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My Month in Books: August 2021

The books I enjoyed most this month were Dreaming of Rose: A Biographer's Journal by Sarah Lefanu, which shares insights into the process of writing a biography, and Monica Dickens's novel The Winds of Heaven, first published in the 1950s, which explores the plight of a woman left penniless when her husband dies.

Dreaming of Rose: A Biographer’s Journal, Sarah Lefanu (Handheld Press, 2021)

I first read Sarah Lefanu’s Dreaming of Rose in its original edition, published by SilverWood Books, in 2013. I loved it then, and having just reread it in a new edition by Handheld Books, I love it even more.

Back in 2013 I hadn’t started work on my biography of suffrage campaigner Millicent Price (née Browne). Writing a biography was more of a vague dream than an ambition, something I’d like to do but didn’t think I could. I love reading biographies, though, and it was as a reader that I was first drawn to Dreaming About Rose, which promised to reveal something about how the biographer works. What draws them to their subject? How do they approach the research? How much should they reveal – the good, the bad, the average, the embarrassing, the secrets and lies? And why are they poking around in someone else’s life in the first place?


Sarah Lefanu discusses these questions, and others, with sympathy, humour and erudition. She has always got something interesting to say, and a lively way of saying it. There’s a real sense of the person behind the book – of the biographer behind the biography – which reflects the strange nature of the relationship between biographers and their subjects. It is a relationship which demands intimacy with objectivity; advocacy without hagiography; the warm heart of a friend who keeps secrets, and the cold one of the reporter who broadcasts them. Strangest of all, it is a relationship that does not exist, because the subject is (usually) dead. Sarah Lefanu captures this wonderful, intense strangeness in the dreams and imagined encounters she describes.

At the same time, she grounds her work in the mundane, the daily grind and business of life. Waiting for the next pay cheque, juggling family responsibilities with work, argumentative neighbours, illness, the frustration of having to put what you want to do on one side for a while to do something you have to do. On top of the “shopping, cooking, ferrying” there are the anxieties: “I have the nightmarish thought I could go on writing and rewriting it for ever”; “in a bit of a panic” preparing to teach a course; “who will want to read this?” Reading a review of a play about four women locked in a toilet (a work of “genius”) sends her spirits plummeting: “oh my god, why are the subjects I’m interested in always so sedate and polite?”, I wanted to jump up and shout “that’s just how I feel!”

Actually, I’ve lost count of the number of times  I wanted to jump up and shout “that’s just how I feel!” Now I am rereading the book as, dare I say it, a biographer, it has even more resonance for me. The discussions on, for example, the purpose of biography or the problems of reconstructing a life (I’d say constructing, but that’s another matter…) are relevant to my own preoccupations. Then there’s the practical advice: don’t put off interviewing people who knew your subject; or the “note to self” on structure (start at the beginning of the life…).  Above all there’s the inspiration of example, in knowing that Sarah Lefanu did finish her biography of Rose Macauley (note to self: it’s time you read this!).

I have now read Dreaming of Rose as a reader and a writer of biography, and in both guises I loved it. For anyone with any interest in biography - and, of course, in Rose Macauley - Sarah Lefanu’s book is an illuminating and absorbing read.  

With thanks to Handheld Press for providing me with a review copy. Dreaming of Rose: A Biographer’s Journal, Sarah Lefanu (Handheld Press, 2021)

 

The Winds of Heaven, Monica Dickens (Persephone Books, 2010, first published 1955)

In 1992, the Times obituary of Monica Dickens observed that although she was “one of the world’s most successful fiction writers of her day”, her work was “never in the first rank of literature” (The Times, 28 December 1922).

I don’t know about you, but this is the kind of remark that’s liable to send me racing to Monica Dickens’s books knowing that there’s a good chance I’ll find something very readable indeed. They might have interesting or likeable characters, or engrossing plots. They could be page-turners. Who knows, I might even (whisper it) enjoy them.

