A Spotlight on…Gwen John

I cannot imagine why my vision will have some value in the world..and yet I know it will..I think I will count because I am patient and recueilli in some degree’

Gwen John, Letter to Ursula Tyrwhitt (4 Feb 1930)

As you ascend the marble staircase which dominates the entrance hall of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, you will find three doorways leading into the art galleries. Through the door on the far right stands the early 20th century art gallery, where academy portraits sit alongside ‘Love on the Moor’, Stanley Spencer’s Bosch-like vision of an English town park in nauseating green. In amongst all this it is easy to overlook a painting, little bigger than a sheet of paper, which sits near the doorway to another gallery: its palette is muted pinks and blues; the paint is applied sparingly, almost faintly, while its subject is a young girl reading a letter.

The Convalescent (c. 1918 – 1919) is typical of much Gwen John’s work – a three quarter length portraits of a female sitters set against a simple interior, sometimes accompanied by a cat. Her oil paintings – many of which are housed in the National Museum of Wales – are enigmatic, hazy, but not dull; as one critic put it, ‘radiant with a quiet luminosity’. It is that very quiet, interior focus that makes her work so mesmerises. It stands in stark contrast to the style of her extraverted brother (to put it mildly), the artist Augustus John. Where Augustus’s work was gaudy, hers is muted, best characterised by the French term ‘recueilli’. Contemplative.


The Convalescent (c. 1918-1919), Fitzwilliam Museum

Perhaps as a means of contrast to the Bohemian Augustus, Gwen John had to be represented as a recluse, someone who was happier in the company of her cats, and set apart from the society and culture of her time. This interpretation of her life stems from a letter of hers, in which she expresses the ‘desire for a more interior’ to a friend came to define the reading of her work, though her meaning is rather more complex than this phrase suggests.

For a time, critics considered her career as ‘unimportant’; she was simply a one off, not connected to the development of art in any way. This interpretation has now been widely dismissed. Critics such as Alicia Foster point to her letters, which to reveal a Gwen John who was well-aware and critical of contemporary artists, ruthless enough to value art above all else, and single-minded in her pursuit of the artistic life. There are still hints of her work in the paintings of Lucien Freud, and the 2016 winner of the BP Portrait Prize, Girl in a Liberty Dress. It would seem as if Augustus John’s prediction that ‘”In 50 years’ time I will be known as the brother of Gwen John’ is coming to pass.


Self Portrait (1902), Tate

Gwen John was born in Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire in 1876. Her mother, herself an amateur artist, died when Gwen was three and the family then moved to Tenby. Like her brother she studied at the then fashionable Slade Art School in London, before moving to Paris in 1904, where women could more easily earn money as professional artists. There she lived a Bohemian lifestyle in Montparnasse – discussing literature and visiting the galleries. She supported her artwork by posing as artist’s model, and through this work she met Auguste Rodin and embarked on a passionate, if short lived, affair.

John’s early work established the subjects that would come to dominate her later work – women, identity and religion. Most of her paintings of women used unnamed models, although we know that many of the models she used in her female portraits were fellow friends and artists. John differs significantly from her contemporaries in how portrays these women. In John’s paintings, the models often adopt artificial poses, poses that her brush has sought to heighten. Her models dominate their surroundings; the backdrop is always minimal, and John delicately details their facial features, emphasising their individuality. In many of these paintings, the women look directly out, fixing the viewer with an expression that seems to register an awareness of being looked at.


Chloë Brompton-Leigh (c. 1908), Tate

Another significant subject of her work are interiors. Interiors had become a significant subject for artists by the turn of the century. Her series of paintings entitled A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris (c. 1907-09) show a wicker chain and pine writing desk beside the window, which stands under the eaves of a sparsely furnished room – all symbols, almost clichés of artistic living. In contrast to the stillness evoked by Vilhelm Hammershoi’s work, her discarded possessions – a blue dress and parasol – produce the sensation that the artist has just the room. It is the minimalism of the room which is most striking. While paintings of domestic interiors were common among the Camden Town Group, it is only John who has taken the domestic space and turned it into suitable site for a woman’s artist’s work, free from the clutter of ‘family conventions and ties’ which she felt would not allow her to ‘do beautiful pictures’.

In adopting this attitude John comes across as some form of artistic ascetic. In a telling moment, she encouraged Dorelia McNeill, her friend who was then being pursued by her brother, to leave her Belgian lover and join Augustus and his wife, Ida Nettles, in a ménage-a-trois for the sake of his artistic development – she was clearly a believer in love for art’s sake. In terms of her own relationships, Augustus John noted that ‘her passions for both men and women were outrageous and irrational’. Rodin was an artistic inspiration for her, as well as a fierce devotion. “Love is my illness,” she told him, “and there is no cure till you come.” Under his influence, she appeared to develop her skills as an observer and her discipline as an artistic, but she also exhausted him (he was thirty-six years older than her after all).


