Relative Enthusiasm for Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library

Haig, Matt. The Midnight Library. Harper Avenue, 2020. E-book.

Somehow, until my reading group chose The Midnight Library, I was unfamiliar with Matt Haig’s work. I discovered The Midnight Library’s popularity is such that all my local bookstores were unable to supply me with a hardback copy, and the paperback is not due until later this year in Canada. Therefore, I had to rely on my e-reader.

I suppose the first question I asked myself as I began the book was whether in my mind The Midnight Library deserved its popularity. Certainly, its story of Nora Seed who decides to die raises all those “What if” questions we sometimes ask ourselves. “What if I had worked harder in high school?” “Why did I not call X back?” “Should I have . . . ?” “If only I’d . . . .”: all those questions about “where would I be now if I had only acted differently then?” Perhaps the novel’s popularity lies in the fact that we all ask those questions, and there really are no satisfactory answers to them. We are where we are. Aren’t we?

Perhaps. Consider string theory and its relation to the concept of the multiverse. Haig obviously intends us to consider that relationship. Nora works in a music store called String Theory, and for most of the novel she is moving from one possible version of her life to another. Finding herself in the midnight library with her old high school teacher Mrs. Elm, Nora takes different books from the shelf, each one a possible version of her life. I won’t say any more about the plot or about how the novel ends, other than to say the ending is unsurprising, and, said she somewhat tritely, all endings initiate some kind of new beginnings.

I did not not enjoy The Midnight Library. I quite liked Haig’s humour. However, at times, I felt he was being overly clever and such cleverness tempted me to want more depth in the novel than I actually found. There were moments where I suspected even Haig was getting bored with all of Nora’s possible other lives and ultimately galloped through them, so he could get to write the final chapters. What Haig’s tone does do, however, is save Nora from becoming a character we don’t actually like very much, even as we feel tempted to tell her to “get a grip.” The Midnight Library’s premise suggests the novel could possibly be several things: a psychological novel about depression, a philosophical novel with an existentialist point of view, a philosophical novel examining ideas about determinism, a social novel examining popular culture and its need for icons, a social novel commenting on class and education. It suggests all these possible themes and more but doesn’t really get to grips with any of them.

Perhaps I am asking too much. Certainly, other reviews of this novel, which I discovered came out in paperback in the UK today (writing this on 19th February), praise Haig’s empathy and compassion. What I will say in my own defence is that the other members of my reading group had similar concerns to mine. We none of us disliked the book; we even enjoyed it, but we actually found we had little to discuss about it, an unusual situation for us. There are two ways of regarding this situation: one is that the novel is empathetic but somewhat superficial; the other, that the novel is complete and needs no more. You will, of course, draw your own conclusion should you choose to engage with The Midnight Library.

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Returning to the Dales: James Herriot Revisited

Herriot, James. If Only They Could Talk. Michael Joseph, 1970. Pan, 1973.

—. It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet. [Michael Joseph, 1972] Pan, 1973.

—. Let Sleeping Vets Lie. [Michael Joseph, 1973] Pan, 1974.

—. Vet in Harness. [Michael Joseph, 1974] Pan, 1975.

—. Vets Might Fly. [Michael Joseph, 1976] Pan, 1976.

—. Vet in a Spin. [Michael Joseph, 1977] Pan, 1978.

—. The Lord God Made Them All. Nelson Canada, 1981.

All Creatures Great and Small. Masterpiece. PBS. KCTS9. Sunday Evenings. 2021. Television.

You may be watching All Creatures Great and Small on your local PBS channel or perhaps you watched it on Channel 5 last year. In 1978, the BBC aired the first series based on Herriot’s books, all published in the seventies and early eighties, and the BBC ultimately produced seven series and two Christmas specials. This new take on Herriot’s reminiscences of his early life as a vet in the Yorkshire Dales has a somewhat different tone from what I remembered of the earlier series, and I felt I should reread Herriot’s books and wondered whether they would give me as much pleasure as I remembered they had originally.

It took me less than a week to read all seven books, and I enjoyed them for the picture they drew of Yorkshire life in the past. But they did raise questions for me. One in particular arose when Herriot wrote in Vets Might Fly and Vet in a Spin about his experiences in the RAF. While in no way questioning why anyone in Britain during the Second World War would feel compelled to do his or her best to contribute to the war effort, I couldn’t help but wonder how two vets felt that becoming air crew actually contributed more than working to keep livestock healthy. Surely no-one could have accused people in an important reserved occupation of being shirkers, and the maintenance of healthy, productive farms and livestock was surely of key importance given Britons’ need for food? This is not a criticism of the choice, but I would have liked a little more information about the context of such a decision.


