Category Archives: 05. A Century of Women

Emily Fox-Seton by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Making of a MarchionessThe Making of a Marchioness
by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Emily Fox-Seton #
Publication Date: January 1, 1901
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 308
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

First published in 1901 as The Making of a Marchioness followed by its sequel The Methods of Lady Walderhurst, the two novels were combined into Emily Fox-Seton who is the two works' primary character. The story follows thirty-something Emily who lives alone, humbly and happily, in a tiny apartment and on a meager income. She is the one that everyone counts on but no one goes out of their way to accommodate. Her fortune changes, however, and the second half chronicles her adaptation to her new life and the dangers that arise from those who stand to lose most from her new circumstances.

Let me begin by saying that A Little Princess, even more than The Secret Garden, is a beloved book of my childhood. I was surprised to find out, then, that Hodgson Burnett had actually also written adult fiction. A few years ago, I read The Shuttle, which I really enjoyed, and which is a novel about an American heiress who marries an English aristocrat, who turns out to be an abusive asshole. I may actually have to reread it, given how much I enjoyed this one.

I selected this book for my 1901 entry in A Century of Women for two reasons – my public library had the Persephone edition available for me to check out and those early years are the hardest ones for me to fill. I really love reading Persephone editions; the books are so well-constructed, the paper is a bit on the thicker and creamier side than the average paperback and the covers are sturdy. They fit so well in my hand.

I ended up just loving this book, and will be on the lookout for a copy to add to my personal library. It reminded me of something that Elizabeth Von Arnim might have written, although Hodgson Burnett doesn’t have the bite that von Arnim often adds to her books. Emily Fox-Seton is a lovely character, and spending time with her was soothing. The book contains both of the Emily Fox-Seton books: the first book, that is really more of a novella, called The Making of the Marchioness, and then the sequel, which is longer, called The Methods of Lady Walderhurst. I liked Part I, the Cinderella story, a bit more than Part II, which is what happened after Cinderella marries her prince, if her prince had been 50 years old and quite set in his ways. Part II is a bit on the gothic melodramatic side, but I’m not opposed to a little melodrama between friends.


Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

by Elizabeth von Arnim
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1931
Genre: fiction
Pages: 304
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

There came a moment, she imagined, in the lives of most unmarried daughters, and perhaps in other people's too, when they must either bolt or go permanently under.'

Since her mother's death Jennifer has devoted years of her life to her father, managing the family home and acting as his secretary. After the sudden announcement that he has taken a new wife, Jennifer, at 33, seizes the opportunity to lead an independent life. Quickly she secures the lease of Rose Cottage and turns her attention to her own needs and interests.

Published in 1931, Father explores the concept of spinsterhood in a time when the financial and social status of single women were often dependent on male family members. While Jennifer is desperate to experience life on her own terms within her reduced financial means, her neighbour Alice is pre-occupied with ensuring her position as head of her brother's household is never challenged.

I have read several books by von Armin since I fortuitously picked up old green-cover Virago edition of The Enchanted April many years ago and fell in love with it. I read Elizabeth and her German Garden and The Solitary Summer several years later and loved them, too – albeit not quite so much as The Enchanted April, which has made it into that quite limited pantheon of books I have read more than 3 times.

I had never heard of this book until I saw it was reissued by the British Library in their British Library Women Writers series. Since I love their BLCC series, and since it was completely free through the Kindle Unlimited Library, I decided to read it on a whim.

I am even more convinced that The Enchanted April, written in 1922 is her fictional masterpiece. This one was written in 1931, and it was delightful in a lot of the same ways. I could hear echoes of Lottie in the character of Jennifer, and her rapid evolution from indenture to freedom.

I’ve realized that there are few tropes that are as immediately appealing to me as “unmarried/spinster woman who has sublimated her entire existence to caregiving for other people breaks free.” This was what I loved about All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, and, as well, Persuasion, by Jane Austen. Women whose entire lives have been dominated by other people because they are surplus, they don’t have husbands or homes of their own (or they do have husbands or homes, but because of social pressures are still expected not to possess a shred of individuality or personal ambition), suddenly decides that they just aren’t going to put up with that anymore – this is something I love to read about. And if they can annoy the shit out of the people who have taken them for granted and expected them to forgo all freedom or individuality, all the better from my perspective.

