About Me

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I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019 and I am now properly retired and trying to write a novel. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 28 May 2020

"Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng

The hook: the Richardson's house in the posh, intensely regulated community of Shaker Heights has been burned down: Mr and Mrs Richardson and children Lexie, boy studmuffin Trip and Moody are safe; only problem child Izzy is missing. What has this to do with Mia, a talented but struggling photographer, and her daughter Pearl, who rent a half-house from the Richardsons.

It is certainly a page turner.

It starts with a brilliant first line: "Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down." (p 1, C1) This scenario made me think of the Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides but Ng's book is the cosy fire at which one roasts chestnuts at Christmas while Eugenides offers a fire that terrifies and mystifies.

There seemed to be a lot of show not tell, eg "Moody had never thought much about money, because he had never needed to." (p 23, C3). Issues (such as whether a rich white couple should adopt the baby abandoned by a poor Chinese single mother) were told with balanced fairness but seemed more like a carefully politically correct exploration of the pros and cons than something that might really have happened. The book seemed a little contrived and preachily moralistic; the community and its rules deliberately chosen as counterpoint to the artistic freedom insisted upon by Mia. There are times when the authorial voices intervenes: "How could you blame Mia’s parents for not understanding? They had been born in the wartime years; they’d been raised by parents who’d come of age in the Depression, who threw nothing out, not even moldy food. They were old enough to remember when rags became felt for the war effort, when cans and scrap metal could become bullets and cans of grease explosives. Practicality was baked into their bones. They wasted nothing, especially not time." (p 197; C 13) The author seems to gaze fondly at her characters and shakes her head in fond exasperation at their foibles like an endlessly tolerant and inevitably caring grandma. This is a very nice book, appropriate to the utter niceness of its setting; it is cosy and comforting but, despite its carefully poised arguments, it doesn't challenge.

I think my problem with this book is illustrated by this pair of quotes, both about Lexie:

  • "When Lexie ordered from a menu, she never said, “Could I have …?” She said, “I’ll have …” (P 36, C4)
  • "Lexie was seldom, if ever, offended: subtle implications and subtexts tended to bounce off the fine mesh of her brain." (p 48, C5)

The first allows me to learn about Lexie from her behaviour. The second tells me about Lexie.

All too often it feels as if the author is too much in control of her characters and using them to make points, as if, instead of being real, they are puppets in a children's morality play:

  • "She had learned that when people were bent on doing something they believed was a good deed, it was usually impossible to dissuade them." (p 70, C6)
  • "To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once." (p 122, C9)
  • "Didn’t the elite have a responsibility to share their well-being with those less fortunate?" (p 158, C11)
  • "What would she have done if she’d been in that situation? Mrs. Richardson would ask herself this question over and over, before Michael’s call and for weeks – and months – after. Each time, faced with this impossible choice, she came to the same conclusion. I would never have let myself get into that situation, she told herself. I would have made better choices along the way." (p 239 C15)
  • "But the problem with rules, he reflected, was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time there were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure which side of the line you stood on." (p 269 C16)
  • "He felt as if he’d dived into a deep, clear lake and discovered it was a shallow, knee-deep pond. What did you do? Well, you stood up. You rinsed your mud-caked knees and pulled your feet out of the muck. And you were more cautious after that." (p 276 C17)


Outline of Plot (some spoilers)
Having hooked the reader, the story can be told at a slower pace. The first quarter sets the scene. Mia and Pearl arrive; Pearl makes friends with first Moody and then with the other Richardson children; the Richardsons hire Mia to clean and cook. Izzy, becomes a little obsessed by Mia, learning the art and craft of photography. One day, at a local art gallery, a photograph of Mia bu a famous photographer is found.

There is a mystery associated with this photograph. Mia is secretive and so is the New Yorker who sold it to the collector who loaned it to the gallery; the New Yorker is the same woman as sells Mia's work. Then Mia discovers that a foundling that is about to be adopted by a richer Shaker Heights couple (changing her name in the process) is the daughter of a poor Chinese woman she has befriended.

In the second quarter Mrs Richardson, a journalist, pursues the mystery of Mia; at the turning point it is revealed that Mia got pregnant as a surrogate mother. Meanwhile Pearl has started to have sex with Trip and Lexie has become pregnant by her black boyfriend Brian, aborting it by going to a clinic with Pearl and using Pearl's name.

Half of the third quarter is a flashback which goes into the circumstances surrounding Pearl's birth, as discovered by Mrs Richardson. The other half begins the trial to decide whether a Chinese baby, abandoned by her birth mother and on the point of adoption by a rich white couple, should be brought up by the remorseful birth mother or the rich couple. Lexie is often over at Mia's because of the support she received following the abortion. Moody is upset when he finds that Pearl is having sex with his big brother.

In the fourth quarter all these threads, mismanaged by Mrs Richardson, entangle to lead to the fire at the start.

Great moments

  • "He wondered what kind of Tetris they had done to fit all the pieces of the bed into such a small car." (p 16, C 2)
  • "what could be less satisfying than stealing from someone so endowed that they never even noticed what you’d taken?" (p 16, C2)
  • "It was as if she had glanced at a pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces and saw the whole picture without even consulting the box." (p 33, C3)
  • "It huddled on the edge of a dead, dirty lake, fed by a river best known for burning" (p 53, C5)
  • "all three of them jumped, as if a piece of furniture had begun to speak." (p 55, C5)
  • "she was trying on new skins, like all teenagers did" (p 74, C 7)
  • "The photos stirred feelings she couldn’t quite frame in words, and this, she decided, must mean they were true works of art." (p 99, C8)
  • "All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles." (p 161, C 11) I guess this counts as foreshadowing, but since we already know her home is going to be burned it is a backward-looking foreshadowing.
  • "Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground." (p 161, C11) Ditto
  • "What Mia remembered of those moments was watching the blades of grass in the breeze, changing color as they went, from dark to light, like the nap of velvet when you brushed your hand over it; the way the stream of water broke itself into droplets as it splashed against the cup’s rim." (p 187, C13)
  • "It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all." (p 249 C15)
  • "Was she the bird trying to batter its way free, or was she the cage?" (p 336 C 20)


A pleasant and inoffensive page-turning read. May 2020





Monday, 25 May 2020

"Normal People" by Sally Rooney

This has become a popular twelve part drama on BBC3

It is a Romeo and Juliet but the reason these two lovers are star-crossed lies mostly in themselves. Throughout the book, almost from the start, we are desperate to discover whether these two utterly mismatched people will end up together. We know, and all their friends know, that they are in love, but when oh when will they realise it and progress to the happy ending we all want? Repeatedly, the course of true love is derailed by their repeated misunderstandings of one another.

Characters
I was utterly beguiled by the characters of Marianne and so many of the minor characters: Rob and Eric, Connell’s friends from school, and Gareth and Jamie, Marianne’s other boyfriends.

