Elizabeth Gaskell

does the rich man share his plenty with me, as he ought to do, if his religion wasn’t a humbug?

Title: Mary Barton
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Published 1848
Page count: 393

Plot summary from Goodreads: Mary Barton, the daughter of a disillusioned trade unionist, rejects her working class lover Jem Wilson in the hope of marrying Henry Carson, the mill-owner’s son, and making a better life for herself and her father. But when Henry is shot down in the street and Jem becomes the main suspect, Mary finds herself painfully torn between the two men. Through Mary’s dilemma and the moving portrayal of her father the embittered and courageous activist John Barton Mary Barton (1848) powerfully dramatizes the class divisions of the ‘hungry forties’ as personal tragedy. In its social and political setting, it looks forward to Elizabeth Gaskell’s great of the industrial revolution, in particular North and South.

This was Elizabeth Gaskell’s first book, and is the second book by her which I’ve read. It’s really two books in one – the first, concentrating on John Barton (father of the titular Mary Barton) is a screed about structural inequality and capital versus labor, and the second, a courtroom drama focused around Mary Barton’s romantic travails.

As is often the case with Victorian melodramas, Mrs. Gaskell took her time getting going – about the first third of the book, focused on John Barton and the plight of the laborers is fascinating, but not precisely action packed.

I can’t overstate how relevant this book is to the conditions between capital and labor today – it’s disturbing how so much has remained the same between the excesses of the industrial revolution and today.

At all times it is a bewildering thing to the poor weaver to see his employer removing from house to house, each one grander than the last, till he ends in building one more magnificent than all, or withdraws his money from the concern, or sells his mill to buy an estate in the country, while all the time the weaver, who thinks he and his fellows are the real makers of this wealth, is struggling on for bread for their children, through the vicissitudes of lowered wages, short hours, fewer hands employed, &c. And when he knows trade is bad, and could understand (at least partially) that there are not buyers enough in the market to purchase the goods already made, and consequently that there is no demand for more; when he would bear and endure much without complaining, could he also see that his employers were bearing their share; he is, I say, bewildered and (to use his own word) “aggravated” to see that all goes on just as usual with the mill-owners. Large houses are still occupied, while spinners’ and weavers’ cottages stand empty, because the families that once occupied them are obliged to live in rooms or cellars. Carriages still roll along the streets, concerts are still crowded.

We are quite literally having the same conversations in 2019 that Elizabeth Gaskell was describing in 1848 when this book was published. The single distinction is that there is at least a minimal safety net now, that didn’t exist then. John Barton had a little boy, Tom, who starved to death because his father couldn’t afford sufficient food to keep him alive.

She reminds us:

Remember, too, that though it may take much suffering to kill the able-bodied and effective members of society, it does not take much to reduce them to worn, listless, diseased creatures, who thenceforward crawl through life with moody hearts and pain-stricken bodies.

I’ve often thought to myself that “Conservatives” (at least as they self-identify in the U.S.) should better be called the “New Victorians.” They are fine with this type of extreme economic winner vs. loser scenario, and with government policies that are intended to ensure that this economic Darwinism proceeds apace (so long as they are among the winners). I think often of Dickens and Gaskell when Republican politicians talk about dismantling our barely existent safety net – because history tells us what happens when we dehumanize the poor. Rich people most emphatically do not step into the breach to ensure that children don’t die of starvation and anyone who believes otherwise needs to pick up a book written during that time.

Wealthy Victorians treated the poor and vulnerable with a harsh inhumanity that negates their very right to exist. Period. #notallrichpeople, blah, blah, blah.

When we move into the second half of the book, Elizabeth Gaskell has written a pot-boiler and it becomes unputdownable. The only son of the mill owner, Henry Carson, is murdered and it looks like a completely different story. The motive is believed to have been over Mary Barton, who has been keeping company with Henry Carson, but who has spurned him when she realizes that he had no plans to marry her. Jem Wilson, the man she truly loves, is accused of the murder, and goes on trial.

It’s hard to really talk about the genius behind this book without spoiling the story. Also, I am of a mind that people who object to spoilers in a book written in 1848 are a bit unrealistic, so here I go. Ignore what follows if you plan to read this book – and I do recommend that you read this book – and you want it unspoiled.

It isn’t Jem who has murdered Henry, it is Mary’s father, and the murder is in retribution for the mill owners ignoring the plight of the working men. The decision to murder one of the owners is a decision by a group of men who have just finished degrading themselves and begging the mill owners to put them back to work because their families are starving.

John Barton began to speak; they turned to him with great attention. “It makes me more than sad, it makes my heart burn within me, to see that folk can make a jest of earnest men; of chaps who comed to ask for a bit o’ fire for th’ old granny, as shivers in th’ cold; for a bit o’ bedding, and some warm clothing to the poor wife as lies in labour on th’ damp flags; and for victuals for the childer, whose little voices are getting too faint and weak to cry aloud wi’ hunger. For, brothers, is not them the things we ask for when we ask for more wage? We donnot want dainties, we want bellyfuls; we donnot want gimcrack coats and waistcoats, we want warm clothes, and so that we get ’em we’d not quarrel wi’ what they’re made on. We donnot want their grand houses, we want a roof to cover us from the rain, and the snow, and the storm; ay, and not alone to cover us, but the helpless ones that cling to us in the keen wind, and ask us with their eyes why we brought ’em into th’ world to suffer?” He lowered his deep voice almost to a whisper.

