It was the appropriation, and perversion, of her idea that rankled most

Old BaggageOld Baggage
by Lissa Evans

This year marks 100 years since (some) women were able to vote for the first time in the UK, and 90 years since full voter equality was achieved here, and Lissa Tremain’s novel covers both these developments with gentle humour.

It is the start of 1928 and Mattie gives regular lectures about her suffragette past. She is widely admired for her history and her oratory but she can’t seem to get people interested in the ongoing struggle for equality. There is a popular assumption that the partial enfranchisement that women won in 1918 should be enough. It also begins to become clear that, while she is well-intentioned, she is blind to the reality of life for working-class women.

This is in stark contrast to her best friend and housemate The Flea, who works as a health visitor in some of London’s poorest neighbourhoods. The Flea smooths out Mattie’s problems before Mattie notices she has them, which has the unfortunate effect of meaning that Mattie rarely learns that she is getting it wrong.

“’Your memoir?’ The Flea was astonished. ‘I had no idea!’
‘Started long ago and never completed.’
‘But why ever not?’
Mattie hesitated. ‘I found the task…counterproductive.’ She could remember the precise moment that she had stopped writing…She had written about that accident…but now, she realized, now, she could recall it only from the single angle of her prose; in a moment of horrid clarity, she saw that each memory she had pinned to the page had become fixed and lifeless, the colours already fading. She was narrowing her past to a series of sepia vignettes.”

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What a ripping thing life was

uneasy-moneyUneasy Money
by P G Wodehouse

I needed to read a book published in 1916 for my Books on the Nightstand Book Bingo and it was surprisingly tough to find anything that appealed. But then this jumped out at me. It’s not a Jeeves and Wooster title but the style of writing is much the same. This leans more towards romantic comedy than skewering of the upper class, but there’s plenty of that too.

It’s the story of Lord Dawlish, or Bill, a lovable chap whose title came without a fortune but is happy working as secretary to a London club in exchange for free lodging and £400 a year, which is plenty enough to play all the golf he likes and give away a few shillings to every fellow with a sob story. Happy enough, that is, except for the fact that his fiancée, the beautiful but only moderately successful actress Claire, is determined that Bill must have more money before she will marry him.

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It is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible

by Jane Austen

In my late teens I went through a serious period drama phase, fuelled by TV miniseries based on classic books. A particular favourite was the 1996 ITV production of Emma starring Kate Beckinsale. I loved that show and watched it so many times I can still picture every scene now, a good 15+ years after I last saw it. Plus, of course I’ve seen the Gwyneth Paltrow film (meh), the 2009 BBC series starring Romola Garai (okay) and the greatest (or at least the most fun) Austen adaptation of them all, Clueless.

So you’d think I would have read Emma long ago. However, to date my experience of Jane Austen has not gone so well. I quite liked Northanger Abbey but I gave up multiple times on both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, finding the stuffiness outweighed the wit. I can’t say finally reading Emma has won me over; largely I think I only got through it because I already knew it so well.

Emma Woodhouse is young, rich, devoted to her family and determined to be cheerful. Her elderly father doesn’t like to go out and she doesn’t like to leave him home alone, so ever since her governess Miss Taylor left to marry Mr Weston she has been pretty bored. She makes friends with Harriet Smith, a girl of unknown parentage who was raised by the local schoolmistress. Harriet is dull but straightforward and quick to adore Emma. Emma’s friend and adviser Mr Knightley (her sister’s husband’s brother, who lives nearby) thinks she would do better to befriend Jane Fairfax, who is intelligent and accomplished. But Emma has always found Miss Fairfax cold and distant, not to mention being a little jealous of her musical skill.

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The defeating sense that her own shadow was identical to all the rest

by Zadie Smith

A couple of days after finishing this book I am still uncertain of my reaction to it. I don’t mean whether it was good or bad, exactly – I definitely enjoyed the read – but trying to dig deeper than that I am full of uncertainty.

The narrative slips between stream of consciousness, first and third person, and what I suppose you might call soundscape. This sounds like it would be hard to follow and it occasionally is, but for the most part the story is clear. Inasmuch as there is a single story, that is. I am still wrestling with that.

