The Grand Sophy, Georgette Heyer

I am probably pinching one of WG’s future Monday Musings here but my subject today is What do we do about racial stereotypes in old novels? Theresa Smith who reviews extensively in the area of Australian women’s fiction, recently challenged my liking for Georgette Heyer romances and said that the consensus was that Heyer was a right-wing anti-semite, citing The Grand Sophy as a particular example.

Any excuse to slack off and read another Georgette Heyer. The Grand Sophy wasn’t on my shelves so I dropped in at (daughter) Gee’s, waved and smiled through the door at my waving and smiling six month old grandson whom, due to Covid and over-cautious governments, I have seen only twice before, and borrowed her battered 1952 2nd edition hardback.

And then I began searching on ‘Georgette Heyer anti-semitism’. The most prominent results were blogs like Smart Bitches Trashy Books (which looks like a fun site) –

So then Sophy takes it upon herself to go confront said Jewish moneylender [Mr Goldhanger]. And then the whole book went to hell.

“…the door was slowly opened to reveal a thin, swarthy individual, with long greasy curls, a semitic nose, and an ingratiating leer…. His hooded eyes rapidly took in every detail of Sophy’s appearance.”

GOLDHANGER? With a “semitic nose” and the “instinct of his RACE?” Really?! That’s the BEST HEYER could come up with?! A stock character embodying every possible negative stereotype of Jewish people? It was so badly done it was multiply offensive. Not only was I offended personally as, you know, a Jewish person, but I was more offended as a reader as well because IT WAS SO BADLY DONE.

SB Sarah of SBTB, Aug 15, 2011

Biographer Brenda Niall in her review in the SMH of GEORGETTE HEYER: BIOGRAPHY OF A BESTSELLER, by Jennifer Kloester says the same thing, though more temperately –

No one faulted Heyer’s research on Regency manners and idiom, snuffboxes, staging posts, pantaloons and Hessian boots. Although, as Kloester concedes, her characters are essentially 20th-century people in costume, their world of illusion is wittily sustained.

Heyer is not an easy subject for biography, nor an endearing one. She was ferocious about maintaining her privacy and because so much of her life was consumed in her work, there is not a great deal to say. Kloester’s use of family papers reveals a loyal daughter and a generous sister, wife and mother.

The papers also reveal Heyer’s snobbishness about people ”not out of quite one’s own drawer”, and her racism and anti-Semitism.

SMH January 7, 2012

I meant to start this discussion at another place, so let’s go there now. As a radical socialist (syndicalist) I am totally anti-Zionist. Zionism as presently practiced by the government of Israel is Apartheid by another name, a fig leaf to justify the illegal occupation and subjugation of Palestine. Zionists of course conflate anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, which is dishonest and a nonsense, but then so are most arguments on the Right.

The problem which I am willing to own is that I am going to argue that money lending and being Jewish were so often regarded as synonymous in the past that their conflation must be unremarkable. Which is not to say that Heyer (1902-1974) is that far in the past, and her depiction of Goldhanger in 1950 – so after the War and after the Holocaust – was probably almost as offensive then as it is now, though far less likely of course to have been contested.

Because Jewishness and Moneylending are so often paired in literature, I looked into it a little and it seems that from the beginning of the Christian Era educated Jews had the advantage of a world-wide (the “world” being you know, Persia say to Gibraltar) system of enforceable law which made banking and trade both profitable and relatively safe (more here). Which is not to say that come the Middle Ages the Church in particular did not also engage in moneylending and perhaps for the same reasons.

But of course the Middle Ages were also famous for the murder and eviction of Jews to enable Christians to avoid paying their debts. And even now, as we too often see, it is always useful to have an Other to blame and vilify for our own mistakes and weaknesses.

A quick read and a quick review: The eponymous ‘Grand Sophy’ is a fine heroine, tall, independent after years travelling Europe with her diplomat father, following Wellington through the Spanish campaign and on to Waterloo. Still only 19, she is foisted onto her aunt while her father goes on a diplomatic mission to Brazil. And there with unfettered access to her father’s money she wreaks havoc amongst her half a dozen cousins.

Heyer’s plots are too complicated to simplify down to a few words, but they always begin with the heroine running into a guy whom she could not possibly like and end with the heroine and the guy heading off to the altar, and so it is here. The incident at the top of this post takes up only a few pages about half-way through as Sophy rescues the second son of the family, actually slightly older than she, from the trap he has fallen into by borrowing to cover gambling debts and being unable to face his father, himself a serious gambler, or his straight-laced older brother.

Heyer was attempting to paint a villain, engaged in fencing stolen goods and lending illegally to minors. By resorting to a stereotype 100 years out of date she was probably giving voice to her own prejudices. But I’m afraid it wasn’t enough for me to find the book unenjoyable. I would have been far more annoyed to encounter caricatures of Black people. Why? I wonder. Perhaps because the Jewish battle, in Australia anyway, seems to me to be just about won.