The owners respond, not just with a no, but with a hell no, fuck you, whatever your plight means nothing to us. They respond with mockery.

Let them eat . . . cake?

Mr. Carson responds to the murder of his son in exactly the way that you think he would – he is a powerful man who has had something he valued immeasurably taken from him. He wants vengeance, and he wants it now. And so Jem Wilson is fixed upon as the sacrificial lamb and Mary, who figures out that it is actually her father who is the murderer, is caught between Scylla and Charybdis, trying to navigate an outcome where she saves them both.

The ending of the book is almost unbearably melodramatic, but still effective. John Barton is a broken man – committing the murder of Henry Carson has destroyed him. This, yet again, demonstrates the deep humanity of the poor in contrast to the wealthy. He confesses to the elder Mr. Carson, and is truly remorseful for what he did, and then he conveniently dies. At no point, though, does he confront Mr. Carson with the argument that he was simply evening the score – that the exploitation of labor to the benefit of Mr. Carson was responsible for the death of his own beloved son. There is a symmetry there that is, I’m sure, intentional, but which is left unspoken. I really would’ve liked to have seen Mr. Carson wrestle with the reality that what he experienced was, in a sense, the “eye for an eye,” which he was demanding. That an argument can be made that the murder of his son was a re-balancing of the scales.

I plan to read more Elizabeth Gaskell this year. She is so very timely. In 1848, long before Ronald Reagan was born or the preposterous fiction that putting more money in the heads of the wealthy will spur job creation, she wrote this:

“We come to th’ masters wi’ full hearts, to ask for them things I named afore. We know that they’ve gotten money, as we’ve earned for ’em; we know trade is mending, and that they’ve large orders, for which they’ll be well paid; we ask for our share o’ th’ payment; for, say we, if th’ masters get our share of payment it will only go to keep servants and horses, to more dress and pomp. Well and good, if yo choose to be fools we’ll not hinder you, so long as you’re just; but our share we must and will have; we’ll not be cheated. We want it for daily bread, for life itself; and not for our own lives neither (for there’s many a one here, I know by mysel, as would be glad and thankful to lie down and die out o’ this weary world), but for the lives of them little ones, who don’t yet know what life is, and are afeard of death.

Which is one of the best refutations of the arguments behind “trickle down economics” and “rich people are job creators” that I’ve read. Perhaps the Democrats should start tweeting out Gaskell quotes when the Republicans talk about more tax cuts for the (already obscenely) wealthy.

Read this book. And then weep.

Barbara Pym

Love is like a white rabbit?

Title: Excellent Women
Author: Barbara Pym
Published in 1952

Plot summary from Goodreads: Mildred Lathbury is one of those ‘excellent women’ who is often taken for granted. She is a godsend, ‘capable of dealing with most of the stock situations of life – birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sales, the garden fete spoilt by bad weather’. As such, she often gets herself embroiled in other people’s lives – especially those of her glamorous new neighbours, the Napiers, whose marriage seems to be on the rocks. One cannot take sides in these matters, though it is tricky, especially as Mildred, teetering on the edge of spinsterhood, has a soft spot for dashing young Rockingham Napier. This is Barbara Pym’s world at its funniest and most touching.

This review does contain some mild spoilers, although this is not a book that is particularly suspenseful, nor does it rely on a mystery to move the plot forward.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.

And so we meet Mildred Lathbury, the first person narrator of Excellent Women, Barbara Pym’s second novel, published in 1952. The book opens with the arrival of a new resident in Mildred’s building – Helena Napier, whose husband, Rockingham, has not returned from Italy, where he was stationed with the Navy. Helena is a type of woman that is almost completely foreign to Mildred – an anthropologist with little interest in her marriage, and less interest in housekeeping, cooking or church, the things that Mildred understands the best.

I loved Mildred – she is a bit bewildered by her new neighbors, but is also unapologetically interested in the oddness of their lives. She is a sheltered gentlewoman who, over the course of Excellent Women, allows a talent for mild rebellion to emerge. Her attitude is generally one of rueful irony, and there are times that she is positively funny. She, rather than Helena, might have been the anthropologist, but the object of her study is the doings of post-war Brits, especially her neighbors.

In addition to the Napiers, Everard Bone, one of Helena’s colleagues, ends up insinuating himself into Mildred’s life. There is much scandal around Helena’s relationship with Everard, and Mildred finds herself in the middle of it. One of my favorite moments in the book occurs when Everard, lurking about waiting for her to leave work, persuades her to go for a drink with him.

“Women are quite impossible to understand sometimes.”
I pondered over this remark for a while, asking myself what it was going to lead up to, and then wondered why had been so stupid as not to realise that he wanted to say something about Helena Napier…

And, he does want to say something about Helena Napier, who has been behaving most indiscreetly, indeed. The two of them have been seen by their colleagues, at a time when they should not have been together.

