Tag Archives: books

[REVIEW] – In Love With Hell

My review of William Palmer’s In Love With Hell: Drink in the Lives and Work of Eleven Writers (Robinson, 262pp, £20) is out now in May’s issue of Literary Review. Subscribers can also read the review via the Literary Review website. To my mind, the best aspects of the book are the passages describing postwar backstreet & provincial pub culture. Parts chimed sometimes of the work of C.P. Snow (early Strangers and Brothers), Colin Dexter, Stan Barstow, and Keith Waterhouse. Elsewhere in In Love With Hell, I had reservations about the author’s depiction of non-consensual sex, as I discuss in the review.

[REVIEW] Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon

https://i0.wp.com/www.oxonianreview.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/shakespeareshrine-e1353084043362.jpgMy review of Jane Thomas’s Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon was published in the 18 November issue of the Oxonian Review. You can read it online here.

Apart from the legitimate book-reviewing part, there’s a healthy dollop about the time your own correspondent was a guide in the aforementioned Birthplace (2010). Let’s just say that my mother cannot recall the sight of me in costume without hysterical laughter. I talk about that too. I also go on a bit about Oscar Wilde and French nudity. As ever, any excuse.

Research 2.0

Oxford is enjoying the long vac. This is the academic summer holiday; the period running from the end of 8th week Trinity (usually in late June), to October and Freshers’ Week. It is also the period to which proper academics refer as “time for getting some real work done”.

i've got 99 problems but mrs patrick campbell ain't one (sorry)

Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Doing ACTING. She's not trying very hard.

I’m doing my best. I’ve handed in a chapter draft & started work on another, only to discover that while reviews of Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s Shakespearean heroines (my last topic) were relatively few (journalists preferring to focus on Weird Saintly Johnstone F-R), every fin-de-siecle hack seems to have had at least 1,000 mind-numbing words to say about Ellen Terry in Cymbeline.

My DPhil project is (currently) entitled “Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle”, a title I love & cling to because

a) it’s short

b) it doesn’t have a colon in it (ergo no need to find Witty Quotation/make Unfortunate Pun), and

c) it lets my project do what it says on the tin. At present, though, it’s  the Fin de Siècle, rather than Shakespeare’s Women, giving me a mild academic headache.

Ellen Terry: The Psychedelic Years.

Oxford’s broadly/tacitly historicist approach to English (yes, all right, excluding Wadham, & NDKAlex) has always suited me perfectly. Unfortunately, while beginning my last chapter, I realised I had absolutely no idea what happened in theatre, literature or indeed British history, in the years immediately following 1895. Apart from Jude Law shouting “OSCAR!” across a Mediterranean courtyard, that shot of Lillie Langtry in The Degenerates, and Robbie Ross summoning a priest to Paris c. 1900, the end of the nineteenth century remained a blank.

Being gay for Sarah Bernhardt. That's my girl (Pelleas et Melisande, since you ask).

Given that much of my last chapter took place in and around 1895-8, this necessitated serious remedial research; fortunately successful. My new chapter centres on 1896, and I fondly imagined that this date – falling as it does under the big neurasthenic umbrella spread by the antics of Mrs Patrick “Skinny, Mad” Campbell – might make things easier. Oh no.

My supervisor, having reminded me that one version of my project was originally called The Actress and the Academy (I wish it’d been “The Actress and the Evangelist”, because if you’re going to have a pun, it should involve an actress and a bishop), has prescribed lots of C19 non- (and sometimes anti-)theatrical Shakespeare criticism.

Hartley Coleridge. The poster child for not-being-the-son-of-a-Romantic-Poet.

I have thus spent much of this weekend with Schlegel, Hazlitt, Coleridge, poor old Hartley Coleridge (no wonder he turned out so weird), Lamb, Ruskin and Pater. Simultaneously, I’m trying to pin down the theatrical marketplace c.1898-1901 beyond my memories of the Forsyte Saga and a Ladybird Book of Kings & Queens awareness that, in 1901, Queen Victoria Has To Die.

