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One From the Archive: ‘How to be a Victorian’ by Ruth Goodman ****

First published in 2013.

9780670921362In her first venture as a solo author, Ruth Goodman has attempted to present ‘a radical new approach to history’ by showing the ‘overlapping worlds of health, sex, fashion, food, school, work and play’. She states in her introduction that she wanted to ‘explore a more intimate, personal and physical sort of history… one that celebrates the ordinary and charts the lives of the common man, woman and child as they interact with the practicalities of their world’. Goodman herself is an expert in this field, and has experienced life on a Victorian farm whilst taking part in an incredibly interesting BBC documentary.

Goodman has used the timeframe of a day in which to set out her information, beginning with the waking up routine of your average Victorian, and following them until they retire to bed at nighttime. In this way, she has given How to be a Victorian an almost circular feel, which is a refreshing technique in terms of history books. Throughout, she has made use of primary and secondary sources, which have been taken from a vast amalgam of documents and records – diaries, letters, autobiographies, magazines and other printed matter, all of which ‘sought to inform and shape public opinion’.

Throughout, Goodman writes intelligently about a wealth of little known details about life in Victorian Britain. Rather than merely including the commonplace information which the vast majority of us know, the author has dug deeper, unearthing unusual routines which were all the rage during Victorian times. These include the profession of a ‘knocker-upper’, who was employed as a human alarm clock by his clients. He would take a long cane and lantern out with him in the early hours, which he would rap on the appropriate windows, and would then charge a penny a month for the privilege. Goodman explores elements of life such as the rug making techniques of the day, clothing and corsetry, recommended haircare, the dangers of factory work, and how often to bathe a baby – far more often than the average adult would partake, that’s for sure. A section in the middle of the book is devoted to a glossy spread of photographs and illustrations, and many black and white images have also been included within the main body of text. These are rather useful additions, particularly with regard to the advertisements which Goodman writes about.

How to be a Victorian is best read in small sections, as it is filled with a lot of information, much which is likely to be lost by the reader if the entirety of the text is taken in at once. Each chapter has been split into relatively short sections, which allows it to be picked up and put down at will. Goodman is clearly incredibly enthusiastic of her subject, and the fact that she has first-hand experience at using many of the techniques and routines which she describes sets her apart from a lot of historians. Here, she has presented a far-reaching account of Victorian life throughout the entirety of the monarch’s reign, and in consequence, she has created a marvellous guide for anyone at all interested in the period.

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Virago Week: ‘The Public Image’ by Muriel Spark ****

One of Muriel Spark’s many novels, The Public Image was first published in 1968, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize the following year (incidentally, this was won by P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For). It is one of the newest additions to the Virago Modern Classics list, and Martin Haake’s cover art renders the book wonderfully distinctive.

9781844089673The blurb, quite rightly, states that the novel ‘couldn’t be more relevant for today’s celebrity-obsessed culture’.  The Public Image tells of a ‘glamorous actress’ named Annabel Christopher, whose ‘perfect image must be carefully cultivated, whatever the cost’.  ‘Tawny-eyed’ Annabel is an ‘English girl from Wakefield, with a peaky face and mousey hair’.  She is the mother of a small baby named Carl, and has just moved with her husband, Frederick, to Rome.  A friend of her husband’s, who is introduced rather early on, asks her whether the move is purely in aid of maintaining her public image.  Annabel states in response that she is merely there to film, but one cannot help but wonder very early on if a sense of duplicity shrouds her answer.

Frederick Christopher is a small-part actor who seems to have all but given up on his career in front of the screen, and is content to live instead upon Annabel’s money, ‘reading book after book – all the books he had never had leisure to read before’.  He is continually envious of his wife’s success in comparison to his own, and believes that she merely has ‘meagre skill and many opportunities to exercise it’.  He turns to scriptwriting and finds surprising success.

