Category Archives: UK fiction

Mr Tiller and I will marry, and I will become a schoolmistress to raise the finest generation yet known to England.

The Arrival of Missives, by Aliya Whiteley

I cannot sleep.

Today I overheard Mrs Barbery in the street gossiping with the other mothers. She said, ‘He isn’t a real man, of course, not after that injury.’ I walked past and pretended not to have heard. He limps a little, but it does not constrain his activities. Sometimes I wonder what is under his shirt and waistcoat. I imagine something other than flesh to be found there: fine swan feathers, or a clean white space. No, Mr Tiller is not what passes for a real man in these parts, and all the better for that.

Shirley Fearn is sixteen years old. She’s intelligent, idealistic and relatively well-educated. Her father is one of the better-off farmers in her small village of Westerbridge – an unimportant place where the years and generations unfold each much like the last and which nobody important ever comes from or goes to.

The Victorian era is decidedly dead and Shirley thinks she’s arrived on stage just in time for the world to transform. Her generation is different to those that came before and will be important in ways older generations can barely imagine. Naturally it doesn’t occur to her that teenagers always think that:

This is a different age, a new era, and my feelings are all the finer and brighter for my luck in having the time to explore them. The upward path of humanity, out of the terrible trenches, will come from the cultivation of the mind. And women will have an important role in this, as teachers, as mentors, to the exceptional men who will grow from the smallest boys, with our guidance.

Shirley dreams of more than is offered her, but her dreams are limited by her experience. She is a product of her time and upbringing and her idea of independence is helping to teach great men instead of giving birth to them. The idea of great women is yet to occur to her.

Of course the reader understands perfectly well what Mrs Barbery meant and that Shirley’s dreams of marrying Mr Tiller can’t become real. Mr Tiller doesn’t seem particularly keen himself, insisting on treating Shirley as if she were yet but a child. It’s all quite vexing.

Shirley knows her parents oppose her ambitions to become a teacher. They, like most the village, expect her to marry a young farmer or perhaps the blacksmith’s boy Daniel Redmore. Daniel stirs none of the noble feelings in Shirley that Mr Tiller does, though he definitely does stir feelings of some unfamiliar sort. Still, what bright future could there be with him? The Redmores and the Fearns both date back centuries in the village. Marrying him would be accepting the position she was born to.

Bright as she is Shirley understands nothing. That will change.

So far Arrival probably doesn’t sound like one of the more critically acclaimed SF novels of recent years. However, that’s exactly what it is and the first stirrings of that become apparent when Shirley decides to spy on Mr Tiller in his cottage. What she sees is not the awful wound the reader expects but instead what she interprets as some kind of peculiar rock protruding from his abdomen.

Mr Tiller bears a message. One that descended upon him as he lay dying on barbed wire bayonetted by a German soldier who picked up Mr Tiller’s own dropped rifle to kill him with. The rock saved his life and more than that gave him a purpose.

Shirley dreams of shaping the future by shaping the men who will make it. Mr Tiller aims to shape it more directly, guided by the rock. He wants Shirley to help him. He wants Shirley to abandon her vision of the future to support his.

Mr Tiller is far from alone in wanting Shirley to abandon her ambitions. The science fiction elements of the plot here mirror the prosaic. Shirley realises that her parents oppose her teaching not because they want her to inherit their farm as she always supposed but because they want her to attract the right kind of husband to take it over. Her education is intended to make her more appealing to an intelligent modern man, not to make her an intelligent modern woman.

Shirley starts to become aware of herself as a perceived object. Now she’s sixteen the men of the village, even the older ones, treat her differently. She dreamed of being special, of having some unique gift to give the world, but what she’s finding instead is that what she’s most appreciated for is her value as a commodity:

It is as if, I think as I walk slowly home, a light has been switched on inside of me. It is a light that only men can see, and it attracts them, draws them close. It makes them think that I will be receptive to their glances and comments. I’m not ridiculous enough to think that their interest is all about my beauty or other talents. It is simply that I am now, in their eyes, the right age for such treatment.

The irony of Shirley’s political awakening lies in its youthful selfishness. Daniel Radcliffe takes her to her teaching interview and speaks to her of how he wishes they could run away together not as man and wife but just as two people living together as best they can. She barely recognises that like her he has dreams of something other than what he’s been offered (after all, she’s the one that’s special and he’s the one that’s ordinary). She looks down on her own mother’s lack of education and ambition, little reflecting on how much more limited her mother’s opportunities were or what kind of inner life she might have.

Arrival becomes a novel of choices and consequences, which makes it in part the story of every teenager even if in this case there’s an incomprehensible rock bearing messages and commands. When Shirley is appointed Mayday Queen she learns how powerful and enjoyable it can be to fit in and be popular. But when she rebels against her parents or speaks sharply to adults whom she’s supposed to respect she learns that too carries power and enjoyment.

Arrival is well written and Shirley is both likable and credible. There’s some lovely paralleling of the deep past in the form of the Mayday celebrations (which the local priest condemns on account of their pagan roots) and the deep future which Mr Tiller is trying to mould and make certain. The characters are vivid and Shirley’s journey persuasive.

The only criticism I really have is that I found the concluding pages a bit on the nose in terms of Shirley becoming a rather empowered modern woman with a mind to social justice. For me it became neat where I’d have preferred a little more compromise and ambiguity. Still, that’s a small price to pay for a novel which so (apparently) effortlessly subverts our ideas of what science fiction is and what a science fiction protagonist should look like.

I’ll end by mentioning that for those who do normally read SF there’s quite a lot of subtext here in terms of criticism of the limits of the genre – the kinds of futures it imagines and who gets to populate them. Unfortunately that’s difficult to discuss without spoilers and honestly it could easily go completely unnoticed without harming the book at all. It’s subtle enough that for those who don’t read SF it might as well not be there.

Arrival is Whiteley’s second novel and I’ve since bought her first. This has every chance of being on my end of year list.

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Filed under Historical fiction, SF, UK fiction, Whiteley, Aliya

She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation.

The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is one of the finest books I’ve read this year. I fully expect it to be on my end of year list.

It’s a (possibly semi-autobiographical) novel in which the respectably middle-aged Florence Green uses her small funds to open a bookshop in the small seaside town of Hardborough in Suffolk.  It proves a more challenging task than she anticipates.

In 1959, when there was no fish and chips in Hardborough, no launderette, no cinema except on alternate Saturday nights, the need of all these things was felt, but no one had considered, certainly had not thought of Mrs Green as considering, the opening of a bookshop.

Bookshop Fitzgerald

Florence’s first difficulty comes in her choice of location: the long empty Old House. It’s damp, run down and possessed by a poltergeist (more on that later) but worst of all it’s been unofficially earmarked for use as a future arts centre by the implacable and resourceful Mrs Gamart who considers herself the queen of what passes for Hardborough society.

The house agent was in no way legally bound to mention the poltergeist, though he perhaps alluded to it in the phrase unusual period atmosphere.

The town’s reaction is not an encouraging one, ranging from resistance on the part of Mrs Gamart and the failing fishmonger who had hoped Florence would buy his shop instead of the Old House, to at best indifference. Even so, Florence is determined to make things work and slowly she starts to do just that. Sales gradually pick up; a lending service is launched and eventually proves a success; Florence starts to get a feel for what’s in local demand.

It all probably sounds rather dull, but actually it’s quite wonderful. Florence to start with is pleasant to spend time with. She’s aware of her own lack of experience but she’s not an idiot. She’s kind and thoughtful and takes an interest in the life of her young ten year old assistant Christine Gipping.

Hardborough itself is skilfully evoked, both in terms of its weather and geography but more importantly in the sense of a small community where everyone is both conscious and jealous of their position and where absolutely everyone knows absolutely everyone else’s business. Well, everyone but Florence that is because she’s not really one of them.

I won’t say too much about what happens, but the catalyst comes at the midpoint of the novel when Florence bravely decides to stock Nabokov’s Lolita on the basis that while it might not be what the locals typically read it is by all accounts a good book and therefore one that a small bookshop should be promoting. She’s right that if she stocks it people will want to read it. In fact people travel to the shop just to buy it. What she doesn’t foresee is the extent to which it will galvanise the residual resentment of Mrs Gamart and some of the other local tradespeople against her.

The Bookshop is a somewhat wistful novel, perhaps fittingly so given Hardborough’s uncertain landscape of mists and marshes. More than that though it’s also often extremely funny. Fitzgerald has a keen eye for an appealing phrase and a sympathetic one for human frailty. I had a good half dozen or more quotes picked out for use at this point in my review. I’ve reluctantly cut it back to these two examples:

She drank some of the champagne, and the smaller worries of the day seemed to stream upwards as tiny pinpricks through the golden mouthfuls and to break harmlessly and vanish.

And:

Later middle age, for the upper middle-class in East Suffolk, marked a crisis, after which the majority became water-colourists, and painted landscapes. It would not have mattered so much if they had painted badly, but they all did it quite well. All their pictures looked much the same. Framed, they hung in sitting-rooms, while outside the windows the empty, washed-out, unarranged landscape stretched away to the transparent sky.

