I read somewhere that when considering a film that claims to be “based on historical facts”, you should look for the most momentous, the most memorable part – and that will be the bit that was made up. I’m not sure whether this applies to historical fiction as well (it may) but I didn’t have that sense in reading Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing. She has kept herself strictly within established historical and biographical boundaries, which means that there is no momentous, memorable part, and that flights of fictional fancy are strictly curtailed. But I am full of admiration for the research that has gone into this book that rests so lightly in the background, and for the fidelity that such restraint lends to the story.
The book is arranged in three parts. The first two parts take place over a two year period in 1660 and 1661 while the third part is ostensibly written some 50 years later in 1715. The eponymous Caleb is a historical figure: Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, which was then a small, struggling educational institution with more pretension than finance. A Wampanoag man, his father was sacham of his tribe. Caleb and a classmate attended school at Martha’s Vineyard, where he was born, then attended Grammar School in Cambridge, before enrolling and graduating from Harvard. He died from tuberculosis a year after graduation. These, then, are the biographical facts that Brooks needs to write around.
But she is left considerable space to invent her own character, and this is what she does in Berthia Mayfield whom we meet as a young teenager in Great Harbour where her father is a missionary to the Wampanoag. Her family has been at Noepe since her grandfather purchased land – however that purchase was understood at the time- from the Wampanoag. A bright young girl, she finds her future become increasingly circumscribed by the inevitability of her marriage and her mother, aware of this, allows her a short-lived freedom to roam the island. It is on one of these forays that she observes, and becomes fascinated by Caleb – a fascination that he reciprocates. However, when tragedy strikes the family, she blames herself and submits to a plan whereby she will be indentured to the grammar school master to enable her brother, Makepeace, to attend Harvard College. Caleb, and his friend Iacoomes who have been taken under the wing of her father, are to attend Harvard as well.
We follow her to Cambridge in 1661 in Part II. Her formal education has been sacrificed for that of her brother, but here she can secretly listen to the instruction given to the students. She observes the subtle prejudice directed towards Caleb and Iacoomes and witnesses the sexual abuse of a young Native American girl Anne by the Governor’s son. Once again, men are making decisions about her marriage. There is an unspoken attraction between Berthia and Caleb, but from the outside it appears that she has submitted to the wishes of her employer by marrying his son- only we, as readers, know that Berthia had more agency than it appears. The final part of the book is set in 1751, when Berthia is dying back in her childhood home in Great Harbour. She recalls the deaths of Iacoomes and Caleb, and the tragedy of the King Philip’s Wars as the uneasy wariness and compromises of early contact harden into violence and warfare.
Brooks has adopted an archaic, 17th century language in giving Berthia voice, and she sustains it wonderfully throughout the book. Perhaps there is an anachronistic 21st century feminism seeping through the book, but is framed within a deep religiosity. Brooks knows the line between fact and fiction and she respects it in her writing. So much research must have gone into this book, but it never feels laboured. Instead, through the narrative voice that Brooks has fashioned for Berthia, we feel as if we have been immersed into a 17th century world and worldview.
I’m rather appalled at the thought that I first read this book fifty years ago! How could that be? It was another of those books that seemed to lurk on the school library shelves, and I read it as a 15 year old. Segments of it felt very familiar, and I am sure that it was anthologized in various readers at Years 7 and 8 level. It is part of an autobiographical trilogy first published in the late 1950s and it seems to have been in print ever since.
It is an autobiography/memoir of a childhood spent in the Cotswold village of Slad, near Gloucester and it is an elegy for the passing of a simpler, horse-drawn, feudal village past in the years immediately following World War I. We meet Laurie (or Loll) at three years old as he is unceremoniously dumped from the cart that is taking his mother, siblings and half-siblings to a crowded, decrepit cottage on a steep bank above a lake. We learn that his father, an older man, had deserted his second wife – Loll’s mother- leaving her with four step-children and three sons of her own. Money is tight, as his father sends little financial support, and the family scrapes by financially through the networks of the village and through the wages that the older girls bring into the house when they start working.
