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‘Perfume from Provence’ by Winifred Fortescue ****

I have been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in France since I was a child, and have always been drawn to memoirs of those who have swapped their busy lives for a slower existence in the beautiful country. Lady Winifred Fortescue’s Perfume from Provence had been high on my rather large memoirs list for quite some time, before I caved and ordered a secondhand copy; reading it on a warm afternoon was bliss when I was unable to travel myself.

In the early 1930s, alongside her husband Sir John Fortescue, Winifred left her home in Hertfordshire, England, and ‘settled in Provence, in a small stone house amid olive groves’. Their new abode, named the Domaine, was very close to the world-famous perfume making town of Grasse. They made the large move partly for health reasons, but also because between the wars, France was a far more affordable country than England in which to live. As soon as the pair arrived, they were ‘bewitched, by the scenery, by their garden – an incredible terraced landscape of vines, wild flowers, roses and lavender – and above all by the charming, infuriating, warm-hearted and wily Provençals.’

When it was first published in 1935, Perfume from Provence was a bestseller. It rose to the top of the lists again when it was reissued by Black Swan in 1992. It is not difficult to see why. Although the book seems to be relatively forgotten nowadays, it presents a wonderfully slow, amusing, and warm slice of life, which transported me entirely from the crazed modern world. Fortescue’s prose is so vivid and sumptuous that I could almost feel the golden sun upon my skin, and hear the thousands of cicadas chirping in the fields. She writes: ‘Here there is a lovely leisure in all our doings. The sun shines so gloriously, the sky is so incredibly blue, and the scent of flowers, warmed by the sunshine, so drowsy and intoxicating that there is every inducement to be lazy and leisurely.’

From its very beginning, Fortescue writes with such ambiability, and a wonderful sense of humour. She tells us about the motley crew of workmen who are extending their small house: ‘Hardly a day passed without a visit from one or other of them: the electrician with a finger cut by wire; a mason with a smashed thumb; various blessés with casualties greater or less, all howling for “Madame” and tincture of iodine.’ The house also came with a rather beligerent gardener named Hilaire, who continuously ropes both Fortescues into helping him with garden tasks. To escape this, Sir John often feigns deafness. Many of the neighbours, too, shoehorn the Fortescues into assisting them – lending their car for a local wedding, or guilt-tripping them into buying up ‘several hundreds of logs’ in the heat of summer, as the seller insists that ‘wood was very scarce, and customers who were late with their commands would not get served at all.’

Perfume from Provence has been split into sections, all of which deal with one aspect of life in Provence, and range from ‘Building’ and ‘My Garden’, to ‘Marriage’ and ‘Housekeeping’. In each chapter, seemingly endless mishaps occur: a garden wall crumbling, and ruining a recently planted rose garden; a gentleman comically slipping on a banana skin on market day, and upending a ‘heap of oranges, some of which scatter under the stalls and are swiftly prigged by alert urchins, while other marketeers roller-skate on the remainder’; and the ‘gesticulating little creature’ of the local barber dropping all of his tools over the market square, and making ‘himself an amusing nuisance’ in the aftermath. There is so much evocative detail here about customs unique to Provence, and the lively book is full to the brim with memorable characters and encounters.

There are some lovely moments here too, many of which come from their rural neighbours. One of these, Monsieur Pierre, reflectively tells Fortescue: ‘He sweeps a brawny arm out towards the majesty of mountains rising above a sea of grey-green olive foliage, and asks me why people spend their lives striving to make money when Le Bon Dieu gives them all this beauty for nothing? Is not health, and the life of a peasant in the open air, better than riches and a dyspeptic stomach in a city? The world has grown too restless and discontented, and men have forgotten that peace and happiness can still be found in woods with birds and flowers and bees.’ One night, Fortescue relays that when went to be early one night, ‘… I lay luxuriously staring out of my windows at a mass of mountains gradually fading away into opalescent dusk…’.

I am always delighted when I pick up books of this kind, and am thrilled that I have discovered a new author to enjoy in Lady Winifred Fortescue. Her account of life in France is delightful, as ‘warm and witty’ as the book’s blurb promises. Fortescue lived in Provence until her death in 1951, and released more reflections of her beloved life there, which I am most looking forward to reading. Next for me will be Sunset House: More Perfume from Provence. There is so much to like in Perfume from Provence, and I have high hopes for the rest of Fortescue’s oeuvre. Of course, this volume has made me want to book a very long holiday in France, but until I can get there again, I will read the rest of her books with joy.

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One From the Archive: ‘One Writer’s Beginnings’ by Eudora Welty ****

First published in July 2018.

I very much enjoy Eudora Welty’s fiction, but know comparatively little about her childhood.  I read the wonderful What There Is To Say We Have Said a couple of years ago, which features much of the correspondence between Welty and another favourite author of mine, William Maxwell.  This autobiographical work, which is composed of a wealth of memories largely from Welty’s Mississippi childhood, works as a wonderful companion volume.

Of One Writer’s Beginnings, William Maxwell writes, ‘It is all wonderful…  The parts of the book that are about her family… are by turns hilarious and affecting.  They are a kind of present… from Miss Welty to her audience.’  Penelope Lively believes it to be a piece of ‘entrancing reading’, and Paul Binding writes in the New Statesman: ‘A writer for whom “genius” is for once a not inappropriate word…  A book of great sensitivity – as controlled and yet aspiring as a lyric poem.’

9780674639270In One Writer’s Beginnings, which was first published in 1984, Welty decided to tell her story in one ‘continuous thread of revelation’.  The book provides, says its blurb, ‘… an exploration of memory by one of America’s finest writers, whose many honours include the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award for Fiction, and the Gold Medal for the novel.’  This book consists of three essays – ‘Listening’, ‘Learning to See’, and ‘Finding a Voice’ – which have been transcribed from a set of three lectures which Welty gave at Harvard University in April 1983.

