie Smith brilliantly defended writing in and of different voices in the New York Review of Books in October. 3711Unlike me, she’s of Jamaican/English  mixed heritage; like me, she grew up in London. My school friends were Jewish, or of Indian, Turkish, Greek and Black Caribbean heritage; my plumber was born in Pakistan, my solicitor is Greek Cypriot, my doctor Australian, the man who laid my garden turf Moldovan. I have this hinterland to draw on for research which I wouldn’t have if I’d grown up in rural middle England. Does that give me more right to write about multi-ethnic character casts? Or should I have used a sensitivity reader? I may explore that another time.

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Evaristo shared her Booker prize with Margaret Atwood.

Let’s hope as more diverse authors get through publishing doors, more points of view will be heard. There are creative writing programmes, scholarships and competitions open to specific age, ethnic and income groups as well as to everybody (good luck scrolling through the enormous list on the links above!) It will take a while for these to redress the balance – the Coretta Scott King Prize had already been going 48 years when the PN article I quote appeared,  the Lambda Literary Awards (LGBTQ) started in 1989, the relatively tiny Barbellion Prize (for writing by ill or disabled authors or on that subject) has only just launched. But doors once opened will not close. A young Nigerian undergraduate on the last writing course I attended was writing a fierce, passionate, difficult book set in the Biafran war and the present day. Perhaps her book will be published. Perhaps next year a black woman will win the Booker Prize all to herself.

What to conclude? It’s an inexhaustible topic and I’m exhausted. I think people should be able to talk, read and write about anything and everything, but it must be sensitive and not incite hatred. Subject to that, everyone has the right to write. If they intend to try publishing what they write, they must ensure they’ve researched it thoroughly. However, in a capitalist world we must be realistic. Every good writer has the right to self-publish, and every really good writer whose returns will cover their production costs should have an equal opportunity to be published by a traditional publisher. Some traditional publishers have started efforts to increase the diversity of both their workforce and their authors; it’s well overdue and the world is watching. The right to write is everyone’s; the right to publish should depend on quality alone.

© Jessica Norrie 2020

A Post about Persephone

Readers of this blog, gentle and otherwise, may remember that I do appreciate distinctive editions that champion forgotten or out of favour books. I went to Persephone books last Tuesday, for a talk about Richmal Crompton. Crompton created William Brown, although she labelled him “a loathsome child” when she realised his fame eclipsed her forty one (yes, 41) novels for adults. Persephone publish one of them, Family Roundabout, and it was this that Dr Sara Lodge from St Andrews University was going to talk about, focussing on women wielding what influence they could in restricted circumstances; on neglected children and on bad writers. I’m glad women are less restricted now even if life still ain’t perfect, and of course I care about neglected children. But what really made my heart leap was the prospect of discussing bad writers. Who hasn’t had fun with the Bad Sex Awards and men writing women? Who can forget the lady novelists who come to live near William and express an anthropological interest in the doings of the Outlaws, or the pompous, detached male and female authors who claim personal hotlines to the souls of their unrealistic child heroes?

The talk was accessible and interesting, but I must admit my attention wandered once I knew the bad writers would feature at the end. My excuse is that the distractions at Persephone are hard to ignore. It’s the prettiest of shops, with framed posters and light wood bookshelves stacked with elegant books in trademark pale grey or with fine art covers (introduction and bookmarks part of the package). There are vases of flowers dotted among the vintage fabrics or in corners warmed by reading lamps. “You’ve just entered the 1940s,” said my friend when I arrived.

The shop was closed for the talk (I think), and crammed in nearly thirty of us on this cold day. “I knew the coats would be good!” someone remarked, examining the audience’s well chosen colours, natural fabrics and print dresses. The embarrassed lady who arrived late was found a place so graciously that I almost wanted to be in her sensible shoes. On the shelves at my elbow, leaving just room for our glasses  of wine or fruit juice, were stacks of books by Elizabeth von Armin (my mother’s favourite), Dorothy Whipple, Frances Hodgson Burnett. I discovered Amy Levy, “the Jewish Jane Austen”, recommended by Oscar Wilde. To my great joy there was Noel Streatfield, and having loved A Vicarage Family I was delighted to find a work for adults I hadn’t read. I rediscovered Marghanita Laski  – if you have never read Little Boy Lost you have a powerfully poignant treat in store. I remember Laski as a customer when I worked at my father’s bookshop and am so pleased Persephone have brought this and other books of hers back to life.

Half listening and half inspecting the room, it was no time before headmistressy* hands were clapped and we were asked to form a line for lunch (no need to ask this audience to make it an orderly line). And what a lunch! Delicious healthy mixed salads, fresh baguette and good cheese, chocolate pudding, more wine or fruit juice, and tea served in bone china cups with, of course, saucers. I almost wish I sweetened my tea, as I’m sure there must have been sugar tongs.

*A much loved headmistress, I think.Persephone 5

Once we were suitably replete and had digested, Dr Lodge’s talk continued. The pathos of the neglected children who recur in Crompton’s work was explored, the little girls dressed up as accessories to their mothers but not loved, the children whose parents forget their birthdays, the children whose needs and wishes are ignored and who are, occasionally, slapped. Oliver Twist it isn’t, but Crompton does criticise upper middle, middle class and nouveau riche ideas for bringing up children, or indeed leaving it to the servants and forgetting to check. The satire is gentle, but satire there is. Marriages are respectably unhappy, with cruel chinks in the polished face they present to the outside world, which mainly consists of suburbia. Crompton, a spinster, lived in Chislehurst, Kent and there were hints that in a later generation she might have chosen a female partner.

