The Taming of the Queen, Philippa Gregory


Home at last! I landed at Perth airport, home from Melbourne, last Tuesday week at 9.30 am and by noon was at work. I’ve driven, unloaded, driven, loaded for ten and half days straight till now I’m ‘out of hours’ and must take a two day break. We haven’t worked like this since the end of the mining boom a couple of years ago. Obviously I haven’t had time to write any new blog posts but I have done plenty of (audio) reading.

When I’m unloading and sometimes when I’m queuing to load I catch up on my news and blog reading and when that’s done I can read a real, physical book – at the moment Christina Stead’s The Salzburg Tales. Meanwhile, during all that driving, I’ve listened to, amongst others, Amerikanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), Pride and Prejudice, The Taming of the Queen, The Road (Cormack McCarthy), and The Drowning (Camilla Luckborg).

Amerikanah – currently the subject of the Mayor of New York’s citywide book group – was a disappointment, just another plain vanilla American novel, with none of the African rhythms of other Nigerian writers, Nnedi Okorafor say, or Ben Okri. The Road was also less than I expected, just ordinary, post-apocalyptic SF. I get the impression that when literary writers move into SF, and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is another example, they get far more credit than SF specialists who often do it much better, and here I’m thinking of the relative lack of mainstream appreciation for JM Ballard, PK Dick, Ursula La Guin and so on.

The Drowning, standard – which is to say, good – Swedish crime fiction, brought up a different problem, that is depictions of violence. I can only describe the detailed descriptions of two distinct acts of violence, one sexual and one not, perpetrated on one girl as pornographic. The denoument, involving a split personality, was also less than compelling, but that’s another story.

So we come to The Taming of the Queen. Marion Diamond, who blogs at Historians are Past Caring, joked on another post of mine on historical fiction (no, I don’t remember which one) about ‘feisty, feminist medieval princesses’, but this is in fact the thesis of this recent (2015) Philippa Gregory Tudor romance. Gregory is passionate about the feminist credentials of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, ‘Kateryn’ Parr (1512-1548).

I have listened to other books by Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl most recently, and have enjoyed them for the romance and for their veneer of historical fact. One critic has described Gregory’s books as the Mills & Boon of historical fiction. More or less by coincidence I’ve also listened to Hilary Mantel’s much more respected books of the same period, Wolf Hall and Bring Out the Bodies, so I’m getting to be a real expert.

Historical fiction is in the long tradition of well-known stories being re-told to illustrate current concerns, a tradition dating back no doubt to before Homer as it is a given in oral cultures that stories must be retold to survive. My own “opposition” to historical fiction is to retellings that end up obscuring important aspects of the past. So, medieval history is not important to me and I am happy for it to be used as a canvas for Gregory’s imaginings, just as I enjoy learning what I can of Wellington’s campaigns from Georgette Heyer’s The Infamous Army and The Spanish Bride.

Australian history is important and so I must interrogate why I value Voss and not The True History of the Kelly Gang, why I look down on The Secret River and, yes, A House is Built but not The Timeless Land or That Deadman Dance. Voss, I think, like the many adaptations of Shakespeare, celebrates the original story (in this case the disappearance of explorer Ludwig Leichardt) without replacing it; That Deadman Dance is important for supplying an Indigenous perspective to first contact, as is the much earlier The Timeless Land, though of course in that case Dark, the author, is white. Carey’s Kelly Gang rightfully asserts Kelly’s Irish rebel antecedents but I don’t understand why he gives Kelly a wife or how he imagines 1870s Victoria without Aborigines (and I hate novels written in dialect). The others are in a long line of historical fictions written with modern sensibilities and where the facts may be much better understood from accounts written at the time.

Philippa Gregory imputes to Parr a vital part in the survival of the Reformation in England, and indeed the two main threads of this novel are the feminist and intellectual underpinnings of Parr and her inner circle of Ladies in Waiting, and a virulent anti-Catholicism. I have no religious leanings at all, and if I don’t like the appellation ‘atheist’ it is only because there is no theos from which I am ‘a’, but I was a bit shocked by Gregory’s language. Don’t get me wrong, I agree totally that “men in fancy dress performing hocus pocus” is an apt description of Catholic priests, I just didn’t expect to come across it here.

The background to the novel is that the Reformation had taken hold in England following the teachings of Martin Luther and later, John Calvin. Henry, who had his own disputes with Rome, carved off the Church of England in 1529 with himself as head, though the teachings and practices of the church continued to vacillate between Protestantism and Catholicism (to this day). This is also the background to The Scarlet Letter which I reviewed recently.

Henry has already got through five wives in his attempts to come up with a male heir when in 1543 he marries Kateryn, a 31 year old widow who has up till then lived in the north. Henry, by then 52, is grossly overweight and ill. He has a wound to his leg which will not heal, which threatens to kill him through blood poisoning, which requires constant draining, and which of course both stinks and makes it difficult for him to walk unaided. The descriptions of this are all a bit gross! As are the descriptions of Henry’s attempt at intercourse. Gregory posits that a medieval lady would hold herself remote from the processes of sexual intercourse and describes Kateryn sitting stiffly in Henry’s lap as the poor man attempts to ‘get it up’ without assistance.

