Little Women, mostly

Journal: 034

Book Cover

You guys all grew up reading Little Women I’m sure. Milly did, and Gee says that she and Psyche did, though I don’t remember giving it to them, but I didn’t. No sisters, no copy in the house. So I read/listened to it for the first time just a week or so ago and thought the first sentence of my review was going to be “I couldn’t find a way into reviewing this book which you all know by heart – no trucks!” BUT. In Part II, Chapter 23* a distressed Jo steps out into traffic without looking, into the path of a … truck. I pictured a costermonger’s barrow

Image result for costermonger barrow

though Websters suggests any “strong horse-drawn or automotive vehicle for hauling” so I’m not sure what Alcott intended.

*I wrote ‘2/23 truck’ on the back of my hand because that is my notebook when I am driving, but Ch 23 is actually in Part I, and now I can’t find the quote.

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) wrote Little Women in two parts, which came out in 1868 and 1869. It is generally regarded as fictionalised autobiography and as a novel for children. I’m sure most of you read it at around 12 or 13 but it seems to me to be directed more at young women getting ready for adulthood and marriage.

At the beginning of the novel Mr March, father of the little women of the title, is away at the American Civil War, as a chaplain (on the Union side) so the year is around 1862. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter came out in 1850, Elizabeth Gaskell’s first, Mary Barton, was published in 1848, all of Jane Austen’s had been out for 30 or 40 years, but the two works which Alcott has Jo reading are The Vicar of Wakefield (secretly, for amusement, when she’s meant to be reading sermons to her wealthy, aged aunt) and Fanny Burney’s Evelina, both dating from the previous century. I wish just one author would write, “I rushed down to the bookshop for the latest xxx”, Dickens maybe, who was then at the height of his popularity. Of course the work which is central to Little Women is the older again Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan (1678), another “first novel written in English” (here).

There is of course nothing I can tell you about the book itself. I found it a bit preachy but am used to that strain of Christian duty in books of that time; and I probably preferred Anne of Green Gables (1908, I hadn’t remembered it was so ‘recent’). I would though like to say a little about ‘the Independent Woman’. Jo speaks at length about the advantages of being unmarried and of course she famously refuses to marry the boy next door. Alcott herself remained unmarried, supporting herself as a governess and writer (her family’s connections with Thoreau, Emerson, the Underground Railroad are fascinating (wiki) and I would like to read more).

“An old maid, that’s what I’m to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children, and twenty years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps, when, like poor Johnson, I’m old and can’t enjoy it, solitary, and can’t share it, independent, and don’t need it. Well, I needn’t be a sour saint nor a selfish sinner, and, I dare say, old maids are very comfortable when they get used to it, but…” and there Jo sighed, as if the prospect was not inviting.

Americans, it seems to me, are afraid of independent women and even strong characters like Marge Simpson and Roseanne eventually bow down to their husbands, so I was disappointed but not surprised when Alcott not only married Jo off to the older Bhaer but made Bhaer, not Jo, the principal of Jo’s school.

At nine they stopped work and sung as usual

Project Gutenberg has a generously illustrated version (here). The illustration above is “At nine they stopped work and sung as usual”, by Frank T Merrill (here).

That’s a scrappy review, I know, but I wanted to say something about it. Now I am listening to Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot which is a fiction about an amateur Flaubert biographer – really just an excuse for talking about Flaubert, and about what we can say about writers – which I am finding both interesting and enjoyable, and about which I might write a similarly scrappy review. If I get time. And there’s the rub. I’m stuck in Melbourne. Again. After only one day home in Perth. Here, mum is in hospital after a hip replacement (she’s quite well thank you, though tired). B3 is down to see after her and picks me up from the truckstop in Dandenong each day when it’s clear there’ll be no work, and drives me up to mum’s hospital (Knox).

Meanwhile, back in Perth it’s all happening. Kim (Reading Matters) has just come from London to live and work; Nathan Hobby has handed in his PhD thesis* and is now facing the world as “full-time parent, part-time writer, part-time librarian”; and Jess White is visiting us for the launch of Hearing Maud. Hopefully I will shortly catch up with them all.

see also: Melanie/GTL’s recent post on US women’s comedy (here)

Recent audiobooks 

Katharina Hagena (F, Ger), The Taste of Apple Seeds (2013)
JD Robb (F, USA), Brotherhood in Death (2016)
JD Robb (F, USA), Apprentice in Death (2016)
Truman Capote (M, USA), The Grass Harp (1945)
Frank Herbert & Bill Ransom (M, USA), The Ascension Factor (2012)
Ann Barker (F, Eng), Ruined (2009)
Ben Bova (M, USA), Moonrise (1996)
Louisa M Alcott (F, USA), Little Women (1868)
Lisa Jackson (F, USA), Innocent by Association (1986) DNF – I stopped reading this book, and would advise you to never read this author, when the heroine was kidnapped and fell in love with her abductor. Why women authors advocate violence as a way of winning women is beyond me (in my own defence, I was expecting a crime thriller not a modern bodice ripper).