Then came the bad writers – Arnold Palmer from Family Roundabout apparently writes “tripe with a revolting veneer of literary virtuosity”. I can’t wait to learn more of him when I read my new copy properly instead of skimming it for quotes to give this blog post a veneer of authenticity. And finally questions, thanks to Sara (“So interesting! And not too academic!”) and a chance to browse and chat.

Persephone are interested in suggestions for forgotten authors they might republish (not only fiction). I see they already do one Ruth Adam but would love to see I’m Not Complaining reissued, and a book much loved by my mother and my 1970s self, glimmers to me from the past. This was Life with Lisa (1958) and a companion Leave it to Lisa, by Sybil Burr. I wish I still had them. They were Young Adult when teenagers had barely been invented.

What a discovery! If you’re in London, do visit, and if not they have an online catalogue of lovely ideas  – they will post you a gift wrapped book a month, for example. I’d like to thank friends Gill and Sheila for inviting me along, Persephone books for their hospitality, their imagination, and giving me the chance to use the word “spinster”. And advance thanks too: as a poor selling but well reviewed lady author I’m hoping that in seventy years Persephone books of the future will rescue my own Magic Carpet and Infinity Pool, dress them in a grey jacket and make me a vintage star.

©Jessica Norrie 2019

 

Haunted by the Woman in White

I’ve just finished watching this cracker of a BBC adaptation – it’s not too late for catch up if you want to binge watch from the safety of the sofa.

WWhite1I first encountered Wilkie Collins when my family sat glued to a BBC adaptation of The Moonstone (another came in 2016). TV companies, desperate to repeat the success of The Forsyte Saga, had found a contender. They rolled him out again with The Woman in White  in 1982. I read my parents’ old Everyman edition, which I’m rereading now. At university, Collins figured in lectures on Dickens, Balzac and Henry James, but The Moonstone is now more usually regarded as the first full length crime novel. The Woman in White has no detective as such and even the BBC’s enquiring “scrivener” Emmanuel Nash doesn’t appear in the book, but it too involves solving crimes and elucidating mysteries.

Collins works well on TV, with its tried and tested pot boiler ingredients, as effective now as in the days of steam trains and port for gentlemen in the library. Candle lit interiors of red velvet and brocade film well, and The Woman in White has not one but two isolated stately homes – Limmeridge – bright, airy, a short walk from the sea, and Blackwater, closed in around a courtyard, with neglected ancient wings and a stagnant murky lake, “just the place for a murder” as Sir Percival Glyde asserts. The word “dastardly” was made for Glyde, although it must be said that his birth is the source of all his wrongdoing and 21st century readers may glimpse sympathy from Collins for a flaw that, nowadays, isn’t one.

Collins’ characters are rounded, with varying motives, vacillations, points when their  choices blur. As Walter Hartright, the artist turned amateur detective, says: “the best men are not consistent in good- why should the worst men be consistent in evil?” Walter is young, open hearted, romantic, generous – but also indecisive, naive and impulsive. The otherwise admirable Marion makes a crucial mistake in banishing him before Laura’s marriage. Foul Mrs Catherick, to a less moralising era, seems unpleasant rather than cruel, shipwrecked by unwanted pregnancy.  Housekeepers and valets are not just goodies or baddies, but confused, conflicted, put upon characters whose economic dependence gives them little space for manoeuvre, compassionately observed by Collins. Most servants are trustworthy, whereas aristocrats Count and Countess Fosco and Philip and Frederick Fairlie behave unforgivably and social values help them get away with it. Fosco was more elegant on screen than in the book, where his white mice, his “low, oily smile”, his age and obesity make him less appealing. The BBC emphasized the sexual frisson between him and active, intelligent Marion Halcombe which the acting was good enough to make convincing, but it’s less reciprocated by Marion in the book. Fosco’s admiration for Marion, and his expressed sympathy for his own wife, forced to “love, honour and obey” him while watching his infatuation, redeem him slightly.

 

Mothers in The Woman in White are either dead or betray their daughters – Hartright’s mother, though, is steadfast and sensible. He’s the poor but honest artist, in love with fey piano playing Laura Fairlie, whose doppelganger is a madwoman escaped from yet another isolated building, a “private asylum” (and is she really mad?). To complete the gothic picture there are inheritances, sinister marriages, debt, alcoholism, a powder that sends tea drinkers to sleep, a tumbledown boathouse, lodgings in a London slum, anonymous letters, a locked church in a near abandoned village, a graveyard, jewelled keepsakes…At Limmeridge dresses swish, and Hartright observes women’s bodies moving in freedom: “…her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays.” But at Blackwater corsets are laced ever tighter, and I lost count of the rooms Laura, Anne, Marion, Fanny and possibly others were locked away in. In the end locks and keys turn against at least one gaoler though, because this is a novel of justice and reparation.

