Posts Tagged ‘All Virago all august’

blueskies jack and jill

I came to these two short novels by Scottish born, Australian writer Helen Hodgman with no expectations at all. At first I found the voice a little unusual, but certainly intriguing and very readable. Blue Skies is a novella of post-natal depression and domestic stagnation which results in suicide and murder.

“The beach waited in its early-morning perfection just for me and the odd dog-exerciser. When the sun rose higher, the pale yellow sand became an almost desert blaze. The black rocks crouched like primitive worship stones, antipodean Stonehenges.
Later, when the noon blaze subsided, the local women came down. Those nearest could walk laden with bright beach-bags and babies, carting the many necessities for enjoying an hour in the open. Those from further up the road would drive, the wheels of their small economical second-cars spurting up dust sprays and rutting the sand at the edge. Most people gathered together towards the end of the beach. The hitherto mysterious rocks were then pressed into domestic service, their flat tops used as tables, their crevices as storage spaces for cold drinks and for keeping bits of clothing out of the sand.”

Finding Blue Skies to be very well written, with its atmosphere of unsettling claustrophobia, that unusual voice pulled me right in. In the first novel of the two we find ourselves in Tasmania – where a young wife and mother finds the empty afternoons hang heavily, the clock always reading three o’clock. She watches her new next door neighbour Olive mow the grass, with indifference, take the baby down to the beach where she listens to the chatter of the other young mums who gather by the sea.

“I stopped going to the beach.
I concentrated my efforts not on airing the baby but on abandoning it. By being polite and behaving well, I could buy myself bits of free time. The person I had mostly to be nice to was my husband’s mother. This was because she lived at a pram-pushable distance and loved looking after the baby. Not every day: that wouldn’t have been right. But she was good for two days a week.
Tuesdays and Thursdays. On these days I could take off and forget the street, the beach and three o’clock in the afternoon.”

Two days a week the narrator travels by bus to the local town, where she shakes off the mantle of married young mother, for clandestine meetings, lunch, drinking and posing for photographs she stumbles through her life with seeming unconcern. On Tuesdays she sees Jonathon, who she used to work for, on Thursdays it’s Ben the photographer – married to her best friend Gloria. Hodgman brilliantly recreates a sun drenched sensuality and domestic danger. There is a pervading sense of impending disaster, as this troubled young mother lives only for Tuesdays and Thursdays, encountering a predatory bus driver along the way.

beach - tasmaniaAt home, the young mother plays the part of dull James’s wife and Angelica’s mum to the best of her ability, but she views her little family as belonging more to her mother-in-law than to her. Next door Olive continues to cut the grass; the clock still says three o’clock.

Blue Skies runs to only about 105 pages, and so it’s quite possible for me to say too much, it is perhaps obvious that the young woman at the centre of this memorable novella is suffering from post-natal depression, although this term is never used. All I will say is that the ending is bizarrely shocking – and memorable.

Jack and Jill is just a few pages longer than Blue Skies, and its themes are as equally unsettling. Hodgman won the Somerset Maugham prize for this short novel in 1978.

“…the advantage would be all on her side. Jack had done her so much harm already. She could draw on the credit for a lifetime.”

It opens with a shocking scene; a small child left alone with her dying mother, is found several days later by her father, in a terrible state while her mother lies now dead in another room. The child is Jill, her father Douggie, after the death of his wife, the two live a hand to mouth sort of existence on their New South Wales outback property. The time scale of this novel is something like thirty years, taking us from the depression ridden era to the changing times of the 1960’s.

When Jill is still an adolescent Jack arrives looking for work, and Douggie takes him on. From here on in, begin all of Jill’s problems. It is the start of an uncomfortable relationship, certainly it’s no boy meets girl romance. Jill is attracted and repelled by Jack – horrified by her first violent sexual experience when she is too young, and Jack is selfish, predatory and obsessive – she naturally turns away from him. As Jack goes off to war he says –

“You’ll be sorry you treated me this way when I’m dead.’ He flung her aside and marched away, vowing to love her forever.
‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ he yelled back at her. ‘So there.’
Jill picked up her book and thoughtfully squashed a line of ants that had strayed between the pages.”