A wider debate than I have space for here would consider the cases of TS Elliott, and of say Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gone With the Wind. I guess my short answer to the question I asked at the beginning is be aware of the author’s prejudices, but if they are not central to the story, keep going. Reading doesn’t make the author’s prejudices yours. Though not recognising them might.

.

Georgette Heyer, The Grand Sophy, first pub. 1950.

Exchange, Paul Magrs

1089294.jpg

Paul Magrs (1969 – ) is an English author who writes prolifically across a number of genres. I would not know of him at all but he is a favourite of Liz Dexter (Adventures in Reading, Running etc). At the beginning of her 2020 #Magrsathon, she held a giveaway which I won and so Exchange slowly wended it’s way across the oceans from England to Australia, it’s arrival eagerly anticipated by us both.

This morning I had the unenviable task of writing to Liz to say that I found the book a disappointment. She replied graciously, of course. Before writing to her I thought for some time about writing a neutral review but I didn’t have it in me. Exchange (2006) is YA but Magrs has written quite a bit of SF including some Dr Who novels, so if I can locate it online the least I can do is give his Mars trilogy a try.

YA is a genre to which I am not usually attracted. And yet there are some brilliant YA books. My Brilliant Career and Pink Mountain on Locust Island are books written by and about teenagers which are complex enough to appeal to adults. Sense and Sensibility, a novel about the loves of 16 and 19 year old sisters, is universally treated as adult. Little Women, the story of a family of sisters preparing for marriage, while mystifyingly treated as a book for children, is still an excellent read.

And then there is Exchange, the story of a 16 year old boy in an English country town which reads like a book for ten year olds.

There he was: down the cheap supermarket, after school, making himself useful and picking up a few bits and bobs for his gran… He was all buttoned up and mortified in his anorak. He looked like a daft lad, he knew. And that’s how all the kids hanging around the town marketplace saw him.

Simon’s parents have been killed in a car accident and he has come to live with his grandparents. He and his gran are readers, the house is filling up with second hand books, as they take regular excursions on the bus to surrounding towns to buy more. Granddad is not so keen on having his house all cluttered up with dusty books, nor on Gran neglecting the housework in favour of reading, and spends more and more time down the pub or out in the garage (with his secret cache of 1950s girlie mags).

Simon and Gran on one of their excursions discover a second hand bookshop whose central purpose is to persuade readers to bring their books back for others to read (all such shops used to be ‘exchanges’ once but perhaps that was an Australian thing). The owner’s assistant is a girl, Kelly, a little older and a lot more mature than Simon, who wears goth makeup and makes the unilateral decision that she will be Simon’s girlfriend and teach him to do normal things like kiss girls.

Kelly starts telephoning and taking the bus to visit Simon, she even punches out the town hooligan who hangs around the town bus stop and public telephone and shouts stuff at Simon as he slinks past. They kiss. They inevitably clash teeth. He tries again, gets a mouthful of gelled hair as she turns away. The usual stuff and soon got over. By everyone except Simon.

Kelly hatches a plan to sell Granddad’s girlie mags to finance taking Gran to a book signing/dinner for an author who writes about her and Gran’s childhood in the slums. There’s other stuff. Gran and Granddad grow apart. Granddad makes a bonfire of Gran’s books. Kelly and Simon get on the wine at the author-dinner and end up in a private swimming pool in their underwear

Then he was aware that she was pushing up rather closely. He didn’t dare look down at her black lacy bra… ‘Simon?’ she asked and, very gently, moved in to kiss him. He responded and they kissed gently and then with a little more heat… They kissed again and there was an awkward fumbling moment, to do with whose arms went where. Kelly moved back a bit … ‘It isn’t really working, is it?’

Two tipsy teenagers, up close and personal in wet underwear, choose that as the time to decide to be best friends!

There’s a bit more, but Simon is by some distance the wettest teenager I have ever read.

Paul Magrs, Exchange, Simon & Schuster, London, 2006

Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell

Cranford

Cranford (1853) was first published as a series of sketches of life in Knutsford  near Manchester (fictionalised respectively as’Cranford’ and ‘Drumble’), where Eliz. Gaskell (1810-1865) had spent some of her childhood and where she returned, in 1832, on marrying the local Unitarian minister, though they soon moved to Manchester. The sketches, published between 1851 and 1853 in Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words, were not originally conceived as a novel and in fact Gaskell was at that time concentrating on Ruth (1853) a much more important though probably less popular work.

The book overall is reminiscent of Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (1836) in its loosely connected stories and the gentle wit of its narrator. Gaskell’s narrator is a youngish single woman, and the period is some time after the end of the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815). Queen Adelaide is mentioned which would make it 1831-37. I don’t mean to say that Mary Smith the narrator is Mrs Gaskell, just that the setting and times were well known to her.

The first two chapters are particularly rambling, and it would be interesting to know if Dickens commissioned them first, and then pressured Gaskell to keep providing more, and if that is how Gaskell ended up writing two books at once. In any case it takes her a while to gain focus but all the little sub-plots are more or less tied together by the end.