When ‘Listening’ begins, Welty’s words set the scene immediately: ‘In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.’  Throughout, Welty’s voice is lyrical, candid, and often quite moving.  She reveals her deep love of books, which was present even when she was a tiny child.  ‘I learned,’ she writes, ‘from the age of two or three that any room in our house, at any time of day, was there to read in, or be read to.’  Welty’s writing is particularly beautiful when she discusses her love of stories: ‘It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.  Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them – with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself.  Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them.’

In a series of vignettes, Welty talks about stargazing, singing, childhood illness, learning the alphabet, religion, schooling, and the quirks of her in some ways unconventional parents, amongst other things.  The imagery which she conjures up is often lovely; for instance: ‘All children in those small-town, unhurried days had a vast inner life going on in the movies.  Whole families attended together in the evenings, at least once a week, and children were allowed to go without chaperone in the long summer afternoons – schoolmates with their best friends, pairs of little girls trotting on foot the short distance through the park to town under their Japanese parasols.’  When she discusses the travels which she went on with her family each summer, she writes of their positive effect upon her later writing: ‘I think now, in looking back on these summer trips – this one and a number later, made in the car and on the train – that another element in them must have been influencing my mind.  The trips were wholes unto themselves.  They were stories.  Not only in form, but their taking on direction, movement, development, change.  They changed something in my life: each trip made its particular revelation, though I could not have found words for it.  But with the passage of time, I could look back on them and see them bringing me news, discoveries, premonitions, promises – I still can; they still do.’

One Writer’s Beginnings spans Welty’s childhood, and includes comparatively brief reflections about her time at college, and the early days of her writing career.  She is insightful about the creation of her characters, and the knowledge which one must have as an author to create enough depth.  ‘Characters take on a life sometimes by luck,’ writes Welty, ‘but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.’

One Writer’s Beginnings is a beautifully written celebration of stories, of Welty’s own, and of those which filled her girlhood.  I was pulled in immediately, transported to the Deep South in the early twentieth century.  This is a joyous account, filled with depth and insight.  Welty’s voice is utterly charming, and sometimes quite profound.  I shall close this review with one of the most wonderful quotes from the book: ‘The memory is a living thing – it too is in transit.  But during the moment, all that is remembered joins and lives – the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.’

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‘Business as Usual’ by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford ****

I had wanted to get my hands on a copy of Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford since its reissue by Handheld Press. At a time when bookshops were closed during the long lockdown at the outset of 2021, and I was trying my utmost not to purchase anything online to add to my TBR, my library very kindly purchased a copy on my behalf, and I was the first to read it. Business as Usual was one of my most anticipated books of the year, and I am thrilled to impart that it lived up to my high expectations.

Published in 1933, Business as Usual is a ‘delightful illustrated novel in letters’. Its protagonist is twenty seven-year-old Edinburgh woman named Hilary Fane, who has a degree from the University of Oxford, and was recently employed as a teacher at a girls’ school outside Glasgow. Newly engaged, she insists on achieving her dream of moving to London for a year before her marriage, and is ‘determined to support herself by her own earnings’. Despite the ‘resentment of her surgeon fiancé’, she makes her way to the capital, finding a room in a boarding house – named the Minerva Hotel, the many notices pasted around her bedroom have a ‘cumulative effect [which] is shattering’ – and spending much of her time searching for a job.

Hilary’s first foray into employment in the capital is as a typist at a London department store named Everyman’s on Oxford Street – ‘a very thin disguise for Selfridges’. Through ‘luck and an inability to type well’, she is transferred first to the book department – where she is initially refused employment because she is ‘too tall’ – and then into the library. She loves the environment in which she finds herself, and receives a rapid promotion. We learn about her, and her new London life, through a series of letters, which she writes to both her parents and her fiancé, Basil. Other elements have been included when an overview is needed, such as memos between senior colleagues of Hilary’s, and a letter from her mother to her sister-in-law; here, she writes: ‘They’re not to be married for a year. I don’t approve of long engagements, but in this case Basil’s work makes one necessary, and Hilary is determined not to spend the time at home doing nothing.’

Almost as soon as she moves to London, Hilary meets some wonderfully eccentric characters, including an aunt of hers, who insists on taking her out for long lunches despite the fact that Hilary should be working. Her second interview before securing employment is, for example, ‘with a purveyor of Psycho-therapy. He had a perfectly normal (female) secretary, so that I wasn’t prepared to find him in a Biblical bath-robe, contemplating eternity in front of a Grecian vase with one lovely flower in it. I can’t think what my duties would have been, but the word “salary” shocked him…’.

From the first, Hilary is a highly positive young woman; she comments: ‘Almost any interesting job would do for a year. At about four pounds a week, I thought. After all, I’m not preparing to make a life’s work of it.’ I loved her enduring eagerness, and the way in which she presented herself. When she begins work at Everyman’s, and she is describing her new morning routine to Basil, she writes: ‘Half-way along the Lane I usually begin to run, hypnotised by that clock over the Staff Entrance. After that come the million stairs to the Cloakroom (Women Staff) so that I inevitably arrive on the Book Floor without a breath in my body.’

Business as Usual was the first joint literary venture between Helen Rees and Anne Pedler – the real names of Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford respectively – and I very much hope that it isn’t too difficult to find other books which they worked on together. There are almost one hundred of them, published either jointly or separately by Rees and Pedler, after all. I must admit that I will be avoiding their many Mills and Boon publications, though!

Notes on the novel have been provided by Handheld Press’ director, Kate Macdonald, herself a social historian. She writes that Rees and Pedler, who founded the John Llewellyn Rhys prize for young Commonwealth authors, ‘recreate with relish the working lives of single women in 1930s London, and the struggle to find work that was interesting, amenable and paid enough to live on.’ Of the structure of Business as Usual, she comments: ‘The letters are actively enhanced rather than merely illustrated by Ann Stafford’s line drawings, and by the original layout (reproduced in this edition) that simulates telegrams, in-house memoranda and private letters.’