Although the practices of the Church of England were largely Catholic, reforms included an end to belief in Purgatory – and of payments to the Church to hasten the progress of the dead through Purgatory – services in English and the distribution of an English language Bible (possibly the Wycliffe version from a century or so earlier). Henry himself seems to have translated at least some prayers from Latin into English.

Gregory describes Parr as taking up the cause of Protestantism when she arrives at the court, of she and her ladies making new translations, particularly of the Psalms, from Latin into English and of suffering from the forces of reaction as she fails to give Henry the (second) male child he so desperately wants, and as Henry comes under the influence of pro-Catholic advisors. Parr corresponded with her stepson (later Edward VI) in Latin and  published three books of prayers and religious reflections in English. In an afterword Gregory writes:

No woman before Kateryn Parr had dared to write original material in English for publication and put her own name on the title page, as Parr did with her last book, The Lamentation of a Sinner.

Spoiler Alert. Despite temporary imprisonment in the Tower, Kateryn survived Henry to marry her lover, only to die a year later in childbirth.

Gregory is not the literary writer that Mantel is but this is still an enthralling story well told, and with more heft than her earlier work, those that I’ve read anyway.


Philippa Gregory, The Taming of the Queen, Simon & Schuster, London, 2015. Audiobook,, narrated by Bianca Amato



Cousin Phillis, Elizabeth Gaskell

Image result for images cousin phillis elizabeth gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) was the author of 15 novels, novellas, and story collections, the best known of which were probably North and South (1855) – which I think of rightly or wrongly as Jane Austen with steam engines (Gaskell did cite JA as an influence) – and The Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857). Her novel Ruth (1853), the story of an unmarried mother bringing up a son, I have mentioned a number of times, and I and/or Lisa (ANZLL) who is reading it now, will “shortly” produce a review.

Gaskell was brought up Unitarian, by her aunt in Cheshire following the death of her mother, and married a Unitarian minister. Dissenting religion and the plight of the poor, as well as strong women characters, are all important themes in her work.

I came across the novella Cousin Phillis (1864) recently, in a Madrid book stall (I can’t imagine I’ll ever be able to say that again) and coincidentally, read it in conjunction with Ada Cambridge’s The Three Miss Kings (1883) which I have with me on kindle. The two have similar themes – innocent and religious young women falling in love – and I plan to compare them in adjacent reviews.

For Cousin Phillis, Gaskell assumes the voice of a young man, Paul Manning, not very successfully IMO, and the story consists entirely of his observations of his (second) cousin Phillis falling in love, and of his own unfortunate interferences.

Manning is from Birmingham where his father is a tradesman and an inventor. His father’s industry and success enable him to raise Paul up one level in class, as apprentice to the relatively young Holdsworth, the experienced engineer/manager of a crew putting in a new railway line in the south of England. In one of his weekly letters home Paul mentions that he is working near a town that his mother recognises as the home of her cousin who is married to a farmer who at the weekends is an Independent clergyman. Paul, who has been diligent in his attendance at Chapel is not keen on having to waste his limited free time on another clergyman, but does as his mother bids and goes out to meet his new relations, the Holmans.

The beautiful and demure Phillis, a couple of years younger than Paul, is their only child. Paul finds that he is both welcome, and enjoys being on the farm, and slowly he and Phillis become friends. Holdsworth is introduced to the farm when he becomes ill and needs somewhere to recuperate.

Long rows of peas stretched at right angles from the main walk, and I saw Phillis stooping down among them, before she saw us. As soon as she heard our cranching steps on the gravel, she stood up, and shading her eyes from the sun, recognized us. She was quite still for a moment, and then came slowly towards us, flushing a little from evident shyness. I had never seen Phillis shy before.

Spoiler alert. Phillis, an innocent, reacts to Holdsworth’s attentions by falling in love, but before anything can happen, or even be said between them, he is offered, accepts, and leaves immediately to take up employment in Canada, telling Paul that he will be back in two years to offer for Phillis. Phillis falls into a decline, Paul revives her by telling her what Holdsworth has said, but before the two years are up a letter arrives from Holdsworth telling of his marriage to a Canadian girl, Phillis collapses and Paul must admit to her father the part he has played.

Phillis collapses with brain fever and is unconscious or in a delirium for weeks – is that even a thing now, or were brain fevers, and for that matter hysteria, purely C19th illnesses.

Religion is present throughout this story without being intrusive, so that Phillis is just as moral as any other middle class young woman of her time. Though, while it looks like Phillis will die, Holman’s fellow dissenting preachers, ride out to argue with him to resume his ministry: “First, God has given you the opportunity of showing forth an example of resignation”; and “Secondly, we would have you listen to the voice of the rod, and ask yourself for what sins this trial has been laid upon you”. Holman, no doubt reflecting Gaskell’s own views about these strict interpretations of the situation, refuses both to give up his bedside vigil, and to accept that his daughter’s illness might be punishment for his pursuing his parallel vocation as a farmer.