Collins, states my edition’s 1963 introduction, “was a radical feminist”. Possibly not quite one we’d recognise, since his female characters miss no opportunity to denigrate their own sex. Marion, is energetic, intelligent, graceful and ugly, and in her first speech of introduction she blames her own  stupid behaviour/attitudes/beliefs on being a woman at least six times, adding “no woman does think much of her own sex, though few of them confess it as freely as I do.” However, the broader premise on which the book is based unambiguously protests against the lack of opportunities and legal status of women and wives in Collins’ day. All Laura’s assets will be signed over when she marries Sir Percival, the family solicitors objections waved aside, although it puts her husband in a position to benefit more from her death than her life. Her father chose the husband for her, and the BBC version gave Mrs Catherick lines similar to “To men like that, character and reputation mean more than anyone’s feelings or well being” although I couldn’t find them in the book. Collins highlights how women were subjected to coercion, violence and emotional abuse, how men fathered children and walked away, how easy it was to portray women as mad or unreliable, and how the a gentleman’s word carried more weight than someone of lower social standing. The legal position regarding the property of married women may have changed (although as late as the 1970s Carmen Callil remembers the header on her tax return: “If you have a husband, this form is addressed to him.”) but, sadly, the other types of abuse are as familiar as they were when The Woman in White was published in 1859.

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Marion (Jessie Buckley) and Laura (Olivia Vinall) in the BBC’s The Woman in White

Skimming the book again, I’ve the impression of a faithful adaptation, with some aspects emphasised as they couldn’t be in Collins’ time. His discussion of dreams, memory loss, post traumatic stress prefigured Freud by forty years and give the BBC cast some wonderful acting opportunities. The emphasis on dependency is there, and also the hints of lesbianism and erotica. Says Marian: “The simple illusions of her girlhood are gone, and my hand has stripped them off. Better mine than his – that is all my consolation – better mine than his.” Marian and Laura, who are half sisters through their mother, frequently share a bed. They touch, stroke and caress; their language about each other is romantic. The BBC even has Marion wearing wide legged trousers. In Anne Catherick’s case, there’s confusion between her mental health and learning difficulties, as in the book. There’s clear economic delineation. We know who is wealthy, who only appears so, who can aspire to be self sufficient, who is respectable and who is precariously surviving, down to the last sextons too debilitated to tend the graves in their charge. And here are public institutions: impoverished half derelict churches whose small congregations graffitti their doors, free village schools for urchins as opposed to foreign boarding schools for aristocrats. (Not a huge amount changed there, then either.)

 

Many characters and devices in The Woman in White were based on a real case, the Douhault conspiracy in France. Anyone interested in Victorians solving real life crime, and the influence this had on fiction, should read Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher”. Another contemporary writer with a debt to Collins is Philip Pullman in his Sally Lockhart series – if you’re looking for a strong female lead with full Victorian trimmings, you can’t do better. Meanwhile, if this was your teenage children’s introduction to The Woman in White, do reassure them there’ll probably be another one along in a couple of decades. She’s one literary ghost who will never fade away.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

Jane Austen recast

When I studied European Literature (Sussex, 1981), our only sources of criticism and commentary were lectures and the library. If you were studying an obscure text, there wasn’t much to go on. For example, for one assessment I compared versions of Troilus and Cressida. I found plenty about the Shakespeare play and lots on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, a few books about their source which was probably Boccacio‘s Il Filostrato, and one short chapter on a Scottish poet called Henryson. His narrative poem The Testament of Cresseid featured Cressida punished for her love affair by contracting leprosy. I took as gospel everything the critic said about Henryson, because who else was there to consult? And Henryson took a starring role in my essay, to gain me marks for originality.

Undergraduates often depend too much on second hand opinions partly because they respect more senior researchers (good) and partly because they lack confidence in their own views (bad). Thus, at feedback for my essay on Crime and Punishment, the eminent Professor Thorlby greeted me: “I didn’t know you were a lapsed Catholic.” I’d had no idea, dependent as I was on discussing the words of the only Russian critic I could find translated into comprehensible English, that was the impression I’d given. I  thought my essay was contrasting individualism with social responsibility. (I did know enough to know I liked criticism to be rooted in a social and economic context as well as discussing language and style. So with one confused eye on the semiotics and structuralism then still shunned at Cambridge but a big deal at trendy Sussex, the critics I favoured tended to be Marxist, which also made them easier to read.)

As an exchange postgraduate in France, I had to teach Hamlet to students older and more qualified than myself. I fled back to England, to the Sussex library and in horror found over a dozen shelves in the “stacks”, of Hamlet criticism alone. How to sort out the brilliance from the dead wood? And how much worse this dilemma must be now. I just Googled “Hamlet – critical articles” and found 21,600,000 results.

Since that eye opening Sussex foundation, with more decades of reading and some writing of my own, I’m less blinded by academic credentials and more able to judge whether a critical study is telling me something new. One such is Jane Austen: The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly. Now Austen is an author I thought I knew well. But – “Forget the Jane Austen you think you know. Forget the biographies, forget the pretty adaptations. Ignore the banknote. Read Jane’s novels,” says Kelly (p.311). Well, I’ve done that, several times32441705. I studied Persuasion for A level (Don’t knock A levels. A good teacher leading on a great book, covering the solid old style A level syllabus, can provide a key to thinking about literature that’s equal to anything on Google or mouldering in the library stacks.) My Economic History A level covered the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions in the UK, and I studied the French Revolution at university, as well as Mary Wollstonecraft, Marx, and Freud. So I was prepared for much of Kelly’s thinking, and I’d never dismissed Austen’s novels as pretty drawing room dramas. I agree with Kelly that if you “…understand what serious subject marriage was then…all of a sudden courtship plots start to seem like a more suitable vehicle for discussing other serious things.” (p.31) Even so – take a deep breath.

