Road-testing Palgrave Pivot

The Palgrave Pivot cover designs by Harvey Loake of Bath Spa University
The Palgrave Pivot cover designs by Harvey Loake of Bath Spa University

Over on Vulpes Libris I interviewed a Palgrave Pivot commissioning editor, as part of the Vulpes Alternative Book Publishing Thrortnight. Pivot sells itself as a way to publish your polemic or very-much-extended essay that is too long for journal publication but way too short for a book. During the interview (done by email Q&A over a few weeks in February), I decided to road-test the Pivot book proposal experience, to see if it really was as fast and as rigorous as they claim. I’m already a Palgrave author, and thus not an unknown quantity in publishing terms, which helps. I had a book proposal waiting in embryo, on literary disability, so I spent two days working it up to the Pivot requirements, filled in their submission form, and sent it in.

10 March: instant and personal acknowledgement from Palgrave (not difficult, they knew the proposal was on its way), and a promise to ‘look it over in the next couple of weeks’. That wasn’t quite as fast as I’d expected, since in the series I used to edit for a different publisher we generally sent the author a decision on whether the book proposal would go out to reviewers within a week.

pivot 113 March: OK, the Palgrave editor clearly found the time. Three days later, I had this response: ‘I’ve now looked over your proposal for the book and think that it looks very interesting, and possibly a nice fit for the list here.  I’ll now share it with my Literary Disability Studies series editors and get back to you asap.’ Notice that he is being cautious, not pre-empting his external readers’ opinions, while sending reassurance and positivity. However, I was puzzled that he was now talking about what I thought was a different Palgrave series, not Pivot. I hadn’t appreciated (until he got in touch after this post was posted, and explained things more clearly) that Pivot is a format, not an imprint, and can publish books from other series as well as those only accepted for Pivot. Nonetheless, I was happy that the proposal had now left the dock.

23 March: Ten days later Palgrave email me to ask for sample chapters, as the series editors need to see this, because ‘they liked the look of the proposal a great deal’. All is now becoming clear. The editor has either decided or assumed that my book proposal was for the Literary Disability Studies series, and has forgotten or undecided that I sent the proposal in as a Pivot book. I check my book proposal again, and am relieved that I used the Pivot submissions form, which specifically doesn’t ask for sample chapters.

This is an important point for authors, and what makes Pivot different from other lists. Reading the sample chapters with a book proposal is essential for assessing how an author writes, whether they understand their subject, what standard of prose style, critical thinking, scholarly apparatus, etc, they’re using, and I would never accept a book from an author without them. They’re also essential for the author to write, as part of understanding what the book is about, how it will be structured, and how long the whole thing will take to write. However, not needing to write sample chapters (3-6 months work) before sending in the book proposal makes Pivot very attractive for the author in a hurry, because it means that for book projects that are already well-worked out in plan, and that you want to get published quickly, Pivot submissions have a time-critical edge. Two years ago, this was very important for UK academics who needed to have a monograph on their list for the round of research assessment that closed its submissions window in 2013. Now, the pressure isn’t so extreme, as we’re looking at 2019 or thereabouts, but job applications run all year round, and a book contract on a CV is as good as the finished book on the desk. Notwithstanding my own rule to always see sample chapters, I happily followed Pivot’s lure to not go through this process with my book proposal: not very wise, in hindsight. Dear reader, read on.

I sent a book chapter that had already been accepted by a different publisher, that drew on the same material I’d be using in my book. I explained that I did not have the time (true) to write sample chapters now, but had planned to do this in the summer.

23 March (half an hour later): This wasn’t acceptable, and the tone in the Palgrave emails turned slightly formal. ‘Ideally, we’d like a sample chapter and not a writing sample – can I ask when you’d expect to be able to send one on please?’ They really had not realised that the proposal was for Pivot and thus did not need a sample. I explained this formally, adding that if they were convinced that the proposal would be better considered outside Pivot, I would withdraw it, spend the summer writing sample chapters, and then resubmit the proposal.

25 March: Well that did the trick, sort of. ‘I’ve had a chat with our series editors on this and we’re happy to go ahead with the proposal and sample material provided – thanks for your patience!’ This still wasn’t telling me which series my book was going to be considered for: Literary Disability, or Pivot? Not that it mattered much.

22 April: A reply from Palgrave on what their reviewer said (who by then had been properly briefed and knew that the proposal was for Pivot): ‘As you can see, the report is mixed – while broadly positive about the idea behind the project, the reader flags up a number of issues with the proposal as currently constituted … Unfortunately, I’m unable to commission your book on the basis of this report but would be keen to look over a fleshed out proposal that takes into account the reader’s feedback and addresses the specific points raised within his/her report.  Once this is in, I shall send it out to the reader again for a second look.  I remain keen on this for the series and for the list more broadly, but feel that it just needs some more work before it’s ready.’

Pivot 2
2014 Pivot catalogue

And I totally agree. Aside from some snarkiness from the reviewer about my writing style (hmmph), I agreed with their criticisms, and am completely fine about doing more work on the proposal. I’ll do as I originally planned: spend the summer writing the book as sample chapters, possibly even just write the book, period, and then resubmit it. Palgrave have since reconfirmed that they are very keen to see the revised proposal, so I will probably send it back to them, since I’d be happy for the book to go out with Pivot, or with their mainstream-length series. In the end, the length of the final book may determine the imprint, not any other factor.

