Three weeks after The Magic Carpet was published, the book is doing well and its author is booked for a trabeculectomy operation at London’s Moorfields eye hospital. A “trab”, as we carelessly throw the name about in these parts, involves inserting a small bleb (shunt, drain, thing) under the upper eyelid to relieve pressure of fluid on the eye, which in my case is causing significant sight loss. If successful, they’ll do the other eye in a few months. Just a trab. If you say it really fast you can almost forget it’s happening.
I have been in a right tizz about this for months. I joined an online forum and retreated in terror at the horror stories they told. A calm and gentle person at the International Glaucoma Association pointed out that people for whom things go wrong will always be more likely to post than those for whom all runs smoothly, and that my highly respected surgeon Mr Gazzard is at the cutting edge (no, she used a more fortunate term than that).
But today I’m fairly calm, if you can be calm when filled with adrenalin, fresh mango scrambled eggs and toast that came out exactly right for once, and two carefully measured cups of tea all finished and washed up by 6.59am. I got up early for what I call the condemned woman’s breakfast before my enforced fast. The term makes my partner wince – gallows humour is not something we share.
I wasn’t going to mention any of this on the blog at all, or at least not until afterwards, as it all seems a bit private and not much to do with books which is what the blog is supposed to concern itself with. But now I’m finding it’s a good way of passing a long coffeeless lunchless morning. Next I’ll wash my hair as thoroughly as I can (no bending forwards or getting eyes wet for 4-8 weeks), and pack my overnight bag as we’re staying in a cheap chain hotel near the hospital because this will be day surgery (note: others will be in the house). I was initially offered an overnight room in the patients’ hostel, as I’ll have blurred vision in one eye and a patch over the other, be recovering from a GA, and have to be seen in clinic the following day anyway. Then the local council fire inspectors came along and condemned the building, so the Holiday Inn will be cleaner than the tube (advised not to use public transport) and cheaper than a taxi back to the suburbs from central London. It will be reassuring to be close to their A and E dept but we won’t use the swimming pool, the bar, or the amenities of famously cool, stinkingly trendy Shoreditch. (I do wish our hellish government would retreat from stupid Brexit and fund the NHS instead. I know the staff will be skilled and kind, and the clinical care will be excellent, but I’ve discovered before that it comes utterly without frills. And don’t say what do I expect for free – I’ve paid a lifetime’s National Insurance and tax for the NHS and I’ve never abused it the way certain politicians do.)
When I start ranting I know it’s time for that hair wash. Excuse this post if less carefully edited than usual – it was a bit of an afterthought / timefiller / timewaster / distraction / delete as applicable. And if no other chance comes, huge thanks in advance to staff at Moorfields Eye Hospital and to my optician who originally diagnosed this thing – GET YOURSELVES TESTED FOLKS! To that end, please share this post as you think fit. Must remember to take the nail varnish off! See you – a bit fuzzy perhaps – on the other side!
Despite not being all that bloggered about posting at the moment, I couldn’t miss the chance for the puns Hay Festival makes possible. Friends nearby had often said: Hay, why don’t you come along? I only went for Tuesday, not the full ten days, and my introduction is more pictures than words, but I hope you catch my Hay fever. This year I was checking out how it all worked, and could only get tickets for one of the three writers I’d have liked to see. Rose Tremain obliged, but Philip Pullman and Margaret Atwood were sold out long before I got my act together. So we only went to one formal activity, but there was much else to entertain us.
The programme for tomorrow
Hay map shop
Hay-on-Wye itself, permanent population only 1500, has over two dozen bookshops, down from its Hayday but still impressive. Some are now antique shops, and I also diverted into several stylish new and secondhand clothes shops, a café for Hereford apple cake and an outdoor food market for falafel salad washed down by (strong!) local cider. All accompanied by the classiest of classical guitar buskers…
Sustainable cutlery at the food stalls
I want that coat!
A town with a bookshop for every 62.5 people is my kind of town. We especially enjoyed Rose’s Books, where we pounced with delight on affectionately remembered – and long forgotten – gems from our childhoods and giggled over what our grandparents used to read. Remember the Chalet School Girls? Rose has them, along with every Ladybird book you could think of, Rupert and Tin-Tin, William and Jennings, Victorian morality tales, sixties psychedelic picture books and Puffins flying everywhere. Murder and Mayhem, a branch of Addyman‘s, offers a sleuth’s day out, and Richard Booth‘s famous shop includes a cinema.
After browsing, tasting and trying we walked the half mile to the Festival site. There’s a shuttle bus, but then you’d miss the haphazard, inventive enterprise of people who live along the route. Almost every front garden had been turned into a miniature car boot sale, a home-made food stall, a face painter, portrait artist, vintage clothing pop up rail or a purveyor of free range eggs complete with clucking hens to prove the provenance. It was (or seemed) anarchic and I can’t imagine the authorities allowing it in London, but good for these citizens. I hope they made Hay.
The festival site, guarded by two jovial armed police (in honour of Chelsea Clinton perhaps? Surely not still for Salman Rushdie?) was crowded with all ages but fewer races than I’d have liked to see. First things first: the portaloos, with real wooden doors, were the best I’ve seen at an outdoor festival. The bookshop and signing centre, in a vast tent, was humid and uncomfortable with criss-crossing queues, so I left and found more clothes shops selling natural fabrics and one-off designs. There’s also jewellery, cider, wine, cheese…it’s fair to say this is not exclusively a book festival. The best tent was a gallery of book illustrators’ prints, with Jackie Morris painting away to demonstrate her technique while discussing her work, including her collaboration with Robert Macfarlane on The Lost Words. I didn’t explore the scribblers’ tent, the Oxfam tent or the many activities for children – I’m sure I missed a lot.