Jill finds herself influenced hugely by Miss Thomas, a teacher who sees a lot of potential in Jill, and so while Jack is off at the war, Jill is at university. Jack returns from the war, confined to a wheelchair – still crazy about Jill. Jill runs away to England, where she discovers Barnaby – the child hero of the series of successful children’s books she writes. She sails home, writing to Jack from aboard ship.

“She was writing to Jack, telling him how she was coming back to him after all because – east, west, home’s best, and better the devil you know. Keep it simple she thought.

She airmailed the letter in Bombay, which seemed a suitably overwrought and exotic place from which to seal her fate, and settled down to enjoy the trip.”

Back in Australia Jill enters into a sexless marriage – where she holds the balance of power, writing her Barnaby books while Jack lives in hope, carving wooden crucifixes. The Raelene arrives, a fan of Jill’s books she offers to help with some secretarial tasks – and stays – her presence threatening to change everything.

The ending of Jack and Jill is also a surprise – but for different reasons to Blue Skies – but it is every bit as memorable.

When I looked this book up on Goodreads – before starting to read it – I was nearly put off reading it by the lacklustre responses it seemed to have collected from other readers. I wonder why that is – because I think Helen Hodgman is a very good writer, she surprises her reader’s and that is something I appreciate. True, her characters are not very likeable – that never really bothers me, I actually often find that a reason for really liking a novel or story – unlikeable characters so often much more believable and certainly more interesting than likeable ones. I’ve done a bit of online searching, and found very little about Helen Hodgman, though it does appear she wrote a few other novels. They will quite definitely be worth checking out. Hogdman’s landscape is recognisably Australian, and that from someone who has never been there, and stopped watching neighbours in the 1990s – but I am a sucker for a strong sense of place. Perhaps some of you will know something more about Helen Hodgman and fill me in – but for me she appears to be a really very good writer who has been forgotten. Perhaps she is better known down under – I hope so.

helen hodgman

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Pamela Frankau is the author of one of my favourite ever Virago books – The Willow Cabin. I have been meaning to read more of her novels for ages, but only recently managed to acquire a couple. Pamela Frankau was a popular and prolific writer once upon a time, and I find it sad that she is read so much less now, her novels out of print (except for a few POD VMC editions two of which I snapped up the other week). I wasn’t sure which of the two to read first – so I went for the fattest.

The Winged Horse – like The Willow Cabin, takes place in both America and England, it is a brilliantly Compelling novel of power, truth and dishonesty.

It is 1949 and English newspaper tycoon J. G Baron is a tough no nonsense, charismatic businessman with interests on both sides of the Atlantic. His adult children appear to lead charmed lives at the family house in the English countryside. Favoured employees get invited for weekends, and J.G absolutely believes in the perfect world he has created there with his family. However, while his son Tobias is conscious of never quite measuring up, and his youngest daughter Liz is young, unsure and often afraid, it is only Celia his eldest daughter who recognises J.G for what he is. For J.G is something of a tyrant – his hypocrisy and self-deceit know no bounds. His power is not the bellowing, red faced bully-boy type – but of a quieter more insidious kind that casts a long, dark shadow.

“ ‘My daughter, the late Mrs. Valentine West,’ Baron said. Baron’s family jokes did not vary, they were the clichés of a lifetime; they could be distinguished sharply from his public words, his coarse or his agile phrases; they were stock, paterfamilias stuff, oddly out of date. She could remember his using this worn example when her mother was unpunctual.’ “

As the novel opens, Celia is in the process of separating from her American husband, and travelling by ship with J.G and his entourage back to England, with her young son. J.G has just enticed cartoonist Harry Levitt away from his employers, to work for him, and Harry is aboard ship too. Levitt is drawn to Celia, but Harry is a practised dissembler, and despite connecting briefly, Celia recognising him as such is more interested in going home, seeing her brother and sister again. Harry was stationed in England during the war, and carries a dream of a life there with him, his main reason for accepting J. G’s offer.

Back home at Carlington, Celia sets about settling herself and her son into the newly refurbished nursery wing. Levitt is drawn further into the circle which includes family friend and neighbour; Anthony Carey for who Liz harbours deep feelings. Tobias loves to fly, has been hanging around in France with a much older married actress – much to J.G’s disapproval, his happy go lucky attitude hides his sense of never making his father happy. It is Anthony Carey – sometimes called ‘thank God for Anthony’ or ‘that poor Carey’ by Celia, Liz and Tobias – who J.G favours.

