I’ve had a bad run of books I didn’t like and books read for work rather than pleasure recently, so all I can offer this week are these three pallid specimens. I’ll try to crank up my enthusiasm next week. It’s the end of term, holiday reading is beckoning, I have hopes of something marvellous waiting for me when I pick up the very next book from the pile.
Karen Russell, Swamplandia!
I love Karen Russell’s short stories, in St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove, which I reviewed here, so I bought Swamplandia!, her novel, and have been putting off reading it for over a year. I took it all the way to Hawaii and brought it back unread. Not a good sign. So I went and put myself on a train with nothing but this to read and made myself get through it. It’s not great. Her imagination is stupendous, and her eye for compelling detail creates marvels, but this novel is a short story that has grown beyond its natural capacity for wonder. And I was not entranced: I was bored by halfway through. The central premise of an alligator park in a Florida swamp is solid; Ossie’s romance with a ghost is extremely odd; the story of Louis’ swamp-sailing life in the 1920s is a beautiful short short that might have been published somewhere else first, it is so polished and self-contained. I was completely unconvinced by the Chief’s obsession with keeping the park on, and by Kiwi’s passive endurance. Ava the narrator is of course a star, but the red Seth is unused and wasted, like a glowing ember snuffed out by Gothic monstrosity. Too many details, not enough story.
Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting
Another novel I put off reading until I absolutely had no choice. I inherited a Modern Scottish Fiction course from a departing colleague, and so I inherited all the novels he had carefully chosen and a course outline he had refined over the years. Miss Jean Brodie, A Disaffection, Morvern Callar, Lanark, Keep Breathing, they’re all there. And lurking like a malignant toad at the back, was Trainspotting. I read the first half in a gobble of desperation, like a really bad medicine, and felt ill. It vastly enlarged my vocabulary for drug addiction and a truly astonishing collection of words pertaining to the body and its functions, humours, liquids and solids, but did I enjoy it? No. I hated it. I admire its technique and innovation, but I was counting the hours until I could put it back on the high shelf. I wrote my class notes. Reread bits. Cautiously took a peek here and there through the remainder of the novel and read some of the shorter chapters. Revised my class notes. Took the class through the first seminar of the week, and felt some hope. They liked the novel, some of them really liked it, so they did more of the talking than usual. Emboldened, I finished the chapters I’d not read, and we tore through the second session. I had had the brainwave of getting the class to put the book on trial, and my obliging lawyer sister found me Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. That went down well, with some strong defences of its scatology, misogyny and the glamorisation of violence. Now I never need read the bloody thing again.
Larry Niven, Ringworld
I’ve been meaning to read Larry Niven for years, so I scooped up a copy of Ringworld, hoping for technological wonders. Foolish me. I’d forgotten that the only Niven story I’ve read was ‘Cloak of Anarchy’, which had the futuristic technology I craved, and the slightly dystopic enclosed society, and also the naked girl walking through a park with her cloak hovering behind her, unafraid of sexual assault because of the police surveillance. And then the surveillance stopped, and oh look, assault begins. Ringworld (as far as I read) doesn’t have the assault, but it does seem to revolve around an old man’s seedy, leering gaze on a very young woman’s body in and out of various anonymous and uninteresting parties, and frankly I could not be bothered. Several alien characters, who seemed like tedious blokes in alien suits for all the difference they exhibited in their behaviour or perceptions, exasperated my tolerance for tired 1970s fantasies until I just had to fling Ringworld on the floor. It went to Age Concern last week, and they’re welcome to it.
This time in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up I’m reading a novel of utter frivolity. It’s called Dodo’s Daughter, and is a sequel to the earlier and unforgettably frivolous novel of Edwardian society life, Dodo. Dodo is a ditzy lady, invented by that great chronicler of society silliness, E F Benson. Nowadays he is much better known for his creation of the immortal Lucia and Miss Mapp, and their battles to social death in Tilling and Riseholme in the early 1920s. But Benson had been frivolling for twenty years before Miss Mapp and Lucia were born, and the stories about Dodo are a pretty good introduction to what the Edwardians thought was witty about his writing. In this novel, Dodo, who is about to embark on her third marriage to the man she jilted for his brother as her first, has a problem daughter, from her second marriage. Yes, it’s complicated. She knows when to take herself off to bed, and has a greater awareness of her need for sleep and a happy home life than she did as the epitome of heartless frivolity at age 18.
Dodo’s Daughter is really two books in one. It’s a conventional romantic melodrama, written with a hint of camp tongue in cheek. It’s also a modern story of heartless girls and boys living a meaningless life in which being amused is their only goal. They have a great many things to say about the modern Edwardian girl – her choices in life, why she gets married, and what marriage was really for. Naturally, these are rich girls and boys: all through the novel no-one does a stroke of work because Benson writes about them as an isolated bubble of upper-class society.