“I suppose you would not want to marry Helena even if she were free. I mean, divorced would be against your principles.”
“Naturally”, he said stiffly. And I don’t love her anyway.”
“Oh, poor Helena. I think she may love you,” I said rashly.
“I’m sure she does,” said Everard in what seemed to be a satisfied tone. “She has told me so,”
“Oh, no! Not without encouragement! Do women declare themselves like that?”
“Oh, yes. It is not so very unusual.”
“But what did you tell her?”
“I told her that it was quite impossible that I should love her.”
“You must have been rather startled,”I said, “Unless you had expected it, and perhaps you had if it can happen. But it must have been like having something like a large white rabbit thrust into your arms and not knowing what to do with it.”

So, on the one hand, we have the Napiers, whose relationship and marital breakdown causes much upset in her home, and then on the other hand, we have Allegra Gray, who moves in with her vicar, Julian Malory and his sister Winifred, and immediately makes a play for Julian. Mildred, as a single woman, is accepted as the person who is going to deal with the fall out from this arrangement: is Allegra going to marry Julian? Is Winifred going to have to move out?

I loved Mildred’s reaction when Winifred shows up at her house, hair disarranged and somewhat wild, wearing no hat or coat and sodden bedroom slippers, and asks if she can move in – poor Mildred sees all of her independence disappearing before her very eyes as Winifred explains that she has disliked Allegra since Lady Farmer’s lilies ended up on the floor.

“Oh, but, Mildred, I hoped I could come and live with you,” said Winifred with appalling simplicity.
For a moment I was too taken aback to say anything and I knew that I must think carefully before I answered.”

Reading Excellent Women, I was reminded of Jane Austen, and especially of Anne Elliott after she turned down Captain Wentworth. Mildred is fighting against a culture that wants to deny her value because she is an unmarried gentlewoman – and therefore her emotional and physical labor are available to her community with or without her consent. Contrast Mildred with school headmistress Sarah Burton from South Riding, a book I read in December 2018, published decades earlier in 1936, who says of herself.

“No chance of a love-affair here in the South Riding and a good thing too. I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin.

But although Mildred is a much gentler person, must more quiescent and willing to accept societal boundaries, she’s not a pushover. It’s frustrating to her that everyone believes that she is crushed by Julian getting engaged to Allegra Gray, because they assume she wanted him for herself. But she didn’t and she doesn’t, and she can’t protest because they will assume she is lying to protect her pride. And her relationship with Everard, it seems, is to be one of friendship, once Rockingham and Helena Napier make up their silly quarrel and reunite. He has asked her to help him in his work, and she has acquiesced – this may lead to marriage or it may not.

I just don’t get the feeling, at the end of the book, that she wants to marry anyone – and she’s decided that on her own.

She says of herself:

And then another picture came into my mind. Julian Malory, standing by the electric fire, wearing his speckled mackintosh, holding a couple of ping-pong bats and quoting a not very appropriate bit of Keats. He might need to be protected from the women who were going to live in his house. So, what with my duty there and the work I was going to do for Everard, it seemed as if I might be going to have what Helena called “a full life” after all.

I hope so, Mildred. I hope you got everything you wanted, and then some. Not every woman needs to be married to find purpose. Not even in 1952.

I’m also going to link to an article from 2013, the centenary of Barbara Pym’s birth, written by Philip Hensher that talks about Barbara Pym and her career. She wrote a total of 13 books, divided into two distinct periods. Excellent Women is from her first period, and then her publisher dropped her in 1962. She wasn’t able to find a publisher again until Philip Larkin helped her to resurrect her career in 1977. Link to the article here.

Agatha Christie

Let’s all have some tea and muffins at Bertram’s Hotel

Title: At Bertram’s Hotel
Author: Agatha Christie
Series: Miss Marple #11
Published 1944

Plot summary from Goodreads: Miss Jane Marple has checked into Bertram’s Hotel in London for a much-needed vacation. The last thing she expects is that this elegant establishment, known for its service and old-world charm, could be embroiled in scandal. But after a series of strange events—including the disappearance of a fellow guest, the arrival of a notorious celebrity bad boy, and finally, a shocking murder—she finds herself drawn into a multifaceted mystery.
The hotel is full of suspects who have potential motives—and convenient alibis. While the local inspector is preoccupied with a series of recent robberies, only Miss Marple, with her shrewd observations and keen understanding of human nature, can sort out the puzzling sequence of events and zero in on the killer.

At Bertram’s Hotel is the 11th Miss Marple, published in 1944, and Jane is winding down her career – there are only two more Miss Marple mysteries after this one: Nemesis, published in 1971 and The Sleeping Murder, published in 1976 (but apparently written much earlier).

Bertram’s Hotel is an old-fashioned hotel in London, with an impeccable reputation and an equally impeccable tea tray. One can get *real* muffins here, slathered in butter, to go with one’s tea. As an American, I have no idea what these real muffins look like – I’m concluding from the discussion that they are not our blueberry studded, cake-like confections, and are, perhaps, something more like what I would call an English muffin.

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Anyway, the whole book had me wanting to eat something. Because these people drank a lot of tea, and ate a lot of tea pastries.

Five minutes later breakfast came. A comfortable tray with a big potbellied teapot, creamy-looking milk, a silver hot water jug. Two beautifully poached eggs on toast, poached the proper way, not little round hard bullets shaped in tin cups, a good-sized round of butter stamped with a thistle. Marmalade, honey and strawberry jam. Delicious-looking rolls, not the hard kind with papery interiors—they smelt of fresh bread (the most delicious smell in the world!). There was also an apple, a pear and a banana.