“Downstairs in the green library, Tobias glanced at his watch; it was worn on the right wrist, face inwards, so that he could look at it unobserved. Many people, he reflected, wore their watches this way; there was no need to feel that it was a special anti-J.G device.”

When a tragedy rips through the family, Harry Levitt is on hand to help, and while J. G’s most audacious self-deceit conceals his pain – other members of the family struggle to cope. Traumatised, Celia decides to take a house in London, and her father goes on a trip. Harry Levitt continues to draw cartoons for J.G’s newspapers, spending more and more time at Carlington, seeing Celia in London rarely, he begins to get closer to Liz.

When Harry is sent back to America by J.G for ‘a couple of months’, he understands that it is the beginning of the end for his association with the Baron organisation. He leaves a much sadder man than he arrived. What he unwittingly leaves behind will inspire a betrayal and lead to the slow destruction of a once happy man. Around the same time Celia gets word that her estranged husband has helped himself to some of her money, and travels back to New York to sort it out. Finally, here, Celia and Harry come together again, Celia makes Harry a better man, but J.G does not approve. Stuck in the States trying to sort out the financial mess her estranged husband has caused her, it is not long before J.G turns up like the bad penny he is, and offers to sort everything, as long as she ditches Harry. Celia is not that kind of girl – and so she and Harry resign themselves to having no money (luckily she does still have a small house on Martha’s Vineyard – like you do).

“Celia carried the toy aeroplane out on to the rough lawn and pointed it into the wind. It was a fragile hollow thing of aluminium, attached to a rod and a reel; now the wings revolved frantically, with a spinning, humming noise; they turned into two blurred lines and she could let it fly. The wind took it; she reeled out the line and let it go.”

The title of the book comes from a song, a song the siblings sang as children and particularly associate with Tobias. It is a song to be bellowed, a song of happiness and that feeling of running down a hill with the wind at your back. It is also the name of a piece of art work, which is inspired by a lie, one lie leading to another as they always do.

I’m conscious, that in trying to avoid spoilers, I’m perhaps not making The Winged Horse sound as good as it is, but it really is excellent. Frankau is superb at building relationships between her characters, her characters are not all perfect, they are real people, living within a recognisable world, even if it is one of sixty pus years ago. There is compassion and understanding in her writing, and even J.G Baron is dealt with, with some sympathy.

So this is the second novel by Pamela Frankau that I have loved, I have a third; A Wreath for the Enemy waiting to read, but Frankau was the author of something like thirty novels. I came across one in a second hand bookshop recently – the third in a series, it was a first edition priced at £25 – I had to sadly walk away.

pamela frankau


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the world my wilderness

I have been juggling various reading challenges this month, completing my #20booksofsummer, and reading things for both All Virago/All August and #WITmonth.

I have had The World my Wilderness on my shelves for years, part of my #20booksofsummer list – which I completed last week, it also fitted beautifully into All Virago/All August.

Rose Macaulay was a hugely prolific and popular writer – and The World my Wilderness was the novel she published in 1950 following a decade of silence. Of Macaulay, Penelope Fitzgerald in her introduction to my VMC edition, says:

“Rose Macaulay was born in 1881, and died in 1958. As a young woman she went bathing with Rupert Brooke, and she lived long enough to protest, as a well-known author and critic, against the invasion of Korea.”
(Penelope Fitzgerald, 1982)

That was enough to make me want to know Rose Macaulay a lot better. The World my Wilderness was my first ever novel by her – one which at the time apparently surprised her fans, more used to social satires.

The World my Wilderness is a wonderful novel, set in the fragile post-war world still reeling from the difficulties and betrayals of the war years, it is a novel which explores beautifully, the damage parents do to their children.
It is 1946 and Barbary Deniston has been living in France with her beautiful, indolent mother Helen throughout the war years. Their home at the Villa Fraises in Collioure, an area occupied by the Germans during the war is a place of relaxed freedom and sunshine. Helen, divorced from Barbary’s father, married a wealthy Frenchman widely seen as a Nazi collaborator.

