The Croquet Player (1936) by H G Wells is set in an alternative universe where croquet and archery have the same exalted sporting status as tennis. It’s a novella of serious frivolity, and seems to be most highly regarded now for its apparent foreshadowing of the Second World War. Given its publication date, after six or more years of literary anticipation of conflict with Nazi Germany, it would be astonishing if anything Wells wrote at this period did not anticipate war. His First World War novel, Mr Britling Sees It Through (1916), and his own first-hand knowledge from that period, supply the detail of what happens when civilians are bombed.
Much more interesting is how he channels H P Lovecraft with Gothic horror. Georgie Frobisher is an international croquet and archery champion, and resides with his maiden aunt, Miss Frobisher. Out of season she and he concern themselves with the Woman’s World Humanity Movement, but as soon as mallets and longbows may be brandished, she drops political agitation and they go on tour. They are at the English seaside resort of Les Noupets, for its fine club croquet lawns, which is near Cainsmarsh, a village name with the highest Lovecraftian implications. The local doctor buttonholes Georgie with a dark and unnerving tale of hauntings, terror, tortured children and open graves.
The delight of this story is the impressive inverse bathos that Wells produces by making the frivolous Georgie, who only lives for his game and is under the severe thumb of his aunt, the serious, unaffected hero character. Wells piles on the Gothic, with a Neanderthal skeleton, a dog beaten to death, murderous threats, endemic panic and a thoroughly objectionable psychiatrist. The reader is thrilled and repelled: Georgie simply listens calmly and then leaves to play a game of croquet for which he has been engaged.
Lifting the surface layers of this intriguing and entertaining story, some interesting elements emerge, not least the wartime predictions, and Wells’ views on the misappropriation of science by the barely educated. I was so happy to stumble upon it.
H G Wells, The Croquet Player (1936), (Nottingham: Trent Editions, 1998, 2003), ISBN 0-905488-89-X.
I’m a bit behind the pack in reading Simon Morden’s novel Down Station (2015). I’m not sure I’m going to stay on board for its sequel, The White City, published in 2016, but there are a lot of very good things about this London fantasy novel.
1: It isn’t about London. It starts there, in the Underground, with cleaners and maintenance workers, but then there is a Voyage of the Dawn Treader moment in which a portal into another world opens out of nowhere. It’s an escape from utter terror rather than a cosy living-room, and the protagonists fall into a strange sea.
2: It’s super-realist and beguilingly fantastical at the same time. The protagonists only have their underwear, boots and bright orange Underground maintenance overalls, but the land they’ve arrived in – called Down, though the portal called Down Station – is where buildings grow, magic can be learned, shape-shifting happens, and there are no stars, only an impossibly ginormous moon. I love the juxtaposition of the two modes, and Morden writes convincingly.
3: The explanations for the way Down works are almost science-based, and don’t rely on an evil mage, or a magic orb of power, or a long-lost hidden prince, or a curse. There are no prophecies or quests or faeries, thank goodness. This is ecofantasy working at a very high standard for internal logic.
4: One of the two lead protagonists is Dalip, an engineering student, an attractively earnest hero. The other, Mary, is stonkingly good, though with a limited range of expletives. She’s a stroppy teenager, without much interest in her femininity, which is so refreshing. These two of the small number of characters power the plot and hold all our attention. For these two alone I’d read the sequel.
5: Their antagonists are splendidly original, and true to the plot, which is about making a fresh start to life directly connected to one’s true nature. The darkness in some people’s souls breeds monsters, and there are some spectacularly good ones here.
On the other hand, there are some irritating aspects:
6: The mundanity of the party’s progress, heading through the strange magic-filled land, finding out how it works and how to survive, battling monsters and collecting useful weapons and prizes, is a bit too D&D for me. Role-playing games are about the journey, whereas a novel is about the story that the plot unfolds, beginning, middle and end, and there is a worrying smell of dungeon-master’s plotting about this novel.
7: If Dalip the good boy is worrying about the state of his underwear without any chance for a wash, how are the female characters managing with their periods? Or is the impossibly huge moon stopping the flow? Have they all coincided into amenorrhoea? Teenage girls cannot avoid the undisguisable monthly blood flow unless they’re too thin, which we’ve not been told Mary is. If the other characters’ concerns include a complete lack of baths, hairwashes, laundry, even toilet paper, dealing with periods needs to be part of that. Admit that you know where babies come from, and deal with it. Think through the problems, do the research, or ask a friend.