I think this shows how the central selling points of the Pivot imprint – that you can get your book published really fast, and you don’t need to mess about with sample chapters to get a contract – could be a serious weakness in the quality of the books they accept, unless Palgrave are as rigorous in their gate-keeping as they showed themselves to be in my case. Palgrave are taking a risk, I think, by dropping the sample chapter requirement, and they have to be vigilant in keeping their standards as high as they would normally expect.

[addendum: the Palgrave editor got in touch after this was posted to make things clearer, so I’m posting what he said here: ‘usually I would ask for a sample chapter (at least one) but as a previously published author I know your work and your track record.  Also, I should emphasise that the full MS would have gone through another round of peer review once submitted, before publication, as per our monograph programme.  So it would not have been cleared without the reader seeing the full MS. I can assure you that we wouldn’t publish a project that hadn’t been peer reviewed to the rigorous standards we are accustomed to.’]

On the time taken to assess the book proposal, one month is exemplary, and I see no reason why this should not be the norm for all book proposals. Current practice in taking three to five months for two reviewers to read a proposal is completely unacceptable, and is caused by asking the wrong people to do the work (too overworked to make the time). Palgrave ‘pay’ their reviewers with cash or two books from their catalogue (twice the value of the cash offer), as do other academic publishers. Senior academics (overworked) might not be very interested in this, whereas impecunious postdocs (very recent experts in their PhD topics) most definitely are. Publishers: choose your reviewers wisely, and consider how incentives and prior obligations will affect your reviewers’ commitment to your business.


The froideur before the storm, in Storm Jameson’s Hidden River

Jameson 1Continuing my reprints of old podcast scripts, this one is from the Appalling Women series, about a Storm Jameson novel from 1955. The Hidden River is set in France just after the Second World War, and sucks narrator and reader into a chilling family drama. Marie Regnier, the devoted cousin and housekeeper to the Monnerie family, is an amoral monster of cruelty and sacrifice when it comes to the maintenance of the family, and of revenge. Her disdainful opinion of the English is relentlessly driven home, and we hear a lot about collaborators. When we emerge at the other end, our mouths are agape with appalled amazement at how perfectly the French can be so rude.

Jean Monnerie is the head of the family. He’s been wounded in the war, but the war has been over for some years and he’s trying to get the family estate working again (a metaphor for France’s post-war reconstruction). The family estate is the dominant factor in Monnerie life, because it is the land, the house, the family’s position in the area for generations: it represents everything.

Jean is engaged to marry Elizabeth, his much younger cousin, but he doesn’t really love her. He’s marrying her because somehow it has been dictated by Mme Regnier, Cousin Marie, that this is the necessary thing to do, to keep the family going, and the estate going. So who is Mme Regnier? She is the mother of Jean’s cousin Robert Regnier, who died during the war in the Resistance. She isn’t a Monnerie proper, she’s only an in-law, but the family is everything to her, and she dotes particularly on François, the charming little boy of the family, now a young man looking to make a life for himself after living through a very boring war.

Jameson 2Compounding these family tensions, we have the situation of the French after the war. Collaboration is a horrible communal memory that hangs in the air, and retribution is closing in. Early on in the novel, we hear a chilling example of this: the family of a girl who took up with a German solider, and who caused the arrest and death of a local boy, is being held liable for damages by the boy’s family, because the sins of the daughter go back to the parents. Community thinking goes: if the girl had been brought up decently she would never have taken to bad ways, and so her mother is responsible for the death of the boy. The horror of how a community might operate under social thinking like this is quite shocking, if this really was the case in modern French history.

Another thing we don’t often read in English novels about France is connoisseurship of beautifully weighted rudeness to express French disapproval. Mme Regnier is an extraordinary artist in quelling criticism through her smiling polite conversation. She considers it her duty to control the young and to ensure the stability of civilised living through correction. She calmly dismisses immodesty, ungraciousness, and offensiveness: anything that offends her preferred French tradition of a glacial public temperament is an offence against civilised values.

Elisabeth Maslen's biography of Storm Jameson, which I reviewed here.
Elisabeth Maslen’s biography of Storm Jameson, which I reviewed here.

The event at the heart of The Hidden River that unravels this family is the arrest and death by torture of Mme Regnier’s son Robert. He wasn’t arrested by accident: someone betrayed him to the Gestapo, under whom he died horribly, and naturally his mother, and Jean, would like to know how this happened. The deus ex machina in this novel is an Englishman, Adam Hartley, a Resistance contact of Jean’s and Robert’s, who was to have met Robert in Orléans the day he was arrested. Adam saw many people in Orléans that day, including someone who ought not to have been there, and I can’t tell you any more without spoiling the plot, but the revelation is explosive, and insidious: it reveals hidden truths about the family, and it also rips away the civilised veneer that Marie is trying to maintain over her hatred for whoever betrayed her son. She refuses to move on, to forget, because to do that would be to fail her son. She is like one of the Furies: implacable, unforgiving, demanding vengeance and restitution, and if that means that someone else has to die, well that’s what will happen.

This hatred burns away inside her to make her implacable about everything else in life. Routines of family grandeur must be maintained, Elizabeth must marry Jean to continue the family. Marie cooks the French way because it is the only way: she is contemptuous of the very idea of English cooking. It’s impossible to pay her a compliment, or to please her, because everything that is done right, in her eyes, is merely done correctly, and therefore no praise is due.