In Ada Cambridge’s The Three Miss Kings, as we will see, Cambridge, who was married to a Church of England minister, has similar concerns about the strict application of Church dogma, while insisting as does Gaskell, that young women should act both morally and circumspectly.


Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis, first pub. 1864, this ed. Penguin, 1995

Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell

Image result for images homage to catalonia orwell

They [Catalans] had attempted to produce within the militias a sort of temporary working model of the classless society. Of course there was no perfect equality, but there was a nearer approach to it than I had ever seen or than I would have thought conceivable in time of war.

Homage to Catalonia (1938) is what it says, George Orwell’s homage to the people of Catalonia who attempted an anarchist/socialist revolution in response to the army’s attack on their fledgling democracy, and more broadly in response to centuries of harsh rule by feudal landowners supported by the Catholic church and the monarchy. A revolution that was brought down not by the civil war but by the backsliding of right-wing socialists in the Republican government and by the treachery of the Communists.

In this it resembles (or presages) another account of anarchist ‘revolution’ undone by Communists, Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative (1968) about the Paris uprisings of that year and which I have owned almost since it was written. In fact, a great deal of Orwell’s book, particularly about the lies invented and propagated by the news media, serves to show plus ca change etc.

Homage to Catalonia has two parts – Orwell’s memoir of his time as a volunteer soldier, and an analysis of the failure of the Revolution – written in the immediate aftermath of his service, “five months ago” as he says, and before the end of the Spanish war (1936-1939). The book contains a third part, Looking Back on the Spanish War, written in 1943. But that deals in particular with the partisan, dishonest role played by the press and deserves a separate review.

George Orwell (1903-1950) is well enough known and I will not say much about him, except this: he is often claimed by the Right, especially for Animal Farm (1945) which is clearly an attack on Soviet communism. But let’s be clear. Orwell was of the Left, and like many of us still, was deeply upset by the descent of the Russian Revolution into bureaucracy and totalitarianism, a descent which he experienced personally in Spain. The POUM militia he enlisted in was broadly described as ‘Trotskyite’ – it wasn’t, but it was, and he was, committed to socialist revolution. And although Orwell was fighting firstly for the preservation of democratic government, he understood well, what we have mostly forgotten, that in the end ‘democracy’ is just another name for Capitalism.

When Orwell entered Spain from the south of France in late 1936 Barcelona was effectively anarchist. The churches had been sacked, all forms of deferential address had ceased, tipping was illegal, and so on:

It was a town in which the wealthy classes had ceased to exist… All this was queer and moving. There was much in it I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State …

There was a shocking shortage of supplies for the volunteer militias, partly because the Republican government was wary of its ‘allies’ the Anarchists becoming too well-armed, and later, Russian-supplied arms were directed to the Communists and the International Brigades (Orwell is clear that, despite claims to the contrary in the right-wing press, there was very little Soviet army presence in Spain, although there were large numbers of soldiers from Fascist Germany and Italy). Not every soldier was issued with a blanket – in winter! – and Orwell’s first gun was an 1896 Mauser, for which he had just 15 rounds of ammunition.

Many of the recruits were very young, as young as 12 in some cases, refugees from the poverty of the back streets of Barcelona, and it was not long before the government was reverting to conscription.

The rival forces in this region had established fronts several hundred metres apart, along the tops of hills to the north and west of Barcelona. There was very little artillery on either side, and the constant rifle fire was inaccurate and uncoordinated. Occasionally one side or the other would make a sortie, often to gather firewood or the potatoes growing in untended fields. The government was attempting to retake nearby Huesca, and the Anarchists were attempting to cut the road north to Jaca, so Orwell’s section, in which he rose to corporal and eventually lieutenant – though all ranks through to general were on the same pay and orders often had to be argued rather than enforced – would sometimes be involved in fighting to divert Fascist troops from defending those more important actions.

In the early stages the inefficiency of the POUM forces led Orwell to consider seriously transferring to the more efficient Communists in Madrid. But, while on his first leave in Barcelona, communist ministers within the government used government troops to regain control from the workers’ committees, and particularly the anarchist-controlled Telegraph Exchange (Wiki) . For a week Orwell was holed up defending POUM headquarters, although he and his opposite numbers in the building across the road maintained their own private ceasefire. Orwell analyses how it was always the workers who were asked by the government to forgo, in the name of winning the war of course, the freedoms they had seized in the beginning, and which Orwell begins to think they should have hung on to.

My favourite image of the war is from this deeply disillusioning period:

An Anarchist patrol car drove up , bristling with weapons. Beside the driver a beautiful dark-haired girl of about eighteen was nursing a sub-machine gun across her knees.

Orwell’s wife (he doesn’t mention her name) is in Barcelona, and at one time when an attack is imminent she establishes a first-aid post, but otherwise she is mostly out of sight.

Orwell’s biggest concern in this account is to counter the lies which, as he wrote, were still being propagated about this action being a workers’ insurrection. “An immense amount, enough to fill many books, has already been written on the subject, and I do not suppose I should exaggerate if I said nine-tenths of it is untruthful. Nearly all the newspaper accounts published at the time were manufactured by journalists at a distance, and were not only inaccurate in their facts but intentionally misleading.”

