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Posts Tagged ‘English literature’

Ever since I read Lolly Willowes a few years ago I wanted to read more Sylvia Townsend Warner. Recently, I was looking for an escape, and picked up The Corner That Held Them. It fascinated me that the same author who wrote a book in which the devil appears as a sympathetic character would write another — considered a masterpiece — about a convent in the English countryside in the 1300s.

Although some people include this on plague novel lists, the Black Death plays a small (albeit pivotal) role in the book. It’s really about the human drama of a close-knit community, and about the management of a small convent in the Middle Ages, when such places got by on the dowries rich families paid for their daughters to become novices. And on the rents paid by by nearby tenants, and the manors on which they were founded. Which are some topics I’m a bit hazy on, and I plan to look into further.

The novel tells the story of the nuns’ lives — as a community, without dwelling too long on individuals —  their ambitions and fears, the way the convent’s well being depends on the bishop as well as the bailiff. Which near as I can tell is the property manager or overseer, who manages things like firewood and harvests and livestock. The prioress has some power but must manage up — the bishop, his custos (another kind of overseer, who reports on the management of the convent itself), the nuns’ priest (Sir Ralph, who is quite a fascinating character), the families who would place their daughters as novices.

There are a number of dramas of varying impact — a building project that goes awry, some personality clashes that even become violent, and endless financial issues. And towards the end of the novel, an uprising of poor people who are tired of being sent to the king’s wars, and tired of the church’s wealth. In fact, the pivotal events that lead to a surprise ending are triggered by the uprising, and by a visit from a beggar woman, Annis, who has fallen in with a thief who was raised at the convent.

Annis is working out what to do with a silly nun who wants to sell something (that isn’t hers to sell) “for the relief of the poor” when she has a thought that could probably sum up the novel’s theme:

“It is not hunger or nakedness that worst afflict the poor, for a very little thieving or a small alms can remedy that. No, the wretchedness of the poor lies below hunger and nakedness. It consists of their incessant incertitude and fear, the drudging succession of shift and scheme and subterfuge, the labouring in the quicksand where every step that takes hold of the firm ground is also a step into the danger of condemnation. Not cold and hunger but Law and Justice are the bitterest affliction of the poor.”

Townsend Warner wrote this in the 1940s about the 1300s . . . and it’s still an accurate description of systemic poverty.

And the writing took me away. Here’s a bit about the family members of Dame Matilda, come to see her installed as prioress in 1368: “Even with one’s eyes shut one could tell what manner of folk they were by the smells that came from their garments: an uncle’s lined boots, a grandfather’s hat, the velvet gown a great-great-grandmother had bequeathed.”

Or this description of Sir Ralph, ensconced in his role as nuns’ priest: “Now, in his dusty chamber or walking his accustomed rounds, a mere thinking could pierce his heart with pleasure.” Townsend Warner lists a number of these pleasurable ordinary thoughts, including, “. . . Saint Paul’s transfigured faith suddenly bursting out amid his polished arguments as the face of a satyr looks out from the laurel bush.” As vivid a simile of Paul’s letters as you’ll read.

An entrancing read, as forthright about the problematic power structures of the church as about human nature, entertaining and beautiful and strange. I’ll be thinking about this book for a while.

 

 

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I’ve had a couple different people suggest Barbara Pym as pandemic reading. I’d read Jane and Prudence, albeit quite some time ago. I was hunting all over for it, thinking I’d re-read it, and never found it. Tonight I realized, when I looked back at my review, that I took it to my grandmother!

Anyway, after a spate of more serious reading, I decided to take a look at whether any of Pym’s novels were available as an eBook through my libraries. I was able to find A Glass of Blessings and have enjoyed it. Pym’s work is not plot-heavy. Instead she explores the inner life of her main character, in this case Wilmet Forsyth, and the time they live in. Wilmet is a woman in her thirties, a former Wren, living in London in the late forties or early fifties.

Wilmet is married to her wartime beau, Rodney, and they live with his mother. Rodney works at an unnamed ministry. They have no children, and Wilmet is self-conscious about having little to occupy her time. She attends an Anglo-Catholic church, and has a few friends: Mary, a fellow parishioner who briefly explores a religious vocation; Rowena, her best friend from their Wren days, Rowena’s brother Piers. Wilmet, over the course of a year, entertains the idea of taking a lover, flirts with Rowena’s husband Harry, tries to flirt with Piers, and worries that she is “a horrid person.”

But she isn’t. She’s kind to her mother-in-law. She worries about Mr. Bason, who wasn’t any good at his ministry job and becomes the cook and housekeeper for the clergy at Wilmet’s church. She is concerned for Piers, who hasn’t settled into regular work and seems to be going through a low period. She befriends Pier’s flatmate Keith, even though he is a bore. She cares about Mary, who is grieving as well as determining what to do with her life. Wilmet simply can’t see all the ways she is helping people.