A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris (c. 1907-09), National Museum of Wales

At around the same time as her relationship with Rodin was ending, John moved to Meudon, an artistic community on the outskirts of Paris. She then seems to have diverted all her affection into her cats, and subsumed her passion into the discipline of religion. In the same year in which she converted to Catholicism, she created one of her most significant works, the portrait of Mere Marie Poussepin (1913), the founder of the Dominican Sisters of Charity of Meudon. She returned to the subject again and again, altering the composition and changing the expression of the Sister. Perhaps John was fascinated by the figure of a powerful woman of the Church who was, like her, an ascetic. By the 1910s, art and religion had become the whole of her existence. John would sit at the back of the church sketching her fellow churchgoers from the side or back view, and would later develop the drawings into minimal watercolours, suggestive of Japanese prints. At a time when the Cult of the Virgin Mary dominated French art, her watercolours became increasing economical.


Mere Poussepin (c. 1913-1915), Barber Institute


Little Girl Wearing a Straw Hat (c. 1910-1930), Glynn Vivian Gallery

‘I don’t think we change, but we disappear sometimes’. From 1930 to 1939, Gwen John lived in seclusion. On the 1st September, knowing she was ill, she took the train to Dieppe, which reminded her of the coast of her native Pembrokeshire. She collapsed in the street there, and was taken to a hospice where she died on 18th September. Michael Holroyd characterised the lives of both John siblings as ‘exuberance with melancholy’, a sentiment which seem particularly fitting in Gwen’s case. Ultimately, she did die alone, and even the whereabouts of her grave were not known until recently. If she did not quite sacrifice relationships, then she certainly seems to have concluded that they were a worthy sacrifice for her art, and it was her art that mattered to her above all else.

Images: WikiCommons


World Book Day: Favourite Children’s Book

The story of The Secret Garden is well-known. After the death of her parents in India, ‘Mistress Mary’ comes to Yorkshire to live in the house of her brooding uncle where she discovers a garden that has been locked up for ten years (by no coincidence, Mary’s own age). Later, she discovers her sickly cousin Colin locked away in one of the manor’s chambers and meet the ‘Yorkshire Angel’, Dickon. Over the course of the novel she brings life back to the garden, her cousin and not least of all herself; by the end, the redeeming magic of nature has come to resurrect all.

As one of those children who spent much of their time rummaging around hedgerows and riverbanks looking for potential dens, The Secret Garden instantly captured my imagination, and it would be my suggestion for a World Book Day read. Secret places are always alluring to adults and children alike, for they hide all the magic and mystery that exists in our world (if only we could find them!).It is a novel that exudes sweet waffs of fresh air, and conjures up images of wild flowers and sun dappled walks, although not all is rosy in the garden.

When Mistress Mary finds the door to that uncharted domain, she unlocks more than a garden: she unlocks the path to her own self-fulfilment, and this comes not a moment too soon. Unlike the typically saccharine orphans of children’s books, Mary is a brat, and all the more compelling for it. Hodgson Burnett mercifully inverts many of the tropes of children’s literature; the didactic tone which is all common in children’s literature is absent, as is the moral guidance of any kindly adult. Perhaps skill that Hodgson Burnett brought to her children’s writing has been overlooked thanks to the seemless nature of it.

Ultimately, it is Mary and her cousin Colin, the two most ungenerous characters, who do the most to heal the other. One of the main joys of the books is that its author recognises that children are perfectly capable of learning about their own world, and so she gives her readers a complex world in which we can to play, explore, and discover themselves amongst overgrown shrubbery.

The Art of Reading: How To Keep Your Resolution to Read More

We are now one week into January; the decorations are gone, a few mince pies maliciously linger in the kitchen, and all your New Year’s resolutions have already been smashed to cinders.

This making and subsequent breaking of New Year’s resolutions is hardly surprising when you take into the sadomasochistic tendency evident in many of these resolves (‘Lose weight’, ‘See more of my family’, ‘Be a better person’), or in their blatant vagueness.

Take for example the simple and oft repeated declaration: ‘I will read more’. Such an utterance immediately invites the response from any common reader, ‘Oh, what were you thinking of reading?’. At this point the naïve individual may immediately break down, and admit that they cannot think of a single book they want to read; or, even worse, they will name some worthy classic or other which they will then by obliged to read so that they may respond to the kindly enquiries of friends about how they are getting on.

Reading is not a task to be entered upon lightly. It requires patience, social isolation and carries the potential risk of the most potent form of addiction. Nevertheless, it is a worthy endeavour, and to those looking to tread the well-worn path, I offer the following five rules.

Rule the First: Learn how to pretend you are better read than you are

For many readers, the idea that you have never touched a Tolstoy, retreated in to a corner with a Christie or idled an hour away with an Austen will instantly confer on you the distinction of ignoramus, and possibly leave you too dispirited by the sheer quantity of material to begin anywhere.

As a rule, you will find those who feign most indignation on hearing such a thing have probably never read them either, but know enough to know that they ought. In such a case, you may be away with actually lying, and offering a general plot point to back up your statement, particularly if it is a risible one. Any mention of Leopold Bloom’s trip to Sandymount Strand should shut up the conversation about Ulysses immediately (thank God!).

For those annoying individuals who do seem to have read everything, try telling them that a book is at home at your bookshelf but you have not got around to it yet. This will make your bookshelf sound incredibly impressive.