Orwell returns to the front, with a unit of mainly British volunteers, is wounded, shot through the neck. His description of the transport and hospitalisation of the wounded is horrifying. He finally gets back to Barcelona, with validly stamped discharge papers, to what he thinks will be a night at last in a hotel bed with his wife, only to find that POUM has been proscribed and he is now a wanted criminal. Shades of our own retrospective terrorism laws. The leader of POUM, Andreu Nin is in jail and has probably already been murdered. Orwell’s commanding officer, a Belgian wanted in his own country for the ‘crime’ of fighting for the Republicans in Spain, is arrested and by the time of writing had almost certainly been shot. Orwell and some other British stay in hiding and eventually make their way back to France.

I suppose I have failed to convey more than a little of what those months in Spain meant to me. I have recorded some of the outward events, but I cannot record the feeling they have left me with. It is all mixed up with the sights, smells and sounds that cannot be conveyed in writing: the smell of the trenches, the mountain dawns stretching away into inconceivable distances … the food queues and the red and black flags and the faces of the Spanish militiamen; above all the faces of militiamen – men whom I knew in the line and who are now scattered Lord knows where, some killed in battle, some maimed, some in prison …

A wonderful book, which to all you lefties out there I recommend unreservedly as an essential part of your education. A new though less competent Franco has seized the United States. The Revolution is coming!

Madrid (6)

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, first pub. 1938, this ed. Penguin, 1966

3 April 2017. Woke yesterday in Madrid and spent a few hours walking in the sun. Found the bookstalls near the Prado. Lots of marxist lit. including the book above, which seemed very a propos. Spent last night in Huesca. Walked all round the inner part of town. The countryside is flatter than I expected, though I guess those snow topped mountains to the north and east are the Pyrenees, which I plan to cross today by railcar and bus.

Sue at Whispering Gums, reviewed Orwell essays on book reviewing, Bookshop Memories, and Books v Cigarettes. Now I’d better go and read them!

Jane Austen: Independent Woman

Jane Austen (1775-1817) English novelist remembered for her six great novels Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey. Engraving.

In my dissertation (here) I wrote: “And it is in the choosing of husbands, rather than of careers, that the Independent Woman is initially manifested, most famously of course, in literature, in Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet.”

The last time I ‘studied’ Jane Austen (1775-1817) was in high school, and although I have read all her books and seen all the movies, most recently the Lady Susan story misleadingly titled Love & Friendship, I would not pretend to be able to add to the considerable scholarship which surrounds her. However, the recent post on Northanger Abbey (here) by devoted Austenite Sue at Whispering Gums, and the comments ensuing, has prompted me to discuss those ways in which Austen is (and isn’t) a precursor for the Independent Woman paradigm.

Firstly, Jane was herself independent. After a failed engagement, and likewise for her older sister Cassandra, she and Cassandra were apparently happy to remove themselves from the marriage market and to live in a household consisting of just themselves, their mother and while he was alive, their father. Unlike Miles Franklin, however, or many other early Australian women writers, this is not a solution which Austen advocates for others.

Austen heroines start out ‘independent’ but strangely seem to get less and less so as their author gets older. Austen began writing ‘seriously’ in her early teens, circulating stories within a small circle of family and friends. Her first complete work, Lady Susan is an epistolary novella written around 1794. The eponymous Lady Susan is “the most accomplished coquette in England”, shuffling lovers and potential husbands to maximise the benefits to herself. Lady Susan remained unpublished for eighty years, till 1871. One can imagine it was written to amuse and scandalize her family, and to hone her skills, rather than for public consumption.

Pride and Prejudice, which as First Impressions was the first of her novels to be offered to a publisher, in 1796, abounds with ‘independent women’. This and Elinor and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility), written about the same time, reflect directly on the author’s life – particularly Jane’s relationship with the presumably more serious Cassandra, and the financial insecurity of the women in the event of the death of Mr Austen.

Elizabeth, in P&P, steers herself by the moral compass, and calmness, of her older sister, Jane. Marianne, in S&S, may be a little rasher but she too is ‘brought to harbour’, so to speak, by Elinor’s steadiness. Then, in P&P we have Lady Catherine de Bourgh, not likeable! but certainly independent, and Lydia, though she is not so much independent as wilful, but all provide examples of how and how not to act. Interestingly, the men – except for Uncle Gardiner – are all weak. Mr Bennet provides no direction for his wife and daughters, Mr Collins is ridiculous, Bingley is easily led, Darcy is too proud, Wickham is a cad.

In S&S, in Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, Austen introduces men who are both upright and willing to provide direction to the weaker sex; and I think these men, the earnest young clergyman and the upright, withdrawn, slightly older man of property, appear, one or the other or both, in all her subsequent novels.

From this point on, in Austen’s writing, it is difficult to make a case for the ‘independent woman’. The next-written novel, Susan, not published till many years later as Northanger Abbey, is famously a spoof on ‘Gothic’ melodrama. In it, for the first time, the heroine, Catherine, is shown as needing and accepting direction from a man, Henry Tilney, a young clergyman, though mainly it must be said, on the hazards of depending too much on the tropes of gothic fiction.