Fortunately, it’s brilliant. So far I’ve popped back to 1892 (Tennyson’s deathbed & the Shakespeare-hugging) and then jetted forward to 1904 (Vedrenne and Barker beginning to manage the Royal Court). In between are a series of pleasing symmetries: it gratifies me hugely that 1895 was both the year of Irving’s knighthood, and the year Shaw became critic of the Saturday Review (mostly to spend the next three years inveighing against Irving on a weekly, public basis). If you’re on Team Shaw (I’m mostly not), it’s also immensely satsifying that 1898, the year Shaw published Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, was the year Irving had to surrender the Lyceum Theatre to a syndicate.

L. Waller. REALLY, ladies?

Team Shaw and Team Henry were never actual Victorian entities (sad mistake), but today I discovered there was a Keen On Waller (Lewis Waller) Brigade, who wore K.O.W. badges, and doubtless bore resemblance to the madwomen we used to unpeel from David Tennant’s car during the RSC Hamlet.

In the midst of all this scattergun chronology, I cautiously feel I’m making progress and gaining, at the very least, some self-awareness about my research. Increasingly, I recognise a rhythm in the psychology involved in beginning a new chapter. Each time, it’s with scholarly-fingers-crossed that the distant instinct of x production potentially being useful or interesting to study (I found my first ever Thesis Outline last night. It made me laugh. And heave) will be justified by archival fulfilment of the Micawber principle that Something (Anything) Will Turn Up. So far, joyfully, it always has. But never the thing(s) I’ve expected.

Although it does nothing for my personal brand of Imposter Syndrome, I’ve learned that, in research, it’s rarely solely the Neat Planned Trajectory of Reading which delivers the goods. Obviously days-on-end of grunt work is essential (see my opening re: hacks/Shakespeare/Terry), but it’s often the chance remark made by your supervisor/panel chair/coffee buddy in the Bod/Costa/despair that sparks something new; or the book you pick up for £2 at a room-sale, or flick through in Blackwell’s. Or, it’s the “irrelevant” scrapbook you read for fun while in archives, or the weird small ads in the Post, or the lucky chronological coincidence you can’t control. The miraculous cannot, I’ve found, occur without the mundane: I usually find the Big Idea only when bored to tears by hours and hours of the Small. Perhaps there’s some weird scholarly symbiosis at work — actually, maybe this isn’t progress; on rereading, it sounds more like a retreat into archival mysticism. The Oxford Faculty of Magical Thinking. Damn.

Secondly, alongside this uncertainty principle (which COULD be interpreted as evidence of a rich field for research & hitherto unexplored complexities of fin-de-siecle theatre, thank you very much) there’s the sensation from which I’ve drawn the title of this post – the start of second-year research and an upgrade to Research 2.0.

I like pictures. Only God can judge me.

Poor old Tennyson.

Simply put, this is the unfolding student belief that, twelve months in and umpteen texts later, EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED. Suddenly, everything is linking up! Everything is helpful for everything! EVERYTHING must be written down, EVERYTHING speaks IN A VERY REAL SENSE to that other thing there, in that document, on that bit of paper, LOOK HOW IT ALL MAKES SENSE. ISN’T IT INTERESTING??? &c. Having drafted three chapters, I am suddenly transfixed: although nominally just researching Cymbeline, I start SEEING INSIGHTS EVERYWHERE re: Lady Macbeth, Marxism, big dead Tennyson, the Royal Court Theatre & other figures who belong elsewhere in my thesis… LOOK HOW IT ALL JOINS UP.

This is fun, but dangerous. A love of patterns, symmetries & the desire for a Grand Master Theory encourages me to see/overstate connections and conspiracies that might not exist. While a deepening sense of the period is crucial – definitions, relationships, geographies etc – I’m trying to balance this with caution about tying it all together in a quixotic version of the Victorian World Order (even if I really want to find that Big Idea and make it Unlock Everything Ever), and trying not to confuse INTERESTING with what’s actually important. Equally, to make progress on one chapter, I have to limit my exciting tangents re: others, at least temporarily.

Then again, I suppose that kind of tangential, experimental research is exactly what the vac is for! In the various begging letters written during my year out & time as a PRS (i.e. my Oxford, AHRC, STR, Helmore Award and other apps, thank god for imminent funding) I set out a schedule for  completing the DPhil. This schedule made no mention of the Christmas, Easter or long vacs.