Rule the Second: No Metal bookmarks, ever!

Like any hobby, reading comes with its own paraphernalia which haunt the new ‘accessories’ section of the bookshop. Such items range from Kindles to book jackets through to clip on electronic dictionaries and lights, and nearly all are entirely pointless.

With so many items now available to clip onto your paperback, it is becoming increasing difficult to turn the page or even hold the book, which is probably why they have also started to book stands. When it comes to reading, the only accessory you need is a paper bookmark – but NEVER metal; these only rip the page and fall out of the book, effectively rendering them worse than useless.

That said, a tasteful Penguin Classics mug or canvas bag is an entirely acceptable way of showing off how well read you are becoming.

Rule the Third: Read on dry land

While reading on the daily commute or simply a chapter before bed is a good way to start your new resolution, you will get the most pleasure out of your new hobby by setting out time in your day to read in a more leisurely way.

Allow me in words to lay before the ideal reading scene. It is winter. Preferably there is a frost on the ground. The day’s work is done, and you have the leisure to ideal away an evening. You choose to settle down in a cosy armchair directly facing an open fire. You open a book, sipping on a cup of tea as you start a new chapter. Eventually a cat will settle on your knee (or the animal of your choice). All is well.

What you must never do is try to read in the bath. There are now many contraptions designed for books in this most relaxing of settings – which often also offer wine holders and candle stands to boot. These, alas, never surmount the simplest difficulty this scenario presents: knocking the book into the bath.

Rule the Fourth: No music unless absolutely necessary

Nothing with lyrics! You will end up with a entirely inappropriate association between a song and story. For instance, I now have the misfortune to associate Bram Stoker’s Dracula with Journey’s Any Way You Want It, although you could search for some Freudian association there.

However, during your resolution you will undoubtedly find yourself tested by a particularly dull section of writing. In such a case, there is an argument for forcing yourself through with a particularly jazzy tune for company to speed up the pace of reading and engage those parts of the brain which require some stimulation. There are very few writers who can be eternally dull forever.

Rule the fifth: On a serious note, do read what you like

This sounds easy enough to achieve, and yet in practice people often make the mistake of reading what they are told is good.

Distrust all critics and those who mean you well, and ask yourself the following questions when about to start a book:

  • Am I in the mood for this?
  • Do I want to devote possibly an extended period to this?
  • Is there something I would prefer to read instead?

If the answers to these questions are Yes, Yes and then No, then you should start reading immediately. If you stick to your resolution then one day you will may feel an urge to read Dombey and Sons, or even to pick up Turgenev (I am still waiting for it). Until then, go for P.G. Wodehouse or a nice murder instead.

Image: Anne/ Flickr

Misseltoe and Murder

Why are we so obsessed with crime at Christmas?

Around two years ago, I was left bemused by a sign accompanying a display in a bookshop: it simply read, ‘A Crime for Christmas’. On the display were stacks of little-known, if not completely forgotten, novels from the ‘Golden Age’ of crime writing. What struck me was that a significant number of these stories were explicitly seasonal offerings, bearing pleasingly lurid titles like ‘Death at Advent’ on covers illustrated with quaint English villages covered with falling snow. Who, I wondered, would want to spend the festive season in the company of corpses, except perhaps those of their own relations.

And yet, this remarkable resurgence of classic Christmas capers has proved itself to be wildly popular. In 2014, Mystery in White (1937) – an entertaining whodunit by J. Jefferson Farjeon, once one of the major figures of the golden age of crime writing – shot to the top of the best-seller list in the final weeks of December. The following year, an even more obscure title, Muriel Doriel Hay’s The Santa Klaus Murder (1936), and an anthology of short yuletide mysteries, Silent Night (2015), enjoyed similar success.

Far from being new, it turns out this seasonal appetite for blood and murder has quite a long history; in fact, it dates to the Golden Age of crime writing itself. ‘A Christie for Christmas’ was the name advertisers gave to Agatha Christie’s tradition of publishing a new novel each festive season, and most of the detection club set at least a couple of their short stories around the festive season. You need only look to the success of And Then There Were None on the BBC at New Year to see that yuletide crime has never really lost its appeal for audiences. The love-affair seems to have cooled for contemporary writers but audiences want corpses, and they want them vintage. So, why is this?

Having now spent the best part of the past two months with my nose to the page of one of these stories or other, I now feel equipped to offer something in the way of an explanation. From a practical point of view, the festive season certainly offers plenty in the way of motive for the average amateur sleuth to unravel. In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938) for example, the various members of the Lee family reassemble, after long-estrangement, at the bequest of the miserly Simeon Lee, who, of course, ends up dead, and with his much-treasured diamonds stolen. The set-up is typical of these books: the claustrophobic manor house setting; the long-separated family members coming together, each with their own secret; and the exquisite jewels which somehow come to the attention of the household, and may offer the motivation for a lesser crime than murder.

Christmas also offers a series of potentially interesting settings for the crime writer. In one way or another, all of crime fiction is descended from ‘impossible murder’ scenario established by Edgar Allan Poe in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). Snowbound houses in which the entire party are conveniently trapped inside at the time of the murder provide an attractive variant of the ‘locked room’ mystery, and there is much fun to be had with disguising the comings and goings of guests bedecked in costumes for the New Year’s party.