Austen’s subsequent novels were Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. In Mansfield Park the one ‘independent’ woman, Mrs Norris is shown throughout in a bad light, acting only  in the interests, as she sees it, of Sir Thomas Bertram. Fanny, the heroine, young and insecure, is entirely dependent on the advice and support of her cousin Edmund Bertram (a clergyman in training).

Emma is certainly independent, but gets set down a number of times by Mr Knightley, for her thoughtlessness, and Austen’s sympathies seem to be with Mr Knightley rather than Emma. When Emma insults Miss Bates (implies she talks too much) at the picnic on Box Hill, Mr Knightley waits till they are on their own then tells Emma:

Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do; a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation? Emma, I had not thought it possible.

Catherine, Fanny and Emma all accept direction about their behaviour from men whom they subsequently choose to marry. Independence within marriage, let alone without it, would seem to be a way off.

Persuasion is not so good for my case, as Anne, the heroine, is older (than her fellows in the earlier novels) and less inclined to immature behaviour, harking back maybe to Elizabeth Bennet, though she (Anne) is not so, what is a good word?, forward maybe.

This is a brief summary of my case, and if nothing else, points up the need for closer reading, which I should one day undertake.


see also:
Claire Harman, Jane’s Fame, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009 (my review)
Whispering Gums’ JA posts here

On Tuesday when my next post is due, I will be in the air, and for the next month, until Anzac day, will be travelling. I will stick to two posts a week, Tuesday and Friday, if I can but no promises. Check out my facebook account from time to time (see the ‘f’ in the sidebar) for photos.

Cotters’ England, Christina Stead

ANZLitLovers Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20 2016


Cotters’ England (1966) is set in dreary 1950s post-war England, though Stead took so long to write and revise it that by the time it came out – into the England of the Beatles, Carnaby St and so-called ‘swinging London’ – it was slightly out of date. The Cotters are from (presumably fictional) grimy, industrial Bridgehead in the Tyneside in northern England, and this novel, as does Seven Poor Men of Sydney, reflects a desire that Stead expressed early on, to write “the lives of obscure men” (Williams, 1989, p.41). Interestingly, although it is often spoken of as a novel of the working class, the Cotters are in fact lower middle class, white collar workers with whom Stead was probably more comfortable.

By the 1950s Christina Stead had lived in Sydney, London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles and was back, in relatively impoverished circumstances, living in London. We know that her philosophy of writing was to write what you know, so why was she writing about the north of England ‘working class’ about which, without research, she knew nothing? My guess is a literary one. Her first book, Salzburg Tales, was an homage to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and her next few books, from her time in Paris in the 1930s, are said to reflect the influence of James Joyce. So is it possible that Cotters’ England was written with a nod in the direction of DH Lawrence? The north is his home territory and the writing reflects his close descriptions of everyday life and thought.

Stead’s research for this book began in 1948 when she met (and later lived with) Anne Dooley and Anne’s brother, Peter Kelly, Communists who had grown up in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. In 1949 Stead wrote to her sister Kate:

They [the English working class] are … another nation from ourselves. The language is the same … but their ways, past, future as they think it, and their helplessness, mild hopelessness, their dependence is quite alien and perhaps all this comes from their many, many years of underfeeding.” (1989, p.186)

The central characters of Cotters’ England are Nellie Cook (née Cotter) and her brother Tom. They are surrounded by a host of secondary characters – their sister Peggy, their parents and their mother’s brother in the family home; and in Nellie’s London home, Eliza Cook (introduced as Nellie’s sister-in-law, but later revealed as her husband’s first wife), and mobs of women passing through, Gwen, Caroline, Camilla, Johnny. Nellie is a socialist journalist, her husband George, of whom we see very little, is a trade unionist moving on to bigger things with the ILO in Geneva, and Tom, who was in the airforce during the war, is a factory manager.

In Cotters’ England’s early iterations, and it must have had a few over fifteen years, Peggy was the victim of incest, but remains housekeeper in Bridgehead for her mother and father and uncle after Nellie and Tom take off for London. [Sue: two earlier names for this story were ‘Branch Line’ and ‘Uncle Syme’, do either appear in the collection you reviewed, Ocean of story?]. In Cotters’ England Peggy is only a minor character, still housekeeper after a spell in an institution, caring for her mother who clearly has dementia, keeping everything right for her demanding father, a hard drinking, garrulous insurance salesman, and fighting with her Uncle Simon whose pension, with what little is sent by Nellie and Tom, pays the bills.

The bulk of the story concerns Nellie talking, talking, talking to maintain her waning influence over Tom. Driving her husband away with her constant talk. Attempting and largely failing to tie to her women in need of help, driving away any men, including Tom, whom she sees as preying on them. Drinking, smoking constantly, wracked with ‘bronchitis’, emphysema more likely from the coal dust impregnated air of her childhood and the chain smoking.