The novel follows three characters in turn, two of whom are much more closely linked than the third. All live in north-west London, in the NW postcode area, hence the title. This is an area I know a little, having friends there, so it was interesting to read a “native” (Smith is herself from NW) description of places such as Kilburn that I know as a frequent visitor.

NW seems preoccupied by wealth, class and the attitudes of people toward each other, both within and outside their social groups. It examines aspiration, ambition and the lack of those things. But it also looks at identity, how we see ourselves and how others see us and how those things rarely match up, even between partners or best friends.

“To Leah it was sitting room, to Natalie living room, to Marcia lounge…Shadows had been passing over the walls of this house since 1888 sitting, living, lounging. On a good day Natalie prided herself on small differences, between past residents, present neighbours and herself…At other times…she had the defeating sense that her own shadow was identical to all the rest, and to the house next door, and the house next door to that.”

These are some big ideas and it’s to Smith’s credit that it reads like a beautifully written story of modern life, not a philosophical treatise. Smith somehow even gets away with writing in dialect, which I usually hate. It’s sharply observed and occasionally very funny.

“Outside he tried to calm himself and realign with the exuberant mood in the street. The sun was an incitement, collapsing day into night. Young bluds had stripped to their bare chests as if in a nightclub already.”

The characters are wonderfully real, complex bundles of contradiction, with interesting flaws and believable back stories, most of which lead back to the same Willesden council estate. Certainly, for a novel preoccupied by ideas of class and self-improvement, there are few scenes of wealth, with the bulk of the story following those who struggle for money (and by that I mean the lower middle class style of money struggles as well as true hand-to-mouth difficulties). In fact, there were a couple of dinner party scenes that seemed so anti-middle-class that I actually cringed.

So the novel is not without fault. The stream of consciousness is perhaps too occasional, the book is divided into very short sections, speech is indicated in different ways in different places (quote marks, no quote marks, dashes, transcript) and there are a couple of complete breaks such as a chapter typeset in the shape of a tree, which between them smacked a little of trying to be literary. It’s also perhaps a little disconnected. I felt there needed to be a more even degree of overlap between the stories.

I haven’t let myself peek yet, but I hear this novel has had some controversial reviews in the press, so I’m now off to check what the Observer had to say… Any of you read this already? Managed to bag yourself an advance copy or rushed out on publication day to buy it? Did it meet your expectations?

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published September 2012 by Penguin.

The perils of social mobility

by George Bernard Shaw

For some reason, despite loving the film My Fair Lady, I was convinced that this, the play it is based on, would be a bit stuffy and clever-clever. I had no idea how close the film is to the original script, with many of its funniest lines being Shaw. If anything the play is even funnier.

I read this book very carefully, because I was reading a 1947 Penguin edition printed on Bible-thin paper that felt as though it might disintegrate any moment. Though produced cheaply for a mass audience, it is still a thing of beauty, with illustrations by Feliks Topolski, extra scenes written for the 1938 film, a prologue and epilogue by the author, not to mention lengthy interjections from him at the start of most scenes. This is definitely not what reading a play usually feels like.

Bernard Shaw’s tongue is firmly in cheek from the start, with an attempt to write Eliza’s accent abruptly stopped partway through the first scene with the interjection “Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London”.

Professor Higgins is, of course, lovably eccentric, bad tempered without realising it and single-minded to boot. He and his friend Colonel Pickering are confirmed bachelors who deliberately ignore all raised eyebrows at them taking a young pretty girl under their wing. Eliza is an impressively strong female character. She has been supporting herself by selling flowers and calculates that if she submits to the professor’s tutelage she can earn a little more in a flower shop. She gets angry when she realises that they have made her appear too refined for such work and only suitable for marriage. She doesn’t want to rely on a man to look after her.

I don’t usually like reading plays; I find it difficult to lose myself in mere dialogue, but in this case Shaw’s interjections/scene settings are so long and descriptive that I almost forgot it was a play. As a bonus, there is an epilogue in which Shaw explains what comes next for Eliza and the rest of the cast, and why it is not the ending that many fans of the play and film might expect. It’s a very nuanced, interesting conclusion.

In short, I loved this and now want to watch the 1938 film, though mostly I want to watch My Fair Lady again.

The play first produced in Berlin, 1913; in London and Paris, 1914.
The film first produced 1938.
First published 1916.
Film version published by Penguin Books 1941.