So, the first 3/4 of the book really revolved around this theme. But the ending, whoa? I couldn’t decide if I should laugh or be completely appalled by what happened to the titular father. Von Arnim has a dark side, for sure.

Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning

Fortunes of War: The Balkan TrilogyFortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy
by Olivia Manning
Rating: ★★★★★
Series: Fortunes of War #1
Publication Date: January 1, 1960
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Pages: 924
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

The Balkan Trilogy is the story of a marriage and of a war, a vast, teeming, and complex masterpiece in which Olivia Manning brings the uncertainty and adventure of civilian existence under political and military siege to vibrant life. Manning’s focus is not the battlefield but the café and kitchen, the bedroom and street, the fabric of the everyday world that has been irrevocably changed by war, yet remains unchanged.

At the heart of the trilogy are newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle, who arrive in Bucharest—the so-called Paris of the East—in the fall of 1939, just weeks after the German invasion of Poland. Guy, an Englishman teaching at the university, is as wantonly gregarious as his wife is introverted, and Harriet is shocked to discover that she must share her adored husband with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Other surprises follow: Romania joins the Axis, and before long German soldiers overrun the capital. The Pringles flee south to Greece, part of a group of refugees made up of White Russians, journalists, con artists, and dignitaries. In Athens, however, the couple will face a new challenge of their own, as great in its way as the still-expanding theater of war.

This was a chunkster of a book – an omnibus of the first three books of Olivia Manning’s cycle of WWII books based upon her own war experiences: The Great Fortune, published in 1960, The Spoilt City, published in 1962, and Friends and Heroes, published in 1965. I’m assigning it to the year 1960 in my A Century of Women project, but it was a massive and impressive undertaking. The remaining six books, which are collected as Fortunes of War: The Levant Trilogy, also published by NYRB, consists of: The Danger Tree, published in 1977, The Battle Lost and Won, published in 1978 and The Sum of Things, published 1981. I’m going to assign The Levant Trilogy, once I finish it, to year 1981.

I have a pronounced affection for books set on huge stages but involving ordinary people – such as Doctor Zhivago or the series I just finished, the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. Reading of sweeping events through the perspective of completely unimportant characters is, for me, the most enjoyable way for me to dig into history. WWII literature is having a moment – it seems like every other new release I see is a piece of historical fiction about WWII, often with a woman as the central character, and usually with a gorgeous cover but a plot description that leaves me cold.

Initially, I was on the fence about this group of books – I hesitate to call them a “series” because what they really seem to be is a single sustained narrative that has been broken, for convenience, into multiple books. Each book does have a narrative structure, and the last two books end with a flight or evacuation. I think that the first book, for me, was the most difficult because I hadn’t yet become engaged. Over the course of the three books, that changed completely. By the end of the third book, Guy and Harriet are in desperate flight from Athens, barely ahead of the Germans (apparently) and I was reading as fast as I could, even knowing that (obviously, given that there are three more books) they survived.

There are elements of this story that I simply do not understand. I do not understand why England is sending English teachers to war torn countries and then leaving them there. I do not understand the point of people putting on lectures about literature and philosophy while the citizens of Greece are literally starving. I do not understand why so many able-bodied young men (and women, for that matter) were, apparently, paid to engage in what certainly appears to be, in retrospect, self-indulgent colonial nonsense rather than useful work to support the war effort, even if they weren’t going to be fighting on the front lines.

I especially loved the last book. Harriet and Guy are absurdly young, and the events through which they are living are immense and sweeping. Their marriage is struggling under the weight of their immaturity and the extraordinariness of their war experience. War is also clarifying the characters of the various other  individuals – the brave are demonstrating even greater bravery, and the weak and venal, well let’s just say that they have utterly surpassed even the least charitable expectations that I had of them. Not everyone behaves heroically during times of great danger, and those who are entitled and self-centered and craven don’t even bother to hide those qualities when their comfort is on the line.