But, it seems to me, that beneath the surface of these intellectual puzzles there is something more fundamental going on. When you come to consider the history of the genre, it is no coincidence that the crime novel emerged in British history when science had begun to capture the popular imagination but was increasingly challenged by the intelligensia. In 1859 Charles Darwin’s The Origins of Species, was published signalling the challenge of scientific reasoning and methods to the doctrine of the church, and, potentially, a whole system of morality. Around this time, Scotland Yard first established a Detective Force and, almost immediately, the first appearance of a detective in fiction – Inspector Bucket, who solves the murder of Mr Tulkinghorn, in Bleak House (1852).

The detective which Dickens established in English literature possesses a seemingly supernatural set skills. Inspector Bucket is described as a ‘mechanism of observation’ with an ‘unlimited number of eyes’, and his reasoning in the case of murder is ‘little short of miraculous’. By the era of the Golden Age, the sleuth was unlikely be a detective by profession, but he must certainly possess the same ability to clearly see those details which the non-sleuth will carelessly overlook. It was not for nothing that a reviewer in New Statesman and Society wrote that ‘a detective should have something of the god about him’.

Just as the authority of the churchman, invested with divine power derived from the word of God, appeared to be on the wane, the figure of the detective was on the rise. However, both the detective and churchman are seekers after truth – one divine, the other merely world – and, ultimately, justice. As the poet W.H. Auden, himself a detective story addict, wrote in his essay The Guilty Vicarage which explored the addiction of detective fiction that ‘the job of the detective is to restore the state of grace’. Moreover, he claimed, the figure of the detective must be ‘the official representative of the ethical or the exceptional individual who is himself in a state of grace.’ In this way, the detective becomes a figure of divine justice, and it is gift of a logical mind which befits him for such a role.

In Dorothy L. Sayers The Nine Tailors (1934) this idea has its literal manifestation. After breaking down during a snowstorm near the remote fenland village of Fenchurch St Paul, Lord Peter Wimsey becomes drawn into a twenty-year old mystery which raises questions about guilt, suffering and redemption. The novel is distinctly Christian in its theme and distinctly English in its evocation of an East Anglian village, its church and, above all, its bells. At the opening of the book, a chance illness leaves Lord Peter to take part in a nine-hour peel to usher in the New Year. The ringing of the bells acts both to herald the truths about to be unearthed by Lord Peter, but serves to make complicit in bringing a wicked man to justice (without wishing to spoil the plot, this is as far as I can go). The bells give praise to God, but also act as his hand.

When you look at the writings of this period, the image of a church or religion is never far away; indeed, G.K. Chesterton made his detective, Father Brown, an actual member of the cloth. By casting their detective in the mould of semi-divine figures, the choice of Agatha Christie, Sayers and Farjeon to create yuletide mysteries is not only natural but inevitable. When sin threatens to disorder the quintessentially English surroundings of these stories, the task of the detective is to rid of evil and restore to harmony. The comfort we find in these merely takes on an extra resonance when set against the religious festivities, that comfort being this: even in this reasoning age, and in this increasingly secular nation we can be restored to paradise, back to the Garden of Eden.

Image: BsOu10eO/Flickr

Review: Good Behaviour – Molly Keane

It must be one of the most delicious opening scenes in literature.

Aroon St Charles and servant Rose are fighting for superiority over Mummie’s luncheon. Aroon eventually asserts dominance – ‘I can use that tone of voice which keeps people in their places’ – and presents Mummie with her luncheon: a rabbit mousse.‘Forced through a fine sieve and whizzed for ten minutes in a Moulinex blender’, Aroon asks herself: ‘What could be more delicious and delicate than a baby rabbit?’ Almost anything it transpires. Mummie takes one sniff of rabbit mousse, protests, vomits and then dies. Most chillingly of all, Aroon instructs the distraught maid – screaming and cursing at her mistress – to put the mousse over some boiling water: ‘it may be hours until luncheon.’

Matricide most foul, but all with a wonderful whiff of utmost gentility. How refined a disposition must it take to be killed by a dainty dish? And what refined manners; rabbit is a dish more suited to the ‘bog Irish’ or children than to the upper echelons of Anglo-Irish society. It is this class that Molly Keane understand and presents with such a light comic touch and also imbues with a faintly ridiculous tragedy. Mummie is not a simply murder victim, in fact she is displaying her final bit of good behaviour. She would literally die than eat such a degrading dish, and so she becomes a martyr to the decorum of a dead and gone class.

While W.B Yeats saw the big houses of the Anglo-Irish as essentially noble, and their destruction as tragic, Molly Keane was more perceptive; in fact, she saw through them. Born into the strange society she portrays in her novels, Molly Keane had lived as a big house gel – obsessed with horses and the hunt, who kept her literary endeavours safely concealed by a pseudonym – until her marriage. It wasn’t until twenty years after the early death of her husband that she published Good Behaviour – the story of the decline of the St Charles family and their Temple Alice estate in Ireland – and around sixty years after the events of the novel. This perhaps reflects the political mood of the ‘New Ireland’, an Ireland that wasn’t interested in the eccentric upper classes she portrays where boys are beaten for reading poetry, dogs receive better food than the servants, and it is considered the height of bad manners to send in bills.