Nadine is Dodo’s daughter, a chain-smoker (which was very daring), and the leader of the pack. She is an appalling flirt and an empty conversationalist: her attitudes are really so much like those of a caricature of the 1920s flapper that I had to check the date of this novel twice. But it really is 1913, and prewar. Nadine and Dodo are both totally egotistical, but they both cheerfully admit this, and expect the world to accept them as they are. They aren’t malevolent at all, they are very concerned that everyone has a nice time and gets what they want. But their efforts to get what they want take priority over the desires of anyone else.
The third most important character is Seymour, an early tryout for Georgie Pillson of the Lucia books – with his jade dusting, his embroidery (interestingly contemporary with Peter’s embroidery in Rose Macaulay’s The Lee Shore), his devoted female servant, his effeminate airs – but this (in the gender politics of the day) is all a pose. Seymour is quite aware of how he appears, and seems to rather enjoy allowing the worm to turn. He breaks away from his languid poses to come over all masculine and domineering when he becomes engaged to Nadine. He rages at his tedious mother and sister for assuming that his effeminate pose gives them the right to order him around, and he becomes the most formidable character in the book, because he is simply the most intelligent man on the stage.
Benson does a very well-executed job of mixing styles of writing. He combines the epigrammatic late Victorian style of Oscar Wilde with an unexpected and unstudied close analysis of emotion and social realities. He juxtaposes melodramatic plot details- of attempted murder and an older woman braving childbirth – with intense self-analysis and an almost stream of consciousness dialogue (very ahead of its time). This combination feels abrupt because it’s disconcerting, but it is also completely under control. Benson knows what he’s doing.
The last third of the novel is all about Hugh, who is in love with Nadine but has been jilted by her for Seymour, and won’t stop hanging around suffering. Will Hugh die, or recover, or recover without the use of his legs, after a dramatic sea rescue of a shipwrecked boy? (Whom we never see again, incidentally.) This drama brings out the more interesting aspects of their characters. Hugh develops the stiffest upper lip I’ve ever encountered in prewar popular fiction. Nadine actually stops thinking about herself for minutes at a time. But Seymour becomes terrifically complicated, and takes refuge in bitter campness to avoid being devastated by Nadine’s weather-cock behaviour. He also comes off better than Dodo, by demonstrating the emotional maturity and self-awareness that none of the others possess.
The effect of all these agonies under a light dusting of frivolity is to produce a really modern novel that examines the emotions swirling around inside an eternal triangle. There are clear signs that Benson is struggling to free his writing from the grip of the Victorian romantic novelette, and from the Wildean drawing-room comedy of epigrams. But the novel is clearly Edwardian: the incessant chain-smoking of Nadine and her mother should tell us that at least.
Dodo’s Daughter is also rather interesting if you’re looking for early feminist fiction. Dodo herself is a financially independent woman (thanks to both her former marriage settlements), but she is also an independent woman in terms of making her own decisions, deciding whom she will marry, where she will live, and so on. She keeps having to throw her drunk ex-husband out of the house (that’s the second one, who was a German prince of very Prussian characteristics), and she won’t ask her third husband to do this. She goes downstairs herself and gets rid of the awful tyrant Prussian, time and again.
Her closest friend is Edith, an eccentric composer, who reminded me so much of the suffragette composer Ethel Smyth that I had to read up on her on Wikipedia, and yes! She was! Apparently Benson put Smyth into all his Dodo books, and she loved her portrait. Edith is a monomaniacal composer, and when the muse strikes, she just keeps on composing on the dining room table while her meals are brought to her and placed around the sheets of music paper.
Nadine is a mouthpiece for arguments about the role of women, what girls are to do with their lives, whether there is an alternative to marriage, and whether it’s possible to do without men. It’s a fairly safe guarantee that any time she is in a scene, feminist discussion will begin. Through her, Benson makes some fascinating remarks about the current generation of girls managing without men in the future. Because this novel immediately precedes the First World War and the 1920s, the ‘decade of single women’, this seems like seeing into a very grim future indeed. But it may be that Dodo’s Daughter is anecdotal evidence that even before the war and the slaughter of a generation of young men, women were thinking that life without an obligatory husband or other male authority might soon be a social possibility. Or not. Since Benson was a satirist, who can really tell what he was laughing at, and what he was wistfully hoping might come true?
I haven’t seen Arrival, but I wanted to read the book because the story as told to me by someone who had seen the film interested me greatly. I spotted the book in the bookshop because of the Amy-Adams-in-a-spacesuit cover, and was surprised to see that a whole film had been based on a short story. I’d heard of Ted Chiang, but only vaguely. I’ve finished all the stories in that collection now. Oh my.