But I didn’t get Connell at all. He is supposed to be extremely shy but this doesn’t seem to stop him talking Marianne into bed. He is supposed to be a voracious reader and a to-be-brilliant writer but his understanding of and empathy with other people seems minimal. Certainly his reading hasn’t improved his vocabulary: for a top English student at the top Irish university in a country famous for its eloquence and blarney he is almost entirely inarticulate. A point is made early on that he has read Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook (top marks for perseverance) but he appears to have learnt nothing from it. When he reads Jane Austen's Emma at college he realises "that the same imagination he uses as a reader is necessary to understand real people also, and to be intimate with them." (p 72) but he never seems to apply that lesson. I found his awkwardness difficult to believe.

To be fair (a key Irishism in the book) one of the points that the author makesd throughout the book is that literature cannot educate. Much later Marianne relfects about another of her lovers:  "He’s sensitive to the most minuscule of aesthetic failures, in painting, in cinema, even in novels or television shows. Sometimes when Marianne mentions a film she has recently watched, he waves his hand and says: It fails for me. This quality of discernment, she has realised, does not make Lukas a good person. He has managed to nurture a fine artistic sensitivity without ever developing any real sense of right and wrong." (p 196) Connell at a literary reading also realises:  "It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about." (p 228) Art alone, it seems, cannot teach. You need to experience life as well. Perhaps this whole book is about Connell growing up. But even at the very end he doesn't seem to have learnt the key lesson that not saying things leads to relationship problems. 

The problem is that for the plot to work Connell, the straightforward boy, has to repeatedly sabotage his road to happiness with Marianne by misunderstanding her and by his inability to express what he wants. So he has to be inarticulate because otherwise the relationship could only be damaged if he had a heroic flaw and he is too nice for that. He is supposed to be anxious at the start of the book: he worries about whether his desire for sex makes him weird, rather than normal:"His friends don’t think of him as a deviant person, a person who could say to Marianne Sheridan, in broad daylight, completely sober: Is it okay if I come in your mouth?" (p 28) But that's the point: everyone else thinks he is nice and normal and for me his depression later in the book was a surprise (perhaps that is the way it is in life when you discover someone is depressed or they commit suicide). Perhaps he is just spoiled, not financially of course (he has had to work for two years in a garage so he can afford his own real possession, the car), but emotionally, the only son of a single mother; the quote above can equally suggest that Connell always gets what he wants and then feels sorry for himself when it doesn't make him happy.

His behaviour at the start, prepared to sacrifice his relationship with Marianne for the sake of peer popularity, is most fully articulated after a school friend commits suicide: "Nothing had meant more to Rob than the approval of others; to be thought well of, to be a person of status. He would have betrayed any confidence, any kindness, for the promise of social acceptance. He’d been the same way himself, or worse. He had just wanted to be normal, to conceal the parts of himself that he found shameful and confusing." (p 219). Rob is the lad who had previously shown pictures of his naked girlfriend to his mates, to Connell's disgust. Rob's suicide triggers Connell's depression, as if Rob is somehow an alter ego. It is clever how often the author comments on her characters using the device of them thinking about another character.

The character of Marianne is much more coherent. We learn early that her now-deceased father used to beat her mother, and her. Her brother is also physically abusive towards her while her mother ignores her. She develops into someone who accepts, even courts, humiliation and physical violence: sexually she enjoys (?) being dominated and hurt but Connell only wants to protect her and look after her. Right from the start she thinks: "She has never believed herself fit to be loved by any person." (p 46) By the end she is analysing this more deeply but it is still essentially the same idea: "There’s always been something inside her that men have wanted to dominate, and their desire for domination can look so much like attraction, even love. In school the boys had tried to break her with cruelty and disregard, and in college men had tried to do it with sex and popularity, all with the same aim of subjugating some force in her personality." (p 198)

Structure of the book: the plot: Spoilers here!

In the first part of the book, Connell and Marianne are the brightest pupils at their school but while Connell is popular, a football player, Marianne is a loner and bullied. Connell’s mum works for Marianne’s high powered solicitor mum as a cleaner and one day when Connell picks his mum up from Marianne’s house he starts to talk to Marianne. Soon they are having regular secret sex but Connell, not wanting to damage his popularity at school, insists their affair remain secret. When, to prevent gossip, he invites another girl to the school prom, Marianne is humiliated and breaks up with him.

In the second part of the book, the tables are turned. Connell is the clever loner at university while Marianne is attractive and popular; she has a boy friend. But old habits die hard and soon C & M are back in bed together. This time they break up because Connell loses his job and so has to go back to Sligo for the summer while Marianne, financially independent, is staying at Dublin; Connell can’t bring himself to ask Marianna if he can move in with her and they break up, both under the impression that they have been dumped by the other.

In the third part of the book, Marianne’s new boyfriend Jamie, son of a millionnaire, likes having sadistic sex with her. He doesn’t like Connell, the boy who used to fuck his girlfriend. There are a series of tense exchanges between the two of them; Connell is very protective of Marianne. But when he tries to have sex with her again she pushes him away.

In the fourth part of the book, Marianne is on a year studying in Sweden; her new boyfriend is into bondage. Connell is suffering depression, seeking help from a counsellor, after a schoolfriend committed suicide.

Although the book is presented as a linear narrative, with ‘chapter’ headings being given specific timings, the author jumps around in time so as to keep the thematic significance of each of the starts and ends of these parts. This part four begins with Marianne in Sweden and then jumps to Connell’s depression and then travels back in time to understand the events leading up to Connell’s depression because it is much more important to show the destructive effect of their separation on each of these main characters.

Social criticism:
These are students, so of course they are learning about the adult world, seeing its wrongs and inadequacies and, outraged, struggling to make sense of what they see.

There is observation of gender inequality:

  • "Generally I find men are a lot more concerned with limiting the freedoms of women than exercising personal freedom for themselves" (p 99)
  • "When you look at the lives men are really living, it’s sad, Marianne says. They control the whole social system and this is the best they can come up with for themselves? They’re not even having fun." (p 99)

There is the eternal debate of the poor versus the rich. This is facilitated by the different backgrounds of the two lovers: Connell is poor (it has to be the man who is boor so as to balance out the power dynamic between the two lovers; this book is nothing is not concerned with reflective symmetry) and Marianne and many of her friends are so effortlessly rich that they can be blind to the problems of not having enough money.

