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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Leech’ by Cora Sandel ****

I chose to purchase Cora Sandel’s The Leech for my Reading the World project, as she is an author whom has been on my radar for an awfully long time, but whose books appear to be few and far between.  I had originally thought that I would start with the Alberta trilogy which Sandel is arguably most famous for, but  The Leech was the most easily available of her books to me through Abebooks, and so I plumped for it as what I hoped would be a good introduction to her work.  The only other person who has reviewed it on Goodreads also compared it to Virginia Woolf, so of course it was almost inevitable that I was going to begin with this one.

The Leech was first published in Norway in 1958, and in the United Kingdom two years later.  This particular translation has been wonderfully rendered by Elizabeth Rakkan, and printed by The Women’s Press.  Interestingly, we do not meet the woman, Dondi, whom the story revolves around until almost the end of the work.  She is relatively young, and left her home in southern Norway to head to a small town within the Arctic Circle in order to marry.  The Leech begins ten years after Dondi’s decision has been made, and things have not turned out quite as she was expecting them to.  Her writer husband, Gregor, is less than famous, her twin children Bella and Beppo are rebellious, and she is ‘miserable to the point of hysteria’.  Added to this, Gregor’s extended family see Dondi as the reason why he has not quite realised his full potential as a writer; they believe that she has sapped his talent pool dry. 9780704340053-us

The Leech takes place over two days in Midsummer, and from the beginning, Sandel sets the scene perfectly: ‘The veranda doors were open to the radiant North Norwegian summer: a summer which heaps light upon light, shining and brittle, only to fade too soon’.  The majority of the prose takes place within conversations; it opens with Lagerta speaking to her grandmother, who is berating everything modern, from jazz music to motorcycles.  She is grimly comic and belligerent, most fulfilled when she has something to complain about, and somebody to argue her points against.  She is shrewd, and notices everything, telling her granddaughter the following in the opening passage: ‘”But you Lagerta, are over-nervous, my dear.  You must have something in your hands all the time.  You can’t rest any more, don’t think I haven’t noticed it.  One can simply get too tired.”‘

Gregor’s brother, Jonas, acts with his aunt Lagerta and his great-grandmother as a voice of reason in the novel.  We learn an awful lot about Dondi, and her relationship with Gregor, but our view of her is always through their disapproving eyes until she appears in the flesh.  She has very little agency; until she is given a voice of her own, our interpretation of her is negatively biased, and when she is allowed her say, she is forever being fussed over and ordered around somewhat by those around her.  Whilst Dondi is always the focus of their speech, the characters do become protagonists in the piece through Sandel’s clever and effective prose techniques.  Lagerta particularly describes how she has had to live through and adapt to a changing world; she is a thoroughly three-dimensional being, and the most realistic character in the book.

The geographical isolation of the family is best described by Lagerta, when she states: ‘”Coming up here was a violent experience…  I don’t know what to compare it with – being killed and slowly coming alive again.  I was not myself for a while…”‘.  The relationships which Sandel draws are complex and interesting, and the homestead in the middle of nowhere exacerbates the fact that they have few other people for company outside of the familial base.

Sadly, and undeservedly, The Leech has fallen by the wayside.  Using Goodreads as a marker, it has had only a few ratings, and one review other than mine.  There is a marvellous flow to the whole thanks to Rakkan’s translation.  The Leech is a wonderful read, full of interesting and important points about the state of the world and a woman’s place within it, and great writing.  If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s a book which I would certainly recommend.

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Neglected Books: ‘The Immortal Moment: The Story of Kitty Tailleur’, and ‘The Creators: A Comedy’ by May Sinclair

The Immortal Moment: The Story of Kitty Tailleur ****
As with the rest of Sinclair’s early work, I had not much of an idea as to what The Immortal Moment: The Story of Kitty Tailleur was about before I began.  The novel’s opening paragraph is stunning, and appeals to each of the senses.

As with two of her previous works, The Judgment of Eve and The Helpmate, there is a detailed female character study in this novel; in fact, more than one if one includes Miss Keating, who is our title character’s companion.  She decides that she wants to find a different position after listening to the malicious gossip banded around by the other guests in the hotel in which they are staying.  The Immortal Moment is strongly characterised, and the conversations which take place, particularly between Kitty and Miss Keating, are wonderfully believable.  They are never cliched or overdone, but well thought out, and translated masterfully to the page.  One cannot help but feel a rather overwhelming sense of sympathy for Kitty at points.  She has such agency; she is an incredibly complex female subject, through which such interesting ideas are presented about womanhood and motherhood.

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Photo credit: ‘bookpickers’ on Etsy

One can see that Sinclair’s foray into psychology, and the inclusion of consciousness within her literature, is beginning to come to the fore here; she discusses the male mind in part, and makes full use of her titular character to write about a woman’s position within society, and the effects this was like to have upon her.