Currently reading

Eleanor Dark, Waterway


*Nathan Hobby: 100 word version of my thesis, sounding more scholarly than it is in reality: ‘Astir With Great Things’ is a biography of the early life to 1919 of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), an Australian writer and political activist. Critically engaging with Prichard’s autobiography, Child of the Hurricane, the thesis builds a fuller account of her early life with archival material. The thesis narrates Prichard’s literary development and the writing of The Pioneers and Black Opal. Exploring Prichard’s political radicalisation against the backdrop of World War One, the thesis also considers the intertwining of Prichard’s personal life with writing and politics, including the effects of her father’s suicide and her brother’s death in the war.

Advertisements

House of Earth, Woodie Guthrie

51+tZyFuRXL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Of course we all know Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) as the Depression-era singer-songwriter, brought back to public notice by his daughter Nora in 1998 when she got Billy Bragg and Wilco to put to music and record previously unheard Guthrie material in the albumn Mermaid Avenue (listen here). But he was also a prolific and talented painter and, (until recently, unpublished) writer.

Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp say in their extensive Introduction that House of Earth was “first conceived in the late 1930s but not fully composed until 1947”. It apparently is Guthrie’s only “accomplished novel” and lay amongst his extensive papers until rediscovered and published in 2013 as part of the celebration of the centenary of his birth. It however is much more than a curiosity, but a virtuoso stream of consciousness in the style of Ulysses, a hymn to the dustbowl country of the Texas panhandle high plains Guthrie called home.

The Texas panhandle is more or less next door to the Oklahoma country of the Joads, of The Grapes of Wrath, and the period is the same, and therefore the conditions, drought and scouring winds carrying away the topsoil. The Joads and their neighbours were farming cotton on 40 acre blocks. The panhandle is more like Australia’s mallee, divided into square mile/640 acre blocks for mixed farming, wheat and cattle, though much higher, they get sleet and snow.

But still the big landowners have the upper hand, using debt to force small farmers to become renters and renters to become share-croppers. The Joads were forced off their land when the banks wanted to consolidate the small holdings to facilitate mechanization. There doesn’t seem to have been the same pressure in Texas, in this part anyway.

House of Earth is in four parts, covering two days,i less than a year apart, in the life of ‘Tike’ Hamlin, son of poor dirt farmers and his wife Ella May, estranged from her substantial landowner father. They’re in their early thirties, renting 640 acres and living in a falling down timber shack, 18 ft square. Their dream is to build a house of adobe that won’t be eaten by termites and fall down in the driving winds, but their landlord won’t let them build on productive farming land.

Guthrie writes in streams of speech and consciousness – reminiscent of Christina Stead, who was in America and writing at the same time, as much as James Joyce – for both his protagonists and later for Blanche, the nurse-midwife.

During the first day Tike persuades a not unwilling Ella May to come into the barn and have sex with him and during the second Ella May gives birth, supervised by Blanche, a trained nurse who lives with farmers in the last week or two of pregnancy for whatever they can afford to pay. After a hundred pages of trying to get Ella May to settle down on the bed, to get Tike from stop being underfoot …

A noise came. A noise in the whole room. A noise from under the bed, in the closet, up the stairs, even down from the roost, from out of the cans of cream, the disks of the separator, the tablecloth, out of the globe of the lamp, the sound came on into the air, through the sounds of the night winds outside, the creaking of the snow and ice, the scrunch of crusted sleets, hard froze snow, a cry. It was a scattered and a broken, windblown, rattling yell. It was a woman drowned in water, a man drowned in hot oil. A dog that fell from a landslide down the Cap Rock. A mama turkey shrieking at three of her babies caught in the mud ruts under truck wheels. The last death hiss, the only live sound of the leather lizard under a fallen rock. Noise of dry locusts on stems of bushes. High rattle of clouds of grasshoppers peeling off across the ranch. A yelping dog. Hungry coyote. The croak of a carp feeding with fins out of the water, the gasp of the buzzard shot through the head. A sound of new green things crashing up out of the spring ground. A dry wagon wheel, a barn door, the jingle of rusty spurs hung on the windmill post. The sound was a cry and the cry had all these sounds and more and other sounds, all of the sounds, all of the hisses, barks, yelps, whoops, croaks, peeps, chirps, screams, whistles, moans, yells and groans, all of these were mixed up in Tike’s head as he listened to the skreak of the bones of his temple and saw Blanche shake his baby there above that slick wall canyon. And out of the walls of the canyon the cry got itself together, and it got better organized and unionized and turned into something so wide, so high, so big, so loud, that it strained the boards of the shack.