The premise of the book is that Mary goes down to Cranford from time to time to stay with Miss Jenkyns and her sister Matty (Mathilda), spinster daughters of the late rector – I was going to use the adjective elderly, but they are in fact in their 50s (late in the novel Matty is 58) – and through them mixes with the genteely poor ladies who make up the bulk of the village’s ‘society’.

Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man .. or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship ..

Most of the women have just one servant and their little economies are explained in some detail. Unlike Jane Austen, the servants are named and given parts to play, in fact the rough and ready Martha who is employed by the Jenkyns’s comes by the end to assume some importance (in the plot). Gaskell’s protagonists in the main are all one stratum down from Austen’s wealthy upper middle class, and she is also more inclined to dip one stratum further, to the upper levels of the trades – the doctor, farmers and so on.

Miss Deborah Jenkyns dies and Miss Matty becomes the central character. Early on she mentions in passing a brother who had joined the navy and of whom the narrator had been unaware.

“And Peter?” asked I

“Oh there was some great war in India – I forget what they call it – and we have never heard of Peter since then.

I made a note that I thought EG had made a mistake, as the information Matty claims she lacks was readily available and widely disseminated in the Navy Lists. Jane Austen, and her characters, used them a decade or two earlier (here). And MST I’m sure must have pored over them for the movements of John Macarthur (a lieutenant in the RN Marines).

It is probably significant that EG’s own brother, John was in the merchant navy, ie. not on the Navy List, with the East India Co. and was lost in 1827.

As I said, there are lots of little plots, the farmer who offered for Miss Matty, but whom she was persuaded by her sister to turn down for being insufficiently genteel; Peter’s loss in India; a travelling magician; a plague of burglars (though nothing actually goes missing); the widow of a Lord who marries beneath her and incurs the wrath of her former sister in law; a banking failure which leaves Miss Matty ruined. But it all comes right in the end.

It’s beyond me to explain Gaskell’s gentle wit, but like Austen she is quite capable of appearing to praise while actually crticising, and that adds to the enjoyment of this peaceful little slice of English village life.

 

Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford, first pub. 1851-53 in Household Words. My copy Wordsworth Classics, not the Penguin pictured.

see also:
Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis (here)

Emma, 2020 movie

EMMA. - Official Trailer [HD] - Now On Demand and In Theaters

No, I haven’t provided a link. The message: “YouTube (owned by Google) does not let you watch videos anonymously. As such, watching YouTube videos here will be tracked by YouTube/Google,” got up my nose.

Milly and I went to the movies on Sunday. I’m not sure if it was the first day cinemas were open in Western Australia, but I think so – the Premier was in the newspapers having a pint in a pub to illustrate lifted restrictions. Of course most punters regard reduced restrictions as the end of the virus, so stage 2 will be upon us soon. I’ve stocked up on masks, I can’t imagine they’ll shut down the economy a second time.

Unfortunately, our art-house cinema chain, Luna, had not yet re-opened so our choices were restricted to Emma and the NZ film Boy which was apparently a hit at Sundance. Emma suited us better timewise so Emma it was.

“Directed by Autumn de Wilde. With Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Angus Imrie.” Those are names I do not know, but they’re an odd looking lot. Very few of the cast looked as I imagined them, though Bill Nighy made an excellent, very frail, Mr Woodhouse; and the director had Robert Martin, the farmer, as an awkward young country boy which worked quite well. Harriet was well done, looking exactly like a 16 year old school girl. Mr Knightley, frankly, looked like a yokel in fancy dress, leading to a serious disconnect between his appearance and his speech, far too young and frisky for the stern corrector of Emma’s speech and behaviour JA envisaged.

For some reason all the actors leapt and capered, not to mention undressing, and dressing at the drop of a hat, all a bit disconcerting.

So, to get to the meat. The screenplay was by Eleanor Catton whose The Luminaries was probably the first work of historical fiction to be reviewed, negatively, in these pages. She appears to have done no more than select Austen’s words and string them together. There was no attempt at interpretation. The movie, long enough at two hours, concentrates on Emma and Harriet’s friendship and the tangles Emma’s matchmaking gets both of them into.

The settings as you would expect, are gorgeous. I didn’t look to see which stately homes were used.

Spoiler coming up. The Westons, Miss Bates, the vicar and his new wife, Frank and Jane play their expected parts but very much in the background. Emma’s concerns are her father and Harriet. About half-way through, Emma dances with Mr Knightley and they make eyes at each other. We are meant to realise that they have feelings (for each other). Consequently, the denoument, when it is announced that Frank and Jane have all along been secretly engaged, falls flat.

I gave it 3/5

To the extent that I remember it, and I do own a copy, I think the Gwyneth Paltrow version is better. In fact, I remember only bits and pieces from the book as well. Lets hope WG posts a review. Her scintillating analysis of Emma, in three parts, made her the inaugural wadholloway blogger of the year in 2015, and I can well imagine her applying the same gimlet eye to this curate’s egg of a movie.

