Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from 2011

Prose and Propaganda

Those marvellous chapettes at Persephone Books have done it again with the re-publication of Constance Maud’s 1911 suffragette novel No Surrender . It tells the story of a group of suffragettes, particularly Jenny Clegg, Lancashire mill girl, and aristocratic Mary O’Neill. It’s unashamedly a propaganda novel, but that’s not to say it isn’t a fascinating read. Maud has a wonderful ability to move between varied scenes: cotton mills, the gardens of a country house, a London dinner party, a prison cell. If you’re looking for an invaluable insight to what it was like to be a suffragette as well as an enjoyable read, this is it. Indeed, it is the book’s ability to tell it like it was that makes it so compelling. It is, as the blurb notes, “faithful to real events”. But is it? Or should it, like any propaganda, be approached with caution? Are Maud’s “noble” and “unswerving” suffragettes as much products of the idealist’s imagination as is Mrs Humphrey Ward’s (president of the Anti-Suffrage

Not Just William

How peculiar to discover Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) included in The Independent Forgotten Author’s series in an article dated 23 May 2010. William Brown has hardly been forgotten if the over 8,000 results for books, CDs and DVDs that came up on Amazon today is anything to go by. Since their debut in 1919, the Just William stories have been translated into 28 languages and have spawned numerous radio and TV spin offs, the best of which to my mind are the BBC audiobooks read by the fabulous Martin Jarvis. If anything has been forgotten about Richmal Crompton, it’s the fact that she actually wrote books for adults. Even Christopher Fowler, the author of Forgotten Authors No 54 , only mentions this in passing: “Crompton wrote for adults too”. That’s all he has to say on the subject. But for Crompton it was a source of regret that her 41 novels and 9 short story collections were overshadowed by her children’s books. Yes, 41 novels. I had no idea either but now, thanks to Persephone Boo

The Doctor Dances

When husband Gerard rang up for tickets on the day booking opened for Much Ado About Nothing at the Wyndham, they had all sold out! This was deeply disappointing – until the booking clerk said “hang on – as we were talking two returns came in; the stalls, seven rows from the front. Do you want them?” The stalls – seven rows from the front? Well, alright then. So on Saturday (20 August) we took our seats in the stalls seven rows from the front for a fantastic production of a favourite play. I’d never been to this lovely theatre before. It was established in 1899 by actor manager and former surgeon in the Union Army (under his own name of Culverwell) during the American Civil War, Charles Wyndham. According to his Oxford DNB entry, he was regarded as the “ideal comedy actor” by Wilde and Shaw and “His stage persona was the model for John Worthing in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest ”. Wyndham clearly had stage presence; the same must be said of David Tennant and Catherine

Coleridge and the Female Muse

I’ve recently finished reading Richard Holme’s splendid two volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and topped it off with Adam Sisman’s equally splendid Wordsworth and Coleridge: A Friendship . Coleridge’s was not a happy life, what with the failure of his marriage and the opium addiction that caused him such terrible physical and mental suffering. Much as I admire what I know of his work, I’m left with a mix of sympathy and irritation for the man. There’s no doubt that the problems within his marriage caused him much suffering, but I can’t help thinking that this was in large part because his wife Sara did not nurture his creativity. She does not seem to have been his intellectual or creative equal – Dorothy Wordsworth (not an objective witness) called her “the lightest weakest silliest woman” who lacked “sensibility”. Clearly a most unsuitable wife for a poet. She was not his muse, and she was too busy looking after his children, cooking, cleaning, and washing to act as his a

The Buddha and Books Part 1

I’ve just finished reading The Lacquer Lady by F Tennyson Jesse (first published in 1929). The novel is set in Mandalay in the 1880s and charts the fall of the Burmese royal dynasty and the annexation of Lower Burma by England. Jesse visited Burma in the 1920s, where she learned about the downfall of the kingdom and something of the people involved in those events. The book is beautifully written, and a profound study of passion and politics. There’s much in it that’s ripe for discussion, but one of the things that struck a particular chord with me was the way in which the Buddha and his followers are described. In Jesse’s book the Burmese in general, and the Burmese royal family in particular, are characterized as children: “a nursery of vicious children…playing with toy soldiers, but with real lives, had become so vicious that the grown-ups had to step in and take charge”. The grown-ups are, of course, the British with their “bloodless conquest”. The Buddhists’ “religion of pessim