I did particularly love Fitzgerald’s depiction of lacklustre local artists and of the retired authors who’re all peddling books about wandering the marshes since there’s nothing much else to write about.

Comic novels are often the saddest and this isn’t an exception. There’s an element of small tragedy to a tale about someone trying to make a living and introduce a little art to their community and being fought bitterly by people with more resources and less compassion. Fitzgerald’s is a world where kindness is often confused with weakness and rarely rewarded, but while the meek may not inherit the Earth it’s clear Fitzgerald prefers their company to those who shall.

One last note on that poltergeist. Today the line between the natural and the supernatural in fiction is pretty rigid and it’s very unusual to have a novel that in every other way is utterly naturalistic include without comment an explicit paranormal element. Why then does Fitzgerald include one here? It’s not a metaphorical poltergeist; it’s as much part of the reality of the book as Mrs Gamart or Christine Gipping or anyone else.

My suspicion, quite unprovable, is that it’s one of the semi-autobiographical elements. There’s actually nothing it does which hasn’t been observed (and explained) in the real world. People do still and definitely did then believe in poltergeists and behaviours we might now attribute to faulty pipes or settling buildings or just plain old secret adolescent mischief were attributed to spirits. More importantly though, it does allow this wonderful line from a local health and safety inspector:

I am advised that under the provisions of the Act the supernatural would be classed with bacon-slicers and other machinery through which young persons must not be exposed to the risk of injury.

As so often I feel I’ve written lots and yet the book’s slipped through my fingers. The place, the situation, the characters, the prose, it all came together for me here. This is a quiet and unassuming book. It’s modest. It makes no claims to speak to the human condition or the state of the nation. It’s just very, very good.

Other reviews

Quite a few, which I thought I’d made note of but seem to have lost. Some I am still aware of are by Jacqui of Jacqui’s Wine Journal here; by Emma of Bookaroundthecorner here and a somewhat less impressed one by John Self of The Asylum here. If there are others I’ve missed as ever please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Fitzgerald, Penelope, UK fiction

“I’m a scientist, not a not a bloody politician.”

The Small Back Room, by Nigel Balchin

Nigel Balchin is one of a great many authors who were once highly popular and are now largely forgotten. The public move on, tastes change, and writers who were once household names fade from view.

To an extent that’s a good thing. We have to let go of some of the old writers to make space for the new, and forgetting writers allows us to discover them again as if they were new themselves.

From that perspective I can say that Nigel Balchin is one of the most exciting new writers I’ve read this year. The fact his The Small Back Room was first published in 1943 doesn’t change that at all.

balchin

Sammy Rice is a scientist working in a small quasi-official research group. The group’s headed by the “Old Man”, Professor Mair, but Mair’s past his best and Sammy is now easily the most technically adept of the team and quite possibly the brightest. He’s an extremely talented man.

Unfortunately, he’s also a fairly self-destructive man. He’s struggling with a drink problem which he keeps in check, but only just; he’s in a relationship with the number-two’s secretary which neither of them can admit to since it’s a workplace romance; and while he’s an unsentimental sort he’s dangerously prone to self-pity.

Here’s how the novel opens:

In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminium one that only hurt about three-quarters of the time.

Mair’s number two is Waring, a former ad-executive. Mair has the ear of the minister and that’s what gives their little outfit its reach and clout, but Mair’s an ivory-tower sort with no instinct for politics. Waring by contrast is all about the salesmanship. Mair and the rest of the team come up with the ideas and Waring makes them happen.

The problem is Waring doesn’t understand the science and sometimes makes promises the scientists struggle to deliver. Recently he’s promoted a new type of anti-tank weapon that Mair was quite fond of, but Sammy’s researched it and the weapon’s a dog. The army is already complaining it’s too complex and will cost lives, but the minister’s been briefed and wants it to happen and nobody wants to say no to the minister.

That’s all very wartime and specific, except of course that if you just change the details a little nothing’s really changed. For the minister read a CEO, for Mair senior management, for Waring middle management, and for Rice someone on the front line trying to tell a lot of very senior people that they’ve got it wrong…

For Rice the question isn’t what the minister wants or who’s fond of which device but what the science says. He’s aware that departmental politics can mean one project gets approved and another canned and he knows that which is which can have little to do with their quality. Even so, he disdains politics, is loyal to the Old Man and rather looks down on Waring. It’s because of that he keeps finding himself blindsided by him:

As I went upstairs I wondered whether the point was that Waring was clever or that I was dumb. It was always the same story. He’d say something in his careless way that got you darned angry. Then as soon as you tackled him he’d open his eyes very wide and explain that he’d meant something else quite innocent. The trouble was that other people only heard the first bit. They didn’t hear the explanation.

Meanwhile, Rice has been asked unofficially to help look into a new type of bomb the Germans have developed. It’s a small device and particularly lethal as it lies on the ground until picked up and then detonates. So far it’s killed everyone who’s encountered one, including several children.

The bomb project is exactly the sort of thing that interests Rice: a purely technical challenge with no messy interdepartmental issues to worry about. Back at his day job though powerful forces within the Ministry of Defence are moving against Mair and his little outfit and Rice’s refusal to play politics could cost him.

Small Back Room has one of the best portrayals of the quiet viciousness of internal politics that I’ve seen. There’s a tremendous scene where various scientists, army officers and officials are gathered to consider the new anti-tank weapon. Mair is too grand and remote to realise that the meeting’s a power play and that his job could be on the line. Rice is too honest to lie when asked point-blank what he thinks of the weapon. It’s an avoidable disaster. Waring of course was the weapon’s chief champion so logically you’d think he’d be most damaged. He gets promoted.

At the same time Small Back Room is an astute psychological portrait of self-sabotage. Rice prefers to stay above the fray, let things go wrong and then complain rather than take control and risk getting his hands dirty. It’s clear from the start of the book that Mair’s days are numbered and that he’ll soon be put out to grass, but Rice would rather wait for it to happen than position himself as a potential successor – a role he’s amply suited for and which is his for the taking.

Rice’s long-suffering girlfriend, Susan, can see that he’s unhappy but can’t force him to take responsibility for his own life. She worries that her presence gives him just enough comfort that he doesn’t feel the need to fix the rest of his life, but she can’t leave because they do love each other and she can see his ability even as it frustrates her that he wastes it.

Rice battles his drive to drink with little rules and games and mostly succeeds. In fact it’s one of the best illustrations of someone successfully fighting alcoholism I’ve seen, but while he seems mostly to be winning he hasn’t won. He’s stuck; not moving forward and not happy where he is.

Rice has a lot to prove: to himself; to Susan, to the world. Increasingly the problem of the bomb starts to look like an answer. If he can work out how this new bomb is triggered, why it’s so dangerous and how to disarm it perhaps that one success will make the rest of his life a success. Perhaps.

There’s much more I could say (and in an earlier draft, did). What’s important though is that I thought Small Back Room absolutely exceptional. It manages to make an interdepartmental meeting almost as tense as a scene of a single man desperately trying to defuse a type of bomb that’s killed everyone else who’s come near it. It’s tightly written, convincing and genuinely tense. It deserves rediscovering.

Other reviews

I discovered this thanks to Guy Savage of His Futile Preoccupations. His review is here. Interestingly Clive James also wrote about Balchin and this novel here, though he discusses more of the plot than I do (and I don’t entirely agree with his take on the ending).

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Filed under Balchin, Nigel, Military fiction, UK fiction

“They ought to start a home for incurable romantics.”

The King of a Rainy Country, by Brigid Brophy

One of the oddities in getting older is the seeming culling of possible lives. I say seeming because our options are often greater than we think, but as jobs and children and life-choices accumulate the room for movement gets narrower.

At 10 you might be anything. At 20 the options are still pretty wide, though by then you can probably make a fair guess as to whether you’re straight or gay, good or bad at sports, practical or a bit of a dreamer.

By 30 most people are either in a long term relationship or looking to be. You’ve likely got a job, perhaps a career. You may well have children. In years past you’d probably have bought a house if you were working steadily (you’d be lucky to do that at 30 now, in the UK anyway).

By 40 odds are you’re settled in that career. You’re probably married, possibly even divorced, and the children are getting older. The prospects now of suddenly giving it all up to open a bar in Belize aren’t looking as good as they used to.

And so it goes on. If you make it to 90 your biggest remaining decision may be whether to stay in the TV room or to take a nap.

Written like that it all sounds pretty gloomy, but my notional average person has a partner, children, a career, a home. Those may not be things that ring down the ages to the applause of posterity but they can be pretty good.

Let’s go back to that “seeming” though, right there in my first sentence. Life closes doors to us, but we close more ourselves. We choose who we are, and then forget we ever made a choice. King, in part, is about that time when those doors are still open, when we don’t yet know which we’ll walk through.

In 1950s London Susan is living with Neale in the kind of poverty that’s only picturesque when you know it’s temporary. They’re young bohemians (Neale has a “tie for reading Baudelaire in”; Susan “can bear anything except a status quo”). They’re supremely uncommitted.