Tom had gone around with [Nellie] on some assignments, sometimes to meetings. It was she who was the pitiful waif, the stray, the strange elf, all the things she saw in others. Nellie at a meeting of working women for example, cut a grotesque figure. In a green peaked cap with cock’s feathers, in boots lined with lamb’s wool against the cold and hardness of the streets and stairs she had to tramp, a muffler around her starved and diseased throat, some old dress she felt easy in, her bodice loose either so that she could cough more easily or because she thought a tight figure bourgeois, something of the sort, her perpetual cigarette, her terrible stoop and lunging stride – there was not one woman there of the hard-pressed working sort, who looked anything like her: and her weary old reporter’s drawl, her … northern affectations, set her apart, a draggled peacock in a serious busy barnyard.

There was something missing in her; she lacked self-criticism. She was always talking about introspection by which she meant drool; and confession, by which she meant spinning interesting lies, or sifting out people’s secrets.

Cotters’ England is a reasonable length at 350 pages, but it’s hard going. There is no plot to speak of – Tom is in a menage with a married woman and her husband(s), the woman dies, Tom spends a little time in Bridgehead then comes to London to stay with Nellie. Eventually he gets a job managing a factory out in the country. Nellie takes in Caroline, Tom gets interested in her, but he’s interested in most women. George, Nellie’s husband, calls in for a while, in between jobs in Rome and Geneva, but Nellie talks (and coughs) to him all night and he goes off to stay with friends – the interest is all in the writing, which is very, very good, and the characterisations.

I think Stead’s conclusion is that Nellie has chosen a wrong path, bohemianism instead of socialism, and perhaps talk instead of action:

There had been nothing in Bridgehead, Nellie said, to satisfy their youthful intellectual and moral hungers, so they had taken to drink, vice, unbridled chaotic speculation and gnawing at each other.

George and Eliza Cook and a good many others, plain folk with strong natures and tempers, had seen things were wrong and they wanted to save humanity, their nation in particular and the greater part of the nation, the poor worker, to which they belonged, from making a terrible mistake. Many mistakes had been made by the workers. But Nellie had chosen Bedlam and the lazaret as brothers and sisters.

In the end Stead winds it up nicely enough, a few people die, Nellie, Tom and even Peggy find some sort of happiness.And in case you’re wondering “Cotters’ England” is the England of the working poor, in shabby council houses, not properly fed, an England at the time of this book, already on its way out.

Critic Clement Semmler, who btw thinks that Peggy has (or had) an incestuous relationship with Tom, her brother, writes that “if one can survive the torrent of words … Cotters’ England is a formidable novel of human psychology and behaviour.”


Christina Stead, Cotters’ England, first pub. 1966, this ed. Sirius, Sydney, 1989 (front cover illustration, Bill Coleman, detail from Green Street Scene, 1970). Published in USA as Dark Places of the Heart, Holt Rinehart & Winston, New York, 1966

Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1989 (review)

Clemment Semmler, The Novels of Christina Stead, in G. Dutton ed., The Literature of Australia, Penguin, Melbourne, 1976

See also ANZ LitLovers Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20 2016 (here)

Women’s SF, Nnedi Okorafor, Liz Williams


I’ve made the generalization before that mainstream (guy’s) SF is ideas and action driven and that women’s SF is more character driven. Nevertheless, the three books I review here contain a lot of action. In my younger days I read extensively in the SF field before Fantasy started to take over and still do to some extent. Lots of SF circulates around my family, it’s still my son’s main field of reading and long-suffering x-Mrs Legend copped a Cixin Liu for her recent birthday, mostly so as I’d eventually get to read it.

Apart from the great Ursula Le Guin, non-fantasy women’s SF has been hard to come by. Ann McCaffery is ok in small doses, and I have some good books from The Women’s Press Science Fiction series. They “hope that the series will encourage more women both to read and to write science fiction, and give the traditional science fiction readership a new and stimulating perspective.” I think they did, but that was 30 years ago.

As it happens, I’ve read/listened to some excellent  women’s SF over the past month, and although my original intention was just escapism, I thought I would knock up a review. Interestingly, some recent Australian women’s writing, even apart from Sue Parritt (here) who writes straight SF, has had an SF feel to it too. In the last year I’ve reviewed Jane Rawson’s  A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (here), Georgia Blain’s Special (here), Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (here) and Ellen van Neerven’s story Water (here).

Nnedi Okorafor (1974-) is US born of Nigerian parents, did a lot of her growing up in Nigeria, and going by the many prizes she has been awarded, is readily accepted as both an American and an African writer. I listened to Who Fears Death (2010) while I was working and then, when I couldn’t find a paper copy for this review, borrowed The Book of Phoenix (2015) which is billed as a prequel.

It seems, on my limited reading, that Nigerian Lit. contains a great deal of spiritualism (not magic realism!) and particularly in SF, this flows along quite naturally. The story of Who Fears Death is an allegory for the war in the Sudan, between the Muslim/Arabic north and the sub-Saharan African (‘Igbo’) south. It is set in a post-apocalyptic desert where the light-skinned and more technologically advanced Nuru from the north are encroaching on the lands of the darker Okeke. Najeeba, an Okeke woman is raped by a Nuru man who turns out to be the sorcerer Daib, and bears a mixed race daughter, Onyesonwu, who will be the victim of prejudice from both the Nuru and the Okeke. After 6 years living in the desert Najeeba and Onyesonwu settle in an Okeke town where Onyesonwu is educated, initiated (by genital mutilation) with 3 other girls who become her friends, becomes accepted, despite being female, as an apprentice sorcerer with considerable powers, and then takes her friends and her boyfriend on a quest across the desert to defeat Daib. This is a powerful and well written story and I highly recommend it.