Business as Usual is marvellously amusing, and quite charming. It is exactly the kind of book I enjoy – rooted so well in its historical and social context, but with a highly realistic protagonist, and infused with a great deal of warmth and humour. I thoroughly enjoyed this lively, and lovely, novel. I loved its tongue-in-cheek asides, and its memorable characters. Business as Usual would not be out of place on the Virago or Persephone lists, and surely holds a great deal of appeal for their readers.

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‘So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald’ ****

Penelope Fitzgerald has been one of my favourite authors since I discovered her and read three of her novels in quick succession in 2011. This collection of her letters, So I Have Thought of You, had been on my wishlist for an age before I picked up a copy from my local library. It has been described as ‘an unparalleled record of the life of this greatly admired writer’, which ‘give now the same pleasure they gave to those who first opened them’, and I cannot agree more.

So I Have Thought of You has been edited by Fitzgerald’s son-in-law, Terence Dooley, and also features a preface by A.S. Byatt. Byatt worked with Fitzgerald during the 1960s, at Westminster Tutors in London, which prepared students for the Oxbridge examinations. Byatt admits: ‘I didn’t know her very well. She was interesting to know, but not easy to get to know well.’ She describes Fitzgerald as ‘vague and self-effacing’ and ‘exacting’, and writes that her novels are ‘works of art’.

In Dooley’s own thorough introduction to the volume, he comments: ‘In letters she could say all she wanted to say, and couldn’t quite face to face. She did so in a way that was truthful, witty and persuasive, but above all focused on the person she was writing to. She intended to be entertaining, to offer consolation or to celebrate. She is vividly alive in these letters… Though she writes eloquently, she is unselfconscious and unguarded.’ He makes clear that this book is as comprehensive as was possible, but that Fitzgerald’s ‘fame came so late in life that there was no reason for anyone to keep her letters’. He also lets us know that many of Fitzgerald’s correspondents proved difficult to trace. There is ‘therefore a hole in the middle of this collection’, which omits large parts of her career, marriage, and children: ‘The years when, as Cervantes said to explain his own long silence, she was living her life: the years before she began to write.’ Fitzgerald’s output must have been astonishing, given that with all of these omissions, the collection is over 500 pages long!

The collection is split into two sections – ‘Family and Friends’, and ‘Writing’. Both of these are then organised by recipient. The letters featured begin in 1939, and stretch almost to Fitzgerald’s death in April 2000. Much of the correspondence is addressed to her daughters, Tina and Maria. Some of the letters fit neatly upon the back of a postcard, and others are far more lengthy. She writes about her friends and acquaintances, of writers she knows, a little of politics and domestic issues, and her own writing. She also gently chastises herself – and others – when she feels it is necessary. These letters are filled with humour, which is often rather dark and deprecating.

Of particular interest to me were the letters penned during the Second World War, when Fitzgerald was living in London. In September 1940, she tells her friend Hugh: ‘We have had a large oil-canister bomb which came through my bedroom window, so that I have a twisted piece of metal as a souvenir, but I was not there at the time and so although the window in the flat collapsed I did not.’ There are other, quite startling, occurrences which she recounts, too.

The whole is a delight to read, although I must admit that I preferred the section with warm letters penned to her family and friends, to those written to more professional contacts. Reading firsthand of the ways in which publishing changed over her lifetime, though, is nothing short of fascinating. These correspondences are, as one might expect, rather shorter than those to most of her family members and friends, but she writes to many people who work in a great deal of different roles – editors, publishers, other authors, researchers, those whom she called upon for various assistance, fellow members of the William Morris society, and even a letter to a fan who asked a question about The Gate of Angels.

Throughout, Fitzgerald is witty and intelligent. She captures so many amusing moments, and candidly mentions the many faux pas which she makes. In April 1965, she writes the following to her daughter Tina, who is on a French exchange: ‘I think you are facing up very bravely to the horrors of staying in a large French family – so much more efficiently than I did for instance – I was always in tears and then I got hungry in the middle of the night and went and got some cold potatoes out of the kitchen and the Italian cook was accused of stealing them.’

So I Have Thought of You does give much more of an understanding of what Fitzgerald was like, and how she lived; what mattered to her, and what did not. There are so many glimpses of her wonderful personality; for instance, she tells Tina in 1997: ‘The Guardian rang me up (they never ring me up usually) to ask for Five Wishes for the World for 1998. I couldn’t think of anything, except to abolish off-road motoring, and have those little packets of salt in crisps again. Of course they meant serious thoughts about world affairs, but the truth is, my horizons are shrinking.’

It is immediately obvious that Fitzgerald placed such care into her correspondence. There are heartfelt moments throughout, and concerns are both voiced and responded to. I very much enjoyed the way in which we only get to see Fitzgerald’s letters, and none of the replies; although some of the people and scenes she mentions are not given a wider context, it gives a more authentic picture of her, somehow.

Fitzgerald was a wonderful woman, and a generous correspondent, with a wicked sense of humour, who was game for anything; in 1995, her daughter purchases a farmhouse in rural Wales, and she looks forward to tramping up the hills ‘when spring comes’. This is a collection which I would highly recommend, but I would encourage everyone to pick up at least a couple of her novels before starting with this tome.

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‘Women Talking’ by Miriam Toews ****

I have read, and very much enjoyed, almost all of Miriam Toews’ books to date, and was keen to pick up her newest novel, Women Talking.  Lauren Groff, one of my all-time favourite authors, declares the novel ‘an astonishment, a volcano of a novel…  No other book I’ve read in the past year has spoken so lucidly about our current moment, and yet none has felt so timeless.’