And so Tike realizes that this noise is the first cry of his newborn baby son. And he can’t wait to get out in the fields with his son and start putting in another crop. Because for all the dust, for all the poverty, for all the falling-down old shack Tike and Ella May must pay rent on to be able to stay one more year on the land, this is a novel of hope.

“… I want to show just a few people round here that there is a way to come out of this mess, to build a better house, and not pick up and run down the highway. I’ll be one that’ll never take that road that goes nowhere.” (Ella May)

This is Woody Guthrie’s answer to John Steinbeck. Stick it out. Pay the rent, crop for shares, whatever it takes. Scrimp and scrape and get a block of waste land and build with your own hands a house that will last. Raise another generation.

 

Woodie Guthrie, House of Earth, Fourth Estate, London, 2013. Jacket painting In El Rancho Grande, Woodie Guthrie, 1936

 

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Related image

The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is one of the classics of American and World literature, THE great novel of the Depression, and of course a great Road story, of impoverished farming family the Joads, and their journey from Oklahoma to California. It was made into a movie, one of the great movies according to Wikipedia, the following year. The image above, of the Joads’ ‘truck’, a 1926 Hudson Super Six cut down from a sedan and given a home-made truck body, is from the movie.

Image result for 1926 hudson super six
1926 Hudson Super Six sedan

When I was a boy scout if we went on a troop camp – say 15 or 20 boys – our scout leader would take us in his farm truck with a cattle crate 16 ft long by 8 ft wide with 6 ft high slat sides, and we boys would sit on tents or on our bags with our backs against the slats, smoking Alpines, Camels, Viscounts, Marlboros, and it is this sort of roomy feeling I got reading (listening to) the book once again last week, but in fact the body on the Hudson wouldn’t have been much larger than the tray on my Hi-Lux ute – 8 ft long by 6 ft wide – and there were 13 Joads, counting the preacher and the son-in-law, some of them lying on mattresses (and at one stage Connie talks Rose of Sharon into having sex!). That’s awful crowded.

Don’t you think Rose of Sharon is a great name? Luckily I’m past the age of giving names to daughters or I’d have been tempted. It’s from the Bible, though apparently no-one is sure what flower it describes.

Everyone has read and seen TGoW I’m sure, but what struck me this time round was the number of trucks and the time Steinbeck takes to describe them. First up is a new diesel truck. Tom Joad, just of jail for killing a man, hitches a lift home.

For a moment the driver stared after him, and then he called “Luck!” Joad waved his hand without looking around, then the motor roared up and the gears clicked and the great red truck rolled heavily away.

I had thought most US trucks were petrol engined but I discover GM introduced the 71 series two-stroke diesel engines which I was driving in the 1970s, in 1938.  And Mack too had diesel powered trucks back then.

Image result for 1938 mack truck
1938 Mack Type 75 (I think)

Not much later Steinbeck introduces a roadside cafe by describing two drivers – a long distance two-up team – chatting to the woman behind the counter. Their truck has a sleeper berth “high up, behind the driver”. I can’t imagine what their truck was (maybe Melanie/GTL’s father can tell me), but they did exist, as these images show.

Related image

Image result for 1938 truck sleeper cab

I’m sitting in a roadhouse (Wingfield, Adelaide today) waiting for work and using Google Books to look up quotes. It’s hard to know what phrases to search on but the scene in the cafe brings up this, which resonates:

He’d go nuts just settin’ here and the road sneakin’ under the wheels. Fella said once that truck skinners eats all the time – eats all the time in hamburger joints along the road.

I owned and drove old trucks (20 or 30 years newer than these in build if not in design), Inters, Atkinsons, AECs, Leylands on long distance and Austins and Bedfords on local, so a lot of what Tom and Allan put up with is familiar. I never cranked a truck though I think we could crank our old Prefect and Granddad used a blowtorch to heat up his single cylinder Lanz Bulldog tractor, then a big flywheel to turn it over, with a deep bop-bop-bop that would send me running out of the machinery shed and down the track to the house.