“Barbary slipped from the room, as quiet as a despondent breath. She and Raoul had acquired movements almost noiseless, the sinking step, the affected, furtive glide, the quick wary glancing right and left, of jungle creatures.”

Barbary and her stepbrother Raoul, have run wild together, associating with the defiant and dangerous local Maquis (Resistance) who defied the Germans and betrayed the collaborators. Here, Barbary learnt about danger, betrayal and death, and in the hands of the Gestapo; sexual assault. A free spirited artist, hedonistic Helen’s attention these days is largely taken up with Roland the young son she had with her second husband, Barbary is often ignored. With her husband recently drowned in highly suspicious circumstances, Helen decides to pack Barbary off to England to her father and stepmother, Barbary’s elder brother who had remained in London after his mother fled to France, arrives to collect his wild and untaught sister. Raoul travels with her, packed off to an uncle, Helen freed at last of two responsibilities.

Barbary is seventeen, though appears much younger – her childlike rebellion, and search for her place of safety making her vulnerable as if her development to adulthood has been arrested by her wartime experiences. There were moments when I found it hard to see Barbary as a seventeen-year-old – although teenagers of 1946 were not the teenagers we know today. A few times, Macaulay uses the word children for Barbary and her (albeit slightly younger) stepbrother – the word jarred a little for me – though why should it? – teenagers are more adult now than then, no doubt the reason for that word seeming inappropriate to a modern reader.

Scruffy, stubborn and untamed Barbary is not ready for the mixture of formal, English politeness and bomb damaged austerity that exists in post-war London. Barrister Sir Gulliver Deniston; Barbary’s father is stiff and starchy, his new wife the always correct, tweedy Pamela is very conventional, about as unlike Helen as it is possible to be. Both are shocked by Barbary’s unconventional wildness, the results of Helen’s rather neglectful parenting. There’s a feeling that Sir Gulliver has not entirely recovered from Helen’s desertion of him before the war, while Pamela resents any reference to the woman she feels unable to compete with.

“Suddenly the bells of St. Paul’s clashed out, drowning them in sweet, hoarse, rocking clamour. Barbary began to dance, her dark hair flapping in the breeze as she spun about. Raoul joined her; they took hands, snapping the fingers of the other hand above their heads; it was a dance of Provence, and they sand a Collioure fisherman’s song in time to it.
The bells stopped. The children stood still, gazing down on a wilderness of little streets, caves and cellars, the foundations of a wrecked merchant city, grown over by green and golden fennel and ragwort, coltsfoot, purple loosestrife, rosebay willow herb, bracken, bramble and tall nettles, among which rabbits burrowed and wild cats crept and hens laid eggs.”

Desperately unhappy; Barbary looks for somewhere she can feel safe, that makes sense to a girl who ran with the Maquis, instructed by them in sabotage and thievery. Craving the world that she has left behind, Barbary finds a wilderness in the wastelands created by the bombs which rained down upon the streets around St. Paul’s. Here Barbary finds similarities to the life she led in France, meeting an odd collection of characters, hiding from policeman, stealing from shops. Invited to a shooting party in the Scottish Highlands, Sir Gulliver and Pamela whisk Barbary off before she has barely got used to being away from France. Barbary raises a few eyebrows with her unconventional behaviour, finally, running off back to London, and the ruined buildings where each day she escapes the claustrophobic atmosphere of her father’s house. Still running around with Raoul, the pair take over the ruins of an abandoned flat, while Barbary paints in the ruins of a church. Their new friends; deserters and thieves, people looking for a place to hide. Getting into rather more trouble than she bargained for, Barbary ensures that her father and stepmother will have to entertain her mother, who finally rushes to be with the daughter she had so brutally thrust from her.

In The World my Wilderness we have guilt and redemption. The hurts created by the ravages of war in people and their places are explored with great compassion and understanding. Macaulay knows what it is to be young, and also what it is to be lost.


