Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Frost in May

Virago Modern Classic Number 1: This is
the 1991 edition, with an introduction by
Elizabeth Bowen. The cover shows a detail
 from Girl and Flowers by Dod Procter.
 Antonia White’s Frost in May, as I’m sure everyone knows, was the very first Virago Modern Classic, published in 1978 after being out of print for many years. I’m not sure why it has passed me by until now; for some reason I think I was under the impression I’d read it long ago. But I must have confused it with something else - I would definitely have remembered this, because it made me so angry.

Written in 1933, it’s a fictionalised account of White’s own childhood, telling the story of Nanda Grey’s time at a repressive Catholic school. Her fall from grace, and the way her spirit is finally broken make for painful reading. And these days the rules governing the girls’ daily lives would probably be regarded as an abuse of human rights.  Is this an accurate portrayal of a convent school I wonder? Did nuns really treat their pupils like this? How could they be so cruel in the name of religion? What about compassion? And whatever happened to the idea of a loving, forgiving God?

It’s not that the nuns at the Convent of the Five Wounds are physically cruel to their young charges: they play psychological mind games which seems somehow worse. And there’s a kind of drip-feed brainwashing because everything in the school relates to God – even the rooms have religious names, and there are pictures and statues, and edifying (but often horribly gruesome) stories about saints and sinners.

The nuns, who see themselves as instruments of God, demand unquestioning obedience to themselves, to the school, and to God. And they have very odd ideas about education. Mother Radcliffe, the Mistress of Discipline, explains:

We work to-day to turn out, not accomplished young women, nor agreeable wives, but soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude.

Nanda (short for Fernanda) is nine when she arrives at the exclusive girls’ boarding school. She is ‘one of those children who cannot help behaving well’. She wants to please, to fit in, but she is too good, which makes the nuns suspicious. t’s surprising how quickly she adapts: when her parents visit at the end of the first week she already feels ‘unpicked and resewn and made over to a different pattern’.

And there’s a lot of making over to be done. There are all kinds of regulations. There are no
Author Antonia White.
mirrors, the girls must never be naked, and they sleep flat on their backs, with hands crossed on their breast, so if the Lord calls them in the night they are ready! Close friendships are forbidden, so girls cannot go about in pairs. Letters to and from home are vetted, and the girls are watched all the time.

At night the girls opt to show their piety by placing stockings in the form of a cross on top of their neatly folded uniforms. And they indulge in small mortifications, like washing in cold water, and putting salt instead of sugar on their rhubarb, or stones in their shoes.

Lessons, like the girls, must bend to the will of God. Most story books are deemed unsuitable (unless written by Catholics); science is a dubious area, because most scientists are wrong; poetry is fine for the glory of God – but not for personal enjoyment. But poetry and passionate friendships arouse feelings in Nanda that her religion cannot provide. Even her First Communion, eagerly awaited as the biggest day in her life, proves a disappointment. Nevertheless, her faith doesn’t waver:

She accepted the Catholic Church whole-heartedly and tried hard to mould herself into the proper shape of a young Catholic girl. […] She could never, she knew, break away without a sense of mutilation. In her four years at Lippington it had grown into every fibre of her nature; she could not eat or sleep or read or play without relating every action to her secret life as a Christian and a Catholic.  She rejoiced in it and rebelled against it.

That seems to reflect the experience of many Catholic writers – perhaps it’s that tension which enables them to be creative?

Despite her efforts to fit in, Nanda has an independent streak, which sets her on a collision course, and when she is finally sent away, on her 14th birthday, Mother Radcliffe tells her:

Every will must be broken completely and re-set before it can be at one with God’s will. And there is no other way. That is what true education, as we see it here at Lippington, means.

There are all kinds of things I haven’t mentioned: the girls themselves, who are all utterly believable; the constant ringing of bells; curtseying; gloves; the smell of beeswax and incense; cabbage drowned in vinegar, and the sense of being shut away in an enclosed community which becomes more real than the world outside.