 

 

The Creators: A Comedy ****
Sinclair provides full portraits of each of those she has focused upon within The Creators: A Comedy.  The males are sometimes a little shadowy, but the interactions between each of the characters more than make up for this.  In The Creators, Sinclair begins to overtly touch upon psychology in the case of Jane; another character named Henry is a psychiatrist, and seems to view her largely in terms of what he sees as her neuroses.  Meek Laura, too, is seen by the males around her as feeble and suffering with mental strain; this, perhaps, can be explained with the stress that her father’s illness brings.

The Creators begins in 1902 and follows several characters, the most interesting of whom is writer Jane Holland, who is known affectionately as Jinny – and who, through her published work, is able to exercise her independence within the male sphere.  George Tanqueray is another author, who marries rather a common but kindly girl named Rose Eldred.  Rose is the very epitome of the domestic woman, cooking, cleaning, and nursing.  She is, essentially, the antithesis to Jane; she is the Angel of the House.

I was intrigued by the title of this particular tome; Sinclair’s work is brilliant, but comedic is not an adjective which I would apply.  As I suspected, The Creators is not a comedy; for the most part, it is more of a tragic piece.  It has such depth to it, and has just as much to offer the modern reader as more popular novels written during the same period.  Sinclair has such empathy, and such understanding of and for the characters she creates here.  The multi-character focus is both effective and enjoyable, as are the way in which pairs converged at points.  The many themes in The Creators are clever and well-handled, and the novel is rather modern in terms of the progressive ideas and attitudes which it presents.

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Neglected Books: ‘The Judgment of Eve’ and ‘The Helpmate’ by May Sinclair

The Judgment of Eve ****
The Judgment of Eve is the shortest Sinclair book yet in my reading of her entire bibliography.  The author sets the scene wonderfully, and introduces the reader at once to protagonist, Aggie.  Aggie herself is well-educated, but in true Edwardian fashion, the first quarter of the plot deals with which of her two suitors she will choose to marry.  She is rather a progressive woman, willing to work if her fiance’s salary fails to rise as he has been promised.  Sinclair’s prose is shrewd, as ever: ‘Nature, safeguarding her own interests, had whispered to Aggie that young ladies who live in Queningford are better without intellects that show’.  

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May Sinclair


After a move to London, the intellect which Aggie prizes above all else disappears once one child after another is born.  Our protagonist rises to the challenge of motherhood, but Sinclair makes us aware that it – and the never-ending domesticity which comes with it – is far from a perfect life for Aggie: ‘It was as if Nature had conceived a grudge against Aggie, and strove, through maternity, to stamp out her features as an individual’.  Sinclair paints the role of the traditional Angel in the House in a very interesting light, essentially turning it on its head.

The Judgment of Eve is a short book, but it unquestionably has a lot of depth to it, and both asks and answers a plethora of question about womankind and their place within the world.  Had it not been so brief, I would have definitely given it a five-star rating; regardless, it deserves to be read by a far wider audience.

 

The Helpmate *****
May Sinclair’s wonderful, and sadly neglected, novel The Helpmate details a marriage from its very beginnings.  Her characters, in their entirety, feel touchably realistic, and their relationships with one another are complex.  Here, Sinclair demonstrates the many different – and sometimes opposing – facets of married love.  There is such emotional depth throughout, and one can never quite tell what is likely to happen next.

The Helpmate is so very compelling, and of course, it is wonderfully written.  There is such a clarity to the whole.  The novel was first published in 1907, but feels incredibly modern; many of the themes are just as relevant today as they were when it was written.  Sinclair writes of love, deception, and grief in such a timely way; the modern reader can learn so much from it.  It is sadly not a book which I can include in my PhD thesis, as it lacks the elements which I am looking at, but it is certainly a fascinating and well-paced read, which – along with all of Sinclair’s work – deserves to be widely read.

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Neglected Women Writers’ Month: The Extras

Since I found scheduling posts for my original Neglected Women Writers’ Month in April of this year so fascinating, I thought that I would extend the project and make August the second month in which I focus on overlooked or neglected female authors.  Whilst I have rather a long list of women who fit the bill beside me, I can draw up very little information on any of them, aside from sparse biographical details and the odd bibliography.  I thought that this would make for rather a dull month of blogging, both for myself and for you, my lovely readers, so I have compiled a little list of the women whom I did not have the space to fit into the original posts during April.  If I know of any of their books, I will, of course, write their titles beside the author.