I had enough foresight to pick up The Levant Trilogy as part of a recent NYRB purchase – it’s sitting on my bookshelf at home, waiting for me to crack it open this evening after work.


West With The Night by Beryl Markham

West With the NightWest With the Night
by Beryl Markham
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1942
Genre: memoir
Pages: 306
ReRead?: Yes
Project: a century of women

The classic memoir of Africa, aviation, and adventure—the inspiration for Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun and “a bloody wonderful book” (Ernest Hemingway).

Beryl Markham’s life story is a true epic. Not only did she set records and break barriers as a pilot, she shattered societal expectations, threw herself into torrid love affairs, survived desperate crash landings—and chronicled everything. A contemporary of Karen Blixen (better known as Isak Dinesen, the author of Out of Africa), Markham left an enduring memoir that soars with astounding candor and shimmering insights.

A rebel from a young age, the British-born Markham was raised in Kenya’s unforgiving farmlands. She trained as a bush pilot at a time when most Africans had never seen a plane. In 1936, she accepted the ultimate challenge: to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean from east to west, a feat that fellow female aviator Amelia Earhart had completed in reverse just a few years before. Markham’s successes and her failures—and her deep, lifelong love of the “soul of Africa”—are all told here with wrenching honesty and agile wit.

I read this book many years ago, and remember really enjoying it. When I decided (recently) to buckle down and try to finish my A Century of Women project, I started working on a potential book list for my remaining years. When I searched for books written in 1942, this one popped up (along with Five Little Pigs, which is my favorite Christie mystery) – it’s #12 on the Goodreads list of “Most Popular Books Published in 1942.”

It was even better the second time because Beryl Markham was an incredibly interesting woman, and a magnificent writer.

So there are many Africas. There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa — and as many books about it as you could read in a leisurely lifetime.

Markham was born in England as Beryl Clutterbuck – I don’t actually know how she became Markham, probably she married – this memoir doesn’t talk at all about husbands (although there were three of them), and it is clear that she has three great loves: Africa, horses and flight. Men don’t seem to figure much in her emotional life, except as companions, friends, and equals. Women figure even less. While this makes the memoir, possibly, less complete, it really feels to me like those are things that she didn’t feel mattered enough to include here. She wanted to write about adventure, she wanted to write about Africa, and she wanted to write about flying. Who she slept with was orders of magnitude less interesting to her, and ultimately, to me as well.

Markham was raised in Kenya, on a farm where she lived with her father after her mother died. She lived one of those lives that is filled with adventure – she feels bigger than life. After her father lost the farm in Njoro, she is forced to leave it and goes to Nairobi to train racehorses.

I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesterdays are buried deep — leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone, I learned it late. I left the farm at Njoro almost the slowest way, and I never saw it again.

She gets some success as a trainer, but ultimately abandons horses for flight.

Three hundred and fifty miles can be no distance in a plane, or it can be from where you are to the end of the earth. It depends on so many things. If it is night, it depends on the depth of the darkness and the height of the clouds, the speed of the wind, the stars, the fullness of the moon. It depends on you, if you fly alone — not only on your ability to steer your course or to keep your altitude, but upon the things that live in your mind while you swing suspended between the earth and the silent sky. Some of those things take root and are with you long after the flight itself is a memory, but, if your course was over any part of Africa, even the memory will remain strong.

I haven’t read Paula McLain’s historical fiction treatment of her life, Circling the Sun, which has a lovely cover, but doesn’t really appeal to me. The Mary Lovell biography, Straight on Till Morning, on the other hand, does appeal to me and I have put a library hold on it.

I’ll close with Hemingway’s words about the memoir:

“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? …She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

I find myself agreeing with him here. It really is a bloody wonderful book.

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

Breathing LessonsBreathing Lessons
by Anne Tyler
Rating: ★★★½
Publication Date: August 12, 1988
Genre: fiction
Pages: 338
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

Breathing Lessons is the wonderfully moving and surprising story of Ira and Maggie Moran. She's impetuous, harum-scarum, easygoing; he's competent, patient, seemingly infallible. They've been married for 28 years. Now, as they drive from their home in Baltimore to the funeral of Maggie's best friend's husband, Anne Tyler shows us all there is to know about a marriage - the expectations, the disappointments, the way children can create storms in a family, the way a wife and husband can fall in love all over again, the way nothing really changes. Anne Tyler's funny, unpredictable and endearing characterizations make Breathing Lessons truly entertaining.