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Challenge was my suggestion to my very small book group, and as I have enjoyed others of Vita Sackville West’s books I was looking forward to it. We meet to discuss it next week – and I’m now feeling rather nervous of their take on it. The main problem with Challenge – is that apart from one of two rare moments of interest, it is unremittingly dull. Vita Sackville West is definitely at her best writing about the English society she was a part of. While Challenge does have an autobiographical element – in the relationship between the two central characters – I just felt there was less of Vita in the novel than I had expected. Vita did however write herself into this novel in the character of Julian – while Violet Trefusis; the woman with whom she had a relationship, and eloped to France with, is reproduced in the character of Eve. The descriptions of Eve in the novel – sounds very Violet Trefusis like.

Challenge – the title apparently coming from the challenge it is to dare to love – is set on a fictional Greek Island, Herakleion. Herakleion is inhabited by an odd mixture of people, governed by a mix of indigenous people, and a cosmopolitan group of diplomats. One of the main families on Herakleion are the Davenants, Julian the son of one brother, Eve the daughter of the other.

The novel begins with a party or reception held by another key figure on the island – although not a key figure in the novel – Madame Lafarge. This enables the reader – if they can – to obtain some understanding of the society in which we find ourselves. Among the other notable figures are the wealthy Christopoulos’ the Danish Excellency and the singer Kato – the mistress of the Premier. Julian – only nineteen when the novel opens, is just returned from England – moves through this society with all the arrogance of youth. His childhood having been spent on the island, his education has been an English one.

Relations between Herakleion and the islands which lie within sight of its shore – have been poor for many years. Tensions between the two sides continually percolate beneath the surface, and an idealistic Julian is ripe for a crusade. When Julian incurs his father’s wrath by sticking his nose into local affairs he is smartly packed off again.

Two years later Julian arrives back on Herakleion, and while his sympathies still lie with the islanders – he can’t help but get drawn into the emotional life of his cousin Eve too. Eve announces she is engaged to a Russian prince – the next moment it’s all off. Julian and Eve begin to grow closer, and Eve shocks Julian with a declaration of love, which Julian – having grown up with Eve – feels very odd about. The relationship between these two develop slowly – set against a backdrop of confusing political history, and conducted in excruciatingly long conversations, fuelled by jealousy and idealism.
When tensions flare again between Herakleion (honestly it’s all a bit inexplicable and tedious) Julian throws his lot in with the rebels and heads off the island of Aphros, where is greeted as a conquering hero. Eve goes with him, and once on Aphros their passions ignite. Eve presented as a woman who only exists to love others, does not share Julian’s convictions, but is happy to pretend – for the moment at least.

“How you play with me, Julian,’ she said idly.
‘you’re such a delicious toy’
‘only a toy?’
He remembered the intricate, untranslatable thoughts he had been thinking about her five minutes earlier and began to laugh to himself.
‘A great deal more than a toy. Once I thought of you only as a child, a helpless, irritating, adorable child, always looking for trouble, and turning to me for help when trouble came.’
‘And then?’
‘Then you made me think of you as a woman,’ he replied gravely.
‘You seemed to hesitate a good deal before deciding to think of me as that.’
‘Yes, I tried to judge our position by ordinary codes; you must have thought me ridiculous.’”

Stella Duffy in her brief introduction to this edition, says that in this novel Vita wrote a kind of classic Greek drama, certainly there are no happy endings – we sense that from early on. For me however, the drama, what there is of it,  only takes place in the final third of the novel. In his forward to the novel – which appeared in the first published edition in 1974 and is reproduced here, Nigel Nicolson (VSW’s son) describes it as:

“… a love story, written in the presence of the beloved, inspired by her, corrected by her (for Vita each evening would read to Violet the pages she had written during the day), and embellished by her with words and whole sentences written into the manuscript.”
(Nigel Nicolson – 1974)

So Vita decided not to publish this novel in 1920 – as originally intended – concerned about a possible scandal, despite being apparently pleased with the book. It was published fifty years later, her son believing that is what she would have wanted.

I was very disappointed in this novel – I do feel there may be merits I have missed. I would urge anyone to read All Passion Spent, Family History and The Edwardians by VSW and her excellent poignant novella The Heir is truly wonderful – but this may be a novel for Sackville West completists.

vitasackville west

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Christa T

I have found The Quest for Christa T a difficult book to review, it’s a delicately nuanced, complex novel, and the writing is very beautiful. It is a multi-layered novel, at times it is really quite difficult, but the reader is rewarded for their concentration. Ultimately I was left with a tantalising jumble of images; village school rooms, German countryside, sick rooms and trains.