At the time, I had two reasons. Firstly, I knew the timetable was ambitious, and wanted to allow myself decent margins for expansion/alteration/disasters, should they occur (secretly, I was convinced I’d have to resit transfer). Secondly, at the start of my DPhil, I was unfunded, and expected to spend most or all of each holiday working (hence the stacks of A Level papers beneath which January was crushed).

Now funding approaches, but this vac time has been essential – both for finishing my third chapter, and starting teaching prep. Finishing Cymbeline by Christmas will mean I’m on track; sounds easy, no? But, again, teaching approaches. Not merely because of the volatile summer weather, I can’t help feeling I’m in the calm before the storm.

Sophie's spiritual home. Well, 50% of it. The other half doesn't have a nice picture.

Not that I’m, you know, calm exactly. I’m moving house (yes, still), alongside one of the least calm people I know, viz. my namesake, who is taking Some Sort Of Exams on Tuesday. Most of them are about Death. Every time I bother her in the library, she’s reading books on What Happens When You Die (non-medics thinking of researching: oh my god, don’t), and her life at the moment seems to consist entirely of Palliative Care and salads from Alpha Bar. I am reassured that, after Tuesday, her eyes will return to their normal size. Her hair is going white.

Probably what stung me.

Said medic has, however, been a star this week. Last Sunday, I was in Kent, where I not only attended The Most Beautiful (And Tasteful. And Moving. And Boozy) Wedding in-the-world-ever (it was here), but was bitten by some gladiatorial tropical deathfly that had visited England on summer exchange with the humble Kentish mosquito.

The lovely Emily, also bitten, had merely a slight itch in manner of a hardy German: I chose instead to stage my personal tribute to Cheryl Cole (except I bet she never had the left leg of an elephant with sunburn).

Sophie, my v. own doctor-in-the-house (who is doing far better at masking her native glint of clinical interest with the glow of human sympathy) has been sterling in pointing out the inadequacy of my home GP, and promising I won’t die. This is a vast step forward from The Time My New Bra Gave Me A Rash, when she poked said rash with one finger before saying “ooh, it doesn’t blanch”, and losing interest. I’m happy to live with her.

Meanwhile, I hope everyone on the East Coast or otherwise in the path of Hurricane Irene (why not Imogen, hmm?) is keeping safe. I go now to sort photo-frames into cardboard boxes.

Sarah Daniels: Plays 1

Ages ago, the nice people at methuen drama very kindly offered to send me a free book (I forget why, but thank you very much and please, more of the same).

In an excess of irresponsibility, I decided NOT to choose anything vaguely useful to my course, and to instead pick, at random, the work of a female playwright with whom I was unfamiliar. Sarah Daniels’s Plays: 1 duly arrived at Brasenose the other day, and since the Orlando Project tells me she’s “the only radical lesbian feminist to have made it into the mainstream”, I think I chose rather well.

Sarah Daniels was born in 1956, in London. Her Orlando profile describes how, as a secondary school student, she

“hated school” and made a habit of sitting at the back of the class, not listening. She left at eighteen for work. Bibliographic Citation link At school she “didn’t even like drama.” Bibliographic Citation link Studying Shakespeare‘s Henry V for O level English was dominated by reading the play aloud and therefore, for her, anxiety about pronouncing the words right. She was astonished to discover that she enjoyed the play when she saw it in the theatre. Bibliographic Citation link

She was lastingly impressed by an incident at her school when a boy raped a girl at knife-point. The boy was removed to a borstal or school for young offenders, but the headmaster then addressed the whole school to tell them that in cases of rape the blame was shared equally by both parties. Bibliographic Citation link

Daniels’s playwriting career took off after she was able to spend a year as the writer-in-residence of Sheffield University’s English department. Her plays have been performed at theatres including the Royal Court and the National Theatre, and Daniels is also on the board of directors for Clean Break Theatre (trans: she is awesome beyond words). Her partner of many years, and civil partner, was the activist and schools inspector Claire Walton, who died in 2009.

Plays 1 comprises Sarah Daniels’s first six plays: Ripen Our Darkness, Ma’s Flesh is Grass, Masterpieces, The Devil’s Gateway, Neaptide and Byrthrite.