Of course, I had already read The Winds of Heaven when I saw this obituary. As the obituary notes, Dickens was very successful. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography records that she was “one of the two or three best-selling women novelists of her generation”, and she published forty-three books. 

I’m far from suggesting that best-sellerdom is a sign of literary merit (the examples that spring to mind are too numerous to mention), but sometimes I don’t want “literary merit”. I don’t want to read the sort of books that attract Very Clever Reviewers like a dog’s coat attracts burrs. I want to read engaging stories about interesting people by writers who betray their kindness and compassion and tolerance for other people. I don’t care if Monica Dickens’s story of a widow left homeless and hard up who is shunted about between her three daughters, none of whom really want her, is no woman’s King Lear. I don’t need the dreary dichotomy between what A S Byatt calls in the Afterword to the Persephone edition “serious novelists and best-selling woman writers”.  

In fact, Monica Dickens’s novel touches on some not insignificant themes. Under the surface tinsel – the country houses, prep schools and ponies – lie some darker elements. Perhaps it is because widow Louise Bickford’s situation is presented in a succession of trivial, even comic, details that the abusive nature of her marriage is easy to overlook. These days we call it gas lighting or coercive control. Her husband’s casual use of demeaning nicknames (“Tubby”); the ridiculing of her religious beliefs; the way her children are “primed” to parrot their father’s “denigration” of her; his refusal to speak to her for days on end; his control of the finances which leaves her penniless when he dies; every little incident that in itself might not add up to much ultimately robs Louise of agency, independence and confidence.

I doubt Louise had much of these to start with. She goes into marriage “so naively in love that she had thought the only thing that mattered was Dudley’s pleasure”. Her passivity is established long before Dudley comes into her life; as with all bullies, it is her weakness that attracts him. Louise is heiress to the parade of Victorian heroines thrown on an unfeeling world when a patriarch dies leaving them penniless. Poorly educated, unskilled, having learned no means of earning a living, and struggling against the attitude that it is unseemly for middle-class women to do so, they have very few options. When Louise (rather unconvincingly) suggests she might get a job, her daughter Miriam wonders, “What would people say?...There was Arthur’s position to consider. Barristers…did not have mothers-in-law behind the haberdashery counter”. 

The Winds of Heaven - end paper design

But hang on! Am I suggesting that this best-selling book actually has some interesting and useful things to say about women’s lives? That the story of Louise, her daughters, and their husbands and lovers, offers one or two insights about the human condition? That beneath its cocktail and tea-table trivialities there are some genuinely thought-provoking elements? Unless, of course, you think the story of a woman left high and dry by an abusive marriage is utterly devoid of human interest. What’s more, it’s all wrapped up in a well-written and compelling story.

I don’t say that the novel is without its faults. The ending, for example, is too convenient and sentimental to be convincing. Kind, well-meaning Louise is an appealing character or an irritatingly passive drip, depending on your point of view. But I’ve read plenty of novels in the “first rank” that share the same tendencies. Dickens’s own great grandfather, Charles wasn’t ashamed to wring a tear or two from his readers, and when it comes to drippy heroines he’s a leader in the field.

Yet his best-selling books are regarded as classics, as part of our literary heritage, and important enough to teach in schools and universities. It seems that in some circumstances a book with a good story, compelling characters, and social commentary can make it into the “first rank of literature” after all. So is The Winds of Heaven a serious novel, or a best seller? Actually, I don’t see any reason why a book can’t be both – or neither. Monica Dickens tells a good story, with fascinating characters, in an entertaining and elegant style. Whether or not it makes it into the “first rank of literature” seems beside the point.

The Winds of Heaven, Monica Dickens (Persephone Books, 2010, first published 1955)

Charles Pick, ‘Dickens, Monica Enid (1915–1992)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi-org.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/50974, Published in print: 23 September 2004, Published online: 23 September 2004

 

 

 

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