But one can only digest so much and we had come for Rose Tremain. She was talking in the vast, impersonal Tata area about her memoir of damaged childhood, Scenes from a Vanished Life. Goodness, this was brave. Obviously, she’s a professional, clearly she knew what she’d written and the questions she would be asked. Nonetheless, this must have been like having therapy in front of thousands of people. She was clear, succinct, careful to say exactly what she meant, and the cold calmness of her delivery made the content all the more moving. As she said, her book started as a personal memoir for family and friends only. But when she perceived how emotionally they reacted, she realised she’d stepped into a novelist’s dream. “It’s every writer’s ambition to move people, and I’d moved them so much I had to widen the book out.” I’d been regretting not also booking to see Maggie O’Farrell earlier that day, talking about the seventeen ways she’s escaped death, but I’m not sure I could have coped with the intensity of both. A little goes a long Hay…
Anyway, here are the holiday snaps. I suspect Hay is a very personal experience which affects everyone a different way. I’ll certainly go back for more next year – and perhaps also when the festival is not on, just to enjoy the town and and the beautiful country around it. Because even the car park was scenic and I could harvest the most multicoloured silk scarf in the world, from the shop opposite the alleyway from the castle…
Back to Lisbon this week, to continue wandering round the city’s literature. The interruption for illness (including hallucinatory dreams) was apposite, as the books I’ve read meander around in time, in location, in the heads of their authors and their characters. In homage, this post may take detours too.
The entrance and ground floor of the Saramago Foundation, confusingly, did not feature Jose Saramago, Portuguese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, despite the name and Saramago characters silhouetted in the windows. Instead the enthusiastic young attendant talked about the surface of the building and the archaeology beneath it. Only when we went back out did we realise this surface was not flat, hence its name: “Casa dos Bicos”. In the strong sunlight, we’d assumed the shapes on the walls were shadows or flat tiles. But it was another example of how, in Lisbon, things are not what they seem. As the wonky Google translation of the Saramago Foundation page puts it: Where some would want to see diamonds, (people) saw no more than stone beaks, and, as the use makes law, of so much calling it House of the Beaks, of the Beaks stayed and with that name entered History.
The archaeology fan referred me to his colleague when I asked where to start with Saramago. He gave us a quizzical look and recommended Small Memories. The archaeologist, who probably thought us really thick, nodded. “Yes, that’s the easiest.” (It was less patronising than it sounds.)
Anyway, Small Memories was straightforward: a memoir comparing his childhood and adolescence in the countryside and within Lisbon. He’s difficult to quote because his sentences are so long, and he enjoys playing with the reader and pokes sardonic fun at his own work: “Sometimes I wonder if certain memories are really mine or if they’re just someone else’s memories of episodes in which I was merely an unwitting actor and which I found out about later when they were told to me by others who had been there, unless, of course, they, too, had only heard the story from someone else.” It’s an affectionate, comical memoir: “photos of the family were gathered together on the table like a galaxy of faces…placed there like saints on an altar, like the disparate parts of a collective reliquary, fixed and immutable.” (To see a macabre local inspiration for this metaphor, visit the Sao Roque collection of relics.)
Reading about Saramago’s childhood in lyrical, nostalgic but unsentimental prose was reminiscent of earlier memoirs of country childhoods: Laurie Lee, of Flora Thompson or Pagnol. In the city they were still poor but differently, and closer to the time of Alan Johnson in London. Like them, learning to read transformed his life: “Being able to identify a word I knew was like finding a signpost on the road telling me I was on the right path, heading in the right direction.” Like them, he describes the relish of special food or simple treats and details wildlife with perception I hope children are not losing now they spend so much time in virtual reality. The boy Saramago fought real street battles. “As shields we had saucepan lids that we found among the rubbish.” The man searches the city records for the true date of his infant brother’s death, and finds the child was almost airbrushed from history by bureaucratic mistakes; in contrast, his grandfather looms solid in his memory: “His small, sharp eyes shine sometimes as if something he had long been pondering had finally been understood. He is a man like many others on this earth, perhaps an Einstein crushed beneath a mountain of impossibilities,a philosopher, a great illiterate writer.”
It was good to read this book on a visit to Lisbon. It brought the streets alive.
Then I had a go at another Lisbon writer, who to my shame I’d never heard of before. He too has a museum in his name, the Casa Fernando Pessoa, which my photographs don’t show because we didn’t visit it. They show some other building that pays him homage, along with many statues, tile murals, and posters. Pessoa wrote in the voice of numerous heteronyms, narrators he used to express his thoughts at a distance from himself, “characters” as the introduction to my edition says, “Pessoa invented to spare himself the trouble of living real life.” The Book of Disquiet (Livro do Desassossego, 1930s) is a collection of thoughts, ideas, recollections, epigrams, memories and opinions voiced by the characters he invented. Editors and later translators put it into order for publication but nobody knows if that order is correct. The sections are not long, and you can dip in and out as you like. Said Pessoa himself: “It’s all fragments, fragments, fragments!” Pessoa worked on it all his life, getting further from finishing it with every page he wrote. At the beginning (if it is the beginning) it’s firmly located in the Rua dos Douradores, where we queued unsuccessfully at an over popular restaurant. Soares the heteronym works in an office there; he breaks for lunch, he walks home; he looks out of the window… So far so concrete, and much of the streetscape hasn’t changed since the 1930s when Pessoa described it. The beginning in particular (if it is the beginning) is full of lovely descriptions of Lisbon’s everyday life and scenery.
