‘Leaving Home’ by Anita Brookner ****

‘At twenty-six, Emma Roberts comes to the painful realization that if she is ever to become truly independent, she must leave her comfortable London flat and venture into the wider world. This entails not only breaking free from a claustrophobic relationship with her mother, but also shedding her inherited tendency toward melancholy. Once settled in a small Paris hotel, Emma befriends Francoise Desnoyers, a vibrant young woman who offers Emma a glimpse into a turbulent life so different from her own. In this exquisite new novel of self-discovery, Booker Prize-winner Anita Brookner addresses one of the great dramas of our lives: growing up and leaving home.’

9781400095650I purchased Anita Brookner’s Leaving Home with my thesis in mind, without quite knowing if it was literary enough to include.  Prior to this, I had only read Hotel du Lac, which I chose for a book club I was part of several years ago.  Whilst I enjoyed it, I also found it a touch underwhelming.  From the very beginning of Leaving Home, however, I was captivated.  The narrative voice is strong, and it says a lot about interiority whilst following a single female character, Emma, who is trying to make her place in the world.  Emma is rather unusual at times in her outlook; she does not permit herself to fall in love, but cultivates platonic relationships with two men.

In some ways, Leaving Home does feel rather dated; it has antiquated dialogue patterns, in which nobody seems to use any colloquialisms whatsoever.  Despite this, Emma is rather realistic.  She has rather a lot of freedom, and spends her time flitting back and forth from London to Paris.  In the sensitively wrought Leaving Home, which is a coming-of-age novel of sorts, Brookner demonstrates what it is like to be a lonely young woman.

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‘Granite and Rainbow: The Hidden Life of Virginia Woolf’ by Mitchell Leaska *****

Mitchell Leaska’s Granite and Rainbow had been on my to-read shelf for a couple of months before I picked it up in early December, in part as PhD research, and in part as an enjoyable read.  Leaska’s wise and intelligent introduction to the volume fits perfectly; it sets out what he is aiming to achieve with his biography, recognising that he is one of many who has chosen to tackle Woolf as Woman and Writer proper.

9780374166595Leaska blends details about Woolf’s life, beginning with in-depth accounts of her parents, and blends in a smattering of criticism about all of her books, as well as detailing what inspired her to write each distinct piece.  He does not take her short stories into account much of the time, and even leaves some of her essays by the wayside, but discussing everything that Woolf ever wrote would be rather a mean feat, and any omissions do not have a great impact on the work as a whole.  The elements of social and political history which Leaska has made use of are fitting, and give a wider context to Woolf’s work and decisions.

One reviewer argues that Leaska makes many unsubstantiated claims throughout Granite and Rainbow; I, however, did not find this to be the case.  Yes, he discusses ambiguities in her prose, but many biographers make claims with regard to what they believe the author was driving at in writing X, or amending Y.  Of course, in every biography there is going to be an element of bias, but Leaska has written rather impartially about his subject.  It is clear that he admires her and his work, but his approach to her as a woman is one of academic understanding.

I found Leaska’s writing really quite lovely: ‘The world that mattered to Virginia Woolf was the world of emotional and sensory experience eddying endlessly in atmosphere, of the mind, in twilit regions of memory where past and present merge and blur.  It was a world where houses and rooms are furnished not with carpets and curtains but with reminiscence and feeling.  This alone was real.  It was not concerned with what life was like, but more with what the actual experience of living felt like’.   The entirety of the book has a wonderful consistency to it too.

Granite and Rainbow did not add much to my understanding of Woolf as a person, but it certainly went into more far depth than the majority of other biographies with her extramarital relationships – with Vita Sackville-West, for instance.  If I was coming to Woolf as someone who had merely read her work and wanted to know more about her as a person in the real world, I would have found Leaska’s book endlessly fascinating.  As it is, I have been studying Woolf for quite a while up to this point and, as one might expect, biographies do tend to repeat themselves from tome to tome.

That said, Leaska’s biography is something else entirely, and deserves to be revered in the same way as Hermione Lee’s work about Woolf; it is just as thorough, and has a wonderful clarity to it.  In Granite and Rainbow, Leaska has produced a fantastic biography which is authoritative and masterfully written, and it certainly deserves more attention than it seems to have received to date.

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‘Pilgrimage’ by Dorothy Richardson: Where I’m At

Some of you may know that I’m focusing upon Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage sequence in part for my PhD thesis.  One of my supervisors and I have decided that the first to fifth volumes will be good to focus upon, and with that in mind, I present my thoughts about the fourth and fifth books in the sequence – The Tunnel and Interim.

The Tunnel ****
9781554811106The Tunnel is the fourth volume of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series, which follows the fascinating protagonist Miriam Henderson.  This particular novel finds Miriam firmly ensconced within London, where she works as an assistant to a dentist.

In my opinion, The Tunnel is not the best, nor the most interesting, volume of Pilgrimage to date; indeed, at points, it feels almost static.  I found myself far less interested in the external storyline than in Miriam until almost the end of the novel.  Of course, it is still spectacularly written, but The Tunnel is my least favourite Richardson novel to date.

Interim ****
is engaging from the first, and as a construct, Miriam becomes even more spectacular; she is realised in such detail that she could step to life from the page and absorb herself into modern life without lacking anything.  There is a real dreamlike quality to her here, which I absolutely adored.

Richardson’s writing, as ever, is beautiful throughout; more so, I feel, than in The Tunnel.  Scenes are evoked down to the smallest detail; like Miriam, they are almost achingly realistic.  It feels, in Interim, as though there is a change of direction; Miriam is still our protagonist, but the comparably large cast of secondary characters are focused upon far more than are the secondary characters in the previous novels of the sequence.  There is less emphasis placed upon Miriam at points, and whilst she does spring to life as she always does, it does not feel as though much development of her character and mindset has been provided overall.  Still, Interim is undoubtedly enjoyable and well rounded.  My only qualm is that the penultimate chapter felt a little anticlimactic, and the ending was a little underwhelming.

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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’.  


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.