  • "Rich people look out for each other, and being Marianne’s best friend and suspected sexual partner has elevated Connell to the status of rich-adjacent: someone for whom surprise birthday parties are thrown and cushy jobs are procured out of nowhere." (p 102)
  • "Marianne replaces the yoghurt pot in the freezer now and asks Joanna if she finds it strange, to be paid for her hours at work – to exchange, in other words, blocks of her extremely limited time on this earth for the human invention known as money. It’s time you’ll never get back, Marianne adds. I mean, the time is real. The money is also real. Well, but the time is more real. Time consists of physics, money is just a social construct." (p 112)
  • "Fucking lowlife scum, says Jamie. Who, me? Connell says. That’s not very nice. We can’t all go to private school, you know." (p 150)
  • "It’s not an easy life out there for a drug addict." (p 150)
  • "They could always try, I don’t know, giving up drugs? says Jamie. Connell laughs and says: Yeah, I’m sure they’ve just never thought of that." (p 150)
  • "Money, the substance that makes the world real. There’s something so corrupt and sexy about it." (p 166)


Marianne is 'political' and upset by seeing the violence of the world, neatly reflecting her own submission to domestic violence: "She knew she wasn’t at all powerful, and she would live and die in a world of extreme violence against the innocent, and at most she could help only a few people." (p 234)

Reflections and symmetries.
The structure of the book has been carefully constructed to balance and reflect the two main characters.

  • The first half of the book shows a reflection. In the first quarter Marianne is a bullied loner and Connell the popular kid at school. In the second quarter these positions are neatly reversed: Marianne is popular and Connell is alone.
  • Gender inequality is balanced with social inequality. Marianne is weak and submissive and bullied because she is a woman in a world dominated by men; Connell is the poor student who, mostly, accepts his poverty, in a university world in which the rich dominate.

The book is remarkable for the way in which the inner turmoils and emotional journeys of the two lead characters are reflected in the other characters and in the world around them.

  • Lukas "has managed to nurture a fine artistic sensitivity without ever developing any real sense of right and wrong." (p 196)
  • Rob: "Nothing had meant more to Rob than the approval of others; to be thought well of, to be a person of status. He would have betrayed any confidence, any kindness, for the promise of social acceptance" (p219)
  • Men "control the whole social system and ... they’re not even having fun." (p 99)
  • The wars of the world: Marianne"knew she wasn’t at all powerful, and she would live and die in a world of extreme violence against the innocent." (p 234)
There are, of course, moments of foreshadowing to reflect the moments when characters look back on events;

  • "He felt a debilitating shame about the kind of person he’d turned out to be" (p 77) will foreshadow Connell's later depression
  • "Connell was so beautiful. It occurred to Marianne how much she wanted to see him having sex with someone; it didn’t have to be her, it could be anybody. It would be beautiful just to watch him." (p 12) 
  • Rob will show pictures of his naked girlfriend to his schoolmates which foreshadows the photographs Marianne will pose for much later in the book; half way through Marianne and Connell discuss swapping photographs of her naked for pictures of his penis.
The writing
The prose is deliberately mundane: these two have 'normal' thoughts with almost no authorial flourishes. Irishness is signified by a few phrases such as 'obviously' and 'to be fair'. But these young people experience their great love affair in hesitant, scarcely articulate, deliberately flat inner monologues. To emphasise this flatness, the spoken speech is never indicated with quote marks, giving it, with all its hesitations and ordinariness, the same status as inner thought.

This flatness comes through shockingly when Connell half smiles when reflecting on Marianne's humiliation: "It obviously was kind of funny, just how savagely he had humiliated her, and his inability to apologise or even admit he had done it." (p 64)

Nevertheless there are moments when description provides flashes of poetry:
  • "His figure was like a long elegant line drawn with a brush." (p 11)
  • "When it rains, the city closes in, gathers around with mists; cars move slower, their headlights glowing darkly, and the faces that pass are pink with cold." (p 100)
  • "Cherries hang on the dark-green trees like earrings." (p 170)
And there are many more marvellous moments:
  • "He presses his hands down slightly further into his pockets, as if trying to store his entire body in his pockets all at once." (p 2)
  • "Any time he has had sex in real life, he has found it so stressful as to be largely unpleasant" (p 5)
  • "He seemed to think Marianne had access to a range of different identities, between which she slipped effortlessly. This surprised her, because she usually felt confined inside one single personality, which was always the same regardless of what she did or said." (p 13)
  • "He would think of her small wet mouth and suddenly run out of breath, and have to struggle to fill his lungs." (p 25)
  • "He started telling her that he loved her. It just happened, like drawing your hand back when you touch something hot. She was crying and everything, and he just said it without thinking. Was it true? He didn’t know enough to know that. At first he thought it must have been true, since he said it, and why would he lie? But then he remembered he does lie sometimes, without planning to or knowing why." (p 50)
  • "Unable to form such straightforward views or express them with any force, Connell initially felt a sense of crushing inferiority to his fellow students, as if he had upgraded himself accidentally to an intellectual level far above his own, where he had to strain to make sense of the most basic premises." (p 70)
  • "Most people were not actually doing the reading. They were coming into college every day to have heated debates about books they had not read." (p 71)
  • "Back home, Connell’s shyness never seemed like much of an obstacle to his social life, because everyone knew who he was already" (p 76)
  • "In college she often feels there’s no limit to what her brain can do, it can synthesise everything she puts into it, it’s like having a powerful machine inside her head." (p 88)
  • "Trying to unbutton one of Connell’s shirt buttons, not even in a sexy way, but just because she was so drunk and high. Also she hadn’t managed to fully undo the button yet." (p 90)
  • "She wants to tell him things. But it’s too late now, and anyway it has never done her any good to tell anyone." (p 123)
  • "I didn’t need to play any games with you, she says. It was real. With Jamie it’s like I’m acting a part, I just pretend to feel that way, like I’m in his power. But with you that really was the dynamic, I actually had those feelings, I would have done anything you wanted me to." (p 139)
  • "She looks in his eyes, where his pupils are swollen to round black bullets. Yes, she says. They’re huge. He strokes her hand again and says more quietly: Oh well. They get like that when I see you anyway." (p 149)
  • "The commodity market they passed off as friendship." (p 210)
  • "Life is the thing you bring with you inside your own head." (p 208)
  • "Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything." (p 228)
  • "Cruelty does not only hurt the victim, but the perpetrator also, and maybe more deeply and more permanently." (p 232)
  • "You learn nothing very profound about yourself simply by being bullied; but by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget." (p 232)
  • "If people appeared to behave pointlessly in grief, it was only because human life was pointless" (p 232)
In summary, this is a beautifully written book. I don't feel this critique has done it justice. Yes, I found it difficult to believe the character of Connell and there is a little part of me that still feels that he has to have that character so that the story can have reversals and pitfalls, but the fact that I have spent so much time trying to understand him and Marianne suggests that the author has created two enormously real and complex and three-dimensional characters. The overall structure with its first half reflection is obvious but the multiple reflections and symmetries within the text are brilliantly executed. The prose is flat but deliberately so: this book is about normal people even though they are very far from ordinary.

I just want to shout: for goodness sake Connell go to Blarney and kiss that bloody stone!

May 2020

Friday, 22 May 2020

"The Golden Notebook" by Doris Lessing

Anne Freeman (the surname must mean something) lives off the earnings of her first, best-selling novel while doing volunteer work for the communist party and trying to decide whether to write another one. Her friend Molly, an actress, has a son called Tommy, a grown-up teenager who is living with his mother while he tries to decide what to do which probably won't involve working for Richard, his industrial tycoon father. Both Anne and Molly are mothers living with their children but separate from the fathers of their children.

