Posts Tagged ‘Virago’

The first book I read for this year’s #DDMreadingweek was I’ll Never Be Young Again, DDM’s second published novel. Daphne du Mauier fan though I am, I’m not above recognising that not everything she wrote was of the same standard. This early novel is certainly not a favourite, and I think inferior even to her first novel The Loving Spirit. There is still plenty to enjoy in this novel however, and the reader can easily spot that early promise that would be so brilliantly realised in novels like Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. 

The narrative is divided into two main sections, the first in which our narrator Dick develops a friendship with an older man, has some adventures and begins to learn something about himself and the world around him. The second section set mainly in Paris deals with the relationship Dick has with a young woman he meets there.

The world of this novel was a contemporary one to that which DDM was living in, her first novel had been set in the previous century. It is also the first of five novels which would have a male narrator – many of her short stories have male narrators too, something she was able to do very successfully. The writing is good of course, full of atmosphere, rich in description.

“The smell of coffee, white dust, tobacco and burnt bread, flowers with a fragrance of wine, and the crimson fruit, soft and overripe. A girl looking over her bare shoulder, with a flash of a smile, gold ear-rings showing from thick black hair brushed away from her face, long arms, a cigarette between her lips. Night like a great dark blanket, voices murmuring at a street corner, the air warm with tired flowers, and a hum from the sea.” 

 DDM knew the places she wrote about, having herself visited the Norwegian fjords, while Paris was somewhere she knew very well. The problem for many readers may be that Dick is not a sympathetic character – and I suspect he isn’t meant to be. I am happy to read about an unlikeable character – but something about Dick really got under my skin, and I seriously wanted to give him a shake. DDM was still only twenty-three when she wrote I’ll Never Be Young Again, and we can see something of her own challenges in the character of Dick, especially in his relationship with his father. 

As the novel opens and we first meet Dick, he is standing looking out across the London docks, miserable and in despair he is determined to throw himself in. Though only twenty-one he feels life has nothing for him. The son of a famous poet, he feels unloved by his father, who thinks he will never make anything of himself. He is saved at the last moment by a passing stranger, who speaks to him, offering friendship. The stranger is Jake, a man several years older than Dick who has recently been released from prison, thus both men are at a turning point in their lives. The two men form an immediate bond, and decide to set out together, signing on to a rickety old ship they work their passage to Norway.  

In company with Jake, Dick becomes accustomed to hard, physical monotonous work, adventure, travel and a host of experiences. He sees places he had never thought to go to, and as he learns more about Jake, he begins to learn something about the world. There are times though when we see Dick as rather selfish, thoughtless and naive – he has much to learn, something Jake understands but Dick himself doesn’t quite see. 

“Jake, I don’t want ever to be old. I want always to get up in the morning and feel there’s something grand lying just ahead of me, round the corner, over a hill. I want always to feel that if I stand still, only for a minute, I’m missing something a few yards away. I don’t want ever to find myself thinking: “What’s the use of going across that street?” That’s the end of everything, Jake, when looking for things doesn’t count any more. When you sit back happily in a chair, content with what you’ve got – that’s being old.’ ‘There’s no need to get that way. It’s your own thoughts that keep you young, Dick. And age hasn’t anything to do with it. It’s a question of your state of mind.”

He makes rather a fool of himself with an American woman, part of a group of young wealthy tourists they meet. Each place they go, each experience they have Dick embraces it eagerly with the enthusiasm of a spoilt child. His time with Jake doesn’t last and in time he finds himself alone in Paris. 

The old obsession comes upon him, to be a great writer – to show his father that he can write, can be just as successful. He finds a place to live, embracing the bohemian culture of Paris. Here he meets Hesta, a young music student. Poor Hesta really doesn’t deserve Dick, but their relationship lasts for around a year – and the reader senses there will be no happy ending for this pair. Dick throws himself into his writing, after persuading Hesta – against everything she believes in – to live with him – he is quick to take her for granted – to lose sight of what she might want from life, forgetting that she too once had ambitions. 

We see Dick return to England, and as we all must, face up to the reality of life and move forwards. All his errors and stupidities behind him, as if they never were. I wondered if perhaps DDM wasn’t making the point that men do that sometimes, sowing their wild oats, having adventures, behaving rather idiotically with no consequences for them afterwards.  I couldn’t quite forgive him though. Overall though a very interesting novel that I am glad to have read.  

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A shorter review today.

You may remember that when I was writing my review recently of The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge, I discovered I had made a terrible mistake in my A Century of Books. 1993 turned out to be my troublesome year – though after an initial panic I discovered I had had another 1993 title after all. Well this little volume ended up being my quick replacement 1993 read.

A Virago Keepsake is a book that someone on Twitter sent me (and I am ashamed to say I can’t remember who it was), it is a rather lovely little blast from the past. A volume that was obviously once given away free (with a newspaper or a magazine I assume) it was produced to celebrate Virago’s twentieth anniversary. With an introduction by Harriet Spicer it is not at all clear who compiled or edited this collection.

Twenty pieces by or about Virago writers – many of them reminiscences of the beginnings of Virago, and the start of careers.

Probably because of the date of this little volume, and the time these pieces were written – many of these pieces discuss the women’s movement of the 1970s – a key time for many of the women writing in this volume.

“That was in the mid-seventies, when Virago occupied a single room in a crumbling building on one of the grubbier streets in Soho. You walked up several flights of none-too-clean stairs to get to it, past an establishment which was – I think – a hairdresser’s, but which sticks in my mind as a massage parlour. Certainly there were a lot of men in raincoats hanging around. I prepared ripostes, in case of sudden stairway unbuttonings – ‘Listen pal, where I come from we put toothpicks through those and serve them on soda crackers’ – but I never had to use them. Maybe my own raincoat was daunting; or maybe the wind of Virago’s name had already gone round it.”
(Margaret Atwood – Dump Bins and Shelf Strips

It was a time when so many strong women’s voices began to be heard. I couldn’t help but reflect on the movements we have seen gather momentum more recently across social media platforms – it seems that while the slogans on the placards change – the fight goes on – but it began I think, with many of these women, and others like them – whose names are less well known.

“…in the last twenty years scores of those lost women writers of the past have come back from obscurity to be rediscovered in their green Virago dresses by a new generation.”
(Elaine Showalter – writing a literature of their own)

Virago did so much for women’s writing, bringing back those voices that had fallen silent as fashions changed – and at the same time gave us new ones.

The first few pieces in this volume – were a treat, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, Nina Bawden, A S Byatt on Willa Cather, got this volume off to a blisteringly good start. To be honest other pieces were rather less memorable. Though I also thoroughly enjoyed reading Kathleen Dayus’s reminiscence on how she came to be published by Virago. Grace Nichols expresses herself best through verse – and the extracts she inserts here are wonderful. Deborah Tannen; not a writer I knew before, discusses what she calls The Real Hilary Factor, the Hilary in question, Hilary Clinton, and her (at the time) much discussed impact on the American Presidential election. I would love to know Tannen’s thoughts now – two years after Hilary Clinton ran for president herself.

A collection of some really interesting essays, and very much of its time I think – which in itself is fascinating. Rather glad that I had to read this – it might have languished even longer had I not ferreted it out.

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