Virago non-fiction:There's Something About
A Convent Girl, published in 1991. 
After finishing Frost in May, I re-read There’s Something About A Convent Girl, a Virago anthology edited by Jackie Bennet and Rosemary Forgan, because it makes an interesting companion piece, containing a brief history of convent schools, and varied recollections from former pupils. Some contributors, like Maeve Binchy and, surprisingly, Germaine Greer seem to have happy memories of their schooldays. Others, like playwright Mary O’Malley (author of Once A Catholic), hated the humiliations, the lack of kindness, the bigotry, and the feelings of guilt about sex and life in general.

Her view of convent school life echoes that of Virago founder Carmen Callil, who says she can never forgive the nuns at her convent for the way she was treated. She’s particularly scathing about the view of the Catholic Church on suffering, especially in relation to women, and she gives a moving account of her feelings when she first read Frost in May:

I was absolutely suffused with misery and agony and fury as I read it because I identified with it so much. It told what I felt to be my own story. Not that it was my own story, but the suffering it conveyed and the feeling of mindless repression that the child couldn’t deal with because the child couldn’t understand what was going on and what the reasons were. I felt so strongly about it I actually invented Virago Modern Classics to enable me to publish that book. The world had to read the book again.
I think she’s right, and I’d urge anyone to read it, because Frost in May is beautifully written, with some wonderful characters, and it’s as valid and relevant now as it was when Callil reprinted it, and when Frost wrote it. 

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Book Buying in London!

Book boxes outside Any Amount of Books.
I’ve been to London for a couple of days visiting my Younger Daughter, and although I didn’t make it as far as Persephone, we spent a happy afternoon exploring bookshops in Charing Cross Road. I guess their main business must be from the rare books – collectibles, first editions, curios and so on, and they’re fun to gaze at, but way out of my price league. However, there are shelves full of second-hand paperbacks (slightly more expensive than the average charity shop, but the choice is much better). I was very restrained, since trekking around London carrying lots of books is not a happy experience, and I had to travel back home on the train, with my backpack full of clothes and stuff, and didn’t want to struggle with too much additional luggage!
Window shopping! Outside Henry Pordes - inside is wonderful, a real
Aladdin's Cave for book lovers 
In Any Amount Of Books (which really does live up to its name) there were lots of irresistible green spines, and I pounced on A Woman of my Age, because I’m on a bit of a Nina Bawden thing at the moment. This one is about Elizabeth and Richard, on holiday in Morrocco, and Elizabeth’s account of ‘the desert her life has become’ is reflected in the barren landscape. The blurb on the back goes on to say the novel is about marriage, families, expectations and betrayals, and is written with poise, with and charm. Has anyone read it? Does the description match the book?
And I found Pirates at Play, by Violet Trefusis, which I bought it because it has a fabulous cover - a portrait of Nancy Cunard by Guevara – and I know this is not a good reason for buying a book, but I loved Hunt the Slipper, and I’m sure I will like this, which is described as a romantic comedy set in the ‘frenetic, fantastical Twenties’.
Henry Pordes Books was fabulous, a real treasure trove, with even more old Viragos (and lots of other books as well, but I’m collecting VMCs). Anyway, I succumbed to this:
It replaces my 1974 edition of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, which I bought new all those years ago after watching the TV drama starring Dorothy Tutin as Sarah Burton – does anyone else remember seeing it? It was kind of timely, since I hunted for the book to re-read after reading The Land of Green Ginger, and found it when I started reorganising my bookshelves. But, like so many of the books printed during the 1970s, it has not worn well, and now looks like this:
I had great difficulty tearing myself away from Henry Pordes – I could have spent a great deal of money in there (if I’d had a great deal of money, and if carrying purchases home was not a problem). But I limited myself to two volumes, and after much thought selected The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson, an author I’d not come across before. I read a bit in the shop, and thought I might enjoy it, and I liked the cover, and it has an introduction by Germaine Greer! Apparently Henry Handel Richardson was really Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, and this novel is about Laura Rambotham and her life in a Melbourne boarding school.
And, as something completely different, my daughter and her boyfriend took me to Gosh!, the comic bookshop in Soho, which is very bright and cheerful, and unlike any other bookshop I’ve ever been in, two floors full of comics and graphic novels and such like – definitely not a genre I know anything about, but interesting nevertheless. And there are kids’ books, and arts books, but I don’t think there’s much you’d find in a traditional bookshop – the books all seem to be different, edgier somehow. Anyway, I couldn’t resist this, which is a bit of an extravagance, but it makes me happy!