You get a flavour of the rest of the book from Text 12: “In these random impressions, and with no desire to be other than random, I indifferently narrate my factless autobiography, my lifeless history. these are my Confessions, and if in them I say nothing, it’s because I have nothing to say.”
That doesn’t sound promising, and yet Pessoa struck some chords for me. He can certainly express the futility and depression of being alive in a world without God or clear meaning, with a self protecting layer of sardonic humour: “And when I leaned out of my high window looking at the street I couldn’t see, I felt like one of those damp rags used for housecleaning that are taken to the window to dry but are forgotten, balled up, on the sill where they slowly leave a stain.”
Like Night Train to Lisbonwhich I wrote about before, this is book about identity – does the author/heteronym have one? If so, what does it mean and what happens when, inevitably, it changes in one of many potential ways?
“At the heart of my thought I wasn’t I. I’m dazed by a sarcastic terror of life…” “By thinking so much, I became echo and abyss, by delving within, I made myself into many.”
Pessoa (or his heteronym/s/narrator/s) was a modernist who made me think of Joyce and Proust. He tried in vain – and often consciously without too much effort – to make sense by writing of his dreams and fears and small joys, clung to his familiar apartment and mundane work, didn’t dare explore the rest of the world and yet felt trapped and often said he longed for death, seeing people as “like eels in a wooden tub, they slither under and over each other, without ever leaving the tub.”
“I’m the ruins of buildings that were never more than ruins, whose builder, halfway through, got tired of thinking about what he was building.” It’s not all miserable. He claims an absence of feelings: “What mysteries have taken place? None. There’s just the sound of the first tram, like a match to light up the soul’s darkness, and the loud steps of my first pedestrian.” That “my first pedestrian” shows Pessoa playing with Lisbon like a child with a train set, moving figures about, getting bored and abandoning it for dreams and cloudy ennui.
Pessoa asks: What is a human being – or more exactly, who is a human being? What s/he thinks themselves, or what others think of them? And what of change, in different lights, at different times, from one age to another, in different dates of health and solitary or befriended?
I got about halfway through. I may go back to it sometime. If I don’t, at least I know the author wouldn’t care, or says he wouldn’t care, one way or another. Maybe I’ve already read the end – who knows? But if you want a route map, you almost certainly CAN go on a Pessoa walk run by the Pessoa museum, and online there are umpteen collections of epigrammatic quotes from Pessoa. (What would this rambling, connected, discursive, bewildered man have made of the internet?) Also, the superb Night Train to Lisbon refers to The Book of Disquiet in many circular ways, and had I read them in reverse order I would have gleaned even more resonances from this book.
It was though, a relief to get back to Saramago.
The second Saramago book I read was The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989). Saramago is a conscious wordsmith and his hero here is a proofreader, called Raimundo (ah! Mundus in Night Train to Lisbon is also a meticulous reader). A conscientious man, he has only ever made one mistake when correcting proofs, and it’s deliberate but, being in a history book, it changes the whole course of reported history. Saramago, like Pessoa, is fascinated by accounts of history, by how different they would be if they’d been made by another person, in a different year, a different place or a different mood, with more or less, true or false information and propaganda. As he says: “Words cannot be transported lightly here and there, back and forth, so watch out, otherwise someone will come along and say: I don’t understand.”
The Siege of Lisbon soon segues into stories in layers that interact – the proofreader learning to write his own prose rather than correct that of others, the proofreader falling in love, the history of the siege itself and a parallel love affair between a soldier and a concubine; the history of warfare (getting very technical at times), the views of royalty, politicians, Muslim and Christian clerics, peasants and soldiers. It’s about words, writing (referencing Pessoa) and publishing, love, and mistakes, and loneliness and forgiveness and the development of humanity. It’s much more positive than Pessoa, partly because “Raimundo Silva has mastered the art of floating vague ideas, like clouds that stay apart, and he even knows how to blow away any idea that gets too close”.
And, of course, it’s about Lisbon, street by street, steps by stairs, castle by harbour. I wish I had read it in hard copy rather than Kindle as I needed to keep turning back in time – as does Saramago, as does the proofreader – and checking my facts and my impressions. Again, there are echoes of this book in Night Train to Lisbon; again, I’d read them in the wrong order. Friends just returned from Lisbon expressed surprise at how lost we’d got: my approach must have been wrong in so many ways and yet I’m pleased, because I inadvertently mirrored the style of several great writers and some intriguing, sympathetic, lonely literary characters.
Some long books, and a city with a long and convoluted history have lead to a long and winding post. Thank you for staying with me.
I always thought the title “City of Books” belonged to Paris or Dublin, but now I’ve visited Lisbon. In four days I only scanned the first page but I sense volumes more beneath. Let me set the scene:
This is a city where the first time tourist needs a 3D map. Maybe our sense of direction is poor, or our orienteering skills have faded with satnavs and Google maps. Whatever the reason, we were pretty useless for the first two days, until we realised the roads we saw on the map as a simple left turn or clear right angle were just as likely to be a flight of steps, an alleyway, even an outdoor lift or funicular, possibly right above our heads or below our feet as they slithered on the shiny cobbles. “I’m sure we’ve already walked along here,” we heard a plaintive English voice say, and chuckled knowingly until our target eluded us yet again and we ceased to see the joke.