I can find a possible explanation of the lack of context here in that in some ways these books remain somewhat private, even though they draw on the lived experience of Alf Wight (James Herriot is a pseudonym). Even as he remembers cases and personalities, he changes names of people and places. While he recalls emotion, he does not delve into psychological examination, focusses rather on the comic, and is unafraid to be self-deprecating. Further, each book is somewhat episodic with usually a chapter or two devoted to a particular case.

What I took from the books most was just how the world has changed since the author  began working in Yorkshire. Writing in the seventies, he himself comments on how veterinary practice has changed since he qualified in the thirties, and we are now nearly ninety years removed from the time the books for the most part recall.  One cannot help wondering how the individual small farmers who were Herriot’s original clients survived the move into Europe and how their descendants are coping with Brexit. Herriot writes of the growing amount of paper work required by the ministry. I wonder how much of a country vet’s practice today involves paper work required to keep track of herds and individual animals.

Herriot writes of disappearing breeds. I don’t think I’ve seen a dairy cow other than a Holstein in years. Just how much of farming today is tied in with large agri-businesses? I’m glad that I no longer risk developing TB because of infected cows, but I do wonder whether cheeses made from unpasteurised milk did taste better. Despite the cold and the filth that Herriot so skilfully evokes as he recalls long nights in cold byres struggling to deliver a misplaced lamb or chasing an angry sow around her sty, I cannot help but wonder if from an animal’s point of view that sty or little brick byre is not a more pleasant place to be than a contemporary milking shed or farrowing pen.

 So while the books, at least for me, raise some challenging questions about the whole practice of agriculture, what they evoke more is nostalgia; the television versions do so even more, and the Yorkshire locations are, to lapse into cliché, a feast for the eye, and I will continue to watch the series. However, I do find  I question some of the 2020 television version’s decisions about how to adapt the original books. Masterpiece’s own website comments that “It’s primarily in the female characters that the new adaptation offers a fresh take, in that Mrs. Hall’s character is more richly developed, and Helen’s has a more modern feel” (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/specialfeatures/get-ready-for-all-creatures-great-and-small-season-1/. nd. 11 February 2021).

I’m just not sure how appropriate it is to give characters a “more modern feel.” Their setting is not contemporary. Is the tension between Helen and her younger sister included in the television series really necessary or is it something we somehow feel ought to be there to make the narrative edgier? I’m not sure.  There are other shifts between the books and the adaptation that trouble me less, but I wonder why, for example, does Tristan have to arrive in Darrowby in full white tie and tails having hidden in the guards van and neglected to buy a ticket for the train when the book tells us he arrives in Darrowby having hitch hiked from Edinburgh. I’d argue that in fact the way Helen is described in the books reveals her independence and strength without having to give her anxieties about her relationship with a sister. Tristan’s actions throughout the books very quickly reveal him to be an iconoclastic even chaotic character; not paying a fare seems to reveal a meanness not quite in keeping with Tristan’s carefree expansive view of life. But I realise my concerns are pedantic.

I also realise this post is not really a book review but reflections on the relationship between a series of books and their adaptation to another medium. As I reread those books, I realised they are highly successful as light-hearted memoir and despite being forty years old give as much pleasure as they did when first published. However, if you’ve never read the books before, you may find they are rather different at times from the latest television series.

 

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“Ill-Fated” Naivety? Some Early Georgette Heyer

Heyer, Georgette. The Early Georgette Heyer Collection. Spire Books, 2020. e-book.

—. The Great Roxhythe. [Constable, 1921]Heyer Collection, 2020.

—. Instead of the Thorn. [Hutchinson, 1922] HeyerCollection, 2020.

—. “A Proposal to Cicely.”  [The Happy Mag, 1922] Heyer Collection, 2020. 

Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer. [Heinemann 2011] Source Books, 2013. e-book.

Earlier this month I was browsing amongst the titles available for my e-reader and came across The Early Georgette Heyer Collection. Intrigued, I reviewed what the collection included and downloaded it. I was already familiar with The Transformation of Philip Jettan under its 1930 title of Powder and Patch (actually the first Georgette Heyer I read as a child holidaying in a caravan in Bude, Cornwall). I was also familiar with Heyer’s first novel The Black Moth. However, I had never had access to The Great Roxhythe, Instead of the Thorn, or the short story “A Proposal to Cicely.” You may recall that in 2016 I reviewed Jennifer Kloester’s Georgette Heyer, and I was curious about these earlier works and welcomed the opportunity to see what they were like.