The Penguin reprint after the success of the stage play, with artistically positioned reading glasses (not mine)
The Penguin reprint published after the success of the stage play, with artistically positioned reading glasses (not mine)

Her attitude to another Monnerie, the aged and dying Daniel, is also implacable. He is of the family, he is cultured, but she hates him with a passion because he was a collaborator. He maintained friendships with German generals during the war. Marie, and Jean, see this as betrayal, though Jean is willing to forgive it. Daniel sees it as the maintenance of civilised values in a war that nobody wanted. Nobody wants Daniel, but he wants to come home to die. Marie plans to leave the house so she won’t have to see him, but he arrives early, and then begins some hair-raising family discussions, conducted in the quietest and most civilised of tones. Marie and Daniel have a hidden history, but her implacability extends to herself as well: she won’t allow herself to forget anything and she tears at what she thinks are her own failings as well as everyone else’s.

This is a pretty intense novel, and is so well written. Storm Jameson is a marvellous writer, and this novel, getting so expertly under the skin of different nationalities, is tremendous. It was an unexpected best-seller in the 1950s, being reprinted again and again in the USA and in the UK, probably because its unputdownable qualities meant that its owners wouldn’t lend their copies out. The story is told mostly through dialogue and perfect, spare descriptions of rooms and faces. Because of this focus on speech and revelation, rather than action, it was rewritten for the theatre.

Margaret Storm Jameson
Margaret Storm Jameson

So much in this novel is hidden: not just the secrets from the war, but also motivations, likes and dislikes, what people think, and what they have done. We unpick the story from the hints that are dropped, and the narrative becomes increasingly exciting as we move from one tragic revelation to the next. Marie Regnier moves through the story like an angel of destruction: every time an accord is built up, an agreement made, something allowed to be laid to rest, she appears in the doorway, requests that the shutters be closed, and demands correct behaviour, justice and vengeance, all over again. She hates in the way that other people might day-dream: for pleasure, for relaxation, to satisfy an unstoppable need to convince herself that she has done the right thing. She’s terrifying. You really wouldn’t want her in your house, even if she is a superb cook, housekeeper and model of rectitude, because she wants everyone to suffer as much as she and Robert have suffered. No-one must escape: everyone has to be tortured with truths and accusations, just like Robert was tortured. It’s hard to feel sympathy with her, but it’s hard to hate her as well. It’s probably best just to get away.


Now posting on Vulpes Libris: An interview with the Book View Café

We’re still working through the Alternative Publishing Thrortnight on Vulpes Libris. Today’s offering, from me, is an interview with the Book View Café, a cooperative of writers who do their own publishing, and are pretty effective at it too.

Ursula K Le Guin, co-founder of the Book View Café
Ursula K Le Guin, co-founder of the Book View Café

LEARN how many jobs there are in getting a book out of an author’s mind and into print.

THRILL to the famous names available to copy-edit your book.

ASPIRE to becoming a member of the cooperative.

ENJOY the thought of a publishing house so refreshingly diverse and open that it will happily market works of searing bodice-trashing romance alongside chilling futuristic pessimism, on the same page on its site, because they’re all good novels.

CHEER ON the doughty PR geniuses who sold BVC book rights to Audible for a very fat sum of money indeed

BE PROUD that innovation still exists in publishing.



Sex, death and love (in that order) in James Tiptree Jr’s Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

the new SF Masterworks cover
the new SF Masterworks edition

The short stories of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever are grim and powerful reading, committing the reader to new worlds and leaving unsettling characters in the mind. They are about love, sex and death in the future, across species and time. In the original Introduction to the 1990 edition John Clute writes passionately about the youth and vigour of Tiptree’s writing, and the masculine use of language that ‘tells the world what it is, tells the world what to do’. The point of this defence (and no defence is needed, but Clute was recapping the situation from the 1970s when Tiptree was an enigmatic secret) is, of course, that the secretive and impressive sf author James Tiptree Jr was unmasked in 1977 as Alice B Sheldon, also writing as Raccoona Sheldon, a CIA operative, psychology PhD, and explorer’s daughter, aged 62. The revelation of the femaleness of this superb writer must have given huge pleasure (it still does) to those who had bristled at Robert Silverberg’s authoritative statement from a few years earlier that Tiptree could not be a woman because her writing was ‘ineluctably masculine’, implying that only men wrote great sf. That was just a bit too hegemonic for the late 1970s, even for a grand old man of literature.

Clute calls this Tiptree collection ‘one of the two or three most significant collections of short SF ever published’. The stories are soaringly futuristic, succeeding so much better than many other works of the period in stepping out of contemporary social and cultural restrictions and inventing spectacularly alien futures. Yet there is a problem, a very serious one for these feminist stories written in ‘masculine’ language. They reach for the stars, but cannot free themselves from a 1950s mindset about women. When Tiptree began to write these stories, in a burst of creative genius between 1968 and 1981, she had turned 50, and had already left several careers behind her, one of them as the US Army’s first photo-intelligence officer. Clute claims youth and vigour for her writing, but he acknowledges the weight of her years: ‘she burns out old’. Her narrative expectation is dated on what the reader would think about society and human development. This produces a straining of invention, as if a marvellous, powerful flying creature was tied to the ground by a single length of pluckable rope that it couldn’t see to cut. An example of this is in the final story in this collection, ‘And So On, and So On’, a conversation piece between a group of travellers in a space shuttle. One character is identified as female, a ‘clanwife’ and nursemaid. The others are male (or neutral gender), and hold professional posts in a future far away in time. Why was it so hard, given her own history, for Tiptree to make a professional character female?

the Tachyon Publications edition, featuring naked women tastefully clutching themselves in swirls of smoke.
the Tachyon Publications edition, featuring naked women tastefully clutching themselves in swirls of smoke.