 

 

The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf: Harcourt Brace & Company ...

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was an important early English modernist and first wave feminist, and The Voyage Out (1915) is her first novel. I have said before this is not a period I have studied, though I am well enough read in a general sense. My general intention is to make my way through all the best books, and my particular intention here is to achieve a better understanding of Australian women’s works of the same period, ie. Gen 3. The Australian modernists we have looked at to date, Christina Stead, Eleanor Dark, Dymphna Cusack with Jungfrau are all a bit later than Woolf and no doubt influenced by her (after 1922 all modernists are influenced by James Joyce, but it is harder – for a layman – to tell who was influenced by Woolf or DH Lawrence, let alone lesser figures like Vita Sackville-West). Interestingly one important Australian modernist work predates The Voyage Out and that is HH Richardson’s Maurice Guest (1908) which I am interested now to go back and read in this context.

The Voyage Out tells the story of Rachel Vinrace, 24 and never been kissed, set during a holiday of just a few months, undated but in one of those last few years before the Great War, on Rachel’s father’s steamship from London, and then in a grand hotel and nearby villa in an unnamed French possession in South America.

Rachel is travelling with the Ambroses, her Aunt Helen, beautiful, 40, her children left behind, and her uncle, an academic. She has no formal education but is a brilliant pianist, and is forthright and intelligent. It quickly becomes clear to Helen that Rachel, brought up by maiden aunts after the death of her mother, knows absolutely nothing about relations between the sexes, and she determines to take her in hand.

For a while on the voyage out Rachel spends time with the MP Richard Dalloway being (willingly) lectured to about politics and foreign affairs. Eventually he gets her alone in her cabin and of course kisses her. Which she finds interesting and not particularly disagreeable. But the Dalloways are put off at an earlier stop and disappear into another novel altogether.

Rather than travel on to the Amazon with her father, Rachel is persuaded to stay with her aunt, and so the second phase of the novel begins, in some ways a very familiar story, a dozen or so upper middle class English people, with a wide range of ages, say 20 to 80, bound in one place for a fixed period.

Two of the younger set, Susan and Ambrose, are soon engaged and are then set aside to be used from time to time by the author as an example of stock-standard unreflective coupledom. Another young woman, Evelyn, is much more interesting, maybe even standing in for the author herself. She wishes there was a Garibaldi she might attach herself to; there are always things to do, places to see; later she exclaims, “I’d give all I have in the world to help on a revolution against the Russian government, and it’s bound to come.” She is open about having been born out of wedlock, has an undeserved reputation for looseness, is for ever being proposed to, but is never sure that she wants to be married.

Two young men, friends in their late twenties, Hewet and Hirst attach themselves to Rachel and Helen, Mr Ambrose being locked away in his study translating a Greek poet. Hirst is ugly and hugely intelligent, on his way to being one of the great men of his generation. Hewet is a budding novelist. Hirst attempts to forward Rachel’s education, but without much success. He is interested more in Helen and you keep expecting something to come of it though it never does.

Slowly, through a sea of talk and philosophising, Hewet and Rachel find themselves in love.

Evelyn had not spoken, but she had been looking from Susan to Rachel. Well – they had both made up their minds very easily, they had done in a very few weeks what it sometimes seemed to her that she would never be able to do. Although they were so different, she thought that she could see in each the same look of satisfaction and completion, the same calmness of manner, and the same slowness of movement. It was that slowness, that confidence, that content which she hated, she thought to herself. They moved so slowly because they were not single but double … Love was all very well, and those snug domestic houses with the kitchen below and the nursery above, which were so secluded and self-contained, like little islands in the torrents of the world; but the real things were surely the things that happened, the causes, the wars, the ideals, that happened in the great world outside, and went on independently of these women, turning so quietly and beautifully towards the men.

See how Woolf jumps from outside Evelyn to ‘inside’. Without, yet, being stream of consciousness, her writing follows the trains of thought of each of her protagonists, and is elsewhere wonderfully descriptive of the people, the scenery, the weather. The author’s feminism is quietly evident, in Evelyn for instance, but more often, as I discussed with Sackville-West (here), in putting up the conventional view and allowing us space to form our own criticisms. One of the women in the hotel, Miss Allan is employed, a teacher, writing an Eng Lit textbook, but generally all the characters would be at home in Jane Austen, independently well-off, at leisure for months at a time to work through their relationships. It is only after the War, I think, that young middle class women more or less automatically went into jobs – a fact obscured by the mythologizing around ‘homemakers’ in the 1950s.

The last 50 pages – of 380 – are shocking. Beautifully written, as is the whole novel, but completely unexpected. I can’t say why Woolf chose the ending she did, you will have to see for yourselves.

 

 

Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out, first pub. The Hogarth Press, London, 1915. Edition pictured, Harcourt Brace, 1948. My edition Granada, 1981

All Passion Spent, Vita Sackville-West

All Passion Spent

I have eight or 10 Viragos I bought in a job lot years ago and never got round to reading, well not until this week when one of you, Karen (Booker Talk) talked me into making a start. As you can tell from the excerpt I put up this morning (as I write)  this is wonderful writing, the very epitome of English modernism.