From the very beginning, there are undercurrents that all is not well within Frederick and Annabel’s relationship, and such doubts are drip-fed to the reader from both perspectives – for example, ‘He [Frederick] wanted to leave her, and made up his mind that he would do so, eventually…  Whenever any of his old friends began to suggest that her acting had some depth, or charm, or special merit, he silently nurtured the atrocity, reminding himself that nobody but he could know how shallow she really was’.  Both are unfaithful, and Spark touches upon their numerous affairs throughout.  The couple, however, do not let their marital problems show: ‘… they were proud of each other in the eyes of their expanding world where he was considered to be deeply interesting and she highly talented’.

Throughout, Spark writes wonderfully, and it appears that she buries herself within the minds of her protagonists and then lets the reader into their deepest secrets.  She describes the tensions within and consequences of strained relationships so marvellously in all of her novels, and the same can definitely be said here.  She shows how publicity can both aid and destroy the person under the scrutiny of the entire world.  Spark also demonstrates how easy it is to fall into the midset of doing things merely to maintain one’s ‘public image’, and how detrimental this can be.  This multi-layered novel exemplifies duplicity and human cruelties, and is an absorbing read, which certainly deserves its place upon the Virago Modern Classics list.

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Virago Week: ‘Angel’ by Elizabeth Taylor *****

Hilary Mantel, who introduces the newest Virago edition of Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, calls it ‘quietly and devastatingly amusing’.  The introduction which she crafts is witty, and interspersed with a lovely anecdote about her experience of the novel.  ‘For any writer,’ she says, ‘good, bad or – as we mostly are – an ever-changing mixture of both, Angel provides a series of sharp lessons in humility’.  I love the way in which Mantel compares Elizabeth Taylor to her protagonist, Angelica, and the vast differences which she highlights between the two.

Angel was first published in 1957, and is number 135 on the Virago Modern Classics list.  The more I read of Taylor’s work – almost all of which is collected upon the aforementioned list – the more deeply I fall in love with it.  She is such a wonderful author, whose deft touch creates protagonists who feel marvellously real, and scenes which please every single one of the senses.

The novel begins in 1901 in the fictional brewery town of Norley, ‘a mean district with its warehouses and factories’.  The small details which Taylor weaves in vividly set the social history, interspersed as they are with the story – ‘the organ-grinder with his monkey’, ‘lardy-cake’, learning things by rote at school, exercise programmes within the classroom, leaving school before the age of sixteen if one had a ‘situation’ to go to, paying for things with florins, and so on.

In Angel, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Angelica Deverell – Angel for short, though this nickname feels like rather an ironic one – who believes that she is ‘destined to become a feted author and the owner of great riches.  Surely her first novel confirms this – it is a masterpiece, she thinks’.  She is vividly described from the first, and is striking in appearance; ‘forbiddingly aquiline’, as Taylor puts it.  Angel is ‘lax and torpid’, and relies heavily upon her imagination to dim the world around her.  She is lazy and self-important, always relying on her busy mother – a widow who owns a small grocery shop which she and Angel live over – to do things for her, when she is perfectly capable of performing such acts herself.  Angel is both unpopular and rather judgemental.  Taylor writes that ‘she longed for a different life: to be quite grown-up and beautiful and rich; to have power over many different kinds of men.’

Despite Angel’s uglier characteristics – and let us face it, there are so many of them that she practically feels as though she has been built of unsavoury traits – she is still somehow ultimately endearing.  Taylor allows her readers real understanding for her protagonist.  Whilst she is difficult, we do come to see why as the novel gains momentum.  Angel finds a kind of solace from what she views as the cruelty of the world around her, and writes fantastically exaggerated tales.  Her mother takes the change of plan, so different from the goals which she had originally held for her daughter, in a most interesting manner: ‘It [her writing] seemed to her [Angel’s mother] such a strange indulgence, peculiar, suspect.  There had never been any of it in the family before, not even on her husband’s side where there had been one or two unhinged characters’.

Angel’s ultimate naivety is really quite sweet – for example, she sends her novel to Oxford University Press because she finds their address in one of her schoolbooks.  Taylor demonstrates her protagonist’s determination so well throughout.  The plot twists come out of nowhere and delighted me entirely, piquing my interest in the novel even further.  Angel is a stunning novel, and one which I would highly recommend to everyone.