Despite having listened to Who Fears Death both before and after reading The Book of Phoenix, I was unable to see any but the most tenuous connection. Nevertheless, it is a powerful work of SF in its own right. Okorafor blogged (here):

These two novels are sisters. Close sisters. But not twins…  Similar, but different. How do the stories connect? Who is Phoenix to Onyesownu and Onyesonwu to Phoenix? You’ll have to read them to find out. Don’t bother going in with expectations; you’ll probably be wrong. ;-).

The setting is a near future, in the USA, where the genetic engineering of humans has been commercialized and militarized. Phoenix Okore is a two-year old but mature “accelerated woman” living in Tower 7, LifeGen’s laboratory complex in New York. At first content just to consume data, Phoenix begins to interact with her fellow ‘speciMen’, aquires a lover, then, when he is killed, breaks out, destroying Tower 7 in the process. Becoming ever more powerful, she rampages across the USA and Africa, bringing the Apocalypse:

Not just New York. I scorch the earth, Yes, I can do that. I am that. Phoenix Okore blew across the earth. She burned the cities. Turned the oceans to steam. She was the reaper come to reap what was sown…. Let them die. Let everything die.

It is true that some of the ‘science’ verges on magic, as well as calling on the African god, Ani, but really, the only weak part of the book is the framing narrative, of an African nomad, discovering a trove of ancient, but somehow still working, computers in a cave. He fires one up and listens to Phoenix’s story.

Another blogger (here) writes, “Phoenix’s voice is so powerful in narrating her own tale that not only the anger but the dignity and determination of an entire oppressed people comes through.”


Liz Williams (1965-) is a British SF writer with a PhD in Philosophy of Science from Cambridge. Bloodmind (2007) apparently follows on from Darkland (2006) but is easily read on its own. Despite the fact that SF publishers love a series, I couldn’t find any mention that Williams had gone on to #3 (though she has written other series).

Bloodmind is set in a distant future where humans have colonized many planets and have engaged in genetic engineering to facilitate this. The story switches between the points of view of three women, each on separate planets, until they eventually come together. Vali is a young woman, a soldier whose people are on the losing side of a war on the planet Muspell. Hunan is an older woman, leading a colony of women who have escaped from a city where they had been genetically engineered to be subservient to their husbands. And Sedra, also an older woman, is a hunter at the end of her useful life who is leaving her community to return to the wilds where she will die.

Each woman is well drawn and we care what happens to them. Vali is recruited to go to Sedra’s planet to capture a powerful renegade who turns out to be the daughter of Sedra’s long-lost sister. Although there is inter-planetary travel and some fancy weaponry, most of the science turns on men genetically engineering women for their own benefit (or protection!). As with the Okorafor novels, there are some guys, but they definitely take second place. All three books provide an interesting take on the Independent Woman as super-hero.


Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death, Brilliance Audio (15 hours), 2010. Read by Anne Flosnik

Nnedi Okorafor, The Book of Phoenix, Daw Books, New York, 2015

Liz Williams, Bloodmind, Tor, London, 2007

Re super heroes, Helen Razer is at her scathing best in this article on the appointment of Wonder Woman as UN Honorary Ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls.

Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman


Jane’s Fame (2009) is a well-written and fascinating account of the rise of the ‘Divine’ Jane from obscurity to world domination in two centuries. That’s three ‘Janes’ so just in the unlikely event you haven’t caught on, I’m writing about English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817). Where she fits in an Australian literary blog I’m not sure. She was already immensely popular by the end of the nineteenth century but no Australians that I know of cite her as an influence. Boldrewood of course cites Austen’s contemporary, Walter Scott, many others cite Byron and Dickens, but maybe at least Ada Cambridge and Tasma owe something to JA’s spare, ironic, ‘domestic’ writing.

Anyway, at some stage I’ll also write about Waverley (Scott), Ruth (Gaskell) and The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne) not because they’re relevant, though they might be, but just because I like them. I also have to write about America’s ‘Noble Frontiersman’ as a precursor to the Lone Hand of the Australian Legend which might involve reviewing ES Ellis, James Fennimore Cooper and even Zane Grey. Interestingly, it seems Cooper’s first novel was a spoof of Persuasion . Apparently, he wasn’t very proud of it!

It is easy to conflate Austen with her most famous creation, Elizabeth Bennet, and her parents with Mr and Mrs Bennet, but in fact they were nothing like (although it is probable that Jane, like Elizabeth, was her father’s favourite). The Austens were a literary family, her mother was an ‘unstoppable versifier’, and “two of her brothers, two first cousins, an aunt, two second cousins and a neighbour were all published authors, and others in her circle strove to be.” In fact, the writer of the family was meant to be Jane’s oldest brother, James, a poet who as it turned out, remained unpublished. Jane’s father was the rector at Steventon, Hampshire until 1801 when he retired in favour of James. The parents moved to Bath, taking with them Jane and her older sister and confidante Cassandra.