So far I’ve read Ripen Our Darkness (1981) and Masterpieces (1983). My ability to consume feminist 80s playwriting knows almost no bounds. Ripen Our Darkness is about marriage, mental illness and misery in the Anglican church; a bolder precursor to Alan Bennett’s Bed Among The Lentils, which followed in 1987 and also depicts a vicar’s wife in crisis. Daniels’s protagonist doesn’t receive even temporary redemption or escape.

Daniels’s next play, Masterpieces is about pornography, misogyny and mental illness. The roles across both plays are predominantly female, and, at its best, the writing is heart-stopping, combative and clear. However, Ripen Our Darkness is weakest and most uneven in its handling of the working-class lesbian Julie, who might have sounded cliched in her speech back in 1981. Yet, for a play that’s 30 years old, Ripen Our Darkness often strikes heart & intellect simultaneously: moreover, Hilary, the most obviously working-class woman in Masterpieces, is far more subtly characterised than Julie. Hilary, a single mother and sex worker, readily accepts a legitimate day job from a male friend of her social worker. The scene in which Hilary’s boss, Ron, begins to seduce and harass her is both timeless and excruciating, as are the unsympathetic responses of the other characters.

Daniels’s unabashedly anti-pornographic stance in Masterpieces has (regrettably) become unfashionable in contemporary feminism, but her emotionally direct style anticipates writers like Laurie Penny. I wish I could see ways of staging her plays for student audiences, but at the moment I’m unconvinced. For one thing, Oxford plays with all-female casts tend to do badly unless they’re Playhouse Creatures or The House of Bernarda Alba (both of which I love), or, at best, attract tedious expanses of critical shock at the goshness and novelty of a play without any boys (on second thoughts, maybe Daniels isn’t dated at all).

As texts, Daniels’s plays read wonderfully. I’m, um, apprehensive about the last in the collection, which is ominously titled Byrthrite and which I suspect of glorying in wom(y)nly gore, but I’m currently halfway through Neaptides (1986) and desperate to know what happens.

If I blink at the scene in Neaptides where Claire tells daughter Poppy a myth-cum-fairy-story about the goddess Persephone’s masturbation, I’m grateful that Daniels wrote in ways that are so combative, unembarrassed, and unashamed. The radical feminists of the 1980s cut swathes through misogyny and chauvinism, so that twenty-first-century girls like me could, if they chose, be embarrassed and Anglican and gay all at once, and in (relative) peace. In Daniels’s excellent first collection, I’m glad to find myself another feminist, literary foremother, and to take a look at another bit of feminism’s theatrical past.

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Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

Liz Woledge of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust invited me to be involved with this project.Liz Woledge of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust contacted me, asking me to participate in Happy Birthday, Shakespeare: the SBT’s 2011 project inviting bloggers to write about Shakespeare’s impact on their life and work. I was delighted to get involved. #hbws 1564-2011.

I exist because of Shakespeare. Hyperbolic though that may sound, it’s less an assertion of Shakespeare-as-self-help (although, if you’re in the market…) than a statement of historical fact.

Ben Kingsley and Niamh Cusack, 1985.

My parents worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company; my mother was a Senior Wig and Make-Up Artist, my father a Deputy Stage Manager. They met during the RSC’s production of Othello in 1985, started dating in previews, were living together by press night, and got engaged five months later. They’ll celebrate their silver wedding in July.

Although Stratford babies have yet to start gurgling in iambic pentameter, my experience of Shakespeare has always been inseparable from my experience of Stratford. This sense of ownership has, quite naturally, engendered a sense of belligerent, smug parochialism that would put the inhabitants of Royston Vasey to shame. Although wildly partisan about the glories of Stratford, from the Singing Man Of Henley Street to the architecture of the new theatre (which still looks quite a lot like a 1930s power station, but, good, I like it that way), I can, for the sake of argument, admit there might be an objectively equal town somewhere on planet Earth. The great thing about Shakespeare is that I have never needed to recalibrate my smugness. Shakespeare is the best, and the glorious thing is that the rest of the world seems to agree.

Growing up in Stratford, with theatre-loving parents and the RSC on my doorstep, I was guarded from the horrific slow death that can be a first encounter with Shakespeare at school. Instead, I saw my first production aged eight (Josie Lawrence in The Taming of the Shrew ) and benefitted from a drama teacher, Ali Troughton, who made Shakespeare’s language the birthright of seven-year-olds. The first speech I ever learned was the seven ages of man, and the first scene was the Witches in Macbeth. We were never taught that Shakespeare was difficult, boring or remote on some plain of exaltation; instead, he was immediate, exciting and ours.