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Virago Week: ‘Thursday’s Children’ by Rumer Godden ****

Rumer Godden is the author of over sixty works of fiction and non-fiction, for both children and adults. Virago have recently reprinted a handful of her books to add to their impressive canon of women’s fiction. First published in 1984, Thursday’s Children is amongst the newest offerings. As its title suggests, this novel is based upon the childhood rhyme ‘Monday’s Child’, in which ‘Thursday’s child has far to go’ – a definite precedent for the story which Godden has woven. 9781844088485

Thursday’s Children focuses upon a young boy named Doone Penny, who was ‘born to dance’. His sister Crystal, also a dancer, receives much of the attention in the Penny family, and Doone’s brothers and father look upon him with something akin to contempt at times, believing that any boy who enjoys ballet is the worst kind of ‘sissy’. He is the youngest child in rather a large family, a surprise baby who was born to a mother who wanted her beloved daughter, born after four boys, to be her last. ‘To be the youngest in a family is supposed to be enviable, but that is in fairy-tales; with four older brothers and an important older sister, Doone rarely had a chance to speak’. From the start, Doone is not treasured as he should have been: ‘… he was an unsatisfactory child… [he] was persistently ragamuffin, his socks falling down, his shoes scuffed… he was often puzzled and, often, when spoken to seemed curiously absent, too dreamy to be trusted with the simplest message. He was to be a failure at school – every term a worse report – did not learn to read properly till he was ten and was so silent that he seemed to Ma secretive’.

The first part of the novel opens with Doone’s spoilt elder sister complaining about having to take her brother along to the dance class which she attends. Since his early childhood, Doone has been largely ignored by those around him, and even his mother sees him as somewhat of a burden. He is an incredibly musical child and is taught to play the mouth organ when a tiny little boy by a wonderfully crafted little man named Beppo who helps out in his father’s North London grocery shop. When Beppo is forced to leave his employment, Doone realises ‘that now there was nobody who wanted him’. When the eldest brother, Will, suggests that he should be given lessons in his beloved mouth organ as it is unfair that the majority of the family’s money is spent on Crystal and her dancing, Ma Penny says, ‘… when, in a family, one child has real talent, the rest have to make some sacrifice’.

Doone’s own love of dancing is realised when he is given the opportunity to attend a professional ballet performance with his mother. He begins to have clandestine dance classes along with four other London boys. It is a coming of age novel of the most satisfying type. We see Doone, our protagonist, grow before our eyes, and triumph over the situations and family members which try to overcome him.

Dance runs throughout the entire book, as one might expect given the storyline. However, Godden has gone further than merely to write about dance. Indeed, the novel is presented as something akin to a theatre programme, outlining the ‘cast list’ before it begins, and opening with a ‘Prelude’, which sets out the ‘World Premiere of Yuri Koszorz’s “Leda and the Swan”‘. Here, Doone has been cast as a cygnet: ‘No boy of that age, in Mr Max’s remembrance, had been entrusted with dancing a solo role in a ballet at the Royal Theatre’. Despite this prelude merely being Doone’s dream, these nice touches to the book launch us straight into the life of the ballet.

Godden’s writing is marvellous. She weaves an absorbing story and intersperses it with touching anecdotes about its characters, pitch perfect dialogue and the loveliest of descriptions. The settings which she uses come to life in the mind of the reader: ‘It was only a prelude; the music changed, the clouds came down, and Doone could feel an almost magnetic stir in the audience beyond the orchestra pit’, and ‘the Royal Theatre, for an English-born dancer, was not only the Mecca, the peak of ambition, but also home’. Her love of dancing and the theatre shines through on every page: ‘the music, the lights, the little girls – it seemed to him a hundred little girls – all in party dresses and dancing shoes, moving to the music in what seemed to him a miracle of marching, running, leaping’. Her character descriptions, too, give us a real feel for the leading men and women of the book: ‘It was difficult to believe Pa had once been a romantic young man who, when he was not learning to be a greengrocer, willingly went without tea or supper to go to a musical or a revue’.

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Virago Week: ‘Anderby Wold’ by Winifred Holtby *****

First published in March 2012.