Twentieth century English Lit. is not my area of expertise, so I’ve been looking stuff up. One article (locked unfortunately) has modernism beginning with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) ” … experiments with linguistic ambiguity opening the door for many interpretations… explores the corruption of imperialism”. Though the big break with the past was World War I, followed by James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses (1922).

Victoria (Vita) Sackville-West (1892-1962) began writing, and began taking women as lovers, while still at school. In 1913 she married diplomat and politician Harold Nicholson, though both continued to take (same-sex) lovers. They had two children and she followed him to some overseas postings, most notably Persia (Iran) which was the scene for the excerpt. I can’t help adding that Sackville-West had a passionate affair with another married woman and the two husbands felt obliged to hire a light plane to pursue them to France.

In 1922 Sackville-West began a long relationship with Virginia Woolf, documented by VSW’s son Nigel Nicholson in Portrait of a Marriage (1973), during which time it is felt both women did their best work, surrounded by the artists and thinkers of the Bloomsbury Set. Woolf reportedly based Orlando (which I have read but don’t remember) on her friend. Sackville-West had a considerable output in fiction, poetry and non-fiction – I should have remembered she wrote The Incomparable Astrea (1927) about Aphra Benn, who pops up as well in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929). All Passion Spent (1931) is the eighth of Sackville-West’s sixteen or so novels.

After 6 decades of marriage and a long and storied career in English politics and diplomacy, Henry Holland first Earl of Slane has died. Freed at last of the constraints of being a political wife, Lady Slane allows her mind to wander. Lady Slane – and only late in the novel do we learn her given name – is in her late eighties, her six surviving children are in their sixties, her grandchildren are grown up and so are her oldest great-grandchildren. For nearly 70 years she has shut down her mind, resisted all thoughts of her early ambition of being a painter, stood by her ambitious husband, and has been the calm if occasionally vague centre of a large and pushy family most of whom she finds she mildly dislikes.

This is not a feminist novel. Sackville-West said so. This is an investigation of how an intelligent and artistic woman was willingly subsumed into the straight-jacket of political wife, written by a woman of the same class but half her age who married a diplomat/politician and wasn’t (subsumed), in fact who married ‘badly’ so she wouldn’t be. Nevertheless, by allowing Lady Slane to reflect on how her life had got her to where she was, Sackville-West intentionally gives us enough information to draw our own conclusions.

The book doesn’t have any chapters but is divided into three sections. In the first, Lady Slane comes downstairs from viewing for the last time the body of her husband to find her four horrible older children have determined that mother is too vague to live on her own and that they will do their duty, and they may need to be recompensed, by letting her live with each of them a few months at a time. For a short while we view this scene through the eyes of Edith, the youngest, who may have been an interesting character in her own right, but this is almost the last we see of her.

Lady Slane however has already been in touch with an agent – in fact the elderly owner, Mr Bucktrout – of a house in Hampstead (which feels separate from London and a bit rural, but which I understand is quite close to the City) in which she will see out her days with her servant Genoux, who was 16 when she married at 18 Slane, then plain Mr Holland (though probably an Hon.). It is telling that it is only in these last days that Lady Slane learns that Genoux was a farm girl with seven siblings, who had been sent from Paris by an agent, to never seen them again.

In Part Two Lady Slane reflects on her married life:

Sitting there in the sun at Hampstead, in the late summer, under the south wall and the ripened peaches, doing nothing with her hands, she remembered the day she had become engaged to Henry. She had plenty of leisure now, day in, day out, to survey her life as a tract of country traversed, and at last become a landscape instead of separate fields or separate years and days …

Henry had treated her well and given her a fine life, she had been Vicereine of India and the wife of the Prime Minister of Great Britain, but every time she had expressed an idea he had paused to listen then passed on, unmoved – “Henry need make no bones about his creed, she must protect hers from shame and ridicule”.

Part Three, the last hundred pages (of 295), contains what little there is of plot. An old millionaire miser, FitzGeorge, a man entirely without family, calls on her, and callers, including her family are discouraged, makes enough of an impression to continue calling; he was one of the hundreds she had met in India; he had remembered and she had not. They talk and take little walks together. When he dies he leaves her his fortune, and she is able to discommode her family once again.

Right at the end, and it’s a bit neat, her great grand-daughter Deborah, engaged to a Duke, bursts in, lays her head on Lady Slane’s knee and sobs that she has broken the engagement and is going to be a pianist.