Christa Wolf was one of the best known novelists to emerge from East Germany. Born in 1929 Wolf went on to be awarded a host of international awards throughout her writing career, The Quest for Christa T. was her second published novel.

“Then she began to blow, or to shout, there’s no proper word for it. It was this I reminded her of, or wanted to, in my last letter, but she wasn’t reading any more letters, she was dying. She was always tall, and thin, until the last years, after she’d had the children. So there she was, walking along in front, stalking head-in-air along the curb, and suddenly she put a rolled up newspaper to her mouth and let go with her shout: HOOOHAAHOOO –something like that. She blew her trumpet and the off duty sergeants and corporals of the local defense corps stopped and stared and shook their heads at her. Well, she’s cuckoo, that’s for sure. Now you see what she can be like, one of the other girls said to me.”

Our unnamed narrator becomes somewhat fascinated and inexplicably drawn to Christa T. when they are both still school girls. In the street one day, toward the end of the Second World War, Christa T. puts a rolled up newspaper to her mouth, trumpet like – and yells through it – it is an action which seems to speak particularly of Christa T’s spirit, her independence and slight daring. For our narrator this moment – one she returns to again and again in retrospect – heralds the start of their friendship, and ultimately the “quest” to understand Christa. This friendship is interrupted when Christa’s family leave the area during an evacuation in 1945. It is seven years before our narrator sees Christa again in a university classroom.

Christa’s story is told in retrospect, the structure of this novel is non-linear, and the story of the seven missing years and those that follow weave in and out of each other. In a sense, Christa’s story is a simple enough one, toward the end of the war two young girls meet, are separated, meet again some years later, living in a part of Germany under soviet control. Christa attends university, works as a village school teacher, has men fall in love with her, eventually she marries has children, moves to a new home, and dies of Leukaemia when only in her thirties. Yet there is something quite different in the telling of this story, part of which is told by our narrator through the scraps of words left behind, the notes, stories and letters, left behind by Christa, and examined and quoted by her friend as she tries to understand Christa now that she is gone.

“The quest for her: in the thought of her. And of the attempt to be oneself. She speaks of this in her diaries, which we have, on the loose manuscript pages that have been found, and between the lines of those letters of her that are known to me. I must forget my memory of Christa T. – that is what these documents have taught me. Memory puts a deceptive colour on things”

Yet Christa T. remains really rather elusive, throughout this brilliant novel, she is something of a shadow, someone who is both fascinating while remaining difficult to get a handle on. As our narrator moves back and forth telling the story of herself and Christa in her own disjointed fashion, we catch glimpses of the people, places and events in a life cut tragically short. This is the story of a search for the truth of a person, but it also helps to remind us of the difficult, new world of East Germany that the author herself was living in. The Quest for Christa T. however isn’t an obviously political novel, although it is tempting to look for clues to the author’s own political leanings, a woman who watched by the Stasi for thirty years, actually opposed the reunification of Germany.

The narrative is often obscure – for example in the references to the times in which these women live – Christa and her husband visit a cousin on the “other side”. Initially both women appear happy with their way of life, while embracing the new order of their world; they seem to reject the values of the west. Yet the book also speaks of the dangers of totalitarianism – as Christa T. appears to be destroyed; her desire for the new home by the lake that she and her husband are building at odds with the Soviet ideal.

witmonthThis novel is about a friendship, but more than that it is about the truth, the search for truth, and memory and how memory can sometimes let us down. Sometimes we have to readjust our memories of people in what we learn of them later, memory can be false or inaccurate.

I have already said that the writing is beautiful, and it is, and hats off to the translator of this novel – whose poetic, elusive prose suits perfectly the unique narrative. There were moments when the elusive, obscurity of the novel frustrated me a little (I am sure this is a novel which is improved upon with subsequent reading) – but I think the reader has to just go with it, allow the language and the images to envelop you without trying too hard to work out what exactly is going on.

christa Wolf

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the love child - bello

Edith Olivier’s first slight little novel; The Love Child is a wonderful, quirky little fantasy. Part dark hearted fairy-tale, it is a story of an obsession born of loneliness.

