Six degrees of separation: from ‘Are You There God? It’s me Margaret’ to…

How could the start of the month come round so quickly? The December Six Degrees of Separation meme (see Books are My Favourite and Best for an explanation) starts off with Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret. I was a little too old for Judy Blume’s Young Adult books, which started off in the mid 1970s, and the whole Judy Blume phenomenon passed me by. But it did start me thinking about the book that I loved most as an adolescent, and how that book has been reflected in my later adult reading.

The book that I loved most in early secondary school was Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. It’s a story of a young girl and her older sister living in a racketty old Big House, with their author father suffering from writer’s block. In my own family, we never bought books, and so I reborrowed this book from the school library again and again. Now that I actually do buy books, I have not one but two copies on my bookshelves, but I’m a little apprehensive about re-reading it in case it doesn’t live up to my memories. It was the start of my love of Big House books, which is the ‘degree of separation’ that joins all my books.

I read L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between when I was in H.S.C. (i.e. Year 12). I just loved the summer 1900 setting of this book where a young boy, sent for the summer to a friend’s Big House, becomes an intermediary in an illicit love affair between his friend’s sister and a nearby tenant farmer. There’s a similar feeling of a young adolescent out of his depth emotionally, entangled in other people’s affairs and the feeling of impending doom.

These same themes came up in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which was made into a lush film starring Keira Knightley. Again, we have a young girl in another Big House, and another illicit love affair. The same feelings of summer, emotional immaturity and guilt come through in this book, too. This book, though, has three separate time periods, although the implications of an innocent but erroneous childhood action reverberate through a lifetime.

There are a number of similar books that I have read since writing this blog. Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday is only small, at 132 pages, and dealing with just one day – Mothering Sunday – when the hired help in post WWI Big Houses are allowed to go home to visit their families. But housemaid Jane is orphaned, and so spends the day with her lover, Paul, the son of a neighbouring Big House family. It’s a perfectly formed, tightly told little story.

Big Houses, tied as they are to the arcane inheritance arrangements of the aristocracy tend to elicit manipulative relationships and long-held grudges on the part of the disinherited. Clare Clark’s We That are Left is set in a postWWI Big House, once again with the outsider child brought into the midst of messy upper class family arrangements. We learn in the opening pages that the outsider child ends up owning the Big House and the narrative thread of the novel is just how he achieved it.

For me, Big House novels are inevitably set in England, although there are probably plenty of Big Houses in other countries too (all of a sudden Gone With the Wind or The Leopard spring to mind). What about Australian Big House novels? The houses may not be so big, and certainly not of similar antiquity, but Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm is set in a Big Enough House, where two adult children return to their mother’s affluent house, intent on putting her into a nursing home so that their inheritance is not gobbled up by her in-home-care nursing arrangements. I really don’t know if I even understood this book, which is often the way with me with Patrick White.

And so, I find myself laughing at the idea of starting off with Judy Blume and ending up with Patrick White. Could any two authors possibly be more different from each other?

14 responses to “Six degrees of separation: from ‘Are You There God? It’s me Margaret’ to…

  1. I am enchanted by the idea of Judy Blume leading to Patrick White!
    I did a MOOC, once, about The Big House in Literature… I don’t remember many of the books because we only had to read excerpts which just don’t stay in the memory. But of course there was mention of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, EM Forster’s Howards End and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.
    I also remember that among the Irish writers, the Big House looms large because they were typically owned by the Anglo-Irish. Of these, I’ve read William Trevor’s Story of Lucy Gault, JG Farrell’s Troubles and Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour.
    A lot of Agatha Christie’s novels are set in Big Enough houses, because she usually has lots of characters all on site amid difference classes i.e. the servants.

    • I loved Rebecca, although I always used to get mixed up between that and Jane Eyre! I almost put Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour, but I’d run out of my six links by then.

  2. Yes, I was a bit too old for the Blume craze as well. I didn’t know about the Big House connection. If I did, I think my chain would have been very different…

  3. Love the Big House novel theme Janine. I would add Julian Davies’ Crow mellow to your list, among others (including those Lisa has already mentioned.)

    Like you I loved I capture the castle, and The go-between in my adolescent reading years.

    I, of course, being a couple of years older than you, was also too old for the Blume craze too, BTW.

  4. “A young adolescent out of his depth emotionally” is the best description for this train of thought, and Judy Blume. Especially when they are trapped in those Big Houses. Very interesting picks and they all bring that same feeling of bittersweet loss.
    ~Six Degrees Post @Lexlingua

  5. Nice links leading to some great books!

  6. I also love Big House books. I am hoping (cross your fingers) to study in London in June if (you know) and I need a writing project. Maybe I could focus on some of the great Big Houses in children’s literature, beginning with the house in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Hope you don’t mind if I try to use this theme!

    I missed I Capture the Castle growing up but my Betsy-Tacy friends suggested it as an adult and like you I now have multiple copies and am happy her other books are coming back in print. I read Mothering Sunday a couple years ago and liked it (weirdly, I really like books about servants, except the one that told Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ point of view). I liked Atonement but found it very predictable. Maybe it was because I had read the book he plagiarized it from? Or perhaps it just had recognizable tropes. My niece read it in high school and I like that her school was so creative.

    Here is my chain:

    • I’ve put a hold on Another Brooklyn on the basis of your review. I liked Atonement, but I felt that it was rather too similar to ‘The Go-Between’. Perhaps I liked it because of its predictability and conformity with the genre, as you point out. A type of comfort reading! (although rather uncomfortable comfort reading, I must admit).

  7. That’s an interesting chain. I loved I Capture the Castle, although I didn’t read it for the first time until I was an adult. I enjoyed Mothering Sunday too and really need to read something else by Graham Swift.

  8. It is so interesting where these chains take us, isn’t it? I loved Capture the Castle on my first read, but didn’t care for it on my second. Frame of mind? Not sure. I’d be honored if you’d take a look. My 6-Degrees chain

  9. I love a good Big House read! Always have.

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