The chapters are all pretty much self contained vignettes of different aspects of village life. They proceed more or less chronologically as Loll goes to school, joins the other boys in their adventures around the village, becomes interested in girls and as his sisters eventually marry and move away. He speaks of the two ‘Grannies’ of very different temperaments and habits- Granny Trill and Granny Warren – who live in the cottages adjoining theirs, and his uncles and their families, who loomed large in this father-less family.
Probably the most clearly developed character is his mother. After working in service in Big Houses, she returned to help her father run a pub. Tiring of dealing with drunks and her rather feckless father, she answered an advertisement for a housekeeper in the newspaper by a widower with four children. Reader, she married him. She remained in love with him for the rest of her life, even though he deserted her, leaving her with the care of his children from the first marriage. ‘Mother’, as she is always addressed in the narrative, was a rather fey, disorganized, extravagant woman: qualities that did not sit well with the poverty in which she and her family were living. In many ways, Loll was brought up just as much by his older half-sisters as by his Mother. The large family crammed into the kitchen, which was the heart of the house; food was sparse and the house-keeping was minimal.
Although steeped in nostalgia for a simpler time, there is an edge to the hierarchical, closed nature of village life. The church pews are arranged according to wealth and standing, there is poverty and hunger, lives are constrained by the village boundaries. In an essentially feudal and pre-bureaucratic system, crime is dealt with by the villagers themselves, with all the possible injustice that could entail.
Our village was no pagan paradise, neither were we conscious of showing tolerance. It was just the way of it. We certainly committed our share of statutory crime. Manslaughter, arson, robbery, rape cropped up regularly throughout the years. Quiet incest flourished where the roads were bad; some found their comfort in beasts; and there were the usual friendships between men and boys who walked through the fields like lovers. Drink, animality, and rustic boredom were responsible for most. The village neither approved nor disapproved, but neither did it complain to authority. Sometimes our sinners were given hell, taunted and pilloried, but their crimes were absorbed in local scene and their punishment confined to the parish.
The title refers to his first sexual experience – although he is not explicit about how sexual it actually was- with Rosie, who took him under the wagon where they drank fermented cider. In a way, it’s a misleading title, because Rosie is a minor character who only appears in the second last chapter. She was one step on from some fairly innocuous ‘doctor and patient’ sex-play as an 11 or 12 year old with a younger girl. Rather more disturbing was his description of the Brith Wood rape “if it could be said to have occurred”. Half a dozen boys planned to attack sixteen year old Lizzy Berkeley, a deeply religious girl who they designated as “daft in the ‘head”. They decided to waylay her on her journey home from church and
We thought of little else but that coming encounter; of mad Lizzy and her stumpy, accessible body which we should all of us somehow know.
It seemed that Lizzy wasn’t going to arrive, but at last she did. The boys barred her path, one laid a hand on her shoulder and she hit in twice, fell down, got up, looked round “and trotted away through the trees”. Although the boys felt guilty there were no consequences. This was, he claims, because early sex-games were “formal exercises”. They were “readily forgotten; very little in the village was either secret or shocking, we merely repeated ourselves.” (p 205) It was just part of this nostalgia-tinged, gentler world, although I doubt that Lizzy would have seen it that way. The ease and chuckling tone of this chapter unnerved me, and I can’t imagine that the book, with this chapter intact, would find its way onto a school library shelf today.
Although I can’t really imagine that a 15 year old would be particularly attracted to this book anyway. A series of vignettes from a lost past might appeal to adults, or those interested in social history, but it seems particularly quaint. The writing is beautiful -indeed, some paragraphs read like poetry- but the sentence structure is formal and rather arcane, evoking the voice of an elderly British actor at the National Theatre or on the BBC. I’m not a 15 year old anymore (far from it), and I don’t need solid plots and excitement. I was happy – until that problematic ‘First bite of the apple’ chapter- to steep myself in a quiet, sepia-toned elegy that captured a lost, simpler, ordered time with beautiful language and the perspective of distance.