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Time To Tidy The Shelves...

LibraryThing and Viragoing for August has gone to my head I think. Have started trying to tidy bookshelves – not something I attempt all that often! Now have two rows of Viragos and Persephones, which may not look a lot, but they’re double stacked, so there's a complete row of green Viragos behind the grey Persephones. (all my books are double stacked – no room otherwise). Who thinks I shuld put these in alphabetical order?

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Land of Green Ginger

Another Virago for LibrayThing’s All Virago All August challenge. And I think this one will do nicely for the What’s in a Name challenge over at The Worm Hole – it’s my entry for a book with the letters ‘ing’ in the title. And it fits the bill for Yorkshire, for Reading England 2015 (which you can find over at Behold the Stars).
The Land of Green Ginger, by Winifred Holtby.
Not, alas the 1983 Virago, but a 2012 edition,
with a Yorkshire Dales British Railways Poster
 on the cover, which I quite like.
As a small child Joanna Burton is entranced when she passes a street called The Land of Green Ginger. Her aunts hustle her on, but the name conjures up something magical for Joanna: 

To be offered such gifts of fortune, to seek Commercial Lane and to find – the day before Christmas Eve and by lamplight too – the Land of Green Ginger, dark, narrow, mysterious road to Heaven, to Fairy Land, to anywhere, anywhere, even to South Africa, which was the goal of all men’s longing, where Father lived in a rondavel… 

The heroine of Winifred Holtby’s The Land of Green Ginger spends a lot of time yearning for far-flung, fabulous lands. She is born in South Africa, but her mother dies, and her missionary father cannot care for a baby, so she’s sent back home to England to be raised by her maiden aunts in Yorkshire. 

She is highly imaginative, drawing her knowledge of life from books (she’s in love with Walter Raleigh and the Scarlet Pimpernel), and she dreams of travelling the world to see strange, exotic places. But in 1914, aged 18, she falls in love with Teddy Leigh who tells her he has been given the world to wear as a golden ball. At this point I started thinking of Milton, but it was a golden chain which linked Earth to Heaven – but the golden ball was in the fairy tale about the Frog Prince, and it seems that Teddy is paying tribute to Joanna, who is golden haired, tall, and ‘grandly portioned’. 

Teddy Leigh drew towards her happiness and health as a chilled traveller draws towards a fire. She seemed so young, so strong, so sure that life was good. He, who snatched sudden joys from an uncertain world, looked at her with envious longing. She seemed as strong and stablished as a golden tower. 

It is her vitality, her love of life that attracts him - but in the end those are the qualities he comes to hate the most. For Teddy is a kind of Frog Prince in reverse, who can never be rescued by a kiss. Handsome, charming, debonair, he has TB, but Army medics have passed him as fit for active service and he is off to join his unit, and feels he has been handed life as a golden ball. 

He and Joanna marry, and a daughter is duly born nine months after their brief honeymoon. His visit home on a gunnery course results in a second daughter, and eventually in June 1918 the combination of gas and consumption proves too much and he is invalided out and ends up at the Yorkshire Military Sanatorium, where the true nature of his illness is finally revealed to Joanna (but not by Teddy – he never mentions it to her). 