This was a fun mystery for other reasons as well – there were three separate subplots here: the robberies that Scotland Yard was trying to solve, the mystery of the missing Canon Pennyfather, and then the murder of the Commissaire (sort of a doorman, I think) which occurred very late in the book.

Bess Sedgewick was a wonderful side-character. She was an adventurous sort of a woman, who was staying at the hotel during the time that Miss Marple was spending her holiday there. This is one of those Christie books where she puts a whole bunch of people in the same place to watch the fireworks ensure – Bess is there, her daughter Elvira, who was raised by an elderly retainer after her father died and after Bess sailed into the great unknown to have adventures, is there, an ethically challenged, but extremely handsome, Italian race-car driver is hanging about, and then we have the ridiculously absent-minded Canon Pennyfather who disappears midway through the book and turns up miles away from where he should have been.

Chief-Inspector Davies, nicknamed “Father,” is the one that puts it all together after Scotland Yard is brought in to figure out what has happened to Canon Pennyfather. He and Miss Marple are perfect together, and I wish that he had shown up in some of the other Marple books. Christie missed an opportunity here. He says to his subordinate:

“I just think I’d like to have a good deal more information about this place. I’d like to know who is behind it, what its financial status is. All that sort of thing.”
Campbell shook his head. “I should have said if there was one place in London that was absolutely above suspicion–”
“I know, I know,” said Father. “And what a useful thing it is to have that reputation!”

The resolution to the book is a bit of a let-down, unfortunately, with the murderer being seemingly free due to a lack of evidence. I don’t want to say too much and spoil the end, though, because Christie’s puzzles are always so much fun to try to solve. I had read this one before, and remembered the identity of the murderer, but the other two subplots were just as mysterious this time as they were the first time I read it! This is one of the reasons that I love Christie so much – between the mouthwatering descriptions of tea and the complicated plotlines, I always find something to enjoy!

Joan Lindsey

Gone Girls, 1900 Edition

Title: Picnic at Hanging Rock
Author: Joan Lindsey
Published in 1967

Plot Summary from Goodreads: It was a cloudless summer day in the year 1900. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared. They never returned. . . .

Mysterious and subtly erotic, Picnic at Hanging Rock inspired the iconic 1975 film of the same name by Peter Weir. A beguiling landmark of Australian literature, it stands with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as a masterpiece of intrigue.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a small book, only 224 pages, that packs an outsize punch. I can’t remember where I stumbled on it – if it was through blogging or goodreads, or just by following one of the bookish rabbit trails that I find myself chasing when I start looking at books. It’s set in Australia, written by an Australian writer, so it fulfills the category “Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania” for my Back to the Classics Challenge.

It is set up as a mystery – in 1900, three girls from the Appleyard College for Young Ladies, Miranda, Marion and Irma, and one of their instructors, Miss McCraw, disappear on a Valentine’s Day picnic in the Australian countryside, at a place called Hanging Rock. Hanging Rock is a real place, a volcanic rock formation in central Victoria.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is not a true story, but Lindsey presents it as though it is, with newspaper clippings and other bits of ephemera that lend verisimilitude to the story. The book takes off from the disappearance, and follows the ramifications to the school, the headmistress, and the other students.

As the word of the disappearance leaks out, families begin to withdraw their daughters from the school, which leads to the school struggling to stay afloat and creates stress for the headmistress, Miss Appleyard. In addition, one of the girls, Sara, had been in trouble and was not allowed to go to the picnic and her mental health deteriorates rapidly. She disappears as well, although the mystery of her disappearance is solved. One of the girls, Irma, is found alive, but dehydrated and with no memory of what happened to her friends within a few days of the disappearance. She recovers, but is unable to describe or explain what has happened to her friends.

The story is intriguing as the members of the local community grapple with the events and try to understand what has happened. This is not a book that has a neat resolution. It’s not crime fiction, it’s not horror, it is mostly a slim narration of an unexplained, and inexplicable, event that is perfectly satisfied to leave questions unanswered.

Finishing it was, admittedly, a bit unsatisfying and frustrating. I began googling and found information in Wikipedia that suggested that there had been a final chapter that was left out of the book that contained the solution to the riddle. Having now read a summary of the chapter – and I would recommend waiting until after reading the book to do this – I agree with the publishers that the better decision was to leave the ending ambiguous. Because this is a story about what happens after, not what happened before, and it’s fully realized just taking it from that perspective.

The comparison to Shirley Jackson is not perfect, because Picnic at Hanging Rock lacks the undercurrent of dread that Jackson’s best novels, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, created so perfectly. But she’s probably the best comparison that I can come up with, because that sense of pervasive unease is present all through Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s a slim book, but is one worth reading.

Agatha Christie

You’re Not Over The Hill If You Can Still Match Wits With German Spies

Title: N or M?
Author: Agatha Christie
Series: Tommy and Tuppence #3
Published in 1941

Plot summary from Goodreads: It is World War II, and while the RAF struggles to keep the Luftwaffe at bay, Britain faces an even more sinister threat from “the enemy within”—Nazis posing as ordinary citizens.

