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.
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.
I knew about Alison Bechdel from her culture-changing idea of the Bechdel Test, that thing you ask of films, books and other cultural productions. If two or more women are having a conversation, if it about something / someone other than men? If the film or book can answer ‘yes!’, then it has something to say to more than one segment of the population and has a fair chance of not being gender biased. She was also awarded one of the 2014 MacArthur ‘Genius’ Awards, to allow her to keep writing and creating. Fun Home is far more than a graphic novel, because it’s a memoir, not fiction at all. (It was also made into a smash hit musical.) It’s painful, beautiful, poetic and symmetrically chilling. It’s about Alison Bechdel’s childhood in Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s, during which time she grows to realise that her father is more than an obsessive house renovator and the grim community mortician (Fun as in Funeral). He oppresses his family, but he also loves them, and he loves boys too, though is too closeted to come out. Thus the circle of escape, obsession, dictatorialness and unexpected admissions of pleasure continues. The story moves back and forth in time like a weaving shuttle, so the reader experiences layer after layer of story, with each new layer gaining texture and resonance from its foundation.
The sad and ordinary fact of Bruce Bechdel’s death, hit by a truck as he crossed the road, is examined again and again for clues and for answers. He took the children camping, he took them to stay with friends in New York (where he could go cruising at night on Christopher St), he had them cleaning and doing chores every day, he taught them to swim. Helen Bechdel, a former actress who gave up her dreams to be the mother of a family, endures her husband’s erratic ways and endless, casual affairs with angry endurance. She retreats into acting and a thesis, while he is in a world of his own, sourcing chandeliers and Victorian glassware, and foolishly buying beers for underage boys. The children separate as well (the renovated house certainly has enough space), so isolation and private experiences become normal.
When Alison goes to college she works out the name and the meaning of her own sexuality, which adds another layer to her relations with her father. She had loved men’s shirtings and suits as much as he did, and she fetishised the lines of a man’s body, wanting that shape for herself, as much as he wanted their bodies. The artwork tells more than half of this complex, shifting story, with frames repeated to silently show that yes, there was more going in here, in this particular exchange or event, than the younger Alison had noticed. Although the seven episodes of the book move back and forth in time in a patchwork of recollections and linked stories, the language of the narration begins simply, increasing in complexity as more understanding emerges. When moments of comprehension surface in the small or adult Alison’s mind, the effect is stunning: word and image working together simply and beautifully to hit the reader for six.
You can read this as a memoir of family life with an unusual proximity to death and its processes (I’ve barely mentioned the family funeral home business: that’s an entirely separate story). You can read it as a sad story of closeted homosexuality (Bruce), or as a satisfying and wryly self-deprecating memoir of an out lesbian at ease with herself and her life. You can read this as a book about the importance of reading the right book at the right time to realise the truth about sexuality, in all its manifestations. You can certainly read this book as a pointed rebuke at the pretentiousness of college English literature tutorials, and the dangers of obsessing over one particular text (Bruce was also a high school English teacher). We don’t read a lot about Alison’s brothers as adults, and perhaps that was by their wish. At the end of the book, her first acknowledgement is to her mother and brothers for ‘not trying to stop me writing this book’. Her portrait of her mother is understanding but also unsparing: Helen was an expert mother and an understanding woman but not warm or friendly. Those children lacked hugs. That family lacked warmth. It was not a fun home, by any means.
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home. A Family Tragicomic (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), ISBN 978-0-224-08051-4, £12.99
In this week’s Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, Ire-read that bit in Louisa M Alcott’s Good Wives (1869) where Jo March goes to work in New York. (I should warn any Alcott scholars looking in that I haven’t read any Alcott criticism for years.) Alcott was a great believer in work – on evangelical grounds, also from common sense, and because she herself had to work to survive. Her four girls from Little Women never seem to stop working, but the housework and the self-educational didactic work episodes are not as convincing as the simple need to earn a living. Jo is my particular Little Woman, the one I like best and identify most with (and I know I’m one of millions, but we can share her), so the more I read about her, the more interested I was in the stories.
Rereading Good Wives as an adult – because I don’t think I’d read it for at least twenty years – was extraordinarily interesting, as well as soothing, entertaining, delightful, and mildly irritating. I was amazed at how early this novel was published: 1869 is nearly 150 years ago, five generations ago, but Good Wives is totally fresh in its dialogue and how the characters develop. The blurb on the front of my Puffin edition (marketed to girls in the 1970s) calls it a ‘period piece’: well, it may be set in a different period, but it’s a modern story about growing up and embracing responsibility, as well as getting married. Nothing ‘period’ about that, and there is barely any history in the novel to ground it in the American nineteenth century. Little Women had the Civil War lurking in the background all the way through. Good Wives only has the merest hint that the war had happened, because (spoiler) John Brooke gets wounded and comes home to marry Meg. But the causes of the war are barely mentioned.