Unable to return to Cambridge and continue studying for the ministry, he uses an Army pay-out to buy Scatterthwaite, a run-down, isolated farm (at the time it was believed open-air life helped consumptives). However, he and Joanna have no money, no experience and no aptitude for farming. “Small debts prospered as did nothing else on the land,” Holtby tells us. 

Teddy, faced with his broken dreams and broken health, is querulous, selfish and demanding. Joanna struggles to make ends meet as she tries to care for him and run the farm. Eventually, to protect the children from infection, sends them to her aunts.  

The Virago 1983 edition -  I'd love this edition,but
can I justify two copies of the same book, even if
it is a Virago?
Growing shabbier and shabbier, she develops a reputation for oddness – she’s viewed as a bad housekeeper, a bad mother (because she sent her children away), and a bad farmer. As the local curate observes, she looks strange (she is wearing green stockings on the day he calls). And her behaviour is even more peculiar, for she never says or does what you expect. She’s an unsettling sort of person.  

Things get worse when local landowner Sir Wentworth Marshall employs a group of Finns to establish a forestry project. Local villagers resent the foreigners, and tensions build. But the real trouble comes when the interpreter, Hungarian Paul Szermai, comes to lodge with Joanna and Teddy. Joanna has already glimpsed Szermai in the woods, envisioning him as Tam Lin from the old ballad, or a fairy tale eldritch knight.  There is no foundation for the ensuing scandal, but their friendship is misinterpreted - even Teddy suspects them of having an affair – and the story moves inexorably towards what should be a final tragic conclusion. 

I won’t reveal what happens, but somehow Joanna finds herself again, and sets off with her children to pursue her dream. Life is a good bargain, she tells Sir Wentworth.  

I mean, imagine what it would be like if you were dead, and you looked up and saw people acquiescing in life, and treating it like a poor thing, and saying, “You can’t have the best of both worlds,” as a kind of reason for getting the best of none. Wouldn’t you feel cheated? I should. I’d think, “Here am I who’d give anything, anything to be alive again and there they are treating life like a bad bargain.” Why, it’s the best bargain. It’s the only bargain worth buying if you really live. 

Joanna’s struggle to find fulfilment is played out in the aftermath of WWI, and though she is uninterested in politics and social change, things like employment problems and the peace movement are there in the background. They are never intrusive, but I think they inform much of Holtby’s work. I don't know that enjoyable is necessarily the right word to describe it. Compelling would be nearer the mark. But it's well worth reading - I'd recommend it.

*In case you wonder, The Land of Green Ginger is a real street in Hull (Holtby’s inspiration for Kingsport in novel), and is believed to have got its name because in Tudor times it was the place where green ginger, a conserve of ginger and lemon juice, was sold or made.


Saturday, 8 August 2015

Tears, Lies - and Ice Cream!

My 1990 edition of A Little Love, A little Learning. The
cover shows Weisse Vase Mit Heidekraut by Oskar Moll.
The year Aunt Hat came to us, my main ambition – apart from rescuing someone from drowning, or winning the Victoria Cross – was to go down to Jock’s Icecream Parlour in the main street of Monks Ford and eat as many Knickerbocker Glories as I could pray for. Ellen, our mother, said this was a pretty limited ambition for a girl of 12 and that I ought to have learned by now that icecreams made me sick. Boyd said that was why I wanted them: it was a clear example of a man’s reach needing to exceed his grasp, what else is heaven for?

If an intro grabs me (and this one did – it’s right up there with I Capture The Castle) I can’t put a novel down. Imagine me, if you will, sat on the floor in the Back Room of the Oxfam Bookshop, surrounded by boxes and bags, all stuffed with books that must be sorted, priced and stacked on shelves… But I’ve been sidetracked because I spotted a Virago edition of Nina Bawden’s, A Little Love, A Little Learning, and I opened it (just to have a quick look you understand), and once I started reading I couldn’t stop!