I went on to take a degree in English, write a Masters thesis on Shakespeare performance history, and am now writing a doctorate on Shakespeare’s heroines at the Victorian fin de siècle. I’ve also directed and acted in Shakespeare productions, playing my way through his illustrious back catalogue of Women Who Are Short and Boys Whose Voices Haven’t Broken.

(c) Alastair Muir, 2003

Alexandra Gilbreath and Jasper Britton, 2003.

If Shakespeare has led me to some strange places, I can only apologise to my fellow-travellers. Special and fervent self-recrimination should be laid at the feet of one Jasper Britton, who had the misfortune to become the object of my schoolgirl adoration when I was fifteen, and he was in The Taming of the Shrew. Everything in my feminist, liberal, pinko-Pankhurst heart quite rightly rebels against Petruchio and all he stands for. Nothing can excuse the day I chased Mr Britton across the Bancroft Gardens to the cackling approval of a dozen other fifteen-year-old girls. Somehow, I went on to be the sort of Front of House staff member who could safely usher the Patrick Stewart/David Tennant Hamlet season. I also apologise to the student actress whom I forced to climb furniture around the edges of my college room, refusing to let her touch the floor in a “freeing” exercise to “help her find” Puck.

I, too, have suffered for Shakespeare. Part of my summer job with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (who bravely commissioned this blog post) involved me dressing as the first act of The Crucible in tropical temperatures while 3,000 visitors poured through the Birthplace each day. The upside is that I can now can now say “glovemaker” in Korean. Aged twelve, I wore a purple, gold and sky-blue blazer (I want you to take a moment to imagine that. Use this bracketed space to fully contemplate sixty eleven-year-old girls in purple, gold and sky-blue blazers. With shoulder pads) to represent my school in the Birthday Celebrations and lay flowers on Shakespeare’s tomb.

Christopher "Kit" "too cool for school but got stabbed in the eye" Marlowe. Not quite as good as Shakespeare.

As an undergraduate, my Oxford tutors tried their best to vary my literary diet of Women, Gayness, Shakespeare and Death. I studied conceptions of masculinity, attended with joy to the thrusting passion of Heathcliff and Cathy, acknowledged Middleton and swapped John Donne’s self-burying sermon for… no, I still read about Death. For a term, I even followed the cool kids by pretending I preferred Marlowe to Mr W. S.

However, while a BA is a time for experimenting with bad haircuts and all kinds of textual identities, grad school is different (for one thing, you no longer have money for a hairdresser). Critics in feminism, from Sandra M. Gilbert to Anette Federico, have described how academic research increasingly becomes “a kind of re-search into our own lives”. This is true for me: my own experience of Shakespeare is equally inseparable from my experience of theatre, and of my hometown.

Today, my academic research explores performances of Shakespeare’s heroines at the end of the nineteenth century, a time when Shakespeare was simultaneously the planet’s most idolized and most contested playwright.

Reading the writings of our most famous Shakespearean performers – then and now – convinces me that however we encounter Shakespeare, whether as readers, scholars or performers, we have always used his plays to help us understand ourselves, and to articulate our own experiences.

Responding to the Arts Council England cuts, I wrote a polemic on the value of theatre, trying to express the ways in which theatre teaches confidence, creativity, self-belief and, above all, communities in which diversity, trust and risk-taking can flourish together. Everything that is true of theatre is especially true of Shakespeare. No other writer that I’ve found so consistently challenges and empowers all those who encounter him.

(c) www.bustledress.com

Lillie Langtry, c. 1880.

Back in 1882, Lillie Langtry, by then a sidelined Royal mistress with a bankrupt husband and illegitimate baby, turned to acting largely out of financial necessity. The result was artistic liberation. Staging Shakespeare she was, for the first time “my own master, my own mistress, and freed from unaccustomed control”. Generations of performers have felt the same freedom.

If this sounds too much like Bardolatry, I should say there are some plays I absolutely hate – King Lear is always about seven hours too long, and as one very famous Shakespeare scholar noted in my hearing, consists chiefly of “all those men going mad”.

