11 September 2020

Hamnet & Judith by Maggie O'Farrell

 I was thrilled to learn that Maggie O'Farrell has won this year's Women's Prize for Fiction.   With less than a handful of pages to read before finishing I wholeheartedly agreed with the panel's decision.  Hilary Mantel's The Mirror & the Light was a brilliant contender but O'Farrell's characters are now firmly rooted in my reading memory.  And she reduced me to tears not once (as many have been) but twice.

The story begins with Hamnet coming down the stairs, as many children will do, by leaping over the last few rungs.  

   'It is a close, windless day in late summer, and the downstairs room is slashed by long strips of light.  The sun glowers at him from outside, the windows latticed slabs of yellow set into the plaster.'

Hamnet's twin sister lies in bed upstairs, feverish with lumps forming on her neck.  In searching for someone to tell, he's sidetracked by things that catch his eye while going from room to room.  It's a clever device to paint a picture of his surroundings.  His mother is actually a mile away tending to her bees.  Hamnet has been warned to steer clear of his grandfather but he's not sure why.  

The villagers come to the house and ask for his mother when they need a cure for one ailment or another.  This doesn't make her very popular with the doctor.  Agnes knows that tying a toad to someone's belly won't be as effective as her herbs and tinctures but she also understands the need to hide her disapproval.  Hamnet's father is away in London.  The reader is aware that he's none other than the playwright William Shakespeare, but O'Farrell's focus is Agnes and her story.

Agnes has a level of intuition that lands her with a reputation for being something of a witch.  She meets the eye of men while talking to them and carries a kestrel on her arm.  An instant attraction between Will and Agnes while tutoring her step-siblings causes friction between both families, largely due to unscrupulous business dealings in the past.

So what is it that makes this book stand out from others on the shelf?  An obvious place to start is the plague.  Watching for signs of fever, being in quarantine, restrictions on travel or escape to less populated places are relevant and all too familiar today.  Also, during this pandemic I've become a fan of nature writing and podcasts as a way of diluting so much bad news.  O'Farrell's description of bees in skeps and rolling meadows, drying fruit, the earthy feeling of walking on composted leaves in the forest or pressing lavender between your palms are sublime.   Beauty contrasting with grief.  And the writing is so lyrical you'll find yourself going over lines twice....

'The heat from the fire is so great that Agnes's cheeks have scarlet spots upon them; strands of hair have escaped from her coif to write themselves in damp scribbles on her neck.'

A friend mentioned going to the bookstore the other day so I recommended Hamnet & Judith.  When I mentioned the connection with Shakespeare there was a slight change in her level of interest.  We have our very own Stratford here in Ontario but depending where your tastes lie it's either relevant for the playwright and the wonderful theatre there, or for being Justin Bieber's hometown.  I wonder if our somewhat weaker connection to Shakespeare is why the publisher felt the need to change the title?  

 In any case, Hamnet & Judith is a brilliant read.   My suggestion is that you read it before it's discussed to death on radio programs and articles and too many details are revealed.  I loved it....and the twenty-something young lady ringing up my purchase at the bookstore swooned while telling me she loved it too.  Just buy it. 

Title and artist unknown

26 August 2020

A House in the Country by Ruth Adam

In brief, I loved this book.  And why?  Down to its blend of the 1940s, a country house, commune-style living arrangements and post-war resourcefulness.  I was expecting a novel, but by the end of the second page it became apparent that A House in the Country leans more toward the genre of memoir.  Writing in this style doesn't require exact dates or too much bother about being linear in the description of certain events.  Whatever the reason, Adam's storytelling grabbed me from the start.  

   We had our dream of escape.  It was the standard, classic dream of every English town-dweller.  It was the dream of country life, in which everything is transformed.  In the country, the sun would shine all the time and we would be wakened by birds instead of sirens.

Sitting night after night in an air raid shelter during the WWII, Ruth and her friends talked about life in the countryside to pass the time.  When the war finally came to an end she scanned ads in The Times for the house of their dreams.  A home with lots of space for roaming, nooks and crannies to explore and land as far as they could see.  Separately the friends couldn't afford such a home but by pooling resources they would turn their dreams into reality.  Ruth and her family along with Lefty, Bob, Timmy and Diana left the city behind for thirty-three rooms in Kent.

   "After dinner, in the evenings," said Diana.  "We shall all sit round in the old drawing-room, with the French windows open and night-scented stock in the flower-bed outside, and sip our coffee."  Diana thought most about this, because she hated queueing for spam in a smoky restaurant after her play, and then going out through the black-out to catch a dawdling train home, worse than the flying bombs which invariably (she said) spoiled her best lines.