Ted Chiang appears to be a polymath. ‘Towers of Babylon’ (a Nebula Award winner) is about Bronze Age architecture that can build a tower to Heaven. ‘Understand’ is about accumulating intelligence and quantitative cognition. ‘Division by Zero’ is about maths, really intimidatingly high-level maths. ‘Story of your life’ (the story the film was made from, and the winner of three awards including a Nebula) is about linguistic theory. ‘Seventy-two letters’ (a Sidewise Award winner) is about two (not one but TWO, darn it) invented pseudo-sciences in an alternative Victorian England. ‘The evolution of human science’ is a three-page short short about how humans can continue to work on science when metahuman science has long since outstripped human understanding. ‘Hell is the absence of God’ relies a little bit on OT theology but is otherwise fairly ground-level sf. It won four awards, including a Nebula and a Hugo: it’s the story I liked least. Hmm. ‘Liking what you see: A documentary’ hauls us right back to the hard stuff by theorising about gnosias that prevent our brains’ perceptions of beauty, and other human things.
Stories of Your Life and Others (the original title of the collection known as Arrival) will expand your mind relentlessly. The knowledge is only part of it: you don’t have to be a computer scientist to be pulled along by the scientific dilemma in ‘Understand’ because it is utterly human. All the stories are about being human, and dealing with the extraordinary. ‘Story of your life’ is the highlight for me; a perfect, beautiful story, beautiful in how the structure reflects the evolution of the story and what we learn from it as we read (the as-we-read bit is important, because this story is about the accumulative process). ‘Tower of Babylon’ was strange and deeply satisfying, and ‘The evolution of human science’ is a pocket firework.
I have some grumbles. ‘Tower of Babylon’ ignores the economic perspective: if a society is building a tower to reach to heaven, so high that the work continues not for weeks or years but generations, who pays for it? And why is that society, which will presumably be weakened by this constant and unproductive drain on its economy, left unmolested and uninvaded by its neighbours over the years that the building continues? ‘Understand’ ends with a titanic battle between two men: WHY? Why does every opposition have to end in conflict?
However, I was most irritated by the immensely long ‘Seventy-two letters’, which is really a novella, rather than a short story. It is set in Victorian England, and we quickly learn that it is an alt universe Victorian England, in which Robert Stratton learns to reprogram his toy golems to see how rewriting their names will affect their behaviour and refine their design. So far, so very steampunk. He becomes a nomenclator, designing new names to create new functions, and his radical new thinking on automaton design enrages the sculptors who make them by its threats to their livelihoods. Meet the Luddites at the Industrial Revolution. Stratton is asked to join a secret science project which is accelerating the development of homunculi from spermatozoa. This is the second pseudo-science of the story, a form of IVF that combines with the faux-genome mapping of the nomenclators to create a superb milieu of steampunk science without the explosions.
The invented sciences are marvellous and slightly chilling, treading closely on the boundaries of dystopia. But I am annoyed that no-one told Chiang that he can’t write British English dialogue. Both the third-person narrative voice and the ‘English’ characters make blooper after blooper, despite Chiang’s exceptionally good reconstruction of Victorian England. The story might have worked better if he had set it in New York, because then the Americanisms would have been appropriate. But to create an English society so faithfully, and not even posit that it was somehow American-English, and then drop clangers in phrasing, social usage and syntax, is just not good enough. No-one in England, now or 150 years ago, ever talks of a ‘steer’ when they mean a cow. Maybe the narrative voice is supposed to be American (but why?), which would explain why ‘Lionel had Robert wait outside’: no English voice would say that, not now or in the nineteenth century. No school-teacher scientist would address a peer without adding ‘my lord’ at the end of his request. No Victorian peer would drink ‘whiskey’, and he certainly wouldn’t pour it himself.
There are many more maddening small errors, and I’m not including the American spellings. It’s annoying to see detectable mistakes in otherwise brilliant work. If you’re going to recreate England AS England, why not do the job properly, or get someone to check it? But apart from that, I love these stories (most of them) and have joined the legions of Chiang admirers.
The continuing adventures of Sofia Khan have been much anticipated. I adored Malik’s first novel, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, and its sequel begins very satisfyingly with the immortal words of ‘Reader, I married him’. This is of course the burning question at the end of Sofia Khan when she’s flying off to Karachi with Conall, whom she has only just realised has become a Muslim (the beard, the not drinking, the Muslim friends: none of that clicked before). Would they actually get married, or just save the world chastely together? Conall – her inscrutable, kind Irish neighbour – is all Sofia has ever truly desired, and one month into their new married life in Karachi she realises that she hardly knows him.
Malik clears that point out of the way briskly so we can carry on with their story, which is not so much the story of a marriage as learning what you’ve got once you are married. It is very pleasing to read a novel that tackles marriage as something that needs work, and that needs total honesty. Unfortunately one of this happy couple has not been wholly honest, and has to rethink some priorities in life, dragging the other partner in the marriage along to a bravely bleak ending.