It took me a long time to read this rather quick book, and I’m still on the fence about it. I started it, read the first section (from Maggie’s perspective) and then started the second section (from Ira’s perspective) and then quit for about a week, and then picked it back up against because I was running out of time and finished it quickly. I think that I have previously read Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, although I’m not entirely sure that I’m right about that. I’ll be finding out soon, as I checked it out of the library as well.

I mostly picked this up because Liz from Adventures in reading . . . is a fan – so much so that she reread all of Tyler’s books last year. Anne Tyler won the Pulitzer for this book.

Breathing Lessons is set all in one day, but takes place over the entire 28 years that Maggie and Ira have been married, with the story of their marriage and lives told through discursions from each of their perspectives, and flashbacks to earlier events. At the beginning of the book, Maggie and Ira are getting ready to set off in their car for the funeral of a friend from when they were young. Maggie is picking up the car from having some work done on it, and, tuned to a call-in radio show she hears a caller she believes to be her former daughter-in-law calling in to talk about her decision to marry again, this time for security, as her first marriage, for love, has not worked out.

These two events take up the entire book – first, the funeral, which turns out to be one of the oddest funerals in the history of fiction, and then Maggie attempting, and ultimately persuading, Ira to stop by Fiona’s house (the ex-daughter-in-law) to attempt to effectuate a hail-Mary reconciliation between Fiona and Jesse, their son, and to see the 7 year old granddaughter from whom they are estranged. Maggie and Ira have two children: the feckless musician, Jesse, and the organized, capable Daisy. Maggie and Ira are driving Daisy to college the day after the funeral, and this fact, while not overplayed by Tyler, is the central piece of background information that, I think, informs the entire book.

As I said above, I’m on the fence about this book. On the one hand, Maggie and Ira both drove me completely bonkers, Maggie more than Ira. And, viewed as a piece of ethnography on the American marriage in the 20th century, I would not say that we are doing well at all. On the other hand, as a nearly empty-nester myself, I related to Maggie. While she is incredibly annoying, with her seeming incapacity to tell the truth to herself, much less the other people around her, she is also warm, caring and shit-scared of being alone with her marriage, without her kids to focus on. I don’t mean that she’s afraid of Ira – it’s clear that there is no abuse in their marriage, although I’m not sure how well suited they are one to one another. But Maggie is the sort of person who requires the role of caregiver, and she’s just about run out of time on that front – her oldest, her son, has moved out and her youngest, her daughter, is leaving her behind as well. Ira is capable and grounded and does not need Maggie to try to fix his life.

I know something about what this feels like, and my heart went out to Maggie as she scrambled around desperately, trying to get her granddaughter back into her life so that she could take on a caregiving role for that little girl. This all goes completely awry, because of Maggie’s habit of, to put it charitably, stretching the truth about other people to try to smooth over the rough spots in their relationships. She’s completely delusional about it in her desperation – she tries to convince Ira that they should propose having Leroy live with them so she can attend school in their neighborhood; Ira, befuddled by all of this tries to bring her back to reality. Reality is not a place that Maggie particularly enjoys, although it is coming for her hard.

By the end of the book, she’s left with only her marriage, and Ira. I can’t help but wonder what will happen next.

Project Management at the Mid-Year

I started out really strong on my reading projects at the beginning of the year, but have sort of faded. This is a pretty common phenomenon for me – January brings lots of vigor and optimism, and then I lose focus after a few months. I’ve made solid progress on two major projects/challenges, though, and reviewing it will, hopefully, give me a shot of energy to keep moving forward!