At the very end of Good Wives, when Jo’s new venture, a school at Plumfield, is being described, we’re told that a ‘merry little quadroon’ was one of the abandoned boys that she and Professor Bhaer took under her care, even though folk said (and I’m sure these were the background chorus of ‘society’ that the eternally perfect March family lived among, like the Pharisees), that taking him in would ruin the school. Well, that’s quite a divisive statement. A quadroon is an outdated term for a person with one black grandparent, or some ancestry approximating to that, so the novel is noting that mixed-race children existed in the comfortable and victorious North of the 1860s, and were being abandoned. It was Jo’s duty, as well as her pleasure, to take in a stray child like this and look after him. This boy has disappeared by the time the Plumfield sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys was published, so perhaps Alcott didn’t want to develop him as a character, but only use him as a social indicator of a different kind of destitution that society needed to take responsibility for, rather than have people like Jo and Professor Bhaer do it through private charity.
Jo’s sense of responsibility is matched by Professor Bhaer’s general perfection and goodness. I was never very sure about a girl like Jo marrying a man of nearly 40 when she was 26, and I still don’t find them at all romantic. Laurie and Amy are much more glamorous and exciting for the romance that Alcott could write really well when she wanted to. Professor Bhaer is a father figure of Jo’s very own. She doesn’t need to share him with her sisters, like she has to with their own father, and she can take him away to live in Plumfield, the house where she was forced to spend dreary hours as a girl being a companion to crotchety Aunt March. So in Good Wives, Jo gets to remake her family life to suit her own requirements, in which money is not a very important consideration, as long as they have enough for their needs. She gets a husband and children of her own; she’s able to write as much as she likes without criticism because she has to, to increase their income; and she is an equal partner in the enterprise of the school. Such terrific feminist and creative messages really appealed to me as a girl, and probably continue to appeal to girls like I was. It’s a great wish-fulfilment ending: the result may not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly suits Jo, especially that Aunt March has been tidied out of the way and her house is now Jo’s.
However, Jo has to meet Professor Bhaer before any of this can happen. Since (I think) one of the points of Good Wives is to find out what Jo will do next, the episode where she goes to New York alone to work is fascinating. Her parents let her go: that is quite interesting enough as a start, because it shows the huge difference there is between novels about girls’ lives written in a British context, and those in an American setting. In Mrs Gaskell’s North and South, which was published only 15 years earlier than Good Wives, the poor heroine Margaret Hale is trapped at home being an angel of the house, and is totally tied to the selfish vagaries of her inadequate parents. There is no way that she can go out to work: her class and her society will not allow it, even though she shows signs of making an excellent district nurse and social worker. Class and society’s expectations are certainly a consideration in Good Wives, but Jo’s parents see nothing wrong with her working for her living. Mrs Hale of North and South would have apoplexy at the thought, as would the terrifying Mrs Thornton, Margaret’s future mother-in-law.
Mr and Mrs March also see nothing wrong with Jo moving out alone to work in the big city. Mrs March’s first and only worry is class-based: she is unsure that Jo would be suited to ‘going out to service’ as she puts it, working as a governess or nursery maid. Living and working in a big boarding-house is not a bother to them, or to Jo, because the owner, Mrs Kirke, is a family friend. It would be unusual in a British Victorian novel to have the daughter of a minister of religion at the same social level as a boarding-house keeper. In fact, I think it would be impossible to find a British Victorian novel where a boarding-house was described as a desirable place to live for a middle-class girl of some education. I don’t think this is just the social snobbery of the period: there is something about the sanctity of the home in British Victorian fiction that makes living with your family the default mode for the middle classes, and these long, didactic, moralising and serious novels were written for the Victorian middle classes. For the British, the boarding-house was several social steps down. It’s not like that for the Americans, which is a rather different society. This is why I like Good Wives so much. It’s a completely different world.
The real point of letting Jo go to New York alone, apart from letting her meet her future husband, is so that she can try out being a professional writer with only her own judgement and initiative to help her. Annoyingly, Alcott souses this episode with morals, so although Jo does really well in writing fiction that the cheap periodicals market will buy, and sells her stories successfully, entertaining a new readership – the teenage boys and young thoughtless men that she has so much affection for – Professor Bhaer is brought in to point out the great harm that the magazines that she publishes in, do to young readers, and how he would destroy all magazines like them rather than let young people read them. This is a pretty strong and impressive message – it stops Jo in her tracks, makes her burn all her stories that she’d sold to these terrible magazines (I never understood why she burned them, unless it was to hide from the so-admired Prof. Bhaer that she had soiled her purity with such writing?), but she does not give away her precious earnings. That would be a moralistic step too far: if Jo had still been living at home, under Marmee’s eye, she’d have given the money to the poor or something equally depressing. But as she’s an independent writer, she chooses to keep the cash as the payment for her time, even if the results are now in the fireplace. This is a relief. If you’re going to work for the money rather than for the sake of the novel you long to write, you may as well keep the money if you get it. There’s no point being a martyr once you’ve done the work.