Women Talking is a fictional representation of a true and shocking story; it is Toews’ ‘imagined response to these real events’.  In the remote Mennonite community of Melotschina in Bolivia, between 2005 and 2009, more than one hundred girls and women were ‘knocked unconscious and raped repeatedly by what many thought were ghosts or demons’.  The women’s accounts were ‘dismissed as “wild female imagination”.’  Many men accused them of making up stories in order to mask the adultery which they were so obviously committing…  Later, though, it was confirmed that eight men from the closely related gene pool of the colony ‘had been using an animal anesthetic to knock their victims unconscious and rape them.’  In 2011, the men were convicted, but in 2013, it was reported that sexual abuse was still occurring within the community. 41rpxzik7ul._sx322_bo1204203200_

As in the real community, Toews’ women are illiterate, and have little to no concept of the world outside of their own community.  Eight women, who represent three generations from two families, the Loewens and the Friesens, ‘meet secretly in a hayloft to decide how to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.’  This concept is a simple yet all-encompassing one.

The minutes of the meeting are recounted by our narrator, a teacher named August Epp, the only male character who features in a positive capacity in the novel.  August, whose parents were excommunicated when he was twelve years old, lived away from the colony for some years, attending school and University in England, and is therefore able to bestow knowledge upon the women.  The use of a male mouthpiece here was a simple plot device, but a remarkably interesting one.  August is both part of the group, working as he does as the women’s scribe, and separate from it, due to his gender.  He is a victim of the colony, but in a very different, and less violent and intrusive, way.

Focus is given to the case throughout; indeed, the novel is set over a two-day period which feels pivotal for the women.  The men were moved, at the insistence of the police, into the closest city for their own protection, and a crucial moment has been reached in the case.  August reflects: ‘And when the perpetrators return, the women of Molotschina will be given the opportunity to forgive these men, thus guaranteeing everyone’s place in heaven.  If the women don’t forgive the men… the women will have to leave the colony for the outside world, of which they know nothing.’

The way in which August relays the case demonstrates its horror.  He says: ‘In the year after I arrived, the women described dreams they’d been having, and then eventually, as the pieces fell into place, they came to understand that they were collectively dreaming one dream, and that it wasn’t a dream at all.’  The horrors do not stop there, however.  The very fact that all of the women were rendered unconscious when they were attacked caused the male elders to tell them there was no need for counselling.  A three-year-old girl, repeatedly violated, is denied professional medical treatment, as the elders are scared about anyone outside of the colony becoming aware of the attacks, and blowing the ‘whole incident… out of proportion.’

The rules of the colony are rigid and unfair for its womenfolk; typically, the men are allowed to do anything that they want to, and rarely come under scrutiny.  It is a typical patriarchy; women are expected to cook, clean, look after the children, and even act as midwives for one another.  They are forbidden to read, denied education, and told not to speak their own minds.  They speak only Plautdietsch, or Low German, a language which has not been favoured since the Middle Ages, and which is now only found in Mennonite communities.  The women have essentially been raised to be helpless outside the colony.  One of the older characters, Agnes, perfectly sums up their vulnerability when she says: ‘We’re unable to read, we’re unable to write, we’re unable to speak the language of our country, we have only domestic skills that may or may not be required of us elsewhere in the world, and speaking of the world – we have no world map -‘.

Women Talking is, as all of Toews’ books are, written with such clarity.  She really brings the culture to life.  The conversations which occur between the characters are thoughtful, provoking, angry, tense.  Toews’ women all have distinctive personalities, and are all strong and determined.  Salome, for instance, who is both daughter and mother in the book, is described thus: her ‘reputation in the family is that of a fighter, an instigator.  She doesn’t react calmly to authority and is often engaged in a battle of wills with other colony members over the slightest of things.’  August comments that he finds it curious that Salome has not been excommunicated.  An older woman, Greta, questions her faith, and declares, in a ‘radical statement’, that she is ‘no longer a Mennonite.’  Another victim, Nettie, ‘doesn’t talk, except to the children, but at night the members of the colony can hear her screaming in her sleep – or perhaps screaming in full consciousness.’

I found this every bit as much a piece of ‘profound, unsettling and virtuoisic work’ as the book’s blurb promises it to be.  Women Talking is a powerful and fitting novel to read in this, the age of the Me Too movement, and Toews has a great deal to say within its pages.  The story of these eight women, talking – although an imagined version of the real – is searing and vital.

 

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‘Flight Behaviour’ by Barbara Kingsolver ****

I have really enjoyed the books of Kingsolver’s which I’ve read in the past – The Lacuna and The Poisonwood Bible are excellent – but although she is an author on my radar, I somehow rarely get around to picking up any of her other titles. I changed this when I purchased a remainder copy of her 2012 novel, Flight Behaviour, which blends a fictional story with real concerns about climate change, and ecology.

Dellarobia Turnbow is a young woman living on a ‘failing farm’ in the Appalachian region of Tennessee. She lives in a small house with her husband, Cub, and two young children, six-year-old Preston and two-year-old Cordelia, on the Turnbow family’s land. Bored of her life, and the constant struggle to provide for her family, Dellarobia ‘impulsively seeks out an affair’ with a man living in the local town. The novel’s opening immediately caught my attention. Kingsolver writes: ‘A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-coloured hair who marched uphill to meet her demise.’

On the day she finally walks out, and heads up the closest mountain peak to meet him, she finds something far more remarkable: ‘a beautiful and terrible marvel of nature’. On the trees all around, which her husband’s family have been considering logging for some time, are enormous clusters of monarch butterflies.