The Irish-Anglo world – long a part of Ireland, but never quite integrated – had long since disappeared from the land by the time Keane came to write the novel. As Aroon looks back ‘beyond any shadow into the uncertainties and glories of our youth’, simultaneously at both at her family and this lost world, it becomes clear that their own ‘good behaviour’ was very much to blame. As their world crumbled around them, they decided that the correct way to conduct oneself was through selective silence. The suicide of a governess is not discussed; neither is the death of the only son.  ‘We exchanged cool, warning looks’, Aroon says, after her brother’s funeral: ‘which of us could behave best: which of us could be least embarrassing to the others?’

The title of the novel is of course ironic, as the behaviour of the family at its centre is nothing short of execrable. Mummie is all beauty and hauteur, torturing her plain daughter through loaded asides. Daddy is a true horse and hound man, conducting affairs left, right and centre under Mummie’s nose, who is too well-bred to pay attention to such things. Even the long suffering Aroon, who’s pitiful search for someone to love and be loved, is no simple victim. When she is in fact offered marriage by the family lawyer, she proved herself to be her mother’s daughter: “You must be out of your mind … I was after all, Aroon St Charles’. In acting thus they understand nothing, they resolve nothing and they turn on each other. As Mummie unveils her new economic drive, which essentially boils down to neither mother nor daughter having anything to each, she notes to Aroon: ‘They say whales can live for months on their own fat – do they call it blubber’. Asides like acid come to casually fall from the lips of mother and father.

By the end of the novel, good behaviour has instead become a byword for justifying cruelty and revenging yourself on all your relatives, all with the utmost discretion and elegance, of course. It’s a tragedy at its core – a tragedy of manners, of distant parent-child relations, sexual repression and bad food – but Keane’s deft comedy, the ease of her prose and dialogue prevent it from becoming unrelentingly grim. It’s wicked, it’s psychologically sound, and, above all, it is brilliant.

Image: Brandon Warren/Flickr (all creative commons)

Originally Published 30th October 2016

August Reviews

Seamus Heaney – The Aeneid Book VI

‘Death and his brother sleep’. There can be writers who can claim to have matched book VI of the Aeneid when it comes to confronting death. The sights and sounds which great Aeneas on the Styx, as he journeys to meet his father, now resident in Elysium, have echoed through Western literature and continue to resonate still. Perhaps this is because at the centre of this book lies a possibility about which we both dread and dream: re-uniting with those we’ve lost.

There is something both morbid and miraculous about Heaney’s posthumous translation. It is now, three years after his death, that this translation is being published. A note at the end of the text remarks that the typescript, marked ‘final’, was still in his possession a month after death. And so Virgil’s thoughts and meditations on death must have been the same as those thoughts which occupied Heaney before his own.

But this belies the success of the translation itself which manages to breathe life into this ancient text through its elegant and simple language. When read alongside other translations, they become rather academic and removed in contrast; what stands out about Heaney’s is its approachability, its tangibility, which is achieved his elegant use of plain-spoken English:

Take the discovery of the golden bough, which stands ‘Like mistletoe shining in cold winter wood’. If these images are not quite the everyday, they bring it all into the realm of comprehensibility. They are solid, durable, and by turns highly affecting. In the most highly charged moments of the text, Heaney leaves the action unfettered, making Dido’s silence all the worse, or Aeneas’s embrace of his father all the more wrenching when it ‘escaped/ Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings.”  Heaney’s translation bears all the hallmarks of a classic. 

Published by Faber (2016): Available here

Enduring Love – Ian McEwan

Enduring Love starts with a tragedy, and everything that follows is fall-out. It is, in effect, an extended denouement, a novel that examines the aftermath of events and ponders what makes them significant.

It starts on a beautiful day in the Chilterns. Joe Rose has a corkscrew poised, ready to open the wine he brought along to this picnic with Clarissa, his long-term partner, when he hears a man’s shout. Before he knows what he is doing, he is running up with four other men to save a boy trapped in a hot-air balloon – ‘a huge grey balloon, the size of a house, the shape of a tear drop’ – which is rising perilously into the sky. One man dies in the attempt, but that is not the only event that will haunt Joe from that day. Another of the rescue party, Jed Parry, has, on first sight, fallen deeply and enduringly in love with Joe.

At the heart of Enduring Love is a mediation on that most human of traits: unreliability. It may be a chance event which sparks Parry’s obsessive stalking and deranged love, but what about what follows? Joe, a science writer, seeks desperately to rationalise and to overpower Jed by burrowing down and finding some stable, rational explanation for his behaviour. In the process he forgets that the mysteriousness of our behaviour, even to ourselves, is simply human, and that what is irrational is often more powerful for its ability to withstand reason.

Being right is not enough (you need only look at modern politics to understand that). ‘I can’t quite get rid of the idea that there might have been a less frightening outcome if you had behaved differently’, writes Clarissa at the end of the novel. In the quest to prove he is right all reason seems to abandon Joe, and even Clarissa and the reader come to doubt his sanity. The reasonable ‘enduring’ love that Joe thought he shared with Clarissa falters in the face of his rational pursuit of Perry, whereas Perry’s only grows.