A Century of Women

According to my analytics, I’ve read 17 books for this challenge, and written 13 reviews. The books I’ve reviewed for this project, so far this year, are:

  1. Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper (1965)
  2. In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden (1969)
  3. The Cape Cod Mystery by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1931)
  4. The Edwardians by Vita Sackville West (1930)
  5. The Priory by Dorothy Whipple (1939)
  6. My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather (1926)
  7. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough (1977)
  8. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1933)
  9. Jubilee by Margaret Walker (1966)
  10. The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns (1985)
  11. Firestorm by Nevada Barr (1996)
  12. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James (1972)
  13. Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple (1949)

I decided at the beginning of the year to focus my attention on two decades – the 30’s and the 60’s, since I had a good start in both of them. This was wildly successful, and allowed me to completely fill the 30’s, and fill the 60’s with the exception of 1960. For the second half of the year, I am going to focus on the 40’s – I only need 1942 and 1947 to complete that decade – and the 50’s – I need to read books for 1953, 1954, 1956 and 1958. If I complete those two decades, I will have finished 1930 through 1969 by the end of the year. I really need to sprinkle in some books from the beginning of the century, though, since those will be the hardest for me to fill and I don’t want to just leave it to the end.

Back to the Classics 2022

I have finished 7 out of 12 categories so far:

  1. 19th Century Classic: open;
  2. 20th Century Classic: The Priory by Dorothy Whipple;
  3. Classic by a woman author: My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather;
  4. Classic in translation: Maigret and the Minister by Georges Simenon is waiting for a review;
  5. Classic by a BIPOC author: Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin
  6. Mystery/detective/crime classic: A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes
  7. Classic short story collection: open
  8. Pre-1800 classic: open
  9. Non-fiction: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
  10. Longest on your TBR: open
  11. Set in a place I’d like to visit: open
  12. Wild card: Charlotte Fairlie by D.E. Stevenson

This leaves me with a couple of categories that are pretty easy to fill, but also with the two that will be hardest for me: pre-1800 classic and short story collection. The first is hard because I don’t enjoy reading books published pre-1800; the second because I struggle with short stories. This is solid progress, though, so I’m pleased with it.

The also have a second round of The Classics Club going, but I’ve done so poorly on it so far that I’m just going to ignore it for now.

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The Juniper TreeThe Juniper Tree
by Barbara Comyns
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1985
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 173
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

Bella Winter has hit a low. Homeless and jobless, she is the mother of a toddler by a man whose name she didn’t quite catch, and her once pretty face is disfigured by the scar she acquired in a car accident. Friendless and without family, she’s recently disentangled herself from a selfish and indifferent boyfriend and a cruel and indifferent mother. But she shares a quality common to Barbara Comyns’s other heroines: a bracingly unsentimental ability to carry on. Before too long, Bella has found not only a job but a vocation; not only a place to live but a home and a makeshift family. As Comyns’s novel progresses, the story echoes and inverts the Brothers Grimm’s macabre tale The Juniper Tree. Will Bella’s hard-won restoration to life and love come at the cost of the happiness of others?

This is the second book by Barbara Comyns that I have read – the first was Our Spoons Were From Woolworths, which I read back in January, 2019. Like that one, this was a very unique book. Comyns is not a cozy writer, even if some of her writing is very beautiful. Her books are disturbing, and sometimes harrowing, with characters whose mental health is often tenuous at best.

The Juniper Tree is a retelling of one of the most terrible and terrifying Grimm’s Fairy Tales (also called The Juniper Tree), which involved monstrous step-mothers, child abuse, decapitation and cannibalism. It is noteworthy for the following poem:

My mother, she killed me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister Marlene,
Gathered all my bones,
Tied them in a silken scarf,
Laid them beneath the juniper tree,
Tweet, tweet, what a beautiful bird am I.

The book begins with the meeting of the main character, Bella Winter, who is at a low financial ebb, and a wealthy couple named Bernard and Gertrude. Bella is unmarried, and has a toddler-aged daughter named Tommy. She becomes enmeshed with Bernard and Gertrude, who are childless, and begins a job in an antique shop. Things seem to be headed in a positive direction.

As Bella grows closer to Bernard and Gertrude, their lives becomes more and more idealized to her. She takes the place of beloved daughter of the home, especially where Gertrude is concerned. When Gertrude becomes pregnant, though, things start to fall apart. The juniper tree, a part of a thicket that is an especially important section of Gertrude’s garden, takes on increasing significance.