 

 

Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent, first pub. 1931. Virago Modern Classics, London, 1983

For another perspective see Karen/BookerTalk (here)

All Passion Spent (excerpt), Vita Sackville-West

Vita_sackville-west.jpg
Portrait of VSW by William Strang

After 6 decades of marriage and a long and storied career in English politics and diplomacy, Henry Holland first Earl of Slane has died. Freed at last of the constraints of  being a political wife, Lady Slane allows her mind to wander. Read on …

She remembered how, crossing the Persian desert with Henry, their cart had been escorted by flocks of butterflies, white and yellow, which danced on either side and overhead and all around them, now flying ahead in a concerted movement, now returning to accompany them, amused as it were to restrain their swift frivolity to a flitting round this lumbering conveyance, but still unable to suit their pace to such sobriety, so, to relieve their impatience, soaring up into the air or dipping between the very axles, coming out on the other side before the horses had had time to put down another hoof; making, all the while, little smuts of shadow on the sand, like little black anchors dropped, tethering them by invisible cables to the earth, but dragged about with the same capricious swiftness, obliged to follow; and she remembered thinking, lulled by the monotonous progression that trailled after the sun from dawn to dusk, like a plough that should pursue the sun in one straight slow furrow round and round the world – she remembered thinking that this was something like her own life, following Henry Holland like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent, irrelevant thoughts, darting and dancing, but altering the pace of the progression by not one tittle; never brushing the carriage with their wings; flickering always, and evading; sometimes rushing on ahead, but returning again to tease and to show off, darting between the axles; having an independent and a lovely life; a flock of ragamuffins skimming aove the surface of the desert and around the trundling waggon; but Henry, who was travelling on a tour of investigation, could only say, “Terrible, the opthalmia among these people – I must really do something about it,” and knowing that he was right and  would speak to the missionaries, she had withdrawn her attention from the butterflies and had transferred it to her duty, determining that when they reached Yezd or Shiraz, or wherever it might be, she would also take the missionaries to task about the opthalmia in the villages and would make arrangements for a further supply of boracic to be sent out from England.

One sentence! I’m half-way through and a review will follow shortly.

 

Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent, first pub. 1931. Virago Modern Classics, London, 1983

 

Tom Jones, Henry Fielding

The more I read, the more confused I become about the novel pre-Jane Austen. Fielding’s Tom Jones (The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling) was published in 1749, and is of course “among the earliest English prose works to be classified as a novel” (Yardley, Washington Post). Or here: “Tom Jones was Henry Fielding’s greatest work. The first piece of English prose to be considered a novel, Samuel Taylor Coleridge praised it as ‘one of …'” (blurb for John Osborne’s Tom Jones screenplay). And yet Fielding complains in Tom Jones about the prevalence of novel reading, citing in particular the works of Aphra Benn (1640-1689), and Defoe said much the same in Moll Flanders (1722).

Wikipedia (here) provides a definition which I like:

A novel is a long, fictional narrative which describes intimate human experiences. The novel in the modern era usually makes use of a literary prose style. The development of the prose novel at this time was encouraged by innovations in printing, and the introduction of cheap paper in the 15th century.

The reference to paper and printing, three centuries prior to Fielding and Defoe makes a lot of sense, and given that schooling for the children of the poor (in Great Britain) was provided as far back as the 1600s, ‘light’ reading was probably quite widespread, and before there were (many) novels there were probably ‘popular’ biographies and histories. Aphra Benn’s novels arose out of her work as a playwright, and the same is true of Fielding. Though he calls this work a ‘history’ – and it is the history of one character – I’m sure the use of melodrama, farce and dialogue reflect his work for the stage.

Of course, I discussed all this stuff just a month or two ago in my preamble to Moll Flanders, for which I apologize, but I’m just trying to get sorted in my own head how the novel ‘suddenly’ came into being.

Part of our discussion around Moll was that although Defoe ostensibly set her in the C17th, the background to her adventures is clearly Defoe’s own lifetime 50 or 100 years later. There is not a lot of historical background in Tom Jones, especially early on, but Fielding makes clear that the story is contemporary. The Hanovers are on the English throne (George I (1714-27), George II (1727-60)) and by the time Tom is 20 the rebels (Jacobites) are marching south from Scotland (1745) to meet up with the French Army (which is rumoured, incorrectly as it happens, during the course of the novel to have landed) – the same march which forms the latter part of Scott’s Waverley.

The novel is broken into 18 ‘books’ – covering about 30 hours of reading – each book with a prefaratory first chapter which Fielding kindly gives us leave not to read, and then a number of chapters carrying forward the story. Even without these first chapters, which would make an interesting work of literary theory on their own, the author’s voice is pervasive, as was seemingly often the case at the time. In line with the conceit that this is a ‘history’, the author comments on his characters’ behaviour and speculates on what might happen next while admitting that he doesn’t know for sure.

So, once more the wadholloway synopsis without recourse to the actual written word (though I’d better use Wikipedia to make sure I get the names right). Wealthy bachelor landowner Allworthy comes home to his estate in Somerset to find an infant boy in his bed. The servant – self educated in Greek and Latin, though that doesn’t appear to play any part in the plot – of the local teacher admits to being the mother and is quietly packed off while Allworthy agrees to raise the boy child, Tom Jones, as his own.