This August, I’m thrilled to be seeing Catherine Tate and David Tennant in Much Ado About Nothing. I hope the combination of superstar actors and one of the world’s most-visited cities brings a new generation of theatregoers to one of Shakespeare’s best-loved, sharpest comedies. I hope seeing their first play encourages them to track down a second – and a third, and a fourth. Happy Birthday, Shakespeare.

Call To Register: Oxford English Graduate Conference “The Famed and The Forgotten”

Registration is now open for The Famed and The Forgotten, taking place on 10th June in Oxford University’s English Faculty.

45 student speakers from Oxford and around the UK will be delivering papers on the concepts of ‘famed’ and ‘forgotten’, interrogated in the broadest possible terms across genres and periods encompassing Old English to the literature of the present day.

A panel discussion on “The Future of Reading” featuring representatives from Oxford University Press, SHM Productions consultancy and the Oxford English Faculty will take place, and we will hear a keynote address from Booker Prize winner Penelope Lively.

The £15 attendance fee covers lunch, snacks and all conference materials. Please register via our website – http://graduate-conference.english.ox.ac.uk/ – or with an email to claire [dot] waters [at] ell [dot] ox [dot] ac [dot] uk.

Then, confirm your place by sending a cheque or postal order for £15 made out to the University of Oxford to Claire Waters, St Catherine’s College, Manor Road, Oxford, OX1 3UJ.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

NaNoWriMo, murder and the Wallace affair…

This is, I guess, an appropriate post for the run-up to Hallowe’en! Warning: gory/disturbing stuff beneath the cut (my first attempt at using one on WordPress, hope it works!)

A couple of days ago, I signed up for NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. For the uninitiated, this is a worldwide online project where participants each write a novel – 50,000 words – in the 30 days of November. Since signups, I’ve been fretting about the possibilities of libel, slander and nobody speaking to me ever again. I hope this is merely a clever displacement activity to avoid the most likely reason for failure – simply not producing those 50,000 words.

The prospect of winning NaNo (trans: successfully meeting the word limit) fills me with huge relief: in 30 days, it’d be done. I’d have written a novel, and – no matter how bad, boggy and unpublishable – I would know it could be done. And then I could do it again, rather better – it’d never be so difficult again, not until the tricky third-novel-slump where I have to go and stay in a friends’ house in the Fens and drink tea and stare out and possibly have a passionate/doomed love affair with the man who brings the post/dark-eyed waif from the village. And then produce something a bit Woolf and a bit Dylan Thomas.

God, can you imagine how that child would have looked.

I am also, my brothers, joining A Book Club. I have never been sure about Book Clubs. They always screamed Richard & Judy and those 3 for 2 stickers (no that’s not just snobbery, those stickers induce HORRIBLE ANXIETY, I can NEVER find 3 books I want on the table and then the girl asks and god), also the prospect of sitting round discussing Clarissa Dalloway’s Motivation does tend to make you scream when it’s what you do for – well, not a living. For the three years that push you dramatically into debt, teach you to eat plovers’ eggs and are so golden-and-aquatint that the rest of the world seems cold and dark, woe, woe, et cetera. But Simon is in lots, so they must be okay, and now Book Clubs appeal to me in the same way as NaNoWriMo. I am jobless. I am dolescum. I finally have the time.

Plus, my sole close schoolfriend currently in Really Gainful Employment (Recruitment Consultant, hoyes) hates it so much he suggested a Book Club in his first recorded moment of speech without irony. Sincerity, from him, indicates a man on the edge of a quarter-life crisis/a Birmingham-based Columbine, so we’re all going to sit in a pub and mock our own literary endeavours, before choosing books to read for next time.

Of the two readers whose tastes I know well, I predict – respectively – Nabakov and Orwell as opening gambits. I’m veering towards Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (haven’t read it yet – any thoughts?) for several reasons: 1) love my boys though I do, I’d be surprised if they chose many women writers – they’re Salinger & Orwell kind of guys, and 2) the fact it’s dystopian means they might actually like it. I’m not a big reader of dystopia, but I adored Oryx & Crake. Here’s another reason I’m nervous of the Book Club – when I talk about books outside an academic context, I sound sort of stupid. I don’t know whether to play nice and seem witless, or leap into a tutorial-style discussion and attempt to shed their hearts’ blood.