Pause for a realism break. The conventions of fiction mean that a page and a half of dialogue has to stand in for the days of necessary intermittent, accumulating communication that make a marriage work. Sofia certainly talks to Conall, and he does listen. Occasionally he talks to her. But in this novel, almost every plot point and character arc depends on non-communication, the failing to divulge, and characters’ reluctance to pass on crucial information. The Other Side of Happiness depends on these non-communications for the story, and Sofia, to wind their way into your affections.
Everyone is distracted, or unnaturally reticent, or withholding information, although they know they ought to hand it over but haven’t the nerve, or don’t think it’s important, or think that it’s so flaming obvious that anyone who needs to know, will. I have rarely read a novel during which I wanted to scream TALK TO HER! so often, to so many characters, Sofia included. Again and again a massive load-bearing plot twist depends on X not having told Y the facts about Z. It gets to you after a bit. All the female characters spend their lives on social media, texting, talking in bedrooms or living-rooms, yet Things Don’t Get Told. The men are the really taciturn ones, except Conall’s brother Sean (I absolutely relate to Sean), who spends the novel asking helplessly why X hasn’t told Y the truth about Z, thus revealing Z to the grateful reader.
Meanwhile, in Sofia’s personal trajectory, she has a book launch and a wedding, and an unexpected trip to Ireland where she sings the hymns during Mass and does not comprehend Irish dialect. She becomes a publisher’s reader. She tries to work out how to write her next book, on Muslim marriage, when everything she thought she knew about it is getting tragically complicated and too bloody real. She rises, though. Our Sofe rises up, she keeps afloat, her beloved friends bob along with her, and even her mother does extraordinary things. Conall is Sofia’s problem: a more annoying, aggravating, monosyllabic, lovable lunk I have yet to read.
The Other Half of Happiness is not the fascinating, delirious page-turner that Sofia Khan was, keeping me trapped reading it on a sofa for hours. It’s deeper, it’s more serious and a lot braver, in terms of writing about marriage. It is a tear-jerker, though I also laughed out loud. The one-liners may be fewer, but they still devastate.
Ayisha Malik, The Other Half of Happiness (Bonnier Zaffre, 6 April 2017), ISBN 978 17857 607 30, £7.99
Today’s novel from the Really Like This Book’s podcast scripts catch-up is about art: buying it, faking it, selling it, advising on it, collecting it, and valuing your life by what you say about it. Rose Macaulay’s novel The Lee Shore really is completely forgotten, but is a fascinating read. It’s one of a clutch of Macaulay’s pre-war novels that she herself didn’t want to be reprinted once she had become successful in the 1920s, and which have largely avoided being rediscovered by modern publishers. (You can get it as a free ebook download if you shop around between apps.) But in its day it was a triumph. It won a fabulous prize of £1000 from Hodder & Stoughton (about £50,000 in today’s money), which enabled Macaulay to leave home and set herself up in literary London an author.
In the Edwardian period Macaulay wrote a lot about the danger of slipping out of your class if you were upper class, and the importance of maintaining your personal honour and integrity, even if this meant abandoning or being abandoned by your class and all that you had been brought up to expect to have as your life. The way she combines these two contra-indicators makes The Lee Shore a serious investigation of modern and traditional mores.
She uses what we in the trade call the free indirect voice, which is when the reader not only sees the action of the story from one or more characters’ perspectives, but is shown their point of view, their feelings, by having parts of the narrative told in their own words, as if their thoughts had taken over the narration. It’s a hugely effective way to reveal, for example, underlying nastiness or hypocrisy in a character, by having their unpleasantness emerge in how they say what they say. In the case of this novel, all the characters are painfully concerned with their class position, and what they ought to be doing, wearing and saying, because of their birth and status. The tensions caused by the inevitable have-nots clashing with the haves produce disasters. The focus of the novel is the nicest character of all, a kind and helpful and honest young man called Peter Margerison. His free indirect voice is used as the narrative to show us, despite the awful things that happen to him, how he manages to maintain cheerfulness and hope.
We first meet Peter when he is being carried off injured from the football field by the god of his public school, Denis Urquhart. Denis is captain of rugby, and is slightly related to Peter in the sense that Peter’s widowed mother was once married to Denis’s father. Denis inherits money and property and a very comfortable life, while Peter has to struggle to keep up with the class into which he has been born. But he himself isn’t very interested in class status, it’s the standards that his class insist on that drive his life.
Peter makes his living by advising the wealthy and ignorant what art to buy, how to decorate their homes, and tries to educate their taste. He is such an honourable person that he takes great pains to work with his clients’ taste, and to steer them away from the hideous in favour of the beautiful. All this goes very well, and Peter builds up good relationships with his distant Urquhart relations. Until one day he and his main client travel to Venice, and come across a terribly pretentious and possibly fraudulent local art newspaper which advises its readers to buy things that Peter knows are fakes, or impossible to acquire at the prices quoted. To his horror, he finds that the editor of this nasty little newspaper is his own half-brother Hilary.