8: Why did Morden put some characters in the plot, and then forget about them? Mary, Dalip and Stanislav get whole chapters of lines and action, and undergo huge character arcs. Mama is forgotten until mother figure or fat woman jokes are needed, or some pathos about her babies needing her. Luiza and Elena are far too often described as ‘the two Romanian women’, and Elena doesn’t even have a line to say. Grace appears during the escape as an afterthought, then disappears completely. This is astonishingly unbalanced, and unsatisfactory to read. Perhaps Morden was saving Grace and Elena for a big showdown reveal in book 2, but it looks more like he simply forgot them, and had to patch in a few ‘Where’s Grace?’ and ‘We’ll have to go and find her’ lines to cover up when he was reading the proofs.
So I’m almost convinced, but I don’t think I’m convinced enough.
Simon Morden, Down Station (2015 Gollancz), ISBN 978-1-473-21146-9, £8.99
This issue of Penguin New Writing, from spring 1947, has a depth that the previous issues reviewed don’t seem to have achieved. John Lehmann goes all-out in his Foreword by saying that the fires that decimated London’s publishing offices and warehouses in the bombing in December 1940 did ‘the book-trade — and the authors who live from it — a notable service; it cleared off hundreds of thousands of third-rate books that had been clogging the market for years, and led to an astounding revival in sales for the intelligent novelist and critic’.
This is a fairly astonishing iconoclastic stance: booksellers and book historians have universally regretted the losses of archives, editions and plates in those fires, so it is bracing, and rather challenging, to read Lehmann expressing relief only a few years later that because of the need for new books ‘British booksellers no longer turned a lacklustre eye upon the so-called “highbrow” author’. Lehmann’s idea of such ‘highbrow’ survivals is disputable: ‘the kind of author whose work lives and is read when all the best-sellers of the day have been swirled away in Lethe’s waters’. He then ventures to hope that the present issue will be rich in this quality.
Looking at the contents page, Lehmann’s roster of ‘highbrows’ does indeed contain a slightly higher number of authors who are still being read, or have a recognisable name, in 2017: Graham Greene, Louis MacNeice, Boris Pasternak, V S Pritchett and John Lehmann himself. Others might be for specialists only, but they are still known, some of them even in print: Julian Maclaren-Ross, Henry Reed, Donagh MacDonagh, Tom Hopkinson (for his journalism) and Norman Nicholson. But so many of these names are poets, and only Greene (possibly also Pasternak for one famous novel) could ever be described as a best-seller.
However, let us not wallow in the hubris of 1947, but enjoy what it had to offer. Julian Maclaren-Ross’s piece of memoir, ‘Monsieur Félix’, is about beggars, exploring Marseilles as a child, and a master of Grand Guignol. Maclaren-Ross is better than a raconteur, he’s an artist in description who pulls you in. It doesn’t matter that this short piece may or may not be complete invention, it is story, good and proper.
Tom Hopkinson, more famous for his editorship of Picture Post and championing of documentary photographer Bert Hardy, ‘wrote several novels’ according to his online record. This is one of the most accomplished and readable short stories so far read in Penguin New Writing, a thriller crossed with a seduction narrative, and a masterclass in story construction.
Graham Greene’s ‘Across the Border’ is advertised as ‘an unfinished novel’. Not knowing his oeuvre well, I don’t know if this fragment was reused after 1947 by adding it to something else to become a real full-length novel. It’s certainly gripping, and drenched with anticipatory misery. A weak good man returns from a mining enterprise in Africa to report the evils wrought by his superior, to find that the company doesn’t care because they have faith in the bad man. And then we backtrack to read exactly how the bad the bad man is, and how weak and corrupt the whole bally enterprise is too. Is it classic Greene? It’s certainly grim, and would have been eminently expandable, had the war not intervened to wreck this world of 1930s colonial extortion.
Edward Burra’s ‘Miracle in the Gorbals’: all soft colours and bulbous figures, with pencilled character names attached to the grotesque portraits.
Leslie Hurry’s ‘design for the ballet Hamlet’ looks very commedia dell’Arte, with skull and a skullcap.