Elevador da Bica
Elevador da Gloria
We climbed and we slipped, we clung by our fingernails to the back windowsills of trams with our belongings squeezed against our tummies to deter pickpockets, we gasped at stunning views, admired skilled graffiti and deplored senseless scrawls. We stepped over endless building sites and began to take Roman stones for granted. We encountered skilful fado buskers on anarchic exhibition sites.
We stood in queues for elevators where turning a simple corner would have brought us to the same spot, and we abandoned the laws of physics for we couldn’t understand how that could be.
Elevador do Santa Justa
Strange priests greeted us silently from behind closed grilles, next to ordinary homes selling cherry liqueur (ginjinha) for one euro a glass. A fierce and friendly lady gave us an impromptu but demanding Portuguese lesson for the full half hour of the tram out to see the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos at Belém (which means Bethlehem – it’s in Lisbon too) and when we arrived who was there but the archangel Gabriel himself/ herself/ theirself/ itself.
On the way back from meeting the archangel we failed to visit the main Art Gallery because although we succeeded in identifying the nameless bus stop from inside a bus with no route maps, the doors were broken and no passengers could disembark until the terminus.
I knew nothing of Portuguese literature so as always I turned to trusty TripFiction to help me, with their list of “Books set in Lisbon”. More confusion! The first two books to catch my eye had the same title: Night Train to Lisbon, and neither is by a Portuguese author. The one that intrigued me was by Swiss author Pascal Mercier.
Goodness, it’s a clever book. I thought it might be a bit pretentious, but translations, however well done, often have a slightly pompous tone, and European literary fiction always pins its intellectual colours to the mast more confidently than the diffident English. The book has many compensating qualities. The hero, Gregorius to the author, is a dry Swiss teacher, nicknamed Mundus by his pupils. He has an encyclopedic command of classical Greek, Latin and Hebrew, German mother tongue, and can quickly learn other languages. Suddenly throwing away the prudent habits of a lifetime when he’s entranced by the sibilant murmurings of a Portuguese lady he has possibly saved from jumping off a bridge, he sets off for Lisbon from Bern after coming across a strange book of musings and memories privately and posthumously published by a Portuguese doctor thirty years before. In a second hand bookshop. You know, as you do.
The attraction was that the unknown Portuguese woman’s vowels “came together in a melody that sounded much longer than it really was, and that he could have listened to all day long“. I’m a Spanish speaker, but I certainly preferred the sound of Portuguese. Gregorius/Mundus sets about learning it: “Before, it had possessed the magic of a jewel from a distant, inaccessible land, and now it was like one of a thousand gems in a palace whose door he had just pushed open.” He’s a natural linguist but even he has setbacks, days when the language won’t work for him and he can’t communicate. That, of course, has implications beyond the simple physical fact of hearing and forming the correct words.
In Lisbon Gregorius, “about to take his life into his own hands for the first time” (and always wondering what would have happened had he taken other paths earlier) sets about hunting down the surviving siblings of the author, Amadeu de Prado, and his friends, his colleagues, his patients… Amadeu was a popular doctor, “a dreamer and a poet…but at the the same time, someone who could resolutely direct a weapon or a scalpel.” But he made one mistake, which wasn’t a mistake. He followed the Hippocratic Oath and treated a hated servant of the dictator Salazar, thereby saving his life and enabling him to continue torturing hundreds of others. For this his local patients hounded and loathed him, so he tried to make up for it by working for the resistance.
When Amadeu reads, “the books seemed to disappear inside him, leaving empty husks on the shelf afterwards” and when he writes, his book is a series of philosophical ramblings, justifications, enquiries and self doubt. It resonates with Gregorius as he traipses or takes trains and trams about the city hunting down clues to Amadeu’s real state of mind. In the process Gregorius breaks his glasses, leading to much clear/blurred new/old vision related imagery, plays a lot of chess, stares at the outside of old houses and gently breaks into Amadeo’s old, now abandoned school to set up a temporary HQ.
Gregorius’ many train trips, like those of the man he seeks, enable comparisons between stations and the stages of life, views rushing past, unscheduled halts, fellow passengers and so on. He tracks down Amadeu’s contemporaries – and how lovely to read a book with so many elderly characters who are not defined simply by being old, but have individual traits, personalities and plot functions. On his journey Gregorius/Mundus learns to make friends, attempts to square the circle of Amadeu’s judge father who administered the law he hated under the dictatorship, and liberates Amadeu’s sisters from their memories – or does he?
For all Amadeu’s intellect, “there was only one thing he couldn’t do: celebrate, play, let himself go”. The key may be held by a woman he admired, perhaps loved, who is not intellectual but calm and reassuring: ‘ “Not everything can be important, and not always,” (Maria João) said. “That would be awful.” ‘ You’d have to read the book to find out whether Amadeu, and thus Gregorius, sort out the meaning of life to their satisfaction or achieve “the calm of someone who always seemed to know who he was and where he belonged“. But if you’re on a trip to Lisbon it will be a good companion, with each location carefully namechecked and described. Maybe the Tourist Office provides Night Train to Lisbon walks. (Just make sure you get on the right one!)
Gregorius finds the Portuguese people he meets warmly receptive to his needs and requirements. They go the extra mile to make him comfortable and guide him in their confusing, stimulating city. We found this too. Perhaps the Portuguese have a natural inclination (like their city) to ramblings and questions, to wondering why things and others are what they seem, and whether they can be trusted or, in another light, reveal themselves as something else entirely? What is a human being – or more exactly, who is a human being? What they think themselves to be, or what others think of them? And what of change, in different lights, at different times, from one age to another, in different states of health and solitary or befriended? What of age (Gregorius is fifty-seven): how does that enable or confuse self knowledge and how does our awareness of death affect us as we grow older? Gregorius dreads death but in Lisbon takes up smoking for the first time. It is not always the young or uneducated who act most foolishly.
Here’s a piece of good advice from Gregorius’ one close friend (a Greek optician) back home in Switzerland: ‘ “Talk to the doctors in your mother tongue. Fear and foreign languages don’t go well together.” ‘ He’s caught the Portuguese aphorisms bug: they turned up in restaurant menus, on walls and café toilets. And they seem to be something of a literary tradition.
Night Train to Lisbon – if you’re still on board, we’re approaching the final stop – is not all philosophy: it has a plot, dialogue and love interest too. It’s a book for book lovers, for linguists, teachers, doctors and patients, puzzle solvers and chess players, travellers, poets, those with a conscience, who have lost or retained religious faith or who have something to celebrate or regret. The fictitious book (Amadeu’s) that this fictitious hero (Gregorius/Mundus) is almost literally tracking down mirrors (and quotes) another, real book, O Livro do Desassossego (listen to those sibilants) by Fernando Pessoa (although Pessoa’s conceit was to claim other characters had written it, in typical multi layered Portuguese fashion). In English The Book of Disquiet, it’s a source of great pride to Lisboetas and Mercier quotes it in his prologue: “Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.”
I’ll write about The Book of Disquietnext week, as I’m still lost somewhere in the first 100 pages, and I hope to write about Saramago, Portuguese Nobel Literature Prize winner. There’s no need for a health warning: from what I’ve read so far the heavyweights are not too impenetrable – they check themselves from time to time with self deprecation and humour. I’d rather Pessoa than Henry James. But that’s for another journey.
Inexcusably, the only book I bought in Lisbon’s oldest bookshop (it’s a city of old fashioned bookshops, music shops, haberdashers and hat shops: use them while you can) was for my translator daughter who likes to teach herself new languages by reading Harry Potter. But back home it turned out she already had it and would have preferred a different volume, in German.
Meanwhile I wonder which city others would call the City of Books?
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’sTroilus 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 poemThe 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.
Henryson’s poems edited by Hugh McDiarmid
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.
Just one of Barthes’ impressive works – his theories are difficult but do repay close reading.
Eagleton has written much more since then, including hilarious criticism of the 2016 Conservative manifesto, but this is what we would have read at Sussex in the late 1970s
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 times. 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. Kelly 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 metals, 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
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 abolitionist 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 Emmaleast interesting of all the novels. Kelly lends 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 Persuasion. 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.
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.
Lying 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.
Anyway, 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.
One 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.
The 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.) As 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.)
The 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.
So 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 threeotherblogs. 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?
A few days ago I added my own novel to a new Facebook page, Books for Older Readers. It says it’s “for readers over 50 and writers who write books which appeal to this age group. Please join if you write, read, blog or recommend books for the over 50s.”
(Digression #1 – we oldies are allowed to ramble – coincidentally I had an email today from Jackdaws with a singing course for the over 50s. I went on an all ages course there once and it thoroughly rejuvenated my voice! Recommended.)
I’m broadly in agreement with the aims of Clare Baldry, the retired headteacher and author who set the page up. Of course it raises all sorts of questions, not least: what is “older”? I’m still in my 50s, and never took much trouble to keep very fit, but I’m disconcerted (and worse) to find several university peers already dead, and myself and others beset by serious eyesight problems, cancers, arthritis and so on. The recent death at 51 of comedian Sean Hughes banged another nail in our collective coffin. And yet…many of us have started new careers and hobbies and the if UK Old Age Pension isn’t now going to start for me until I’m 66 or 67, how can I be “old” before that? Baldry’s 50+ is a wide age group in a country where average life expectancy is now 79 for men and 83 for women. But my local community centre stubbornly continues to offer services for older people from age 55, and many sheltered housing complexes offer flats to anyone over the same age (a complex is what I’d have if I bought one now).
However, we probably do read different books, or at least in a different way. Everyone’s experienced returning to a book they adored as a young adult to find it either still wonderful, or a bit quaint, or boring, or completely discordant. Fashions in writing style and content change. It seems to me the books I read when younger were wordier, quieter, more thoughtful. Sentences were longer; interior monologues and third person narration and omniscient narrators and multiple points of view and extended scenes and assumptions of background knowledge and intense concentration on the reader’s part were taken for granted. The short sentences, staccato scenes and gasping plots of today’s girls on trains and the extreme violence of some contemporary crime novels are just too shallow and voyeuristic for me, while “cosy crime” is too silly. But a good well written thriller is always fun to read.
(Digression #2: Specific annoyances for a mid 50s woman standing up on a rush hour tube. i) Everyone sitting down is much younger than I am. ii) If they stand up for me it must be because they think I look really old. iii) None of them stands up for me.)
Of course, most over 50s once had access to good bookshops and/or libraries. We are more familiar with leisurely browsing through hardbacks and paperbacks, not the spurious “look inside” you get on Amazon or the tiny selection of middle and low brow bestsellers and celebrity publications in the local supermarket. We either still do, or once had, better concentration.
Digression #3. It would bore you, and me, if I researched any evidence for that last statement. (Or would it?)
As an ex teacher, I dislike sweeping generalisations about literacy levels (which are influenced by so many complexities it should be illegal to make them), but many of us were educated (or at least went to school) at a time when vocabulary and style were seen as just as important as phonics and genre, when we wrote “compositions” ourselves and when adverbs were not seen as a disease to be stamped out. My vintage is no doubt betrayed by the length of my sentences and my use of the passive voice. What we read influenced how we wrote as children; how we wrote as children influences how we write now. The editors to whom agents submit are in their late 20s and early 30s now: “whom” just makes them say “what?” and they chuck the (virtual) manuscript straight onto the (virtual) slush pile with a brief “Sorry, I just didn’t love it enough” to the agent,or worse, an out of office reply they’re on maternity leave..
After a while, however perceptive your browsing, you do find you’ve read the same thing rather too often. No more inner thoughts at dinner parties for me! I’m also done with the first and second world wars (with an exception for A God in Ruins), the Holocaust, the Dustbowl and Depression, most dystopias (I stopped at Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and John Wyndham), university novels, early mid life crises (“…at nearly 40, X worries her life is running away with her…”). The Child in Time by Ian McEwan did child abduction in exemplary fashion years ago and needs no revisit. I don’t think I want to read about the miseries of old age either. As a student I admired and was moved by Simone de Beauvoir’s “A Very Easy Death“. But as a student, I hadn’t yet experienced the death of my own parents, and my back didn’t hurt, I didn’t have to laugh off “senior moments” (how that grates!) and hadn’t started to dislike snow and wet leaves on the pavement.
Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves was brilliantly written but grimmer than grim, especially describing dementia that started in middle age. Unadulterated old age is tedious: I began to read Margaret Drabble as a teenager and followed her heroines through youth and middle age as we all matured, but she’s twenty years ahead of me. Last year’s The Dark Flood Rises has too much banal details of food spilling, not being able to run for buses, and too much reflected loss of confidence. Her writing, like our skins, is less fresh, less taut. It disappointed me. (I feel guilty, writing that. A book entirely full of old people: how dare they be so visible? They are not so in the street, in public, on the tube. How inconsiderate of them and their elderly author. And my own confidence takes a further tumble. If Drabble, with her stellar career, is past it, perhaps I should stop submitting to publishers much sooner.)
But my rules are made to be broken! The Oxfam shop supplied me with The Lie this morning. It’s about the First World War, but it has the quality mark of Helen Dunmore who sadly, has not lived to be old. I romped through Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, perhaps because the humour and the detective element leaven the awfulness of the heroine’s confusion. Doris Lessing’s readable, poignant, funny, informative memoir Alfred and Emily was published when she was 89, five years before she died. At nearly 100, Diana Athill published an elegant, witty memoir from her retirement home, Alive, Alive Oh!
Good or bad, we can’t only read about old, and much older age. Well written books whose characters and concerns span several generations work well for older readers too, and may be more cheerful, with their cyclical sense of renewal. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet novels, Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, Maggie O’Farrells This Must Be The Place are in the same tradition, and we love them because we have experience of all the age groups.
Whoops, another rule broken: as a child I devoured the Jalna books. Mazo de la Roche’s now forgotten series based on a family in the Southern States of the USA fascinated me, and I loved the hero Renny Whiteoak, even though he was already twice my age when I read the beginning of his story in my grandmother’s spare bedroom and and 60 years older when I finished it.
I just noticed most of the books I’ve praised here for older readers are by women. Coincidence or is it that I find them warmer? I’m straying on to dangerous ground here (or another blog post) and will redress the balance. If you haven’t read (or rather, viewed) the memoir by Raymond Briggs of his parents Ethel and Ernest, you have a treat in store.
Perhaps older readers just want high quality writing with beauty and style, originality, subjects that will interest and intrigue them, escape… The same as younger readers maybe. In some ways it’s easier to achieve because older readers do I think have a more established reading habit, and in some ways harder because, inevitably, they have less sense of wonder at the world. I’ll be curious to see what Books for Older Readers recommends and wish it many happy anniversaries to come.
Sometimes episodes in a book echo the reader’s life. It’s reassuring, and can be cathartic. Certainly any book whose style or content makes me react: “That’s me/my thoughts/my situation you’re describing!” during the first few pages is one I’d continue reading. It works whether the moment is essential to the plot or a sideline. This week I read “Transit” by Rachel Cusk, and the number of echoes were uncanny.
To some extent it’s because Cusk deals with universals. Like a fortune teller (and the book opens with one) she discusses the great preoccupations of life: getting together; separating; maternal guilt; moving house; memory. We can all relate to these, and she explores them with subtlety and depth, going inside her character’s heads and saying the unsayable. “There! She’s said it for me!” the reader thinks with relief, as her nameless narrator admits to not fully responding to her distressed child, to not listening to the students she’s teaching, to absolutely loathing her neighbours. (I’m assuming this is a narrator, not Cusk herself.)
Narrator makes so many observations, some are bound to be true for each reader. Even so, what a lot of coincidences, right from page 1 (where the fortune teller’s junk email expresses her situation for her): “I sometimes struggled to find meaning in my present circumstances and to feel hope for what was to come.” (P.2) Sneering at this resonating description as just a “computer algorithm” reveals Narrator’s own vulnerability. Quickly she distances herself, describing a divorced friend who admits he’s affected by such mailshots too, then moving from him to an estate agent describing his clients: “...the same people who had stormed and wept like frustrated children because a property was being denied them, would be found days later sitting calmly in his office, expressing gratitude for the fact that they hadn’t got it…For most people, he said, finding and procuring a home was an intensely active state; and activity entails a certain blindness, the blindness of fixation. Only when their will has been exhausted do the majority of people realise the decree of fate.” Thus at a remove of four or more people (self, friend, agent, clients) Narrator/Cusk expresses how we all feel.