Dellarobia’s world is a small one: she has ‘not slept outside’ her home in more than a decade of marriage, the local town is one which she rarely visits, and she has not had a meal out in over two years. That is, until she discovers the butterflies. At first, she cannot understand what she is seeing. When she mentions the phenomenon, and takes her husband and his mother a couple of days afterwards, we are told: ‘They rounded the bend to the overlook and came into the full sight of it. Then golden darts filled the whole of the air, swirling like leaves in a massive storm. Wings… Butterflies… The density of the butterflies in the air now gave her a sense of being underwater, plunged into a deep pond among bright fishes. They filled the sky. Every tree on the far mountainside was covered with trembling flame, and that, of course, was butterflies… The fire was alive, and incomprehensibly immense, an unbounded, uncountable congregation of flame-coloured insects.’

The town soon becomes obsessed with the butterflies, and many come to believe that ‘saint’ Dellarobia had a religious vision of the ‘miracle’. The monarchs present an opportunity for tourism, something which had been previously unknown in the area. After a television crew comes to film Dellarobia and the butterflies, a scientist – the rather wonderfully named Ovid Byron, lepidopterist and lecturer – arrives, intent on studying why the monarchs have moved, en masse, to Tennessee instead of their usual wintering grounds in Mexico, and the implications this may have for the species. He returns with a team of researchers from his University, to look into the ‘alarming question’ of this changing migration. In a way, these scientists open Dellarobia’s eyes to more, and better, possibilities: ‘Her life was unfolding into something larger by the day, like one of those rectangular gas-station maps that open out to the size of a windshield.’

The setting is one of the real strengths of this novel. Kingsolver herself lives on a farm in southern Appalachia, and understands the region’s geography, and the concerns of its inhabitants, many of which seem insular and uncaring to a reader on the outside. She is highly aware of small-town life; in the first paragraph, Kingsolver reflects that if Dellarobia did choose to run away from her family, her ‘decision would infect her children too, that was the worst of it, in a town where everyone knew them.’ One is immediately aware of how constrained Dellarobia feels, and how stifling the community around her: ‘They would say the same thing she’d heard her mother-in-law tell Cub: that Dellarobia was a piece of work. As if she were lying on pieces on a table, pins stuck here and there, half assembled from a Simplicity pattern that was flawed at the manufacturer’s. Which piece had been left out?’

Flight Behaviour is an immersive novel from the start. Throughout, Kingsolver is highly insightful about her protagonist, and what she chooses to hide from others: ‘She felt out of control in some new way, unfixable, unless she could fold her life back into its former shape; pre-Turnbow family Sideshow, premarriage, back to being just one kid trying to blaze her own trail. It was exhausting, to keep being sorry for everything.’ The portrait of Dellarobia is intricate and thoughtful, and her character arc is a believable one, particularly with regard to her growing education. Kingsolver knows Dellarobia intimately; her innermost thoughts and feelings come to the fore throughout. When she begins to understand that climate change is happening, and may well be irreversible, she begins to worry, constantly, about the future, especially with regard to her children: ‘[She] felt an entirely new form of panic as she watched her son love nature so expectantly, wondering if he might be racing toward a future like some complicated sand castle that was crumbling under the tide. She didn’t know how scientists bore such knowledge. People had to manage terrible truths.’

Kingsolver trained as a biologist, and worked as a scientist; as one would therefore expect, the scientific detail contained within Flight Behaviour is impeccable, and impressively thorough. I have not read a novel as involved with environmental issues in such a long time, and this effort has made me want to seek more out in the near future. I especially liked the way in which its focus is placed on one single ecological event, with tendrils of consequences which stretch out from it as the novel goes on.

I am also pleased that I have so much of Kingsolver’s oeuvre left to read. Whilst she focuses on stories driven by her characters, and the geography in which they live, the books which I have read to date all feel very different. I will admit that Flight Behaviour, at around 600 pages, did take a relatively long time to read, but it forces one to contemplate so many enormous concepts that this felt necessary. It feels very up to date, despite being almost ten years old; this is perhaps due to the real urgency in the prose. Given the themes, this is a really serious, and sometimes scary, novel to read, but it is one which I would highly recommend.

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Non-Fiction November: ‘Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive’ by Stephanie Land ***

As far back as I can remember, I have always tried to read the book before I watch the adaptation. Sometimes, though, this just doesn’t happen – as in the case of Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land. The book has been somewhere on my to-read list since I heard about it, but I only picked up a copy after watching the excellent Netflix adaptation, ‘Maid’.

Maid is a memoir which details Land’s life as a struggling single mother, working long hours as a housekeeper in order to give her daughter some stability, and at the mercy of the often ridiculous grants and benefits in Washington state. Alongside her work, Land wrote; she noted down stories of the people she cleaned for, alongside her own experiences of welfare, from a perspective which was difficult to find elsewhere. This is an individual memoir, yes, but in writing about herself, Land also writes about so many voiceless people in the United States.

Maid is told in retrospect, written from a position of emotional and financial security. Land continually asserts that her incredibly hard work, and the many hoops which she had to jump through, were the only things which allowed her to leave her life of poverty behind. At the end of the memoir, we see her move to Missoula to attend a Fine Arts college, and to study Creative Writing. She had planned to do so just before she found out she was pregnant, at the age of twenty-eight, with her daughter, Mia, and had to give up her place.

Land escaped from a violent relationship with Mia’s father in 2008, when her daughter was just seven months old. The pair moved into several unsuitable homes in the town of Port Townsend, sometimes damp, and sometimes dirty, and had to learn to rely on a dizzying series of handouts from their local authority. At the outset, Land and Mia are moving from a temporary home in a rundown cabin, into transitional housing. Half of the residents are moving out of homeless shelters, and the other half have just been released from jail.

Able to work a certain number of hours per week, Land soon found a job as a housekeeper, earning barely anything by working for a series of people who ‘had financial cushions beneath them’. She also worked part-time as a landscaper for a family friend. However, nothing was set in stone, and no hours were guaranteed. Port Townsend, around two hours from state capital Seattle, is a small city which appeals to tourists; therefore, much of its employment is seasonal, and is often difficult to come by.