Hilary is the elder of the brothers by a good ten years or more. He makes sure that Peter feels obliged to follow his lead, and to defer to him as the de facto head of the Margerison family. He is a masterful portrait of petulant entitlement, he is quite the most horrible character in this novel, and it is against him and his shoddy values and slippery standards that Peter has to struggle. But which come first: family solidarity and blood ties, or the abstract values of integrity and honour? Peter chooses honour, in the sense that his honour will not allow him to see his brother fail and go under, and he also chooses honour by refusing to let Hilary dabble any longer in fake art dealing, or to take bribes from the art fakers of Venice. Hilary’s feckless but heroic wife Peggy has too much to do in bringing up their too many children, and she tries to run boarding houses to make a living. Her family spends the entire novel slithering slowly but inexorably into poverty, to Hilary’s fury, because it is never his fault. And Peter, naturally, goes down too, despite the hopes he has, and the good deeds he does, and the social credit and goodwill he still has with his rich friends and the Urquhart family.
The free indirect voice narration, because it brings us so close to Peter’s thoughts but still keeps us at a distance, produces a powerful impression of fragility. Peter’s decent acts and honourable behaviour seem to bring him nothing but trouble, and the worst thing he does, as well as one of the best, is to marry Rhoda, a stray girl who finds herself abandoned in Peggy’s boarding house, to protect her from inevitable degradation at the hands of the villainous dandy Vivian. Rhoda is not of Peter’s class, though she tries hard to keep up with his talk and his standards, and he tries very hard to make her happy and give her security. They have a baby boy, lovely baby Thomas who is the delight of Peter’s heart, and who gives him something to live for when the worst happens and Peter thinks that nothing else can possibly make his world any more awful. He tries for happiness again with his cousin Lucy, whom he has always loved, but who has – inexplicably – married Denis Urquhart.
At the last minute they change their minds, and Peter runs away without Lucy, taking Thomas with him, and finds happiness in a simple vagabond life in a cart pulled by a donkey wandering around the coast of Italy in the summer sunshine. Peter earns money by selling his embroidery – this was a period when embroidery by an artistic young man was considered a little odd but quite reasonable as an aesthetic choice of activity – and they find rest and safety on the lee shore of life, sheltered from the rough winds of the world.
Peter turns into a modernised version of the Victorian scholar-gypsy, though he must take responsibility for feeding his child and the donkey. More Victorian elements poke through the Edwardian setting with the incessant sermonising. Those rich and well-off Urquharts and related peers keep summoning Peter to interviews and offer to lend him money, asked or unasked, and he always refuses. The novel seems to act out a strange, warped version of the code of honourable conduct derived from public schools which we are expected to admire, since Peter sticks to it so assiduously, even though he is made to suffer almost all the way through the plot. In that respect he’s very like Hugh Walpole’s Peter Westcott from Fortitude. He too has his life bound up tightly with the friends he made at school, both the faithful and the cads.
Macaulay, who had grown up in Italy, was perfectly conversant with how English gentlemen could live there without losing caste. Her earlier novels The Furnace (1907) and Views and Vagabonds (1912) have a good look at the danger to the English character that will ensue if certain standards are not upheld when living abroad, though she is generally, though not always, on the side of the vagabonds. She always depicted the freedom of Italian living as a beautiful, desirable, perfect existence, but also an impossible one if an English gentleman was to fulfil his national and class destiny. Living like an Italian would be like going native, and a gentleman must never do that. Somehow, Macaulay does try to get around this for Peter, to find a way he can retain his integrity while still living in freedom, and in a rather unrealistic way, she does manage this. But I can’t help thinking, what was going to happen to baby Thomas when he caught cold in the winter, and there were no more tourists to buy his father’s embroideries, and they needed a doctor, and new boots, and so on? And what about school? Would Peter have been content to send his son to an Italian village school? How would he bridge the gap between the public school of an English gentleman’s son, and the total lack of income or savings that his life of freedom brought him?
The Lee Shore is about the essential question of choices in living, and how to live with them. An excellent novel, very good for a long train ride.
This Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up is about the 1913 novel called Fortitude by Hugh Walpole, and you need fortitude to finish it, to be brutally honest. It is not a snappy two-hour read. On the other hand, if what you’re after is something for a long wet weekend on your own during which you don’t want to go for long walks and the TV reception is bad, this is the book for you. Fortitude is very long, is certainly over-written, but I strongly encourage you to keep reading. It is really very unusual: Cornish Gothic crossed with the Edwardian novel of letters.