Agatha Bodenham has lived a quiet, largely solitary life with her mother. When she is thirty-two her mother dies, and Agatha finds herself alone but for the servants. She remembers the friend and great joy of her childhood – Clarissa. Clarissa her imaginary friend with whom she played and had adventures, but who Agatha had to rid herself of at fourteen when her governess mocked her. Now, with loneliness swamping her, Agatha finds she can summon up the image of Clarissa – just as she was all those years ago.

“She was smaller even than Agatha had imagined her, and she looked young for her age, which must have been ten or eleven. Her hair was brushed off her face and tied back with a brown ribbon, a little darker than the hair, which was dappled like the skin of a fawn. Her face was tiny, very pale, and her eyes were dappled brown like her hair. She wore a short white dress of embroidered cambric, and on her feet were the little red shoes which Agatha knew she had always worn.”

At first Clarissa comes just by night, she remains an insubstantial spirit like wraith – and Agatha is able to play with the child of her imagination as she did in childhood. Clarissa brings Agatha great joy and companionship; she is a secret which Agatha hugs to herself. Yet Clarissa begins to develop more substance, and soon Agatha becomes aware, that sometimes, other people can see her.

Agatha takes Clarissa to Brighton – here among people who don’t know her, Agatha can spend several happy weeks with Clarissa. Homesickness calls Agatha home, and she must come up with a way of explaining the presence of Clarissa. In some panic Agatha rashly describes Clarissa as her own love child.

“ ‘A love-child.’ The phrase had surged up from her inner consciousness, and she spoke it without realising what it implied. It did just express what Clarissa truly was to her – the creation of the love of all her being. It was truth, and in face of truth she knew that no one could take the child away, She had saved her.
But at what a cost! Her position, her name, her character – she had given them all, but Clarissa was hers, with a right which no law could override.”

the love child vmcClarissa doesn’t remain a little girl, soon she is seventeen, and still awkward around other people she finds she is happiest staying close to Agatha. However Kitty the rector’s daughter who is the same age as Clarissa and who Agatha and Clarissa have been obliged to entertain over the years, introduces Clarissa to David. David, Clarissa and Agatha go driving and attend picnics, Agatha must always attend, and David becomes increasingly irritated. Agatha is watchful, jealous and terrified that David may take Clarissa from her. David is a dull young man, Clarissa’s irrepressible spirit draws David like a moth to a candle but Agatha is determined to keep Clarissa for herself. Both wish only to possess Clarissa for themselves. There was a moment which reminded me of Rapunzel as David stands below Agatha’s window calling to Clarissa. Agatha spirals off into obsessive, desperation; Clarissa is all that stands between her and the loneliness she fears.

This novella is an absolute joy, one I had meant to read for ages – there are a lot of books on my shelves like that though. I glanced through the frustratingly short Wikipedia entry for Edith Olivier, and see that until he died in 1919; Edith was fairly dominated by her father. In 1927 (the year this novella was first published) Edith’s younger sister died, and so I suppose it is possible to see elements of Edith in the character of Agatha – at least as she is when the story begins.

Bello books are doing a great job bringing books like The Love Child to a new generation of readers, and I am very happy with my little Bello edition – but of course original green Virago collector that I am – I will keep my eyes peeled for an original VMC edition to add to it.

edith olivier

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the lying days

Some books live unread on our shelves for an inexplicably long time, so that when eventually we pick them up, we wonder what on earth took us so long. That is certainly the case with The Lying Days, both this novel and Nadine Gordimer’s Booker winning The Conservationist have been residing on my to be read shelves for several years. I am very glad though that I started with this one, because it was, as I soon discovered, Gordimer’s first novel. As a first novel it is extraordinary – there is a slow, dreamlike quality to much of the narrative, sections where little happens, and in that perhaps we see the inexperience of a first time novelist. There is however, still so much to admire in this, South African novel of a young woman’s political and emotional emergence into a complex, divided society.

“Statutes and laws and pronouncements may pass over the heads of the people whom they concern, but shame does not need the medium of literacy. Humiliation goes dumbly home – a dog, a child too small to speak can sense it – and it sank right down through all the arid layers of African life in the city and entered the blood even of those who could not understand why they felt and acted as they did, or even knew that they felt or acted.”