 

I’ve written before about the debate surrounding Heyer’s popularity and the questions of whether she should be regarded as a writer of generic romance fiction or whether her work transcends formula. Often compared to Jane Austen, Heyer certainly in some of her works inhabits a similar world. However, I would argue that Austen’s wit is sharper and more subtle; her “happy” endings less assured and less sentimental than Heyer’s. Austen satirizes her own society. Heyer in her historical fiction, despite her meticulous detail, somewhat romanticizes the past. When she writes of her own times as she does in her crime fiction and in Instead of the Thorn, for example, we see a keen eye for detail and social nuance, and even some criticism. Nevertheless, she also reveals an acceptance of social norms, particularly class stratification, that, while acceptable in the nineteenth century, was even in the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century beginning to seem dated, and I can’t help but think that some contemporary readers might well find Heyer’s acceptance of a stratified society troubling.  In her biography of Heyer, Jennifer Kloester several times draws attention to the similarities between the Regency world in which Heyer sets many of her most popular works and the late Edwardian milieu in which Heyer was raised. It seems a little demanding of a reader, however, to expect a woman raised in such a background to write something along the lines of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914).

There is certainly some critique of her own times in the novel Instead of the Thorn, especially in its response to what was expected of women. Published in 1923 when Heyer herself was still unmarried, the novel is an examination of the dangers of allowing women to remain in ignorance about their own sexuality. Elizabeth Arden is the only child in a household consisting of her widowed father and her unmarried aunt. Although the aunt is a strong supporter of women’s suffrage, she raises Elizabeth “to pretend always, even to yourself, that you liked the things Aunt Anne wanted you to like” (Thorn Chapter 4). Marrying a man she does not really love because marriage is the done thing to do and horrified by the expectations her husband has of her, Elizabeth separates from him and has to learn who she herself is before there is any hope for her.  I could not help wondering whether the then unmarried Heyer was familiar with Marie Stopes’ Married Love published in 1918. The short story “A proposal to Cicely” also deals with love and marriage and life in the upper classes. Convinced of her own modernity and independence Cicely moves to the country with a girl friend where her total ignorance of how people not from her milieu live leads her into an extremely embarrassing misunderstanding with a young farmer from whose unwanted and passionate embrace she has to be rescued by Richard, a member of her own class. While the short story is well-crafted, even if somewhat predictable, and comic, and Instead of the Thorn very much of its time in its concerns, Heyer’s subtle (not so subtle?) condescension in the novels troubled me somewhat.

My problems with The Great Roxhythe are somewhat different. I found it uneven in expression despite Heyer’s obvious grasp of Restoration politics. Set during the 1660s, 70s, and 80s, the novel’s action takes place against the political intrigue surrounding the Treaty of Dover, The Popish Plot, and the anxiety around securing a Protestant succession. The fictional Roxhythe shared King Charles’ exile and during the Restoration period is instrumental in negotiating the Secret Treaty. The other major character in the novel is Christopher Dark who serves for many years as Roxhythe’s secretary even though Dark’s father was a strong supporter of Cromwell, and his elder brother serves William of Orange in the Netherlands. Dark leaves Roxhythe’s service on discovery that Roxhythe has been “intriguing” on the king’s behalf. The strength of the relationship between Roxhythe and his secretary together with the somewhat passionate expressions of devotion might well seem to us to suggest that the bond between them is a homosexual one. However, Kloester in Chapter 5 of Georgette Heyer assures us that it is not and describes it as “Georgette’s youthful rendition of seventeenth-century courtly love.” One of the grating aspects of this novel is “Georgette’s youthful rendition” of seventeenth century idiom with chapter headings such as “The King His Councillors” and the other occasional archaisms in her characters’ speech that render the prose uneven and actually disrupt the reader’s involvement with the work.

What I also found somewhat thought-provoking was the difference between The Great Roxhythe, Heyer’s second novel, and The Black Moth, her first. In The Black Moth, we can see the beginning of the Heyer with whom we have become familiar. There is a light-hearted humour in this first work that is totally lacking in the second. Heyer suppressed republication of The Great Roxhythe and described it as  “immature, [and] ill-fated” (qtd. Kloester).  What we do see in The Great Roxhythe that foretells the later Heyer is her concern with accurate historical background. I was left at the end wondering whether she intended the novel to be about loyalty and devotion or about politics. In many ways, I found the politics more interesting.