That’s quite a mouthful for the title of a book, and unfortunately instantly forgettable if someone asked you “What was that Alice Munro book of short stories that you read?” I read this book as part of a book club read and although we all enjoyed the stories enough while we were reading them, we found it very hard to remember enough details to discuss the stories in any depth. I often find this with short stories, although I enjoyed the longer length of these nine stories (most of about 30 to 40 pages in length). They were was long enough to become engrossed in the characters and too long to just turn to the next story once you had finished.
As you can see, Munro writes of a particular milieu- Canadian, middle-class, middle-aged- with a particular sympathy towards women. The stories are a bit like a short-form Anne Tyler, and I was not particularly aware of a distinctive narrative voice to distinguish one story from another. Perhaps this is why I, and my fellow book-clubbers, could not really remember the stories as discrete entities when we came to discuss them. We could remember particular events or people- but which story were they from?
So, indulge me while I summarize the stories so that I can remember them in the future- and beware of spoilers!
The title story ‘Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship and Marriage’ is set “years ago, before the trains stopped running on so many of the branch lines”. Johanna is a middle-aged, rather plain woman who is working as domestic help for Mr McCauley, who is caring for his teenaged daughter Sabitha. Sabitha’s mother has died, and her father Ken Boudreau lives at some distance, writing occasionally to his former father-in-law for money. Sabitha and her friend Edith, intercept Ken’s letters and devise a hoax whereby Ken declares his love for the rather drab Johanna. Johanna takes her meagre savings and goes to Ken, who is oblivious to the letters that Johanna has received that have been written under his name. But Johanna has the last laugh: on meeting the rather pathetic Ken, she turns to caring for him instead, marries and has a child.
In ‘Floating Bridge’ middle-aged Jinny is returning home from an appointment with her oncologist. Her husband Neal, is brazenly flirting with Helen, a young woman whom they have hired to help around the house during Jinny’s chemotherapy regime. Neal insists on driving the sullen Helen to her home, and staying there for dinner, leaving his frail and washed- out wife to wait in the car. But Jinny has not received bad news from her doctor: instead her cancer is in remission, and she is no longer facing death. When a young man, Ricky, approaches her while she is waiting in the car, she acquiesces in going with him into the fields, where he kisses her on a floating pontoon bridge over a lagoon. She laughs.
‘Family Furnishings’ is about Alfrida, who is a journalist who writes several columns under different pen names in the local paper – Round and About the Town, and Flora Simpson Housewives’ Page. Her cousin and his wife and their young daughter, the narrator, were rather in awe of her, and referred to Alfrida as a career girl. As the narrator grows older, she goes to university in the same town where Alfrida is living, but she resists going to visit her. When she finally does, she is struck by Alfrida’s poverty and lack of sophistication. The narrator takes a story from Alfrida’s childhood and becomes a successful writer, a form of theft that Alfrida grudgingly admired.
In ‘Comfort’, a woman returns from her tennis match to find that her husband, who had been suffering from a neurological illness, has committed suicide. A teacher at the local high school, he had been increasingly targetted by fundamentalist Christian students and their teachers and forced to resign. She searches for a suicide note and removes all signs of suicide before calling the local undertaker, with whom she had gone to school. It is the undertaker who finds a note in Lewis’ pyjama pocket- a bitter and sarcastic note in riposte to his critics.
In ‘Nettles’ a woman recalls a boy she was friends with when they were both children. He was the son of a well-digger, who came round each year to work on the wells in their town. She meets him again, years later, at the house of a mutual friend. Even though he is married, the attraction she felt for him years ago is still there. They go for a walk along the golf course, and get caught in a sudden storm. He divulges a tragedy that he and his wife have faced, and she knows that their relationship will go no further. When they return home, their legs are itchy with welts from the nettles and weeds in which they took shelter.
