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Melodrama on’t moors….. #AllViragoAllAugust #VitaSackvilleWest

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The Death of Noble Godavary by Vita Sackville-West

As is fairly obvious by my reactions here on the Ramblings and also on social media, I had a bit of a book hangover after finishing Victor Serge’s Notebooks. A big, immersive read like that always tends to have that effect, and it’s often so hard to decide what to read next. So I did my usual trick of flinging myself into the nearest book with wild abandon, and as it was one that I had actually *planned* (gasp!) to read this month that was a kind of bonus…

I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings that I’m a member of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; they’re a lovely bunch of people and we discuss Virago (and similar reads) as well as having themed reads, occasional meet ups and even a wonderful Virago Secret Santa. Every August is designated All Virago/All August to try and get us all reading the Viragos (and Persephones and other similar books like the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint) which we have lurking on our shelves. I never restrict myself to only Viragos, as I’d just rebel – and there is of course competition from #WITMonth – but I do try to squeeze in at least one book, and the plan was this slim volume which Simon at Stuck in a Book highlighted during his 25 Books in 25 Days marathon. It sounded marvellous, and as he mentioned it in conjunction with Vita’s “The Heir” (which I absolutely loved), I had of course to procure a copy… Hey, I’ve got round to reading it fairly quickly, haven’t I? đŸ˜€

But to get to the book. At just over 100 pages, “Death…” is really a novella and it tells a dramatic and often dark tale of family inheritance. Our narrator is Gervase Godavary, and as the book opens he’s just learned of the death of his uncle Noble. He is therefore, by necessity, called back to the family home up north (The Grange), and it’s a place which inspires mixed emotions. Whereas “The Heir” told a tale of a man seduced by a house, Gervase (and the rest of the family) seem to be repelled by their home. It’s painted in dark tones, with damp, fog and dramatic moorland weather as the backdrop, and there is a kind of creeping feeling of – well, not exactly dread, but the place certainly seems to have a hold on the family that stays with them even when, like Gervase, they move away.

The Godavary family are a complex brood themselves, and the addition of Noble’s second wife (a volatile Italian women) and their daughter Paola, adds to the drama. In fact, the latter’s characterisation dominates much of the narrative, as does she the family; one member is utterly besotted with her, and even Gervase (who is not) acknowledges her power. There are all kinds of family tensions, the reading of the will and some final dramatic action which, as Simon says, is extremely memorable! I shan’t say more about the plot for fear of spoilers, but it certainly is a compelling read with some stunning imagery.

Nobody spoke; the dalesman trod with their deliberate gait, better accustomed to a slope than to the level; the dogs with lowered noses followed mournfully to heel, each to each; man, dog; man, dog; man, dog. The dogs were like little hyphens, separating the men.

“The Death of Noble Godavary” seems to have languished in obscurity, which is a great shame because it contains some marvellous and atmospheric writing. It’s not without its flaws (as Simon says, the family relationships are a bit unclear at time) and in fact could probably have done with being expanded into something a bit longer and more fleshed out. But despite this it really is a great read – full of almost Gothic drama and oozing tension, I found myself glued to it and finshing it in one setting!

Later in the day the coffin was brought, and we could hear the men upstairs, nailing. Paola alone remained detached and serene; such things seemed to have no power to touch her. The others were taken up with their own preoccupations; Austen and Rachel with the devouring secret of their liaison, Michael with his hungry and tormented pursuit of Paola, Stephen with a general nervousness and a desire not to get in the way. And throughout it all beat the hammers nailing down the coffin.