Land is incredibly frank and forthright from the outset. Her memoir begins: ‘My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.’ When she goes on to discuss her money troubles, and how exhausting the process of applying for welfare and proving your need is, she writes: ‘I had looked under every stone, peered through the window of every government assistance building, and joined the long lines of people who carried haphazard folders of paperwork to prove they didn’t have money. I was overwhelmed by how much work it took to prove I was poor.’ Later, she says: ‘I was on government assistance, having regular anxiety attacks, still unable to process much of the emotional abuse I’d just experienced or know the depths to which it had affected me. My life was at some sort of standstill in its new identity; in being consumed with motherhood, which I wasn’t sure I really even liked.’

Land is clear that she had very little support at this time; whilst she hears from her parents occasionally, she acknowledges very early on that they left her ’emotionally orphaned’ during her childhood. Her slip into poverty was something unseen, though: ‘… after one kid and a breakup, I was smack in the middle of a reality that I didn’t know how to get out of.’ She writes about the societal stigma attached to welfare, particularly the use of food stamps: ‘It felt like a weighted vest I couldn’t take off, or like someone had hidden cameras on me all the time… When people think of food stamps, they don’t envision someone like me: someone plain-faced and white. Someone like the girl they’d known in high school who’d been quiet but nice. Someone like a neighbor. Someone like them.’ She is humiliated throughout by no fault of her own when using these stamps in the supermarket, and also in other situations – for instance, when her mother and her husband fly over from France to help her move into the transitional accommodation, they expect her to pay for a dinner out for them. Land can barely afford the $10.59 which her own burger cost.

The author details the start of her relationship with Mia’s father, Jamie, and the way in which she moved into his trailer so quickly. She was wooed to do so by the copies of ‘Bukowski and Jean-Paul Sartre in a line of books above the table.’ She falls pregnant just four months into their relationship, and Jamie tries to force her to get an abortion. It is from this point that the relationship starts to become emotionally abusive, and later, physically. At this point, she reveals: ‘In spite of all my hopes for a different path, I softened in the days that followed and began to fall in love with motherhood, with the idea of me as a mother.’ As her confidence in motherhood, and her own ability, grows, she still questions whether she is a good enough mother, and whether she is making enough effort for Mia.

Land writes extensively about the particularly grants and programmes which she applied for, and the differences which these made to her life. She says: ‘We were expected to live off minimum wage, to work several jobs at varying hours, to afford basic needs while fighting for safe places to leave our children. Somehow nobody saw the work; they saw only the results of living a life that constantly crushed you with its impossibility.’ Land found no opportunities to lift herself out of poverty, or away from the welfare state which she was forced to rely on. She tells us: ‘There was no incentive or opportunity to save money. The system kept me locked down, scraping the bottom of the barrel, without a plan to climb out of it.’

The book includes a foreword written by Barbara Ehrenreich, an investigative journalist who worked undercover in low-paid jobs, including housekeeping, and then wrote about doing so. She writes that maid ‘is a dainty word, redolent of tea trays, starched uniforms, Downton Abbey. But in reality, the maid’s world is encrusted with grime and shit stains.’ She goes on to remark that although such workers are invaluable to the middle- and upper-classes, ‘they remain invisible – overlooked in our nation’s politics and policies, looked down upon at our front doors.’ A short critique of class prejudice follows, before she focuses on what Land reveals in her memoir. Ehrenreich comments: ‘When confronted with an obstacle, she figures out how to move forward. But the onslaught of obstacles sometimes reaches levels of overload. All that keeps her together is her bottomless love for her daughter, which is the clear bright light that illuminates the entire book.’

Maid is readable, but it is very matter-of-fact. Land has chosen to discuss a lot of often repetitive cleaning processes in detail, and I did tire of reading these after a while. However, this is an incredibly important and eye-opening memoir, which exposes the faulty welfare system, and the unreliable work which so many people have no choice but to use.

4

Non-Fiction November: ‘Letters from Tove’ by Tove Jansson *****

Tove Jansson is one of my all-time favourite authors, from her charming Moomin stories which I have adored from my earliest childhood, to her beautiful and assertive short stories. I had so looked forward to reading the edited collection, Letters from Tove, and although I did not receive a copy for Christmas (despite it being right at the top of my list!), I managed to reserve a copy from my local library.

Letters from Tove has been edited by Boel Westin – the author of a fantastic Jansson biography, which I reviewed here – and Helen Svensson, and is translated from the original Swedish by Sarah Death. This is the first time that the selected letters have been published in a single edition, along with commentary.

I wholeheartedly agree with Ali Smith – another of my absolute favourite authors – who writes: ‘It’s hard to describe the astonishing achievement of Jansson’s artistry’. I have loved every single piece of work of Jansson’s which I have read, and reading her letters, addressed to a number of varied recipients, proved a real privilege. In the introduction, Westin and Svensson write that Jansson ‘was a great correspondent, writing frequently and at length…’. They also comment about how important the letter is in Jansson’s fiction, from messages found in bottles in the Moomin books, to the epistolatory form which she sometimes used in her short stories.

Letters from Tove has been arranged chronologically by recipient. There are letters here to her friends, family, and lovers of both genders, spanning a vast period between 1933 and 1988. The collection includes letters written to her parents and brothers; the photographer Eva Konikoff, who was one of Jansson’s best friends; the director Vivica Bandler; the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom Jansson lived for many years; the translator Maya Vanni; and Jansson’s publisher, Åke Runnquist. Although every single year during this period has not been included, an exceptional portrait of a remarkable life is shown to us.

Given that this volume provides just an edited selection of Jansson’s letters, one can conclude that she was both prolific and patient – particularly given that every single letter she sent was written by hand! Added to this is the way in which Jansson responded to almost every single fan letter or question which she received, which amounted to almost 2,000 each year. Westin and Svensson estimate that Jansson would have answered around 92,000 such letters between 1954 – when the Moomins became a global success- and 2001, the year in which she died.