Anna is trying to record her experiences (possibly in preparation for writing another novel) in a series of coloured notebooks. These notebooks hold stories that she is writing about other independent women in circumstances similar to those of Anna and Molly, but sometimes reversed. Thus, by dipping in between the notebooks, we can get a variety of perspectives on the experience of women. Mostly, it would appear, these women have affairs with married men. The men are seeking sex, a bit on the side, although many of them (eight out of ten one of the female characters estimates) are impotent or ejaculate prematurely, but the women are seeking love, or at least sex which has sufficient emotion within it for them to achieve an orgasm. At the same time the women have a variety of jobs, although they all seem to be tangentially artistic, and are endeavouring the make the world a better place, mostly through the communist party which itself is undergoing fractures and schisms as Stalin dies but the old guard survive.

She thinks a great deal about the relationships between men and women but she never describes any long-term relationship in which the partners are not busy betraying one another. Male-female relations are, in this book, temporary and shifting alliances and nobody is satisfied because men are seeking to dominate and women are seeking fulfilment which they can't get because all the men are too damn childish.

I think it is meant to be post-modern. We have more or less the same story told from a number of perspectives. This is the device of the notebooks:

  • The black notebook is about Anne Wulf, nee Freeman. We learn about her psychiatric sessions, and about her dreams, amongst other things. She has a lot of very exciting dreams. It got to the stage where my heart sank as she recounted yet another dream.
  • The red notebook is about politics.
  • The yellow notebook holds stories made from Anna's experience.
  • The blue notebook tries to be a diary.
  • The golden notebook is about her relationship with an American lover which is recounted in moment-by-moment detail. There is an awful lot of moments of insight ... or are they just psychological claptrap. Mostly, I couldn't be bothered to analyse them.

At one stage Anne is dreaming about a film being made of her novel (or are they her memoirs?).
Then I understood that the director’s choice of shots, or of timing, was changing the ‘story’.” (p 461) This is a critical statement of the post-modern creed. She also realises that:
  • what I ‘remembered’ was probably untrue.” (p 462)
  • It doesn’t matter what we film, provided we film something.” (p 462)
Post-modernism in a nutshell?

There is an awful lot of pretentious dialogue. It starts with a huge block of dialogue between Anna and Molly and scarcely any action; this evolves into a three-way dialogue when Richard arrives.

It can be very tell don't show. For example (p 46):
"When the children were small she never saw you. Except when she had to entertain your business friends and organize posh dinner parties and all that nonsense. But nothing for herself. Then a man did get interested in her, and she was naive enough to think you wouldn’t mind—after all, you had said often enough, why don’t you get yourself a lover, when she complained of your girls. And so she had an affair and all hell let loose. You couldn’t stand it, and started threatening. Then he wanted to marry her and take the three children, yes, he cared for her that much. But no. Suddenly you got all moral, rampaging like an Old Testament prophet."

Doris Lessing says it is about fragmentation. OK. Certainly Anna seems to have a hard time making sense of her life and splits herself up into the first four notebooks; whether she us able to find coherence for the fourth is a moot point. There is one section where Anna's notebook contains the outlines for about twenty (I couldn't be bothered to count exactly) short stories. They all seem more or less the same and they seem connected to one another but Anna treats them as separate.

It is very much of its time (the early 1960s before the Beatles) . There are a lot of references to Jazz, particularly late Armstrong. There are multiple references to the McCarthy witch hunts of Communists and 'reds' in America. Stalin dies during the novel and the British Communist Party continues to split. There is concern about African independence and the shadow of total annihilation through an atom bomb war hangs over everything.

I imagine it was a great success when it was published because of the passages in which she discusses sex from a woman's point of view with great frankness.

It reminded me quite a lot of the work of William Burroughs. It has the same technique of using fragmentation to achieve multiple perspectives. It is equally explicit about sex (in his case gay sex). There were moments when it was just as self indulgent. The difference is that a novel by Burroughs is short, so you can hang on to the coherence while you explore it; but this book is much, much longer.

It will be said that I didn't relish this book because it was written about feminism and I am a poor benighted male, trapped in my inadequacies. Perhaps. But writers are, first and foremost, professional communicators and they should be able to do more than preach to the choir.

