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My Month in Books: January 2022

My selections for this month are two wonderful novels which, though set in very different milieus, both explore themes of marriage, family and powerlessness: Feet in Chains by Kate Roberts, translated by Katie Gramich (Parthian, 2021, first published as Traed Mewn Cyffion, 1936); and They Were Sisters, Dorothy Whipple (Persephone Books, 2005, first published 1943).

Feet in Chains, Kate Roberts, Translated by Katie Gramich (Parthian, 2021, first published as Traed Mewn Cyffion, 1936)

Feet in Chains tells the story of Jane and Ifan Gruffydd as they struggle to keep body and soul together on their small holding near Caernarfon, and raise their three daughters and three sons. Ifan is a quarryman, at the mercy of powerful employers who can lower wages or increase hours at will. But it isn’t only economics that drives their unjust treatment of their workers: favouritism and old grudges also play a part.

At the start of the novel, the couple are just married. Jane is a showily dressed young woman, all tiny waist, satin and frills, and the other women stare enviously at her clothes. But it doesn’t last: years of hard work – exemplified in the sheer physical labour involved in doing the household washing – and the grinding anxiety of feeding the family, paying the bills, and keeping the house clean, take their toll on her appearance and she becomes as shabby as the other women. 

In its entwining of both national and personal histories, it is in many ways a novel about awakening, the awakening not only of a people, but also of individuals. Those histories stretch back to Ifan’s father, who was killed in a quarry, and “who had known better times and worse ones” than his son, and forward to the Gruffydd daughters and sons. They track changes from generation to generation in the community’s religious and political life: the old and middle aged are Radicals, then Liberalism takes a hold, now the young are moving towards socialism.

These trends are reflected in individual stories. Jane and Ifan simply get on with the struggle of life, never stopping to analyse why their existence is so precarious. By contrast, their eldest son, William, looks for causes and solutions, and joins the Independent Labour Party. His brother, Owen, also questions his parents’ response, their “suffering mutely. It was high time for someone to stand up against all this injustice…[his people] were heroic in their capacity to suffer, and not in their capacity to do something to oppose the cause of their suffering”.

Women too refuse to accept things as they are. Jane’s daughter Sioned chooses a different life from her mother: she moves to the town, works as a seamstress, and prefers to go out with men who are “townies” and not “quarry-lads”. She’s wilful and selfish, but she’s independent. Ifan’s sister, Geini, surprises everyone when she finally rejects the role of the stay-at-home daughter looking after her mother, and marries.

Kate Roberts (1891-1985) was the daughter of a quarryman and was brought up on her parents’ smallholding in Caernarfonshire. Like two of the Gruffydd children, she won a scholarship enabling her to attend school in Caernarfon. She studied at the University College of North Wales in Bangor, then worked as a teacher. She had to give up her career when she married because of the marriage bar on women. Like the Gruffydd sons in Feet in Chains, two of her brothers served in the First World War, and one of them died. Her personal experiences give the novel much of its power, but it goes far beyond fictionalised autobiography. 

For more details see Parthian Books website.

They Were Sisters, Dorothy Whipple (Persephone Books, 2005, first published 1943)

“A remarkably good novel of the quietly domestic kind” wrote the Guardian reviewer, Charles Marriott, on the first publication of Dorothy Whipple’s They Were Sisters in 1943 (Guardian, 12 November 1943). It’s a fair summation as far as I’m concerned: the book is “remarkably good”. I was thoroughly gripped by it, reading it long after my usual “lights out” at night, before the alarm went off in the morning, at breakfast, even when I should have been working… 

Dorothy Whipple (1893-1966), the daughter of an architect in Blackburn, Lancashire, started her publishing career at the age of twelve, publishing short stories in the children’s section of a local newspaper. She worked as a secretary for Alfred Henry Whipple (1869-1958), the director of education for Blackburn. After a brief, unsuccessful spell as a Red Cross nurse at the start of the war, she married Alfred Whipple in 1917. She wrote her first novel, Young Anne, ten years later. She published six more novels, three collections of short stories, three children’s books, and an autobiography. Two of her books (They Knew Mr Knight and They Were Sisters) were made into films in the 1940s.

They Were Sisters tells the story of Lucy, Charlotte and Vera, and how their lives are shaped by their marriages and other relationships with men. The elder sister, Lucy, is married to William and their relationship is loving and tolerant of one another. The youngest, Vera, is a beauty. She marries dull but decent Brian and tries to alleviate her boredom with clothes, champagne, and flirtations. The small comforts these provide are doomed to extinction as her beauty fades.

The central thematic figure is Charlotte, who is married to the abusive, manipulative Geoffrey. In a way only too familiar to many women, he undermines her confidence, isolates her from her sisters and friends, and his unpredictable behaviour keeps her in a constant state of tension. Eventually Charlotte cracks under the strain and discovers the comforts of drugs and alcohol.

The novel is a study of marriage, but it is equally a study of the plight of children who have the misfortune to be in the care of adults who are little more than children themselves. Geoffrey is an overgrown schoolboy, fond of crude practical jokes, and dangerously spiteful, since he has the powers of an adult to vent his spite on his children when they displease him. Charlotte is as helpless as a child in the face of his bullying, unable to protect herself or her children. As they grow up they learn their own survival strategies, as children in abusive situations must; they mature but their parents do not. Vera is frozen in a state of carefree youth and beauty until the first signs of age shock her into realising that she can’t be a flirtatious girl for ever.

The only help for the children in the care of these selfish, self-centred and immature beings is their aunt Lucy, and what she is able to do for them is limited. She has no children, yet of the three sisters, she is the one who offers her nieces and nephews the closest to a mother’s care. Her own youth had fallen a sacrifice to the dreadful role reversal between adult and child, when the young are forced to shoulder the responsibilities of the people who should be looking after them. After her mother’s death the running of the home and care of her siblings devolved on Lucy as the eldest. So too did the duty that was once her mother’s, of listening to her father each evening as he “hold[s] forth” on the state of the country, his work as a lawyer, and the family finances. Indulging his own need to talk at dutifully silent women, he is heedless of the anxiety his hints of impending ruin must cause his daughter, who can know nothing of how business works.

In the same way, Geoffrey’s eldest daughter, Margaret, becomes a substitute for Charlotte, the wife who, having let herself go (in his view), “shamed him” in public. It is Margaret who must take on the role of his companion, secretary, and helpmeet. He teaches her how to do all the things that interest him: to drive, play golf, and run the house. With “the constant company of his daughter, Geoffrey took on a new lease of life”, careless of what it costs his daughter to be for ever at his beck and call. His attitude towards her is positively creepy: she is his “pet”, his “girl”, the “pearl of great price” (here he holds her hand and squeezes it, at the same time gazing into her eyes) who has compensated him for the shortcomings of his wife.

They Were Sisters may be a novel of quiet domesticity, but it is often a novel of quiet desperation as the limited economic and social power of the girls and women keeps them subordinate to men. It’s a powerful and compelling read.

Find out more on the Persephone Books website.


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