Despite being relatively popular in her day, Winifred Holtby shot to the limelight in the United Kingdom last year.  This is due in part to Virago’s beautiful reprinted editions of several of her novels, and also because of the delightful BBC adaptation of her most famous book, South Riding.  The Yorkshire-born author always writes with such astonishing clarity which allows the thoughts and feelings of her characters to rise to prominence as her stories progress.  She writes about those situations which she has experience of, and the characters which feature in her novels seem all the more real because of it. 

Anderby Wold takes place in the small village of Anderby in the East Riding of Yorkshire.  The novel opens with the formidable character of Sarah Bannister who seems intent upon bossing her husband Tom around.  Sarah has ‘too much respect for her own judgment to acknowledge an error’ in her character.  Details like this which feature heavily throughout Holtby’s narrative set her writing apart from other novels.  She is not too blatant or obvious with the details which she mentions, and her writing certainly benefits as a result.

The inhabitants of Anderby Wold, John and Mary Robson, are soon introduced.  They are cousins who are currently trapped in a loveless marriage with one another.  Sarah, John’s sister, and Tom are travelling to their farm for a celebratory ‘tea party’.  The plot revolves around the Robson family, all of whom are used to rural life and are intent upon preserving the familial intermarrying which has occurred for generations.  Mary is discontent with her lot in life until she chances upon the young, rebellious author David Rossiter, sixteen years her junior.  The relationship between Mary and David is crafted wonderfully.  They mock each other and bring a real sense of joviality and comradeship to the novel.  A wonderful example of this is when David tells Mary: ‘as it is, every time you are nice to me, I have to recite little pieces of Marx to myself to convince me what an abomination you really are’.

The novel sparkles from the outset.  The reader is in the company of a wonderful author who crafts such believable stories and peoples them with rich and wonderful characters.  Despite using the third person perspective, Holtby is able to capture the most in-depth thoughts and intricacies of feelings of each of her characters.  Her descriptions are sublime.  She builds up marvellous pasts for her characters and uses these to build friction and tension between them.  The characters in Anderby Wold are all diverse and range from self-important Sarah and clumsy maid Violet to quiet John and keen-to-please Mary.  Mary is intent upon being her own person in the village and not becoming like the women around her who fill their lives with empty chatter about ‘maids, their sisters… [and] the price of wool for socks’.  Sarah is obstinate and disapproving and is unable to see the positive side in any given situation, but she is a vivid character from the outset.  Even without Holtby’s character descriptions, one can imagine each of the people she has created as realistically as if they had just passed them by in the street.

The dialects used throughout are written well.  They are not over-exaggerated and do not detract from what is actually being said.  The conversations between characters are often amusing and, by the same token, incredibly heartfelt.  Holtby’s choice of vocabulary and the order in which she puts them are often surprising.  Among the best examples of this are a character who ‘bowed severely’ and ‘Mrs Toby’s four unattractive little daughters possessed the sole talent of acquiring infectious diseases’.

As in South Riding, many characters feature in the novel, some of them briefly and some throughout.  Similarly, the sense of community is incredibly strong, and clashes exist between the people and the County Council as well as those of differing classes and social standings.  Like South Riding’s Sarah Burton, Anderby Wold’s main protagonist Mary is a teacher.  Both novels are stylistically and thematically similar.

Many themes gain prominence throughout Anderby Wold.  These include ageing, family, presuppositions, the building of relationships, life and death, community, the notion of outsiders, altering perceptions, class and social change.  Social nuances, many of them rather silly, are included throughout to build up a realistic feel of the period in which the novel is set.  Anderby Wold is a many-layered book which intrigues and informs in equal measure.

Anderby Wold was Holtby’s first novel and was published in 1923.  There is nothing old-fashioned about it, however.  The issues which she addresses are still of interest to the majority and the characters which she has fashioned so lovingly are fresh and continually intriguing.  The novel is a must read.