I used to be quite sceptical of Ian McEwan. The plots of his novels sounded too self-consciously post-modern and high-concept for me, and Enduring Love seemed to epitomise that. But in the wake of past ventures into Atonement and On Chesil Beach, I have had a change of opinion. In large part this is related to the beauty of McEwan’s prose. His ability to craft even the slightest, most absurd events into compelling narratives saves his novel from falling into the level of gimmick.

Published by Jonathan Cape (1997): Available here

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things – Paula Byrne

Jane Austen is always a problematic subject for a biographer. This is not due to any lack of interest in her, but a simple lack of matter. She left no diary, no memoir, and all of her earliest biographers (nearly all family members) had their image that they wanted to project. Even her letters, which provide the most tantalising insights into her life and character, are a frustrated record as only a small percentage were saved from permanent oblivion in the fire.

For these reasons, Paula Byrne wisely avoid the fact-regaling sort of biography, and chooses to do something completely different: she discusses the life of Austen through the small objects that surround her. What this does is allow us to fill in the blanks: an object speaks to a wider context, and through this social context The Real Jane Austen establishes the author as someone quite the contrary to her staid image. She comes across as someone metropolitan, with connections to slavery and the bloody streets of revolutionary France; a coquette who could boast a list which is admirable for both the quality and quantity of its lovers. Well-travelled, business-like, a far cry from the forgotten relative, and above all else, someone determined to be a published author.

Byrne, like her subject, is a lively, nosey and engaging writer, and if at times the text does appear to steer far from its subject, it is always entertaining and apparently well-researched. We will never know the real Jane Austen, but this novel seems to capture the essence of its subject better than those before.

Published by William Collins (2013): Available here

Originally published 18th August 2016

Review: Bluestockings


‘Inferior to us God made you, and our inferiors to the end of time you will remain’ was the observation that Dean Burgon of Chichester Cathedral made to a gathering of Oxford academic women in 1884. This is merely one example of the overt prejudice and ignorance which Jane Robinson notes in her spirited, and oft-times moving, history of the first ‘bluestockings’ to fight for a university education.

Admittedly, some professed more charitable motives for keeping the ‘little ladies’ from becoming ‘undergraduates’. Women’s brains were supposedly 5oz lighter than the average man’s, which called into question their capacity to even learn, and of course it was well known that education bred female sterility. Ridiculous though these objections now seem, it was these infuriating ‘little obstacles and inconveniences’ which prevented women gaining degrees on the same terms as men until the 1890s.

‘Bluestockings’ by Jane Robinson tells the story of the tenacious campaign, led by likes of Emily Davis and Constance Louisa Maynard, to open up the first colleges for women and, eventually, degrees for women. Unlike the more fevered political movements in this period, the pejoratively termed ‘bluestockings’, choose to adopt a quieter but still persistent approach. As one female tutor put it: ‘Never argue with your opponents. It only helps clear their minds.’

As you would expect with any history of student life, there are nostalgic accounts of coco parties, student rags and shenanigans, but what makes ‘Bluestockings’ stand out from other drier works is Robinson’s seamless blend of history alongside the first-hand accounts of the students on the ground. Through their letters, diaries and memoirs, Robinson illuminates how these vivacious and clever women from wildly different backgrounds paved the way for all the female students to follow.

From reading their accounts, the answer seems to be through sheer determination. The perseverance of the first female students was remarkable. Take, for instance, one Cambridge professor who on walking into the lecture hall to find only women present, promptly left saying: “As there is nobody here, I shall not lecture today”. Even the very pioneers of female education sometimes proved unequal to the task of caring for their charges, with the apparently unworldly Elizabeth Wordsworth, the first principle of Lady Margaret Hall, recommending her students to keep ‘something meaty by the bed’ as a remedy for nocturnal low spirits.

Robinson limits her subject to the British Isles and the years between 1860 and the second world war, and I personally would have been interested in exploring what happened to female students during the conservative 50s and the second wave of feminism. But for all this, ‘Bluestockings’ manages to do what many others have failed to do: to remember and appreciate the trailblazing students, as well those forward thinking teachers and parents who encouraged and sacrificed for them to get the education they richly deserved.

Most importantly, it reminded me of what I had frequently forgotten in the course of my degree: the sheer joy and value of education itself. One student recalled: ‘I remember many a winter evening with a little roaring fire … a vast lexicon lying on me middle and a play of Aeschylus or what not in my hands. The silence, the being along and knowing everyone else was at it in the same way seemed to give a great push on.’

Image: WikiCommons

Originally published 19th August 2016

Review: Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro


First things first: there is no way to avoid revealing the premise of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro’s. It is a brutal premise, although what this premise is isn’t even mentioned until half-way through the book. The silence on this point is telling. The characters live lives where they become obsessed with playground fantasies, rumours and myths, day tripping and culture, all the while failing to truly grasp what they are and what that ultimately means.