In ‘Post and Beam’ Lorna recalls many years ago, when she, her husband Brendan and two children were living in an architecturally distinctive Post and Beam house. Brendan is a university lecturer and one of his most brilliant students was Lionel, who had a nervous breakdown. Lionel now works for the church, and is poorly paid and still troubled and he starts writing poetry to Lorna. Lorna’s cousin Polly, five years her elder, comes to stay with them and is needily judgmental of Lorna’s life. When Lorna and Brendan have a weekend away for a wedding, Lorna is terrified that Polly will have committed suicide in their absence, and she makes a deal with God- or whoever. The deal is not honoured, and life goes on.
‘What is Remembered’ is set in Vancouver and Meriel and her husband Pierre are travelling to a funeral for Pierre’s best friend Jonah. Meriel decides to visit her elderly Aunt Muriel at a nearby nursing home, then return home later that night. Dr Asher offers to drive her there, and he accompanies her into the nursing home. They have a brief dalliance that he puts a firm end to, and they go their separate ways. She remains married to Pierre, but is always aware of that other life that she could have had.
‘Queenie’ and Chrissy are step-sisters, but Queenie suddenly leaves home and runs away with the widowed older man next door, Mr. Vorguilla. After eighteen months, Chrissy finds out where Queenie is living, and comes to stay with her before starting Teachers College the next year. Mr Vorguilla is emotionally coercive and mean, gaslighting Queenie over a Christmas cake that she had saved money to buy. As Chrissy goes on to her life as a teacher, marries, has children, and travels in retirement, she learns that Queenie has left her husband. She thinks that she glimpses her in different places, but is never quite sure.
The first and last stories in this book were both made into films, and they are the strongest stories in the collection. They were, too, the only ones that we were able to remember well enough to discuss. ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ was adapted into the film ‘Away from Her’. Fiona and Grant had a long, happy marriage, but when her Alzheimers forces him to place her in care, she transfers her affections to another patient, Aubrey. When Aubrey’s wife Marian can no longer afford to keep him in care, she takes him home and Fiona is heartbroken. Grant meets with Marian, and starts up a relationship with her in the hope that this is a way that Fiona and Aubrey can meet again. The ending was ambiguously written.
As you can see, there is a sameness about these stories. Munro was awarded a Booker International, which is for a body of work, and I can see that she is insightful and masterful in weaving real complexity and emotional truth into a short work. I think that her writing would appeal much more to older than younger readers, and she has a compassion and indulgent tolerance for the mis-steps and compromises that we all make to keep living. Perhaps compiling such similar stories into one volume does them a disservice. Perhaps they are better left as they were originally published- many of them in the New Yorker and other magazines- where their similarities are less obvious and where they can stand alone and their strengths shine.
My rating: 7/10
Sourced from: CAE bookgroups (aka The Ladies Who Say Oooh)
I was going to say that I hadn’t read any of Lessing’s work because I saw her as an outdated writer from the 1960s in a tweed skirt and pudding-basin haircut. I now realize that I had her mixed up with Iris Murdoch, and that she actually lived until 2013, writing until the early 21st century. And consulting my reading journals from before starting this blog, I found that I had read a Lessing before – The Good Terrorist, a book I loathed. So it’s just as well that I was pushed into reading this book by my CAE bookgroup, because I would never have read it by myself (if I could even find it because it’s not widely available any more).
It has an interesting publishing history. It was published as two separate novels ‘The Diary of a Good Neighbour’ (1983) and ‘If the Old Could…’ (1984) under the pseudonym of ‘Jane Somers’. Lessing explains in the preface to this 1984 volume that she sought to publish the books under another name to test out the publishing industry’s willingness to take on an unknown author, and the effect of a known ‘name’ in achieving publication. She was right to be sceptical about the industry: her main publishers of her many previous works both rejected it. When it was picked up by Michael Joseph (later Penguin), they said that The Diary of a Good Neighbour reminded them of Doris Lessing. Her French publisher made a similar observation. Unlike her other books, it was mainly reviewed by women journalists in women’s magazines, highlighting for her the difficulty in bringing books to the attention of readers (I’m not sure that this is such a problem now, is it? Although you only have to look at the piles of remaindered books to realize just how much writing becomes literally junked because it has missed its wave).