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Susan and Neale live together, but they’re not quite a couple and they don’t have sex. At the same time, they’re not quite not a couple either sharing so many private jokes and references that their friends sometimes can’t understand what they’re saying when they talk to each other.

Neale asked: “Are you afraid they’ll think we go to bed together?”

“No, I’m afraid they’ll guess we don’t.”

They’re broke, but they speak French and Italian and have travelled abroad and seen the opera and in 1950s London that’s a fairly straightforward class signifier. If they wanted they could call their dads and they would stop it all. For now they’re enjoying their freedom, but even bohemians have to pay the rent. Neale works washing dishes; Susan gets a job in a bookseller’s.

The bookseller is Finkelheim, though he’s not Jewish. He just thought sounding Jewish would help him in the book trade. He sells a range of titles, but he makes his money with porn. One day, as Susan idly glances at the stock, she finds a striptease picture book where you flick the pages and a woman gradually disrobes. The woman is Cynthia, Susan’s old crush from school (cue link to J Geil’s Band’s classic track Centrefold at this point).

In her schooldays Susan was besotted with Cynthia; loved her utterly. Does that make Susan gay? It’s not that simple, lots of people have schoolday crushes on the same sex after all yet self-identify later as straight. Her sexuality is uncertain.

Neale’s sexuality is also somewhat uncertain. He brings a gay French tourist named François home to stay and it’s not clear what Neale and François’ relationship is exactly, but then it’s not clear what anyone’s relationship is exactly. François’ presence does allow however for some wonderful comic Franglais dialogue as Susan tries to make conversation using her rather limited French.

Neale and Susan decide to track down Cynthia, eventually discovering that she was last seen in Venice. Before long they’re out in Italy acting as last-minute tour guide hires to a coachload of particularly uncultured American tourists. The fact the tour agency was willing to send them despite their total lack of prior relevant experience should perhaps have been a warning…

The woman behind asked Neale: “What are carnations in Italian?” Neale looked at me.

“I can’t remember.”

“They don’t know,” the woman said to her husband.

I got up and went to the front of the bus, where I say down at the steel hump besides Carlo. He looked, smiled at me, and turned to the road again. I waited till another boy tried to sell us carnations, then asked Carlo what they were called.

“Fiori,” he said. “Fee-Aw-Ere.”

“Si, si,” I said, “ma che specie di fiori?”

“Fiori,” he repeated. “Fiori rossi – o fiori bianchi.”

I went back to my seat. “You find out?” the woman said.

“I’m afraid not.”

Presently I turned round and told her: “I’ve remembered. Garofani.”

“O,” she said.

I heard her husband ask: “What she say?”

“Some Italian word.”

This is a remarkably witty novel. The dialogue between Neale, Susan and François is priceless. The American tourists are a wonderful mix of the unworldly and the arrogant, comparing everything to something back home and ticking off European sights without any real interest or understanding. One constantly worries about hygiene; another can’t rest unless she has seat 13 on every coach and room 13 in every hotel (at one point she’s accidentally allotted room 31, they arrange for the hotel to reverse the numbers on her door so she doesn’t know).

There’s a distinctly three/four act structure here. The early part in London with François and faux-Finkelheim culminating in an extended flashback to Susan’s schooldays; the road trip with the Americans as Neale and Susan make up historical detail for the places passed, the whole thing like a classic ’60s comedy; then finally the melancholy of Venice and the discovery of Cynthia who is in the company of aging yet still gifted opera singer Helena Buchan. The mood changes quite markedly section to section, and yet somehow never jars.

Identities here are fluid, adopted as required or not yet assumed. The book is unusually free of judgement. In a sense Neale and Susan are playing at their lives, but at the same time that play is the reality – it’s not as if they have other lives somehow more real. Neale and Susan both are searching for “the moment” – a single moment in life in which one can be fully present. The search of course is the moment.

In the end I find myself struggling to capture this novel, which is perhaps appropriate. It’s deceptively light, and yet you don’t explore themes of gender, sexuality and identity while managing significant shifts in tone without having put some serious thought in to what you’re doing. It’s reminiscent in some ways of Oscar Wilde, who in Lady Windermere’s Fan has Lord Darlington say ” life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it”. So it is.

Neale and Susan are an educated pair. Their conversation, and therefore the book, is full of allusions to opera (particularly The Marriage of Figaro). If you know your opera better than I do I suspect there’s a world of references there to unpack. For me it sufficed to recognise that opera is a space where lives are lived large, but where identity is as malleable as the next costume change.

I’ll end (almost) with what struck me as perhaps the most quietly radical thing in The King of a Rainy Country, and that’s the lack of sex. This is, in part, a celibate sex comedy. Neale and Susan share a bed in 1950s England, but nothing happens in it save sleep (and since she works days and him nights even that doesn’t overlap that much). Susan and Cynthia were young lovers in school, but long walks and holding hands were about as far as it went. Helena Buchan, the opera singer, is beautiful and something of a hero to Susan and Neale both, but she too travels with a male companion who seems more friend than lover. The lack of sex subtly undermines expectations. It’s clever, like the rest of this delightful novel.

I’ll end (properly), with a poem by George Szirtes taken with kind permission from his website here, inspired by (but not a straight translation of) the Baudelaire original:

Spleen in a Rainy Season
A burlesque after Baudelaire

I’m like the king of a rainy country, rich
but wobbly weak; both cub and toothless bitch.
I’m through with books, and poems, and string quartets:
I’ve sold the horses, shot the household pets.
Cheer up? Not likely, board games are a bore,
and as for ‘the people’ dying by my door,
fuck them, and fuck that guitar-wielding clown,
who’s worse than useless when I’m feeling down.
See, here he is – that’s me – stuck in his bed,
the girls can put on sex shows, give him head,
go girl on girl, no point, it just won’t work,
it won’t jump-start this junky royal jerk.
The quack who brings him pills and knows a trick
to harden flaccid aristocratic dick
may as well bring blood and the Roman Baths,
the kind that suited those old psychopaths.
No good, he’s dead in muscle, nerve, and brain.
It’s all green Lethe and that bloody rain.

Other reviews

Heavenali reviewed this here; a blog titled Emily Books reviewed it here; and a reviewer called Aimee Wall wrote a very good review for the site Lemon Hound here. I also found this rather interesting piece on an opera blog about the book’s connections with opera. If you know of others, as always please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Brophy, Brigid, UK fiction

Emotions weren’t like washing. There was no call to peg them out for all the world to view.

An Awfully Big Adventure, by Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge is an exceptionally funny writer, but she’s also a very cruel one. Being a character in a James M. Cain novel would be no bundle of laughs, but given the choice between that and being a character in a Bainbridge novel it’s no contest at all.

Bainbridge’s great trick is to place the extraordinary, the grotesque even, in an utterly prosaic setting. In The Bottle Factory Outing a works’ day out becomes a bitterly black comedy of desire and death. In Awfully the setting is a provincial repertory theatre company in Liverpool in 1950, but once again Bainbridge spins the situation out until it becomes both terrible and terribly funny.

Awfully Big Adventure

Stella Bradshaw is a local teenager. She lives with her uncle and his wife, who fill in as her parents and run a cheap boarding house for travelling salesmen and other flotsam. Her father is unknown; her mother apparently long dead. Stella’s both wilful and contrarian (‘I never doubt myself,’ she said. ‘Only other people.’) Uncle Vernon has the idea that she may be better suited for the stage than a more ordinary life, and so gets her an interview with the local theatre company.

We know it all goes wrong, because the prologue chapter opens with Stella arguing that she’s “not old enough to shoulder the blame. Not all of it. I’m not the only one at fault.” The man interrogating her is disgusted though we don’t know why. After she’s left he asks another character if they’ve got “through to the wife” and whether the “note … shed any illumination?”

At this point you don’t know what the story will be, but you know it won’t end well. Of course, you probably knew that the moment you saw Bainbridge’s name on the cover.

Bainbridge doesn’t waste a moment of her 200 or so pages, launching straight into a comedy of manners and the absurd. When Stella arrives at the theatre for her interview she’s shown into a crowded props room to meet handsome producer Meredith Potter and stage manager Bunny.

There was a curious smell in the room, a mixture of distemper, rabbit glue and damp clothing. Stella lounged against a cocktail cabinet whose glass frontage was engraved with the outline of a naked woman. I’m not going to be cowed, she thought. Not by nipples.

She starts reciting a prepared audition piece, but they aren’t interested and take her for tea and cake instead. It’s an  opportunity for keen social observation:

When Bunny removed his mackintosh the belt swung out and tipped over the milk jug on the table nearest to the hat stand. The pink cloth was so boldly starched the milk wobbled in a tight globule beside the sugar bowl. Bunny didn’t notice. The occupants of the table, three elderly ladies hung with damp fox furs, apologised.

I love that detail of the ladies apologising when Bunny was at fault; it’s incredibly English. Stella has to keep her coat on throughout the tea – she hadn’t expected to be going to a cafe and her clothes underneath are old and worn. She doesn’t eat because she’s afraid they’ll ask her to contribute to the bill. A lesser writer might just have said that Stella lacks both social experience and money, but Bainbridge is the master of showing instead of telling.