Jane began writing at a young age, as we know now from her published juvenilia. Leaving aside Lady Susan which Austen doesn’t seem to have meant to be published, her first novel First Impressions was offered to a publisher by her father, and rejected, in 1796. By 1800 she had early drafts for Elinor and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility)First Impressions (renamed Pride and Prejudice after the name was taken by another writer) and Susan (later, Northanger Abbey).  Susan was in fact sold to a publisher in 1803 but he didn’t go ahead and it took her many years to recover the rights. Eventually there was a period of 20 years with completed novels in all their iterations circulating amongst family and Jane revising. Harman sees this interregnum as vital to Austen’s later success: “The longer Austen remained unpublished, the more experimental she became, and the more licence she assumed with bold brilliant moves.” The spare style, with its naturalistic descriptions of family life, which she adopted, invented really, anticipated Modernism, at the end of the C19th, by almost 100 years.“Almost single-handedly, Austen moved the novel into the modern era – and did much of it before she got a single word in print.”

In 1805* Rev Austen died and after four difficult years Mrs Austen, Cassandra and Jane moved to Chawton, Hampshire on the estate of Jane’s brother Edward Knight. In 1811 Sense and Sensibility was accepted for publication. “Austen attempted to bring the book right up to date by adding a reference to the twopenny post – introduced in 1809 – and Marmion, the bestselling poem published anonymously by newcomer Walter Scott in 1808.” The book was well received, the first edition sold 750 copies, and generated some speculation as to who might be the author. In fact, the only time Austen was ever to see her name in print was as a subscriber to Fanny Burney’s Camilla in 1795, and although her authorship was something of an open secret she wasn’t publicly acknowledged as an author until her brother Henry’s tribute after her death. Next to come out was Pride and Prejudice, at the beginning of 1813, for which she sold the copyright for just 110 pounds. The following year brought  Mansfield Park and also Walter Scott’s Waverley, also anonymously, although he at least had the pleasure of publicly acknowledging his own authorship in 1827. Emma was commenced in 1814 and published in 1815, by which time Austen had begun Persuasion and also, having finally recovered Susan, had begun revising it as Northanger Abbey. Sanditon, which was to remain unfinished, had also been begun.

Right from the beginning Jane Austen’s novels were perceived as something above the normal course of romantic and adventure novels then current. Harman writes:

Three months after the publication of Emma, an unsigned article by Walter Scott, about 4,000 words long, appeared in the Quarterly, acknowledging publicly that ‘the author of Pride & Prejudice etc etc’ was a force to be reckoned with. Scott’s thoughtful, deeply appreciative overview … recognised her kind of novel as something new in the past fifteen or twenty years, replacing the improbable excitements of sensational literature with ‘the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life’.

In 1817, Jane became seriously ill. She left Chawton and took lodgings nearer her doctor but by July she was dead, aged just 41, doubly unfortunately as many of her siblings lived into their 70s. Her papers were distributed between siblings, nephews and nieces, beginning a Jane Austen industry which descendants of the family manage seemingly right up to this day. The very unlike Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, shorter than their three volume predecessors, were published together posthumously as a single, four volume edition later the same year. The included Biographical Notice names Austen for the first time and stresses her rectitude, “No accumulation of fame would have induced her, had she lived, to affix her name to any productions of her pen”, an invention of her family somewhat at odds with Jane’s pleasure in collecting, and soliciting from her correspondents, notices of her work and other mentions in the press.

For a while it seems as though Austen may have faded out of sight, but in the 1830s publisher Richard Bentley purchased the rights for all 6 Jane Austen novels from the family for the bargain basement price of 250 pounds and began publishing them in his ‘low-cost, compact’ Standard Novels series. At a time when she was receiving little critical notice, although Scott like many others was reading her over and over again, the ongoing availability of the Standard Novels served to keep Austen before the public. Then, in 1869, Jame’s son, James Edward Austen-Leigh published his Memoir of Jane Austen which “remains the main source of biographical information, incorporating family reminiscences, extracts from letters and anecdotes about Austen’s life as a writer.”

For some time Austen’s novels remained a secret appreciated only by more discerning readers but Harman goes on to document the exponential growth of both scholarly writings about Austen and of fan clubs of her readers following James Edward’s memoir. Let me end with these words from Katherine Mansfield:

the truth is that every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone –reading between the lines – has become the secret friend of the author.


Claire Harman, Jane’s Fame, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009

I can’t list every post Sue at Whispering Gums has done on Jane Austen, there are too many. No, there could never be ‘too many’ so let’s just say there are lots. The list of all her JA posts is here, and from them I would recommend in particular her close reading of Emma, volumes 1,2 and 3.

Lisa at ANZLL reviews (the unfinished) Sanditon here.

*I initially and incorrectly wrote 1809 – see WG’s comment below