Howard, a dedicated man-of-all-trades, had looked after the garden and maintenance issues for decades and was a valuable asset.  Regular issues with the electricity and dry wells (at one point a leaky roof provided water for the household) kept Howard in work.  Housekeepers were hired but, as will happen, they eventually fell in love.  Rather than see an attachment as upheaval, Ruth and the others were supportive beyond measure, although the odd incident of 'borrowing' clothes did stretch their good nature a bit far a couple of times.      

After several years of mostly bucolic bliss, members of their happy group began to splinter off for one reason or another.  An increased rent payment and larger portion of the bills meant the house was costing more to run than they could comfortably afford.  One plan was to ask commuters travelling to London if they would mind transporting vegetables from the garden to sell.  A more lucrative venture for income came when Ruth took in tourists.  My favourite was the French girl, afraid of bees, mice, ants and wasps.....

 But she had been in the Maquis during the war, and had twice jumped by parachute to give instructions to isolated units, broken her leg in one jump and twice been arrested by the Gestapo.

Despite the trying times of shortages, rot and ruin, Ruth was committed to seeing this way of living through for the sake of her children.  Playing in open spaces, wading in the stream, running free with the dogs was her idea of an idyllic childhood and far better than the bombed ruins of London.  What she eventually realized was that rather than have a house that would serve them, it was the other way round.

   ...she was an aristocratic lady on our hands.  All ideas for making her work for a living were wrecked on the fact that she was born to be served and not to serve.

 At the beginning of the book, Adam cautions against falling in love with a house.  Despite the hard work and long days I hope she looked back and found it all worth it in the end.  I admired everyone at the house for dreaming about something and actually seeing it through.  A House in the Country is being added to my list of favourite reads. 

Thank you to Rupert from Dean Street Press and Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow! 

Two Women in a Garden by Eric Ravilious 
1933

14 August 2020

Voyaging Out: British Women Artists from Suffrage to the Sixties by Carolyn Trant

 It was last September, the 12th to be exact, that I attended Carolyn's talk at Hatchards on Piccadilly.  I remember it so clearly because the ticket is tucked inside my copy of the book.  I was the first person to arrive for the talk so I was able to chat with the Carolyn and her co-presenter Maggie Humm for a few minutes.  There was a slight reaction when I mentioned being thrilled at learning about the event and had booked a ticket straight away.  When I quickly followed up with 'Oh, my trip to London was booked months ago, this talk is a lovely bonus!' they laughed.  Although, no doubt there are privileged people out there who do fly off to single events because they can.  I digress.

Twentieth century writing and art usually draws me in, especially when it's social in nature.  Women writing about domestic situations from the kitchen table or women painting the view from their back garden offers a form of voyeurism I find riveting.  It's a time when women had more freedoms but were still held back for one reason or another.  The domesticity feels calming but these 'thinking' women were striving to make their mark and effect change.  But my sense is also that women writing or painting from home did it with an eye on the clock.  Children to care for, shopping to buy, dinner to make, laundry to do, a garden to tend, calls and appointments.  Most women had to carve out moments for their craft while others demanded it.  Frustratingly, for many women, their drive to pursue their passion came at a cost in a way that, arguably, didn't for men.

When Laura Knight exhibited a painting of young women enjoying a beach in Cornwall while topless she was celebrating fresh air on bare skin....

Most local critics liked and accepted it and the painting was displayed widely, but it caused controversy when it toured in exhibitions.  Badly damaged during the First World War, Laura kept it face to the wall for years and it eventually rotted from mould.

The act of turning a painting to the wall, damaged or not, speaks of a level of shame.  Knight's painting was also seen as a deliberate challenge to the 'male gaze' which wasn't at all her intention and must have been quite frustrating.  Female nudes painted by men dot galleries the world over but Knight was taken to task.  Another frustration of mine was learning there was no obituary for Winifred Knight when she died of a brain tumour and her only National Biography entry is as a wife.  Meanwhile, her husband eventually went on to become president of the RA in 1966 having been greatly influenced by Winifred's work.

As well as pointing out some of the injustices women had to endure, Trant gives equal mention to women who took joy in simply being themselves despite convention.  Hannah Gluckstein's Jewish and very wealthy uncles founded the tea shops Lyons & Co., to place her in context of a social circle.  She was a talented artist whose painting Virago used for The Well of Loneliness...