Stella becomes one of two juniors at the theatre, along with a nephew of a member of the governing board who “had recently left a military academy after firing a gun at someone he wasn’t supposed to.” He has money and education, but none of Stella’s native sharp wit so allowing Bainbridge to explore the interaction of class, ability and opportunity without overburdening the book.

The rest of the company is a mix of the mediocre and the provincially successful. It’s not the West End, but there’s local pride and they take their art seriously as well as their various rivalries and ambitions. Stella is soon one of them, taking her further than ever from the uncomprehending Uncle Vernon and her home where they have a bath once a week using the “family towel” and where propriety is what matters, not art.

Part of what works so well here is that none of these characters are villains. Some of them aren’t terribly likable, but none of them are really unpleasant. Uncle Vernon for example is staid and in his own way fairly naive, but he loves Stella and he cares for her enough to put her future first even though he knows as she grows closer to the theatre she’ll inevitably leave him behind. Many you could even say are good people (perhaps Uncle Vernon most of all).

Stella isn’t a bad person either. Whatever happens in the end she’s right to say that she shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. What Stella is though is a catalyst. With her dangerous mix of innocence and raw intelligence she’s a slightly plain stick of dynamite thrown among the company. She sees more than she should, but she doesn’t necessarily understand it. She’ll repeat things a wiser person would have left unsaid. She’s a slightly pugnacious agent of chaos who doesn’t mean any harm, but who causes plenty of it all the same.

Awfully is packed with comic moments. There’s lovely running jokes such as Uncle Vernon’s regular calls to local shopkeeper Harcourt to order soap and candles and suchlike in which he pours out his thoughts and asks Harcourt his opinion. Harcourt’s never met Stella, but thanks to Vernon’s calls he knows everything about her and Vernon duly reports back to his wife Harcourt’s comments and words of advice. Meanwhile, Stella has fallen desperately in love with Meredith, completely unaware that he’s gay and so totally misreading him.

When he spoke to her she could scarcely hear what he said for the thudding of her lovesick heart and the chattering of her teeth. Often he told her she ought to wear warmer clothing.

It’s affectionate and warm and it’s easy to get pulled into the challenges of the new production of Peter Pan and Stella’s burgeoning romance with a much older actor and the other romantic tensions within the troupe, but the prologue means that at the back of your mind there’s always a nagging sense of disquiet. The reader knows it will all end badly from the first page. The only question is how.

There are other seemingly discrepant notes, such as Stella’s habit of regularly calling her supposedly dead mother to tell of the day’s adventures while her mother just says “the usual things” in reply. Throughout there’s a dark undercurrent. I’ve only read two Bainbridge’s so far but they have in common a slight sense of something rotten lurking under the surface of the everyday.

Awfully would make a near perfect introduction to Bainbridge. Like Bottle it’s tightly plotted to the point of improbability, but here the balance between the comic and the horrible is perhaps better judged. Stella is a marvellous character, and the ultimate story revelations work well paying off in full the unease set up in the prologue. This is a good example of why Bainbridge has so many fans.

Other reviews

Oddly none I can see, but I’m sure I’ve missed some. Please let me know in the comments.

Holiday

I’m going to be offline for around three weeks, to mid-July. During that time I probably won’t be able to respond to comments, but will when I get back. In the meantime, there’s a link in the sidebar that if pressed directs you to a random post in the archive. If you feel like leaving comments on a random post from my past I’ll be delighted to receive them.

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Filed under Bainbridge, Beryl, UK fiction

the beauty of young men

Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf

The thing about Jacob’s Room, before discussing its structure or characters or story or any of that, is that it has some of the most remarkably beautiful prose I’ve read in a very long time. This is a novel suffused with beauty; so that I had to pause reading from time to time just to take it in. Here’s how it opens:

“So of course,” wrote Betty Flanders, pressing her heels rather deeper in the sand, “there was nothing for it but to leave.”

Slowly welling from the point of her gold nib, pale blue ink dissolved the full stop; for there her pen stuck; her eyes fixed, and tears slowly filled them. The entire bay quivered; the lighthouse wobbled; and she had the illusion that the mast of Mr. Connor’s little yacht was bending like a wax candle in the sun. She winked quickly. Accidents were awful things. She winked again. The mast was straight; the waves were regular; the lighthouse was upright; but the blot had spread.

Through a prism of tears the blue ink becomes the sea. The text becomes dissolved in disquiet; the tears, the waves, the melting mast and quaking bay and lighthouse, the spreading blot. It’s a troubling start to the novel.

Jacob's Room

Jacob’s Room was published in 1922, a time when the memory of the Great War would still have been fresh both for Woolf and her readers. It’s set pre-war, and shows the development of a young man named Jacob Flanders (an ominous surname if ever there was one). Jacob grows up in Cornwall, goes to university in Cambridge, lives in London for a while, takes a holiday in Greece indulging his love of the Classics. He has friends, lovers, family, a life.

It would have been nearly impossible for any contemporary reader not to be aware of what was waiting for Jacob and his generation. Jacob’s Room looks at first like a Bildungsroman, Jacob’s coming of age tale, but many of Jacob’s generation never got to come of age. The Bildungsroman typically ends with the protagonist assuming their adult place in the world, putting aside their youthful errors and misunderstandings and finding maturity and with it a realisation of their burgeoning potential. The gas, the trenches, the machine guns, bayonets and artillery fire make a complete mockery of all that.

Woolf is of course one of the great Modernist writers, a description which probably does more to put off readers than anything else one could say of her. Jacob’s Room is a Modernist novel. The reader comes to know Jacob not so much directly as indirectly, through how others describe him, through places he’s been or seemingly unimportant incidents in his life. While Woolf occasionally reports Jacob’s speech directly or describes his thoughts it’s rarely anything revelatory. To the extent you piece Jacob together, you do so through the impression he leaves.

I noticed when preparing my notes for writing this that Woolf uses a particular phrase twice, near the beginning and again near the end of the novel (the second example is quoted near the end of this piece). Woolf writes “It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints”. That’s the essence of her portrait of Jacob, but it’s also of course true of how we remember people more generally.

When I remember my grandparents I don’t think of important conversations we had or moments of great drama, I remember resonant fragments. I remember waking up before Christmas and seeing grandpa Kelly in my bedroom with a sack of presents, trying not to be seen; I remember playing cards with grandma Nettie in the holiday evenings; waiting for the bus as a small child with grandma Kelly; grandpa Jim one day asking me what kind of girls I liked (his answer was that he liked girls who liked him, he was a clever man).

I think describing something as Modernist puts many readers off, partly because it promises difficulty and partly because it makes it sound rather grand and austere. You perhaps have stream of consciousness which many dislike, though it’s not a necessary technique and it’s not one that’s used here. Jacob’s Room is closest if anything to an impressionist painting. It puts conventional narrative techniques aside to a degree, but no more than say Pissarro did the same with conventional painting. If you’re not daunted by Pissarro there’s no particular reason to be daunted by Woolf, or at least not by this Woolf.

Pissarro Dulwich

By way of example of what I mean by an impressionist style, here’s Jacob on holiday, the reader back with yachts in blue seas:

The Scilly Isles were turning bluish; and suddenly blue, purple, and green flushed the sea; left it grey; struck a stripe which vanished; but when Jacob had got his shirt over his head the whole floor of the waves was blue and white, rippling and crisp, though now and again a broad purple mark appeared, like a bruise; or there floated an entire emerald tinged with yellow. He plunged. He gulped in water, spat it out, struck with his right arm, struck with his left, was towed by a rope, gasped, splashed, and was hauled on board.

Moments later Jacob loses overboard the copy of Shakespeare’s works he’s been reading, the pages drifting apart in the water. It’s a moment you could easily read considerable symbolism into, but it’s also the sort of minor accident that life is filled with. As Woolf says later in the text, “the observer is choked with observations.” Everything here seems meaningful, but only because it’s been singled out to be shown when so much is left out.

Woolf places Jacob among his peers; showing idle conversations in Cambridge rooms, arguments and affection. The young men shine, their beauty illuminated by Woolf’s gaze. Jacob himself seems to have shifting futures ahead of him, all the things he could become. He has the potential to one day be a writer, a scholar, perhaps a statesman. The classic Bildungsroman makes its hero’s story arc seem inevitable, but after the Great War it must have been miserably apparent how remorselessly contingent our lives actually are. Jacob and his friends are washed away, made generational flotsam by others’ carelessness.

In the end, it’s hard to say anything definite about Jacob. Even the title alludes to his room rather than the man himself, because ultimately all that can be described is the places and people who were shaped by his presence among them. The Jacobness of him is unknown and unknowable, any attempt to capture it can only be pitifully partial:

It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said, nor yet entirely what is done. Some, it is true, take ineffaceable impressions of character at once. Others dally, loiter, and get blown this way and that. Kind old ladies assure us that cats are often the best judges of character. A cat will always go to a good man, they say; but then, Mrs. Whitehorn, Jacob’s landlady, loathed cats.