It is characteristic of Fielding’s antecedents as a dramatist that characters whom we see heading off stage are soon back in another guise, and this is true of both the servant and the teacher (who loses his school and is the most likely candidate for Tom’s father, though there are plenty who suspect Allworthy).

Allworthy’s spinster sister marries, has a child – master Blifil – is widowed, and eventually dies herself, so the two boys, Tom, handsome, manly and impetuous, and Blifil, virtuous and sly, are brought up together under the tutelage of the violent pastor Thwackum and the ineffectual philosopher Square, who stay on as companions to Allworthy after the boys are grown up.

Tom falls under the influence of Allworthy’s neighbour Weston, your standard boisterous, hard drinking, fox-hunting squire (and it’s a pain putting up with his constant shouting), a widower with a beautiful daughter, Sophia whom Tom for a long time barely notices. Not until he has knocked up the gamekeeper’s 16 year old daughter – on whom Fielding puts most of the blame, which is a bit distasteful. I’m not sure what happens to the baby.

The remainder of the novel concerns Sophia’s love for Tom; Tom’s propensity for jumping into bed with someone else each time it looks as though it’s going somewhere; Tom’s growing awareness of his love for Sophia; Sophia’s absolute despisal of Blifil whom Allworthy and Weston decide she should marry to unite the properties; and Blifil’s conniving, with Thwackum, to put Tom in the worst possible light with his foster father.

Tom is banished from home, loses all the money, £500, which Allworthy has given him (it’s picked up by the gamekeeper, Black George, who makes other appearances throughout the story, mostly as Tom’s friend and beneficiary), adopts the surgeon/barber of a neighbouring village, Partridge – who we know is the school teacher, above – as his servant/companion, and heads off on a series of adventures. He briefly joins up with the soldiers on their way to fight the rebels; rescues a lady, sleeps with her, is discovered by Sophia who has run away from home to avoid marrying Blifil; gets in a fight with an officer whose wife has run away, and whose wife turns out to be Sophia’s cousin; is constantly imperilled by Partridge (mis-)telling all his secrets in the kitchen.

They all end up in London. Tom is adopted as a gigolo by a wealthy single lady. Sophia finds out and is disgusted. The fathers turn up with Blifil and Thwackum (and Black George) in tow. Somewhere in there Tom discovers Square in bed with Molly the gamekeeper’s daughter, I think to impress on us that Tom has no obligations to her.

As it all comes to a head, Partridge recognises the lady Tom slept with at the beginning of their flight, as Tom’s mother!

Finally, it is notable throughout that the servants and workers get as much of a voice as the gentry, something which the much more conservative Jane Austen, who followed on 60 years later, is often criticised for not attempting. And I was struck by the anti-marriage sentiment of both Fielding and Defoe, a theme I have documented in early Australian women but from which we have been largely insulated by a century of Victorian-era writing which tends to be over-influential on how we see our literary history.

Melanie, if your mate is ready for another C18th bedtime story, then this is it, but skip the Chapter Ones.

 

Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, first pub. 1749. Audible edition read by Bill Homewood. (There is also a reading on Librivox)

Moosevan (2), Jane Palmer

20559367

The provenance of second hand books is almost as much fun as the contents. This one has a stamp on the title page saying “Jacaranda Book Exchange, 281 Charters Towers Rd, ph …” so I’m guessing Townsville, 20 years ago. You might remember last time I was there I couldn’t find a second hand bookshop at all.

Twenty years ago was just about the last time Milly and I lived together, and for that matter the last time we all of us lived together. The following year Milly went back to Perth to live with her sister M, and Gee went off to uni. Lou, Psyche and I kept Milly’s house going – sort of. Lou was between school and uni; Psyche was working nights at the local beer barn then carrying on to the casino; and my boss went broke. My mate Chris and I hung on for weeks in case a promised big job came up, two triples to Darwin, but it didn’t and I spent my 50th out of work, then endured bog standard single trailer interstate for a while until another Melb-Nth Qld road train job came up.

The year after that, Milly came back and sold the house, took Gee who was having a break from universities back to Perth, clocking up big miles in her little Daewoo. And I joined her, platonicly, a few months later. Psyche went touring in South America and Lou started his never-ending first year at Latrobe. But that’s another story (or six or seven).

Lou, in Malawi, ‘liked’ The Planet Dweller as soon as I put it up, within seconds, I don’t know how he did that, but my old SF was the background to his adolescence and I guess that one struck a chord. I imagine he had Moving Moosevan read as soon as I’d tossed it on Milly’s enormous circular mosaiced coffee table. (At one stage it was entirely covered in mail and Psyche used as an excuse before a magistrate that she hadn’t paid a traffic fine because it was lost on her mother’s table). Lou would make a much better SF reviewer than I because he actually remembers what he’s read. For ever seemingly. But I can’t talk him in to it.

You do realise I had no idea I was going to write any of this. I’d better finish the damn book and write it up. I only finished unloading yesterday (Tues) and I’m due out again later today, as soon as Dragan rings. So pickings will be thin on the Legend for a while. Again.