Our narrator is Helen Shaw who grows up in the white community that surrounds the Atherton gold mine where her father is secretary. Here within a fairly privileged, sheltered white world – Helen is an only child, cossetted by a mother’s who has never sought to question anything around her. The family have a large, comfortable house, a black servant, Anna looks after the domestic tasks, but she lives outside the house in a small dwelling behind the main house. The family and the other white people associated with the mine, socialise only with one another. Meanwhile the black mine workers have little impact upon the lives of these white people whose very world is designed to come into contact with them as little as possible. For the first seventeen years of her life, this is the only world that Helen knows. Then, Helen is allowed to go and spend the summer with Mrs Koch a family friend on the coast. Here Helen meets Ludi, a soldier on leave, Mrs Koch’s son, is a lot older than Helen, sensual and a little unconventional, he begins to show Helen that there is another world than the one she grew up in.

Back at the mine Helen has to decide whether she will go to the University in Johannesburg. Delaying for a while in the turmoil she brings back with her from the coast, she eventually decides to go, surprising her parents and herself with her sudden decision. At first Helen travels back and forth by train, and it is on the train that she meets Joel Aaron, a young Jewish man around her own age. In her friendship with Joel, Helen begins to see the world as it really is, in her mother’s reaction to her friendship with a Jewish person, the scales begin to fall from her eyes. Other people Helen comes into contact with in Johannesburg further help to shape her new emerging view of the world, Mary, one of just a few black students at the University, comes from a very different world, her living conditions making it increasingly difficult to study.

“We followed Mary’s directions past decent little houses, each as big as a tool shed with a tin chimney throbbing out the life of the house in smoke. In many of them the door was open and a sideboard or a real dining-table in varnished wood showed. Outside their bare walls were ballasted with lean-tos made of beaten-out paraffin tins, home-made verandas like the shoemakers and porches made of boxwood, chicken wire and runner beans. Each had two or three yards of ground in front, fenced with a variety of ingenuity, and inside mealies hung their silk tassels from the pattern of straight stalk and bent leaf. Some grew flowers instead; as it was winter, rings and oblongs of white stones marked out like graves the place where they would come up again. And some grew only children, crawling and huddling in the dust with only eyes looking out of dust.”

township SAConcerned for Mary, Helen suggests that Mary should come to the mine, and be allowed to study in a room on their property, a plan greeted by horror by her parents. Helen decides to move more permanently to the city. Sharing a flat with a young married couple, Helen begins to move within a circle of bohemian dissension. Surrounded by these people Helen begins to grow, her politics and conscience formed by what she sees and hears around her. Here Helen meets Paul, a man actively working for change, and despite her parents’ outrage, sets up home with him. Gordimer explores their relationship with skill, from the first heady days of love, and daily domesticity, to the days when rising tensions begin to impact on their idyll.

Much of the novel – the days of Helen’s rising political awareness – is set to a back drop of the 1949 elections which saw Dr Malan’s Nationalist Party come to power.

“Nothing happened. Of course nothing happened. We wanted a quick shock, over and done with, but what we were going to get was something much slower, surer, and more terrible: an apparent sameness in the conduct of our lives, long periods when there was nothing more to hurt us than words in Parliament and talk of the Republic which we laughed at for years and, recurrently, a mounting number of weary battles – apartheid in public transport and buildings, the ban on mixed marriages, the Suppression of Communism bill, the language ordinance separating Afrikaans and English-speaking children in schools, the removal of coloured voters from the common electoral roll and the setting aside of the Supreme Court judgment that made this act illegal – passionate debated in the Parliament with the United Party and Labour Party forming the Opposition, inevitably lost to the Government before the first protest was spoken.”

Naturally now we can only read this novel in the full knowledge of what occurred in South Africa following this time. Nadine Gordimer chose to stay in South Africa where she continued to write and became very politically active herself. Several of her later novels came to be banned by the Apartheid government. A truly inspirational and fascinating woman – I urge you to read her Wikipedia entry if nothing else, among many awards throughout her career she won the Noble prize for literature in 1991. The awards are easy to understand – her writing is very simply brilliant, and I look forward to reading more.

Nadine Gordimer

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