30 August, 2008

Middle class women in the mid-twentieth century

The feminine middlebrow novel, 1920s to 1950s by Nicola Humble was a really interesting look at a lot of books I'm very fond of, including Cold Comfort Farm, The pursuit of love, the Peter Wimsey mysteries and a whole lot of books by (or for) women - she even mentioned the Anotia Forest children's series at one point. Basically, the kind of books that have been reprinted in the Virago Modern Classics series and by Persephone. This was really fun, looking at all sorts of stuff I'm very interested in: class and gender roles, and the retreat into domesticity after the second world war. Obviously these kind of novels mostly deal with very upper middle class women - the sort of women who had the leisure to write books rather than having to run households or work for money.

This led me on to a couple of things - E.M. Delafield's Diary of a provincial lady, which was a very charming fictional diary: a sort of 1930s Bridget Jones, but funnier and a lovely period piece.

More interesting was Elizabeth Bowen's Death of the heart, which was a very odd and unsettling novel, but I'm still trying to put my finger on quite why it was so unsettling. The story is about Portia, an orphaned teenager, who moves in with her half-brother and his wife into their grand, chilly London home. They don't really want her there, and she is desperately lonely, so that in the end she turns to the wastrel Eddie for love and companionship. The reader can see that Eddie is not serious, but nonetheless Portia is devastated by his casual betrayal of her.

Another set of diaries, but not fictional this time, Joan Wyndham's Love lessons and Love is blue, which were wonderful: the first one is her teenage diary, which is precocious and totally sex-obsessed, and the second about her adventures in the WAAF, which mostly involve sleeping her way around Scotland. Fascinating to see how limited women's sexual expectations were at the time: she records her various lovers' pieces of advice about how women are very unlikely to come, and spends a long time having fundamentally unsatisfactory sex and only vaguely wondering whether it might be better somehow. But these were very funny and excellent reading with a hangover.

Finally an interesting book in the form of one of those collections from the Mass Observation Archive, this one a collection of articles written as part of a collaborative correspondence magazine set up between a group of women in the late 1940s. Can any mother help me? is the title, after the letter sent to a magazine by a depressed housewife, asking for suggestions of how to overcome her depression and sense of isolation. The articles are amazing - the women write very frankly about things like childbirth and medical experiences, as well as their marriages, divorces, childcare and career and social successes. The group fairly diverse, although they are all middle-class, and it's very interesting to see how they have a similar dynamic to, say, a talkboard: beginning with anonymity and the freedom of expression that that offers, but eventually becoming close friends - which correspondingly limits, sometimes, the things they feel free to say. I would have like to read some of the less personal articles - through the book they refer to things like 'such and such's article on socialism', but the editor, Jenna Bailey, has pretty much confined her choice of articles to ones on personal experience. [42] [43] [44] [45] [46] [47]

Zola: the low life

God, I read these before I finished my exams. In June. I'm so horribly behind with this blog. So anyway: Thérèse Raquin and L'assommoir. Both horribly gloomy books in which everyone, pretty much, comes to a bad end. I like a bit of doom and gloom.

L'assommoir is the novel where Zola introduces the parents of Etienne (from Germinal) and Nana, and it's got a lot of his theories about heredity: essentially, that alcoholism and violence are passed down in families. Thankfully, this isn't stated explicitly (I can't bear 19th century novels full of essays on science) but is made clear through the story: Gervaise has plenty of opportunity to make good, but her natural laziness and alcoholism lead to her downfall. (Etienne, of course, is a good and admirable man, but it's made clear in Germinal that this is because he manages, with great effort, to keep his inherited alcoholic and violent tendencies in check - if he ever gets drunk, he may kill a man.)

It's fantastically detailed, as a picture of life in mid-nineteenth century Paris: I like the way Zola shows the landscape changing as the slums are cleared (I guess as part of Haussmann's projects?), and he's excellent with the details of life. I always like it when authors tell you about costs and prices, and particularly here, the details of how much everything costs add to the feeling of grinding poverty in the area, particularly in the beginning where Gervaise and Lantier are first living in horrible squalor.

I also really like the way Zola captures the experience of some really ghastly social events. The big binge in the middle of the novel is so horribly evocative, as they all stuff themselves and are then sick in the street. He does a similar thing in Thérèse Raquin: the evenings above the shop with the horrible stuffy pompous guests are wonderfully cringey and awful. Otherwise, I enjoyed this less than the Rougon-Macquart novels I've read: Zola's obsession here is with temperaments and types, and how people's lives play out according to their natures, which I find less interesting than his mad heredity theories, and I can do without all the stuff about human brutes as well. But on the whole, I enjoy tragic melodrama and liked this well enough. [40] [41]
Three novels by Barbara Trapido, in quick succession (I think all in the same weekend): Juggling, The travelling hornplayer and Noah's ark. I love Trapido's stories. There's a sort of fairytale element to them: themes of twins and odd deceptions and weird coincidences, like Shakespeare's comedies, but at the same time they're firmly rooted in the material life and social circumstances of modern Britain. I like the way she always describes houses and clothes and delights in the gadgets and comforts that the middle-classes fill their houses with.

These were all particularly entertaining books as they're loosely connected: characters from previous novels turn up again in completely different contexts (lovely Jonathan from Brother of the more famous Jack turns up in The travelling hornplayer as 'the Novelist', having an affair and a mid-life crisis). And they're funny, full of eccentric familes and clever funny people. I'm tempted to track down all the ones I haven't yet read in the library, but think I might leave it for a while until I really need some comfort reading. [37] [38] [39]

26 August, 2008


Reading: spent yesterday in a fug of hangover reading Joan Wyndham's diaries which are very silly and entertaining.

Listening: very much enjoyed the Sleeping Beauty in last week's proms.

Watching: watched Empire of the Sun with a massive hangover and a Chinese takeaway.