If you are familiar with the fairy tale, the trajectory of the book will not surprise, but I don’t want to spoil it for readers who aren’t. Suffice to say that there are significant losses ahead, and, as well, Bella’s mental health becomes more fragile until it breaks completely. The end of this book is quite different from that in the fairy tale, and, thankfully, Comyn’s skips the cannibalism element.

I read the NYRB print edition, which I checked out of my local library. These books are very well made, and are a pleasure to read. The Juniper Tree definitely isn’t going to be for everyone, but I found it well-worth reading.

Black History Month: Jubilee by Margaret Walker

by Margaret Walker
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1966
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Pages: 497
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

Jubilee tells the true story of Vyry, the child of a white plantation owner and one of his black slaves. Vyry bears witness to the South’s antebellum opulence and to its brutality, its wartime ruin, and the promises of Reconstruction. Weaving her own family’s oral history with thirty years of research, Margaret Walker’s novel brings the everyday experiences of slaves to light. Jubilee churns with the hunger, the hymns, the struggles, and the very breath of American history.

I stumbled on Jubilee when I was looking for a book for my birthday year of 1966 to finish up that decade for my Century of Women project. It fit well with my reading for Black History Month as well, and my public library had a copy available, so I grabbed it.

I’m really surprised that this book isn’t better known because it was an amazing read. Margaret Walker, the author, was a black woman born in Alabama in 1915, the daughter of a Methodist minister. Jubilee draws heavily on the oral history of Walker’s family, and is basically an unromanticized, unsanitized (and frankly much better) answer to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

The character at the center of the book is Elvira, or Vyra. The reader meets Vyry at the very beginning, as a small child who is brought to see her mother, a slave, one last time before she dies, worn out from child bearing and physical labor. Vyry is the daughter of a slave and her white master, who rapes her on the regular (the book doesn’t frame the relationship as “rape” and the master would surely not have imagined himself a rapist. But a person who is property has no ability to decline consent, and therefore the entire concept of consent is meaningless when it comes to sexual contact between the man who owns the woman and the woman. All sexual contact is coercive and is also, therefore, abusive and assaultive). She is the despised half-sister of the legitimate daughter of house, who looks enough like her to pass as white and to constantly remind the mistress that her husband was forcing himself on a slave during their marriage.

The book begins in around 1850, fifteen years before the Civil War, through the Reconstruction. Vyry is a fantastic character – fully realized and complex. She rebuts many of the myths about slaves – that they were happy, that they weren’t mistreated, that they didn’t yearn for freedom, that they neither saw nor internalized the unjustness of their circumstances. She is absolutely indomitable, as are many of the black characters in this book.

Before the Civil War, she falls in love with a wealthy, well-educated and free Black man. They want to marry, but are denied the opportunity because the plantation owners recognize that the very existence of free Blacks will create unrest among their slaves. When she approaches her master – who is also her father – about her wish to marry, he is indulgent until he finds out that she has been keeping company with a free man, at which point he becomes abusive. The man she loves wants to purchase her freedom, and this request is denied. It is cruel.

I suppose that this is one of those books that the new breed of book banners would likely seek to ban. It shows the south for what it was – a brutal, white supremacists regime under which a good chunk of humanity lived in terror (and was denied their humanity). The Civil War destroys the south, leaving the plantations in ruin and economically broken. The North abandons the emancipated slaves, leaving them to fend for themselves in circumstances that are impossible and horrific.

No, they have begun a reign of terror to put the Negro back in slavery. They will never accept the fact that the South rose up in rebellion against the Union North and the North won the war. They mean to take out all their grudges on us.”

Vyry and her children struggle on, scraping by in poverty, fleeing from one racist town to the next, supported by a good and decent man that Vyry marries when she believes her first love has died in the Civil War. Vyry dies free, but there is no real happy ending for her, unless you consider the life of Margaret Walker to be her happy ending – a brilliant, successful young granddaughter who stood on the weary shoulders of a great-grandmother who never really had a moment’s rest.