With pressure mounting, the intelligence service appoints two unlikely spies, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Their mission: to seek out a man and a woman from among the colorful guests at Sans Souci, a seaside hotel. But this assignment is no stroll along the promenade—N and M have just murdered Britain’s finest agent and no one at all can be trusted. . .

This review cross posted on Cannonball Read here

This is the year that I will finish reading Agatha Christie, and what that means is that I have just a few left, and the ones that are left are not her best work. I long ago read And Then There Were None, along with all of the rest of the Poirot mysteries. I’ve finished Superintendent Battle and Colonel Race, and most of Marple (although I am saving Sleeping Murder for the end, because I’ve heard that it doesn’t suck).

When I started figuring out which titles I had left, I realized that I had almost all of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. This is the third in the series, following The Secret Adversary and Partners in Crime. When we left Tommy and Tuppence, at the end of Partners in Crime, Tuppence had just announced to Tommy that she was pregnant (after ridding the world of an espionage ring). In N or M?, many years have passed, and the twins, Deborah and Derek, are both young adults.

N or M? was published in 1941, in the midst of WWII, and, at the beginning of the book, Tommy and Tuppence are feeling their age. They can’t find anyone to give them an opportunity to serve Britain in the war, and they are a bit down in the mouth about it: the secret service doesn’t want Tommy, and Tuppence has been turned down for a nursing slot. Their children, in the inimitable manner of young people, have cheerfully decided that mum and dad should shuffle off and spend the war years in a decline somewhere.

One of the best things about Tommy and Tuppence is Tommy and Tuppence. They still have their signature witty banter, and their relationship is good fun. Even after all these years, they still like each other alot, and it shows in their interactions. Occasionally, things get a bit twee with the pair, and there is an annoyingly adorable plot moppet named Betty who accidentally reveals a secret while she is babbling on with Tuppence. When a man approaches Tommy to take on a job rooting out a pair of German spies (code name N and M) without Tuppence, Tuppence is having none of it. He sneaks off to Sans Souci, a seaside boarding house where intelligence suggests the spies are operative. When he arrives there, Tuppence is sitting in the common room knitting a balaclava. Point one to Tuppence.

Christie’s espionage stories are never as good as her straight up mysteries, and this one dragged for about the first 30%. Things do pick up, though, when Betty is kidnapped, and then Tommy goes missing and Tuppence must figure out the identity of the spies with the help of one of Deborah’s friends, Anthony Marsdon, who is a young code breaker. Bring in their old retainer, Albert, and the book comes to a solid and entertaining conclusion. I figured out half of the solution, which with Christie is about as good as it gets.

If you’ve never read Christie, definitely don’t start here. If you already like Tommy and Tuppence, give this one a go – while they are slightly less effervescent in N or M? than they were all the way back in The Secret Adversary, the characters are still a lot of fun. If you’re looking for a place to start reading Christie, though, start with one of her best: And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

A Century of Women, Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Title: Our Spoons Came From Woolworths
Author: Barbara Comyns
Published in 1950

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Sophia is twenty-one and naïve when she marries fellow artist Charles. She seems hardly fonder of her husband than she is of her pet newt; she can’t keep house (everything she cooks tastes of soap); and she mistakes morning sickness for the aftereffects of a bad batch of strawberries. England is in the middle of the Great Depression, and the money Sophia makes from the occasional modeling gig doesn’t make up for her husband’s indifference to paying the rent. Predictably, the marriage falters; not so predictably, Sophia’s artlessness will be the very thing that turns her life around.

“I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.”

Published in 1950, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is told in the first person by Sophia Fairclough, who meets and marries Charles in the beginning of the book. Her winsome, stream of consciousness narrative is misleading – the early part of the book beguiles the reader into thinking that this is a piece of cheery, lively fiction about a young married couple starting their lives. Charles is an artist, with firmly middle class roots; Sophia is parentless, with a couple of rather uncaring siblings. The book is set in the 1930’s, during the global depression between the two wars.

That sense of optimism rapidly devolves into something more akin to horror. Sophia conceives, and having never received even the tiniest bit of education about the reproduction process, is surprised. She believed that just wishing to NOT have a baby would work to counteract conception. No one is happy about this baby – they are too young and too poor and no one is willing to see Charles clearly for what he is.

Which is a dead loss as a human being. He, initially, lives off of Sophia, his father having stopped his allowance once he married. Sophia is working at a commercial studio, and is fired once she has to admit she is pregnant. Her sense of pride prevents her from admitting that this is a terrible hardship. Even after she is let go, Charles does nothing to try to contribute the family coffers.

His family is terrible, blaming Sophia both for the pregnancy, as though she managed that on her own, and for interfering with his ability to develop his great artistic talent. Everyone, including Sophia, seems to accept that it is Sophia’s responsibility to keep the young couple in food and housing. This is infuriating, because it literally never seems to occur to anyone that a man should not allow his wife and child to starve, especially during a time period which does not allow pregnant women/young mothers of Sophia’s class to work.

The chapters that address the birth of Sophia’s son, Sandro, are harrowing. Comyns describes the process of labor in a charity hospital in both explicit and horrifying detail. She is dragged from room to room, never told what to expect, and subjected to the most awful indignities, and once the birth is over, her son is removed to the infant room and she doesn’t see him for two days.