It is the 1870s. Peter Westcott is growing up in Cornwall, in a Gothic mansion called the House of Scaw, in a village called Treliss. He is tested by one personal catastrophe after another. His father beats him regularly and refuses to allow him to see his bedridden mother. He is sent away to a brutal school, where his defence of small bullied boys and his resistance to the culture of institutional violence lose the school an important match, in rugby, I think, and make him an outcast. Sport is important in schools, obviously, but I wonder whether Walpole deliberately tips over into satire here. By reporting a particularly violent bully to the headmaster Peter ensures that the bully is expelled, and so the team lose the game because the bully is their best player, and so then the whole school lines up to try to stare Peter out of countenance because, being Head of School, Peter must call the roll, to which no boy will answer. It is a ridiculous scene to today’s sensibilities because it seems so much like the pious excesses of martyrdom more familiar from nearly a hundred years earlier in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. What I do find interesting is that Walpole insisted that Peter rejects success in games in preference for honour and the law. This is a sign of the Edwardian era’s openness to the possibility of rejecting Victorian school brutality.
When Peter leaves school and comes home, he realises with cold horror that his cackling grandfather and demonic violent father are waiting eagerly for him to fall into their bullying, violent, cruel ways. Peter runs off to London and takes a job in a second-hand bookshop. This is a quite a jump in the plot, made possible by the meetings Peter has had in a mysterious junk shop in Treliss, where he encounters the enigmatic, romantic and also mysterious Mr Zanti, who offers him the job. Zanti is a deliberately curious character when he first appears, giving an impression of being all astrakhan coat and dark curling moustaches. He is important because he keeps appearing at all the turns in Peter’s fortunes. Consequently we take him at Peter’s estimation all through the novel: first as a figure of glamour and cosmopolitanism, later as a kind benefactor, then as a hapless victim, and finally as a devoted and loyal friend.
Peter may be ostensibly working in the London bookshop, but he doesn’t seem to do very much except read the books and know instinctively where the cheap classics are shelved. His home life is more interesting, since he boards at Brockett’s, a boarding house full of poor and quaint characters. This is the only positive portrait of a London boarding house that I’ve ever read from this period. Peter works at the bookshop for seven years, boarding at Brockett’s all this time, while he writes his novel.
Peter’s novel is the point of Fortitude, which we are now only a third of the way through (I’d go and get a slice of cake and a cup of tea if I were you). It is a novel of literary life in London as seen by the ingénue writer, which Walpole had recently lived through himself. Fortitude was his fifth novel, succeeding Walpole’s big success, Mr Perrin and Mr Traill from 1911. The plot of Fortitude is about Peter’s development as a writer, how he handles the creative process and his celebrity, balanced against the call of Cornwall and a settling of accounts back at the gloomy House of Scaw.
Fortitude is also the first of what would be later grouped together as Walpole’s eight London novels. London is quite clearly the centre of the known world for Walpole’s characters in this novel, with a range of Dickensian socio-economic and class settings. Walpole also added some pointed portraits of people who might well have been of his friends and acquaintances in the literary London of his own day, including Henry James, of whom he was a protegé. But the London parts of Fortitude begin in the 1890s, so as well as recreating his own early successes from the Edwardian period, Walpole also does a nice job of recreating the society that was withdrawing the hem of its garments from The Yellow Book, ten years earlier. Walpole is writing this novel for insiders and for those who wanted recent literary fashions revisited.
The British critic and author Peter Hitchens wrote, some years ago, “Henry James and John Buchan praised Walpole. Joseph Conrad, T S Eliot and Virginia Woolf were kind about him. What’s more, his books sold enormously well on both sides of the Atlantic, he was knighted, and he became very rich … Yet now he has vanished completely, his books not even to be found on the back shelves of most second hand shops, dismissed as ‘unreadable'”. Walpole was hugely popular in the 1920s and 1930s, but he was mocked in Somerset Maugham’s autobiographical novel Cakes and Ale in 1930, and apparently Walpole did not take criticism well. He became most known for writing novels of Gothic creepiness, and was satirised by detective novelist Francis Iles in the 1936 collection of literary parodies, Parody Party, with a nice episode of everyday ritual murder in an English cathedral town. Fortitude is quite Gothic, but only in the Cornish parts, and in the bookshop of Mr Zanti. In the bright and glittering social life of literary London Walpole writes a tragedy of friendship and disappointed love, all wrapped up with an incessant urge to get back to Cornwall from whence the wellspring of Peter’s creative being lies. Or something like that.
What makes this a true novel of 1913, if you ignore the now timeless Gothic bits and the David Copperfield plot, is the secret socialist circle and the anarchist bomb plot. Anarchism had been fashionable in fiction for some time, and Walpole duly inserts an anarchist episode into Fortitude. Closely linked to the Cornish Gothic is the new fashion for rural extravagance, to be made popular by Mary Webb’s novels The Golden Arrow and Gone to Earth, during the First World War. Walpole expends a great deal of effort establishing the character of the big, muscular, simple and faithful farmer and lovelorn suitor Stephen Brant, who waits and suffers for literally decades while the woman he loves is married to another man. Stephen is Peter’s faithful friend and protector, going to extraordinary lengths to keep him alive in moments of danger, and to bring him news from home. But as soon as the woman is free, she and Stephen hop onto a ship for Canada.