Set contemporaneously in the early 1980s (which is when they were published) the books are written in the form of undated diary entries, a format which becomes increasingly implausible with the increasing use of direct speech and which leads to one continuous screed of writing. Jane, or as she calls herself, ‘Janna’ is an editor at Lilith, an upmarket glossy women’s magazine that includes several ‘serious’ sociological pieces on birth control, sex, health, social problems generally, often gleaned and barely disguised from New Scientist and other publications, as well as a heavy photographic emphasis on clothes, food, wine and decor. Janna was smart, fastidious about her own grooming and presentation, with a stylish home but a circumscribed social life beyond work. She had started working at Lilith in 1947, straight from school, and she was still there some 35 years later, although the magazine itself had changed its focus and structure over time. She had married in 1963, but her husband Freddie died with cancer. Several years later her mother died, after living with her briefly when her married sister Georgie said that she could no longer cope with her, as she had four children of her own. By her own admission, and increasingly, Janna realizes that she had been repulsed by, and emotionally absent for, both these deaths.
It is strange, then, that in The Diary of a Good Neighbour this chic and self-contained woman should befriend Maudie Fowler, whom she met in the chemist’s shop and accompanied back to her home. More than ‘befriend’ in a bureaucratic sense: she became a mainstay, a ‘carer’ (before than was a thing) and intimately involved with Maudie’s increasingly frail body in a way that she never could would have done with her husband and mother. This is part of Janna’s own growth as she reaches middle-age and looks back on her earlier life with an appalled guilt and regret that she had not really engaged with mortality, even when it affected those closest to her. Lessing captures well the despair felt at the betrayal by the body in old age, the mutual love/hate relationship between the aging person and their carers, and the bureaucratization of ‘care’ contracted out as part of a financial arrangement. Although set in the 1980s, the old women that Lessing describes live in squalor, with no internal bathrooms and inadequate heating. It’s pretty bleak.
‘If the Old Could’ picks up after Maudie’s death as Janna falls unexpectedly in love with Richard, a married man. It seemed light and airy after the oppressive sadness of the first book, although as time goes on the one-sidedness of the relationship becomes increasingly apparent. It is clear that Richard is not going to leave his wife; neither Richard nor Janna can bring themselves to actually make love with each other; Richard has Janna’s phone number but she has no way of contacting him; they spend a lot of time moving from pub to coffee shop and walking the suburbs of London. Janna’s caring responsibilities have, if anything increased, as her moody and indolent niece Kate moves in with her and Janna becomes a frequent visitor to Annie, an old, complaining woman who stays immured in her stuffy rooms. Kate is clearly mentally ill – her other niece Jill and Janna’s co-workers at Lilith can see it- but Janna is largely passive in the face of Kate’s slovenliness and her half-hearted involvement with a group of squatters who trash Janna’s immaculate apartment and take advantage of her generosity (shades of The Good Terrorist here). Janna herself is likewise passive in the face of the theft and cheating of the carers employed to look after Annie, perhaps through a misplaced sense of solidarity at the poor treatment of women working for the elderly. If Janna didn’t give enough to her mother or her first husband Freddie, she is surely compensating here, from a sense of guilt and lost opportunities. But the last part of her relationship with Richard and his family, particularly his son, is puzzling and strains credulity.
Moreover, I was never really convinced by Lessing’s selection of career for Janna. We are told repeatedly that she is very busy, but I couldn’t really work out what Janna did at Lilith. She seems to spend a lot of time worrying about her former co-worker and friend Joyce, who leaves for America to save her marriage, and she can drop everything for lunches and walks with Richard when he deigns to call. Janna’s focus on clothes and presentation (both for herself and in judging others) is an important part of her personality, but these could be woven into any professional job. I suspect that Lessing knew little about the high-end magazine industry.