In what becomes another subversion of the Bildungsroman genre, it becomes apparent that Jacob isn’t necessarily particularly exceptional. He’s a young man of his time and situation. His thoughts aren’t shown to be especially insightful or original, his undergraduate passions and enthusiasms are precisely that, undergraduate. He’s important mostly to his mother, but then so are most of us. He matters, because people matter and because there are people he matters to.

Kill Jacob or any of his generation at 80 and his potential would be fulfilled (or wasted, which is still a form of completed narrative), his path made inevitable by hindsight. Kill him at 20 and all we’re left with is an absence, a space where a person should be, a room that used to be his filled with objects made irrelevant.

Other reviews

Anthony of Time’s Flow Stemmed wrote an entire blog post on the first paragraph alone, which can be found here and which is worth reading as he draws a fair bit out of it (but without in my view reading too much into it). Anthony writes a little more on the book more generally here. Novelist Jonathan Gibbs reviewed the book as part of his reading of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, his thoughts are here (though why Melville considered this a novella is utterly beyond me, I don’t see any sense in which it is). Anthony also linked to this tremendous review from a blog previously unknown to me which is very much worth reading.

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Filed under Modernist fiction, UK fiction, Woolf, Virginia

‘Nicely punctuated. … Interesting mixture of nouns and adjectives.’

The Yips, by Nicola Barker

I probably wouldn’t have read this but for the #readwomen2014 campaign. I was aware of Barker, but somehow had never been pushed over the edge into actually trying one of her books. Perhaps it’s because she keeps getting longlisted for the Booker, and I don’t hugely rate that prize, or perhaps because I had the mistaken impression that she was a polite author addressing contemporary English middle class concerns.

Well, I can’t speak to her other novels, but The Yips is not polite. Rather, it’s a 550 page funhouse mirror of a book, reflecting back modern Britain but stretched out, distorted, made surreal yet still recognisable. Here’s how it opens:

Stuart Ransom, professional golfer, is drunkenly reeling off an interminable series of stats about the woman’s game in Korea (or the Ladies Game, as he is determined to have it): ‘Don’t scowl at me, beautiful…!’ — directed, with his trademark Yorkshire twinkle, at Jen, who lounges, sullenly, behind the hotel bar. ‘They like to be called ladies. In fact they demand it. I mean …’ Ransom lobs a well-aimed peanut at her — she ducks — and it strikes a lovely, clear note against a Gordon’s Gin bottle. ‘…they are ladies, for Christsakes!’

It’s well past midnight on an oppressively hot and muggy Sunday in July and Ransom is the only remaining customer still cheerfully demanding service from the fine vantage point of his squeaking barstool at the Thistle, a clean but generic hotel which flies its five, proud flags hard up against the multi-storey car park and an especially unforgiving slab of Luton’s Arndale. 

‘But why did you change your booking from the Leaside?’ Jen petulantly demands (as she fishes the stray peanut from its current hidey-hole between the Wild Turkey and the Kahlua). ‘The Leaside’s pure class.’

Stuart Ransom, former wild man of the golf tournament circuit, is in Luton for a sponsored photo-op. His career’s in the rough, the money’s gone and he’s taken to referring to himself in the third person. Jen is a 19-year-old trainee beautician and part-time barmaid, but more than that she’s a consummate bullshit artist, a wind-up merchant, she’s a peroxide-bleached spirit of mischief made attractive flesh.

Gene’s also working bar. As Jen explains, he’s survived terminal cancer seven times (though she may be exaggerating) and is working multiple jobs to pay for facial reconstructive surgery for a daughter disfigured in a terrible car crash. He’s a contemporary secular saint, featured in the newspapers for his fundraising efforts, and he’s modest too preferring to keep quiet about his other claim to fame through his uncle who was a world-renowned palm reader and whose gifts Gene may have inherited.

Stuart tries to get Gene into a conversation about whether “he finds Korean ladies hot”, but Gene isn’t the type to talk about women in that way, explaining that “his assessment of the virtues of Korean women – as a unified class – is based entirely on a series of ill-considered – even stereotypical – ideas he has about Eastern women, and he is sure that this is a little stupid – even patronizing – of him because Korean women are doubtless very idiosyncratic, with their own distinct features and dreams and ideas and habits.”

All those rules about how to write? Just look at that quote in the paragraph above, because Barker doesn’t seem to follow any of them. On most any given page there’ll be hyphens and brackets and ellipses and exclamation marks and italics for emphasis all of them liberally sprinkled through the text and by any reasonable standard it should be an appalling mess, and yet somehow it isn’t. The whole book too is crammed with detail and description, much of it utterly irrelevant though lending a surface patina of brand-name gloss over the banal or idiotic (much like modern Britain in other words).

One of them – shorter, heavier-set, in his shirtsleeves, possessed of a dramatic, dark blond comb-over which flaps up and down like a pedal-bin-lid as he runs – clutches a navy blue, gold-buttoned blazer in his hand. The second gentleman is taller, handsome – something of a dandy – wearing cream loafers, cream trousers, cream trilby (a maroon ribbon circling the brim), an expensive, lavender-coloured polo shirt and heavy, arty, dark grey Yves Saint Laurent-framed glasses. He moves with an exaggerated angularity (knees high, arms thrown out) like a stick figure in a poorly executed flicker-book animation.

Yips

The bar scene cuts away to Valentine, an agoraphobic tattoo artist who specialises in natural-seeming tattooed merkins for women who for various reasons don’t have pubic hair of their own. Valentine lives with her mother, who has a form of dementia which causes her to speak partly in French and seems to have triggered personality changes and anger issues as well as causing her to masturbate so incessantly that Valentine has to hide the batteries from the vibrator to prevent her mother hurting herself.

From these characters the book spirals out. There’s Gene’s wife, an Anglican vicar and former feminist who is finding her life increasingly unsatisfying, though her faith in God remains strong (which by the way is incredibly unusual, I don’t recall when I last read a priest character who wasn’t doubting their faith). There’s Stuart’s entourage including his heavily pregnant Jamaican manager who’s one of the last people to believe in him. Later the manager’s sister turns up, an internationally renowned writer on human rights, though before she arrives on the scene we meet a Muslim sex therapist and his ultra-pious wife who converted to the faith.

None of the characters individually are that extraordinary. They’re all larger than life, but any one of them could potentially be the focus of a novel and you probably wouldn’t find them too far fetched. Barker though shovels in character after character, each of them so memorable that despite the massively crowded cast it’s extremely easy to keep track of them.

To the extent The Yips has a plot (and it’s a short extent, you could say it’s “just stuff and then more stuff”) it’s those memorable characters bouncing off each other. Jen is like a self-propelled white cue ball that fires itself down the table causing all the other balls to ricochet around, colliding into each other and ending up in combinations that nobody could have predicted at the start.

The whole thing is a massive Rabelaisian farce. This is a book where at one point Ransome gets into a fight on a giant chessboard, it couldn’t be more artificial, and yet I found myself caring for the characters. Gene seems genuinely a good guy. Ransome isn’t anything of the kind, but you at least become curious what’s going to happen to him. Valentine so clearly deserves better than the desperate situation she finds herself in that it’s hard not to find yourself rooting for her.

Most interesting though is the development of Gene’s wife. First she’s just referred to as a priest, then as “his wife” and only eventually does her name come into view, Sheila. Early on she seems unsympathetic, a drag on Gene who could do better, but the book shifts increasingly to her perspective and her frustrations and passions and the more it does so the more she comes to life, becomes more than priest and wife and becomes Sheila, an actual woman and a character in her own right.

Paralleling this Valentine discovers that she can go outside her home if she wears a niqab and abaya, the traditional Muslim garments covering a woman’s entire face and body. The black cloth becomes a sort of “dowdy, portable, Victorian bathing hut”, a cloth house that allows Valentine to exit the brick one. There’s undercurrents here about the nature of marriage, social restrictions on women, body image, surfaces and concealed interiors, but the points are made lightly and the comic flow isn’t interrupted, or rather is interrupted only enough that the jokes don’t become wearying.

The obvious comparator for all this is Martin Amis, early Martin Amis that is before he became a grand old man of expatriated English letters. Barker herself even makes a shout-out to him at one point: “Jen interrupts her narrative for a second and gazes at the boy, concerned. ‘You do know that girls poo, don’t you? Even extraordinarily beautiful ones like moi?’ ‘Sure.’ He nods, wearily. ‘I read Martin Amis’s Rachel Papers in my final year at primary school …’ He pauses. ‘Not as part of the syllabus, obviously.’”

Barker though writes about a Britain I recognise, one I live in, even if her version of it is distorted for comic effect. Amis doesn’t seem to like that Britain very much, sensing perhaps that it’s left him behind. Besides, Amis couldn’t have written this, because he couldn’t write Muslim characters who were just as absurd and as flawed as any of the other characters, and because Barker’s men persuade me while Amis’s women rarely did (though even so I thought his generally little loved novel Night Train excellent). Perhaps though the real difference is that Amis writes in anger, Barker with amused affection.