And what, may I ask, is so wrong with the blood and thunder magazines that Jo was writing for? Why did Alcott, who wrote herself for similarly sensational genres, come over all holier than thou about the moral turpitude of sensation writing? Because the evangelical message that permeates all of the Little Women novels will not be quenched. Christian evangelism as a norm is another thing that I found very surprising on this re-reading: the unquestioned conviction that there is life after death; that Beth, when she dies, will be well again. These are strongly dogmatic Christian beliefs that Alcott obviously felt deeply, and are presented as the foundation of the common-sense morality that enables the March family to live with dignity in relative poverty, according to their class values. By dabbling in sensation fiction Jo is stepping away from these values, and Professor Bhaer is brought into the plot to bring her back to the fold, and marry her as well. He’s not as perfect as John Brooke, but he is still a Victorian male paterfamilias.
And after Alcott, there was Coolidge: next week I’ll be reading Susan Coolidge’s heavenly trilogy What Katy Did, What Katy Did at School, and What Katy Did Next. I read these incessantly as a girl, and I recently located the sequels, about Katy’s sister Clover and her adventures in life. After reading Louisa May Alcott’s relentless evangelical messages – I haven’t even mentioned the temperance propaganda in Good Wives – I want to read more of the same, but without the religion, and with a lot more teenage drama.
Orphaned Maha lives in her grandparents’ house in Durban, where she has everything she needs, except her parents, who died in anti-apartheid protests. She has a perfectly nice life in a strict but well-off Muslim household, though her great-aunt and cousins next door are uniformly vile. If she were living with them she’d be Cinderella. Maha is a self-absorbed and rather blinkered teenager, focused on her own feelings and oblivious to other people’s sufferings, though she can be shaken out of this by her good-natured chaperone Zeenat. She takes everything in her life for granted: so far, very teenage.
Her Muslim family shapes her life completely. Maha’s mother eloped with a man who wasn’t Cape Indian but Cape Coloured (I’m using the terms used in the novel), so Maha is mixed race, and proud of it. Her grandfather’s strictness about prayers, and his removal of Maha’s father’s surname when he arranges her first passport, mould her expectations of a restricted life under his sharp eye. He refuses to let her go to any of the universities that have offered her a place, sending her to a girls’ madrassah instead. Maha realises that she will have to hold out for a husband willing to allow her to study, so she can transfer the burden of asking permission to him. This would seem like a grim future for women from outside this culture, but Lee’s skilful writing normalises Maha’s life completely, to let us experience her restrictions alongside her otherwise normal teenage crushes and agonies over boys.
Yes, boys. Maha’s unmarried teenage years are simply drenched in hormones. While she is a good Muslim girl, more or less, she has remarkable access to sexual advances. She is taken to Jeddah on pilgrimage, and is very nearly completely seduced by a Saudi prince who announces that he wants her as his second wife. Once she’s got out of his room, she won’t have anything to do with this, but they telephone each other for years. The brother of the madrassah teacher is all too willing to be led along by Maha’s flirtation practice, which is slightly shocking considering he’s just been released from his own madrassah. Hormones will out, and it does seem unhealthy not to allow them to. While The Story of Maha is not, primarily, The Story of a Muslim’s Girl’s Sex Life, it is undoubtedly focused on Maha’s need for emotional and physical completion, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Suitable music tracks and books of the period are slotted into the exposition where needed, to round out this lively character’s preferences, but she comes alive most in her actions: how she gets home from the nightclub on her own without trouble, how she negotiates the unwanted advances of a girl friend, how she treats Zeenat, and learns from her rebukes, and her easy, friendly relationships with her grandparents’ servants.
The political dimension of Durban in the 1970s and 1980s is filled in with back story fragments of Maha’s parents’ lives. She herself knows enough not to drive her car with the windows down, but otherwise she seems oblivious or indifferent to street riots and demonstrations. Or is she just passive? She’s a highly protected and highly privileged young woman, with absolutely no agency, no choices in her life. All she is expected to do is wait for marriage, and the trials by cooking and the social catastrophes that she endures in the courtship process are highly entertaining. The Story of Maha is written entirely from within one girl’s restricted perspective, to whom nothing very much out of the ordinary happens. The only consequence of her near-seduction by the Jeddah prince is a splendid wedding-present: he may as well be a dream for all the influence he has on the plot. Nothing shakes Maha’s life or her expectations of her future; she barely has any dreams of what she might do, because marriage has to be got through first before she can have a life of her own, with the right husband who will allow this. Yes, that’s an oxymoron. In the end, Maha’s Islamic studies give her the knowledge to make sure her marriage will work for her. I have no idea if Maha’s feminist solution is used by less well-educated women in real life: this is a cultural norm we have to guess at, if we’re not Muslim. This novel is not about how Maha shapes her life, because she doesn’t: she simply avoids catastrophe. Its charm is in showing what a Muslim girl’s life was expected to be, and the daily details of Durban life and slang (thank you, glossary). Maha is a sparky character, revelling in bad language as an expression of rebellion, alongside her radical, punkish but still correctly Islamic dress. Her story is absorbing and delightful. The sequel, Maha Ever After, will undoubtedly be gobbled up.
Sumayya Lee, The Story of Maha (2007 Kwela Books) ISBN 0 7957 0245 0, 978 0 7957 0245 7