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Virago Week: ‘Sisters by a River’ by Barbara Comyns ****

Sisters by a River, Barbara Comyns’ first novel, was first published in 1947, and was originally serialised in Lilliput magazine. The (relatively) newly issued Virago edition contains an introduction by Barbara Trapido. She believes that the novel is ‘reminiscent of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, though darker and edgier’. She also states that in the book, the very notion of adults are ‘as arbitrary and dangerous as tigers’.

9781844088379The novel is set on the banks of the River Avon, and the entirety is told in rather a childish narrative voice in a stream of consciousness style. It begins in the following way: ‘It was in the middle of a snowstorm I was born, Palmer’s brother’s wedding night… he had to bury my packing under the wallnut tree, he always had to do this when we were born – six times in all, and none of us died…’, which gives the reader a feel for the rest of the book. To further emphasise the way in which the story is seen through the eyes of a young narrator, Barbara, a lot of the words throughout have alternative spellings. On the first page alone, we come across ‘wallnut’, ‘Fortnham & Mason’, ‘interfeer’, and ‘conspiricy’. Rather than irritate the reader, these misspellings are really quite endearing. They serve as a clever literary tool, with which Comyns has built up a wealth sympathy for Barbara and her sisters.

The sisters are really rather different, and Comyns sets out their often conflicting personalities as soon as she introduces them. Mary, the eldest, ‘was the plainest in the family, but she made up for it by being so bossy’; indeed, she controls everything, down to the colour of the clothes her siblings are allowed to wear – ‘beastly brown’ – and none of them are able to read any of the books which she has enjoyed. Barbara goes on to say that, ‘Next to Mary in our family was a child I shall never mention in this book, because I know they would hate to appear in it’. Then comes Beatrix, ‘quite unlike the rest of us both in appearance and nature… her hair was straight and didn’t have bits of twig and knots in it like ours’. Kathleen is barely mentioned at first, but when she is twelve, Barbara describes the way in which she begins to take on the mannerisms of an owl. The youngest, Chloe, whom the older girls ‘didn’t like’ very much is described as follows: ‘she was rather large and had a fat mauve face and cried dreadfully’. Having so many children has taken a toll on their mother too: ‘After she had six babies at eighteen monthly intervals Mammy suddenly went deaf, perhaps her subconscious mind just couldn’t bear the noise of babies crying any more’.

The story has been split into a series of short chapters, the majority of which have rather intriguing titles. These range from ‘Being Born’ and ‘God in the Billiard Room’ to ‘The Aunt With the Square Face’ and ‘As if she had no Ears at All’. Rather than leading on from one another, these chapters are a series of vignettes, and an amalgamation of memories of times long past. Through Barbara’s eyes, we enter a world of governesses, boarding schools, the great outdoors, hand-me-down garments, superstitions, maids, servants and rituals of running away from home. The entirety of the book has been historically grounded with a wealth of details. Examples of this include when the girls’ grandmother ‘was a child Queen Victoria saw her riding in the Row’ and the same grandmother undertaking ‘no housework or cooking, all that was left to some little overworked skivvy, who never had an evening off because she was so scared of Jack the Ripper’.

Sisters by a River does not present a commonplace childhood by any means. The narrator wakes as a child to find her parents trying to push her grandmother out of the window – ‘it really was a mercy her hips were so wide and the window rather narrow’. The cruelty of the girls’ father is included at points: ‘We would suddenly hear an angry trumpeting noise and he would grab as many of us as he could and bang our heads together’, and ‘Once when Beatrix was a baby he got so furious because of her crying he threw her down the stairs’ are stand-out examples. The following elements have also been included: the tyrannical wrath of Mary, hitting daytrippers who have found themselves in trouble in the river with shovels instead of rescuing them or calling for help, and burning books and toys which Chloe was particularly fond of. As well as these bad memories and nightmare-like scenes, cheerful elements have been woven in too – for example, playing in the river, and wading through the yearly floodwaters on homemade stilts.

The childish comparisons throughout are just lovely. Barbara tells us the way in which a governess ‘wore a hat of very corse straw, like a giant biscuit’, and how ‘the furniture was made of some shiny black wood with short bow legs, rather like mine’. Comyns captures family relationships incredibly well, particularly the more fractured and unstable ones. Comyns has presented a marvellous slice of family history, allowing the modern reader a glimpse of a world which has altered considerably. Despite its cruelties, it is a difficult book not to be charmed by, and Comyns deserves a place on the bookshelves of each and every reader.