It is through euphemisms and unintended remarks that we start to realise the awful truth. The novel opens in England in the late 1990s. Kathy H, the narrator, is 31 years old and a ‘carer’, apparently quite a good one. She tells us, rather ingenuously, that her ‘donors’ (of what is never made clear), ‘have always tended to do much better than expected’, and that ‘hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated’’. On long journeys travelling around the country, visiting various ‘recovery centres’, she has now started to look back on her adolescence years spent with her two closest friends, Tommy and Ruth, at Hailsham.

At first Hailsham seems to be the image of the idyllic privileged English boarding school. When Kathy recalls the English country house – sport pavilion and all – the place appears to shine in the eternal summer glow that often pervades childhood memories. However, discordant notes soon start to be struck. The children are looked after by ‘guardians’, they attend weekly medical screenings, and they dare not approach the woods around the school. Most oddly of all, the school constantly engages the children in art projects. A student’s worth is inextricably tied to the quality of what they produce to such an extent that Tommy, the best at football, is bullied for not being creative.

Slowly we come to suspect the truth before we are ever explicitly told. The pupils of this school are being reared in isolation and innocence for their terrible post-graduate destiny. At some point after they leave Hailsham they will become donors. The donations will be drawn out and painful, and at some point after their donations they will ‘complete’.

This set-up of clones, carers and donors is pure dystopian fiction, but this is not what Ishiguro is interested in. The characters do not run away or fight; in fact, they appear to accept their fates placidly, and even embrace them. No debate is set-up about the ethics of reproductive technologies or the exploitation of ‘others’ for the sake of our own well-being. Like Ishiguro’s other novels, he has here contrived a set-up (and, yes, it is contrived) which allows him to explore the human self. What he seems interested in is something more human; once we have stripped away all the baggage of most of our lives – families, work, our own status as ‘people’ – how do we make a life?

Ishiguro is an author that raises questions rather than answering them. The novel does not offer a moral position, and nor can it be read as simply parabolic. We have been told, and not told, what death means, but how can anyone really understand? What the novel seems to be about repressing what we know, which is that is that mortality is inevitable, and life and people come to fail us. As the three characters leave Hailsham, they are left free to roam both intellectually and physically. At one level, this is funny and touching. They all stare in fascination at window of an ordinary office, and Ruth starts to dream about the joys of such a job. At another level, it is more bitter. They fall into the typical love triangle: Ruth become involved with Tommy, although she knows that Tommy is in love with Kathy, her best friend. Eventually the course of true love runs smooth but far too late. The years they could have had are already gone, and soon they will ‘complete’. A small betrayal leaves a wound that doesn’t have time to heal.

As readers, we’re going through these experiences with them. What Kathy doesn’t know, we can only guess at. Kathy may be the most honest of Ishiguro’s protagonists, but there are many secrets keepers in this novel, and even she does not want to explore and reveal all. The voice he has created for his narrator is a display of Ishiguro’s technical talents; he works out intricate ways of showing she’s intelligent, curiosity, but also that she is not extraordinary. She has the capacity to grow, and that is remarkable under the circumstances. In her he makes her a character we can sympathise with, although perhaps not altogether empathise.

Ishiguro’s writing is not in itself a thing of beauty, but there is a certain sort of gently haunting melancholy that pervades the book. The book is an intricately crafted work: thoughtful, crafting and finally disquieting. The story makes you want to go out and live more than any of the characters in the book. In truth, we probably accept our fates and our own psychological prisons just as passively as any of the characters.

Image: Thomas Hawk/Flickr (All creative commons)

Originally published 30th May, 2016

South Riding: A Forgotten Classic?


For many people, the term ‘classic novel’ will conjure up an image of some dusty book, probably written in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, lying on their bookshelf, patiently waiting to be read. Lord knows I have more than a few of these! These are the ‘worthy’ books, the books we are meant to read, the books which have been deemed of such significance that they are elevated above the other paperbacks in the bookshop and given their own self of honour. Obviously not every old book becomes a classic, and not even every worthy book becomes a classic, so what is that places one in this holiest of holies?

Perhaps Italo Calvini got to the core of what makes a classic when he argued that classics are those works which readers of the classics will immediately recognise as being such. I can count on one hand the number of non-classics with which I have had this experience. However, one book immediately struck me as a classic, and I am still indignant that it is often not recognised as such: Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936).

I’ll admit that South Riding may not be the easiest sell in the world. Set in the 1930s, the book deals with a number of social issues, including unemployment, poverty, and education, and it is centred around the activities of the local council, and the impact of their resolutions on the community. So far, so dry. There may be a good reason why very few novels are concerned with local politics, but South Riding is far more compelling than this would suggest: it is a rich evocation of life in a Yorkshire community on the brink of change. True, the overt ‘condition of England’ elements of the novel are pronounced, but the story and its characters are vivid.

South Riding begins when Sarah Burton returns to her hometown as a headmistress, determined to shake up her school, and inspire her girls to seize all of the (still limited) opportunities that are opening up to them. Its closest literary counterpart is Middlemarch, not only in its interest in contemporary politics, but in that it manages to capture the life of a whole community even as it relates the frustrations, loves and agonies of individual lives. Indeed, one of the reasons this book manages to remain fresh, unlike many other community novels that attempt the same feet, is that it avoids most of the novelistic tropes: most the characters are at least on the brink of middle-age, and are often haggard, working people.