Reading these three works from Heyer’s youth made me want to re-read Kloester’s biography. (If you want to re-read my post, click the Previous Posts tab and choose July 2016). Once again, I was left with the feeling that while I enjoy many of Heyer’s works and appreciate her craft and rigour, I’m not sure I would have felt particularly comfortable in Heyer’s company.

 

 

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The Janus Month: Looking Back and Forward

Well, it is the new year, and I do wish my readers a good 2021 with lots of good books. As you know from my last post, the last couple of months or so faced me with some challenges with regard to keeping this blog up to date despite having read twenty-two books I considered reviewing plus several others. I’ve decided therefore to make this post a kind of omnibus event. Many of the books I read since November were books I revisited, especially books in much loved series.

A Backward Glance

Twelve of those twenty-two books were the four volumes (see list below), each volume called a Movement, published in 1995 by the University of Chicago Press of Anthony Powell’s  A Dance to the Music of Time. Each volume is comprised of three independent novels, each one of which works well as a social critique of its period. Together, however, the twelve novels give us an overview of a large part of the twentieth century as observed by Nick Jenkins, Eton and Oxford, young man about town, publisher, author, wartime officer in a Welsh Regiment, husband and father. Nick’s life takes him from the jazzy world of the bright young things to sixties neo-pagan cultists, from the studios of Fitzrovia and Pimlico to stockbroker-suburban and aristocratic mansions. At times, Powell’s characters seem almost Dickensian in their construction, but Powell draws with a finer, gentler pen than Dickens as A Dance to the Music of Time records the major shifts in English politics, aesthetics and mores over nearly fifty years. Allusive and somewhat autobiographical, Dance is a highly comic series of novels especially in its treatment of the rise and fall of Nick’s old school fellow Widmerpool, but also very serious, and one of the best examples I’ve experienced of how to construct a work through the eyes of a naive narrator.

After Dance, I moved on to another four books, their covers well-thumbed and creased by re-readings: Mary Stewart’s novels about Merlin (see list below). Drawing on, dare I say it, all the usual suspects such as Nennius, Bede, Geoffrey of Monmouth, et al. Stewart addresses The Matter of Britain from the perspective of Merlin. The four novels are still well worth reading whether you are coming to the stories of King Arthur for the first time or are steeped in Arthurian lore and legend. What I most particularly enjoy about these books is Stewart’s highly credible evocation of what fifth century Britain may have been like after the withdrawal of the last Roman legion. I still find the first novel The Crystal Cave to be the most credible, but the four together do provide a version of Arthur’s story untarnished by medieval, courtly accretions and appropriately situated in time.

Then I moved on to Christopher Moore’s three novels (See list below) having fun with Shakespeare. Told from the perspective of Lear’s fool, the three stories revisit King Lear,    The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Irreverent, profane, and scatological, as well as highly allusive to other Shakespearean works, the novels play with what we know of the Shakespearean canon while providing alternate settings and readings. You will either highly enjoy these books or you will be totally horrified. Moore is a highly prolific satirical writer and possibly an acquired taste. 

You may also acquire a taste for Rick Gekoski’s Darke (Cannongate, 2017). Acerbic, scathing, and heart-breaking, Darke is a first person narrative told by a man overwhelmed by grief. Nevertheless, you may find, as I did, that you start laughing two pages into the novel. I’ll risk spoiling things for those who have yet to read the work by saying I found I tended to laugh a little less by the end. Once a teacher at a highly respected English Public School, the narrator James Darke expresses many of the concerns that those of use who also spent our lives sharing literature with students may have also experienced. Was it all worth it? Do we need to teach literature? From behind his black painted, letter box free, recently tightly locked front door, James Darke offers us a picture of grief and love in contemporary England. Are we sympathetic with Darke at the end of the novel? He bears great grief, guilt and anxiety, but he is also something of a snob. Darke is an engaging and disturbing book, and I have bought the sequel Darke Matter, which came out in 2020. However, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to meet James Darke again, so that situation should give you a sense of how moving a novel Darke is.