It actually gets worse from here. Her marriage is a disaster, her husband is a loser, and their extended family is completely blind to the poverty and hunger that she suffers. Through it all, Sophia’s voice remains mostly optimistic and always convincing.

This is, more or less, a book about poverty – about how it grinds and about the experience of being completely powerless due to structural inequalities, such as male supremacy and class-based oppression. Reading it pissed me off, I was so angry at everyone: Charles, for being such an irredeemable asshole; Charles’s family for being so monstrously uncaring, and, even, Sophia, for not seeming to find her situation as intolerable as I did. She was so captive to her own circumstances that it seemingly never occurred to her that she should’ve been able to expect more from her husband and family.

There is one briefly satisfying moment when she loses her temper. She has started a new job and has to walk to work because there is no money in the house. Charles promises to bring her some money in time for lunch, but he blows her off. When it comes time to leave

“I waited to see if he would come fetch me, but again he failed me, so I had to walk home, getting more and more hungry on the way, and angry too. When I arrived home, I saw Charles through the uncurtained window. He was sitting reading with a tray of tea-things beside him. He looked so comfortable, I became even more angry, and dashed in like a whirlwind and picked up a chair and hit him with it.”

Even then, though, Sophia is made to feel that she is in the wrong. “I was ashamed of myself, too, but felt too tired to apologize, so just went to bed and wished I was dead.”

It took me some significant contemplation yesterday to figure out why I had such an emotional response to this book, and it was only after I admitted to myself that I felt a strong sympathy for Sophia based upon a bit of my personal history that it made sense. When I was 21, I married my own Charles – a man who was just fine with living off of me while he attended (and ultimately failed to graduate from) law school, as I worked full-time and went to college to support us.

After I graduated from undergraduate, I applied to and was accepted to law school and left the city where I had done my undergrad. My husband was, originally, supposed to move with me, but he had mucked up his final year in law school badly and had to complete an additional term, so I went alone. Back then, first year law students had to sign a contract that they couldn’t work. Our agreement was that he would get a job and send me money for food. I needed that money to eat.

I had a scholarship to cover my tuition, and some of my rent, and I had some savings, but I was wary of running out of money. My entire financial house of cards was built on getting a little bit of money from my husband, a couple of hundred dollars a month, who hadn’t worked during our entire marriage, but who was able to work because he only had a couple of classes to finish that term.

He sent me one check. It bounced. I had never experienced hunger before, and like Sophia, I was far too proud to tell anyone how broke I was. In retrospect, that is such an act of callousness that I would have been more than justified in ending the marriage. I didn’t. I took a few things that I could scrape together and I pawned them for $50.00 so I could buy some food, and then I began secretly temping for about 10 hours a week to make a little bit of money. I ate nothing but macaroni and cheese for a couple of weeks until my first paycheck came through. No one at the school found out, so I was able to do enough of this to pay for my groceries.

As you can probably imagine at this point in the story, the marriage failed completely about six months later. But reading this book brought it all back – the rage, the helplessness, the sense of confusion, the reality no one knew that I was married to a child and I was suffering. And I was 24, and it was a completely different time. Women were able to work, and I didn’t have children (thank god I didn’t have children), but I was still tied to this worthless asshole who didn’t care that I was hungry. And I internalized all of this by concluding that, somehow, I was at fault for all of it, and my loyalty to this failure of a person prevented me from asking anyone for help.

I think probably all women have a story like this.

Even with the grim subject matter, though, there is something fresh and appealing about both Sophia and the book that I can’t really explain. It was very frustrating to read, and, although Sophia does get a happy ending, Charles did not get run over by an omnibus, nor did he artistically starve to death, which were the two proper endings for him.

So, I do recommend Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, even if it made me want to hit something.

Madeleine L'Engle

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Title: A Wrinkle in Time
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Series: Kairos #1, Time Quintet #1
Published in 1962
Literary Awards: Newbery Medal

Plot Summary from Goodreads: It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.

“Wild nights are my glory,” the unearthly stranger told them. “I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me be on my way. Speaking of way, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract”.

Meg’s father had been experimenting with this fifth dimension of time travel when he mysteriously disappeared. Now the time has come for Meg, her friend Calvin, and Charles Wallace to rescue him. But can they outwit the forces of evil they will encounter on their heart-stopping journey through space?

I decided to reread A Wrinkle in Time again because I am also going to reread the remainder of the Murry/O’Keefe series and I am one of those people who needs to begin at the beginning. I don’t have anything to add to this review, except that I remain in awe of Madeleine L’Engle’s extraordinary humanity. She was a remarkable woman, and I’m not sure that we deserved her.

I read the book as a child of the 1970’s – probably a bit more than decade or so after the initial 1963 publication, around 1977, when I was 11. I fell in love with the book then, seeing much of myself in Meg Murry, the ordinary, often grumpy, young woman. I revisited L’Engle in 2015, and found that, while some of her books had not held up with reread, many of them did.

This book is part of my personal canon, one of the books that shaped my childhood and had a part in making me who I am today.