Pym captures Wilmet’s feelings, her thoughts, the way our minds work. In one scene, where she is visiting Mary, Wilmet can’t get to sleep. She thinks, “It seemed as if life had been going on around me without my knowing it, in the disconcerting way that it sometimes does, like the traffic swirling past when one is standing on an island in the middle of the road.” And a few sentences later, “I tried to remember our time in Italy, but all that came into my mind were curious irrelevant little pictures — ” The pictures get tangled up with her current life’s pictures as she drifts into sleep. That seemed to me one of the more accurate descriptions of lying awake fighting an active brain that I’ve ever read.

The other striking thing about the characters in A Glass of Blessings is that none of them seem likely to be people whose lives would garner enough attention to be recorded in fiction. A bored housewife. A young, religious woman unsure of her future. A man who doesn’t have the kind of job or apartment expected of someone like him. A widow living with her son and daughter-in-law, with an amateur interest in archeology. A man with a talent for cooking and a taste for “beautiful things.” But Pym makes this mosaic of ordinary people doing ordinary things — living — into a lovely, quiet, and reflective story about who we are to each other.

I also thought it felt quite contemporary in another striking way: Wilmet and Mary are regular churchgoers but the rest generally don’t go, even at Christmas. There are any number of interesting Anglican issues of the day alluded to — the Oxford Movement, the question of the Church of South India (which I had to look up), the question of priest celibacy. There is also a sense of unreality reading something set at a time when ordinary people could afford to live in London.  All of that made A Glass of Blessing an interesting diversion. Probably not to everyone’s taste, but a nice, calm antidote to today’s reality.

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In the foreword to A Month in the Country, J.L. Carr notes, “During any prolonged activity, one tends to forget original intentions. But I believe that, when making a start on A Month in the Country, my idea was to write an easy-going story, a rural idyll along the lines of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree.” So when I finished Carr’s novel last weekend I decided to read Hardy’s next.

While Carr places his story in a village where tradition and social propriety are important and where the local vicar seems to wonder about whether he’d be better off with another assignment, his story is a melancholy look back at a summer when two war veterans, still processing their recent experiences, come to live and work in a village. They each harbor wounds from their personal lives, too, and the book turned out to be less a rural idyll than an examination of a changing society, seasoned with the tension of two young men whose futures are uncertain, and the temptation each feels in attractions that are forbidden to them (Birkin is briefly but dangerously drawn to the vicar’s young wife and Moon is homosexual at a time when that could land him in jail).

Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree is truly a rural idyll — one of his “Wessex” novels. It’s a much gentler story, of a young man in a village, Dick Dewy, who is in love with the school mistress, Fancy Day. Dick is from a large family and follows his father into tranter work (transportation or peddling from a horse carriage), and also sings in the “quire” with him and other village men, accompanied by various stringed instruments. Fancy comes from a slightly better family and is educated, so their relationship is endangered by her father’s aspirations for a better match and a couple of rival suitors.

The details of the social fabric of Hardy’s fictional village are vivid, and the characters are interesting. He covers some of the same ground as Jane Austen and George Eliot in this novel, with domestic and social drama at the center. Hardy takes on including people who are somewhat outside the norms in his story,  including Fancy’s step mother who seems to be what we’d identify as obsessive compulsive today and Leaf, a developmentally disabled man. But he treads some of the same topics, showing Fancy caught up in keeping a secret from Dick and also for a little while, appearing undecided about whether or not she loves him.

The book is written in colloquial language that slowed me down a bit. I enjoyed the side plot about whether to have organ or strings and voices accompany the congregation’s hymn singing. It was entertaining, and interesting to read and to contrast with A Month in the Country.

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In more than one article where he’s asked about favorite books, Michael Ondaatje cites J.L. Carr‘s A Month in the Country.  That was more than enough endorsement for me to add it to a list of books to look for . . . and then I found it on our ramble through the used bookshops of Portland at the beginning of the summer. I read it today and it was just the balm I needed after a tough couple of weeks of hard thinking at work about my research project and the new semester and at home about my project for my final year of grad school.

It was also the perfect book to read after The Secret Lives of Color. In A Month in the Country, the main character, Mr. Birkin, is a WWI veteran who arrives in 1920 in a northern English village called Oxgodby, where he’s been hired to uncover a medieval painting whitewashed over centuries earlier in the local church. As he works he notes various pigments, like ultramarine and hematite and verdigris, and as he commented on their richness, colorfastness, scarcity, or cost, I understood.