Walker, born in 1915, was part of the African-American literary movement in Chicago known as the Chicago Black Renaissance. She was a poet and a novelist, and her poem, For My People, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition in 1942. It reminds me of Amanda Gorman’s poem read at Joe Biden’s inauguration, The Hills We Climb. It begins:

For my people everywhere singing their slave songs
     repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues
     and jubilees, praying their prayers nightly to an
     unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an
     unseen power;
1942 was 12 years before Brown v. Board of Education and 22 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. You can read the whole poem here.

This book is a great read, and I highly recommend it. It can be difficult to be reminded how brutally the United States treated some of its citizens, but it is better to remember than to pretend. Our shared humanity demands that we be strong enough to face the truth about our history and ourselves.

2022: Book 17 – Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

Testament of YouthTestament of Youth
by Vera Brittain
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: August 28, 1933
Genre: classic, memoir, non-fiction
Pages: 688
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women, back to the classics, Mt. TBR 2022

Much of what we know and feel about the First World War we owe to Vera Brittain's elegiac yet unsparing book, which set a standard for memoirists from Martha Gellhorn to Lillian Hellman. Abandoning her studies at Oxford in 1915 to enlist as a nurse in the armed services, Brittain served in London, in Malta, and on the Western Front. By war's end she had lost virtually everyone she loved. Testament of Youth is both a record of what she lived through and an elegy for a vanished generation. Hailed by the Times Literary Supplement as a book that helped “both form and define the mood of its time,” it speaks to any generation that has been irrevocably changed by war.

This book was a journey. Divided roughly into three parts, Brittain’s memoir covers the pre-WWI period, including her first year at Oxford University, the war itself and her work as a VAD, and then the post-WWI period, including finishing her degree and then her ultimate career and marriage.

There is so much to say about it. Brittain starts her memoir at the beginning, as a young woman who has decided that she wants to attend Oxford and needs to persuade her parents, who are very traditional middle class people, that she should be permitted to try for a spot in spite of her obvious deficiency: she’s a girl. Her father, in particular, isn’t wild about his daughter going to college. She ultimately gains admission to Somerville College, which is known for many of it’s women graduates, including Dorothy Sayers. She arrives at Somerville in 1914, and the war begins within weeks, completely derailing her plans.

For the time being I simmered wrathfully in anger and hopeless resentment. By means of what then appeared to have been a very long struggle, I had made for myself a way of escape from my hated provincial prison – and now the hardly-won road to freedom was to be closed for me by a Serbian bomb hurled from the other end of Europe at an Austrian archduke. It is not, perhaps, so very surprising that the War at first seemed to me an infuriating personal interruption rather than a world-wide catastrophe.

Youth just can’t help but be self-centered.

Vera has four men who are close to her: Edward, her brother, Roland, her brother’s friend and eventually her fiance, with whom she falls madly in love in the immediate pre-war weeks, and two close friends, Victor, or Tay, and Geoffrey. When all of the men she loves enlist to fight, she leaves Oxford and becomes a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment. In this capacity she works in hospitals in England, eventually ending up in France and the Dardanelles.

This section of her memoir is deeply affecting. Her description of nursing war injuries is terrible, but most affecting is the fact that, one-by-one, the young men die. First Roland, then Edward, then Victor and then finally, and last, Geoffrey. I’m not a crier, but every single death felt like a body blow, and by the end of the war, I, too had wept more than once. It does seem that Providence could have left one of them, but I suppose it would have been a very different book under those circumstances.

But the War kills other things besides physical life, and I sometimes feel that little by little the Individuality of You is being as surely buried as the bodies are of those who lie beneath the trenches of Flanders and France. But I won’t write more on this subject. In any case it is no use, and I shall probably cry if I do, which must never be done, for there is so much both personal and impersonal to cry for here that one might weep for ever and yet not shed enough tears to wash away the pitiableness of it all.’

The memoir could have ended there, but it didn’t. How does a person come back from this kind of devastation?