That was some weeks back, and I didn’t get round to writing about it, but I notice the Virago Modern Classics Group on LibraryThing is running its traditional All Virago All August challenge, so this seems an apt moment to post my thoughts.

A Little Love, A Little Learning is a brilliant book. I loved it. And if you’ve never read any of Bawden’s work for adults (she seems to best known as a children’s author) it’s probably a good place to start. It is 1953, Coronation Year, and we are in Monks Ford, a small, suburban town on the banks of a Thames tributary, about 25 miles from London. Factory hands have jobs in Slough, while office workers commute to London. It’s a perfectly drawn picture of lower middle-class life, with all its values and social mores, in that particular location, at that particular time, and Bawden captures the feelings of uncertainty and ‘not-belonging’ that can over-ride everything else when you’re young.
Our narrator is 12-year-old Kate, poised on the threshold of adolescence, trying to make sense of the world around her, her feelings, and her changing body. She lives with her sisters, Poll (7), who is going to be Elizabeth I in the Coronation Pageant, but would rather be Henry VIII, and Joanna, who is almost 18 and worries about getting old. Their mother, Ellen, loves them, but finds it hard to express her feelings. For her life is a serious business, and she has sterner ideas about bringing up children than most mothers. Their stepfather Boyd, the local doctor, is wise, kindly, loving and sensible.

In many ways he and Ellen are surprisingly modern for their time. For example, they believe in telling the girls the truth, especially with things like the correct medical terminology for parts of body, and the facts of life - but they conceal their own pasts, which impact on the present.

However, the past comes to light, and tensions surface as Kate and Joanna struggle with the process of growing up. No longer children, but definitely not adults, they are surprisingly mature and understanding about some things, but unable to cope with their own feelings or those of other people. Facts are half understood, and they fail to grasp the consequences of their actions.

Boyd’s abilities as a doctor and his standing in the community come under scrutiny when he inherits money from an elderly, reclusive woman who knew him long ago when she was a spirited young woman and he was a lonely child – a situation fuelled by Kate's lies. And the tale of Ellen’s life with the girls’ vanished father and her relationship with Boyd (which breaks the social codes of the day) is revealed when her old friend Aunt Hat comes to stay, so Joanna tracks their father down and invites him to visit.

Aunt Hat, ‘as soft and sweet as cake’, has undergone a hysterectomy and has been attacked by her husband, who is now awaiting trial for assaulting her stepson from a previous marriage. Unlike Boyd and Ellen, she doesn’t hide her past – she almost revels in it. To all intents and purposes she still loves her violent husband and excuses his behaviour. Kate and Joanna are aware that ‘she doesn’t always see things as they are, but as she would like them to be’. She, and other characters, modify the truth to suit their vision of the world.

This difference between what you feel and what you think you feel, between life as it is and life as we would like it to be, runs through the novel, raising questions about truth and illusion, delusion and lies. And there are issues about the nature of relationships, between friends, between husbands and wives, between parents and children.
The themes may be serious, but the book is funny, and sad and touching. Boyd, Ellen, Joanna, Kate and Poll pull through and emerge a little sadder perhaps, but stronger and wiser, than before, still a family, but with more self-knowledge, and more awareness of the things that matter in life. Kate, especially, develops an understanding of Boyd and what he has done for them over the years.

He had given us everything, without asking, and we had given him nothing; he had looked after us, and we had grown, taking his youth with us; he taught us things, played with us, held bowls for us to be sick in, and we had done nothing back. We had not even thought of him, we had lied, deceived, and between us brought him to the edge of ruin and disgrace, but we had not even thought of him now: we had been sitting drinking tea and eating chocolate cake.

I couldn't resist this picture of an ice cream sundae from my mother's
Good Housekeeping Cookery Compendium, published in 1954 -
at that time knickerbocker glories in a café or ice cream parlour
were a much more exotic treat!