My goodness, that’s only on page 3 and already Narrator’s pinpointed me. I’m currently deciding whether to move to “the country” to a just affordable detached house. In “the country” the houses are all different, unlike London where you know what you’re going to see as soon as you ring the bell. Everything in London is white painted and laminate floored, but elsewhere houses are different shapes and sizes, in quirky states of repair and the decor and contents rumble with the lives of their present owners. (I can’t afford the nicer ones and others have fatal flaws that back in the agent’s office I realise would soon have had my blood pressure on the boil.)
After recounting her hairdresser’s views on life (I too have an articulate, empathetic hairdresser, who I pay as much for his company as for what he does to my hair), Narrator runs into an old boyfriend. How civil they can now be! How objectively she can analyse the way they treated each other! They swap stories of children and homes, and he wishes her well in her move back to London. Yes, I’ve known that…
She’s moving too, but in the opposite direction. Like me three years ago, she has to find something in an expensive city and has limited resources (it’s all relative: I do realise millions of people are far worse off than I am). Like me, she ends up with a dreadful property, all dodgy wiring, rotting floorboards and creatures you’d rather not think about inside and out. It’s a first floor flat, similar to one I once had. Like me then, she has elderly council tenant neighbours below – but where mine there and in my present house were welcoming and insisted my building projects were no trouble, hers are resentful, filthy and offensive. There’s no doubt the work has to be done, but they resist it every step of the way.
Again, the same story as mine, though from the opposite viewpoint. My charming neighbour here died and next door was sold. Cusk is now holding up a mirror to me of how obstreperous neighbours can seem: it ain’t pleasant. To find Narrator describing her dissenting neighbour as a monster troll is disturbing, knowing my emotions run every bit as strong as those expressed in the foul mouthed tirades she receives from the basement. “It’s these single skin buildings,” the builder said, shaking his head. “Every sound goes right through them.” (P 51. On cue, drilling has started through my party wall and revolting though they sound, I do sympathise with the neighbours. Not only the building is thin-skinned. I find the monster troll in me is very close to the surface.)
As I did, Narrator builds a relationship with her builder, (not a “relationship”, you understand, an affinity), and also with his sub contractors. She’s interested in their back stories, their health and their emotional well being, and they in turn try to protect her from the worst of living in a building site, sometimes by acting off their own initiative in ways that surprise and unsettle her. She seeks out friends having similar experiences: “…(Amanda) couldn’t remember what it was like to live somewhere normal,…where you didn’t have to … thoroughly remove the dust and dirt from your person in order to leave the house, rather than the other way around…she had gone to meetings with grout in her hair and plaster under her fingernails…” (p.169).
I’ve only achieved the title of my proposed novel about building, used for this review pending a text to go with it. But Cusk’s done the lot, and unlike me is able to throw in chapters on the sort of literary festival that would never ask me to speak and on having the sort of creative writing student who would never choose me. Like me, Narrator is still building a new life after divorce and it seems to involve as much mess, as many wrong turns, as much expenditure and clumsiness and mood swings and anecdotes as mine. She recounts them dispassionately, hence the catharsis.
“Transit” is also a novel about new people she meets, new chances Narrator builds or encounters; it’s a novel of glimmering possibilities and foul interactions she must either put behind her or put up with. And it’s about self and other: how others have the same thoughts she does; how the light they shine is only slightly different. She shows how expressing experiences and opinions through them (he said that/ she said she/ I asked her what…) permits just enough distance, enough observational objectivity, for writer and reader to step over the boundaries of what it’s conventionally acceptable to explore and confess. The language is simple and clear, almost clinical: it needs to be, because the thoughts she explores develop in sometimes complex and shocking ways. Yet we should not be shocked, because we have thought them too.
I must now read the first novel in this trilogy, “Outline” from 2015, and also “Aftermath” (2009), which was criticised by some as revenge for the rawness of separation and for involving others beside herself. Other reviewers found it pure and cathartic.“Why can’t we just be normal? Why does everything have to be so weird?” asks the older son in a desperate phone to his mother, when he’s lost his keys to his dad’s house. “I said I was sorry but I had to go.” (p.133) Sometimes, you can’t provide an answer, although you can keep asking the questions, and you do just have to go. At least reading Cusk you know you are not alone.
I’d be interested to know if any readers have had the same experience of identifying with a book, fiction or not, and the effect it had on them.
If I don’t get a move on I’ll be the only blogger/author/reader in the western world not to have had their say about Jane Austen this 200th anniversary year. Everyone has their own take on Jane Austen, even if it’s only to say (ruefully in partner’s case, defiantly in son’s): “I’ve never read any Jane Austen”. But she’s part of the national psyche along with Shakespeare and Dickens. We all remember our first read of her or our first film adaptation or if not we have her high on our bucket list of guilt.
I first came across Jane Austen in the hardback set belonging to my parents, published by Hamish Hamilton in their “Novel Library” series in 1947. The pretty same-but-different covers fascinated me. I’m not going to claim to have been one of those precocious “reading the classics at three” children, but I did pick them up and pretend to read aloud from them in language I made up as I went along, long before I knew what they were about or who had written them. My mother thought this extraordinary but as a teacher I now know that to play act reading having seen adults do it is common and very healthy behaviour. Sadly, the copy of MansfieldPark is now lost, probably to one of my games, but the others remain.