The author of ‘Growing up in Chad Street’, A C Wann, seems not to have left any online trail, so I can’t say anything more than I’d like to read more of their writing. It’s a story of how a small English town reacts to the woman who moves in next door to Peter and his family, when she starts carrying on with the itinerant pedlar and ex-bank employee. The men are envious, the women are furious, and she has what seems like a baby a year. It’s a remarkable portrait of the vicious responses to social transgression, the events seen through the eyes of an innocent and uncomplicated ten year old boy.
John Gielgud as Raskolnikoff in Crime and Punishment. Those eyebrows, that nose!
Sacha Carnegie’s ‘Snow’ is a haunting return to the brutality and horror of war. A soldier is reconnoitreing on skis, aware that the recent retreat by the enemy has left slaughtered and burnt-out villages all over the territory. Near dusk, he comes to a village where he thinks that no-one has survived, but hears the unearthly cries of a mother holding her dead baby in the snow, surrounded by her family and neighbours in a scene of true war atrocity. When the soldier returns next day with help, she has died, and the unit bury the village. Horrifying. The war is still a relentless memory in 1947.
I was in two minds about this book all the way through, and I’m still unclear how I feel about it. It’s certainly compelling, but it is three stories bundled into one narrative, and sold under the bookshelf-friendly title of yet another memoir from the Sackville-West / Nicolson dynasty. (The full title, A House Full of Daughters. Seven Generations. One Extraordinary Family rather forces this aspect on the reader.) It uses the Nicolson surname to suggest that the author is a literary personality (this memoir is her fourth publication) who wants her life to be interesting to the public, like that of her father Nigel Nicolson, the former Member of Parliament and co-founder of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and possibly also of her brother Adam Nicolson the historian, about whose books I have written here, and here. A House Full of Daughters is also a personal memoir, of the callousness of the English upper-classes when they are really selfish. Thus if you are looking for Bloomsbury spin-off material you’ll be disappointed, though it is rich in Sissinghurstiana, and unhappy rich people’s lives.
The three intertwined stories are: (1) yet more details from the Sackville-West / Nicolson history, (2) the chilly upbringing and tragic life of the author’s mother, Philippa Tennyson d’Eyncourt, and (3) Nicolson’s own story of how she and her mother both battled loneliness and alcoholism in their otherwise comfortable lives. The subtitle tells us that the memoir is about seven generations: Catalina, Pepita, Victoria, Vita, then Vita’s daughter-in-law Philippa, and her daughter Juliet, and Juliet’s two daughters. As an act of recovery of women’s lives in the twentieth century this book is undeniably interesting, but the lives of Catalina Duran and Pepita de Oliva in nineteenth-century Spain have been covered already, as Vita Sackville-West’s forebears, and Victoria and Vita Sackville-West are well-studied figures. The views and experiences of the seventh generation, Juliet’s two daughters, are barely mentioned, and they do not fit into the rather artificial framework that Nicolson creates around what she calls the ‘bargains’ that the six earlier women made with their husbands or fathers to gain the lives they wanted.
These ‘bargains’ are hardly a new phenomenon: women living in a patriarchy have always had to bargain with their bodies and domestic service to make their lives work out as best they can. For this memoir, access to surviving documentation is the real value (though I’d like to know where Nicolson found the intimate thoughts and feelings of her otherwise totally obscure Spanish great-great-great grandmother). The very private family documents that Nicolson quotes from, for example, that reveal the details of her great-grandparents’ exuberant sex life, are indeed a privilege to read, because Nicolson (with her brother) is the administrator of the estate. By using her access to reveal more of the Sackville-West / Nicolson story, Juliet Nicolson does an excellent job of conveying the human predicament of an Edwardian first-time mother determined never to be pregnant again, and of the ‘sexual desertion’ of the young husband suddenly denied access to his wife in every way.
Two generations later, Nicolson deals with her appalling grandparents, Sir Gervaise and Lady Tennyson-D’Eyncourt, most impressively. They were rich, with several homes, but wealth and comfort do not improve a naturally cold temperament. Nicolson describes her grandmother judiciously as unloving: ‘disapproval and contempt were Pamela’s default settings … She was wholly unhuggable and in her own way just as unmaternal as Vita’. I don’t agree that Nicolson’s mother Philippa was born ‘at a bad time to be a daughter’, since millions of other girls her age had wonderful lives. It’s obvious that Philippa was born into a family that didn’t want a daughter, and she suffered accordingly, expected to exist until marriage like every other girl of her class. It was Love in a Cold Climate in real life, but without the loving support of friends and a large family: after she finished school, the poor girl was completely isolated, and seems to have had no inner resources of her own. Philippa then had the additional bad luck of marrying the charmingly selfish Nigel Nicolson MP who wanted a wife to keep his parliamentary constituents happy, and didn’t have any other use for her. When a daughter writes so critically of her parents, and of her grandparents (Harold Nicolson seems to have been the only grandparent of the four who knew how to be nice to people), the effect is startling. The accounts of Philippa’s miseries, and of the scourge of tuberculosis in her life and in her mother’s life also, reflect horrible English class cruelties deriving completely from their privileged setting.
The last story is the very personal one of Juliet Nicolson’s life to date, and dwells on her loving relationship with her father (who seems to have manipulated her just as he did her mother) and her rejection of her mother in favour of the Sissinghurst connection. It is heartfelt, and not comfortable reading. I am also uncomfortable with the way Nicolson joins her own life’s details to the historically documented and well-published accounts of her forebears’ lives, since one will automatically expect comparable accomplishments and achievements, not just a connection by birth. But Nicolson does not inform us about any of her own writing, we hear almost nothing about her professional life, and far too much about her emotional travails, which have meaning only for her personal circle.
The value of this strand of the narrative is in how Nicolson’s life’s trajectory was similar to and yet differed from that of her mother, and how they both dealt with feelings of inadequacy and rejection through alcohol. This story doesn’t depend on who the protagonists are: it would be equally compelling as the story of total unknowns. Their story is about strength of character, the efforts of friends and family that did and did not help them, and why one woman died by her wilful destruction of her liver, and the other decided to survive after a final intervention that made a difference. We don’t need names, or family privilege, or the earlier, celebrated generations, to value this part of the memoir as it deserves. The effect is a patchwork of biography, that reduces its impact of its most meaningful aspects.
Juliet Nicolson, A House Full of Daughters. Seven Generations. One Extraordinary Family (Vintage 2015), ISBN 978-0-099-59803-9, £9.99
I posted a double review of Frank O’Connor’s autobiographies over on Vulpes Libris: An Only Child, and My Father’s Son. I learned a lot about Irish history, Irish literature, Irish convents and army pensions.
I found these four short novels with a squeal of triumph in an Aberdeen second-hand bookshop, and bought them for £3. That’s right: the four books that are one of Garner’s greatest creative accomplishments, in a pristine box set, for barely more than they cost the original buyer in the late 1970s. I could barely contain my excitement, and gobbled all four stories over the next two evenings.
The Stone Book, Tom Fobble’s Day, Granny Reardun and The Aimer Gate were originally sold as children’s books. I know I read Granny Reardun as a child because I never forgot the image of the mother scrubbing the floor, moving backwards on her knees towards the door for the last time, where the rest of the family were waiting in their loaded cart to move somewhere they didn’t want to go. Trouble is, I couldn’t remember the title, and wondered for years where that story had come from. It came from Cheshire, Alan Garner’s ancestral county, and the Allman family were put out of their cottage because it was built of the last dimension stone in the county, and the vicar’s wife wanted it for her garden wall. This cruelty and injustice is a mere detail in the novel, since the main plot is about Joseph deciding that he does not want to be a stonemason like his grandfather, and how he is drawn to the forge as if he belongs there instead. Mark Edmonds wrote about Granny Reardun in an essay in the Alan Garner festschrift First Light: ‘It is only when [Joseph] sees their connection, in chisel mark and weathercock, that he fully understands. Metal is not asking him to turn his back; it just wants him to know where and how he fits’ (76).
Joseph is Mary’s son, and she is the stout-hearted daughter of Robert, the stone mason of The Stone Book. She climbs a ladder all the way to the top of Saint Philip’s steeple, carrying her father’s baggin in a knotted cloth between her teeth. Once she’s got over the dizziness she’s quite happy, and climbs the weathercock to be whizzed round and round by her delighted father. She wants to learn to read, but the squire doesn’t like his kitchen-maids to read, so Robert tools and knaps her a prayer-book from green flint, with a fossil fern on the back. There is also one more wonder in the story, that only Mary can see: she’s the bravest of all the characters in this quartet.
Joseph comes back in Tom Fobble’s Day, when his grandson William is learning how to stand up to the bullying Allman boy over the loan of his sledge. Joseph builds a sledge that carries William from the top of the top field past the dangerous rough ground near the gate, right through to the bottom field, well past the sledge graveyard where all the smashed ruins of homemade sledges end up. William’s sledge, much better than the shrapnel that rains from the sky as German bombers pass overhead, unregarded, is Joseph’s best and last job. Edmonds again: ‘The frame and rails are a composite of the forge that Joseph had stepped back from, and the loom used by William’s namesake many years before’ (78).
We go back in time to uncover that awkward bit between the fields, in The Aimer Gate, in which young Robert is put to work to move the stones and rubble by his uncle Charlie, back from France on leave in the First World War. Charlie is a sniper, his leave nearly up, and he has the shadow of death around him. Faddock Allman is the legless Boer War veteran now breaking stones in the road, sitting in his trolley. Charlie treats Faddock kindly, and with respect, one soldier to another. Faddock was the boy who threw stones through his own cottage window when he was working for the team who broke it up for the vicar’s wife’s garden wall, which is why Robert’s father William won’t speak to him. The ruins of the Allmans’ cottage make the ridge in the field boundary that smashes the unwary sledges, and will blunt the scythes of Charlie and the Leah brothers if young Robert doesn’t clear it out. Charlie’s last job is to shoot the rabbits and other creatures escaping from the field portion ever shrinking beneath the scythes. His sniping skill is his route out of farming, and stonework, and metal crafting, but his own plans may include something more drastic than that.
There’s a photograph of the Garners in First Light, with Joseph and Charlie and Mary and old Robert. We don’t really need to know that all the stories are true, or near enough. They are marvellous. Harry Lupton, again in First Light, said it best: ‘They are of such a distilled precision, they are so layered, so finely observed, so pregnant with what lies under their surfaces’. They wear like stone, with stories in every layer.
This time in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up I’m in the fourteenth century, immersed in a muddy Norfolk field at the medieval nunnery of Oby. The Corner That Held Them (1948) is a most peculiar and very readable novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner, author of the immortal Lolly Willowes.The Corner That Held Them is a fictionalisation of history, with no heroes and no heroines, and the protagonists jog slowly past our field of vision as we move from the twelfth century through the thirteenth, into the fourteenth. We meet five prioresses, four bishops, one custos (or convent business manager, in modern parlance), and one priest with a rather important secret that has become a nunnery tall tale since he revealed it inadvertently in the throes of a fever, thinking he was dying. Naturally none of the nuns believe him.
The plot, such as it is, begins with how this nunnery was founded. It was built in the memory of Alianor, the dead wife of Brian de Retteville, whom we first meet in bed, just before her lover is killed by her husband. After this rather big life event she has some children and then dies, and – most inexplicably – her angry and resentful husband is full of grief, and decides to build a nunnery, into which he can put their two sickly and uninteresting daughters. The nuns are installed, and get on with praying for the souls of the de Rettevilles, and inhabit the land for the glory of God. Their lives consist of small beer and minor irritations which Warner passes through so smoothly, telling the passing of the years where nothing much happens. There’s a murder, and much political second-guessing in the elections for the next prioress. Nuns have to wait for each other to die before they can change their office to be given work that is more congenial, or less awful. Small acts of kindness are rare, and the acts of ignorance and stupidity are many: this was not an educated period for anyone in England, so actions taken through lack of knowledge and understanding are very influential.
This is such an engrossing novel because it reads as if history is just unrolling in front of you. In my day job I’ve been using a very good recent study of the historical novel as a genre, by Jerome De Groot, that makes several observations very helpful for thinking about this novel. The first one is that the historical novel consciously hoodwinks the reader, we have to agree to be bamboozled into thinking that all this really happened, when really the author is making all of the story up. She’s not making up the history parts, we’re happy to believe the background details as fact. But weaving the fiction of what one character said to another and what they felt about that thing happening: that’s the fiction to blend seamlessly into the history. The reader thinks that the total invention presented as history is real because the fiction slides into our consciousness under the guarantee of the history; it’s a covert act against our rational understanding that we allow.
Another thing he talks about is the growth of the historical romance. The Corner That Held Them is not a historical romance, since there is no romance, no fantastical quest, no romantic love story, no urgent need for emotional satisfaction carried over for hundreds of pages to end in a tidy conclusive ending a few lines before the typing stops. The Corner That Held Them is about how history happens and what the nuns think about the bits of history happening that they notice. They notice rents not being paid so much, and don’t really know what to do about this. They are terrified, with good reason, of the fourteenth-century bands of robbers that prey on isolated monasteries, so they send off their valuable altar vessels for the bailiff to bury, which he does, and then he dies. In one of the most magical parts of the narrative (it’s really not a story), the convent’s custos Henry Yellowlees stays the night at a leper hospital, on an errand for the nuns. The chaplain shows him some remarkable new music, Ars Nova, which is the new polyphony, multivocal music that twines and winds the voices around each other: listen to this by Thomas Tallis and you’ll get the idea. Polyphony was banished from the Catholic Liturgy by Pope John XII in 1322, but fifty years later is being sung with rapture by a priest, a clerk and a leper, in this novel.
In another episode of unexpected emotional pleasure, Sir Ralph the priest goes in search of a hawk (since all medieval priests may fly a hawk as a symbol of their gentility). He meets the recently widowed Dame of Brocton who wants to read him the Lay of Mamillion, which her young husband, recently dead, had composed. This is Sir Ralph’s first encounter with medieval literature, and from the snatches Warner invents for our entertainment it seems to be very like Gawain and the Green Knight, thought to have been written around this time. Thus important developments in English art are connected to the history of this nunnery, but the nuns themselves, being enclosed and very wary of change, don’t know anything about them.
The story (which it isn’t) leaves loose ends dangling like a fraying skirt hem. Dame Adela runs away from the nunnery, and goes to sea with Annis the prostitute: what has happened to the valuable new altar embroidery? We don’t see what is important and what is not important. Take this example: Sir Ralph leaves his room, and (I quote) ‘a brimstone butterfly fluttered into the room’. I had that butterfly at the back of my mind for most of the rest of the novel, but nothing seemed to happen to make it important, so I forgot it. But, in her introduction to the Virago reprint of the novel, Claire Harman points out that simply by making us notice that a butterfly came into the room, and then doing nothing with it, Warner was teasing the readers by pointing out that this was one convention of tidy story-telling that she was not going to obey. Nowadays, officious editors will point out to the anxious author that the butterfly has to be tidied up and made important, please, otherwise why mention it? Things happen and aren’t necessarily important, because, what is important in a life? That’s what this novel is about. For the joy of invention, for the pleasure of leaving an untidy ending. To show that no-one really notices butterflies in real life.
In a way, The Corner That Held Them is more like the ‘naturalist realism’ of the nineteenth-century historical novel, which was as plain and historically accountable as it could be, to be real, and natural. Warner’s interjections and abrupt summaries of a year – ‘In 1208 came the Interdict. In 1223 lightning set fire to the granary’ – sound very like proper medieval chronicles, when there wasn’t very much to remember, or nothing much happened that was important enough to write, on calfskin vellum, which was expensive. The same thing happens to the nuns’ collective memory. They can only work out when the daylight owl began to hoot by thinking back to other events: when the pear-tree blossomed, when the refectory was whitewashed, when Dame Amy had a whitlow. They know about Sundays, but every other day flows past in a nameless stream. This vagueness anchored with memorable events is a familiar habit, we all think of our own personal histories like this. But when history goes into a written narrative, it can do two things. It can become the kind of historical fiction called the ‘felt past’, in which the emotions of characters are up front and palpable, the history illustrating their story of love, or adventure, or revenge.
The Corner That Held Them is not one of those. It’s a historical novel in the school of the ‘recovered past’, when the past is the subject, and history is more important than story. It’s also a women’s view of history, a new way of thinking about how history was written that was developed in the early twentieth century, according to Diana Wallace who studies the historical novel. Sylvia Townsend Warner was one of many women writers who redirected the attention of the readers of historical novels to what ordinary lives and ordinary women might have seen, felt, thought or done. Nineteenth-century historical fiction was full of action, drama, high romance, epic adventure, all tough, showy, strong manly stuff, and always fighting. If women appeared in those novels, they were the prizes, or hostages, or useful cleaners and cooks and moppers-up of the heroic blood, backstage. Women’s historical fiction was about the lives of women in history, which could certainly be vague and nameless and undistinguished, just as their lives could be magnificent and heroic and devious and brutal. All of these appear in characters in The Corner That Held Them. It’s a wonderful novel, and a wonderful dip into the unknown muddy stream we call the twelfth, and thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, somewhere in the east of England.