There are lots of great moments:
  • “At the back of my mind I always thought, well, I’ll get married, so it doesn’t matter my wasting all the talents I was born with” (p 27)
  • “What is this security and balance that’s supposed to be so good? What’s wrong with living emotionally from hand-to-mouth in a world that’s changing as fast as it is?” (p 31)
  • “Why do I always have this awful need to make other people see things as I do? It’s childish, why should they?” (p 31)
  • “After all, men have certain practical difficulties ...  I couldn’t get a hard on with Marion. Is that clear enough for you?” (p 47)
  • “His mouth moved in the act of eating as it did in the act of speaking, every word separate, each berry whole and separate.” (p 50)
  • “His lips even made small preliminary movements before a mouthful, like an old person’s. Or like a blind man, thought Anna, recognizing the movement; once she had sat opposite a blind man on the train.” (p 50)
  • “Sightless eyes that seemed as if they were clouded with introspection.” (p 50)
  • “I know what I don’t want, but not what I do want.” (p 53)
  • “If I have to earn money, I can always be a teacher.” (p 53)
  • “You write and write in notebooks, saying what you think about life, but you lock them up, and that’s not being responsible.” (p 55)
  • “I’m angry about all the people I know who fritter themselves away.” (p 57)
  • “He’s no worse than some of the morons I’ve slept with.” (p 59)
  • “When you’re eating with the devil the spoon has got to be not only a long one, but made of asbestos” (p 74)
  • “This war was presented to us as a crusade against the evil doctrines of Hitler, against racialism, etc., yet the whole of that enormous land-mass, about half the total area of Africa, was conducted on precisely Hitler’s assumption—that some human beings are better than others because of their race.” (p 78)
  • “Right through the war, the correspondence columns of the papers were crammed with arguments about whether it was safe to put so much as a pop-gun into the hands of any African soldier since he was likely to turn it against his white masters” (p 79)
  • “Inherent in the structure of a Communist Party or group is a self-dividing principle. Any Communist Party anywhere exists and perhaps even flourishes by this process of discarding individuals or groups; not because of personal merits or demerits, but according to how they accord with the inner dynamism of the Party at any given moment.” (p 80)
  • “He was a man who had understood from the beginning that there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. “ (p 124)
  • “Every woman believes in her heart that if her man does not satisfy her she has a right to go to another.” (p 142)
  • The second notebook, the red one
  • “the literary world ... is a world so prissy, maiden-auntish; so class-bound; or, if it’s the commercial side, so blatant, that any contact with it sets me thinking of joining the Party.” (p 151)
  • “We believed everything was going to be beautiful and now we know it won’t.” (p 155)
  • “We all of us seem to have this belief that things are going to get better? Why should they?” (p 158)
  • “There are hundreds and thousands of people, all over the country, simmering away in misery and no one cares.” (p 165)
  • “The weight of ugliness that is London in its faceless peripheral wastes” (p 168)
  • “The upper-middle-classes communicate with each other in inaudible squeaks, like bats.” (p 177)
  • “So you’d like to put a giant bulldozer over it all, over all England? ... Leaving just a few cathedrals and old buildings and a pretty village or two?” (p 179)
  • “We spend our lives fighting to get people very slightly more stupid than ourselves to accept truths that the great men have always known.” (p 196)
  • “You and I are the boulder-pushers. All our lives, you and I, we’ll put all our energies, all our talents, into pushing a great boulder up a mountain. The boulder is the truth that the great men know by instinct, and the mountain is the stupidity of mankind.” (p 196)
  • “The vaginal orgasm is a dissolving in a vague, dark generalized sensation like being swirled in a warm whirlpool.” (p 200)
  • “But her prospective novel about suicide envisaged the end as being the consummtion of the life.” (p 210)
  • “Literature is analysis after the event.” (p 210)
  • “I’ve spent three years, more, wrestling with my precious soul, and meanwhile… It’s just a matter of luck that I haven’t been tortured, murdered, starved to death or died in a prison.” (p 228)
  • “Am I saying that I can never come except with a man I love? Because what sort of a desert am I condemning myself to if that’s true?” (p 292)
  • “That ugly little jerk of Richard’s well-clothed buttocks matched her own just-concealed turmoil; and therefore it was hypocrisy to feel distaste.” (p 345)
  • “It is the majority of mankind who have their beings inside a religion, the minority who are pagan.” (p 387)
  • “Every man I’ve ever known has spoken with relish—either openly or unconsciously, about Lesbians. It’s an aspect of their incredible vanity: seeing themselves as redeemers of these lost females.” (p 399)
  • “What’s the use of us being free if they aren’t?” (p 404)
  • “It’s a question of form. People don’t mind immoral messages. They don’t mind art which says that murder is good, cruelty is good, sex for sex’s sake is good. They like it, provided the message is wrapped up a little. And they like messages saying that murder is bad, cruelty is bad, and love is love is love is love. What they can’t stand is to be told it all doesn’t matter, they can’t stand formlessness.” (p 417)
  • that are for the minority?’
  • “The generation after us are going to take one look at us, and get married at eighteen, forbid divorces, and go in for strict moral codes and all that, because the chaos otherwise is just too terrifying…” (p 448)
  • “A caricature of that young American we see in the films—sexy he-man, all balls and strenuous erection.” (p 484)
  • “I was lying in bed examining the phrase ‘in love’ as if it were the name of a disease I could choose not to have.” (p 488)
  • “In all of us brought up in a Western democracy there is this built-in belief that freedom and liberty will strengthen, will survive pressures, and the belief seems to survive any evidence against it.” (p 496)
  • “It is so dark in this flat, so dark, it is as if darkness were the shape of cold.” (p 530)
  • “It was unbelievably beautiful, the shape of death; and we stood watching in silence, until the silence was slowly invaded by a rustling, crawling, grating sound, and looking down we saw the grasshoppers, their gross tumbling fecundity inches deep, all around us.” (p 536)
  • “They have always known, they have known for ten thousand years, that to lock a human being into solitary confinement can make a madman of him or an animal. They have always known that a poor man frightened of the police and his landlord is a slave. They have always known that frightened people are cruel. They have always known that violence breeds violence.” (p 537)
  • “And I was unable to distinguish between what I had invented and what I had known, and I knew that what I had invented was all false.” (p 538)
  • “There’s only one real sin, and that is to persuade oneself that the second-best is anything but the second-best.” (p 562)
  • “There’s something about a man with a whacking great erection that it’s hard to resist.” (p 573)
May 2020; 577 pages




Saturday, 16 May 2020

"The Invention of Nature" by Andrea Wulf

The core of this book is a biography of Alexander von Humboldt, a remarkable Prussian polymath who knew Goethe (and Schiller) in Jena and Weimar, who assisted the revolutionaries in the French revolution, who explored northern South America, who inspired Bolivar and Darwin and who laid the foundations of what we know know as ecology.

He must have been a remarkable man: hugely intelligent, hugely energetic, scarcely sleeping, unceasing, talking endlessly; fantastically impressive but I'm not sure he could have been a friend. He didn't really seem to empathise with people. He was glad when his mother died (partly because it released him to spend his inheritance on his passions) and a letter of consolation to his sister-in-law failed spectacularly to console. Though supposedly attractive to women he wasn't attracted by them and chose as his companions young men. But, above all, he was noted for talking non-stop and never letting anyone around him get a word in edgewise. Perhaps he was better off communicating through his hugely best-selling books (which were so expensive to publish that they ruined him).

Humboldt is important partly because of his ability to communicate his ideas through his books but mainly because of what those ideas were. He was the first to really understand the inter-connectedness of nature. This is the reason why this book is only partly a biography of Humboldt. It also explores, in a chapter for each of them, the influence of Humboldt's ideas on:

  • Darwin for evolution by natural selection,
  • Thoreau on the interplay of science and art: "his friend and Concord neighbour, the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, described Thoreau as 'an intolerable bore' who made him feel ashamed for having money, or a house, or writing a book that people will read." (C 19)
  • George Perkins Marsh, the US pioneer of the fight against deforestation, who believed that "if nothing changed ... the planet would be reduced to a condition of 'shattered surface, of climatic excess" (C 20)
  • Ernst Haeckel, who coined the word ecology
  • John Muir who fought for the first US National Park as a way of preserving the wilderness.
As a young man, Humboldt lived in Jena, where Schiller worked at the university and Goethe often visited from nearby Weimar. (C 2) Goethe was interested in the underlying patterns of animals, what he called the urform. "He distinguished between the internal force - the urform - that provided the general form of a living organism and the environment - the external force - that shaped the organism itself." (C 2)

His first exploration started in Venezuela and early on he saw a lake whose water levels were falling and he realised the part that intensive agriculture and deforestation had played in that. When he got to the rain forest he realised that the animals were competing for food, predating on one another, and that even the trees were competing for light. He discovered the Brazil nut which he introduced to Europe. (C 5) In what would become Ecuador he climbed Mount Chimborazo, at the time thought to be the highest mountain in the world, as high as anyone else had at that time but he couldn't reach the summit because his way was blocked by a huge crevasse. But it was staring at the surrounding landscape from this vantage point that showed him the zones of vegetation and allowed him to later divide the wold into climate zones. (C 7)

Back in Europe he met 21 year-old Simon Bolivar, a rich, spoilt, womanising playboy; Humboldt inspired him so he would later abandon his life of pleasure and return to his native South America to lead the fight for independence from Spanish colonial rule (Bolivar later decreed that Bolivia should plant a million trees.). (C 9) He then embarked on a grand tour with another in a long line of good-looking, unmarried men, this time the chemist Gay-Lussac. (C 9) By luck, Vesuvius erupted when they arrived in Naples. (C 9) Later he met Alessandro Volta by Lake Como (C 10)