Taken together, this is a lengthy two-part book. Particularly at the start, I seemed to read and read without making progress, and I despaired at ever reaching beyond the first quarter of the book. The writing is dense and wordy. The lack of chapters gives the book a feeling of relentlessness, especially in the dark sections with the increasing oppressiveness of Maudie’s frailty.
However, Lessing is very good at depicting the contradictions and compromises of women’s lives. Although written in Janna’s voice, she leaves space for the reader to make their own judgments of Janna’s actions and priorities. Despite my qualms about Lessing’s choice of high-end journalism for Janna’s work, the book itself has an emotional authenticity that is best appreciated, I suspect, by older readers. Readers who have watched their elderly parents die, have made mistakes and feel regrets, and have lived more than one life. In fact, I can’t imagine younger readers persisting with this book at all but, as an older reader myself, I appreciated watching a woman re-evaluating her life, finding her younger self a puzzling creature, and facing her own mortality head on.
My rating: Hard to judge. 8??
Sourced from: CAE Booksgroups (The Ladies Who Say Oooh)
I can remember this book being on the shelves at my high school library, but I was never tempted to read it. Perhaps its length was off-putting then, and that’s probably just as true today at 640 small-print pages. (My Kobo estimates a reading time of 22-24 hours). Who has time to read such a lengthy book? But – oh, what we would miss out on!
The Woman in White was serialized in 1859-60 and first published in book form in 1860. It is pure Victoriana, with its grand houses, fortune hunters, madness, swapped identities, secrets, dastardly deeds, swirling fog and graveyards. It uses a favourite Victorian technique of doubles: two sisters; two houses; two villains. But it also comes over as quite modern with its multiple narrators, evoking the structure of a court case, with its steady accumulation of evidence and witnesses. It starts with a young drawing-master, Walter Hartright (is that a pun?) who helps a distressed young woman, dressed all in white, on a dark country road. When he is later appointed as a vacation art tutor to two sisters, he notices the similarity between the youngest sister, Laura, and the unknown Woman in White. He falls in love with her, despite the differences in their social standing, but Laura is already promised to Sir Percival Glyde, a man many years her senior. Sir Percival is not all that he seems, and Laura is the unwitting victim of a conspiracy to defraud her of her inheritance. And I’ll stop here….
It is easy to dismiss as “Victoriana” the concern with inheritance, and women’s financial powerlessness until the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870 in the UK. But the heiress kidnappings, and the ‘gas-lighting’ of women to the point of insanity were not just literary plot devices: they were real. In fact, Collins dedicated the book to Bryan Proctor, the Commissioner for Lunacy, who had championed Louisa Nottidge, whose real-life story encompasses many of these themes. Although an utterly evil, decisive bout of murder might have solved all the plot machinations, Collins maintains enough ambiguity about his characters – even the baddies- that as a reader you’re glad that the author hasn’t taken such a bloodied step (besides, that could finish the book in 200 pages, instead of 600!) He is a very visual writer, and although his language is convoluted, the accretion of small details helps the reader to ‘see’ the characters and setting. Although it was serialized, its careful plotting right from the start means that you don’t have whole chapters of ‘filler’ and implausible false-leads as you sometimes get in Dickens.
He sustains the tension so well over these 600 pages, so much so that I could hardly put it down at the end and kept sneaking away to snatch covert 15-page reads whenever I could. It has been described as a melodrama, but I prefer to think of it as a thriller, with mounting suspense and a sense of dread, ratcheted-up as the story proceeds. There’s nothing hard-boiled about it at all: instead, it is intricate, verbose, lush, formal – and a damned good read. Even at over 600 pages.
My rating: 9/10
Source: CAE bookgroup (aka The Ladies Who Say Oooh)