  • Marjorie Alan (Masked Murder, a crime novel), Alice Maud Allen (Silhouette), Verily Anderson (Spam Tomorrow), Alice Askew (Nurse), J.O. Arnold (Megan of the Dark Isle and The Merlewood Mystery)

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    Julia Birley

  • Joy Baines (Wife to Hugo and Seventh Sin), Kitty Barre (Visitors from London), Pamela Barrington (Cage Without Bars), Elizabeth BerridgeChristabel Bielenberg, Julia Birley, Elizabeth Bonham, Nina Boyce, Beatrice Curtis Brown, J.E. Buckrose
  • E.M. ChannonHester ChapmanMarchette ChuteMolly Clavering, Joan CogginH.H. ColvilleDorothy Cowlin, Mary Crosbie
  • Lucy DaleEdith DartEilis DillonValentine DobreKatherine Dunning
  • Helen EdmistonJosephine ElderMargaret Erskine
  • Elizabeth Fagan, Kathleen FarrettFrances
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    Theodora Fitzgibbon

    FaviellSheila FitzgeraldTheodora FitzgibbonJean FlemingAngela ForbesCelia Fremlin

  • Olive GarnettEleanor Hughes GibbMaude Goldring
  • Evelyn Hose
  • Margaret Iles
  • Cicely Fraser Simon

 

Have you read books by any of these women?  Can you enlighten me with any further information about them?

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Neglected Women Writers’ Month: Ethel Mannin

Novelist and travel writer Ethel Mannin (1900-1984) was popular in her lifetime.  Born in London to an Irish family, her father, a member of the Socialist League, passed his left-wing beliefs to her.

manninHer writing career began in the fields of journalism and copywriting, and her memoir of the 1920s, Confessions and Impressions, was published as one of the first Penguin paperbacks.  Ethel Mannin came to support anarchism, and was also involved with anti-imperialist activity during the 1930s on behalf of the African nations.  In her seventies, she still described herself as an anti-monarchist Republican, and a ‘Tolstoyan anarchist’.  She married twice, had one daughter, a publicised affair with Bertrand Russell, and was the long-time chairwoman of Shrewsbury Town FC.

“I am purely evil;
Hear the thrum
of my evil engine;
Evilly I come.
The stars are thick as flowers
In the meadows of July;
A fine night for murder
Winging through the sky.”
(From ‘Song of the Bomber’)

Ethel Mannin’s extensive bibliography can be found here.

Snippets:
– Sheffield Hallam’s Reading 1900-1950 project tackles Mannin’s 1930 work Confessions and Impressions.
– 
The Neglected Books Page write more about Mannin’s fascinating life here.
Here is a fascinating essay by the Morris Society about the Morrisian emphasis upon her work.

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Neglected Women Writers’ Month: Annie Vivanti Chartres

Annie Vivanti (Chartres) was a London-born Italian writer, and lived between 1866 and 1942.  She was the daughter of an Italian exile and a German writer, and spent her childhood in Italy, England, Switzerland, and the United States. Annie_vivanti_1.jpg

With two books already under her belt, in 1882, Annie married the Anglo-Irish journalist John Chartres, and spent the next eighteen years living in England and the States.  Her most famous novel written during this period, 1910’s The Devourers, was based upon her daughter, Vivien, a violin prodigy.  Vivanti was a supporter of Irish independence, and defended the Italian cause in English newspapers during the First World War.  In 1941, she was placed under house arrest in Italy due to her English connections, and died the next year in Turin.

“They belonged to another sphere.  They had come up the wrong street, into the wrong house.  If they could have life and motion they would rise quickly – Nancy could imagine them – lifting dainty skirts and tripping hurriedly out from the sordid flat.”
(From The Devourers)

Bibliography:

  • The Devourers, novel (1910)
  • Circe, novel (1912)
  • Marie Tarnowska, novel (1915)

Snippets:
– A free ebook of The Devourers can be found at Project Gutenberg.
– Read about the intertwined lives of Annie Vivanti Chartres and her daughter Vivien here.

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Neglected Women Writers’ Month: Romer Wilson

Born Florence Roma Muir Wilson, Girton College-educated Romer Wilson had a tragically short life.  She was born in Sheffield in 1891, and died of tuberculosis in Lausanne in January 1930, at the age of thirty eight.  In 1921, Romer was the recipient of the Hawthornden Prize for her novel entitled The Death of Society.

 

s-l300During the First World War, Romer sold potatoes for the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, and began to write her first novel, Martin Schuler, which was published in 1919.  Along with several other works of fiction, Romer was also the author of a biography of Emily Bronte.

“She seemed determined to be human also; to like people, even though they were stupid.”
(Virginia Woolf on Amber Reeves)

Bibliography:

  • Martin Schüler (1919)
  • If All These Young Men (1919)
  • The Death of Society (1921)
  • The Grand Tour of Alphonse Marichaud (1923)
  • Dragon’s Blood (pre-1926)
  • Greenlow (1927)
  • The Social Climbers (1927)
  • Latterday Symphony (1927)
  • All Alone: The Life and Private History of Emily Jane Brontë (1928)
  • Green Magic (1928)
  • The Hill of Cloves (1929)
  • Red Magic (1930)

Snippets:
– Read an archived Spectator review from May 1923 about Wilson’s work here.
– Thoughts on Romer Wilson’s work on the Neglected Books Page can be found here.