Both Birkin’s work and that of his fellow veteran and “southerner” Mr. Moon are funded by the recently deceased Adelaide Hebron, whose last wishes include hiring someone to uncover the artwork and to find the tomb of her ancestor Piers, who was excommunicated and so isn’t buried in the churchyard. Moon, an archeologist, suspects the meadow also holds even more ancient remains and the foundation of a much earlier church, dating back to the 7th century. He stays in a tent (and a hole he’s dug under it), Birkin stays in the bell tower, and between them they work and observe the locals and discuss the vicar, Rev. Keach and his lovely young wife, Alice, who seem mismatched. Which of course provides room for speculation, but there’s no sappy or simple love story here. Just tension, well told.

Birkin ends up being absorbed into village life as he is pressed into officiating local cricket matches and looked after by the stationmaster, Mr. Ellerbeck, and his family. As their teenaged daughter Kathy notes, “Mam says you’re over-much on your own and traipse around like a man in a dream and need to be got into company.” They are “chapel” rather than church people, and out of appreciation for their kindness and their generosity (Mrs. Ellerbeck feeds him regularly) Birkin ends up attending their Wesleyan services and helping with Sunday school. He even takes an uncomfortable turn at preaching in a nearby chapel when Ellerbeck is overextended, and helps his new friends shop for an organ for the chapel in the nearby town, in scene which is a hilarious send-up of sectarian snobbery.

The humor, the portrait of village life, the commentary on post WWI England’s cultural, social, and religious landscape, and the mysteries of Birkin’s and Moon’s work are all delightful. The story is certainly entertaining, but the deeper threads about healing from war wounds visible and invisible, and finding one’s way in a world that seems both completely changed in some ways and very much what it’s always been in others, make for a thoughtful read that explores the kind of “big T” truths that I enjoy in fiction.

Moon tells Birkin, as summer draws to a close and their work is nearly done, “You can only have this piece of cake once; you can’t keep munching away at it. Sad, but there it is! You’ll find that, once you’ve dragged yourself off round the corner, there’ll be another view; it may even be a better one.” Later than evening, Birkin reflects on this and thinks, “And he was right — the first breath of autumn was in the air, a prodigal feeling, a feeling of wanting, taking, and keeping before it is too late.”

That’s what A Month in the Country is about — that feeling, and how we respond to it. Birkin has decisions to make. Moon has plans. The story ends without our knowing precisely what they intend to do, but with a delicious sense of “a precious moment gone” as Carr writes. This is a book I’ll read again, and one that I picked up at just the right time.

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I took a break from my Europa Editions reading to enjoy Kate Atkinson‘s latest novel, Transcription. Like Life After Life and A God In Ruins, this book’s characters are defined by WWII. This time the heroine, Juliet, is looking back on her war experience. The novel is bookended by two very short chapters set in 1981. In between, it’s either the early 1940’s or 1950. Juliet is just 18 at the start of the war, an orphan, and she becomes a transcriptionist, working in a small covert operation to spy on British fascists who think they are sharing secrets with a Nazi operative, who is in fact working for MI5. Her boss decides she is capable of more, and soon she is playing a young woman of means who sympathizes with the Nazis, and is infiltrating the close circle of an admiral’s wife and member of the Right Club. That was a real organization of upper class British fascists.

Juliet, as Iris the Nazi sympathizer, has some adventures and does well, and doesn’t go unnoticed by the man who run MI5. But her main role as a transcriptionist goes on. The novel tells the story of the small series of dramas that shaped Juliet’s life during the war and what became of her after, when she ends up at the BBC. Transcription is a beautifully written book, and like Atkinson’s other WWII novels, Transcription examines truth and imagination, and the way they are manipulated for better or worse as people try to do their best in a crisis. When Juliet begins to be Iris for her boss Perry’s operation, he tells her, “Don’t let your imagination run away with you, Miss Armstrong. You have an unfortunate tendency to do so.” There are fake identities, lies, subterfuge, and even in one instance, a counterfeit transcript. People who appear to be bad are good and vice versa. Some things are not what they seem but others are exactly.

And many of the people Juliet feels she knows and can trust, or places in her mental picture of the Service and who does what there, turn out to have more than meets the eye to their lives and work. The end of the novel is a kick — I didn’t see what happens coming at all, but then when I finished reading I thought, “Of course that’s what happened.” And the characters, as in Life After Life and A God In Ruins are wonderful, even the minor characters, especially those on the periphery of Juliet’s life. When someone who is only in a few scenes appears perfectly formed in your mind’s eye, and you hear his or her voice, well, that’s good writing. In both the quality of the writing and the subject matter, Transcription reminded me a bit of another excellent book I read recently, Warlight.

One of my Thanksgiving guests has read some of Atkinson’s earlier work and recommended those books as well, so I’ll have to keep reading her!

P.S. In discussing this post with the Computer Scientist I decided Transcription reminds me of John le Carré spy novels in all the best ways.

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