Northanger Abbey, is not as I thought about a young girl carried away into silly fantasies by reading Gothic novels. 50398Kelly points out, in this novel about reading, how little reading actually gets done. But there does seem to be female masturbation, thinly veiled as unlocking a door: “Jane’s society viewed it as common knowledge that girls, as well as boys, indulged in the ‘secret and destructive vice’.” (p.66) There are a number of footnotes and a short bibliography, but this particular assertion is not backed up though Freud must be drooling in his grave. I found the claims that death through sex and childbirth was a major theme, both overt and coded, more convincingly argued through the sad statistics of social history.

Sense and Sensibility is, to Kelly, about “brass” (money). She points out the imagery of 14935metals, money and jewellery, and how this novel, like Pride and Prejudice, highlights unfair inheritance laws and primogeniture. The money references are given so precisely in Sense and Sensibility, the 21st century reader can calculate the exact incomes of various grades of clergy, army personnel, landowners and their dependents, and understand how patronage makes or ruins them. But here’s Freud again: Kelly highlights sexual symbolism, hinting at abuse, and her delving into the moral character of even apparently worthy suitors raise few hopes for the marriages contracted. If Kelly’s reading is correct, Austen is cynically pessimistic about the future for the Dashwood brides.

Most of us are most familiar with Pride and Prejudice. But here’s a less chintzy angle. Kelly is into her stride now, and highlights 1885
how “the presence of the militia in the novel …introduces layer upon layer of anxiety…Invasions..naval mutinies…food riots…They’re in the background, but they’re there.” (p 128). She situates the novel amid precise historical events through indicators like the style of Elizabeth’s petticoat – not a petticoat at all but a fashion that was definitely old fashioned by the mid 1790s. She also explains the extra resonance in the word “prejudice” for contemporary readers – a strength of Kelly’s book is her ability to decode references that would have been much more obvious to Austen’s immediate audience than they are to us. One thing we’d have to be blind to miss is the criticism of the clergy, represented by the absurd Mr Collins, but Kelly is none too impressed by Mr Darcy’s aristocrat either, even after the proud and prejudiced scales have fallen from his eyes. Whoops – here’s another marriage auguring well but, Kelly implies, too much of a fairy tale to ring true.

It’s always gratifying when an expert echoes one’s own thoughts. For Kelly as for me, Mansfield Park was Austen’s most radical and daring novel, and she is moving on Austen’s disappointment at the lack of reviews. Perhaps, says Kelly – the word perhaps appears often in JA:The Secret Radical: not all Kelly’s ideas are fully substantiated – this isn’t surprising. Mansfield Park is a barely coded attack on slavery. Although the 45032abolitionist cause had much public support by Austen’s time, much wealth was still enmeshed with slavery, from her own family to great landowners and the Church of England. It reflected well on the enlightened British to support abolishing slavery in the Caribbean, but at home nobody wanted to see their standard of living fall, or run short of sugar. Kelly finds child abuse and sadism in the novel, as well as fortunes built on slavery and ecclesiastical hypocrisy. “(Mansfield Park) is filled with infidelities, not-so-genteel-poverty, with bullying and threats of violence.” (p. 168). She points out how the names Mansfield, Norris, Madeira (as in wine) and Moor Park (the type of apricot tree planted at Mansfield Parsonage) would have resonated with contemporary readers, who’d recognise the names of players in the slavery debate; she counts many instances of the words “plantation, slave, chains”. She shows how daring it was for a clergyman’s daughter to write a novel so critical of the Church. No wonder it wasn’t reviewed.

I said in my previous post on Jane Austen that I found the story and character of Emma least interesting of all the novels. Kelly len6969ds more meaning to the story, explaining how the plot reflects the enclosures movement. “Enclosing” covered any kind of fencing, walling, hedging or barring access to common and waste ground. It was at its height when Emma was written. It challenged the poor, who had previously been able to supplement their meagre incomes grazing livestock, growing vegetables, gathering firewood and foraging on such land. Without access, the numbers of destitute people swelled, and there was high population growth too. Kelly shows the landscape of Emma emphasising enclosures, “respectable” people reduced to begging for parish relief, gypsies forced off their traditional sites, and the better off feeling vulnerable too. Mr Knightly is not the kind, urbane gentleman he appears, with his enclosure projects; Mr Woodhouse is perhaps justified in being querulous; the gypsies are not threatening but threatened, in Kelly’s reading. Birth advantages can be taken away; illegitimate children cosseted or cast off at whim; the domestic world of Emma is as threatening as the warring background to Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion.

Kelly is least sure of herself talking about 2156Persuasion. She is interesting, but perhaps not original (I don’t know enough about Austen scholarship to say) on the theme of fossils and old certainties giving way to Darwinism, conjecturing Austen may have come across the child Mary Anning on the beach at Lyme Regis. She’s amusing about the idea of marrying to regain an ancestral home and on snobbery – but Austen does that all so well herself with her portrait of Sir Walter Elliot, it barely needs repeating. I felt her writing about Persuasion was like history in the novel: “… disrupted, random, chaotic…You can’t escape the tide of history; you can’t stay firm against that kind of pressure; you have to give way and let yourself be carried, if you want any hope of surviving.” (p 289).

I may give the impression, wrongly, that Kelly discusses only the six principal novels. But she does so in the context of Jane Austen’s letters, of imagined scenes from her life, historical events, her comic verse and fragments of writing, memoirs by the Austen family, contemporary novels and polemic, and the scholarship of others. There are snippets of social history; daring, forthright opinions, and there’s quite a lot of “perhaps” along with a few “undoubtedly”s. It’ s a long time since I’ve been fascinated enough to review a secondary source. I may even go and study literature again.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Six degrees of separation

I found this book game on Janet Emson’s blog Fromfirstpagetolast.*  The idea is to start with a book and then see what other book it leads to and so on for six books. They don’t all have to be linked, only each subsequent one.

35529108Lying on my coffee table is Don’t Panic I’m Islamic. I’d heard of this first on Linda Hill‘s blog. Shortly afterwards, I was visiting my son at Goldsmiths, and came across “The Word” bookshop, New Cross Road. I took him inside to show him the joy of browsing in an independent bookshop – his politics are admirable but he doesn’t read enough books. Immediately, in this small one room shop, I found several things I wanted to buy. Yet in Waterstones I frequently come out empty handed, bemused by the vast choice…Has anyone else found this? I believe there’s a theory about it.

Dowd 17Anyway, Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic… It belongs on the coffee table (or in the loo) because it’s a book to dip into. Very funny, in parts. Sad in others, cheeky, angry too. There are poems, cartoons, colouring pages and paintings as well as essays, commissioned in response to President Trump’s travel ban on Muslims. Most contributors are Muslim, though I’m not sure about Carol Ann Duffy or Chris Riddell. My favourite essay was instructions on how to get through US immigration if you’re a gay mixed race man who’s visited Lebanon and Libya that year (the successful strategy will surprise you). It wasn’t the only article on being Muslim and gay, and it struck chords with Queer and Catholic that I reviewed recently. The Word bookshop didn’t have Don’t Panic... (small shops can’t stock everything) but they ordered it which was a good ruse for getting Rob back in there to pick it up for me.

61twx2rf9vlOne they did have, which Don’t Panic… had reminded me of, was The Good Immigrant – which I reviewed here. It also contains references to barriers for BAME travellers at US customs, a sore point well before Trump’s ban. Both The Good Immigrant, a bestseller essay collection last year, and Don’t Panic… offer timely reminders that Muslims (and Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists…etc) can be clever, dense, witty, irritating, funny, peculiar, maddening, thoughtful, cruel, compassionate, generous, devout, autistic, dyslexic, able bodied, queer, unhealthy, scientifically-minded, parents, violent, twee…etc…but only a miniscule minority of Muslims (and Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists…etc) are likely to be terrorists.

9780008191153The bookshop assistant (owner?) and I chatted about recent lively, polemical books as I placed the order, which reminded me to ask for Attack of the 50ft Women, which I want to give my son for Christmas. (I think it will be a surprise: he doesn’t read my blog. If it isn’t a surprise, this description of how/why women are STILL not truly equal will fit well with his sociology/media/critical theory/history courses anyway.) 32938157As the Sunday Express review said, “Buy it for yourself, your husband or partner. Most importantly, buy it for your children.” But much as I love them, it’s not out in the cheaper paperback until January – so I browsed other books on what I assume was the minorities/women’s table, and found Words from Wise, Witty and Wonderful Women, a compendium of extracts from Woman’s Hour interviews over the past 70 years. I can’t tell you anything about it, except that it’s another dip-into coffee table/loo book, because on the way home I remembered my friend’s birthday, stopped for paper, sellotape and a card, and took it to her. (There was something cosy and appropriate about being saved from forgetting to buy a birthday present by Woman’s Hour.)

51kykr2uvxlThe same display table yielded Rachel Cusk’s Transit, which I’ve already written about at admiring length here, and the paperback of Jane Austen, the Secret Radical. When I got home I realised I’d been given (and not yet read) the hardback last Christmas, so Oxfam did well out of me that day too. I’ve started reading it today, and so far I’m thinking: blimey, this is not the Jane Austen of wet shirted Mr Darcy or gently clopping pony traps! Freud must be rubbing his hands vigorously in his grave (at least I hope it’s his hands) at how Helena Kelly interprets the thoughts of Austen’s Catherine Morland. The Women’s Equality Party could quote her in their manifesto; and Momentum members would enjoy Kelly’s interpretation of Austen’s views on wealth distribution.

32441705So there they are: six – no, dammit, seven – books, tenuously linked. Who’d have thought reading (without panicking) about Islamic drag queens and a Beirut bus driver’s thoughts on Donald Trump’s hair, could lead to Jane Austen?

My choices suggest a penchant for political, radical, left of centre sociology. They make me look like a great reader of nonfiction, but usually I read novels. So I’m tempted to start the game again, with one I read recently, Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End. If any of you have read that, I wonder where it led you? I bet you can’t guess where it took me…but I’ll leave that for a future blog post.

*Janet Emson found the game on three other blogs. If we add mine, that makes five blogs. Would you like to add yours, and then we’ll have six (or more) book blogs separated only by a link, all playing Six Degrees of Separation with the books they’re reading! What would your six (or more) books be?

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Order, order! Ideas for a cross party parliamentary book group

I’ve put together these titles and questions for my imaginary cross-party MPs’ book group, meeting at the House of Commons once a month. Since participation will help all MPs do their job in an empathetic, efficient, positive way, I’ll let them claim the books on expenses (also there are so few local libraries left they’d be lucky to get them there). I’ve allowed 48 books, one per month for four years, sorted into themes, plus a year to digest. So there can’t be another election until they’ve read them all, ok?

On poverty and deprivation, and the effect they have on the lives of potentially healthy human beings:

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1854)

Germinal by Emil Zola (1885)

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell (1914)

Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood (1933)

The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) by George Orwell

Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand (1935)

Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson (1945)

Wigan Pier Revisited by Bea Campbell (1984)

Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth (2005)

The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited by Stephen Armstrong (2012)

MPs’ book group question: How far do you think living and working conditions have improved in the UK and elsewhere since each of these books were published?

On the rich, and how their behaviour affects other individuals and society as a whole:

Old Goriot by Honore de Balzac (1835)

Vanity Fair by William Thackeray (1848)

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild (2015)

MPs’ book group questionsDiscuss the extent to which the characters in these novels enjoy equality of access and opportunity. Discuss the ways they use their money, when they have it.

On immigrants, migrants, displaced people and their places in our society:

Christmas Holiday by Somerset Maugham (1939)

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski (1949)

Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam (2004)

The Road Home by Rose Tremain (2007)

The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed (2013)

No Country for Young Men by Julia O’Faolain (2015)

The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla (2016)

MPs’ book group questions: Imagine you are a character in one of these books. What would be your main hopes and fears, and how realistic are they? Can you get what you need without harming other people and how vulnerable do you feel yourself?

On War and its effects:

Hiroshima by John Hersey (1953)

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally (1982)

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (2015)

MPs’ book group questions: What is the worst scenario of all the ones described in these books? Do you think the world is a safer place now than at the time of the wars these books discuss? How could you end existing conflicts and prevent new ones?

On the death penalty:

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)

A Perfect Execution by Tim Binding (1996)

MPs’ book group question: In your view, do the main characters in these two books make you more or less sympathetic to the idea of imposing a death penalty, and if so for which crimes?

On old age and dementia:

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014)

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (2014)

MPs’ book group question: Can you imagine being old yourself? What difference do money, company, good mental and physical health and empathy make to the life of an older person?

On education:

Hard Times by Charles Dickens (1854)

Roaring Boys (1955 by Edward Blishen

Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School by Leila Berg (1969)

The School I’d Like Revisited by Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor

MPs’ book group questions: All these books raise questions about how and what we teach children. In what ways do you think our treatment of children and the curriculum we deliver have improved since these books were published?

On the environment:

The Tower to the Sun by Colin Thompson (1996)

MPs’ book group question: This is a picture book aimed at children but the message is serious. Can you identify ways in which adults receive the same message, and how the problems it highlights are being dealt with?

On First World/Third World inequality:

Angus Rides the Goods Train by Chris Riddell and Alan Durant (1996)

MPs’ book group question: This is also a picture book aimed at children but the message is serious. Can you identify any novels for adults which deliver the same message? How are the problems it highlights being addressed internationally?

On the NHS:

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh (2014)

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MPs’ book group questions: This book describes  surgical expertise developed within the NHS. How precarious do you think this expertise and practice is, going forward? Will it still be possible to write a book about a contemporary NHS in five years time?

On Women:

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith (2009)

Saving Safa by Waris Dirie (2013)

MPs’ book group questions: Would you say the lives of women in the first novel and the second book of are reflected anywhere in the world in contemporary society? How much do you know about FGM and forced marriage? What measures can be taken to protect women from all kinds of exploitation and abuse?

On LGBT rights:

Maurice by EM Forster (written 1914, published 1971)

Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides (2002)

Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson  (2011)

MPs’ book group questions: What is the earliest date at which these books could have been published without significant personal risk to their authors, and why? How can you continue to protect LGBT interests?

On human rights and freedom of expression:

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947)

1984 by George Orwell (1948)

For Every Child: The Rights of the Child in Words and Pictures by UNICEF (2000)

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (2000)

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (2016)

MPs’ book group question: What measures would you personally take to ensure that none of your constituents were ever subjected to any aspect of any of the kinds of oppression described in these books?

Good luck, new and returning MPs! I’m sure most of you are truly good people who genuinely have the interests of your constituents and of the people and places of the world at heart. I hope you will enjoy and learn from these books and make wise decisions based on what you have read.

If any fellow bloggers or those who follow this blog would like to make their own suggestions below, please do so! I wanted to include books on addressing the threat of terrorism, but got a bit stuck. And on childhood, but had too many – that will be for another post. And on Remain/Leave/Soft/Hard/No-deal Brexit… Over to you!

© Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

The Three Tenors

So you thought the three tenors were Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Vienna 3Pavarotti? Not so – they’re sausages, a frankfurter, some other darker variety and a veal sausage and they’re available in the Café of the Vienna Staatsoper. In this pretty room you may if such is your pleasure order “Three Tenors” or a “Rigoletto” (which is a sausage salad). My photo of this disconcerting dish is very small, for minimal offence to my vegetarian readers. (I chose the spinach strudel, with lettuce.)

51wntwjpdalSince in Vienna the three tenors can be anything, I’ve chosen a third variation: books, During a recent trip I read or reread three novels set in Vienna (with thanks as ever to the wonderful TripFiction site which you can consult for reading matter to match any destination you can think of). They give five stars to the first I chose, but I’m afraid I’d remove at least two of those. A Woman of Note by Carol M. Cram (2015) starts in 1827 with an excellent idea for a heroine, Isabette, a fictitious young woman pianist and composer whose ability rivals Fanny Mendelssohn or Clara Schumann. But it sinks into cliché with too many descriptions of a singer friend’s pretty gloves and blue ribbons. The author neglects what could have been evocative descriptions of this most visual of cities. Instead she gives us endless expository dialogue to help shift the one dimensional characters around in the style of a Woman’s Own short story from the 1970s, and provides a (mercifully) brief sex scene worthy of the Bad Sex awards: “He moved his hand up her thigh, his breath becoming ragged and out of rhythm. Andante to allegretto. …he pushed his body and hers to allegro.” Hmmm. I wonder what variations Mozart’s fingertips might have conjured for that.

Vienna 9
The piano in the apartment where Franz Schubert died in 1828.

Plot digressions into lesbianism and sexual abuse are worthy rather than interesting, although I am sure music teachers and promoters did abuse their protegées and played their parts in keeping women’s career prospects unequal. An erudite bibliography suggests a lot of authorial research (sometimes plonked unharmoniously into the narrative) and genuine pleasure in the music of Schubert, Beethoven and Chopin. This was a missed opportunity to create a convincing story and explore a fascinating period of women’s and musical history in a unique setting. Looking at TripFiction’s list again it seems others have dealt with the same theme, so it does get exposure elsewhere.

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Vienna State Opera House, which opened in 1869. The architect committed suicide after Emperor Franz Josef referred to it in displeasure as “a railway station”. I hope it’s not too heartless to point out what a good plot that would make.

51jrqt32cqlI had better luck with Mortal Mischief (2004) by Frank Tallis. It’s a 19th century detective romp. To judge by the selections listed on TripFiction, Vienna’s baroque and 20th century architecture and dense cultural history encourage writers to indulge in a wild cocktail of music, classical and modern art, sculpture, historical events, psychoanalysis, medicine, education, imperialism, nationalism and the whole gamut of politics, cafes and brothels, coffee and cakes, Vienna 13clairvoyance and fairgrounds, bombastic urban settings and the wonderful Prater park. Tallis just about brings it off – I was a bit bogged down by the heavy velvet brocade of his opening storm scenes: “Liebermann looked up at the livid millstone sky. Ragged tatters of cloud blew above the pediment of The Imperial like the petticoats of a ravished angel. The air smelled strange – an odd, metallic smell.” But as he got into his stride the descriptions became more digestible and it was a pleasure to revisit the Belvedere Palace grounds, the Secession Building, the University and the Prater as his story hurtled through the city like a Viennese tram, picking up colourful characters at every chapter – a surgical instrument maker, Sigmund Freud, a locksmith, prostitutes, actresses and mediums, English governesses, police chiefs, magicians and kitchen maids.  If some of them are more caricature than real, well, that reflects Viennese grandeur, exaggeration and cuisine. The musical accompaniment tinkled comfortably alongside the narrative whenever detective Rheinhardt and his doctor friend Max Liebermann took a breather with a relaxing session of Schubert duets. I was pleased to find these new (to me) discoveries feature in other adventures, particularly as Leibermann and the governess left a romantic thread unfastened at the end.

Vienna 22
Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze at the Secession Building, from their information leaflet.

Mortal Mischief features the Reisenrad Ferris Wheel, and so of course does my third choice, Graham Greene’s The Third Man, the novel treatment of the screenplay Greene wrote for Carol Reed’s famous 1949 film noir. The Vienna of The Third Man is not the confident 1900s cultural capital of Tallis, and lacked the exuberant fairground where we spent our last morning. Instead it’s a bombed out city divided into four zones where petty and serious crime thrive in an atmosphere of curfew and desperation. “The Prater lay smashed and desolate and full of weeds, only the Great Wheel revolving slowly over the foundations of merry-go-rounds like abandoned millstones, the rusting iron of smashed tanks which nobody had cleared away.

Actually there’s surprisingly little verbal description of Vienna as a setting in the book of The Third Man, which Greene himself said in his Preface “was never written to be read, but only to be seen. It was dedicated to Reed, “in admiration and affection and in memory of so many early morning Vienna hours at Maxim’s, the Casanova, the Oriental.” My forceful image of ruined buildings and unlit streets through which Harry Lime dodges his pursuers must come from the film. But in both, the labyrinthine sewers, scrubby landscapes, muddled policing and befuddled hero serve as a metaphor for fallen glory, profiteering and corruption. We saw very little of that in the bustling, affluent, well behaved city we visited, so Vienna has created a successful veneer since those days. Or maybe business dealings there now really are cleaner than in London. It wouldn’t be difficult.

Vienna 23
Warning: if you read this edition, the introduction contains spoilers for both plots!

Greene and Reed found more than one kind of suspense in Harry Lime’s confrontation with Rollo Martin (Hollie Martin in the film) in the topmost gondola – an idea to which Tallis pays homage when Liebermann also takes the ride with the man he suspects of murder. In Mortal Mischief the innocent characters also return to its thrills whenever they can – as Freud explains, it replicates the experience of flying. It’s a sad reflection on over stimulated 21st century travellers that we became rather bored when dangling at the top of the Ferris Wheel. Health and safety means there’s no danger of a villainous shove through an open door or of smashing the glazing, and the views are stunning. But the ponderous wheel turns slowly and waits a long time in each position – unlike the pacy plots of all three books above, though not dissimilar to the way my companion reported the Three Tenor Sausages sitting in his stomach. No Sachertorte for him that afternoon!

 

(Information for coffee drinking, cake eating bookworms: The cafes we visited were the Prückel, the Tirolerhof, the Mozart and the Oper, all equally memorable. The Tirolerhof in particular is a quiet reader’s dream, all customers engrossed in books or the newspapers supplied by the establishment, no music, and voices that rarely rise above a whisper. You could write a novel here before the waiter bothered you with the bill.)

 

© Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Viva Virago!

Who loves the dark green elegance and quality of Virago Modern Classics? They took paperback design to a new level but not just the design, also the content. I didn’t realise how much their publication matched my own coming of age as a reader, until I caught a BBC4 documentary about them on iplayer (at the time of posting this is available for 12 more days).

virago-lovely-covers
Beautiful covers

In the 1970s and 80s I worked in academic holidays in my father’s bookshop, usually in paperbacks. I know there are conventions nowadays about how specific genres should look, but in fact it was easier then to second guess a book by its cover. Picadors – loved by hippies, tending towards fantasy and allegory – were white and seemed taller. Penguin Modern Classics were a pale grey with fine art reproductions on the front. (My career aim at 17 was to emulate Germano Facetti, their designer. What better job than reading books, then searching in art galleries for pictures to represent them? Naively I thought that was all it amounted to, but biographical material about him shows there was a lot more to it.) Penguin Classics were mostly black, crime green, modern fiction had an orange spine. A brick shaped book with a shiny cover was probably  down market, an “airport novel”., especially if it had gold or silver lettering. Sphere books were thin, printed on cheap paper with narrow margins. Everyman Classics were accessible hardback editions of wonderful works, cheaper even than Penguins and so kept with paperback ranges.

virago-ferrier-braddon

But when Virago Modern Classics came along, initially shelved alphabetically with the rest of the fiction and then on a special revolving display stand of their own, they upped the ante. We tried to keep them facing outwards because they were so beautiful – an astute marketing exercise as well as (at the time) a revolutionary concept. The BBC4 programme tells me the art director of Virago actually did do what I thought Germano Facetti did: browsing in art galleries (fun) and establishing copyright ownership of the pictures she wanted to use, or could afford (not fun). Virago (initially called Spare Rib press like the magazine that started the same year) had already existed since 1972 when they began the Modern Classics imprint in 1978. Their first books were non fiction feminist history and sociology – now themselves classics. Our daughters have much to thank them for.

Why was Virago needed? These three statements give an idea. Carmen Callil, the founder, quotes from the New Yorker: “Women generally – especially women writers – have no use for destiny. They wouldn’t compose a Hamlet if they could.” She remembers the Inland Revenue’s header on her tax return: “If you have a husband, this form is addressed to him.” Margaret Atwood quotes a letter to Alice Munro: “Well, you might be a good short story writer but I wouldn’t go to bed with you.” 

virago-lehmann

Publishing was a man’s world – my literary agent, who started work for WH Allen in the 1980s, remembers women only present as secretaries. Although my father’s bookshop was a place of liberal debate, he also for a time banned female members of staff from wearing trousers (he found the shape of one member of staff displeasing). Despite Jane Austen, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, it was harder for women to get published and once published, harder for them to remain in print. Their books were considered of less value, parochial, unimportant. Virago – whose first offices were above a massage parlour in Soho’s Wardour Street – changed all that.

virago-smithConsider the names published by Virago: Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Michele Roberts, Sarah Waters, Linda Grant, Maya Angelou… These were and are contemporary writers, but  Virago also rehabilitated many fading gems: Rosamund Lehmann who wrote delicately of unwanted pregnancy; Susan Ferrier who wrote in 1818 (!) and Mary E Braddon (1862) of unhappy marriage. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)and Emily Holmes Coleman (1930) put postnatal depression and insanity at the heart of their fiction. On a lighter note, did you know that Dodie Smith of The Hundred and One Dalmatians fame also produced the enchanting I Capture the castle? You have a treat in store!

The lists (fiction and non fiction) were diverse: Paule Marshall wrote of a Barbadian girl growing up in New York (1959) and Zhang Jie of life in 1970s China. Amrit Wilson threw a stone into a rippling pond with Finding a Voice, about the lives of Bangladeshi women in the East End (1978). Maya Angelou was published in the US in 1969, but UK publishers showed no interest until Virago took up I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1984 and had an immediate huge bestseller. In 2001 Virago as part of the Little, Brown group published the Somalian model Waris Dirie’s memoir Desert Flower, one of the first books to describe what was then called female circumcision.

During various house moves, I jettisoned books. Some I don’t regret: at a certain point the greasy yellow mustiness of old books becomes unpleasant. I’m interested to find the few Women’s Press editions I’ve kept have lasted better than most, pages still quite white and crisp, and the covers of the Viragos have withstood time better than the insides (I’m sneezing from musty spores as I type this). But I’m sorry now that I threw some of them out and I keep my charity shop eye open for replacements. Watching Carmen Callil, the indefatigable founder of Virago, climb ladders in her elegant late seventies to run her finger along the spines of her collection, I feel very jealous. Do visit the Virago website for details of all 687 Modern Classics and their other lists. And do watch the documentary while you can – the nostalgic enjoyment of writing (and hopefully reading) this blog post wouldn’t have been possible without it. It’s not only about nostalgia though: long may Virago continue to give women a voice and let’s hope it’s heard in the White House.

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©Jessica Norrie 2016