When a big end bearing fails on the road the boys drop the sump (oil pan) and swap out the piston. I’ve done the same more than once, though not with secondhand parts from the wreckers as they did. I’m fascinated that they were able to get the replacement piston up past the crankshaft and into the cylinder, holding the piston ring tight with bronze wire which melted when the engine fired up. I’ve always had to remove the head – which means a new head gasket – and put the new piston in from above.

Enough trucks? The Grapes of Wrath is a Realist novel, following in the tradition of Zola and Jack London, not just describing the poor but explaining how they are cheated by the rich, the banks and the big landowners. ‘Conservative’ governments again and again allow the banks to create credit on the back of low quality paper, and again and again the paper – often junk mortgages – fails, the banks fail or at least withdraw credit, and so businesses relying on credit fail. Here the businesses are small farms, 40 acres – tiny by comparison with Australia where my grandparents’ selection in the Mallee was a square mile, 640 acres – many of the farmers already reduced from owners to tenants by years of drought, and with the coming of mechanized ploughing the banks force the people off the land causing a great wave of migration from  Oklahoma and surrounding states to the land of milk and honey, California. Only there, the banks and land owners are squeezing the little guys too, using their ownership of canneries to force down prices and ruthlessly underpaying the great influx of farm workers.

So the migrants are hated. Even workers in employment can’t afford to spend. Big business profits skyrocket while the economy stagnates. If it all sounds familiar that’s because it is. While the middle class is prosperous Capitalism seems benevolent. But it never lasts. Does it?

Interestingly Steinbeck alternates the Joad’s story with chapters of general description, economic theory, or illustrative stories with unnamed characters. And it works. Do you think the novel has a central protagonist? Sometimes I think it is Tom and sometimes I think Ma.

Ma is certainly the most interesting character. She says to Tom senior (her husband), you can give me a few whacks when you’re doing your job, supporting the family, but now we’re down and out, I’ve got to step up, assert control, and if you try and give me a few whacks now you’ll find I’ll be whacking back.

The Joads never get on their feet in California, the old people die, Noah, Connie, the preacher leave. Eventually Tom is forced to leave. But the novel ends with a flicker of hope, or at least of life-goes-on. Al settles down with his girl, and Rose of Sharon, her baby still-born, brings a near-dead man back to life.

 

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, first pub. 1939. Audiobook: Hachette, read by John Chancer

Beloved, Toni Morrison

images.jpg

I’m late to the Toni Morrison party – she is obviously, and deservedly, well known to feminists and to all readers not so determinedly nationalistic as I am. At this point I check Wikipedia and discover Morrison was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature. I am really late to the party! Morrison (1931- ) was “the second of four children in a working-class, African-American family.  She grew up in Ohio, did her BA at Howard in Washington DC and worked as a lecturer and in publishing. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye came out in 1970. Beloved (1987) was her fifth and was subsequently developed into a trilogy with Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997). As with many of my posts, I’m learning as I write, so forgive me for including stuff you already know.

My reason for reading Morrison was that I’m interested in the portrayal of race relations in other countries and in thinking about how that reflects on race relations in Australia; and that I had seen Morrison mentioned a few times by Melanie in Grab The Lapels. In her review of Sula (here) Melanie writes: “If you’re read anything by Morrison, though, you know it’s not always the plot, but how it’s told that is magic. Toni Morrison writes black pain like few can.” My reason for reading Morrison in the future will be her wonderful command of language.

Beloved is the story of Sethe, and her daughters ‘Beloved’ and Denver. I write ‘Beloved’ because that is the single word on the headstone of Sethe’s daughter who died as Denver was being born. The novel begins:

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old …

Baby Suggs was Sethe’s mother in law. They had been slaves on a farm down south, Sweet Home, along with six men, one of them Baby Suggs’ son Halle. The novel drifts backwards and forwards over the years (approx.) 1855 – 1875 slowly building up the story as to how the women’s home, 124 became haunted and then un-haunted. Does this make it magic realism? I’m not sure, for Morrison’s characters Beloved’s spirit is just another facet of life.

The timeline which underlies Beloved includes the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (which mandates that slaves escaping to the North must be returned to their owners in the South), the American Civil War (1861-1865), and the Emancipation Proclamations of 1863-65, but only the War comes up in the text and even then, only tangentially.

Briefly, the owners of Sweet Home allow Halle to earn money in his free time, to buy his mother out of slavery. She moves to Ohio, to the white house on Bluestone Road outside Cincinnati which becomes known as 124. After Mr Garner, the farm owner dies, Mrs Garner brings in ‘the schoolteacher’ to manage the farm and the slaves lose all the freedoms they had previously been allowed. There’s a revolt. Sethe sends her boys on ahead, becomes separated from Halle, and must make her way alone, pregnant and with an infant daughter, to Baby Suggs.