It’s not too far-fetched to read Peter as Stephen’s surrogate child and light of his life. Stephen does a fair amount of raging through the winter fields at sunset, recalling very forcibly the Starkadder brothers in Stella Gibbons’s much later Cold Comfort Farm, but he is out of place in London, even in the poorer quarters. There is a cataclysmic scene when Stephen and Mr Zanti and Peter are playing a riotously enjoyable game of romps with Peter’s baby son, and all seems happy and natural and all boys together, until Peter’s wife opens the nursery door and stands there, glaring icily down at them. She disapproves of them playing with the child at all, and she hates everything about Cornwall and Peter’s former life. Stephen is shrunken by her hatred, and he and Mr Zanti slink out of the door.
So, yes, this wife. I have to say, I found Clare Rossiter, with whom Peter falls blindly and madly in love, a fairly believable character and a loathsome one. Selfish and idle and uneducated, living only for her own amusement, her kind of character is familiar, a spoilt child with no idea how to cope with suffering. Walpole expects his readers to be unforgiving of Clare’s behaviour because she is weak and shallow. She doesn’t have one saving grace or realistically normal feature, except, perhaps, a very powerful fear of having to give birth again. Her one childbirth scene is long and harrowing, but Walpole’s sympathies are all for Peter who has to listen to days of Clare screaming. She is bored by and scared of her baby son, and says and does things pertaining to him that will have all parental hackles raised and sharpened.
I don’t think Walpole knew or cared much about women, or babies. He was, as the obituaries in the quality press say, a confirmed bachelor. Clare is an appalling monster because of her weaknesses and improbable characteristics, whereas her mother is a masterwork of socially-sanctioned monstrous behaviour, who calmly moves into her daughter’s marital home at the first sign of trouble, and never leaves until disaster arrives. Compared to these London ladies, the demonic Gothic horror waiting for Peter when he finally returns to the House of Scaw was always going to be a damp squib. Walpole manipulates our expectations and produces a truly surprising, and oddly satisfying ending to the novel.
The Historical Fictions Research Network is holding its second conference this weekend in Greenwich, home of the Meridian and steeped in English history. I will be there, celebrating the launch of the first issue of the Network’s scholarly journal, the Journal of Historical Fictions, which I edit, and giving a talk on the relationship between counter-factual fiction and science fiction. So this is a good time to wheel out another Really Like This Book podcast script, on a highly satisfying historical novel about alchemy and witchcraft, set in the seventeenth century, by Una L Silberrad. It’s called Keren of Lowbole, from 1913, and as far as I know only a handful of people now living have ever read it. These are either the handful of Silberrad scholars (me and my German colleagues), or Una Silberrad’s great-nephews and nieces who revere their Aunt Una with affection. Una L Silberrad is such a good novelist, yet totally forgotten, so I’ve been working on her for years.
You can find her novels in print-on-demand editions, and sometimes the genuine second-hand article, and in older public libraries that haven’t yet thrown their less borrowed books into the bin to make room for more computers. Her first novel was published in 1899, and her last in 1944. She was prolific, producing forty novels and short story collections in just over forty years, of the type that would be asked for in libraries between the war as ‘a nice book’. But they’re rare: she was never a top of the range best-seller, and in the Second World War, the bombing raid on London in 1940 that destroyed Paternoster Row and the heart of the book trade also burned all her publisher’s stock. Because of that her books are simply very hard to get hold of. I managed to republish one, The Affairs of John Bolsover, in a scholarly edition because it’s a great unknown example of the Edwardian feminist future novel. I’ve also shepherded her best novel, The Good Comrade, into publication with the independent publisher Victorian Secrets. But Keren of Lowbole is unlikely to be republished in paper form any time soon: its best hope is to be published in an e-version when Silberrad comes out of copyright, and that won’t be until 2026.
Una Silberrad wrote romance with adventurous happenings. Her novels usually involve someone escaping or running away from danger or another kind of trouble, and there are always tremendous independent heroines. Silberrad was an early feminist writing very conventional fiction with a twist. Her female characters are repressed scientists, or illegitimate aristocratic book-keepers, or antiques experts, or mining financiers, or detectives: they are never just nice girls who just want to get married and have a better life. They do, of course, want the better life, and their romances are realistic, believable and highly satisfying. Silberrad was more interested in writing about women with minds of their own, and brains to help them on their way in life. She wrote about women and science, or women and business. She set her novels in two periods: the present day and the late seventeenth century. Her late seventeenth-century novels have the additional unusual dimension of being populated by Quakers and Dissenters, because she was interested in throwing theology into her plots, to reinforce the importance of religious law and morality as part of everyday life.
In Keren of Lowbole, there is a wandering Dissenter called Tobiah. He’s a lively character, very willing to have an argument about Scripture that might last for days, and has a strong sense of responsibility towards anyone who appears to be behaving in ungodly ways. In effect he’s a freelance spiritual policeman, and is a moral signpost for good and righteousness. In the seventeenth century it’s no bad thing to have a person like that on your side, especially if he isn’t afraid of anything, which Tobiah is not. Una Silberrad’s nephew John said that apparently Aunt Una referred to Keren of Lowbole as the First Book of Tobiah: a pun on the names of Biblical books, because several of her short story collections and at least one other novel, have Tobiah stalking throughout the pages, laying down the spiritual law and getting people out of trouble.
But he is a relatively minor character in this novel, which is about a girl called Keren Ashe, who lives with her father, Dr Ashe the alchemist, in the Forest, south of Colchester in Essex. He is a descendant of Dr Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s alchemist, and Keren’s mother was a gypsy from Bohemia, so Keren has a strange and distinguished bloodline. She works as her father’s lab assistant, and seems perfectly content to do this for the rest of her life, until well-meaning Tobiah mentions to Betsy Shipp in Colchester one day that there is a 17-year old girl growing up wild in the Forest, with no older woman to instruct her on household duties or to see that she does not stray into temptation. Betsy is Dr Ashe’s distant cousin, so she takes Keren to live with her in the town, which seems to be a good plan for all. Dr Ashe disappears shortly afterwards on a secret journey.
Colchester in the later 1600s is a fun place to live. Keren makes friends with her girl cousins, she is praised for her impeccable housewifery (only a man could think that a girl growing up running her father’s house would need extra lessons), she goes to weddings, and she can shop. She’s already fallen in love, and fallen out of it again when she realises that the man is simply unworthy, and also that he loves a married lady. She put a stop to this unworthy man’s designs on the beautiful but long-suffering Lady Belton, who has been kind to Keren, by switching the love potion that her father would have supplied for a harmless bottle of coloured water. She has an easy friendship with Zachary Ward, a highly skilled glass-blower and lab technician whom her father values, but she doesn’t realise that Zachary is the prodigal son of Wythes Hall, with a wicked stepmother determined to do him out of his legal rights to the estate. Keren has a suspicion about her father’s long absences, and wonders where he has sent the last glass phial of the mysterious Ultio, which is usually kept out of danger and harm’s way on a high shelf. Dr Ashe had been very concerned when the other Ultio bottles fell off the shelf in an explosion. He wouldn’t let Keren or Zachary touch any of the glass except with tongs, and made them burn everything that had come into contact with it. Keren doesn’t know the terrible death of her mother in far-off Flanders, nor does she realise how long her father has waited to take his revenge. When Sir James Belton returns in a bad temper from his mission to Flanders, he reports that his opportunity to gain glory by taking the town for King Charles by force was thwarted by an unexpected outbreak of the plague, just after he got there. It’s probably much safer for Keren if she stays in Colchester, but in Colchester there are religious rivalries breeding trouble too.
Tobiah seems to be the head preacher for all the Dissenting sects, those troublesome Protestants who broke with the Church of England and insist on splitting theological hairs in defining their own religious beliefs, until there are almost more sects than believers. When Tobiah is out of town, Samuel Calderbeck sneaks back in, an ignorant man with a mania about demonic possession and witchcraft. When Betsy goes to London to see her married daughter and the new grandchild, her fussy husband installs his sister, Rachel Shipp, in the house to keep an eye on the maids. Rachel is a Calderbeck enthusiast, and very strong on the girls attending all possible religious services. At one, Keren forgets to kneel down for prayers, because her mind is elsewhere, so after a stern interrogation by Calderbeck and Rachel, it is suspected that she must be possessed. This is not a good time for Keren to be under suspicion of witchcraft, because her sneaky cousin Kate already has a downer on her. Keren can see easily through Kate’s hypochondrical ways, and Kate is very good at being devout when it will do her good. Keren has also been making lapis lazuli, a straightforward alchemical experiment that she has never managed to work accurately before, so when this too is discovered (it was a present for her nice cousin Betty) she is sent straight to her room and locked in, awaiting judgement in the morning.
Naturally, she gets out. What happens to her, and to Zachery’s claim on his father’s estate, and to Tobiah when he is miscalled a drunken vagabond, and to Dr Ashe’s secret journey, and the discovery of the missing will, will all be yours to discover when you read the book. I do hope you can find a copy.
Keren of Lowbole is a fine example of a historical novel untainted by modern preoccupations, language or style. I don’t think Silberrad uses any words that would not have been used in the seventeenth century, no do her characters do things that are out of period: that’s something that many modern historical novelists would do well to learn from. The narration is calm and restrained, the plot is meticulously structured, and the main characters are instantly memorable, and are consistent to the end. Keren is not an anachronistic feminist but she is a gypsy in her independence and cleverness with objects and natural creatures. It’s a timeless novel that could have been written at any time in the past hundred years, and deserves to be much better known.