There’s Robert Carne – the proud, genteel farmer with a troubled daughter, who is trapped in a marriage that has left him on the brink of ruin; Mrs Beddows – the sturdy, conventional alderwoman of the district; and most vividly of all there is Sarah Burton. She’s a fiery spinster in her late 30s, but she is not a figure to pitied. ‘I was born to be a spinster and, by god, I’m going to spin’, she declares early in the novel. She is at once sparkling and steely; an idealist who is the book’s main advocate for social change.

What comes through with all these finely worked characters is the importance of their working lives. The novel ends with a sense that those characters who have work of value will have fruitful, independent lives, particularly the women. Sarah, and many of the other characters, put their faith in the emerging left wing, more interventionist politics to create this more beneficent England. Yet the novel recognises that the often cruel hand of chance still has a role to play. It is chance rather than concerted efforts that enable Lydia Holly – the brilliant, but impoverished schoolgirl – return to her studies, and is chance that make the progressive Sarah fall in love with Robert Carne, and reel from the consequences of it.

This certainly is a bold statement, but South Riding is the Middlemarch for the modern age, yet the term ‘classic’ has somehow eluded it. While it has received some recognition, and it has never been out of print, it is virtually unknown to many readers. Perhaps the ‘it’s bleak up North’ notion has become attached to it, or readers suspect it will be an earnest rallying call for social change. Neither statement would be fair. What is true is that South Riding is a compelling and considered examination of the life of individuals in a community on the brink of change. Holtby’s treatment of the subject is masterful, and her characters continue to live and breathe even into the 21st century, and for all these reasons it should take its place among the classics.

Image: Tejvan Pettinger/Flickr (All creative commons)

Published 3rd April, 2016

World Book Day Recommendations


It’s World Book Day, and I couldn’t bear the idea of letting it go by unremarked. In doing so I am taking up a position quite contrary to the schools I went to, who did not do anything to mark the occasion. True, every so often you would be handed out a bookmark, but this would inevitably (for me at least) be lost before the day was out and hardly constitutes a celebration of the great and the good of literature.

Schools now seem to make a hullabaloo of having children dress up and taking part in quizzes, the value of which in promoting reading I suspect is debatable. More importantly, they give them vouchers for money off books (only £1 admittedly), and this seems to me to be one the best thing they can do.

Now, I am not such a curmudgeon as to completely deride these celebrations. However, I can’t help but think that all these festivities may engender is a continued celebration of the same children’s books – Harry Potters, Roald Dahl and David Walliams; Good these may be, but not for all. For years I was put off reading by continually being advised to read certain books that were deemed appropriate for me (usually Jacqueline Wilson, who I will never like), but failed to capture my interest. What I think (and hope it does do) World Book Day is expose children to a greater variety of literature than they ever have before, even to books that are seen as ‘being for grown-ups’, and I mean that in the most innocent way.

I’ve seen so many well-intentioned, but predictable, lists of ‘the best books’ that I’ve had to change what I was going to write.  I’ve decided to write about the books I wish I had known about, and been recommended to read earlier in life. The flavour of all of these seems to be ‘coming of age’, and perhaps that is not surprising. I think literature is at its best when it is both an escape and a reflection of the messiness of life.

I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith

‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’ One of the most famous opening lines in fiction, but I was miserably unaware of this until I picked the book up in my late teens. The said writer is Cassandra Mortmain, a seventeen-year old aspiring author, who lives in increasing un-genteel poverty in a ramshackle castle with her eccentric and penniless family. As a means to hone her writing skills, Cassandra duly notes down in sharp and hilarious detail the eccentricities of her family and home. By the time she pens her last entry, six months and three diaries later, she has both captured the castle and the agonies of first love in gut-wrenching detail.
A Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain

I had heard of Vera Brittian, but it took me awhile to get around to her seminal work because I’d been confusing her with Vera Lynn. Fortunately, this misunderstanding with remedied by the time I actually bought the book, which may otherwise have come as rather a shock. A Testament of Youth recounts the experiences of Vera Brittian (tireless pacifism campaigner, not the forces’ sweetheart) during the First World War. The narrative begins with her working to gain entry to the University of Oxford, and her unfurling romance with Roland Leighton. The war comes, and brings nothing but tragedy for both these endeavours, leading her to become a VAD nurse.

A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf

Formed within the courts and quads of Oxbridge and all the rooms in between, A Room of One’s Own is often described as a mere essay, or something that emerged from a series of lectures at Newnham and Girton. A Room of One’s Own – with its empathetic assertion that ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ – is much more than this: it is an empathetic cry for the vindication of women and writing. This essay captures Woolf at the height of her skills as a writer. Her clear evocation of her observations and arguments has the rare effect of making the extortion of placing pen to paper liberating. While Smith and Brittain may guide you through your youthful agonies, Virginia Woolf provides you with something more precious: the right to your own individual and equal voice.

Image: Stewart Butterfield/Flickr (all creative commons)

Originally published 3rd March, 2016