Another work I read about love lost and times past is Graham Swift’s Here We Are (Penguin 2020), a finely crafted story detailing the relationship among three stage performers that began in 1959 Brighton. At only 195 pages, the work is short, but in its examination of how the past informs the present and of the slippery relationship between truth and untruth as well as of the power of love, this novel was so engaging I read it at one sitting.

The last work that I read in 2020 that I’m going to mention is another novel to which I return from time to time: J. B. Priestley’s Lost Empires. ([Heinemann, 1965] Grafton, 1980). Set in 1913-14, the novel follows the year Richard Herncastle spends as an assistant to his uncle, a magician working on the Variety Hall Circuit. At first, the novel might appear to be a traditional coming-of-age novel set against a somewhat exotic background. It is more than that. I found particularly interesting Priestley’s subtle examination of the role of women in that pre-war society. Then, too, consider the title; the work is something of a threnody to a past age and a commentary on how we see things, an investigation of appearance and reality, of surface and depth, dream and reality. In 1986, the novel was made into a Granada mini-series starring a young Colin Firth and featuring a heart-breakingly brilliant performance by Sir Laurence Olivier as a comedian who has lost a sense of his audience and whose career is failing. Both novel and series are worth your attention.

Looking Ahead

I am about half way through Zadie Smith’s Grand Union: Stories (Penguin-Random Canada, 2020) and so far I’m enjoying them. Many of the stories are set in New York and  I’m noticing that Smith’s skill in evoking a sense of place holds true here as well as it does in her London set novels.  I’m also looking forward to reading Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi.(Bloomsbury, 2020) and am awaiting the arrival of a couple of books about Agatha Christie that are scheduled to arrive sometime later this month. I am also reading courtesy of my e-reader some early, previously unread Georgette Heyers, so I will have plenty to write about over the next few weeks.

 
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In Case You Were Wondering

I have not disappeared nor given up books. In fact, if you check my” Currently Reading and Recently Read” page on this website, you’ll see I’ve certainly not given up engaging with fiction since I made my last post on H. E. Bates. In addition to those titles listed on that page, I also have to admit to having indulged in rereading Georgette Heyers (see earlier posts on this author). I am part way through some necessary surgeries on my arm and hands and have to ration my keyboarding somewhat severely. However, things improve slowly, so look out for more posts on books fairly soon.

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Only Too Human. H. E. Bates’ The Nature of Love: Three Short Stories

Bates, H. E. The Nature of Love: Three Short Novels.  Michael Joseph, 1953. Penguin, 1958.

Perhaps I’m wrong in thinking that one doesn’t see works by H. E. Bates on the shelves so much any more, and I’ve commented previously on how bookstores other than the very large ones tend to stock primarily only recent publications and perhaps some “classics.” Further, I’m inclined to think that if any H. E. Bates novels are readily available, they tend to me his Larkin books that were adapted for television in a series named after the first novel about the Larkins The Darling Buds of May.

Those novels present a comic view of Kent in the late fifties and celebrate the joys of laughter and love. Bates’ other novels don’t always have quite the comic tone and are often melancholic, and the three works in The Nature of Love fall into this category. There is no romantic, sentimental, happy ever after ending to “Dulcima,” “The Grass God,” or “The Delicate Nature.” Instead, they end with unfulfilled longing, misunderstanding, regret, and death. Love brings not lasting happiness but regret.

So why read them? Because of their lyricism and artistry. Bates’ prose envelopes the reader in vivid, evocative descriptions. His dialogue is realistic, often somewhat minimal, revealing lovers’ anxieties; his plot structure, tight, controlled and inexorably precipitating his characters to devastating epiphanies. These are beautifully crafted tales. Bates relies on third person narration and the narrative voice is empathetic and understanding of the characters’ failings.

Perhaps some readers may find Bates’ style overly controlling. One senses an author who knows precisely what he is doing and what he intends his readers to take from his fiction. He wants his readers to consider the sad ironies of life and the sometimes destructive power of love. His focus is the human condition rather than metafiction. I don’t think we can blame him for that.

All in all, I was impressed by this collection.

 

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Finding the Right Fit: Madeleine St. John’s The Women in Black

St. John, Madeleine. The Women in Black. [Deutsch, 1993] Scribners, 2020.

Madeleine St. John’s fictional Goode’s1 in Sydney sells “the latest London modes and any other modes from other sources which looked likely” (2). The novel opens as the store begins to gear up for the frenetic Christmas rush at the height of the Australian summer and introduces us to the permanent staff of the Ladies Cocktail Frocks Department. Having just taken “the Leaving” and awaiting her results, Lesley Miles, who tells Goode’s her name is Lisa and who wants to attend university and become a poet or an actress, joins the staff as temporary help for the holiday season.