When John Self of theayslum reviewed this I said in the comments that I was concerned that it sounded like “spending 550 pages with characters every one of whom … I’d move table in a pub to get away [from].” If I’d read then what I’ve written above now I imagine I’d have said something pretty similar. It’s incredibly hard to review Barker because it really shouldn’t work, all those characters and all that punctuation, and yet it does. It works wonderfully.

John Self’s review is here, and is the one that first alerted me to The Yips. Kevinfromcanada wrote a thoughtful and ultimately less positive review which is here. Anokatony also wrote a rather nice review here, which has a spot-on final quote. If you’re reading this and you’ve written one that I missed please let me know  in the comments, as I’d be delighted to see further thoughts on this.

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Filed under Barker, Nicola, Booker, UK fiction

Dog ate a dead crab

All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to properly update the blog – too busy at work. That also means I’m reading terrifically slowly, inching my way through Edith Grossman’s Don Quixote translation a few pages a day. Thankfully, since I’m crawling through Don Quixote at the speed of a mobility-impaired snail, it is at least a very good translation and an absolute pleasure to read.

Anyway, enough about Don Quixote for now, because this entry is about another very good book (seamless segue there, absolutely seamless) – Evie Wyld’s second novel titled All the Birds, Singing. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him from taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed.

I love that opening. Immediately I’m uneasy – another sheep, so not the first; mangled and bled out, so probably not an accidental death; there’s a total lack of sentiment both in the reaction to the body and in the fact that the narrator’s dog is named simply Dog. That’s a lot of information packed into one paragraph.

On top of that there’s some lovely description there. The innards not yet crusting, it’s unpleasant but arresting and easy to picture. The vapours rising as if from a steamed pudding, which as well as being evocative and disquieting (mixing imagery of food and death) tells the reader that it’s probably cold. I love too the crows, “shining, strutting and rasping”, flying away but not too far, singing their raucous song.

All the Birds

The “I” in that quote is Jake Whyte, an Australian woman now living on a remote Island in the UK. She farms sheep, but something is killing them. Perhaps a wild beast, perhaps local teenagers, perhaps someone or something else. She has scars on her back, unexplained, and she doesn’t mix much with the other farmers. She lives alone, with Dog, but she fears she’s being watched.

Jake isn’t really an unreliable narrator – there’s nothing to suggest she lies to herself or has many illusions. She isn’t though wholly reliable either. Something very ugly has driven her to her present seclusion, and while it’s certain she feels under threat, besieged, it’s not at all clear that she’s actually in any danger. The local police think she spends too much time alone for her own good, and there’s a definite suspicion that the shadows she jumps at are ones she brought with her. Still, something’s killing the sheep…

Chapter two ducks backwards in time, to when Jake was still in Australia working on a sheep farm in the outback. She went there fleeing something, but one of her workmates has found out her past. He tries to use whatever he’s learned to blackmail her for sex. She breaks his jaw with a punch and soon she’s fleeing again. Whatever’s driving Jake, it’s serious.

As a quick aside, it’s nice to have a female protagonist whose reaction to being menaced in that way is to deck the guy threatening her. Part of Jake’s problem though is that she’s much better at responding to physical challenges than she is to emotional ones.

The novel continues in alternating chapters. The ones in the UK go forward in time in the usual way, each chronologically not long after the last. The Australian chapters though go backwards in time, each showing a key moment in Jake’s history.

The first Australian chapter then is the last in a sense, showing how she came to leave the outback sheep station. The next Australian chapter is earlier, showing how Jake became a sheep shearer but fell out with the man who’d later try to blackmail her. The next shows her arriving at the station – I won’t say where she was before that or what drove her to end up somewhere so remote.

What all this means is that Jake is a woman in hiding. She hid in the Australian outback, but her past found her there. Now she’s hiding on an island where nobody could ever find her, unless of course somehow they have.

With all this I’m making it sound like a crime novel or a thriller. It’s not at all though. It’s as readable as a crime novel, but it’s very much literary fiction. There’s a lot of very careful construction here. References made in the UK sections are explained as the Australian sections slowly excavate Jake’s past. Jake’s situation, past and present, slowly unfolds as Wyld carefully walks that very fine line between maintaining suspense and manipulating the reader.

The risk with this kind of novel is a sense of artificiality. Obviously all novels are artificial, but many (most) novels don’t want to make their artifice too obvious. Here we have two narrative streams one going forward, one back, each shedding light upon the other as well as plenty of symbolism and careful narrative device. It’s an origami novel, and that raises a question about whether it’s too neat, too evidently constructed.

The answer to that question is no, Wyld pulls it off. The reason she does so is the depth and precision of her description. I believed her outback, I believed her island, I believed more to the point in Jake. There’s a beautifully clean matter-of-factness to her prose which shows the essence of what she’s describing while avoiding seeming overwritten. It’s that which saves the book, and more than saves it, makes it good.

This is a book full of terrible things. The slaughtered sheep; Jake’s terrible past; the indifferent violence of the natural world and the casual cruelty of the human; a powerful and horrible scene in Australia where Jake hits a kangaroo with her truck causing it so much suffering she ends up having to kill it with a crowbar to spare it further pain. Jake’s seclusion brings her natural environment to the foreground – isolated from humanity she lives a near-animist existence in which the life around her seems filled with intent and Jake is but one wounded animal among others.

For all that horror and pain though it’s not a bleak book. The descriptions of the natural world are beautiful, and the arrival of an alcoholic drifter who comes to Jake’s farm starts to draw her back from the world she’s constructed for herself – the claustrophobic isolation of her own history.

For a novel like this it always comes down to the writing. Get that right and the rest should follow (get that wrong and it’s painful). Wyld gets it right. This is an oddly difficult novel to quote from, in large part because of its subtlety of structure, much of the effect is lost if taken away from context. It’s full of small yet telling observations. One I couldn’t resist including here comes from when Jake first sees Greg, a sheep shearer that the reader knows later became her lover, shearing a sheep: Greg’s sheep are sleek and clean with no grazes, like they’ve been buttered …” 

I haven’t bought Evie Wyld’s second novel yet, but I shall before the year’s out and it’ll be high on my to read pile. In a way that’s the ultimate test for any author, does one wish to read more by them? I want to read more by Evie Wyld.

Two reviews which I found helpful when I was deciding whether to read this or not were that of David Hebblethwaite at his blog, here, and Simon Savidge’s blog Savidgereads which I don’t link too nearly as often as I should. His review is here. Finally, in the interests of full disclosure I should say that I got my copy directly from Evie Wyld – she had a couple spare and gave them away on twitter to whoever asked first and I happen to follow her account and got lucky.

21 Comments

Filed under Australian fiction, Crows, UK fiction, Wyld, Evie

Feminine indulgence in extravagance of attire was the bane of London at that era.

The Doom of the Great City, by William Delisle Hay

I’m a little pounded at work presently, so while I don’t yet have time to properly write up Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing I do have time to write up one of the short novellas I’ve recently read.

This one is an absolute oddity. I’ve mentioned before the fondness the Victorians and Edwardians had for apocalyptic fiction. The Doom of the Great City is a classic example. It’s an account of the destruction of London by that great terror of the Victorian age – really bad smog.

I should mention that this novella was as best I can tell intended as utterly serious. The emphasis there is on the word intended…

DoomGreatCity

So, we open with a framing device – it’s the far future (the 1940s!) long after the fall of London. The narrator is now an old man surrounded by family, and he’s moved to write an account of the traumatic events he personally witnessed that led to the destruction of the world’s greatest metropolis. It’s a very common framing device in fiction of this period, and one that allows Hay to contrast his future idyll with the iniquities of London in 1880.

I am transported back to the land of my birth across the intervening ocean a land of chill and sour skies, where the sun has forgotten how to shine; a laud of frost and rain, of mist and snow. I am young, but I am scarcely hopeful, for I am oppressed with many cares; I live amid noise and bustle, amid a throng of idlers and workers, good men and bad, rich and poor; I work hard at employment that demands my best energies and absorbs my young strength, and that yields me but scant repayment; I dwell shut in by bricks and mortar, and crushed by stony hearts; I am one among many, a single toiler among the millions of London!!

The bulk of the novella spends its time setting the scene. The narrator is (was) a clerk, as they so often are in these books. He lives with his mother and sister and in the usual vein of Victorian fiction there’s a fairly detailed explanation of their salaries and sources of income as compared to their outgoings. They’re barely scraping by on a combined £150 a year, “little more than sufficient to provide us with the bare-necessities of existence, while every day things seemed to be growing dearer.”

I love London. The narrator, well:

It was the opinion I formed at the time, and the opinion I still continue to hold, that London was foul and rotten to the very core, and steeped in sin of every imaginable variety.

He’s not a fan. That’s where the unintentional comedy comes in. This isn’t an apocalyptic novel where disaster strikes an undeserving populace. This is much closer to a judgement of god or nature on a city that richly deserves everything that’s coming to it. Hay spends a great many pages discussing in remarkably enthusiastic detail everything that’s wrong with the city, starting from the narrator’s own line of work:

I was in business, and business I found was an elaborate system of fraud, chicanery, and deceit. He was esteemed an upright man who never broke the letter of the law, no matter how he might tamper with its spirit, while morality and honest principle in commerce were abstractions of which the law took little notice, and business men less. He was called “smart,” and “a sharp, sound, practical’ man,” who knew how to take advantage of others, and who could enrich himself by impoverishing his fellows in “fair business.” In the learned professions — so called — things were much the same.