‘Jansson’s letters ‘tell us all about herself,’ write Westin and Svensson in their introduction. ‘They deal with love and friendship, loneliness and solidarity, and also with politics, art, literature and society. But a letter also documents a juncture in time, stops the clock an tells us about things that otherwise get forgotten or sink into the depths of memory.’ Whatever she writes about, or however the mood in these letters sits, Westin and Svensson say that ‘they rarely leave us unmoved’. The editors have included relatively thorough biographical and contextual information throughout.

The familial scenes which Jansson describes are lively, as are depictions of her extensive travels, and her studies before the Second World War. In one of the earliest letters, written to her ‘Beloved Ham’ – the affectionate name which she gave her mother – when she was an art student in Stockholm in 1933, Jansson says: ‘I am a part of you. More so than the boys… how can I care one jot about Sweden when you’re not here?… I’m coming home, and soon. I’m coming home, just the way I was when I left… it may well be that I can now understand you better, help you better, and painstakingly start to appreciate how lucky I am to have you and the rest.’ Even in these earliest letters, an alluring philosophical wisdom shines through.

Through reading her letters, I was swept into Jansson’s world. I was helped to understand, so acutely, what mattered to her, and the efforts she would go to for those she loved. As in her fiction, the writing in her letters is unsurprisingly rich, nuanced, and astonishingly beautiful. Jansson is searingly honest throughout, and we are given the ability to really see her grow as time goes on. Her letters are open and revealing, and are sometimes startlingly modern. There is much seriousness here, but a great deal of light and hope, too. Letters from Tove provided me with a great deal of joy; it felt like I was reading the words of a dear friend. I really love to read one-sided correspondence like this, and it is certainly a volume which I hope to come back to many more times in future.

I shall close this review with a quote from the volume, which really spoke to me. In 1941, in the midst of a discussion about the Second World War and the tumult which it created in her home of Finland, she writes to Eva Konikoff: ‘Strange that it will all just go on, we will paint, travel, love, grieve, collect money, buy things, grow old… whether we want to or not.’

2

Non-Fiction November: ‘From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find a Good Death’ by Caitlin Doughty ****

I will begin this review by pointing out that Caitlin Doughty’s rather niche work will not be for everyone. I thoroughly enjoyed her debut, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which collects together her memories and thoughts from working in a crematorium. Doughty has made her living as a mortician, and owns a funeral home in Los Angeles. She writes about such serious elements – the majority of which revolve around death – with a lot of snarky and sarcastic humour, and one cannot help but be entirely entranced by her stories and experiences. Her second book, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find a Good Death also very much interested me as a reader.

She argues, in both of her books, that death is a topic which should be spoken about more, but is something which many in the Western world particularly shy away from. In From Here to Eternity, Doughty begins by signposting her fascination of our ‘pervasive terror of dead bodies’. She writes in her introduction: ‘One of the chief questions in my work has always been why my own culture is so squeamish around death… Our avoidance is self-defeating. By dodging the talk about our inevitable end, we put… our ability to mourn at risk.’

Her aim in this book was to visit different places around the world to see how other cultures are not scared of the process of death, but rather embrace it, and make it a part of their own living. She travels all over the world – from three locations in the United States, to Indonesia, Mexico, Spain, Japan, and Bolivia.

Early on, Doughty sets out that in the United States, death has become an incredibly big business since the advent of the twentieth century. Everything has long been associated with cost, and with upselling – a better graveyard plot, a more superior wood used for the coffin, many ‘extras’ sold by different funeral homes. She believes that we need to reform funeral practices in the West, moving permanently away from profit-oriented practices, to ones which ‘do more to include the family’. These family-focused death practices are common around the world, and it is this which she keeps coming back to. Doughty writes, with a great deal of sensitivity, about the ways in which confronting death can bring peace, particularly for those in Western cultures, where such an attitude is generally suppressed.

Some of the practices which Doughty writes about are rare for foreigners or tourists to be able to attend. Others have really embraced the onlooker, though. At a Torajan funeral in Indonesia, for instance, the body is ‘transferred in a replica of a traditional Torajan home. These houses, known as Tongkonan, resemble no residence you’ve ever seen, standing high on stilts with a roof that sweeps up to two points in the sky. This corpse, inside his mini-house, was carried atop the shoulders of thirty-five young men.’ A ‘death tourism industry’ has sprung up around the Torajan funeral, with visitors coming from far afield to watch.

Of course, Doughty attends a ‘Day of the Dead’ parade in Mexico, which was rather strangely inspired by James Bond. In Mexico, at the beginning of November, families invite their dead back to visit. Of one young man, who had passed away in the small city of Santa Fe de la Laguna, she writes: ‘He will continue to return as long as his family continues to show up, inviting him to come back among the living.’

On the other side of the world, at a Buddhist temple in Japan, technology has been used to enhance longstanding religious practices: ‘After the family keys in at the entrance,’ with a smart card, ‘the walls light up blue, except for one single Buddha shimmering white: no need to squint through names trying to find Mom – the white light will guide you straight to her.’ This white light leads to the ashes of a loved one, which can be kept in the temple for a long time. Also in Japan, a company called I-Can Corp has married together death and technology: ‘presents a Sims-like experience in which your ancestor’s virtual gravestone appears on screen in a green field. The user can, according to taste, light a virtual incense stick, place flowers, sprinkle water on the stone, and leave fruit and glasses of beer.’

Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of From Here to Eternity is the focus which Doughty places on the United States, and the way in which just a few individuals – for now, at least – are challenging the status quo. In Colorado, there is a single town which promotes the outdoor cremation, using a movable wooden pyre. In North Carolina, a group of medics and research scientists toe the line between ‘death-innovation and the deranged’, with a plan to “turn corpses into compost”, as the New York Times put it. Behind this is something called the ‘Urban Death Project’, an architectural blueprint for being able to compost human bodies in built-up urban areas, which have little – or no – space to bury their recent dead.

Throughout, Doughty poses many questions about how the individual would wish to be treated after their death, and the many options which are available to them – even in the reserved Western world. In Barcelona, for instance, stands an enormous funeral home which handles almost a quarter of all deaths in the city. They display dead ones behind glass, akin to something out of Snow White, which allows families to stay with them all day. A Spanish-style ‘viewing’ displays ‘a loved one in their coffin, surrounded by flowers, behind one large pane of glass, akin to a department store window.’ A Catalan-style viewing moves the open coffin into a glass display case in the centre of the room.

I haven’t read anything quite like From Here to Eternity before, but it reminded me somewhat of the rather funny Netflix travel series, ‘Dark Tourist’. The series, too, shows a Torajan funeral – rather squeamish to the Western viewer, perhaps, but fascinating nonetheless. Throughout, Doughty’s prose is clear and informative, and one can see that she is both passionate about her subject, and keen to impart her wisdom. I must admit that I did find From Here to Eternity a little gross in places, as Doughty certainly does not shy away from discussing fluids and the like, but it is ultimately fascinating, and eye-opening.

This is a great volume to dip in and out of, and to learn from. Some of the rituals which Doughty writes about are really quite beautiful, and I for one feel more comfortable discussing death as a result of reading this. It is perhaps an odd volume to choose during a pandemic, but what Doughty writes here is important – particularly as we face death on such a large and upsetting global scale.

2

Non-Fiction November: ‘Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel’ by Lucinda Hawksley ****

Aside from being my favourite art movement, I have always been fascinated by those who began the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the muses who so inspired them. Lizzie Siddal is perhaps the most iconic of these, serving as the model for such well-known figures as Ophelia and Beatrice, with her pale skin and cascading auburn hair.

Even as a history nerd, I must admit that I’ve not picked up one of Lucinda Hawksley’s books before. This seems odd, considering that whilst looking through her oeuvre, I wrote down almost every single title on my sprawling TBR list. Hawksley’s books and areas of research really appeal to me, and after my extremely positive experience reading Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, I am keen to pick up more of her work soon.

Lizzie Siddal, born Elizabeth Siddall in Southwark, London, worked first for a milliner, modelling different styles of hats for wealthy clients. She was ‘discovered’ by the Irish poet William Allingham, who found that she almost perfectly fitted the criteria for a model his friend, Walter Howell Deverell, was seeking for a painting. Deverell was ‘despairing of finding a woman without prominent curves; he had also hoped to find a red-haired model’ for his depiction of Shakespeare’s Viola.

At first, Siddal was flattered but sceptical of Deverell’s approach, and it took his kindly mother to finally convince her to accept. Her scepticism was wound up with the fact that during the 1840s, ‘modelling for an artist was perceived as being synonymous with prostitution’. Her introduction to modelling for the group of artists, however, was a pleasurable one, and throughout, she demonstrated her fervent respectability. She had a desperation to be accepted.

Siddal went on to become one of the most famous faces in Victorian Britain, sitting for the likes of John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the latter of whom she eventually married after a tumultuous relationship. As Hawksley puts it, this brought with it ‘nine years of emotional agony’. She writes of their nervous inclination, and the clash of their personalities: ‘… both were headstrong and wilful; they were also depressive; prone to wild mood swings… [They] had a tendency to addiction and shared a destructively jealous need to be the most important figure in their – or, indeed, any – relationship.’

At the point of her marriage to Rossetti, Siddal had an addiction to laudanum, and was suffering from a debilitating, and quite mysterious, illness. Her illness was misdiagnosed by specialists as consumption and curvature of the spine in her lifetime. As Hawksley notes, it ‘has long baffled medics and scholars’. It is thought that she may have suffered from an eating disorder, or that ‘she was simply “neurotic” – a vague description that can encompass myriad symptoms and mental illnesses.’ The majority of the symptoms which she manifested, including nausea, dizziness, and a constant cough, can indicate a laudanum addiction. After giving birth to a stillborn daughter, and suffering much heartache, Siddal eventually committed suicide at the age of 32.

Of course, the primary focus here is on Siddal. However, Hawksley gives a lot of valuable context about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and its aims. They wished, she writes, ‘to paint vibrantly coloured works that would mean something to the viewer, subjects that would provoke the imagination and cause discussion.’ The Pre-Raphaelites wanted to return to the artistic ideals which existed before Italian painter and artist of the High Renaissance period, Raphael (1483-1520), the point at which they believed art had “gone wrong”.

Throughout, Hawksley gives a real flavour for the Southwark which Siddal grew up in – highly crowded, with no access to clean running water. Her family, though, was an aspirational one, and she did not grow up in poverty exactly. Siddal exaggerated about her unbringing, leading everyone around her to believe that she grew up in an impoverished slum. This, Hawskley suggests, was a ploy to ‘make Rossetti feel the need to protect her. She preferred to be known as a romantically tragic figure rather than reveal the truth about her family’s shabby working-class respectability.’ Hawksley moves through Siddal’s life with care and sensitivity, and does not simply focus upon her as a muse; she also writes of Siddal’s own artistry, as she was a painter in her own right. Indeed, John Ruskin purchased her entire portfolio of work in 1855, after he became her mentor.

Lizzie Siddal is a thorough and highly readable account of what became an incredibly sad life, marred by tragedy. The research and primary sources have been meticulously examined, and extra information – which tends to give more context, or further explain a brief point Hawksley makes – is often provided in footnotes. Hawksley’s book is relatively slim for a biography, standing at just over 200 pages, but such good use has been made of the original sources, and the whole feels intricately woven. Lizzie Siddal moves along so well, and is an excellent example of historical biography, which I would highly recommend.