While it may be argued that the plot of the novel is arranged primarily around the weeks during which Lisa awaits her examination results and she and her mother gently manipulate Mr. Miles into consenting to Lisa’s entering the university if her grades are sufficient, there are several story lines to The Women in Black particularly Patty’s desire to have a child and Fay’s search for real love. In each case, we see a movement from naivety to understanding and achievement. The only person whom we meet at the beginning of the novel whose story is unrevealed to us is Miss Jacobs, whose first name we never learn, who presents a “lone, dumpy, self-contained figure,” and who appears to live “a lonely and indeed secret existence” (121). The opposite of the apparently solitary Miss Jacobs is Magda, the dynamic Slovenian in charge of model gowns who plans to have a dress shop of her own soon and is a catalyst in the changes in the lives of both Lisa and Fay.

As she traces the lives of these women, St. John reveals a picture of Sydney in the early fifties: socially stratified, conservative, vaguely distrustful of anything “continental” a place where there is as yet no opera house and salami is regarded as something one “might get used to” (198); a place not that different from the Britain of the fifties that I remember, but way sunnier. And in a way, that adjective is more than a somewhat forced sense of witticism on my part. The novel itself is a sunny, in the metaphorical sense of the word, book.

The cover of my edition includes a comment from Hilary Mantel defining The Women in Black as “the book . . . [she] most often give[s] as a gift to cheer people up,” and it is indeed ultimately a cheerful novel, even though many of the characters have endured hardships as refugees, as orphans, as the victims of sexual exploitation: material here, certainly, for a novel with a very different mood. However, St. John examines her subject matter and observes her characters with an optimistic and compassionate eye, and with skilful manipulation of free indirect discourse outlines their activities in a highly concentrated and wryly humorous tone.

The Women in Black may be light-hearted, but it raises all sorts of questions about gender, status, ethnicity, labour relations, and the effects of colonialism: all issues that remain of concern today. As I read the novel, I found myself comparing St. John with Jane Austen. The two women share the ability to wield the razor of social commentary with such lightness of touch that it’s not until you see the faint line of blood that you realise the insight and gravity of that critique.

 

1The main part of this post was originally much longer because the novel reminded me of the whole history of the department store as an institution, and the role it has played in our social lives and our shopping habits since the stores first began in the latter years of the nineteenth century. In the fifties and sixties of the last century, the disappearance of department stores seemed impossible, yet they are disappearing. Large or small, they were a feature of downtown whether downtown was London or Leicester, New York or Madison, WI, Vancouver or Kamloops, and each tended to have its own sense of its brand and function. Where someone shopped was also a strong indicator of social and financial background. Some stores catered to a wealthier clientele than others, and even within the stores different departments attracted different customers. And for the people who worked in those stores, they provided both career track employment and temporary work for people moving on to different things.

When I was a teenager many of my friends found themselves “Saturday” jobs in one of the local department stores. In those days, there was no such thing as late-night shopping or Sunday opening. For a very few brief months, I myself worked in a department store, and while I was a student many of my fellow students worked the weekends and one or two evening or weekend shifts at The Bay or Eaton’s or Woodwards. Canadians will recognise those names, of which only The Hudson Bay Company still exists. If you type “defunct department stores” into your favourite search engine, you will most likely be directed to several Wikipedia sites covering the USA, the UK, Canada, and Australia. Would Goode’s, the fictional store that provides much of the background for Madeleine St. John’s The Women in Black be on the list for Australia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Defunct_department_stores_of_Australia)?

There are a myriad theories to account for the changing face of retailing world-wide. It is interesting and perhaps a little disturbing to ponder what shopping may look like even a few years from now, and we must all consider just how we as individuals contribute to these changes. Asking what we buy and its origin and reflecting on how we buy may be the first steps we can take towards ethical purchasing. These are not actually easy questions, but they must be addressed. These were not Madeleine St. John’s concerns in The Women in Black; nevertheless, at least for one reader, her setting the novel in a department store raised questions about the department store as a closed community of its own and its fading role in our larger communities.

 

 

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Family Cartography: Jane Mulvagh’s Madresfield

Mulvagh, Jane. Madresfield: One Home, one family, one thousand years. [Doubleday, 2008] Black Swan, 2009.