Old Excesses

In April 2011 literary agent Carole Blake tweeted a link to a blog by US agent Josh Gertler about authors waiting to hear from publishers. The piece was on the deliciously named “Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room” blog – to read it see http://tinyurl.com/3nm8qxx. (Carole Blake’s tweet was on 21 April – a very long time ago in Twitterland.) Josh Gertler’s piece (“No News”) was a lively – and ultimately reassuring – treatment of the agony of waiting to hear from publishers and agents. The waiting is, as Mr Gertler says, “excruciating”. Of course, whether you’re a writer or not waiting is never fun, as anyone who’s ever sat an exam or applied for a job knows. In publishing, though, there’s an extra dimension of awfulness in that you don’t know when you’re going to hear – it could be a week, three months, six months, even longer – and in some (thankfully rare) cases it’s never. All unavoidable of course: no one’s to blame, though I know from some other comments I’ve read that t

Did Wordsworth like gingerbread?

I’ve just spent a few days in the Lake District, staying only a few doors away from the Wordsworth House in Cockermouth, where Richard, William, Dorothy, John and Christopher Wordsworth were born. In 1937 the house was due to be demolished to make way for a bus station, but luckily it was rescued from the clutches of the bus company when the Wordsworth Memorial Fund bought it and gave it to the National Trust. The NT have done a good job of recreating a 1770s style house, complete with costumed servants. In 2009 it was rescued from yet another peril when Cockermouth was hit by floods, when its dedicated staff moved the house’s contents to safety on the upper floors and afterwards cleaned up the debris and floodwater (a horrible mucky job judging by the photographs). I also went to Grasmere and visited the Wordsworth graves; my thoughts were with John particularly who died in a shipwreck only three days out from Portsmouth en route to India and China. The tragic story is well-told in A

Quintessential British Novels

Emma Taylor of Accreditedonlinecolleges.com has drawn my attention to a blog on their website (16 March 2011) listing 50 Quintessential British Novels. I know nothing about accredited on line colleges, but I did enjoy reading the list which includes many of my own favourites, and one book that I had never heard of but now plan to read – Flatland by Edwin A Abbott. I particularly enjoyed the breezy outlines – Darcy’s “legions of screaming fangirls” in Pride and Prejudice especially springs to mind. If you want to compare it to your own list of Quintessential British Novels the blog is at http://www.accreditedonlinecolleges.com/blog/2011/50-quintessential-british-novels/ With thanks to Emma for taking an interest in my literary ramblings!

Refusing to be counted

Yesterday (2 April 2011) was the anniversary of the women’s boycott of the 1911 Census and I marked the event by joining historians Jill Liddington and Tara Morton on their “Artists and Evaders” walk around Kensington. As a suffrage demonstration, the refusal of many militant and non-militant suffrage campaigners to fill in their Census forms was far from being the most spectacular or successful of the protests made by disenfranchised women. According to the Registrar in a letter to The Times on 1 April 1911, if the suffragists hoped that the Census would be seriously affected they would be proved wrong. Even if 100,000 women were “bold enough to defy the law”, he said, in an overall population which “will no doubt be found to exceed 40 millions” (in fact he overestimated by half a million) their absence would make little difference. In the event, many evasion attempts simply did not work: women were counted anyway. Even so, Christabel Pankhurst hailed the demonstration as a success,

The Hollow Crown

As in a theatre the eyes of men, After a well-grac’d actor leaves the stage, Are idly bent on him that enters next, Thinking his prattle to be tedious; Even so, or with much more contempt, men’s eyes Did scowl on Richard. Richard II , Act V, Scene II Thus the Duke of York describes Bolingbroke’s triumphant entry into London with the deposed King Richard riding in his train. This is a playful inversion of the drama for me for, as far as I am concerned, the play is dominated by Richard, not Bolingbroke. It’s Richard my gaze is fixed on when he’s on the stage; when he leaves it my interest takes a little dip. Of course, I soon ascend from the dip: this is my favourite Shakespeare play. It’s fair to say, though, that for this play-goer if Richard isn’t up to the job the rest might as well not bother. I’ve seen Fiona Shaw’s Richard, Kevin Spacey’s Richard, and a couple of other unfortunately unmemorable Richards. Now I’ve seen John Heffernan take on the role in a production by Shakes