Even where pilots, engineers or scientists in these stories are female, they are almost certain to be sexually assaulted. Most of the stories in this collection feature rape, or violent sex, as a central aspect of the plot. Reading the stories one after another, this focus on an inevitable masculine brutality becomes numbing, even if the number of words used to give the details represent a very small percentage of the story. Tiptree had a ‘concern’, as we say in the trade, to talk about women, death and rape, and how stunningly, crucially wrong this was for a civilised society intending to fly out to the stars and spread its morality and social practices elsewhere. Graham Sleight’s 2014 Introduction to this new edition of Her Smoke quotes Tiptree’s 1983 essay, in which she talks about her childhood on her parents’ explorations and trips, in which ‘she found herself interacting with adults of every size, color, shape and condition […] and above all, women: chattel-women deliberately starved, deformed, blinded and enslaved; women in nun’s habits saving the world; women in high heels saving the world’.

There is more on that theme in this long quotation: its effect is to suggest how Alice’s experiences in the 1920s and 1930s in Africa and Asia had stayed in her mind. After working in intelligence and training in psychology, she started writing terrifying and brutal stories of women’s oppression, just when the second wave of feminism was happening in the West. What disturbs and impresses me most about these stories is the suffering that Tiptree makes the women characters endure, whether they feel it as suffering or not. We have to read it: that’s her point.

the original Arkham House edition, artwork by Andrew Smith
the original Arkham House edition, artwork by Andrew Smith

In ‘The Screwfly Solution’ men begin killing women, all the women, often raping them first: the horror comes from how easily this could happen. ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side’ is about man’s desire for alien sex, any sex, and any alien. The title comes from Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci (doomed love for a cold fairy) and the theme comes from ‘Tam Lin’ (human loses decades of his life in the faery hill). (Tiptree’s titles are baroque fantasies in their own right, epic and ornate.) ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ is a horrific fantasia on Frankenstein and reality TV that reminded me forcibly of a story by (possibly?) Ray Bradbury in which an abortion is performed live on camera in a speeding car with white leather seats to show how superb its stabilising system was. The kind of gripping story which you don’t want to continue reading but you have to, and you don’t forget it either.

‘The Women Men Don’t See’ is apparently Tiptree’s most famous story (I hadn’t heard of it), and is a little lighter because the women don’t die, but escape rather than stay on a planet with voracious male humans. In Tiptree’s narrative perspectives it seems that masculinity is the default option for ‘human’, and woman’s default option is to do what masculinity requires. ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read’ considers what would happen if there were no longer men on Earth, and then brings three of them back from the past. Naturally, rape is attempted, but by now I am getting rather depressed: why does a male-female encounter in a Tiptree story always include sex, whether she wants it or not? Is there really no other option in the future, other than this kind of power play? ‘With Delicate Mad Hands’ is a masochistic escape-from-torture novella that ends in the suffering woman’s epiphany and all the brutalising men dead. ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’ is all about sex, in the biological sense, and yes, there is a flashback of critical importance about child sex too. Oh dear. Are we there yet?

‘Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled Of Light’ is about an alternative reality where a happy woman is running freely along a long abandoned highway, a courier for the all-women society that seems to have replaced the one who built the crumbling roads and buildings, but, of course, it’s all in her head, and you can guess what happens under the freeway. ‘We Who Stole The Dream’ varies the rape narrative by making it a pan-planetary colonial nightmare, rather like Le Guin’s The Word For World Is Forest.

the SFBC ebook cover from 2005
the SFBC ebook cover from 2005

All Tiptree’s stories require attentive reading, and often re-reading. She doesn’t make anything easy, and delivers wonders, even if they’re often unpalatable. The title story, ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’, is hard work, about time travel controlled by psychic scarring. The event that causes the scarring is, predictably, sex. ‘Love Is the Plan the Plan is Death’ is my preferred story of all in this collection because Tiptree gets right away from the corruption of human (actually 1950s American) social norms, and imagines the life cycle of a devouringly powerful race of giant spiders who feel love and passion in the most erotic terms. This story allows love to dominate, rather than violent lust, and is a linguistic triumph in conveying multiple shades of affection and selfless desire that isn’t based on a male-female binary. ‘Slow Music’, a story of the last potential breeding couple on Earth, does include sex, but in its proper place, as only part of the complicated relationship that people must develop when considering impregnation to restock the Earth with people.