Halle, we don’t see again, but in 1873 another of the six men from Sweet Home, Paul D, turns up, exorcises the ghost, the spirit of the dead baby daughter, and eventually Sethe takes him as her partner. A young woman, seemingly dumb but beautiful, giving herself the name Beloved, moves in with them. Then one day, Paul D learns the secret of the dead baby’s murder, and the three women, Sethe, Denver and Beloved are alone, isolated from the community of which Baby Suggs was once the centre.

What gets me. Over and Over. Is how hard Toni Morrison is on Whites. The “hard” we have to absorb before we can even begin to understand. The ten minutes of sex Sethe pays to have the headstone inscribed; slaves wearing headpieces with bits forcing their mouths into unnatural smiles; Sethe’s feet beaten to stop her walking off the farm, and yet she does; Black women valued more highly than men because they were mares who could throw off foals for resale; and

… That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.

And yet, the novel ends on a note of hope. Retracing Paul D’s story as the War comes to an end, he finds himself in the North, walking unremarked amongst whitefolks, being paid for work: “That was when he decided that to eat, walk and sleep anywhere was life as good as it got. And he did it for seven years till he found himself in southern Ohio, where an old woman and a girl he used to know had gone.” Which is more or less where we started.

A scarifying work, written in the most wonderful prose. Read it and weep for all the wrongs that we have done, that we go on doing.

 

Toni Morrison, Beloved, first pub. 1987. My copy Picador (as pictured), London, 1987.

 

 

The Awakening, Kate Chopin

the-awakening-and-selected-stories.jpg

No, I don’t understand the cover either. Shades of the gratuitous breasts on the cover of Anne Brooksbank’s All My Love (here). The painting above is “Antes del Baño” (Before the Bath) by Ramon Casas, a Catalan Spaniard, doubly or triply inappropriate for a buttoned-up, French-American heroine who takes her ‘baths’ in the sea.

To get back to where I meant to start, I have begun downloading audiobooks from Project Gutenberg (here). The first was Silas Marner and this was the second. The books are read by volunteers for LibriVox and so far have been uniformly good. It’s not completely straightforward, the books must be downloaded a section at a time (as MP3 files in my case), named, and copied to one directory per book on a USB drive so I can play them via the USB port on my truck radio, you Apple nuts can experiment for yourselves. In the case of The Awakening each section was 5 chapters, each with a different reader, all women, four American and two French. This caused no problems at all. The next book I downloaded was Howards End (I was wondering where the apostrophe would be, but there isn’t one) which has one reader but 44 chapters, which took quite a while to download, name, copy etc. The readers name themselves at the beginning of each section but do not appear to be named on the Project Gutenberg site.

Ok. The Awakening is beautifully written, is yet another example of the anti-marriage theme in C19th women’s writing, and suffers from unthinking racism throughout. It’s a book I’ve had in my TBR for many years, so I’m glad to have finally got to it. I have the Penguin Classics edition pictured above which contains as well 12 short stories and an Introduction by Sandra M Gilbert, an English professor. Don’t read the Introduction first as it completely destroys the ending.

Gilbert says that Chopin (1850-1904) was born to parents with Irish and ‘aristocratic’ French antecedents, grew up in affluent circumstances in St Louis, Missouri, was a voracious reader in English and French, was an acknowledged belle, supported the Confederate side in the Civil War (1861-1865), married at age 20 a cotton trader/plantation owner in Louisiana, and had six children.

On the death of her husband in 1883 she returned to St Louis and began writing – first “delightful sketches of her life in ‘Old Natchitoches‘”, then novels. The first, At Fault (1890) was derivative, particularly of Jane Eyre. The second, The Awakening (1899), was received so badly for its discussion of women’s sexuality that Chopin basically stopped writing. Gilbert argues that Chopin was writing not just in the tradition of the Brontës and George Eliot, but in an end of century atmosphere of eroticism and women’s independence created by the New Woman movement and writers and artists such as George Sand, Zola, Beardsley and Oscar Wilde.

The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier, a young wife, an American from Kentucky, who has married into properous middle class, Francophone New Orleans. The setting is first Grand Isle, an island near New Orleans (map) in the Gulf of Mexico, then the French Quarter of New Orleans itself, then finally, briefly, Grand Isle again.

The racism – in the telling, not in the conscious actions of the protagonists – begins early.