A Wrinkle in Time is a bit of a period piece, to be sure. Girls today are stronger, more self-aware, more cognizant of the pressures of an often sexist society, and more willing to buck convention in order to be authentic to themselves. Not all girls, of course, but some girls. Our culture, today, at least struggles to understand these pressures and to acknowledge that they exist, even if we often fail to genuinely confront them.

A few notes on the the DuVernay adaptation from 2018: The adaptation succeeds in a way that, after reading a lot of L’Engle, and a fair amount about L’Engle, I believe that she would appreciate. Casting Storm Reid, a biracial young woman was, as Meg Murry, was an inspired decision, the relocation of the plot to a more diverse location in California, the addition of Charles Wallace as an adopted child, to me really work to illuminate some of the themes that L’Engle was writing about – alienation and dangers of extreme social conformity in particular.

There are parts of the book that are quite different from the movie, of course. In the book, the Murry’s have two additional children, a set of male twins who are effortlessly socially competent. They are capable of fulfilling society’s expectations with little work. Meg, on the other hand, is prickly, defensive, occasionally angry, and fearsomely intelligent – all things which 1963 America couldn’t really cope with in girls. Heck, we still struggle with girls who are prickly, defensive, occasionally angry and fearsomely intelligent.

L’Engle’s central message, as always, revolves around love. For L’Engle, love is the thing that sets humans apart – our capacity to love overcomes darkness, our willingness to sacrifice ourselves for love is what enables us to prevail over our adversaries. This is her spirituality, writ small – L’Engle was a deeply religious woman, and her faith informs her writing always (a fact which makes the presence of A Wrinkle in Time on banned book lists based upon religious objections to the text quite frankly odd).

I am not a religious woman, but the fact that someone like Madeleine L’Engle, brilliant and thoughtful, found a way to integrate her Christian faith with her love of science and her extraordinary tolerance gives me hope that American Christianity can step back from the dark place that it is in right now and find a way forward that is more affirming of the ideals held by women and men like her – that of equality and supporting the vulnerable among us. I can only imagine that L’Engle would have deplored much of what is going on in the evangelical Christian religion related to the persecution of LGBTQ people and the continued embrace of misogyny as a bedrock principle.

A Wrinkle in Time shines light into dark places. For that alone, it’s worth reading.

A Century of Women, Dorothy Simpson

A Puppet for a Corpse by Dorothy Simpson

Title: A Puppet for a Corpse
Author: Dorothy Simpson
Series: Inspector Luke Thanet #3
Published in 1983

Plot Summary from Goodreads: A doctor’s apparent suicide sets off alarm bells for Detective Inspector Thanet, “a shrewd yet compassionate observer of aberrant human behavior” (The New York Times).

The Hippocratic oath binds medical professionals to a lifetime of helping fellow human beings. For a doctor to kill himself is not just to renege on that pledge, but to betray all mankind. When Dr. Arnold Pettifer is found dead from an overdose of pills and alcohol, Det. Inspector Luke Thanet’s first reaction is disgust. His second is suspicion: This, he thinks, is murder.

Nothing in Pettifer’s life would point to suicide. He had a prospering practice, money in the bank, a beautiful new wife, and a baby on the way. But when Inspector Thanet learns that Pettifer’s wife had taken a lover, he begins to suspect her—only to find that nothing about the death of Dr. Pettifer is as obvious as it may seem.

I picked up one of these Luke Thanet books for a couple of bucks at the UBS before Christmas – I am always looking for new classic mystery series, and this looked like a promising option.

This is the third book in the series I’ve read at this point. I read the 6th book, Dead on Arrival, first, and then I bought the second and third books because they must have been on sale, as I got them both for under $3.00 each, and the price has now increased to $6.50, which is more than I’m willing to spend. I read the second book, Six Feet Under, at the end of December, and then read this one yesterday. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on the series at this point.

I haven’t found any of the books to be particularly difficult to figure out. I cottoned on to the solution in Dead on Arrival really early in the book, once a certain piece of information is imparted to the reader. Six Feet Under gave me the most trouble – I only figured out part of it, and not the most important part. Simpson definitely likes to divide the reader’s attention, and works hard to misdirect, which is only partially successful.

The books are set in Kent, England, in the fictional town of Sturrenden (interestingly, Thanet is the name of a district in Kent). Inspector Thanet is a bit cerebral, and is more-or-less happily married to Joan, with two children. His marriage takes up quite a lot of screen time, as he is grappling with Joan going back to work now that the kids are a bit older, and he doesn’t like not having his meals served hot and ready at his beck and call when he gets home.

Puppet for a Corpse was originally published in 1983, although it has a bit more regressive of a feel than the eighties – when I looked up the publication date I was surprised that it wasn’t the early seventies, given the interactions between Luke and Joan. I graduated from high school in 1984, and there was never any expectation between myself and any man I have ever been involved in that I would be his domestic servant. On the other hand, I suppose Luke and Joan are closer to the ages of my parents than they are to my age, and Thanet’s attitude was pretty much the same as my dad’s attitude was when my mom went to work after my brother and I had graduated from high school.

In terms of the mystery, I’ve read enough of these older police procedurals to have had an inkling of what had likely happened, although I didn’t quite figure it out. There isn’t a lot to them- it takes me about 90 minutes to read one from beginning to end. I’ll keep my eye out for them at my library/UBS, and would consider buying more if they went back on sale, but overall, they are in the “take it or leave it” subcategory of mystery fiction.