There were BBC adaptations of Pride and Prejudice we’d have watched as a family, long before Colin Firth took his shirt off and inexplicably became such a heartthrob. (I thought his performance wooden; he didn’t move me until The King’s Speech.) It is a truth universally acknowledged (now I’ve thought of it) that “Bride and Readiness” reflects the plot but runs off the tongue less elegantly than the title of the most famous novel. Even those who have never dipped into it could probably place the first line, but they’ll have missed the humour: when the execrable Mr Collins seeks a bride and finds the eldest Bennet daughter “likely to be very soon engaged”, he “…had only to change from Jane to Elizabeth––and it was soon done––done while Mrs Bennet was stirring the fire.”
I’d certainly read P&P by the time I came to study the bleaker Persuasion for A level. This remains my favourite, along with Mansfield Park, because they both have more direct references to the wider economic and social realities of the time. Poverty is genteelly hinted at offstage in Pride and Prejudicebut in Mansfield Park it is shown, Austen not baulking at the despair of women unable to avoid multiple unwanted pregnancies. Mrs Price, having married unwisely, finds herself now with “an husband disabled for active service, but not the less equal to company and good liquor.” Her letter to Lady Bertram speaks “so much contrition and despondence, such a superfluity of children and such a want of almost every thing else…She was preparing for her ninth lying-in and…bewailing the circumstance.” One child, Fanny, is taken in by richer relations and experiences a more elegant lifestyle, but she knows she can’t depend on it continuing. When she visits her original home, the sunshine that would enhance a richer household only brings out “the tea board never throughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy…” as “her mother lamented over the ragged carpet.”
In Pride and Prejudice the soldiers prance about showing off their uniforms but in Persuasion, although the Napoleonic wars remain offstage, there is much more discussion of and respect for the Naval men’s experiences – and for their feelings too. Captain Harville: “If I could but make you comprehend what man suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children, and watches the boat that he has sent them off in, as long as it is in sight, and then turns away and says, ‘God knows whether we ever meet again!'”.
In all her novels, Austen watches from the corner of the room to snipe at snobbery even more effectively than Thackeray. As Mr Collins tells Elizabeth: “Lady Catherine will not think the worse of you for being simply dressed. She likes to have the distinction of rank preserved.” When the first line of Persuasion tells you Sir Walter Elliot’s favourite amusement is looking himself up in The Baronetage, you know she’s going to have fun with him – but this isn’t out of date. Jacob Rees-Mogg, and any MP with a duck house to restore on his moat, could have moved in the same circles. Fanny Price’s overcrowded family home, and her tired mother unable to afford the consumer goods she’d like are entirely recognisable to anyone restricted to a 1% pay rise for the past two parliaments.
(For an effective and quick description of how Austen describes the social questions of her time and ours, there’s an incisive little article in last week’s Guardian by the comedian Sarah Pascoe. It may even convert the men in my family…)
Northanger Abbey turned up when I was at university, on the Romanticism in European literature course. We studied mad Gothic novels, full of castles, ghosts and sinister old retainers; here was Austen’s lampoon of the same. The Saturday Guardian is fond of asking celebs who they’d invite to their dream dinner party: if I was celebrated enough to be asked, I’d have Austen and Stella Gibbons and relish the discussion between the satirists who created Northanger Abbey and Cold Comfort Farm. “And now I may dismiss my heroine to the sleepless couch which is the true heroine’s portion; to a pillow strewed with thorns and wet with tears. And lucky may she think herself if she get another good night’s rest in the course of the next three months.”
Sense and Sensibilityis highly readable, the satire on genre conventions more subtle than in Northanger Abbey, but still much alive: “…though [Elinor’s] complexion varied, she stood firm in incredulity, and felt in no danger of an hysterical fit or a swoon.” For me this novel has made the best film adaptations, perhaps due to the double act of the two sisters of equal importance to the story structure.
The only one I don’t really enjoy, despite dutiful re readings, is Emma. For me, she’s just too dislikable, and it isn’t compensated for by her growing wisdom during the story. True, she is Austen’s deepest study in snobbery, but the nutshells and vignettes, the de Burghs and Sir Walter Elliots do the job just as well while allowing space for a more interesting main story. In Emma I think Austen takes longer to say much less, and the whole premise has dated more than her other stories.
Last month we had an overnight stay in Bath. This UNESCO world heritage city features in NorthangerAbbey, with naive heroine Catherine Morland impressed and excited by the cosmopolitan glamour, and in Persuasion when the older Anne Elliot finds it sordid and exhausting. Bath tourist office will point you to the places where Austen lived and wrote and to the sites used in the novels and there’s a dedicated museum which is well meaning but verges on the vulgar. (How Austen would lampoon it, or fastidiously ignore it perhaps.) There’s a nice personal account of touring relevant parts of Bath by an Austen enthusiast here. It’s always a pleasure to visit Bath: fascinating glimpses of the backs of buildings as well as their yellow stone facades, all elegance and symmetry, bring social history and class divides to immediate life here, the realities for servants and tradesmen as visible as the fanlights and carriage sweeps of the rich. As in Austen’s time, Bath is crowded, fashionable, expensive and can be indigestible: you must escape to the wonderful surrounding countryside to get your breath back. For a fascinating fictionalised account of how similar architecture in nearby Bristol was built, see Helen Dunmore’s last novel, Birdcage Walk. Much of it is, I’m equally true of the beautiful terraces of Bath.
Anyway, that’s my Jane Austen. I’d like to hear about yours.