Some young children were out under the water-oaks playing croquet. Mr Pontellier’s two children were there – sturdy little fellows of four and five. A quadroon nurse followed them about with a far-away, meditative air.

Why couldn’t Chopin write ‘Mary, the nurse followed …’ ? Because no-one who is African-American, except the old woman who becomes her house-keeper, is named. The nurse is always “the quadroon”, other servants “mulattos” or “coffee-coloured”.

There is much academic discussion of racism in The Awakening with one writer concluding,  “Chopin is guilty of oppressing these characters for their color in exactly the same way Edna is being oppressed for her gender.”

Grand Isle was formerly the grand home of Mrs Lebrun which, on the death of her husband, she turned into a guest house with cottages around the main house for families, but with central dining room and lounges. During the summer Mr Pontellier, who seems to be an investment banker, goes up to town during the week while Edna and the children (and the ‘quadroon’) stay on Grande Isle. She is generally in the company of the older Lebrun son, Robert, who every year is infatuated with one of the wives, but she has or makes friends among the other guests, particularly the beautiful, plump, and fecund Adèle Ratignolle – “There are no words to describe her save the old ones that have served so often to picture the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams” – and the crusty spinster pianist Mlle Reisz.

Without going too much into the plot, this is the story of Edna’s gradual increasing awareness of her position as a dependant, of her sexual awakening, and of the movements she makes away from her husband. Robert goes away, to a position in Mexico City, and Edna back in New Orleans visits Mlle Reisz to read Robert’s letters to her, but also falls into the ambit of a seducer, Alcée Arobin. Lots of readers, then and now, get excited about the sex, which puzzled me, I must be dense. The nearest I found was:

[Arobin] did not answer, except to continue to caress her. He did not say good night until she had become supple to his gentle seductive entreaties.

Mr Pontellier (before Arobin comes into the picture) worries about the increasing distance between him and his wife but nevertheless goes to New York on an extended business trip. His mother takes the children back to her farm and Edna is free to pursue her own interests. I will say no more except that The Awakening contains one of the loveliest images in the literature of the Independent Woman:

“… when I left [Mlle Reisz] to-day, she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said. ‘The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.’ Whither would you soar?”

A wonderful book! I’ve been wondering what I would do if I were a young African-American English student and this was a set text. I think that I would read it, but I would hope that the teacher led a discussion of the racism, and that Zora Neale Hurston, for instance, was also set.

 

Kate Chopin, The Awakening, 1899. The Awakening and Selected Stories, Penguin, 1984, 2003. Project Gutenberg Audiobooks (here)

Troubled Bones, Jeri Westerson

11060767.jpg

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) and in particular, his Canterbury Tales, marks the transition in English Literature from Latin to English. Or so I always thought. But this is what wikipedia has to say:

It has been suggested that the greatest contribution of The Canterbury Tales to English literature was the popularisation of the English vernacular in mainstream literature, as opposed to French, Italian or Latin. English had, however, been used as a literary language centuries before Chaucer’s time, and several of Chaucer’s contemporaries—John Gower, William Langland, the Pearl Poet, and Julian of Norwich—also wrote major literary works in English. It is unclear to what extent Chaucer was seminal in this evolution of literary preference.

I’ve owned Langland’s Piers Plowman since my student days but I think I’d rate it as even more difficult to take in than Finnegan’s Wake.

Chaucer was a well-off bureaucrat, under the protection of the first Duke of Lancaster, who was third son of Edward III and acted as regent during the minority of his nephew, Richard II (1367-1400), King of England (1377-1399).

I’ve been listening to The Canterbury Tales as I work – one prologue, one tale then listen to something else. A couple of posts ago I was making my way backwards from Jane Austen (here). Well I guess this is as far as I go unless someone records Beowulf. Anyway, one of the something elses I listened to was a work of ‘Medieval Noir’ by American woman, Jeri Westerson, one of a series apparently, featuring fourteenth century private eye and disgraced knight, Crispin Guest and starring, in Troubled Bones at least – Geoffrey Chaucer.

The plot, as a best I can remember a few days later, is that the Archbishop of Canterbury, who makes a great deal of money from pilgrims coming to worship at the tomb of Thomas à Beckett, gives Guest and his offsider/apprentice 13 year old Jake the job of guarding the saint’s bones which he says he thinks will be stolen by Lollards (early Protestants).

On arriving at his hotel in Canterbury Guest finds a group of pilgrims, including Chaucer whom he hasn’t seen for some years when they were both in the service of Lancaster. The pilgrims who are of course the pilgrims from The Canterbury Tales, include the Wife of Bath, the Franklin, the Pardoner, the Summoner etc.