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein just four years after the publication of Humboldt's tale of exploring South America; she made the monster declare to Victor that he wanted to escape to "the vast wilds of South America". (C 13)

Coleridge was inspired by Humboldt (C 13), as was John Lyell who wrote Principles of Geology which in turn inspired Darwin (C 13); in this book he theorised that climate is affected by tectonic movements. Humboldt knew Gauss and George Canning. (C 14)

For Humboldt it was all about connections. "He connected the sudden appearance of a new island in the Azores  on 30th January 1811 to a wave of earthquakes that shook the planet for a period of more than a year afterwards, from the West Indies, the plains of Ohio and Mississippi and then to the devastating earthquake that destroyed Caracas in March 1812. This was followed by a volcanic eruption on the island of Saint Vincent in the West Indies on 30th April 1812." (C 15)

He turned sixty during his second great expedition through Russia and into Siberia. "Humboldt celebrated his sixtieth birthday with the ... man whom history would remember as Vladimir Lenin's grandfather." (C 16)

Great moments:

  • "When nature is perceived as a web, its vulnerability also becomes obvious. Everything hangs together. If one thread is pulled, the whole tapestry may unravel." (Prologue)
  • "Goethe began to fling his arms around whenever he went for a walk ... he had discovered ... that this exaggerated swinging of one's arms was a remnant from the four-legged animal." (C 2)
  • "When he heard that a farmer and his wife had been killed by the lightning, he rushed over to obtain their corpses." (C 2)
  • "One morning Humboldt placed a frog's leg on a glass plate and connected its nerves and muscles to different metals in sequence ... but generated only a discouraging gentle twitch in the leg. When he then leaned over the leg in order to check the connecting metals, it convulsed so violently that it leapt off the table.  ... Humboldt realised that it had been the moisture of his breath that had triggered the reaction." (C 2)
  • "If everything was connected, then it was important to examine the similarities and differences without ever losing sight of the whole." (C 2)
  • "Kant insisted that knowledge was a systematic construct in which individual facts needed to fit into a larger framework in order to make sense." (C 2)
  • Goethe's "Faust, like Humboldt, was driven by an endless striving for knowledge, by a 'feverish unrest'." (C 2)
  • "Like a wine connoisseur, he sampled the water of the various different rivers. The Orinoco had a singular flavour that was particularly disgusting, he noted, while the Rio Apure tasted different at different locations and the Rio Atabapo was 'delicious'." (C 5)
  • "Humboldt had discovered the idea of a keystone species, a species that is as essential to an ecosystem as a keystone is to an arch." (C 5)
  • "One particularly horrendous story involved a missionary who had bitten off his kitchen boy's testicles as a punishment for kissing a girl." (C 8)
  • "Humboldt had written a book about the universe that never once mentioned the word 'God'." (C 18)
  • "Neighbours reported that they saw the old man on the street, feeding the sparrows in the early morning hours." (C 20)
  • "Many noticed how impossible it was for Humboldt just to sit." (C 20)
  • "His finances remained precarious. He didn't even possess a complete set of his own books because it was too expensive." (C 20)
  • "'Solitude', Emerson warned him, 'is a sublime mistress, nut an intolerable wife'." (C 23)


Humboldt is also explored by the BBC Radio 4 In Our Time programme in a broadcast on 28th September 2006; it can be accessed here> https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p003c1c2

A little bit more than a biography. May 2020; 337 pages

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

"Vanishing Acts" by Jodi Picoult

Delia, expert at tracking lost people with her dog Greta and mother of four-year-old Sophie, is preparing for her wedding with Sophie's father, alcoholic attorney Eric, when her father, Andrew, is arrested for abducting her as a child twenty-eight years ago. With their best friend, journalist Fitz, they travel to Arizona where Andrew experiences the gangland hell that is US jail and Delia rediscovers her mother while preparing for the trial.

It's a typical Picoult story, told from multiple perspectives, in the present tense (which creates more tension by permitting the narrator, and the reader, not to know what's coming next) with twists all the way to the end, but I felt that the prison gang scenes and the Hopi Reservation scenes tangential to the main thrust of the story. They were a distraction. If I worked hard enough I guess I could unpick the metaphor linking them to the theme but the story of Andrew seemed designed to sensationalise, and critique the US fixation of crime and incarceration, and certainly diffuse any moral there might have been or any sense that the goodies won. But I suppose that was all on a par with the very post-modern message about truth and memory:
  • "A witness is defined through what he sees, not what he says." (Part 1, Eric)
  • "It takes two people to make a lie work: the person who tells it and the one who believes it." (Part 2, Delia)
But it felt as if the jail scenes had been added either to spice up the narrative or because Picoult wanted to say something about society. There were other socio-political statements I thought were more subtly done:
  • "I pass a plethora of child-care centres - the hallmark of a town whose inhabitants have to pawn their kids off on someone else so they can be teachers and nannies and cops in upscale neighbourhoods where they can't afford to live." (Part 2, Fitz)
  • "I was one of the ghosthood of Mexican-Americans  who lurked in the background of other people's lives - as chambermaids and busboys and gardeners." (Part 3, Elise)
I also found the occupations of these characters a little too contrived. That Delia did search and rescue was a great metaphor but belaboured. As for Andrew, he has two useful skills: one as a pharmacist whose thirty year old studies are still so fresh in his mind that he can quote the recipe for crystal meth from memory; the other as a magician (another not-so-subtel metaphor)

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Picoult can write page-turners in which you are emotional;ly invested in the characters. There is a fantastic hook as the closing line of chapter one when Delia, as her father is being arrested for kidnapping Bethany Matthews, asks who she is and he replies: "You are." Wow.

There are several fabulously original descriptions:

  • "Rearranging themselves like some kind of cog puzzle every time a new entrant arrives." (Part 2, Andrew)
  • "I found myself watching a shaft of sunlight play Elise's skin like the bow of a violin." (Part 4, Andrew)


Other great moments:
  • "This time, though, she wasn't leaving on her own behalf but someone else's." (Part 1, Eric)
  • "Attentive mothers tended to be the ones with the most helpless babies: humans and chicks and mice." (Part 3, Delia)
  • "When your mother is made out of dreams, anything real is bound to disappoint you." (Part 3, Delia)
  • "I knew men. My mother had taught me how to ... keep away the ones who only saw you as a single step, rather than a destination." (Part 3, Elise)
  • "Not everyone understands how you can spin two lassos at the same time, one of hope and one of grief." (Part 3, Elise)
  • "For someone who can't remember very much, there seems to be a lot I can't forget." (Part 6, Delia)
  • "We always say that children belong to their parents when it's really the other way around." (Part 6, Delia)
  • "Most of us are just doin' life on the installment plan." (Part 6, Andrew)


May 2020; 420 pages

Other Picoult books I have enjoyed and reviewed in this blog are:
Songs of the Humpback Whale
Small Great Things

Monday, 11 May 2020

"The Five Red Herrings" by Dorothy L Sayers

A Lord Peter Wimsey whodunnit. When an artist is found murdered, there are six suspects, all artists. The discovery of the body involves some very careful unpicking of the timing of alibis made with the assistance of a bicycle and the local train timetable.

This is a classic 'puzzle' mystery.

As it says in the introduction, "Lord Peter Wimsey, with his aristocratic manners and mien, may seem precious in the modern era of alcoholic, working-class coppers with fractured marriages" but he is at his debonair best in this book. Of the other recurring characters, Bunter the servant has a very small part to play while girlfriend Harriet Vane and private sleuth Miss Climpson do not appear.

The book is amusing for its depiction of the dialogue of the Scots, a comedy cockney (I actually laughed out loud), and a fabulous character who lithpth.

I also enjoyed it for its description of artists working:

  • "That’s the green for the gentleman’s coat. No – don’t pinch it, or you’ll get it all over you. Yes, you can put the cap on. Yes, that’s to keep it from drying up. Yes, put it back in the box . . . That’s yellow. No, I know there isn’t any yellow in the picture, but I want it to mix with the green to make it brighter. You’ll see. Don’t forget the cap. What? Oh, anywhere in the box. White – yes, it’s a big tube isn’t it? You’ll see, you have to put a little white into most of the colours – why? Well, they wouldn’t come right without" (C 20)
  • "That’s called a palette knife. No, it isn’t meant to be sharp. It’s meant for cleaning your palette and so on. Some people use a knife to paint with. Yes, it’s nice and wiggly, but it won’t stand too much of that kind of treatment, my lad. Yes, of course you can paint with a knife if you want to. You can paint with your fingers if it comes to that. No, I shouldn’t advise you to try. Yes, well, it makes a rougher kind of surface, all blobs and chunks of paint." (C 20)
  • "I’m going to begin with the sky. Why? Well, why do you think? Yes, because it’s at the top. Yes, of course that blue’s too dark, but I’m going to put some white in it. Yes, and some green. You didn’t know there was any green in the sky? Well, there is. And sometimes there’s purple and pink too. No, I’m not going to paint a purple and pink sky." (C 20)

There are a couple of moments when Sayers has Lord Peter semi-quotes Jerome K Jerome's wonderful assertion about work ("I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours."; from Three Men in a Boat) when he says, for example: "I think the most joyous thing in life is to loaf round and watch another bloke doing a job of work." (C 21)

She also says: "Life’s just one damn thing after another." (C 19).  This, presumably, pays homage to ODTAA, an adventure novel published by John Masefield in 1926, although it would seem that the phrase was around earlier in the twentieth century.

Other great moments:

  • "To boast loudly in public of one’s own country seemed to him indecent – like enlarging on the physical perfections of one’s own wife in a smoking room." (C 1)
  • "a sky full of bright sun and rolling cloud-banks, hedges filled with flowers, a well-made road, a lively engine and the prospect of a good corpse at the end of it, Lord Peter’s cup of happiness was full. He was a man who loved simple pleasures." (C 2)
  • "The wild garlic was over now, but the scent of it seemed still to hang about the place in memory, filling it with the shudder of vampire wings" (C 2)
  • "it doesn’t do to murder people, however offensive they may be." (C 2)
  • "I’m probably the least awe-inspiring man in Kirkcudbright. I was born looking foolish and every day in every way I am getting foolisher and foolisher." (C 6)
  • "To her, the beauty of an ordered life was more than a mere phrase; it was a dogma to be preached, a cult to be practised with passion and concentration." (C 6)
  • "the more you hate everybody for hating you, the more unattractive you grow" (C 6)
  • "'I have always done my duty as his wife.’     ‘Too true,’ said Wimsey. ‘He put you up on a pedestal, and you have sat on it ever since. What more could you do?’" (C 20)

May 2020

I have set myself the task of reading all the Lord Peter Wimsey novels (mostly again) in order. The ones I have read and reviewed in this blog so far include:


There are also Wimsey books written since the death of DLS by Jill Paton Walsh. These include:

  • The Attenbury Emeralds in which Lord Peter, in 1951, recalls the circumstances of his first case, the Attenbury Emeralds, which have gone missing again.
  • The Late Scholar: in which Wimsey returns to Oxford

Saturday, 9 May 2020

"Mr Midshipman Easy" by Captain Marryat



This is a boys' own style adventure story written in 1836 and based on the author's own experiences as a Midshipman in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. As such, it is very much of its time; judging it by the standards of today it leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth for several reasons:

  • Its main theme is that human beings cannot and should not be 'equal'. The father of the eponymous hero brings his son Jack up to believe that all human beings should be equal, a doctrine it is possible for him to hold since he has a large estate with many tenant farmers and a substantial private income. The father is later represented as mad because of his beliefs. When the son joins the Navy he gradually comes to see the error of his ways. In the end he refutes the doctrine, claiming that equality destroys admiration ("what an idle, unprofitable, weary world would this be, if it were based on equality"; 3,11) and that a hierarchical structure to society is "the most perfect form" (3.11); even that "the peasant is more happy than the king, surrounded as the latter is by more cares and anxiety" (3,11). He even employs the doctrine that "the luxury, the pampered state, the idleness - if you please, the wickedness of the rich, all contribute to the support, the comfort, and employment of the poor. (3,11). These are classic arguments in favour of inequality and tend only to be made by those who are rich, are blind to the sufferings of the poor, and are determined to hang on to their privileges in every way they can. That they should be made at a time when there was desperate suffering among the working classes makes them particularly nasty.
  • One of the characters is Mesty, an Ashantee prince who has been a slave and escaped to become a servant at the lowest rung of the navy. Granted he is shown to be intelligent, getting Jack out of scrapes, even saving his life, while decrying his present state, but his background is that of a savage skull collector, he talks in classic 'massa' type English, and he appears to live happily ever after as Jack's servant. He is more or less the stereotypical black character.
  • Jack's adventures often involve minor characters dying. There is no sense that this is a tragedy. Jack himself has the emotional empathy of a psychopath; the author the instincts of a serial killer. He says early on: "He laughed at pain, as all philosophers do when it is suffered by other people, and not by themselves." (1.1) He doesn't seem to have learned from this reflection.
  • Jack appears to have few merits other than luck. He picks or incites duels regularly, causing other members of the navy to be (comically) injured and even killed. He regularly deserts his ship, going absent without leave. He disobeys orders. In effect he repeatedly undermines the effectiveness of the navy. He gets away with it time and time again. His mates the captain and the governor of Malta find his adventures amusing and tolerate his insubordination; after all, how can one expect a rich man to endure military discipline. We have a hero who does all the wrong things and gets away with it because he is rich. A happy outcome for a spoilt and pampered brat.
  • Jack's mother has so little effect on her son's upbringing that I thought she had died when he was little. When she does die it is a matter of very little grief. Jack's is a man's world with women as objects for romantic adoration. Fundamentally this book is of its time: racist, sexist and hugely complacent about the class system.


The story itself is a sort of picaresque with the narrative coherence held together by the coincidence of meeting the same people again and again.

I think the book is intended as a comedy, showing how the hero's ridiculous ideas about equality are quite rightly educated out of him. It really isn't very funny.

Perhaps the worst moment is reached when, about half way through, the authorial voice intrudes to boast that it is by his influence with the Lords of the Admiralty that now only recruits of gentlemanly status are admitted to officer rank in the Royal Navy. (2,6)

"Mr Easy turned philosopher, the very best profession a man can take up, when he is fit for nothing else; he must be a very incapable person indeed who cannot talk nonsense," (1,1)
"Mutual forbearance will always ensure domestic felicity." (1.1) Although in this case the mutual forbearance means the wife tolerating and submitting to the whims of the husbands.
"I will apply the Promethean torch and soon vivify that rude mass." (1.4) Frankenstein was published twelve years before this novel.
"There are more ways of teaching than a posteriori" (1.5) referring to the fact that Jack is taught at school by extensive use of the cane, applied to all parts of his body rather than just his backside, a fact of which the author clearly approves.
"No one liked, as a companion, one at whose appearance the very dogs would bark." (1.10) Another prejudice: the equation of physical beauty with merit and ugliness with badness.
"A literary husband is, without exception, although always at home, the least domestic husband in the world, and must try the best of tempers." (2.5)
"A little contradiction, like salt at dinner, seasons and appetizes the repast; but too much, like the condiment in question, spoils the whole." (2.5)
Arguing for arranged marriages and against romantic love: "In the blindness of love, each raises the other to a standard of perfection, which human nature can never attain, and each becomes equally annoyed on finding, by degrees, that they were in error." (2.5)
"Jack, although not much more than seventeen, was very strong and tall for his age; indeed, he was a man grown, and shaved twice a week." (2.7)
"There's nothing passes time more agreeably away than champagne, and if you do not affront this regal wine by mixing him with any other, he never punishes you the next morning." (3.13)

Mean-spirited propaganda for a society based on inequality.

April 2020; 485 pages


Monday, 4 May 2020

"Mrs Jordan's Profession" by Claire Tomalin

Mrs (Dora) Jordan was the stage name of an actress who wowed the London and provincial stage in the run up and during the Napoleonic wars. Although she never formally married (the 'Mrs' part of the stage name enabled her to muddy the waters regarding her marital status) she had one child very young and another two with a Mr Ford before becoming the long term mistress of the Duke of Clarence (third son of George III and subsequently King William IV) and having ten children with him, living in a degree of domestic bliss, mostly while continuing to appear on the stage. It was an interesting biography of a woman who must have been incredibly strong: she was born in relative obscurity and poverty and her hard work and talent on the stage meant that she was the breadwinner for her entire family for most of her life; the Duke was always in debt and although he did give her an allowance she regularly helped him out financially. It demonstrates that even in times that were even more misogynistic than today, a strong women had the ability to transcend classist and sexist discrimination.

Mrs Jordan was an unfortunate stage name in that it was slang for a chamber pot, leading to a field day for cartoonists.

Her children:

  • Fanny, daughter, perhaps as a result of rape, of Richard Daly, married Thomas Alsop and had a daughter. Dora was forever baling them out financially. Fanny, without much talent, went on the stage and, after Dora's death) to New York where she killed herself using laudanum. No one knows what happened to the daughter.
  • Dodee, daughter of Richard Ford, married Frederic March who precipitated Dora's eventual bankruptcy when she gave him permission to draw on her bank and became responsible for his massive debts; they had children.
  • Lucy, daughter of Richard Ford, married an elderly general and had ten children, three of whom had children.
  • Of the Duke's children (all illegitimate grandchildren of George III):
  • George became Earl of Munster, the line continues although George, disappointed at not being properly recognised by that prude Queen C}Victoria, his cousin, committed suicide.
  • Sophia married Sir Philip Sidney, become chatelaine of Penshurst Place and spawning the Barons de L'Isle, now Viscounts
  • Henry served in the army and navy and died aged 20
  • Mary married Charles Fox
  • Frederick married Lady Augusta Boyle
  • Elizabeth married the Earl of Errol and her daughter married the Earl of Fife whose daughter produced talented offspring including John Julis Norwich and whose son married the daughter of Edward VII producing Princess Alexandra who married Prince Arthus of Connaught whopse son is the Earl of Macduff.
  • Adolphus  died aged 54
  • Augusta married twice, firstly an Erskine; offspring continue
  • Augustus  married Sarah Gordon and their offspring continue
  • Amelia married Viscount Falkland and had a daughter.


Many of the things that interested me about this book were because I used to live in Sunbury-on-Thames (which housed a boarding school where a young Augustus went) near Hampton (whose parish church was frequented by the King, his mistress and their illegitimate offspring) and my Dad worked at the National Physical Laboratory which was built around Bushy House, the home to the Duke of Clarence, Mrs Jordan and the FitzcClarences (it had a water closet on every floor and, later, both a bath and a shower. I know Richmond, where Prince William lived in Ivy Lodge on a terrace close to the Thames, and Petersham, where Dora Jordan lived with her first 'husband' Richard Ford and where Clarence bought Petersham Lodge. She also played in the "very good theatre" in Margate: it's still there. This gave me a special interest.

Otherwise I was interested by the people Mrs Jordan bumped into who included:

  • Richard Brinsley Sheridan, playwright (eg The Rivals) and owner of Drury Lane Theatre; also the great-uncle of gothic novelist Sheridan LeFanu
  • Charles James Fox, politician, whose relative Mary married
  • Fanny Burney, a rather prudish novelist who was a royal hanger-on
  • Samuel and William Ireland who 'discovered' a forged Shakespeare play, Vortigern, which was put on stage by Sheridan for one night (it was booed and hissed off the stage), Mrs Jordan starring. Peter Ackroyd wrote The Lambs of London, a novel which tells about this attempted fraud.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a Canbridge undergraduate and fan
  • William Hazlitt, a theatre critic
  • Charles Lamb, a young clerk and fan

Other interesting moments:

  • "Money, and the confidence of money, was the message of all this paving, lighting, bridging, sewerage, brick and stucco." (C 3)
  • "Art and public morality do not always face in the same direction." (C 3)
  • "Sheridan was interrupted in the middle of seducing a governess ... even as Fox was persuading Elizabeth [Sheridan's wife] to forgive him." (C 7)
  • "Oh for England and the pretty girls of Westminster; at least to such as would not clap or pox me every time I fucked." C 8; but this is a quote from a letter written by Prince William, late Duke of Clarence; later King William IV on 23rd July 1784
  • "It is hard to believe that Margate once rivalled Brighton as a fashionable resort." (C 13)


An intertesting portrait of an incredible strong woman.

April 2020; 335 pages