I’ll add the larger passage that quote comes from at the end of this post for those who’re curious. It starts sanely enough as you can see above, but soon he’s on to lawyers, then the church, then doctors, the entertainment industry, the aristocracy, professors of art, women, it goes on for pages. It’s a breathless outpouring of disdain for pretty much every target in sight.

After a couple of pages or so of this (out of only fifty or so in total) even Hay/the narrator must break for breath:

Enough! Even a great-grandfather’s garrulity must be checked in its reminiscent flow.

Yes please.

Thankfully once the diatribe against the evils of the contemporary age is out of the way the story picks up some. The narrator is out of London visiting, and the next morning tries to head home only to find out there’s no transport back into town:

All traffic into and out of London was indeed suspended, or rather, had never commenced. No trains had come out from the London termini, no response had been received to signals or telegrams; while men who had started to walk into town had either never returned, or else had shortly retraced their footsteps, panting and half-strangled. Telegrams from other suburbs and outskirts of town brought intelligence of a precisely similar state of things existing in those localities. No one had come from London, no one had succeeded in entering it.

Soon it becomes evident that the unthinkable has happened. The London smog has become so bad as to suffocate all within it. The whole metropolis lies wreathed in dark and sooty fog, utterly desolate. Eventually the air starts to clear a little, and so the narrator becomes one of the first to push his way back into the city – fearing for his mother and sister who are still within.

What he finds is why the story is worth reading (to the extent it is). It’s a haunting evocation of an utterly lifeless city, eerily reduced to silence and stillness:

I traversed the foggy street, seeing objects but indistinctly at ten yards distance. I saw no living being, no faces at the shrouded windows, no passers by, no children playing in the gardens or the road; not even a sparrow fluttered past to convey to me the sense of companionship. And then the frightful, muffled stillness that seemed to hold me down in a nightmare trance; not a sound of traffic, no rattle of carriages and carts, no scream and rumble of trains, no clamour of children or costermongers, no distant hum of the midday city, no voice or whisper of a wind; not the rustling of a leaf, not the echo of a foot-fall, nothing to break the deathly stillness but the panting of my laboured chest and the beating of my trembling heart.

There’s nothing that really happens – everyone is dead after all. There is though a tremendous series of descriptions of the desolation, including some very effective set-pieces particularly including a description of a horse-drawn bus stilled with horses still in harness, driver belted in and passengers rich and poor contorted in their seats.

I did struggle a bit with the narrator’s pious cries of horror and sympathy given that most of the book is given over to lengthy descriptions of how awful London and its inhabitants are. It reminded me slightly of The Black Spider – in both texts there’s a sympathy for those who are damned which is distinctly at odds with the glee with which their sufferings are described. It all reminds me a bit of that old Medieval idea that the afterlives of the saved are made more pleasurable by their being able to watch the sufferings of the damned in hell.

Still, it’s short, it’s about 99p from Amazon (and no doubt legitimately free somewhere online without too much trouble), and it’s a lovely example of a now largely extinct genre – the Victorian/Edwardian industrial apocalypse. It’s not really an overlooked classic, but nor does it deserve to be wholly forgotten either.

Here’s the fuller version of that quote. It’s absolutely mad:

I will add of what I saw around me to incline me to the belief in the black enormity of London sin. I was in business, and business I found was an elaborate system of fraud, chicanery, and deceit. He was esteemed an upright man who never broke the letter of the law, no matter how he might tamper with its spirit, while morality and honest principle in commerce were abstractions of which the law took little notice, and business men less. He was called “smart,” and “a sharp, sound, practical’ man,” who knew how to take advantage of others, and who could enrich himself by impoverishing his fellows in “fair business.” In the learned professions — so called — things were much the same. The laws were good, though inordinately cumbrous, and lawyers administered them for their own advantage, and at the expense of their unhappy clients. The law was a terrible engine of justice, but its intricate machinery was clogged with rusty “precedents,” and could not be got to move without a liberal oiling in the shape of fees. Hence arose the saying, that the law had one interpretation for the rich, and another altogether for the poor. The medical profession was conducted upon similar principles; the doctor — if he knew how — would keep his patient ill in order to increase his fees, and making suffering and death his daily sport, traded upon them for his own profit. Clergymen and ministers of religion, whether belonging to the State Church or to independent bodies, made “the cure of souls” a means of livelihood; they quoted the maxim, “the labourer is worthy of his hire,” applying its point to themselves; they kept alive “religious feeling” among the masses by incessant and endless quarrels among themselves on points of dogma and doctrine, extorting money in the cause of “truth” from the public, and either keeping it themselves or squandering it in various foolish and useless ways. And they made one religion for the rich and another for the poor, as anyone might learn by comparing a sermon preached before a fashionable congregation with one delivered to paupers. The merest infraction of moral integrity in one of the humbler classes was visited as intolerable; among the rich and high-born sin flourished under the hallowing sanction of religion, and vice luxuriated in the shadow of the Church. Purity of life was a simple impossibility, and chastity of soul would have been sought for in vain amongst Londoners. Theatres, music-halls, and similar institutions, appealed to the most depraved appetites; people flocked to gaze admiringly at a fashionable courtesan and her attendant harlots, or thronged to listen to obscene and filthy songs, or to witness indecent exhibitions, especially if these involved the risk of life or limb to the performers. Money flowed into the treasuries when such were the inducements, and eager rivalry in their production was the inevitable consequence. Clergymen, aristocrats, and art professors joined in extolling the stage as “the educator of public taste,” while young girls crowded to enter the ballet as the proper road to a life of delightful immorality. The press groaned daily under the weight passing through it of novels which tinctured absolute crimes with poetry and romance, which clothed the worst sensuality in the white robes of innocence, and which taught and argued in favour of every vice. Serial journals adapted to every class, rested their claims to attention on the obscenity, scurrility, or blasphemy of their pages, disguised under a film of moral platitude. Such were some of the causes at work, here were some of their immediate results. Among the higher ranks of society immorality was so common as to excite but small attention; frequent divorce suits proved this; scandalous disclosures of high life were of common occurrence; they gratified the public taste while serving to show the deeper depths below. Pleasure-seeking being the only employment of the wealthy and governing class, they elevated it into a “cult,” and wearied with the tameness of mere harlotry, gluttony, and show, brought “art” to their aid and invented “aestheticism ” as a cloak for higher flights of sin. The men of the “upper ten thousand” were trained from their cradles for a life of sensuous enjoyment. They held themselves aloof from commoner clay as from an inferior race, and they looked upon inordinate luxury as their paramount right. In their code of honour the payment of just debts had no place, unless the debt were contracted by gambling among their fellows. The “golden youth” were banded together into social guilds, bearing imbecile insignia, and using mysterious passwords, whose vicious meaning only the initiate might know. They had peopled a whole suburb with the villas of their concubines, whom the stage and the streets had furnished, while their elders sought amusement from almost infantile charms. Strange and unnatural were the crazes and fashions that pervaded this society: wearied with dissipation carried to excess, they were ever seeking new varieties, new emotions, new vices; they worshipped beauty, but it was not the beauty of created Nature, but that of art — and such art! — that most enchanted them. Ladies were divided into two “mondes,” the proper and the improper, but it was by no means easy to define the exact limits of either grade. The Phrynes of the period held their court and received adoration from the men, though not recognised by their high-born sisters; yet these were eager to copy the manners, dress, and accomplishments of the courtesan, styling themselves “professional beauties,” or veiling their hyper-passionate sensibilities under the pseudonym of “intensity;” while matrimony, even among the most externally decorous, was as much a matter of business as downright mercenary prostitution. The members of this highest rank lived in the very perfection of luxuriousness; their mansions, equipages, and servants, all were on a scale of magnificence as great as could be compassed. Dresses and furniture were splendid and costly. They fared sumptuously every day. Poverty was carefully excluded from their view, and came not within their cognisance, and ultra-extravagance was commended from the pulpit as a means of wisely diffusing wealth, and as an “encouragement to trade.” It was said that the spendthrift vanities and caprices of the wealthy were a source of good, promoting industry, and developing arts and sciences among the workers; “wherefore,” said these reasoners, “lavish arid. profuse prodigality is the commendable duty of the rich, as thereby they foster trade and benefit those who minister to their enjoyment.” When such theories were generally received, it is needless to say that politicians were blind to comparisons drawn from the history of the latter days of Rome, of Venice, or of Bourbon France. And this state of things had, of course, its dire and disastrous effects upon all grades of society below. People of the next rank, whose wealth had been gained from other sources than that of passive hereditary accumulation, busied themselves in the endeavour to gain admission within the pale of “polite society;” they sought to imitate with exactness every eccentricity of the nobles, and courted ruin to effect their purpose. A step lower, and the same procedure was invested with the grotesque addition of “vulgarity.” This abstraction consisted mainly, as I conceived, in a lack of “refinement:” it meant a want of ease and inherent use in forms of speech, manners, and usages; it conveyed the idea of eagerness where cold indifference should have been felt ; or it displayed a sense of actual pleasure, where blasé and captious disdain ought only to have been manifested. Throughout the great masses of the middle class, so styled, there beat the mighty pulse of Loudon life. In this section was contained business and professional men of every degree and kind, from the wealthy banker, the opulent trader or manufacturer, and the sordid promoter of bubble companies, down to the struggling professional man, the actor, and the ignoble clerk. It was divided into a multiplicity of grades or strata, the lowest mingling with the vast democracy of labour below, the highest, by dint of golden passports, passing current among the aristocracy. It was in this division of the social system that the real life of the great city was mainly manifest; here were to be found the chief law-makers and the chief law-breakers; here was every vice most obnoxious to the senses; here, too, was to be found what was left of virtue and goodness. Down through the middle class filtered every evil of aristocratic birth, losing nothing in the process, we may be sure, save the semblance of polish and the grace of courtly elegance; while up from the lowest depths there constantly arose a stream of grosser, fouler moral putrescence, which it would be a libel on the brutes to term merely bestiality. Do not think there was no good In London; there was, much; but it was so encompassed and mixed with evil as to be barely recognisable; while the influences of exuberant vice were such as to warp the integrity of men’s ideas of what was right, to benumb their perceptions of moral turpitude, and to lower the standard of excellence to the very mud. Besides, I only set out to tell you something of the wickedness I saw and knew and felt in London; merely a brief epitome, such as might serve to sustain the view I propounded of the guilt of that city. Have I said enough, my grandchildren? But a few words more, and I pass to the dread narrative itself .