Elms and Bees

I had another wonderful evening in Chepstow’s Drill Hall on Saturday (5 March 2011) at a Poetry on the Border event. This time I went to see Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke: a tremendous double bill. William Ayot, who organises PotB, introduced them as two “great” poets, reflecting on the fact that “great” is a word he often uses of poets, but is particularly applicable to these two. He’s right of course. Duffy offered us a range of poems, many of which touched on things we are losing, precious things that are slipping away. Elm trees, decimated by disease, and now the survival of the remaining few threatened by government spending cuts which decrees no more research into its cause. Old pub names full of meaning - local, historical, agricultural - replaced by rootless, manufactured nonsenses. Bees, gone with disastrous consequences for every growing thing. County names: this last a protest against Royal Mail’s instruction that we no longer need to include the county in addresses.

Saki in Singapore

The obvious choice of reading for a trip to Singapore must be Rudyard Kipling, one of the writers associated with Raffles Hotel which is named after Britain’s colonial administrator par excellence and founder of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles. I hadn’t got any Kipling with me, but I had got some Saki (Hector Hugh Munro). This seemed to me a decent substitute as both authors are associated with British colonialism. They were contemporaries; both were born in British colonies - Munro in Burma and Kipling in India; both endured unhappy English childhoods away from their parents; both returned to the land of their birth when they were adults; and both wrote original and exotic short stories – though only one of them was brilliant, and that was Kipling. However, it was Saki’s stories I had with me: The Chronicles of Clovis (1911) and Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914). The tales are often cruel, and not only because they are set in a world insensitive to the suffering of other creatures whe

Eminent Victorian

For they stood in one of the famous wood and common lands of Southern England – great beeches towering overhead – glades opening to right and left – ferny paths over green turf-tracks, and avenues of immemorial age, the highways of a vanished life – old earth-works, overgrown – lanes deep-sunk in the chalk where the pack horses once made their way – gnarled thorns, bent with years, yet still white-mantled in the spring: a wild, enchanted no-man’s country, owned it seemed by rabbits and birds, solitary, lovely and barren – yet from its furthest edge, the high spectator, looking eastward, on a clear night, might see on the horizon the dim flare of London. I think this is a lovely description. I particularly like the sense of history on the landscape, the “old earth-works, overgrown” and “avenues of immemorial age”. It evokes for me coming across the grassy remains of mine shafts or pits for washing ore in the lead lands near Charterhouse in the Mendips, or stumbling on the embankment o

Treasured Possessions

“March 3rd 83 Dear Sir Thanks for your note; the gout sticks to me so that I am still unable to make any appointment, but I will come on the very first opportunity. Yours faithfully.” “March 20th .83 Dear Sir I have just received your note as I am setting off for the country till Easter is over: I have sent it on to our works & will see on my return that the sketch is done and all estimates duly made. I am Dear Sir Yours Faithfully” They’re not much for two of my most treasured possessions, are they? Two short notes, business-like, hurried, revealing little of the writer. The reason they are treasured is that they were written by William Morris. Morris is a great hero of mine; one of the chief deities of my personal pantheon; a genius. I love him for his art, his poetry, his politics, and his novels. The Well at the World’s End is one of the loveliest books I’ve ever read, and as a devotee of narrative verse I’m bowled over by epics like The Earthly Paradise and The Life a

Creating a monster

To Oxford last week to see the Bodleian Library’s exhibition Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family . The exhibition looks at the way in which Shelley’s posthumous image was created by the careful control of how documents about and by Shelley and his circle were published – in edited form, not at all, or with restricted access. Shelley’s son, Sir Percy Florence Shelley, had no interest in literature and it was his wife Jane who was the main architect of the Shelley image. She even set up a shrine to Shelley in her house, which contained items such as his watch, a plate from which he ate, and a collection of locks of hair from Percy and Mary Shelley and their friends. These people were big on collecting hair: there is an entire necklace made from Mary Wollstonecraft’s tresses from which hang two lockets containing more hair. Shelley’s reputation certainly needed protecting. There was and still is an unsavoury air to him, even if some of the scandals don’t bother us