Melanie at Grab the Lapels is in to her second year reviewing the Valdemar fantasy series, so I should have some idea how it is done. Moving Moosevan follows on from The Planet Dweller so closely that they might better have been published in one volume. Every now and again Palmer remembers she may have new readers and sticks in a couple of lines of backstory, but not very often and you should really read them in order.

Moosevan, a planet sized entity consisting entirely of thought and energy, has occupied Earth and is engaged in slowly reshaping it for its own aesthetic reasons and out of distaste for all the human-produced pollution. Diana can feel her at the level of her subconscious, but is never sure that Moosevan is listening when she most needs her.

We see not much of the horrible Daphne Trotter, and Moosevan has a new love interest, Salisbury, a solitary lecturer whose family divorced him for pedantry. Yuri is mostly sober, which makes him grumpy, and that’s not to mention his jealousy of Salisbury. Salisbury may be interested in Diana, but Diana is happy to be post-menopausal and single.

There is a plot. I think it goes: Kulp, an ugly green alien , and former employee of the Mott, is constructing a gravity portal in Diana’s rural English neighbourhood. Salisbury who lives nearby, is persecuted by the army who think he is to blame. Two friendly ancient entities Dax and Reniola, who engineered Moosevan’s move to Earth are still around and are meant to be helping. Reniola takes the form of a cat – pictured above – to blend in. The Mott’s android army rebels and uses the gravity portal to invade. Diana and Kulp fight them off. Dax engineers a neat solution involving terra-forming one of Saturn’s moons.

It’s all lots of fun again, a very strange intersection of quaint village life and disgusting aliens. And I look forward to finding the two new sequels, Duckbill Soup (2011) and Brassica Park (2018).

 

Jane Palmer, Moving Moosevan, The Women’s Press, London, 1990

Moosevan (1), Jane Palmer

2746399.jpg

Don’t ask me how I came to have these two books on my shelves, their acquisition is lost in the mists of time. But a recent conversation with Jackie @ Death by Tsundoku on a Grab the Lapels post spurred me to review some more women’s SF, and Palmer’s books, published by The Women’s Press in 1985 and 1990, stood out. And yes, I did recommend that Jackie, an American (from the Mid West), look at recent Australian women’s dystopian fiction, and I think she will.

As soon as I started reading I had this picture in my mind of To the Manor Born English village life, not the privilege, but those tweedy, sensible, middle class women. In the first page Diana is arguing unsuccessfully with her old-fashioned doctor for Hormone Replacement Therapy while he insists on prescribing librium. And I thought, the author has got to be writing this from the heart.

Turns out (according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction) Palmer was born in 1946. The Moosevan series which she began with The Planet Dweller (1985) and Moving Moosevan (1990) has since been continued with Duckbill Soup (2011) and Brassica Park (2018). Palmer has written other SF and also, as Dandi Palmer, YA and children’s books. The bio she supplied to The Women’s Press reads

Jane Palmer comes from a working-class background and describes herself as having been ‘almost’ educated. She has been employed in a variety of capacities: telephonist, ledger clerk, receptionist and milliner. She has ‘manged to avoid’ marriage and her beliefs are ‘not many’.

So your standard second-wave women’s libber then.

Diana is a middle-aged single mum – so not your average SF hero – working as secretary (and fill-in guide), terrifying her co-workers with her mood swings, in an “iron age village” museum, adjacent to a radio telescope array. She hears voices, one voice, really, loud and clear, in her head. Eva, her best friend and former school chum is the astronomer in charge of the radio telescope, and her drunken Russian neighbour, Yuri, who has his own problems with voices and manifestations, turns out to be Eva’s secret husband (but only to stop him being deported). Their sworn foe is the horsey, fox bothering, Mrs Daphne Trotter.

Yuri, who has his own optical telescope, has after years of observation calculated that bodies are coming into alignment in the asteroid belt in such a way as to presage the end of the earth. The voice in Diana’s head is Moosevan, an incredibly ancient being who occupies a whole planet. A fairy ring in Diana’s garden turns out to be a ‘portal’ – space is not curved but crinkled and where the folds touch you may step through to another part of the universe – First Uri is transported, then Diana follows him. Moosevan, has fallen in love with Uri and Uri is inclined to reciprocate.

The Mott, vile alien space engineers, are engaged in destroying Moosevan’s planet. Moosevan was not worried, she had a new planet ready to fall back on … Earth. On learning that Earth is already occupied, Moosevan decides not to transfer, meaning that she will die. Diana must work out how to save her, and save Earth.

I’m in Melbourne and haven’t really had a day off. This morning (Weds) I will finish loading and head back to Perth. Hopefully, by Sunday, I will have read book 2, Moving Moosevan – I was planning to review them jointly – and will put up a second post.

 

 

Jane Turner, The Planet Dweller, The Women’s Press, London, 1985 (available “free” on Hoopla as audiobook here (not an option that I’ve checked out))