The fact that, within ten years, I lost one world, and after a time rose again, as it were, from spiritual death to find another, seems to me one of the strongest arguments against suicide that life can provide. There may not be – I believe that there is not – resurrection after death, but nothing could prove more conclusively than my own brief but eventful history the fact that resurrection is possible within our limited span of earthly time.

Brittain was by no means alone in her experience, and like most women, she got on with it. She returned to Oxford, where life had proceeded without her, and where the young people who had been less affected by the war didn’t want to hear about it.

The rest of the book covers most of the rest of her life – her graduation from Oxford, receiving one of the first degrees granted to women, her work around women’s suffrage and feminism, her long, close friendship with Winifred Holtby (which was the subject of a second memoir, called Testament of Friendship), her conviction, like Virginia Woolf that

Marriage, for any woman who considered all its implications both for herself and her contemporaries, could never, I now knew, mean a ‘living happily ever after’; on the contrary it would involve another protracted struggle, a new fight against the tradition which identified wifehood with the imprisoning limitations of a kitchen and four walls, against the prejudices and regulations which still made success in any field more difficult for the married woman than for the spinster, and penalised motherhood by demanding from it the surrender of disinterested intelligence, the sacrifice of that vitalising experience only to be found in the pursuit of an independent profession.

Brittain had a career as an author and journalist, but Testament of Youth is nearly the only thing that survives.

I doubt that I will be able to revisit this book in the future. The experience of reading it was intense, especially the middle section, that memorializes her experiences in the war. If I were to go back to it, it would likely be for the post-war section focusing on women’s rights and her relationship with Winifred Holtby. I read South Riding, by Holtby, a few years ago and loved it. I will likely seek out Testament of Friendship at some point, but it’s more difficult to source than this one.

It took me three tries to get past the first 30 pages, but I’m so glad that I persevered this time. This was a worthy way to close out the 1930’s in my Century of Women project.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

All Passion SpentAll Passion Spent
by Vita Sackville-West
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1931
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 192
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

When the great statesman Lord Slane dies, everyone assumes his dutiful wife will slowly fade away, the paying guest of each of her six children. But Lady Slane surprises everyone by escaping to a rented house in Hampstead where she revels in her new freedom, revives youthful ambitions and gathers some very unsuitable companions. Irreverent, entertaining and insightful, this is a tale of the unexpected joys of growing older.

My second book by Vita Sackville-West for my January deep dive was published in 1931. It tells the story of Lady Thane, 88 years old and recently widowed. It was really a treat – there are so few books that focus on, not just an elderly woman, but a frankly old woman, and how they look back over their lives. Lady Thane has lived a life that, by most measures, was one of great import and success – she was the Vicereine of India and the wife to a Prime Minister. She raised 6 not-entirely attractive children who have become successes in their own right. She has grand-children and, even great-grand-children.

But all of her identity is wrapped up in her relationship to someone else: wife, mother, grandmother. And now, at 88, at the death of her husband, she is ready to take stock of who she is in relationship to herself.

This feels like a very gentle book, but it is, in some ways, quite savage. Lady Thane does not regret her life, but she does recognize that what she wanted to be when she was young is quite lost to her forever. That by marrying, she took a very conventional path which led her in directions that, had she had greater agency, she almost certainly would not have gone on her own. She wanted to be an artist.

Even this is interesting, because Lady Thane is entirely untrained. The reader has no idea if she would have been a good artist at all, much less a great one. Lady Thane, as well, really does not know the answer here. “Artist” was a path that was so unavailable to her, that she can never been sure if she would have succeeded at it at all. She cannot begin to know if she really lost anything by marrying because she wasn’t even allowed to ask the question, much less seek an answer.

All Passion Spent felt like it had a very universal application to the lives of women. It left me filled with compassion for all of the Lady Thanes throughout history, who lived lives that appeared on the surface to be entirely satisfying, but which masked a deep well of regret and sadness for opportunities denied.

The last part of my deep dive into Vita Sackville-West is A House Full of Daughters, which I started last night. It is written by her granddaughter, Juliet Nicholson, who has a very easy to read writing style. I haven’t gotten to Vita yet – I’m reading now about her mother, Victoria – but I will get there soon.