This books fits well into my Century of Women Authors, though, fulfilling year 1983

A Century of Women, Stella Gibbons

The Bachelor by Stella Gibbons

Title: The Bachelor
Author: Stella Gibbons
Published in 1944

Plot summary from Goodreads: Brother and sister, Constance and Kenneth Fielding live in calm respectability, just out of reach of London and the Blitz. But when a series of uninvited guests converge upon them – from a Balkan exile to Ken’s old flame and the siblings’ own raffish father – the household struggles to preserve its precious peace. In this full house, in a quiet corner of suburbia, no one expects to find romance.

I had planned to read this one for a 1944 club on my blog but ran out of time. This is my second Gibbons, and I have not yet read her most celebrated work Cold Comfort Farm – the first one I read was called Nightingale Wood, which I read a couple of years ago.

I think I liked this one a tiny bit better than Nightingale Wood, although it has some of the same issues that I stumbled on in that one. It’s set during WWII, so the characters are on the homefront during the active fighting, but they scarcely seem to notice that there is a war on. There is some talk about the blackout, and a bit during a barrage, and a couple of the characters have war work that they are engaged in, but for the most part the three main character’s lives go on much as they do during peacetime. I’m not sure if this is an accurate depiction of the way that money can smooth all of the rough edges off the world, even during WWII, or if it is a bit of wishful thinking on the part of Gibbons. I tend to think the latter.

It is a bit of a romance, with the characters coupling off all over the place. My issue with The Bachelor is that I found only one of the pairings even remotely appealing or plausible. Gibbons writes flawed characters, which isn’t a problem for me, but also writes characters who need a swift kick in the ass. The only characters I particularly liked were Betty and Alicia, and I actively disliked Vartouhi and Constance and found them unconvincing. Richard and Kenneth (the titular bachelor, btw) were pleasant enough, if a bit wet.

The writing is a pleasure to read, however, and the descriptions of Sunglades, the home where most of the “action” takes place, are beautiful. I will definitely read more Gibbons, because no matter my issues with her novels, they are worth reading.

A Century of Women, D.E. Stevenson

Bel Lamington duology by D.E. Stevenson

Titles: Bel Lamington and Fletcher’s End
Author: D.E. Stevenson
Published in 1961/1962

Plot summaries:

Bel Lamington: Bel Lamington finds London a very lonely place – until a charming young artist literally drops in on her rooftop garden…

Bel Lamington, an orphan daughter of an Army colonel, is brought up in an English village and flung into the whirl of London life to earn a hard living as a secretary while attempting to navigate romance, unexpected friendships and urban life. Shy, sensitive, and innocent, she is unaware of the pitfalls that surround her.

But when Bel is offered a chance to leave London and venture to a fishing hotel in Scotland for a much needed holiday with an old school friend, things begin to change. There she learns that you cannot escape from your troubles by running away from them…

Fletcher’s End: The joys and contentment of newly-wedded life, set against the tranquil beauty of the English countryside, are the subject of this volume by the beloved novelist, D.E. Stevenson. The author of Bel Lamington continues the heartwarming story of the gentle heroine who came to London and fell in love with her employer, Ellis Brownlee.

Shortly before Bel’s marriage to Ellis, her friend, Louise Armstrong, goes house hunting for the Brownlees and discovers a charming but neglected old stone cottage in the Cotswolds. Bel adores the house, called Fletchers End. Equally enthusiastic, Ellis buys the place from the absentee-owner, Lieutenant Commander Lestrange, and, after a picture-book wedding, the happy couple move in.

As she embarks on her new life as a devoted wife, Bel loyally guides Louise through her own romantic tribulations. She also enjoys sharing with Ellis the excitement and satisfaction of decorating their first real home, as well as unravelling the mysteries of the old stone cottage.

But with the unexpected arrival of Lieutenant Commander Lestrange, the peace of Fletchers End is suddenly threatened…

These two very light, old-fashioned romances are available on Kindle Unlimited. Originally published in 1961 and 1962, they tell the story of Bel, young and somewhat impoverished woman living and working in London, and her travails. The first book gets her married off, and the second book deals with the purchase of a first home, renovation, a tiny bit of drama, and the romantic life of her best friend, Louise.

There isn’t a lot of substance to the pair of books, but they are extremely sweet and I liked all of the characters a lot. The friendship between Bel and Louise is quite lovely and is unmarred by the sort of jealous nastiness that can sometimes pass for tension in books of this sort. Bel is a working girl when the books begin, and she is extremely capable at her job. While they were published in the early 1960’s they had a more old-fashioned feel to them to me, more 1950’s or even 1940’s in atmosphere. There wasn’t any real focus on the rapid social change occurring during the 1960’s.

These two simple little books don’t offer the same though provoking social commentary as something like South Riding, but they were free and a pleasant way to while away a few hours reading something entirely unchallenging.

Stevenson is having a bit of a renaissance these days, between her Miss Buncle and her Mrs. Tim series. Neither of those are available for free, so I haven’t dipped into them yet, although I do plan to read them at some point. I suspect that they are better than the ones that I have read, which are enjoyable, if a bit pedestrian, light romance. They are very comfortable books.