On the first night the Prioress is murdered in the Cathedral while Guest sleeps nearby ‘guarding’ à Beckett’s tomb, and then when he goes to investigate the screams of the Prioress’s attendant, the bones go missing. Do we have one crime or two? What is causing unrest amongst the cathedral’s monks? Is the monk-treasurer on the take? Chaucer, who is clearly a Lollard appears to be involved. The Pardoner and the Summoner are up to something, are they involved in the murder, in the theft of the bones? (A Pardoner appears to be an intermediary in the sale of indulgences by the Church, something about which Martin Luther got very agitated a century later.) The Knight and the Prioress had previously been involved in a legal dispute over land, a dispute in which Chaucer had given evidence. The Knight is still angry.

And so we go on with leads and counter-leads. It’s an interesting and well-written work and, except for the idea of a private investigator, probably quite well done in terms of historical fiction. Guest inevitably gets his rocks off with Alison, the Wife of Bath (whom I think is younger in Troubled Bones than she is in the Tales). Jake’s head pops up at all the wrong times and I think the author occasionally forgets he is only 13. But that is just a minor quibble. Give it a try.

The version of The Canterbury Tales I have been listening to, from Brilliance Audio Classic Collection read by David Butler (2002) is straightforward and enjoyable, clearly a modern translation (the table below is extracted from Wikipedia), although it doesn’t say so anywhere on the cover, however not so modernised that you lose all sense of the original, and consists of eight tales and their prologues.

Original Text Modern Translation
This frere bosteth that he knoweth helle, This friar boasts that he knows hell,
And God it woot, that it is litel wonder; And God knows that it is little wonder;
Freres and feendes been but lyte asonder. Friars and fiends are seldom far apart.
For, pardee, ye han ofte tyme herd telle For, by God, you have ofttimes heard tell
How that a frere ravyshed was to helle How a friar was taken to hell

 

Jeri Westerson, Troubled Bones, 2011. Out of print (self-published?). Audio and ebook versions available here

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, 1387?. Audiobook: Brilliance Audio The Classic Collection, read by David Butler, 2002

The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin

756970.jpg

One of my favourite novelists, Ursula Le Guin (b.1929) died last month (22 Jan 2018). I was barely aware of her children’s fantasy fiction which brought her so much acclaim but her adult novels, which are both Science Fiction and Literature, brought me, Mrs Legend and eventually our children, both pleasure and an awareness of what-might-be. Throughout the seventies and eighties she was the first writer we both looked for in second-hand stores and whose work we discussed, and just this xmas we inducted out oldest granddaughter into the club with Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest.

Ursula K Le Guin in her writing and no doubt in herself, was a feminist, an anarchist and a conservationist, a (quiet) revolutionary in the sixties and seventies when it all seemed possible, right up to now when it seems less possible but rather more necessary. She was a fine story-teller who used her adult science fiction to picture and discuss her beliefs and who argued that science fiction was an important and necessary part of Literature. Her obituary in the Guardian says that

… she conveys her strong conviction that science fiction and fantasy, though fascinating in themselves, are also essential literary constructs or tools through which the world could profitably be described – but only if one honoured the tools. She was impatient – though respectfully so – with her friend Margaret Atwood’s disinclination to call some of her own novels science fiction.

Some time in the nineties or oughties I lost track of her and so was pleased when Michelle (MST at Adventures in Biography) wrote of her family’s connection with Le Guin (here) and then came up with Le Guin’s great defense of Harper Lee (here) on the release of Go Set a Watchman in 2015 (my review).

The Dispossessed (1974) was one of three political masterpieces Le Guin wrote at the height of her powers in the sixties and seventies, the other two being Left Hand of Darkness (1969) on feminism and The Word for World is Forest (1976) on conservation and the rapacity of capitalism.

The Dispossessed is the story of a man, Shevek, a physicist working on the Unified Field Theory which eluded Einstein, living on a planet Anarres which 200 years earlier had been colonised by ‘Odonians’ – followers of the woman, anarchist philosopher and revolutionary, Odo. Anarres circles a slightly larger and much more fertile planet, Urras. (The physics of their situation, which Le Guin glosses over by referring to each being the other’s moon, is that they would in fact have orbited each other around their common mid-point and their daily rotations would have synchronised so that they constantly showed the same face to each other.)