James Tiptree Jr (Alice Sheldon) 1915-1987
James Tiptree Jr (Alice B Sheldon) 1915-1987

The remaining stories are not about rape, thank goodness, but they are absolutely about deaths that are inevitable but slow. A schlock situation is given grandeur and pathos in ‘On the Last Afternoon’ when a herd of immense breeding lobsters crashes into the bay where the humans’ post-crash settlement is struggling to survive. ‘The Man Who Walked Home’ and ‘And I Have Come Upon This Place By Lost Ways’ are so sad, stories of the desolate loneliness of death, tempered with pleasure in new knowledge, but not by enough. One man is rushing through time in the same point in space for centuries, trying to get back home, watched with interest by generations of settlers at the desert spot where the explosion threw him out of time. The other has left home for good to get to the top of the forbidden mountain to see what’s there in his last moments. ‘She Waits for All Men Born’ is possibly the ultimate in powerful, lonely women: a mutant girl who can never be killed, and whose gaze kills everyone. What can withstand that?

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is a very dense reading experience. It took me several days, and I needed respite in between, to clear my mind of nightmares and hopelessness. Tiptree’s writing is astonishingly powerful, and reading these stories all in one go is probably not at all what she intended (this collection was assembled after her death). The magazines who bought her stories are also factors in considering why she included so many violent sex episodes in her plots: was this a requirement by the editors? Did New Dimensions 3, Phantasmicon, Nova 2, Galaxy, Stellar 4, Interfaces, Amazing Stories, to list only some of the collections or magazines that published these stories, have a high tolerance for sexual violence, or readers with an appetite for it? Was Tiptree unusual or the norm in her detailed writing about rape in space? I find it interesting that Clute doesn’t mention the stories’ obsessive attention to sexual violence in 1990, whereas Sleight does in 2014. Have Tiptree’s violent lessons in feminist thinking about women, sex and fiction finally percolated through into the cultural norm?



Terror of the tyrannical wife, in Dornford Yates’s This Publican

the cover of the first edition: the language of finger positions
the cover of the first edition, using the language of the expressive hand

For the full horror of an evil woman using class and sex warfare you might consider trying Dornford Yates’s magnificently toe-curling novel, This Publican, from 1938, which I podcasted about a few years ago. Its villain Rowena is the most loathsome woman character I’ve ever read, but it is faintly possible that she could be read differently through a feminist perspective, had the author left any room for us to see past his patriarchal loathing. She was invented to represent all that Yates hated about women who don’t follow the rules, who manipulate men, and who attack men’s honour where it hurts: at the club. This Publican is one of the strongest expressions of Yates’s determination to maintain class and sex boundaries in his many, many novels and short stories, by making his characters examples of how to behave, and how not to behave. Thus the worst of these feature evil wives and soft husbands.

An earlier Yates novel, showing the proper concerns of his characters
An earlier Yates novel, showing the proper concerns of his characters

Yates was a marvellous writer, a great stylist, a master of light comic fiction and epicly tense thrillers of the quest romance, but this novel is not one of those best-selling forms. This Publican (I’ll explain the title in a moment) is one of Yates’s psychological thrillers, where the tension is increased, chapter by chapter, as the reader wonders how long someone decent can endure the torments inflicted by an intolerable situation, or an intolerable person. The details of why such a situation or person is intolerable vary from book to book, but there are some common factors. The hero is always a gentleman: this is non-negotiable. Yates’s ideal protagonist is the gentleman ex-officer, who likes dogs, and is the epitome of honour. Other common factors are a perfect and pure heroine with small feet and grey eyes, who also likes dogs; examples of the suffering nobility, either the landed aristocracy forced to clean their own shoes through no fault of their own, or an honest gentleman forced to work in an office; and fast cars. Apart from the dogs, all of these are in This Publican.

a more conventional illustration of the parable
a more conventional illustration of the parable

The title will not be obvious to many readers now, as it’s a phrase from the Bible now normally modernised: Luke 18, 10-11. A Pharisee and a publican (in modern versions a tax-gatherer, a distasteful person doing a hated job) go to the Temple, and the Pharisee thanks God that he is better than other men, especially this awful publican, whereas the publican asks for mercy for being a sinner. The publican is acquitted of his sins and the Pharisee isn’t, because those who exalt themselves shall be humbled, and those who humble themselves shall be exalted. So the title of the book is a reference to modesty and pride, but even in Yates’s day the phrase ‘this publican’ would have been a puzzler for those not accustomed to reading the Bible or attending church every week.

Yates’s American publishers certainly balked at the title: in the USA the novel was called The Devil in Satin, which shows the difference in expectations of the story between Yates’ British and American readers. The puzzle remaining is, just who is the publican: the evil Rowena, or the saintly David, her persecuted husband?

no dustjacket image exists, as far as i know, but the spine illustration here is nicely indicative
no dust-jacket image exists for The Devil in Satin, as far as I know, but the spine illustration here is nicely indicative

Lord Eldon makes a codicil to his will, a day before he dies. Half his fortune is to be set aside for a detective to hunt down evidence of wrong-doing by a beautiful low-class orphan from the stage who has married his heir, the honest and dependable lawyer David Bohun. Lord Eldon does this because she reminds him of a wicked perjurer he had convicted 20 years before, and ‘those alike in body are alike in mind’. Rowena Bohun is thus revealed as a bad ‘un right from the start: Eldon calls her ‘a brilliant vampire, who knows no law but that of her own desires, who’s clever as sin, whose heart is of frozen iron’. She is a murderer and a fraud, a gold-digger climbing her way to the top of society. Money is not her particular interest: she wants social acceptance, and her final goal is to be a widowed countess. Now, who could not want to read on, if only to watch Rowena get her comeuppance?