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One From the Archive: ‘When the Doves Disappeared’ by Sofi Oksanen **

When the Doves Disappeared is the second novel by Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen to be translated into English. Already a bestseller in Sweden and Finland, the novel was first published in 2012, and has recently been released by Atlantic Books. Publication in twenty-eight further countries worldwide will follow. Le Monde heralds When the Doves Disappeared ‘an explosive book with a dark heart’. The book’s blurb, which calls it ‘a story of surveillance, deception, passion, and betrayal’ also alludes to the way in which Oksanen ‘brings to life both the frailty, and the resilience, of humanity under the shadow of tyranny’.

9781782391289This is ‘a chillingly suspenseful, deftly woven novel that opens up a little-known yet still controversial chapter of history: the occupation, resistance, and collaboration in Estonia during and after World War II’. Two stories, both of which highlight ‘two brutally repressive eras’ and which largely feature the same protagonists, unfold. The first takes place in 1941, when Roland and his ‘slippery cousin’ Edgar are fleeing the clutches of the Red Army, both having to make sacrifices to stay hidden; and the second in 1963, when Estonia’s Communist control has once again strengthened its hold. In this later story, Oksanen still follows Roland and Edgar, as well as Edgar’s wife, Juudit, who ‘may hold the key to uncovering the truth’.

The prologue gives immediate depth: ‘But I had to bring her [Juudit] to the safety of the forest when I heard that she’d had to flee from Tallinn… She’d been like an injured bird in the palm of my hand, weakened, her nerves feverish for weeks… The men were right… Women and children belonged at home… The noose around us was tightening and the safety of the forest was melting away’. At this time, we are told that ‘the acts of the Bolsheviks had already proved our country and our homes were under the control of barbarians’.

As well as using two differing timespans, Oksanen also blends two different narrative voices – the first person perspective of Roland, who is a soldier at the outset of the book, and the omniscient third person, which largely follows Juudit. The latter is fitting, but Oksanen’s use of the male narrative voice does not feel quite realistic; some of the turns of phrase which she makes use of do not quite sit correctly within the whole, and are not at all what one can imagine a man in Roland’s position to say. I for one cannot personally think of many men who would utter such sentences as, ‘She jumped like a nimble bird’, or ‘Her eyelids fluttered, a sound like birds’ wings on the surface of a lake’.

It seems as though Lola Rogers’ translation of the novel has been thoughtfully done on the whole, but there are a few issues within the text. From time to time, the idioms which have been used are somewhat lost in translation. The use of Americanisms also grated somewhat; words such as ‘frosting’, ‘cookie’ and ‘gotten’ feel too modern for the piece, and serve to jar one from the well-crafted period context. Whilst this is only a minor issue, it does divert attention from what should be a riveting story.

When the Doves Disappeared is well paced, and one of Oksanen’s strengths certainly lies in the way in which she builds tension. Some of her sentences in the more climactic moments are striking: ‘Spies’ eyes glittered everywhere, greedy for the gold of dead Estonians’ dust’. The scenes, too, are well built, and Oksanen’s backdrops, particularly with regard to the war-torn towns and battlefields, have been rather vividly evoked. Roland speaks of how ‘I’d made a record of every smoking ruin and unburied body I’d encountered, with either a house or a cross, even if I couldn’t find words for all those lifeless eyes, these corpses swarming with maggots’. The levels of historical context here lead one to the conclusion that the whole has been thoroughly researched, and details which she weaves in, such as Estonia’s Army uniforms and the lack of available food, further set the scene.

The World War Two story is more engaging than that which occurs in 1961, too; whilst there are items of historical interest within the latter, it does not quite make for the gripping tale which I was expecting. In terms of learning about the war and its aftermath within Estonia, When the Doves Disappeared is fascinating. In comparison to Purge, however, it feels both lacking and a touch disappointing.

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