Urras, which acts as an analog for present-day Earth, is heavily populated and divided into countries with authoritarian governments. The wealthy country A-Io is an analog for the USA and the communist country Thu of course stands in for the USSR. They are not at war but during the course of the novel fight a proxy war in a third country, putting down a peoples revolt, with A-Io victorious and reinstalling a dictatorship (a reference no doubt to the USA’s intentions in Viet Nam at the time of writing.)

In the background of this story, of all Le Guin’s SF, are the space-faring and long-civilized Hainish who posit that an even earlier civilzation seeded thousands of planets throughout the galaxy with ‘mankind’. The Hainish have near-lightspeed travel, which they are happy to share, but Shevek’s work on ‘Simultaneity’ carries the promise, for the first time, of instantaneous communication. The Hainish, and Terre, almost destroyed by global warming (Yes, that was a thing in 1974. We have been ignoring it for a very long time. The only fiction I ever had published was on a Melbourne inundated by rising sea levels (RMIT Engineering magazine, 1970) ), have embassies on Urras which play a small part at the end of the story. The Terran ambassador tells Shevek:

“My world, my Earth is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species … There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot … There are nearly half a billion of us now. Once there were nine billion. You can see the old cities still everywhere. The bones and bricks go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do …”

The story follows two paths: chapters of Shevek’s life growing into adulthood on Anarres, from maths prodigy to physicist, working within his chosen field and as a labourer as the people struggle to deal with shortages and drought, meeting women, getting married, having a family, increasingly having to deal with structural rigidities and social pressure which serve to prevent him disseminating his work; alternating with his time as a mature scientist in A-Io, feted but closeted away from ordinary people, becoming increasingly aware that by being the first person ever to make the trip back from Antarres to Urras he has sold himself, sold his groundbreaking work to the State.

I know there is plenty of boy own stuff in SF, lots of militarism and soft-sex fantasies (the mild, clerkish Robert Heinlein was derided for the enormous muscles of his heroes and breasts of his heroines), but there is also social and literary experimentation which did not, could not find a place elsewhere. The Dispossessed is not space opera, Le Guin makes us care about her protagonist, about his inner struggle to conform his conscience with a workable anarchist ethic. She gives him a life partner, Takver, and friends who share and guide his struggle. She is aware of the problems that will confront a working revolutionary society, and confronts them head-on: the decline of systems of work into bureaucratic rule-following; the failure of voluntary work-sharing and rationing when resources are scarce; the problem of inertia in science which Popper describes in The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934) and of analagous failures in the arts. And she balances her male protagonist with an overtly feminist, “womanish”, political philosophy. Odonianism. Anarchism, syndicalism, socialism, pacifism.

Shevek in A-Io struggles with the comfort of his rooms, with the idea of servants, with the absence of women from all areas of work, with his increasing awareness that he is being “duchessed” – inundated with luxuries – in return for the completion of his thesis on Simultaneity. At a ball, consuming alcohol for the first time, he makes a fool of himself with his hostess – the women are naked from the waist up which he takes as an invitation – but in his subsequent hangover determines to defect to the workers, takes part in a massive demonstration which is dispersed by machine gun fire and, finally, ends up at the Terran embassy.

Shevek, a diffident man, is persuaded to address the demonstration. “There might have been a hundred thousand human beings in Capitol Square, or twice that many”. Exactly the situation in Bourke Street, Melbourne on Moratorium Day, May 8, 1970, when the capitalist press attempted to play down our numbers, 20 wide and packed solid all the way, a kilometre, from the GPO to Parliament House and back into the Treasury Gardens.

“I am here because you see in me the promise, the promise that we made two hundred years ago in this city – the promise kept. We have kept it, on Antarres. We have nothing but our freedom. We have nothing to give you but your own freedom. We have no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals. We have no government but the single principle of free association. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charity, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much else. We are sharers, not owners. We are not prosperous. None of us is rich. None of us is powerful…”

Ursula L Guin was a great, great woman. We are the poorer not for her passing, but for our failure to pay her the attention she deserved.

 

Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed, first pub. 1974. Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2002

see also:

John Clute, Ursula K Le Guin obituary, the Guardian, 25 Jan 2018 here
Ursula K Le Guin, A Personal Take on Go Set a Watchman, 3 Aug 2015 here
Ursula K Le Guin, website here


Australia’s First Women Writers – Giveaway

Michelle in her guest post (here) promised a copy of Clarke, P, and Spender, D, Life Lines: Australian women’s letters and diaries 1788-1840 to a lucky commenter. She has written to tell me that the winner is … Jay Hicks. Congratulations Jay. Drop me a line at theaustralianlegend@gmail.com with your postal address and your book will soon be in the mail.