Phew! Just for reference, he’s still not finished, I just ran out of ability to cut and paste on my kindle.

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Filed under 19th Century, Novellas, Post-apocalypse, UK fiction

Is not general incivility the very essence of love?’

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

In a way, it’s a shame the opening sentence to Pride and Prejudice is so well known, because it really is one of the finest first lines in Literature. Right up there with “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”; “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”; and, of course, from my personal canon:  “The sky was the color of television tuned to a dead channel.”

It’s a curious thing reading a book like Pride and Prejudice. Long before starting it I knew the characters and the plot. I knew quotes from it. I’d seen the TV miniseries. It’s part of the cultural air in the UK. Reading it seems almost redundant.It isn’t though, because however familiar it may be the actual book itself is superb.

32-pride-prejudice-redux

That’s not the cover on my copy. I just loved it for its utter vulgarity. Darcy would of course hate it.

My overriding prior impression of Pride and Prejudice was that it was essentially a romantic comedy. Well, it does contain romance and it is often funny, but it’s a much harder-nosed novel than that genre description would suggest.

Marriage is at the heart of Pride and Prejudice, but a very pragmatic view of marriage. The first marriage shown in the text is that of Elizabeth Bennett’s parents, which unlike the portrayal I’d seen in adaptations comes across here as loveless and lacking in any real affection. Mr Bennett is sarcastic and capricious (that’s nearly a quote of the text), and makes no real effort to take any meaningful part in the raising of his children. Mrs Bennett is ill educated and stupid (neither of which are her fault) and frequently vulgar and somewhat cruel (which is).

[Mr Bennett], captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her.

Elizabeth Bennett is pretty and has wit. Jane Bennett is beautiful and of a pleasant temperament. The younger sisters, however, are much what you’d expect from parents such as Mr and Mrs Bennett and are in their various ways inconsiderate and foolish. That’s not surprising. Education for women at this time is minimal, and with indifferent parents that leaves nobody with any interest in developing whatever talents they might otherwise have had.

SPOILERS AHOY

The other marriages in Pride and Prejudice are more interesting. On one reading Charlotte Lucas settles, despairing of even the the idea of marrying for love and instead marryies the odious and oleaginous Mr Collins for the security of his position with Lady Catherine. Lydia marries Wickham again not for love, but from love of being in love. Elizabeth and Jane do marry men that they love, and everything points to their marriages being happy ones.

Look closer though and what becomes evident is not the importance of sympathy, but of class and money. Charlotte Lucas is 27, to Elizabeth and Jane’s 20 and 22. Soon she’ll be too old to have a good chance of marriage, but without it she either relies on whatever income her parents leave her or worse yet the uncertain life of the governess.

Charlotte herself was tolerably composed. She had gained her point, and had time to consider of it. Her reflections were in general satisfactory. Mr Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. – Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.

Lydia’s elopement with Wickham is potentially ruinous for the entire Bennett family, making even a bad marriage to him better than no marriage at all. What makes it a bad marriage though isn’t that there is no lasting affection between them (there’s no particular hint that Lydia would have found that with someone else), but that he has no means of supporting her. Once that is provided Lydia exits stage left.

Jane marries the man she loves, but he comes with a considerable fortune. Elizabeth marries the man she loves, but he comes with a very great fortune indeed. Economics underpins everything. This isn’t a novel about romance. It’s a novel about survival.

Mr Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. His sisters were fine women, with an air of decided fashion. His brother-in-law, Mr Hurst, merely looked the gentleman; but his friend Mr Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having “ten thousand a-year”.

Money then is central here. Just look at that paragraph above. Mr Bingley is the more approachable of the two men. He’s pleasant and easy to get on with. Mr Darcy is handsome, but he has nothing of Mr Bingley’s easy charm. What he does have though is ten thousand a-year.

What’s subversive about Pride and Prejudice is how it shows the overwhelming importance of money to contemporary English society. Mr Darcy is of course of a higher social class than Elizabeth Bennett – that’s much of what he initially holds against her (her base connections). That social position though cannot be separated from his economic one. That’s made particularly clear by the Bingleys. Mr Bingley’s sister Caroline has ambitions to marry Mr Darcy, and while she never has much prospect of success that’s not because he’s utterly beyond her social league (it can’t be, given he marries Elizabeth).

One of the first things we learn of Mr Bingley’s sisters (beyond their potential for rudeness and snobbery) is this:

They were rather handsome, had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank, and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others. They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.

Money here has bought class. Not instantly. This is not a culture where wealth brings instant social respectability (any more than my own is), but watered with time the compost of the Bingley’s wealth has flowered into a much higher station than their family would once have had.

There is of course an implication of social climbing in that quote above (associating with people of rank, suggesting that they are not themselves as yet of rank), but that is more a failing of the sisters than a consequence of the origins of their money. There is no suggestion that Mr Bingley is a social climber.

The greater the money, and the further back its origins, the greater the class.

Money too is responsible for the sisters’ education, which the Bennett’s so conspicuously lack. Money has bought the Bingley sisters their many accomplishments, and therefore their ability to take part in society. Everywhere you turn the theme of the centrality of money is underlined.

A happy marriage here is a marriage which brings security, and it’s money that grants security. For men the calculations are different, they have after all their own incomes and the opportunity if need be to work for a living (shameful as that would be for men of Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley’s class). For women though the opportunities for work are minimal, and poorly paid. It’s marriage, inheritance, or poverty. Elizabeth may privately regret Charlotte Lucas’s decision to marry Mr Collins, but nothing in the text suggests that Charlotte was actually wrong to do so.

I’m at risk though of making it sound serious, which it is of course but it wears its seriousness lightly (unlike poor Mary Bennett). Austen’s writing sparkles, and the book is filled with wit and beautifully (but never showily) crafted sentences. See for example Austen’s skewering of Lady Catherine, of whom “it could be said that nothing was beneath this great lady’s attention, which could furnish her with an occasion of dictating to others.”

Here Elizabeth finds herself confused by what seems to her a most pernicious coincidence:

MORE THAN ONCE did Elizabeth in her ramble within the park, unexpectedly meet Mr Darcy. She felt all the perverseness of the mischance that should bring him where no one else was brought; and, to prevent its ever happening again, took care to inform him at first, that it was a favourite haunt of hers. – How it could occur a second time, therefore, was very odd! Yet it did, and even a third.

For many readers what matters above all is character and story, and Pride and Prejudice has both in spades. Even though the outcome is never in doubt it’s hard not to cheer for Elizabeth. It would take a tougher reader than me not to feel sympathy for Jane, to cringe at Mr Collins, to want to give Lydia a good talking to and to wish Mr Wickham a fate far more in line with what he deserves than what he receives.

Below the major characters is a rich cast of minor ones, each well drawn and memorable. The story has enough twists and turns to keep it interesting, and the pages almost turn themselves. It’s an astonishingly easy read, particularly so when you consider it dates back to 1813.

I’ll be reading more Austen. Partly because I thought the relentless focus on the criticality of money both refreshing and fascinating. Also though I absolutely admit because, while I do genuinely love modernist fiction and challenging narrative structures, I’m still a sucker for that old standby of a good tale well told. This is a great tale, brilliantly told.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from a poem by WH Auden, which I discovered care of Wikipedia:

You could not shock her more than she shocks me,
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

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Filed under 19th Century, Austen, Jane, UK fiction