In terms of what I’m actually reading, I’m on a massive P. D. James kick, and waiting (probably forever) for Gary Taylor’s Inventing Shakespeare to arrive from Amazon. I heard P. D. James preach in chapel once, but until now Dalgliesh has been a big omission from my personal detective-canon. Having read Cover Her Face, Shroud For A Nightingale, The Black Tower, A Mind to Murder and now Death of an Expert Witness, I watched an ITV3 profile of her earlier in the week. Gyles Brandreth being an amiable idiot, Ruth Rendell being surprisingly closed-lipped on a woman she obviously loves, Mark Lawson being an unforgivable cretin (apparently Dorothy L Sayers “was all right on character but couldn’t really write a sentence”, berk berk “>berk berk) and Val McDermid rather ostentatiously calling her “Phyllis” (I wanted to link directly to McDermid’s website, but the typewriter sound effects are too annoying).

Several of PD James’s novels owe a positive debt to Dorothy L. Sayers. Shroud for a Nightingale has the same closed female community, sexual spectres and last-minute-assault-on-the-sleuth as Gaudy Night and, not coincidentally, is my favourite thus far. Set in a nurses’ training school in the 1970s, its opening pages contain one of the most horrific murders in detective fiction, the death of Nurse Pearce in the nurses’ demonstration room.

Talking of horrific murders, it cannot be every family that stores an almost-forgotten cache of crime scene photos in the same blanket box as old letters and birth certificates. I guess I’m just lucky. Our blanket box is a last-chance saloon for paperwork, never opened except  for those mysterious periods in my childhood when my father would get out 400 pieces of paper and  balance our finances (or at least acquaint himself with the imbalance).

Beneath the layers of respectable bills and invoices lies stuff from a film my dad worked on in 1990,about an unsolved murder in 1930s Liverpool. Do you remember the Prudential insurance ads? The Man From The Pru was the story of William Herbert Wallace, whose wife Julia was bludgeoned to death on the hearth in their shabby, cramped front room. Wallace claimed he’d been out at the time of the murder, searching for a non-existent in a street that was never built. The client was R. M. Qualtrough and the street was Menlove Gardens East, and I am enough of a terrifying crime nerd that I’m telling you all this from memory.  Wallace was tried, convicted and then sensationally acquitted. He didn’t hang, but died a broken man. The film starred Jonathan Pryce, Anna Massey and it dates horribly and as a child I was strictly, strictly forbidden to read the contents of the THE MAN FROM THE PRU file that was exacavated during my father’s financial archaeological digs.

My parents rarely censored what I read. Occasionally my mother has guilt that I got hold of trashfests like Yes, Mama (illegitimate orphan cruelly treated father disinherits mother senile child abuse prostitution suicide marries one-armed Boer veteran) and A Lady in Berkshire (“Kitty Winters could never have been called handsome but at that moment she looked almost beautiful” — trufax, and I found that at primary school) at nine, but since I also read all her Shakespeare, Dickens, Blyton, Christie & EJ Howard, it didn’t hurt. I think censoring children’s reading is pointless and stultifying, unless your precious lamb is somehow veering towards Firearms Monthly and Mein Kampf. I was only ever banned from The Jewels of Tessa Kent, which I read surreptitiously and guiltily in five-minute intervals (at thirteen, two years after Emily Organ passed round the sex bits in The Horse Whisperer to an awestruck Form 7X), The Betsy (mother decides Harold Robbins automobile expose will destroy child’s innocence) and, unforgettably, The Contents Of This Folder. My father said sternly that it was Not Very Nice (I must have been about five or six the last time the folder was unearthed in pursuit of papers – not long after the film was made, in fact), but otherwise I think he’d forgotten the thing existed.