Gluck, as she liked to be called, dressed in male clothes and visited the best male clothing shops.  She cut her hair short and smoked a pipe.  Her actions drove her parents to distraction but to their credit, they supported her financially so she could attend the St. John's Wood Art School. Parental displeasure crops up fairly often with some of the female artists Trant writes about but it usually has to do with their choice of partner.  More often that not, young women would partner with fellow students from art school leading their parents to despair of endless penury.  Many times the worry was justified.  A common thread running through these partnerships is marriage followed by children, then divorce once the female artist realizes she's being shortchanged in life.  But the American Lee Miller set boundries with her husband straight away....

MY WORK ROOM IS NOT GOING TO BE A NURSERY.  How about your studio?  Ha Ha.

Trant delves into the work and personal stories of dozens of artists such as Vanessa Bell, Tirzah Garwood, Winifred Knight, Dora Carrington, Lee Miller, Barbara Hepworth, Margaret Mellis, Evelyn Gibbs and Doris Zinkeisen - who painted painted unbearable scenes during WWII for the Red Cross.  

Unfortunately I have no idea when I'll next tread the floors of art galleries in London due to Covid, but when I do I will have a clearer understanding and more knowledge of the lives of some very talented women.  And hopefully, in the meantime, galleries are reassessing their collections and archives so that work by women from eras past can be experienced and enjoyed by everyone.

Highly recommended....cover to cover!

The Queue at the Fish-shop by Evelyn Dunbar

 

5 August 2020

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

A few weeks ago we took the train to Toronto for the first time since mid-March.  Our agenda for the day was a short one: browse the books for an hour at BMV and then lunch on the patio at The Oxley in Yorkville.  The skies were bright blue, the sun was hot and the afternoon went by all too fast.  I picked up Orlando by Virginia Woolf because I absolutely loved the library's copy and wanted  needed one to own.  Then I chose two books I didn't know existed by authors I admire very much -  The Bachelors by Muriel Spark and The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns.  Turning to the first page of the latter....

'Quite soon after I left Richmond station......'

Train stations....the author has already ticked a box.  Having previously read four other books by Comyns and loving each one, I was confident The Juniper Tree would be good value for my money.

Bella Winter is on her way to a job interview at an antique shop when she sees a woman cut herself while peeling an apple.  Blood drips onto the snow evoking the atmosphere of a fairy tale.  After a fleeting conversation to make sure the woman is alright, Bella is late for her job interview.   Unfortunately the hours on offer do not mesh with Bella's need to be available for her two year-old daughter but sensing Bella's desperate need of a job, the owner refers her to a shop on the other side of the river.

Mary Meadows Antique Shop borders Twickenham Green and is just the right mix of jumble, dust, and endless possibility.  A sense of security washes over Bella when she's offered both a job and a room at the back of the shop that includes a tiny kitchen.  Having been raised in an unhappy home, ending a less than satisfactory relationship, then conceiving a child after a one night stand has meant coping with one emotional hurdle after another.  It would seem that Bella's hope for a brighter future is finally within reach.

Soon after, the woman who cut her hand appears at Bella's place of work and a friendship begins.  Gertrude is married to Bernard, a worldly picture dealer with a gallery in the West End.  Bella thinks their home in Richmond is like a palace and the beautiful garden with a tree swing is a wonderland for her daughter.  At first I was suspicious of the Forbeses attachment to little Marline, whom Bernard fondly refers to as 'Marlinchen', but when Gertrude announces that she is pregnant after waiting for sixteen years I put that idea to rest.

The birth of Bernard and Gertrude's baby boy marks the end of the first act of this story.  What follows next could easily be seen as filler, such as domestic issues concerning the Spanish childminders and their boyfriends, the displeasure of one housekeeper after another, and Bella's increasing ties to the Forbes' household.  Bella begins to feel torn about a change in her situation and just when I was thinking she was having the scales removed from her eyes, there is a frightening tragedy.  The situation goes from very bad to worse when Bella realizes there is no going back.

Published in 1985 I wondered if perhaps Comyns had mellowed a bit.  She's pulled the rug out from under me before, such as with the ending in The Vet's Daughter but for much of The Juniper Tree I was lulled by a quaint antique shop and a lovely house in Richmond.  Twenty pages from the end you won't be able to put the book down.

Based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale of the same name it was fun to notice a few whimsical moments such as a fast-growing vine, a woman with sharp little teeth, a 'hunchback' who wears a cape, and of course, the blood in the snow and an apple.  Barbara Comyns has set her version of this fairy tale during 1980 but it has the feeling of 1960 about it.  

A perfect read for when the nights draw in!

  Artist credit - unknown