Cross the River Severn at Worcester or Upton and drive towards Malvern and you will soon find yourself in a countryside where the pubs are called the Lygon Arms. It’s a gentle country, lush and green, perhaps a little sleepy, and the satellite view from Google Maps reveals it still to be the patchwork of fields and hedgerows I remember from too many decades ago. A close friend of my mother’s retired to what is now the Beauchamp Community (https://www.beauchampstleonard.org), and I always enjoyed the bus trip out to Newlands on the 144 to take tea with Deaconess Dorothy Burlingham. When I saw Jane Mulvagh’s Madresfield in our local used book store, therefore, I had to have it. Its cover sports a kind of subtitle The Real Brideshead, which also caught my attention because Brideshead Revisited remains one of my favourite novels.

Madresfield Court is not a stately home in the way Ragley Hall, Chatsworth, or Castle Howard are stately. It’s “a very English dwelling, a moated manor house, erected as a retreat from the world rather than a Continental showpiece to impress it” (25): a hotchpotch of styles, the accretions of each generation, seemingly oblivious to the changing fashions and influences from abroad” (27). The Lygon family, pronounced Liggon, in one branch or another—Mulvagh includes a family tree—has been at Madresfield since just after the Norman Conquest, and their home Madresfield Court contains documents and artefacts that record the family’s long history there. It is around these concrete tokens of the past that Mulvagh organizes her book, choosing a room, a ditch, chairs, a prayer book, for example, to detail the history of the house and family, and by extension of England itself.

She begins, however, with Evelyn Waugh and Brideshead and the parallels between the Lygon family and the Flytes of the novel, and between Madresfield Court and Brideshead the Flytes’ family seat. As one reads the rest of Madresfield, especially when Mulvagh is describing the chapel at Madresfield, one realises just how closely the building nestled at the foot of the Malvern Hills informs Waugh’s Brideshead. At times, also, the reader feels that more than just Madresfield’s architecture informs Brideshead and some of Waugh’s other books, but I’m not sure that these parallels are of as much interest as the family’s connections with other important events in English history.

Of particular interest to me, I think, given that I have a vague interest in Church history, was the sixth earl’s involvement with the Oxford Movement and with the establishment of Keble College. My grandfather went there only thirty four years after it opened, and knowing what I know of my own family’s history, I cannot help wonder if one of the reasons he chose it was because although its founders did not want to make the college “a poor man’s college since that, it was feared would attract only those of inferior social position” (215), it nevertheless fostered a “frugal lifestyle” (215) with rent set at only £3 a term and food and utilities limited to £10 a term. Tuition was limited to £4 a term (216). It looks as if one could live in Keble for about £60 a year. Today’s equivalent would be about £7,188.91(https://www.in2013dollars.com/uk/inflation/1870?amount=60) or C$12,180.23. A quick check of Oxford’s own estimate of current living expenses for a year there suggests that a student could pay between £13620 or C$ 23,073.35 and £19800 or C$33,539.89  ( https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/fees-funding/living-costs); costs, I would argue, that are still somewhat challenging given that the average household income in the UK is £30,000 or C$50,822 per annum. (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/personalandhouseholdfinances/incomeandwealth/bulletins/householddisposableincomeandinequality/financialyearending2020provisional).

According to UBC’s calculator, a freshman Arts Student living in a single room on the Vancouver campus could expect to spend C$24,062.16 or £14,200.73. These costs would be higher for students studying engineering, for example. (https://you.ubc.ca/financial-planning/cost#result).

This financial digression into personal family history and the financing of education does bring me back, even if by a somewhat circuitous route, to the book Madresfield. What the book does underline, unintentionally (?), is the financial disparity between those who have and those who don’t. It gives us a fleeting view of how English society developed from feudal times to the present and of how the landed aristocracy and their neighbours and tenants have co-existed over the centuries developing a sometimes symbiotic relationship. It also for me raises the questions about the tension between the responsibilities and obligations to the larger community of families that we might see as privileged and their own individual rights to privacy and to the fruits of their own and their families’ labours. In other words, to what extent in a contemporary democracy should they share and what? And, further, to what extent should owners of historic and significant properties be supported by their community in maintaining artifacts of national and cultural importance?