I must have been a compliant kid. I didn’t read the folder until yesterday. And yes – apart from the respectable and fascinating original newspapers, it was horrible, horrible stuff… Continue reading

REVIEW: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh | Women & The Campus Novel

51d4obbekqlI have just finished Michael Chabon‘s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), the unforgettable but certainly not unmissable story of the rather tears-prone Art Bechstein, college student and gangster’s son, and how he spends a summer. I say ‘not unmissable’ because you’ve probably read it already. The trio of neurotic and rather boring narrator, attractive/irritating/enigmatic girl and enticing/enigmatic/somewhat homosexual male friend is also to be found in The Talented Mr. Ripley (aren’t the current Radio 4 versions dreadful?), The Secret History and Brideshead Revisited ; all of which function to a greater or lesser degree as examples of the genre. The remainder of Pittsburgh, Highsmith- Tartt- and Waugh-free, owes a great deal to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and a bad case of genre confusion, but already I know I’ll reread it. As a whole, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh doesn’t live up to its opening, which has a brilliance of style and a kind of enormous narrative swoop that promises golden prose and enjoyable heartbreak. Read it for the opening. If you’re reading this and know me, I’ll lend you my copy. If you like books about crime, America, colleges, homosexuality, doomed youth and doomed love, you’ll like this and quite frankly I do and that’s why. I’ll definitely be reading other Chabon soon. Oh, and the bastard wrote the book for his MFA thesis. Life’s not fair.

BUT. There is a but. There’s a big but, and one which brings us right back to Brideshead. Apparently, they’ve (by which I mean director  made a film of Pittsburgh. A film, which, on its ‘Story‘ and ‘Meet the Cast‘ pages, makes no mention of anybody playing the novel’s second main character – Art’s namesake, corruptor and sometime lover, the (as I mentioned) enticing/enigmatic/somewhat homosexual Arthur Lecomte. With Art’s mostly unseen father (the gangster – no, really, it’s brilliant, the Mafia’s in it lots), Lecomte is the most interesting part of the story. I fear that the film of Pittsburgh, in sidelining Arthur/Art for the heterosexual romance between Art and Phlox, makes the same mistake as the airless, degayed and de-Catholicked Brideshead (re)-adaptation last year. Phlox is played by Mena Suvari, and if Phlox is the film’s heroine, it’s going to be a film with a vacuum at its centre.

Phlox is at the kind of girl who only exists in the campus novel. Like Jane, she’s unreal; less real even than Julia Marchmain, or Howard’s various sad-eyed victims in The History Man (1975). I wondered if this was an I-Blame-The-Patriarchy moment with something to be imputed to male authorship, but no. In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), the most successful campus novel of recent years and (to my mind) the most beautiful (and heavily indebted to Chabon), Camilla is completely unreal, only a grey-eyed little image (albeit a beautiful one) about whom we know things, rather than knowing her. The other women, central to the story are Papen’s California friend Judy (to be unfavourably contrasted with Camilla – loud, brash, freckled, promiscuous) and Bunny’s girlfriend Marion (a ‘little thing’ who’s ‘not afraid to wear a dress – [Bunny] likes that’).

Perhaps, depressingly, it’s impossible for the female to be anything other than the Other in a novel about education. Alan Bennet makes the point admirably in The History Boys, through the lips of Mrs Lintott – but isn’t it telling that, first off, the female character added to the film was Fiona (visible sex bomb vs. referenced sex bomb of the stage script), and that second, although we’ve had the Man and now the Boys, we’ve yet to meet The History Women?

I should say that I love – absolutely adore –  all the texts I’ve just mentioned. I wouldn’t change them. But I would, if I could, give them sisters; female narratives of education to rank alongside, either talking about both sexes without casting one as Other, or focussing on women as earlier texts did on men. My favourite novel of all, Dorothy L. Sayers‘s Gaudy Night (1936, and rather madly annotated here) does this, getting to the heart of the problems of learning, sex and academia, and arguing them as honestly as possible. But I don’t know anything that’s done so, in the same dirty-handed, articulate, beautiful way, since Sayers.

That children’s fiction used to do this for girls in secondary education – Blyton, the endearing Oxenham, Bruce, Angela Brazil etc – is simultaneously recognised and derided. A quick guide – if you read the above authors now, Blyton will seem the most familiar, Oxenham the gayest, Bruce the most formulaic and Brazil weepingly funny. There are earlier, more radical texts, like the BLISSFUL er, v complex and interesting Alice Stronach’s A Newnham Friendship (1901), which is unusual in that a) it’s set at Cambridge, b) it actually gets involved with the heroines’ academic lives (Homer! Translations!) as opposed to merely their sporting/pranking exploits or noble and really quite racist capturing of unfortunate German spies, and that c) it’s really, really good.

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