I’m not enough of an expert on Vita’s writing to know how many shorter works she wrote and what are available or out of print; however, as this one has been unavailable for absolutely decades, a good case could be made for collecting her novellas (and any short stories?) into one volume. “The Death of Noble Godavary” ends on a slightly ambiguous note and I would have loved to see her taking the aftermath of the action a little further. But it’s an affecting story which ramps up the tension throughout and is thoroughly enjoyable. It also reminded me how good Sackville-West’s writing was and how I need to read more of her books (goodness knows, I own enough…)

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My edition of “Death…” was published in 1932 as an Ernest Benn Ninepenny Novel (what fun!), but as Vita is a Virago author I’m allowed to count her for this month! And I’m very glad I chose to read this one, as it was such a vivid and wonderful experience – thanks for bringing it to my notice, Simon! đŸ˜€

“Change will not come from above” @ViragoBooks #GeneralStrike #JarrowMarch

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Clash by Ellen Wilkinson

So…. I’ve managed quite well with #WITmonth during August I feel – three titles so far – but needless to say I am *not* sticking with my plans… I had wanted to read at least one Virago this month and had pencilled in “A Fine of Two Hundred Francs” by Elsa Triolet. Not only is it a book I’ve intended to read for ages, but it would have also fitted in with WITmonth and would have been ideal. However, the bookish serendipity I posted about the other day got in the way…

Was there another country in the world where the class barriers were so high as in England, and where it was so loudly proclaimed that none existed at all?

As I mentioned, I was so intrigued to stumble across Ellen Wilkinson’s “Clash”, particularly when I read about her fascinating background and impeccable left-wing views. She lived such an inspiring life, and it seems, from reading “Clash”, that much of the novel draws from her own experience. The books tell of the adventures of Joan Craig; like Wilkinson, she’s from a working-class background, fiercely left-wing and committed to working for the cause. Joan is a trade union organizer and the book is set in 1926, on the eve of the General Strike.

This was a strike that lasted for 9 days, when the country ground to a halt as workers from all industries came out in support of miners whose wages and working conditions were appalling. The strike in effect failed, as the Government were prepared and drafted in blacklegs from the middle classes; their organisation was better and they could hold out against the workers for longer, leaving the latter no option but to give in. However, the General Strike has gone down in to history as formidable display of working class solidarity, as well as contributing to an upsurge of support for the Labour Party.

Joan rose to put some more coal on the fire. She looked thoughtfully at the piece she held between the tongs. “Queer stuff, isn’t it?” she said. “All the hidden possibilities, the light and power and heat and scent and healing, all being squabbled over like a mangy bone some prehistoric cur has buried.”

“And wasted, as though the sole use of it was to grub it out of the ground as quick as possible and chuck it at any price to anyone who’ll have the stuff,” added Royd.

Against this background, an event and a time she lived through, Wilkinson tells her story and it’s gripping as well as perhaps more nuanced than you might think. Joan (like her author) is a fiery and committed women, experienced in rallying the troops at meetings and destined for a career in politics, perhaps even Parliament. However, her story is not straightforward; she has monied friends, like Mary Maud Meadowes, and a whole ‘Bloomsbury’ set. In these circles, she runs into author Anthony Dacre. A slightly older and more cynical character who’s still sympathetic to the workers’ cause, he falls head over heels in love with Joan; however, his cold and somewhat estranged society wife, Helen, is the one who wears the trousers in their marriage and so the prognosis is not good. Further complications arise in the form of Gerry Blain, a veteran of WW1 who has several chips on his shoulder and also suffers a lot from his wartime injuries. Like Dacre, he’s smitten with Joan; unlike Dacre, he is completely committed to the cause. But Joan loves Anthony, and so the romance is in for a rocky ride…

Excitement was rising. These men, Joan thought to herself, were in the centre of a crisis in which actually they, working men, were being consulted and had to give the final decision. In all the history of their class, wars had been decided for them. Their job was to fight and die. At the most they could but grumble under their breath. But now Cabinet Ministers were waiting to see what they would do, and whether their decision was war or peace.

That description perhaps makes this work sound a little trivial, but frankly it’s anything but. The backdrop to the personal story is actually as gripping and involving as anything else in the book. We witness the excitement and tension of those organizing the strike; the difficulties of pulling together multiple trades unions, all with differing agendas; the complexities of deciding where your loyalties lie; the disappointments when things don’t go as planned; and the temptations which can draw a person away from their beliefs and commitments.

The scene at the Memorial Hall reminded Joan of a beehive. Men were pouring in, while others were pushing themselves out. Communists, single-taxers, credit-reformers, were trying to push their papers on the delegates. Unemployed sandwich-men paraded in front of the hall. Press photographers tried to lure the big-wigs to pose. The inevitable mild -middle-class lady gave out leaflets on birth-control. A little apart from the hubbub a typical group of London workers looked on with their usual air of cheerful detachment. A taxi-man, wearing his union button, surveyed the scene with immense benevolence.

Importantly, Wilkinson uses her story to embrace some very important and relevant issues for women. With remarkable foresight, she shows the personal and political as being inextricably linked; I was reminded of the slogan “The Personal is Political” which came to the fore during the second wave of feminism, and it’s clear that Wilkinson believes that you can’t behave in your personal life in a way that contradicts your political beliefs. Joan is a woman with a major dilemma: she loves Tony, but he wavers constantly, wanting her to be his mistress at one point and then when he finally commits to the idea of a divorce, insisting that she would have to give up her work. Gerry, on the other hand, would be the perfect work companion but Joan’s feelings for him don’t have the passion that she feels for Tony. Joan eventually reaches a resolution although, according to the introduction to the Virago edition by Wilkinson’s biographer Betty D. Vernon, Ellen herself never did.

London, Parliament, the folks that make laws and regulations, are afraid of the miners and the steel-workers and the other manual workers. They must be kept poor, or they mightn’t stick at their jobs, they must be kept ignorant of their bodies or they mightn’t produce enough cheap labour, they must be kept overcrowded when slums could be swept away in five years, because, oh why – because we must have some one to look down on, just as we won’t give them enough State hospitals for fear we shan’t be able to give ourselves the luxury of feeling charitable.

These are not the only relationships affected by the Strike, however. That action ends halfway through the book, but Wilkinson goes on to show the aftermath: workers being exploited as the try to go back to work, fund-raising efforts, women in small industrial towns who don’t know the first thing about birth control and struggle with multiple children, and the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots (plus ça change…) The effects of the Strike on relationships in all classes is profound, and Wilkinson’s characterisation is not black and white; Mary Maud is rich but with a heart that is in the right place and wants to help; Helen Dacre is upper class and initially nasty but becomes more human when her side of things is given; gossip columnist Palma is initially snooty but revealed to have left-wing sympathies. This nuanced approach allows Wilkinson to produce a riveting story that embraces left-wing politics, feminism and the struggle to balance work and love.

Mary Maud was a wealthy bachelor woman, an intimate of an exclusive Bloomsbury circle who bestowed fame on themselves by writing reviews of each other’s books. As each slender work appeared it was greeted as a new Tchehov, a more sensitive Dostoievsky, a respringing of the fountain of Shelley’s genius.

The book also has a strong message about the need to be vigilant; Wilkinson obviously felt that there should be no compromises and warns against the dangers of being seduced by comfort and drawn away from the struggle; Joan is tempted by the possibility of a different life that would blunt the edges of her combativeness and wish to fight for her cause, and I got very tense waiting to see what the resolution would be.

Ellen Wilkinson with Jarrow marchers, by Unidentified photographer for Fox Photo Ltd [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wilkinson’s only political novel (“The Division Bell Mystery” is a crime story, and the politics are nothing like this from what I’ve read so far) is a real winner. It’s exciting, emotional and gives an eye-witness view of a time when working people came together to try and fight for a fairer world. That attempt failed, mainly it seems because the strikers had a desperate need for proper organisation and a more sweeping overview; and in some ways, with the ridiculous in-fighting plaguing the left today, that still seems worryingly relevant. Little changes, and I was vaguely depressed to see one miner character comment about the closing down of the press: “That’ll larn the “Daily Mail” – it seems that particular rag was a problem back in 1926… “Clash” never hides its politics, but those politics give the book an importance and stimulation for discussion which so many works lack. It was definitely a worthy choice for Virago to republish in 1989, sixty years on from its original publication date; and it’s definitely worth tracking down today if you want a novel that will stimulate, engender debate and make you wonder how much we’ve moved on in what is nearly a century since that great coming together of the working class. You’ll notice a lot of quotes in this post, and I could have pulled out so many more; this is a book that’s really had an effect on me and it’s one of the most important Viragos I’ve read.

The Price of Love #WITMonth #AllViragoAllAugust

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The Captive by Colette
Translated by Antonia White

I always enjoy taking part in Women in Translation month during August; I read a lot of translated literature anyway, and likewise a lot of women authors, so in some ways it’s a bit of a case of the month being what I already do. However, I haven’t managed to get on to so many titles this year because of “War and Peace”; but having picked up a lovely edition of Colette’s “The Captive” on my recent travels, I decided this would be an ideal re-read, particularly as she’s a Virago author too (and translated by another Virago author!).

I first read Colette in the early 1980s, and this was one of the titles I had, so it’s been over 35 years since I read this particular book (gulp!). I’ve returned to certain of her works over and over again (particularly “Break of Day”) but I’m pretty sure I’ve never re-read “The Captive” so I was very eager to see what I made of it after all this time.

Published in 1913, “The Captive” is narrated by Colette’s alter ego, RenĂ©e NĂ©rĂ©, who featured in a number of the author’s works, most notably “The Vagabond”. In the latter story she was a music hall artist, travelling the country, living out of a trunk and performing wherever fate took her. In “The Captive”, NĂ©rĂ© has retired from music hall after receiving a legacy and is frankly at a loose end. We first encounter her living in a hotel in Nice and basically wasting her time hanging around with Jean and May, a pair of young lovers with a destructive relationship, and the rather entertaining Masseau, an opium addict who serves as light relief! RenĂ©e is alternately bored and amused with her companions and often seems to wish she could be on her own, communing with nature and relishing her solitude.

Nice in the 1900s

However, RenĂ©e is not as straightforward as she seems, and despite her age still has her attractions. Inevitably, Jean is drawn to the older, more experienced woman and despite her attempts to escape him by running off to Geneva, they begin an affair which is characterised from the start by a simple physical connection rather than anything deeper. However, this relationship is nothing if not complex and we follow its twists and turns until it reaches a perhaps unexpected conclusion…

A simple sounding tale, perhaps, but in the hands of an author like Colette it’s anything but. RenĂ©e herself is a complex mix, attempting to resist the allure of the younger man yet unable to; despite her avowed independence, she craves love, and also to be reassured that she’s still attractive. As for Jean, for much of the book he’s unreadable and it’s only towards the end of the story that we see a little more of his personality emerge. All the nuances and complexities of an affair between man and woman are laid bare here: the little lies and compromises, the obsession and the disillusionment, the arguments and the bliss. In many ways RenĂ©e is trying to keep herself detached during the affair; she tries to convince herself that it’s simply a physical thing between them, but the longer the relationship goes on, the harder it is to really believe that. The title has been translated before as “The Shackle”, perhaps to indicate that love is such a thing and that RenĂ©e has been captured by the emotion. However, I believe the literal translation of the original French “L’Entrave” is ‘obstacle’, and RenĂ©e certainly encounters one in her quest for freedom.

You pretend to love me; this means that all day long I must bear the burden of your anxiety, your watch-dog vigilance, your suspicion. Tonight I am not off the chain, but it has slipped from your hand and trails behind me so that I do not feel the pull of it.

There are elements of the story which might sit uncomfortably with modern readers: the casual violence between Jean and May; the constant smoking; and the fact that a woman is considered past it at the ripe old age of 36… (heavens!) This latter is particularly striking, as modern attitudes would consider 36 to be in the prime of life; but RenĂ©e/Colette makes constant reference to her increasing age, the need to keep up certain barriers between the lovers, a certain heaviness of age – most odd! Much of the plot is concerned with the power balance within the relationship, which shifts as the story develops, and a to modern eyes the sacrifices RenĂ©e makes might be unacceptable; although I would wager that things have not changed as much as we might think they have… And it’s worth remembering that she is in a position of having basically no occupation: she misses the music hall (and a visit to her old colleague Brague makes that pain even worse), has no need to make a living and is at a loose end, so ripe for an emotional intrigue. There is a hint at one point that she is attempting a career as a writer, but this is never stated outright, and RenĂ©e seems very much a woman at a transitional period of her life.

Colette in the 1900s by Henri Manuel – this is rather how I image RenĂ©e…

The story itself is fascinating and involving; and I felt it very much reflected Colette’s view at the time, as she was a woman who certainly needed love. Yet there are other elements creeping in, those which became more prominent in her later books: her profound love of nature is evident, as well as her wonderful powers of observation and her ability to capture a place or person in a few lines. As I read I really felt as if I was *in* the South of France, or Paris, or Geneva, so vivid are the pictures she paints.

I’m never sure how widely known Colette is nowadays; in my feminist youth, she was someone we turned to readily as a pioneering woman who carved out her own life and lived it on her own terms, while writing wonderful books along the way. Returning to her writing with this book I felt, as I always do, not only what wonderful prose she wrote but what a wonderfully adventurous life she must have had. I loved my re-read of “The Captive” and if you haven’t read anything by the marvellous Colette I would strongly urge you to – a remarkable woman and a remarkable writer.

#AllVirago/All August – The Genius of Margaret Atwood

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Murder in the Dark by Margaret Atwood

August is traditionally the month where we on the LibraryThing Virago Group read as many Viragos (and Persephones too, as they often share the same ethos and type of author) as we can. I never commit to reading only these books, although some do, but I know I would fail if I did so – particularly as I’m balancing this with my “War and Peace” read and I want to fit in some translated women for “Women in Translation” month too. And the first book I picked up was a very slim volume by an author I adore but haven’t read for far too long and wanted to get back to – Margaret Atwood.

Atwood needs no introduction from me, and her name is currently to the fore even more than usual because of the current political situation and the recent (and very relevant) adaptation of her great work, “The Handmaid’s Tale”. I have a shelf stacked with her books, and back in the 1980s when I discovered her writing I read most of the novels that were available then, and kept on reading as they came out. I want to revisit them, particularly “Alias Grace” and “The Blind Assassin”, which I remember being particular favorites; however, this time my hand went to a small volume of short pieces entitled “Murder in the Dark” which looked very intriguing. And what a powerful read it was for so small a book.

“Murder in the Dark” is 110 pages of short pieces varying in length from a page to around 7 or 8, and the subject matter is variable and intriguing. The back of the book declares that the work is fiction, yet it appears to straddle a number of genres, reading at times like memoir, at others like short essays on reading and writing, but always with Atwood’s distinctive voice and fierce intellect at play.

I no longer want to read about anything sad. Anything violent, anything disturbing, anything like that. No funerals at the end, though there can be some in the middle. If there must be deaths, let there be resurrections, or at least a Heaven so we know where we are. Depression and squalor are for those under twenty-five, they can take it, they even like it, they still have enough time left. But real life is bad for you, hold it in your hand long enough and you’ll get pimples and become feeble-minded. You’ll go blind.

The title work, for example, was a particular favourite which compared the act of authorship with the game of Murder in the Dark; and in another piece Atwood lays out possible plots for women’s novels, only to come to a devastating conclusion at the end. She discussed the page before us, whether happy endings are essential, how our perceptions change when our imagination takes hold, and riffs on the importance of who does the cooking and how it can affect the whole of society.

Then there are short fragments, almost prose poems, that conjure up brilliantly a situation or event or character in just a couple of paragraphs, leaving you completely involved and wanting more, yet knowing that what Atwood has written is enough to tell you all you need to know. One of the longer pieces, “Raw Materials”, was quite brilliant in its portrayal of claustrophobic locations and made me, as someone who doesn’t like being closed in, feel very jittery.

Have you never seen the look of gratitude, the look of joy, on the faces of those who have managed to return from the page? Despite their faintness, their loss of blood, they fall on their knees, they push their hands into the earth, they clasp the bodies of those they love, or, in a pinch, any bodies they can get, with an urgency unknown to those who have never experienced the full horror of a journey into the page.

Had I forgotten just what a genius of a writer Atwood is? No – I always think of her as that; but not having read anything by her for a little while, it was an exhilarating shock to the system to re-encounter her wonderful prose. Surreal, thought-provoking, unusual and very, very memorable, this slim book showcases just what a wonderful author Margaret Atwood is – and I really must read more of her soon.

So – where on earth did the summer go?

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I’ve reached the start of September, and I suppose autumn, without actually noticing it (until I had to go back to work, of course!) And I don’t know quite where the summer went. I kind of feel as if I didn’t read a huge amount of books, though when I look at the little spreadsheet I keep I did get through quite a few. I think the fact that three of them were Dorothy Richardsons perhaps is a little misleading!

hudson river

August is, of course, All Virago/All August and though I didn’t stick exclusively to those, I did read several this year. Of course, I caught up on my Dorothy Richardson “Pilgrimage” read and I’m feeling more confident of sticking to it. Then there was the very wonderful “Hudson River Bracketed” by Edith Wharton which I *really* enjoyed and it’s made me keen to read more of her writing.

lifted veil

Perhaps I shouldn’t mentioned my other Virago read – “The Lifted Veil” by George Eliot… I know many Viragoites dislike it, but I found it most enjoyable and I’m glad I chose to pick it up this month.

recollections

I also reconnected with Virginia Woolf in a big way, enjoying the excellent “Orlando” and also getting very emotional about “Recollections of Virginia Woolf”.

artificial

Alas, I only managed one title for Women in Translation month, Irmgard Keun’s “The Artificial Silk Girl” which was another great book by this German author. Hopefully I’ll do better next August…

So, a bit of a mixed month. As for what I have lined up for September – well, I’ve read a couple of interesting titles and there are reviews scheduled. One is a Kingsley Amis, one is a Russian, and one is a wonderful little short story collection. I have a couple of interesting-looking review books to read, there’s Jean Rhys Reading Week coming up, and I’d like to get ahead on some of the titles for the 1947 Club, which Simon at Stuck in a Book and I will be hosting in October. So plenty of good things to come, and let’s hope I can get into more of a rhythm with reading in September! đŸ™‚

All Virago, All August : You can’t go home again…

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Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton

I confess to feeling a little smugger than usual this August, as I’ve managed to read several Viragos – more than I normally manage, as there are so many bookish distractions around. Particularly pleasing is that this book is a large (over 500 pages!) and epic tale by Edith Wharton, who I haven’t read enough of – and I absolutely loved it! I read it while I was on my travels, visiting my mum and my offspring, and it was the perfect companion for train journeys and reading whilst away.

hudson river
“Hudson River Bracketed” (the titled refers to a style of architecture) was published in 1929, and it tells the story of Vance Weston. Born in the American mid-west, the son of a successful real estate developer, Vance is used to a modern, comfortable, forward-looking life. The family have gradually moved upmarket, from smaller houses to larger, even more modern ones and Vance has had a college education. But instead of taking the obvious course and going into the family business, he wants something different; some of the spark of his grandmother is in him, something that sees more in the world than just the quotidian, and Vance wants to be a writer. After an illness, he leaves the family home in the town of Euphoria and goes to board with a distant cousin, Mrs. Tracy, who has a ramshackle house in Paul’s Landing, up the Hudson River from New York. Basing himself here, he plans to make an assault on the Big Apple and make it as an author. However, the culture shock he experiences when he arrives on the Hudson is immense; for the first time in his life he comes across a way of life unlike his, with long roots to early American settlers. And the sight of his first old house has a dramatic effect on Vance, so much so that it changes his course mid-stream.

As they left the house he realized that, instead of seizing the opportunity to explore every nook of it, he had sat all the afternoon in one room, and merely dreamed of what he might have seen in the others. But that was always his way: the least little fragment of fact was enough for him to transform into a palace of dreamss, whereas if he tried to grasp more of it at a time it remained on his hands as so much unusable reality.

The Tracy family are related to the Spear family (I could have done with a family tree here) but the latter are of a different class. Cultured and refined, their only contact with the Tracys is to employ them to clean and keep an eye on The Willows, an old house owned by a cousin in the Lorburn branch of the family.

Whilst helping his cousins Laura Lou and Upton, Vance stumbles on the library and it is here that his real education begins. A college education has not prepared him for the splendours of classic literature; neither is he prepared for his meeting with Heloise “Halo” Spear, another distant cousin who will become his muse and obsession, as well as guiding him through the books at The Willows..

“Don’t shake the books as if they were carpets, Vance; they’re not. At least they’re only magic carpets, some of them, to carry one to the other side of the moon. But they won’t stand banging and beating. You see, books have souls, like people: that is, like a few people…”

But Vance’s life is going to be anything but straightforward. As he begins to explore literature and try to find his voice as a writer, he’s pulled between the draw of his art and the need to live so as to feed that art. Halo, despite his adoration of her, seems as far from him as a goddess; however, Laura Lou is human and loves him, and they will eventually make an ill-judged marriage. Vance struggles to write, to make a living so as to support the sickly Laura Lou and soon realises the mistake he’s made by marrying her. Despite the success of an initial novel, Vance’s naivety and immaturity means that he finds it impossible to find a balance in his life, torn between his loyalty for Laura Lou and need for companionship, as against his desperate urge to write. The struggle will prove to be too much for some…

wharton
“Hudson River Bracketed” could really be subtitled “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” because that’s most definitely what it is; and how unusual to have that portrait painted by a female author! Vance is a remarkable creation – complex, nuanced and perhaps more finely drawn than might be the case by a male writer. Interestingly, in the afterword by Marilyn French, the latter states that she regards the book as flawed because of the fact that Vance, as hero, is flawed, which I personally found an odd judgement. Vance is certainly no perfect hero – he has talent, but he’s weak, and his compassion and need for companionship overtake any logical thinking at times in the story. His treatment of women is often unthinking, but he’s driven by the need to write and struggles to do this while he’s burdened with a wife who has no comprehension of his needs and also has no money to support her.

I chose the title of this post deliberately, as it also spotlights another strong trend in the book, the clash between Vance’s two lives. He pretty much abandons his family in Euphoria to follow his muse, rejecting their values and way of life. At one point in the story he’s forced to return because of lack of finances, but the situation is impossible as he’s moved away from his family and their beliefs. He stands it for a while until he’s impelled to leave once more for New York. However, there’s a saying that “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy” and this kind of applies here; Vance is somehow caught between two worlds, neither of which he really fits into, and in the end you wish someone would give him some money to go off and write his masterpiece. The title of this post is also relevant because Wharton apparently based her story on the early life of American author Thomas Wolfe, who wrote a book of that name, and his books (like this one) reflect the culture of the time. In Wharton’s book in particular New York’s literary elite of the 1920s come in for quite a lot of sly criticism and it’s obvious the author had no love for faddish writing (though she does allow Vance to discover and be entranced by “The Russians”!)

HRB is a long book yet immensely readable, and beautifully written. There are vivid scenes of Vance and Halo watching a sunrise over the Hudson River; Vance and Laura Lou exploring in the snow; the countryside around The Willows and the house itself; and all of these are stunning and memorable, as were the characters. In particular, the troubled and intelligent Halo Spear is a wonderful creation. Married to a man she doesn’t love because of the fact that her family owe him money, she struggles to maintain an intellectual life and sees the genius in Vance Weston. Trying to help him draw this out, she becomes his muse and eventually the pair fall in love. This is always handled sensitively and convincingly by Wharton, and though they can’t be together out of loyalty to their spouses, I couldn’t help wishing they were as Halo seemed to be the only person able to help Vance attain his potential.

Despite its length HRB finished too soon for me; I had become completely absorbed in the story of Vance and Halo, and so it was a real delight to find out that there’s a follow-up book, “The Gods Arrive”. I’ve read little Wharton up until now, but I’ll certainly be looking out for “Gods…” and also checking out the other books by the author that are lurking on my shelves! đŸ™‚

All Virago/All August – Taking on a controversial title…

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My first read for AV/AA is one I mentioned in a recent post, and it’s a controversial one on the LibraryThing Virago group, strongly dividing opinions; I refer of course to George Eliot’s novella “The Lifted Veil”. Written close on the heels of Eliot’s first novel, the successful “Adam Bede”, “The Lifted Veil” clocks in at less than 70 pages and is almost brief enough to be a short story; but Eliot’s publishers were not happy to put it out, and her next novel “The Mill on the Floss” was more of what we would now consider a typical Eliot book. So what *is* “The Lifted Veil” and why does it cause so much difference of opinion?

lifted veil

The story is narrated by one Latimer, a man of fragile health and sensibilities. Plagued by illness as a child, and doted on by his mother, he is always going to be a disappointment to his father; the latter tends to favour his elder son Alfred, son of his first wife and much more of the traditional hunting-shooting-fishing type. However, Latimer discovers that he has a gift that the rest of his family do not, and one it is better to keep quiet about – that of clairvoyance or second sight. This comes to light when he has a vision of Prague, having never seen it or visited it, and after this the visions keep coming. One in particular concerns a ‘pale, fatal-eyed’ woman he has never met, but who turns out to be betrothed to his brother. And the woman, whose name is Bertha, proves to be the one person whose soul Latimer finds it impossible to see into.

Of course, our young clairvoyant falls headlong into an obsession with Bertha who plays him for all he is worth. And although his brother is engaged to her, Latimer has had a vision of an older version of himself married to Bertha – although the circumstances are not the happiest. So when Alfred meets with an accident, Latimer’s fate is set out for him…

To say more would give away the twists and turns of the plot, so I shan’t – I shall only mention that there is a scene involving a corpse which seems to cause a lot of consternation but which frankly I found quite mild. If you think about “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, “Dracula”, “Frankenstein”, any number of Wilkie Collins books or indeed anything by Poe, then you’ll see that much of the fuss probably comes from the fact that a tale of darkness and gloom of this type is simply not what’s expected from Eliot.

George_Eliot_by_Samuel_Laurence

However, as Melusine commented on an earlier post, the kind of science on show here is the sort that was extremely popular at the time. There is mesmerism and phrenology and of course the clairvoyance, and as the excellent afterword by Beryl Gray points out, these ‘sciences’ were all the rage amongst the Victorian populace and Eliot herself was fascinated by them. So her story reflected what was going on around her in the world and is therefore by no means anachronistic. I also thought the book was exceptionally well written and very gripping; Eliot gets inside the head of her somewhat sickly and doomed protagonist really well, making him utterly convincing

However behind all the melodrama is something that’s consistent with the rest of Eliot’s writing and that’s a moral purpose. Neither Latimer nor Bertha are what we would call a ‘good’ or ‘normal’ person, for whatever reason, and so to a certain extent they get what they deserve. Had Latimer not been so prey to his visions and so unhealthily obsessed with Bertha then events might not have turned out as they did. If the veil had not been lifted and he had not been able to see into people’s hearts and minds then his life would have been a very different and perhaps more straightforward one. Bertha, for her part, was a manipulative tease from the start so really can’t expect any better than she gets. And the business with the corpse is also to serve a moral purpose, to allow an accusation to be made to a guilty person in a most dramatic way. Let’s face it, authors like Dickens were not averse to plenty of melodrama and set pieces, so let’s not beat George Eliot up about it!

So in summary, I really enjoyed “The Lifted Veil” a lot – for a short work it packed a big punch and had plenty of food for thought. It also made for a gripping short read and I think it’s been unjustly maligned. My first read for All Virago/All August, and it’s a successful one!

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