Naturally, Rowena has an antithesis, Helen, a saintly heroine who risks her own happiness and reputation to protect David, whom she loves and who loves her. Helen has to be invented, to give David hope, since Rowena is otherwise crushing him into submission by crossing class and sex boundaries, the lowest that anyone can sink in Yates’ idealised world. Yates doesn’t excuse David all of his suffering: he quite clearly thinks that men who are too soft on their women only deserve the trouble they receive. David is one of Yates’ inarticulate heroes, the man who is too much of a gentleman (in the Yates sense) to ever say no to his wife simply because she is his wife: he thinks that this is how gentlemen behave. Yates, of course, knows better: wives are to be instructed and have to obey, and so Rowena as a terrible example of what happens to marriages where the man is not fully in control of his wife. David allows himself to be fooled by Rowena because he is too much of a gentleman. The appalling situation that he sinks into through the machinations of his wife is partially his own fault, because he refuses to take action until it is too late.

wicked, wicked Rowena in 1950s cocktail party reiteration
wicked, wicked Rowena, talking to low men in this 1950s cocktail party reiteration

So what does this she-devil actually do? Rowena gets David to dismiss his aged servants, and then tells them that she couldn’t persuade David to keep them on. Quite apart from the sneaky placing of blame on David’s shoulders, this is an offence against the master-servant relationship, another important foundation stone in the perfect society according to Yates: masters protect their servants for life. Rowena takes David to parties that he doesn’t really want to attend, and leaves with low company whom a lady should not even notice, thus shaming David in the eyes of the other guests. She insists on him taking her to the south of France where she neglects and ignores him, and mixes, again, with low company. She is fluent in French but David can’t understand it because it is gutter French, not the French of a lady. So not only is he isolated by his wife, and isolated from other people because he can’t speak French, he doesn’t even understand that Rowena’s French is shameful to him as her husband. You can feel the shuddering of Yates’ original readers from here.

Rowena encourages David to fall in love with Helen, so she will be able to divorce him as the innocent plaintiff, thus ruining the reputations of Helen and David. Divorce in the late 1930s was not quite the social death that Yates liked to think it was, but he was by this time writing in a warped fantasy mode exacerbated by his own recent divorce, and is insisting on public pillorying for innocent parties. Rowena would then be free to marry the dull but rich Lord Juliot, who will die soon after, leaving her all his money, but more importantly, his title. When David leaves Rowena, but does not divorce her, she calls, uninvited, at his club, which is now his only refuge, and causes a scene designed to ensure that everyone pities her and will despise him. She clings to him begging him to return to her, she weeps on the floor, she behaves so heartbreakingly, and so cleverly, to make it seem as if she is the abandoned innocent wife. David resigns from his club next day, and has effectively been thrown out of polite society. However, we must not forget the parallel plot, of the lawyer instructed secretly to find out all about Rowena’s past and bring her to justice. This is the only relief for the reader, since the episodes of lies and blackmailing by Rowena are paralleled, without her knowledge, by the discovery of new and interesting pieces of information about her past.

Dornford Yates
Dornford Yates

It all ends in the divorce court, where, among other exciting revelations in a cliff-hanger ending, Rowena is found to have an Argentinian lover living somewhere near Potter’s Bar. He is also Jewish, and a dress designer: Yates clearly could not imagine anything worse. Although the ending is not quite as happy as it could be, since so much social damage has been done to David and Helen, Yates has made it absolutely clear how women may, and may not, behave, and how men must behave to secure the happiness and orderly running of society. Rowena is a magnificent weapon of social terrorism to warn Yates’s readers of the evils in store if society were allowed to degenerate any further.



On recording for the BBC

'The Buchan Tradition', BBC Radio 4, 16 April 2015
‘The Buchan Tradition’, BBC Radio 4, 16 April 2015

I was on the BBC yesterday, talking about John Buchan in a half-hour programme you can still hear on the BBC’s iPlayer, here. Obviously it’s not just me: Buchan’s grandchildren Ursula Buchan and James Buchan (both authors), and the esteemed novelist William Boyd contribute most of the snippets of interview, unpicking the detail on why Buchan is still such a readable writer. I was in there as a technical expert. Nick Rankin, the link man and narrator, is also an author: the programme was all about writers talking about how words work, one hundred years later.

We recorded my interview in my office in the Bodleian’s Weston Library in Oxford, still being renovated for its March reopening earlier this year. Sadly, that office is no longer mine, but long life and good writing to all those who sail after me in the beautiful glass-walled cubicles in the Visiting Scholars’ Centre. It’s a very nicely-appointed room, with oak veneer on every edge and cupboard: my visiting uncle, a retired architect, told me it was the BEST veneer, and he was pretty impressed by the quality of the moulded concrete in the stairwell too. The blown-air heating system was a little too good at transmitting the joyous cries of builders still banging on pipes, so I hoped to catch a lunch-break to do the recording.

The three of us (Dan the producer held the mic and recording machine) sat knee to knee in a huddle, and Nick asked me questions for an hour. It was like the reverse of a PhD viva: instead of being expected to show my skill in using big words and hard concepts, I needed to strip down my thinking into BBC-sized chunks (actually, not hard to do) and string them into earnest, heart-felt bites of common sense. I could see from the chaps’ expressions when I was straying too far from the wave-length they wanted, so we’d stop, have a think, and do it again. The best bits came from conversation, when Nick abandoned the script and started being a journalist, asking proper questions, not just requests for platitudes that they hoped might be edited into something bigger. The best radio comes from unexpected interactions, when truth is jolted out of sleep, and you get the real opinion, the real ideas that lurk unexpressed because no-one has asked that question before.

The last time I did a programme for the BBC was in 2013, speaking into a fat mic in the Brussels studio to three men in the London studio, about John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. It could have gone awkwardly, speaking into the void (actually, a fine view of the Berlaymont Building at the heart of the European Union) and trying to pick up the visual codes of conversation to make the interview sound like we were all in there together. But, I knew the two other interviewees (and they knew my little ways), and the interviewer was tremendous at corralling we three sheep into a coherent debate.

The lovely thing about the Oxford interview was that, far too often, talking about Buchan means talking about The Thirty-Nine Steps, and anti-Semitism, and then the conversation stops. It is so rare to have a public talk with someone who knows other books by Buchan, and can talk about the other issues. It’s like being asked by a properly appreciative visitor to bring all my toys out to play, not just the ones I’ve played with too often. I wasn’t doing Buchan research at the time of the interview, so the top part of my mind was not properly primed with relevant Buchanalia, it was in another universe entirely. So what Dan recorded were the core beliefs, the things I’ve tested and thought about for a very long time. What got used in the programme was only about 10% of what they took, and I’m glad they kept in the bit where I launch into feminist snorting about Buchan’s love scenes.


Magnificently diabolical sexual politics in Jane Austen’s Lady Susan

picture researcher has clearly read the novel: good sense of costume for the period
The picture researcher has clearly read the novel: good sense of costume for the period.

This post is from my only Jane Austen podcast, because her tremendous novel-in-letters Lady Susan contains one of the truly great Appalling Women in British Fiction. We all enjoy a villain, but there is something particularly enjoyable about a female villain, especially when she’s written for readers who expect women to be pure, perfect, and positive. It’s even better when the role that woman plays in the novel is also expected to be pure and perfect, for instance the role of a mother.

Lady Susan is part of what is known in the trade as juvenilia, Jane Austen’s very early work, never published in her lifetime, but kept presumably for her private entertainment. She wrote Lady Susan in 1795 or 1796, when she was around nineteen or twenty years old, and it is astonishing. It’s in the very fashionable epistolary mode: a novel written as letters. Late eighteenth-century novelists used this form a lot, and one of the most famous epistolary novels, Fanny Burney’s Evelina, is held to have been an important influence on Austen.

Ah. not so good: this is Regency, a bit late. we need more hair powder.
Ah. not so good: this is Regency, a bit late. we need more hair powder.

Lady Susan is also very much like a play: it’s pared down, and focused on the effects of one character on a parade of others. But the most surprising thing about it, as the literary production of a younger daughter living at home in a country rectory, is its calm assumption of the wickedness and gullibility of human nature, and the ease with which sexual relations are tolerated in polite society. In this novel Jane Austen is writing about things it is pretty likely her parents would really wish her not to know much about, but she does it anyway, with the confidence and technique of a writer twice her age.

The novel is very short (it takes only about an hour to read), structured as 41 letters, ending with a conclusion. Lady Susan writes 16 of these letters: we hear her voice more often than we hear the opinions of any of the other characters, and this is a good thing, because she is the liveliest, most cunning and most plausible creature in the novel. I’m going to give away the plot completely here, but it’s necessary: you won’t grasp the full wickedness of her character without the spoilers.

No, no, this is nineteenth-century, and she would never hold this expression unless she wanted a suitor to feel sorry for her
No, no, this is nineteenth-century, quite unsuitable.

Lady Susan has been widowed for only four months, but when the novel opens she has already had a passionate affair with Mr Manwaring, a married man, in whose household she has been staying for some months, while carrying out a major flirtation at the same time with Sir James Martin, which breaks off his engagement to Mr Manwaring’s young sister on account of his passion for Lady S. That’s the kind of woman we’re dealing with: economic with her sexual currency, securing the fervent attention of two men at the same time, and utterly ruthless in the pursuit of her own desires.

Lady Susan has a teenage daughter, Frederica, whom she has neglected all her life, but plans to marry off to Sir James once she herself has finished dallying with him. But Frederica is so distraught at the idea of marrying Sir James, who is a meaningless fop, that Lady Susan decides to send her away to school in London, as a punishment, until Frederica gives in and agrees to marry who her mother wants. So she’s an evil mother too. However, we should pause for a moment to consider the economics of Lady Susan’s situation. She herself needs to marry, to have an income, and her daughter must marry as well, so in arranging a reasonable marriage for Frederica (for Sir James is not a vile old man, nor an impossible Cit: he’s just a fool), she’s doing what a mother ought. However, as the reactions of Frederica’s aunt make clear, Lady Susan is behaving cruelly to her daughter: in this novel (otherwise why write such a delicious farrago for pleasure?) affection and compliance in a marriage are desirable in marriage, and force is not.

a Gothic Lady Susan? NO.
a Gothic Lady Susan? NO.

Lady Susan’s affair with Mr Manwaring has not gone smoothly, since Mrs Manwaring is incandescent with rage about it, as is Miss Manwaring, and so Lady Susan thinks it advisable to look for somewhere else to visit. She can’t set up house yet in London, as she is too recently widowed to socialise in public, so she invites herself to stay with her late husband’s brother, Mr Vernon. Mrs Vernon loathes Lady Susan, because she had tried her best to prevent the Vernon marriage. Mrs Vernon is also suspicious about what Lady Susan plans to do now in their quiet country house. Lady Susan is momentarily nonplussed as to how she can advance her own situation, but her resourcefulness is part of her charm: she will enter a situation and leave it with grace and good humour, and be always ready to take advantage of anything promising that may present itself. She is very like Madame de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereuses, with her sheer cold-blooded nerve and strategic thinking, but, as Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin says, it’s unlikely that Austen would have been allowed to have read that really scandalous novel, unless her naughty cousin Eliza, married to a French nobleman, had slipped her a copy.

Thank heavens for historicity! This is more like this, this is how Lady S could have looked
Thank heavens for historicity! This is more like it, this is how Lady S could have looked.

Lady Susan’s strategy with the Vernons is to persuade Mrs Vernon that she is really very fond of her, and of the dear Vernon children too: why, she’s almost memorised all of their names already. Mrs Vernon isn’t fooled, and is a little nervous as well. Her dashing younger brother Reginald is coming to stay, because he has heard such glorious stories about Lady Susan from a friend who had recently visited the Manwarings, and so he wants to view this dangerous, glamorous woman for himself. Lady Susan naturally sees her opportunity, and within a very few letters, Reginald is captured, has completely refuted all the stories about Lady Susan that he’d been spreading a week or so before, and his sister, mother and father are in despair.

The magnificence of Lady Susan’s tactics endears her to the reader. She is a predator, as Claire Tomalin says, and gets all the best lines. This is what she says about her daughter: She is a stupid girl, and has nothing to recommend her.

glorious awful 1960s faux-Regency novel cover for a Lady Susan continuation
gloriously awful 1960s faux-Regency novel cover for a Lady Susan continuation. Lies from the publisher claiming the original was ‘unfinished’.

On education: to be Mistress of French, Italian, German, Music, Singing, Dancing, Drawing etc will gain a Woman some applause, but will not add one Lover to her list.

On her enemies: There is an exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person predetermined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority. 

I have never yet found that the advice of a Sister could prevent a young Man’s being in love if he chose it.

What kind of gossipy games was Jane Austen playing with her friends to come up with lines like these? Or did she pick them up from the theatre, from plays by Oliver Goldsmith or Sheridan?

Lady Susan’s plans are upset when her daughter tries to run away from school (after another threat that she will have to marry Sir James), and so she has to be brought to stay with her mother at the Vernons’ house, getting in the way of her mother’s flirtation with Reginald, and giving Mrs Vernon yet another reason to loathe her sister-in-law. If Lady Susan could control all the actors in this farce, she would have exactly what she wanted, but her behaviour is too outrageously insincere to keep Mrs Vernon docile, and her attractions are too powerful for the men under her thumb. Sir James arrives at the Vernons’ house unexpectedly, inviting himself to stay. He seems quite happy to flirt with the mother while expecting to marry the daughter, and Reginald is beginning to realise that Lady Susan’s behaviour is somehow only acceptable and reasonable when she explains things to him herself. Now what can Lady Susan do?

A very good image choice for Janet Todd's retelling (she's a professor, she knows her period)
A very good image choice for Janet Todd’s retelling (she’s a professor, she knows her period)

Her solution is to retreat to Town, to stay near her best friend Mrs Johnson, another wicked woman but one unhappily still possessed of a grumpy old husband. Lady Susan grandly tells Reginald that he must not visit her in London, since she has a reputation as a recent widow to maintain. Annoyingly he follows her, just as Mr Manwaring, still mad for love of her, shows up in London as well, and Mrs Manwaring gets hold of Reginald to Tell Him All. It’s a splendidly farcical situation, told in a series of increasingly hurried and exasperated letters between Mrs Johnson and Lady Susan. Having to rapidly decide between Reginald, who needs a lot of soothing because he is a truculent young devil, and Mr Manwaring, who is at her feet for ever, Lady Susan takes the easy, but more socially risky option, and drops Reginald, in a sorrowful, self-sacrificing way, to encourage the Manwaring divorce more thoroughly. Mrs Johnson is forbidden by her furious husband to write to her dear friend Susan ever again, and Lady Susan’s last letter to her bosom friend is to fervently wish that Mr Johnson will drop down dead of the gout as soon as possible. In this friendship alone she is constant, but every magnificent heroine needs a confidante.

A Russian version of Lady Susan? Why thank you, I'll take the jewels.
A Russian version of Lady Susan? Why thank you, I’ll take the jewels.

There is no getting away from the fact that Lady Susan is a heroine. She totally dominates the action, and never meets anyone worthy of her. It is such a pity that Austen did not yet have the experience or observational powers to create a Mr Darcy or a Captain Wentworth for Lady Susan, but she would have walked over both of them. Lady Susan needed a tempestuous, storming, totally masculine shouty hero, or a supremely cold and eyebrow-lifting master of deviousness, perhaps like the Duke of Avon whom Georgette Heyer would create two centuries later. Jane Austen had not decided yet how she would draw her male characters. It’s rather indicative that she never returned to the Lady Susan model: the nearest we get to a wicked woman in the rest of her fiction is Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, or Miss Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, but neither of these have the really impressive sense of self-preservation or the callous planning of Lady Susan. We are not worthy.