As you can see, this book raised all sort of thoughts for me both personal and social. At times, I found Mulvagh’s approach of focussing on a particular artifact and then relating it to its period and its significance to the family a little incoherent, especially at the beginning of the book, which, as I pointed out earlier, begins with Evelyn Waugh before going back to Robert de Braci’s ditch. Further, before the book proper begins, there is also an Introduction by Sir David Cannadine and a Prologue. The book’s tone also seems at time to be just a little inconsistent, shifting between the objective and the more emotional. On the one hand, Mulvagh is writing history and on the other she’s discussing source material for fiction.

In some ways, the book itself rather reflects the house, being a collation of various foci drawn together. Mulvagh refers to the house as a “hotchpotch” (27). I think I’d use a comparison with a slightly more positive connotation than that. The book reminds me more of map that you can read to find how to get from A to B as well as discovering topographical features and places of current and historical interest. So if you like history, have a soft spot for rural Worcestershire, or are a Brideshead Revisited fan, you will find Madresfield itself an engaging resource, and depending upon your specific interest, the detailed end notes and Select Bibliography provide further detail and direction to other sources. Mulvagh also includes illustrations in both black and white and colour. However, if you want to see Madresfield Court for yourself, you will have to wait until next year (https://www.madresfieldestate.co.uk).

 

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The Mechanics of Love and Friendship: Uncertainty in Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven

Cleave, Chris. Everyone Brave is Forgiven. [2016] Anchor Canada, 2017.

 If you search for information about Chris Cleave, especially for information about Everyone Brave is Forgiven, you will discover that readers and critics are united in their praise for the power of this novel. It is, indeed, an intensely moving novel about the first years of the Second World War and is particularly searing in its evocation of the London blitz and the siege of Malta.

Though drawing upon the experiences of Cleave’s own grandparents, Everyone Brave is Forgiven is not biography. In his note at the end of the work, Cleave comments, “theirs was a generation whose choices were made quickly, through bravery and instinct, and whose hopes always hung by a thread” (421). He certainly captures this sense of instability, the constant threat of dissolution, and perhaps it is both his paternal and maternal grandmothers’ inability or refusal “to talk about the war” (421), that underlies Cleave’s desire to tell the story of those first years of the conflict when the course of a life could be changed or ended in a matter of seconds. The novel examines what it must have been like for our parents and grandparents living through a time when they had hopes, plans, even, but no certainty those hopes and plans would be fulfilled.

The work begins with Mary North’s volunteering at the War Office for work and expecting to be assigned to something covert in military intelligence and instead finding herself assigned to teach in a school about to be evacuated to the country. This event sets a pattern for what I can only call a certain kind of bathos throughout the novel. It’s obviously a truism to comment that war changes things, and the novel certainly deals with this change, but whether consciously intended or not, Cleave organizes his novel’s structure so  it follows a pattern of disappointment, or shock. His characters’ expectations are undercut, unfulfilled, bombed out. Even though things do not go well, those who survive show initiative and resilience in the face of the blitz, racism, and near starvation.

In this novel, Cleave demands we reconsider what we understand about bravery and the ethics underlying bravery. Possibly of even greater import is his interrogation of what we understand about the nature of friendship. What loyalties are owed to a friend? What will we sacrifice for a friend? What are the power dynamics of friendship, and how does friendship differ from love? Can friendship transcend the barriers of race, class, and gender?

As I try to sum up my response to this novel, I realise  it is difficult to say whether I enjoyed it or not because the pleasure derived from it comes from Cleave’s skill in creating the harrowing experiences of his characters and the empathy he engenders. Although, arguably, the various plot strands reach resolution by the end of the novel, the reader closes the book aware of the characters’ hesitation. They are somewhat afraid of the future. The war has changed and continues to change them as it progresses. They cannot be certain; they can only hope. At the end of the work, I am left with intense satisfaction at having been engaged with a novel that brilliantly evokes uncertainty. I am also left with an increased understanding of why my own parents’ generation was the way it was, especially during my childhood: adamant that everything they’d endured had been worth it yet somewhat bewildered by the fact, especially in England, that somehow things weren’t quite as they’d hoped, and a little surprised, even irritated by their own children’s incomprehension and even impatience with the past.

Now, of course, it is, in most cases, too late to remedy that generational divide. As Cleave notes, he belongs “to the last generation of writers who can still talk to people who lived through the Second World War” (420), and perhaps the grandchildren’s generation, lacking my generation’s impatience with our parents and their memories and experiences, will be able to make better sense of it all. Certainly, Everyone Brave is Forgiven is one response to that challenge.

 

Posted in Newly Read Literary Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment