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Sisters by Ada Cambridge – a bleak and cynical vision of marriage

May 20, 2020 14 comments

Sisters by Ada Cambridge (1904) Not available in French.

After reading The Three Miss Kings and A Humble Enterprise, I was ready for another feel-good novel by Ada Cambridge and randomly picked Sisters in my omnibus edition of Cambridge’s work. Forget about feel-good and fluffy novels, this one is bitter when the others are optimistic.

The book opens on sailor Guthrie Carey, who is on leave and taking his young wife Lily and their baby to their new house. They have to sail there and Lily dies during the crossing. He leaves the baby with a temporary nanny and comes back several months later to find a more stable home for his son. He doesn’t want to get married again, which rules out an easy way to find a new mother to his son.

This is when he gets acquainted with the Urquharts and the Pennycuicks, families who have been friends for a long time and live on neighbouring stations. Strong ties bind the two families and through the Urquhart, Guthrie and the reader meet with the four Pennycuick sisters.

The oldest, Deborah, is beautiful, in her twenties and everyone expects her to marry the local aristocracy, Mr Claud Dalzell. Deborah is lively, slightly self-centred and has a high opinion of her rank in the community. She’s the queen of her little world, boys and men are at her feet. Claud Dalzell, her godfather who’s old enough to be her father, Jim Urquhart and even Carey: all fall for her.

The second sister, Mary, is too plain to get married. She turns her affection on other people’s babies and takes care of the household.

The third sister, Rose, is pretty but not as beautiful as Deborah. Frances, the youngest, is still a child when the book opens but she promises to be even lovelier than Deborah.

Sisters tells the fate of the four sisters while Guthrie Carey appears on and off in the book, like a deus ex machina that throws their lives off balance and makes them go on a spin.

Ada Cambridge weaves a story with the underlying idea that love and marriage are not compatible. Love doesn’t survive the quotidian and people you love shouldn’t be the ones you marry since you should want different qualities in a spouse than in a lover. And also, loves remains beautiful when it stays an idea and doesn’t turn into a real relationship.

In Sisters, Ada Cambridge also shows that pride, prejudices and class conscience make people miserable. Deborah is only the daughter of a rich landowner. She’s the aristocracy in her neck of the woods. She’s very attached to her status and would never marry below her rank or what she believes her rank is. She behaves as if she were a princess.

Cambridge points out that, even in on a station where these people started from scratch, they managed to recreate a hierarchy, like in the old world. In Deborah’s eyes, trade is degrading and none of the Pennycuick sisters should marry a tradesman.

As the oldest daughter, she’s in charge of her sisters when her father dies and she’s not fit for it. Her pride will not allow her to make the sacrifices they should do.

She should have managed better with the resources at her disposal than to bring herself to such a pass, and that so soon; either Mary or Rose would certainly have done so in her place. But Nature had not made her or Frances—whose rapacities had been one cause of the financial breakdown—for the role of domestic economists; they had been dowered with their lovely faces for other purposes.

She was supposed to marry a rich man, and that’s all the preparation she had to face life.

In Sisters, men are all flawed. The pastor is a moocher, a greedy man and his temper is not fit for religious duties. Mr Pennycuick is weak, like Mr Bennet. Mr Thornycroft, Deborah’s godfather, lusts after her “ever since she was a kiddie” Eew! Claud Dalzell is a cad. Guthrie Carey falls in and out of love easily and doesn’t want to get married again. The only two decent men are the ones who work to make a living, Jim Urquhart who manages the station and Paul Breen, a draper who will marry one of the sisters, against her family’s will.

I won’t tell much about the plot, to avoid spoilers but the sisters’ lives are dictated by their marital choices. And Cambridge’s conclusion is that:

He did not know what a highly favoured mortal he really was, in that his beautiful love-story was never to be spoiled by a happy ending.

Wow.

I still wonder what she wanted to prove in her novel and why it’s so bitter compared to the others. She was a pastor’s wife and she spent her life in various parishes. Is Sisters the bleak offspring of her observations of married life?

Did she want to point out that men make women’s lives more difficult and that their hard work never has the recognition it deserves?

Mrs Urquhart and Mrs Pennycuick, plain, brave, working women of the rough old times, wives of high-born husbands, incapable of companioning them as they companioned each other, had been great friends. On them had devolved the drudgery of the pioneer home-making without its romance; they had had, year in, year out, the task of ‘shepherding’ two headstrong and unthrifty men, who neither owned their help nor thanked them for it—the inglorious life-work of so many obscure women—and had strengthened each other’s hands and hearts that had had so little other support.

Sisters has a feminist vibe but I found Deborah insufferable. Mary’s lack of confidence was her Achille’s heel. Rose was the most sensible one and Frances, frivolous and vain deserved her fate.

For this reader, it’s always interesting to catch glimpses of everyday life in the 19thC. If you tend to forget you’re reading an Australian book, Cambridge reminds you of it with scorching hot Februaries and by comparing something to an opossum.

Brona has read it too and her review is here.

This is another contribution to Australian Women Writer Challenge

AWW_2020

Christiane Taubira & Feminism

July 28, 2017 11 comments

Christiane Taubira is a French politician from the overseas department of French Guiana. She was minister of Justice from 2012 to 2016 and was instrumental in the law authorizing same sex marriage in France. She’s very literate, in love with literature in general and poetry in particular. Toni Morrison is one of her favorite writers because they share the heavy history of slavery and of the oppression of women.

She was invited by the director of the theatre festival in Avignon. He asked her to pick literature excerpts to make a performance during the festival. She accepted and she gave an interview to Télérama at the end of June to talk about the festival, her immense love for literature, her opinion that a politician should always be literate and rely on books to learn new things and keep in touch with the society. She’s a vibrant feminist and I wanted to share her answer to this question about the texts she selected for the show.

Journaliste: Sur quels thèmes portent les textes que vous avez choisis?

Sur les femmes, notamment: leur regard sur la planète, leurs conquêtes, ou les formes de discriminations qu’elles subissent. L’inégalité hommes-femmes est à mes yeux la matrice de toutes les discriminations. Une fois celle-ci éliminée, les autres –fondées sur des préjugés ou des faits culturels– s’écrouleront. Tant que nous n’aurons pas installé psychologiquement et intellectuellement cette nécessaire égalité au sein de nos sociétés, tant que les lois et les faits toléreront le sexisme, nous donnerons prise aux autres inégalités…

My translation:

Journalist: What do the texts you picked talk about?

About women, among other things. About their vision of our planet, their conquests, or the kind of discrimination they suffer from. Inequality between men and women is the mother of all inequalities. Once this one is eradicated, the others– based on prejudice or on cultural facts– will crumble. As long as we have not psychologically and intellectually settled this necessary equality in our societies, as long as laws and facts will tolerate sexism, there will be room for all the other inequalities…

Thought-provoking, isn’t it?

The Dark Room by RK Narayan or Desperate Indian Housewife

February 15, 2017 14 comments

The Dark Room by RK Narayan. (1935) French title: Dans la chambre obscure.

NarayanI had already read and loved Swami and Friends and I was looking forward to returning to fictional Malgudi with another book by RK Narayan. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The Dark Room is not as light as Swami and Friends which was centered on childhood. We are introduced to a family of five persons, the husband Ramani, his wife Savitri and their children Babu (13), Sumati (11) and Kamala (5). This is a Tamil family of the middle class in the South of India in the 1930s. Ramani works for an insurance company and his wages are enough to support his family and hire two domestics. Ramani and Savitri have been married for fifteen years and Ramani reigns on his household as a spoiled tyrant. The society gives him privileges because he’s a man and he takes advantage of it.

RK Narayan describes the daily life in Ramani’s house. Everything and everyone revolves around him. When he leaves for work, the other members of the family exhale a big sigh because they know they won’t be riding on the roller-coaster of his moods until he comes home. Ramani isn’t mean or violent per his time and place’s standards. He’s just the head of the house and the atmosphere is different when the master is at home. Narayan never calls him “master” but his behaviour is close to a master and servant relationship. He’s unhappy if the garage door is not duly opened when he arrives, despite the fact that he comes home at random hours that no one can foresee. Savitri is his trophy wife, a property he’s happy to show off, like a shiny sports car or a big diamond.

Ramani sat in a first-class seat with his wife by his side, very erect. He was very proud of his wife. She had a fair complexion and well-proportioned features, and her sky-blue sari gave her a distinguished appearance. He surveyed her slyly, with a sense of satisfaction at possessing her. When people in the theatre threw looks at her, it increased his satisfaction all the more.

As a man, Ramani has a lot of power and he doesn’t deserve it. He’s whimsical, cruel sometimes and doesn’t hesitate to make decisions or impose his views just because he can. After 15 years, Savitri is tired of her life as a housewife. She takes no pleasure in running her household. She’s bored to death by her daily routine. Here she is, thinking about the preparation of meals and its related tasks:

“Was there nothing else for one to do than attend to this miserable business of the stomach from morning till night?”

The Dark Room from the title is where Savitri finds solace when her family becomes a burden, when she needs alone time to regroup and refuel. Ramani cannot understand that and the children are puzzled as well. But she needs it.

Their fragile equilibrium is shattered when a woman is hired at Ramani’s insurance company and he gets infatuated with her. We see Ramani’s behaviour change while Savitri’s quiet resistance grows and turns into full-blown rebellion. She resents her fate as a woman and she starts expressing her feelings and opinions. She challenges Ramani, like here:

’I’m a human being,’ she said, through her heavy breathing. ‘You men will never grant that. For you we are playthings when you feel like hugging, and slaves at other times. Don’t think that you can fondle us when you like and kick us when you choose’

And she reflects that society is made to keep women under the tutelage of their closest male relative, father, husband or son. Of course, this doesn’t only happen in India. Savitry realises that she’s always under somebody’s order because she has no financial independence.

I don’t possess anything in this world. What possession can a woman call her own except her body? Everything else that she has is her father’s, her husband’s, or her son’s.

She comes to the conclusion that she should have studied to have a degree, to have a chance to get a job and earn her own money. She thinks of her daughters’ future and promises to herself that they will have the choice and feel obliged to be married to get fed.

If I take the train and go to my parents, I shall feed on my father’s pension; if I go back home, I shall be living on my husband’s earnings, and later, on Babu. What can I do myself? Unfit to earn a handful of rice except by begging. If I had gone to college and studied, I might have become a teacher or something. It was very foolish of me not to have gone on with my education. Sumati and Kamala must study up to the B.A. and not depend their salvation on marriage. What is the difference between a prostitute and a married woman? –the prostitute changes her men, but a married woman doesn’t; that’s all, but both earn their food and shelter in the same manner.

I didn’t expect to find such a modern and feminist novel under Narayan’s pen. It was an agreeable surprise and I can only warmly recommend The Dark Room. It’s an unusual topic for a male writer of the 1930s. He’s very good at describing Savitri’s disenchantment and growing awareness that she’s trapped. She has no other choice than be a wife and a mother. It could be as dark as the room Savitri closes herself into but it’s not. I could feel Narayan thinking that education was the key to freedom and equality for women. It’s certainly necessary to reach financial independence but it’s not enough without a proper legal environment. He’s hopeful though and his hope can be perceived in his novella.

It is truly an odd book for its time and I wonder how it was received when it was first published. From a strictly literary point of view, Narayan’s prose flows like the water of a stream. It’s clear, melodic and unaffected. My omnibus edition, a kind gift from Vishy, also includes The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. I am sure I will like them too. Thanks again, Vishy!

Highly recommended.

Memoirs of a cocodette written by herself by Ernest Feydeau

January 24, 2016 13 comments

Souvenirs d’une cocodette, écrits par elle-même by Ernest Feydeau (Published in 1878) I don’t think it’s available in English.

Feydeau_cocodetteIt’s better to read this billet after reading the one about images of prostitution in Paris from 1850 to 1910. It’s here. I have bought Souvenirs d’une cocodette, écrits par elle-même at the bookshop of the Orsay museum. It caught my attention because the blurb mentioned that Flaubert wrote that it was tellement lubrique et indécent qu’aucun éditeur n’a consenti à le prendre” (“it was so lecherous and indecent that no publisher agreed to take it”). What could be shocking enough to shock Flaubert? I had to know.

To be honest, I’d never heard of Ernest Feydeau (1821-1873) before. He was a stockbroker and a writer and he combined his two jobs in a book about his experience at the Paris stock exchange. Apparently he inspired Zola for L’Argent. He was also the father of the playwright Georges Feydeau. His second wife was a former courtesan and she wasn’t faithful to him. The rumor says that Georges’s real father might be the duc de Morny or even Napoléon III. These biographical tidbits are important because it shows that Ernest Feydeau knew the world he was writing about in Souvenirs d’une cocodette and even if his character is fictional, there’s a good chance that her story rang true to his contemporaries.

Souvenirs d’une cocodette are the fake memoirs of Aimée. She’s ageing and she relates how she was raised by a beloved but weak father and a beautiful but unfaithful mother. Her mother didn’t like Aimée growing up and becoming beautiful. She saw her as a threat and she eventually put her away in a convent.

After her years at the convent, Aimée gets married to the baron de C*** an older man who wanted her for her beauty. It is not a love match. He married her to possess a beautiful object and started playing dolls with her. He was fond of seeing her in gorgeous gowns and jewels. She started to spend a lot of money on her appearance and became the darling of the high society. She was admired, admitted to the best circles and launched fashion. She breathed fashion and had a lot of fun parading in new clothes. I guess that today we would call a cocodette a fashionista. Life was frivolous but sweet.

Unfortunately, her husband is not as rich as he pretended to be and all this spending led them to ruin. When Aimée realizes in what predicament she finds herself into, a woman comes to rescue her. She’s supposedly the baroness of Couradilles and she acts as the middleman between women who are willing to sell their charms against money. She says that a certain gentleman would be more than happy to pay for Aimée’s body and suggests that she gives herself away against the settlement of her debts.

What I wrote is PG-rated. The text is not so polite and soft. Let’s say that Aimée describes her sexual initiation with lots of candor. First lesbian experiences at the convent in study hall and then experiences with men. The men in her world are perverse. Affairs are common, sexual favors too. Her husband sounds a bit deviant and demanding; her lover as well. Everyone in Aimée’s surroundings is rather toxic, except maybe her father. He’s just turning his head the other way to avoid acknowledging his wife’s affairs. (Something that Ernest Feydeau seems to have done too. He, whose middle name was…Aimé)

I understand why the Orsay museum put this book on display. It illustrates perfectly the theme of the exhibit. It shows how sex and prostitution had infiltrated society. Ernest Feydeau describes a society where sex is a commodity, where appearances matter so much that keeping them was worth a lot of sacrifices. Aimée speaks according to the codes this exhibit helped to decipher. She writes in an honest tone, taking Rousseau’s confessions as a model. Feydeau tries not to be judgmental but Aimée’s statements are rather condemning:

Je ne veux point me donner le ridicule de faire le procès à la société, qui, vraisemblablement, ainsi que le disait mon père, ne vaut ni plus ni moins que celle qui l’a précédée sur la scène du monde ; mais je ne puis cependant m’empêcher de remarquer que c’est à qui, dans les salons, poussera les malheureuses jeunes femmes, de toutes ses forces, à se mal conduire. En y réfléchissant aujourd’hui, je ne me sens même point aujourd’hui aussi coupable qu’on le pourrait croire. Combien de femmes j’ai connues, mariées comme moi, mères, qui se sont vues un jour contraintes de se vendre, pour apaiser des créanciers impitoyables, et qui n’eurent même pas l’idée, comme moi, de racheter ce qu’il y avait de rachetable dans leur action, en sauvant leur mari de la ruine, sans qu’il pût soupçonner le moyen pour cela, le laissant honnête homme et considéré, et prenant le supplice et la honte pour elle.

I don’t want to be ridiculous and put society on trial; as my father used to say, it’s probably not better or worse than the one that preceded it on the world’s scene. But I can’t help noticing that there’s a tendency to push unfortunate young women to misbehave. With hindsight, I don’t feel as guilty as you’d think. How many women did I know, married like me, mothers, who had to sell themselves to appease merciless creditors and who didn’t even have the idea, like me, to find a way to make amends and see what was redeemable in their action by saving their husband from ruin, without his knowing the means to it, leaving him honest and respected and keeping the agony and the shame for themselves.

 

(my translation, clumsy I know but Feydeau’s prose is a bit bombastic)

She sounds like her actions are rather common. Aimée also picture life from a woman’s point of view: someone who’s always at the mercy of men. She goes from obeying to her father to obeying to her husband to putting herself under the orders of her lover. With hindsight, Aimée states:

Je le répète, je n’ai eu, dans toute ma vie, qu’une seule et véritable passion, celle de la toilette. Passion qui n’est point du tout inoffensive, car elle coûte cher.

Heureusement que je ne manque pas des moyens nécessaires pour la satisfaire sans me voir obligée de subir encore les manies des hommes : je suis riche. Je suis veuve. Je n’ai pas d’enfants.

I repeat myself, I only had one true passion in my life : clothes. A passion that is not inoffensive at all because it is expensive.

Fortunately, I have the means to satisfy it without bending over backwards to the odd habits of men. I’m rich. I’m a widow. I don’t have any children.

This reminded me of Notre Coeur by Maupassant. Madame de Burne has no desire to remarry. It would mean losing her freedom.  Although it is said in a candid tone, Souvenirs d’une cocodette is also description of women’s fate in the high society. They have no other perspective than landing a rich husband or a rich lover if the rich husband fails them.

It’s an entertaining read but when you start digging and thinking about what it really means, the picture of the society of the Second Empire isn’t pretty. On top of the explicit sex talk, it’s offensive for the high society of the time. No wonder Flaubert saw it as subversive and that it was only published after Feydeau’s death.

PS: One word about the book cover. ‘Why the hen?’, you might think. In French, a cocotte is a tart, according to the dictionary but it’s also a colloquial way to call a hen.

The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy

December 26, 2015 13 comments

The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (1888) Not available in French. (Sorry)

The cinema was invented in Lyon by the Lumière brothers. But what made their fortune was actually photography. They were inventors who registered more than 170 patents and in 1881, they created the instantaneous photograph plaque called the Plaques Étiquettes-Bleues. Before this invention, people had to stay still for about five minutes before the photography was taken and the photographer needed to be a specialist capable of handling a complicated process. With the Plaques Étiquettes-Bleues, photography became simple and accessible to amateurs. You only had to slip the Plaque in the camera and you were ready to take a picture. This invention was so revolutionary that it spread within two years after it was marketed and it resulted in the creation of many photography studios.

Levy_Romance2In other words, without the Lumière brothers, The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy wouldn’t be the same. Now imagine what would become of the Bennett sisters if they lived in 1888 and their father died while they were still unmarried. Amy Levy seems to explore this idea.

Fanny, Gertrude, Lucy and Phyllis Lorimer belong to small nobility and are single when their father dies. They discover that they have no fortune left and their family think that the only solution for them is to split, two going to live with friends of the family, the Devonshires,  and the two others being shipped to the part of the family established in India. But Gertrude, the brain of the four, comes with another idea. She has consulted a friend of their father’s and she determined to open a photography studio in London and earn their keep through their trade. Now you see my point about the Lumière brothers.

Lucy supports Gertrude immediately. Phyllis, the youngest one, has no objection but Fanny isn’t so easily convinced.

“Oh, Gertrude, need it come to that—to open a shop?” cried Fanny, aghast. “Fanny, you are behind the age,” said Lucy, hastily. “Don’t you know that it is quite distinguished to keep a shop? That poets sell wall-papers, and first-class honour men sell lamps? That Girton students make bonnets, and are thought none the worse of for doing so?”

Despite the opposition of their aunt, Mrs Spratt, and Fanny’s wariness, the project comes through. Their friends Constance and Fred Devonshire support them as they acquire a former photography studio and start their business.

A few days afterwards the Lorimers found themselves the holders of a lease, terminable at one, three, or seven years, for a studio and upper part of the house, known as 20B, Upper Baker Street.

(I noted that leases are one, three or seven years while in France, it’s three, six or nine years)

The four sisters are very different. Fanny is the old fashioned one, the less able to change her ways and be helpful. She can’t help in the studio, she can’t take care of the house and soon her sisters accept that poor Fanny is more a liability than an asset.

As Lucy had said, Frances Lorimer was behind the age. She was an anachronism, belonging by rights to the period when young ladies played the harp, wore ringlets, and went into hysterics.

Gertrude is the leader. She puts aside her literary ambitions to run the business, take the pictures, go to other studios or private homes to take photos and earn money. She’s not always comfortable with what she’s doing, like going to a man’s house without a chaperone but she knows she can’t be picky. Lucy is her real partner, sharing the workload, the worries about the bills and the customers. Phyllis is the youngest sister. She’s a pretty girl, a bit immature and rather selfish.

So basically, the business in on Gertrude and Lucy’s shoulders. Through their friend Constance, they get acquainted with a young man living across their street. Mr Jermyn hires them to photograph his work, introduces to his friends and acquaintances and soon becomes a familiar fixture of their new life.

They began to get glimpses of a world more varied and interesting than their own, of that world of cultivated, middle-class London, which approached more nearly, perhaps, than any other to Gertrude’s ideal society of picked individuals.

Business picks up, leading to choices and a new way-of-life. What will become of Fanny, Gertrude, Lucy and Phyllis?

You can imagine a bit of their fate if I tell you that in Austen’s world, Gertrude would be Lizzy, that Lucy reminded me of Jane, that Phyllis acted like Kitty and that Fanny would be Mary. Constance sounds like Charlotte.

While I enjoyed following the adventures of the Lorimer sisters and their shop, I missed the sharp analysis of the condition of women provided by Gissing in The Odd Women. Gissing’s novel was published in 1893, only five years after The Romance of a Shop. Levy’s book is unconventional. It pictures women who refuse to become nannies, teachers or governesses. They reject the idea to depend on family and be at the mercy of relatives who would have them at their beck and call because they put a roof above their heads. They take their life into their own hands and start a business. It lacks propriety in their world and sometimes, the daily business hurts their ingrained good manners. But Gertrude doesn’t mope or whine. She takes action. And she does the exact opposite of what is expected of her sex.

The shop part of the book was interesting to follow and I would have liked to read more details about the operations. I’m always interested in how business was made in the 19thC. The romance part was a bit too much for my tastes but it was still an agreeable read. It is as if the writer didn’t dare going as far as having female characters who chose a career and gave up the dream of being a wife. In Levy’s world, getting married is still the most enviable option for a woman. Opening a shop is a necessity but not a choice. In Gissing’s world, he hints that women should have the choice not to marry and have a fulfilling career for themselves.

Thanks to Guy for giving me this novel and you can read his excellent review here for Part 1 and here for Part 2

Like the British Constitution, she owes her success in practice to her inconsistencies in principle.

June 30, 2015 20 comments

The Hand of Ethelberta by Thomas Hardy (1876) French title: S’il avait insisté. Translated by Jean Audiau in 1931 and now OOP.

Hardy_EthelbertaI’m still reading Thomas Hardy in chronological order and my journey brought me to The Hand of Ethelberta. Ethelberta is actually a young widow, Mrs Petherwin. She married the young man of the family where she stayed as a governess. He died soon after her marriage and her mother-in-law kept her with her on condition that Ethelberta gives up any relationship with her family. Indeed, her father is a butler, her brothers are carpenters. Ethelberta married in a higher social class and it wouldn’t be possible to acknowledge being the daughter of a butler.

Ethelberta had what we would call today a boyfriend in Mr Christopher Julian. He would have married her but he was too poor and without any prospect of doing better and she was not willing to settle without money. She chose young Petherwin.

Ethelberta has beauty, intelligence, guts and a huge family. Her parents have ten children and Ethelberta wants to take care of them, to ensure they get an education to have a chance at a better life. Or what she thinks is a better life. She had a little fame when she published a decent collection of poems. The door of higher circles opened to her and that’s where she met Mr Ladywell, Mr Neigh and Lord Mountclere. However, she has baggage with her maiden name and origins and her siblings’ future. The only one who knows everything is Mr Julian. He knows her family and Ethelberta’s sister Picotee is even in love with him.

When Mrs Petherwin senior dies, she leaves Ethelberta with a house in London but no income. Ethelberta starts writing romance and telling stories for money. She’s certain that she can make it, that she can earn enough money to provide for everyone. In the house she hires her siblings as butler, maid or cook. They pretend they don’t know each other in public and they try to support themselves. But it’s not so easy to earn money when you’re a woman in the 19thcentury. So Ethelberta ends up turning to the most common way of providing for yourself and even your family when you’re female: marriage!

Yet Ethelberta’s gradient had been regular: emotional poetry, light verse, romance as an object, romance as a means, thoughts of marriage as an aid to her pursuits, a vow to marry for the good of her family; in other words, from soft and playful Romanticism to distorted Benthamism. Was the moral incline upward or down?

Lucky her, even in this era of man famine, she has three prospects. Mr Neigh, Mr Ladywell and Lord Mountclere. Mr Julian had to forfeit because he lacked the required financial perspectives. Even if he’s the one she likes best. Ethelberta looks at these men only in terms of financial stability and prestige. She remains cold hearted and states:

Men who come courting are just like bad cooks: if you are kind to them, instead of ascribing it to an exceptional courtesy on your part, they instantly set it down to their own marvellous worth.

[I wonder what Hardy would write about men who are chefs. A man can’t be a cook, he’s a chef, that’s where the marvellous worth expresses itself. Are they marvellous² ? ]

Ethelberta is a strange mix of ambition and self-sacrifice. She wants badly to make money for herself but mostly to take care of her siblings. Her parents don’t ask her to do it but she’s convinced that without a good education, they have no chance. She’s conflicted and stubborn. Nothing and no one can make her change her path. She wants a better life, she’s ready to sacrifice happiness for social advancement for her and her siblings.

Which groom will she pick and how? That’s where you need to read the book to know more…

The Hand of Ethelberta means several things for me. The most obvious meaning is marriage. Her hand is at stake and the novel is about discovering when and whom she’ll marry. Will she listen to her heart or will she listen to her ambition?

One other meaning is the hand she has been dealt. She’s a butler’s daughter, she has nine siblings to provide for and she needs to play it well to win her financial stability. She has four men around her, one for each card suit. Let’s say King of Hearts is Mr Julian, King of Diamonds is Mr Ladywell, King of Spades is Mr Neigh and King of Clubs is Mountclere.

The third meaning is given by Ethelberta’s mother when she refers to her change of social status. She climbed to an upper class when she married Mr Petherwin, she must live with the idea that she cannot be associated with her parents and siblings in public. ‘Well, you chose your course, my dear; and you must abide by it.  Having put your hand to the plough, it will be foolish to turn back.’

I suppose Hardy played on the meaning of the title, otherwise he would have written Ethelberta’s hand, no?

Although I didn’t like this one as much as Far from the Madding Crowd, I was happy to be enveloped again in Hardy’s ironic prose. The novel is full of gems like these:

Supply the love for both sides?  Why, it’s worse than furnishing money for both.

If a needy man must be so foolish as to fall in love, it is best to do so where he cannot double his foolishness by marrying the woman.

I enjoyed the twists and turns, the help of bad weather, coincidences, bad luck and other tricks to move the plot forward. It’s part of Hardy’s game and I went along with it. Behind the twists and turns, there’s also the very serious question: what makes us truly happy? Is social success enough? Is money enough? Is social standing and money are worth leaving a worthy companion behind? Does it make you happy to change of social class or does it cost too much? Ethelberta has made up her mind, have you made yours? For Ethelberta, changing of social class also means being able to express her potential to the fullest. It gives her the opportunity to engage in things that are challenging her intelligence. She needs this. She’s intelligent, she doesn’t want her brain to go to waste. Who can blame her?

My next Hardy will be The Return of the Native.

PS: I can’t resist adding a last quote. What would be British literature of the 19th Century without clumsy and offensive marriage proposals? I wonder. It must have been a rite of passage for would-be writers at the time. That was before creative writing classes but perhaps it was required in feuilletons like television has requirement for series nowadys. I put XXX where the gentleman’s name was mentioned, to avoid spoilers.

‘I have been intending to write a line to you,’ said XXX; ‘but I felt that I could not be sure of writing my meaning in a way which might please you.  I am not bright at a letter—never was.  The question I mean is one that I hope you will be disposed to answer favourably, even though I may show the awkwardness of a fellow-person who has never put such a question before.  Will you give me a word of encouragement—just a hope that I may not be unacceptable as a husband to you?  Your talents are very great; and of course I know that I have nothing at all in that way.  Still people are happy together sometimes in spite of such things.  Will you say “Yes,” and settle it now?’ ‘I was not expecting you had come upon such an errand as this,’ said she, looking up a little, but mostly looking down.  ‘I cannot say what you wish, Mr. XXX. ‘Perhaps I have been too sudden and presumptuous.  Yes, I know I have been that.  However, directly I saw you I felt that nobody ever came so near my idea of what is desirable in a lady, and it occurred to me that only one obstacle should stand in the way of the natural results, which obstacle would be your refusal.  In common kindness consider. I daresay I am judged to be a man of inattentive habits—I know that’s what you think of me; but under your influence I should be very different; so pray do not let your dislike to little matters influence you.’ ‘I would not indeed.  But believe me there can be no discussion of marriage between us,’ said Ethelberta decisively. ‘If that’s the case I may as well say no more.  To burden you with my regrets would be out of place, I suppose,’ said XXX, looking calmly out of the window.

Who wants to say yes to such a proposal?

Agnes is more black and white than grey

March 31, 2014 11 comments

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë. 1847.

This month our Book Club’s choice was Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë and since it’s a classic, I assume I can afford a bit of spoilers in this billet.

Agnes Grey is the daughter of a clergyman who ends up working as a governess to earn her living after her family is impoverished by poor investments. She first lives at the Bloomfields’ where she’s supposed to teach to three young children. All of them are little devils who treat her like a servant.

Master Tom, not content with refusing to be ruled, must needs set up as a ruler, and manifested a determination to keep, not only his sisters, but his governess in order, by violent manual and pedal applications; and, as he was a tall, strong boy of his years, this occasioned no trifling inconvenience.

Their weak parents don’t support her educational aims and she can’t discipline the children. Their parents never scold them or make them respect their governess. The mother spoils her children and can never find a fault in them while the father blames Agnes for not managing to tame them. Eventually Agnes has to go.

She seeks another position and arrives at the Murrays’. This time, she’s in charge of four older children, two boys and two girls. The two boys are soon sent to boarding school while the two girls stay at home. The oldest, Miss Rosalie Murray is a stunning beauty and she’s soon out and ravishing hearts around her. She’s praised for her beauty and shallow is her middle name. She’s a shameless flirt while her sister Matilda is a tomboy. Matilda loves her dogs, her horses and spending time with lads and hunters.

As an animal, Matilda was all right, full of life, vigour, and activity; as an intelligent being, she was barbarously ignorant, indocile, careless and irrational; and, consequently, very distressing to one who had the task of cultivating her understanding, reforming her manners, and aiding her to acquire those ornamental attainments which, unlike her sister, she despised as much as the rest.

Like the Bloomfield children, they have no intention to study anything. They have a loose schedule, decide of meals and activities at random hours and have Agnes at their beck and call. During her stay with the Murrays, she will become acquainted with Mr Edward Weston, the new parson. There seem to be mutual attraction between the two but how will it end for Agnes?

In our Book Club meeting, we all agreed to say that Agnes Grey was interesting but not a page turner and that it had flaws. The interesting part was about Agnes’s treatment in the families and the image it gave of the Victorian bourgeoisie. We’re far from the benevolent country people we encounter in Jane Austen’s novels. Actually, the only two Austenian characters are Agnes who sounds like Elinor in Sense and Sensibility and Edward Weston, who manages to be named after Edward in Price and Prejucide and Mr Weston, the man who marries the governess in Emma. No, the high society in Agnes Grey is not really people you care to associate with. The husbands are cruel; they like to torture animals and let the children do it. Indeed, Mr Bloomfield delights in Tom’s wicked ways with a bird and Mr Murray loves to hunt. They don’t care much about their wives and children. They tend to like eating and drinking. The wives and mothers are weak and conceited. They don’t want to trouble themselves much with educating their children. Mrs Murray doesn’t hesitate to marry her daughter to Sir Thomas Ashby because he’s rich and has a large estate. She perfectly knows he’s a bad match for Rosalie but doesn’t mind sacrificing her daughter’s happiness for greed and social status.

They all have poor education and poor moral values. The girls grow up to be very ignorant. They are never asked to put effort in their studies. Nobody cares that they can hardly read, never learn anything and have the attention span of a goldfish. They are brought up to marry well but can flirt in the meantime. Agnes endures seing the Misses Murray busy batting eyelashes to Captain Somebody and Lieutenant Somebody-else (a couple of military fops). What would be flirting in the English countryside in the 19thC without the military stationed nearby, I wonder?

With Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë dives in her own experience as a governess to describe the odd place of a governess in a household. Agnes is lonely. The family treats her like a servant and the servants don’t acknowledge her as one of them. She’s not good enough to be part of the family but of too high a rank to be among domestics. Agnes is intelligent, a bit young and naïve but she’s clever enough to analyse her situation. And that’s what makes her position difficult. She perfectly knows she’s being bullied.

Either the children were so incorrigible, the parents so unreasonable, or myself so mistaken in my views, or so unable to carry them out, that my best intentions and most strenuous efforts seemed productive of no better result than sport to the children, dissatisfaction to their parents, and torment to myself.

The Bloomfield children don’t hesitate to beat her up and the Misses Murray have her sit in the place in the carriage where she always gets motion sickness. She’s not the mistress of her days and Miss Murray will ensure to have her occupied to squash any possibility of free time. They send her to performs their charity duties in their place and do their utmost to smother any burgeoning romance between Agnes and Mr Weston.

Agnes Grey underlines the narrow path traced to women of her time. Agnes’s mother married Mr Grey out of love and had to turn her back to her rich family for that. She became poor and never got assistance from them since she married below her rank. Women of their class don’t have a lot of choices to earn money. They can be governesses or teachers in school. That’s about it. As Gissing will point it out in The Odd Women that lives children with teachers that don’t have a true calling for teaching. Agnes has no experience with teaching; Anne Brontë never mentions textbooks or teaching methods or programs to be covered according to the children’s age. Agnes seems to play it by ear but perhaps there were manuals. Even with more docile children, could she be a good governess?

This was the interesting side of Agnes Grey. Now the annoying part. Anne Brontë was 27 when she wrote this novel. She had left home and lived as a governess. She wasn’t a child anymore and the ending of Agnes Grey is well, too romantic for me. I expected drama and a dramatic death due to pneumonia caught wandering in the fields in a rainy day or at least due to melancholy. I kept waiting for a Balzacian ending and got something more Hollywood-like. Agnes lacks substance compared to Jane Eyre. God, how dull she is! I know she’s young, she’s had a sheltered life and she went through tough times in these families. But does she have to be so forgiving, so religious and such a doormat? (Patience, Firmness, and Perseverance were my only weapons; and these I resolved to use to the utmost.) Don’t we all remember fondly of teachers who were strict but fair? Wouldn’t she have gained a bit of respect from her employers by standing up for herself? Was her position as a poor woman so precarious that she couldn’t take the risk to be fired? There’s a boring passage of her discussing religion with a cottager of the neighbourhood, Nancy Brown. What a moralising speech and a picky inspection of conscience! Agnes is so virtuous it hurts (Lady L. wouldn’t have liked her a bit) and I’m sorry, virtue being rewarded in the end seems a bit too simplistic to me. We’d know the trick if you only needed to be a good girl to have your wishes come true, wouldn’t we?

So, yes, Agnes Grey gives an interesting portrait of the Victorian little nobility but lacks in characterisation. Agnes is too good and the children/adolescent she teaches too are too bad. Despite this black and white picture, it’s still worth reading.

You need to read this: Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad

December 22, 2013 30 comments

Dans les meules de Beyrouth by Toufic Youssef Aouad. 1972. In English: Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad

Preamble:

Apparently the transcription of Arabic names is totally different between French and English. Compared to this, the difference between Tolstoy and Tolstoï is piece of cake. Without this blog, Arabic Literature (In English) I wouldn’t have found the English version of this novel. I have read Dans les meules de Beyrouth in French, so I’ll use the French spelling of names in this billet. It will probably differ in English if you decided to read it.

aouad_meulesThis is a pre-Christmas Humbook. When I met in Nino in Lyon a few weeks ago, he gave me his favourite Lebanese book Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad. We all have clichés about foreign countries. For me Lebanon means Kahlil Gibran, fine food, business as in the journalistic expression “L’homme d’affaires libanais” and Francophone cultured elites. But it also brings back childhood memories of the pictures of three French hostages in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. They stayed there three long years and every night, the news on television opened with their photos and the countdown of their captivity. In colloquial French, “C’était Beyrouth” is used to describe chaos, a place of destruction. I’d rather think about the first clichés, literature and cuisine. So, what about Dans les meules de Beyrouth?

We’re in 1968-1969. Tamima Nassour is around 17 when the book opens. She lives in a small village named Mehdiyyé. She has an older brother Jaber who is studying law in Beirut. Her father Tamer has been in Guinea for almost twenty years. He built a business there and sends money home to support his family. Her mother Amné is a traditional Arab wife, like you see in books by Naguib Mahfouz. She stays at home, prays God, accepts everything that life throws at her without complaining and worships her husband and son. Tamima is in high school and she struggles to find the money to pay for the tuition of her senior year. She’s a brilliant student and unlike her mother, she’s aware of Jaber’s flaws. She knows he’s debauched, violent and would rather starve his mother and sister than renounce to pleasures for himself. When she visits Jaber in Beirut to ask for the tuition money, she makes two life-changing acquaintances. She meets with Ramzi Raad, an influential journalist and poet. She admires him for his relentless attacks against the government and his fight for individual freedom. She also stumbles upon Hani, a Maronite Christian activist in the student movement.

The book revolves around Tamima. She becomes Ramzi’s lover and falls in love with Hani. Once in university, she joins the student political movements. Hani relies on her as a correspondent in her uni and she becomes a key figure of this movement and she’s quite good at organising it. She’s intelligent and rather moderate. The novel is written from Tamima’s point of view and she doesn’t see herself as valuable as she is. She tends to minimise her actions and thoughts. However, for this reader, she’s a brilliant young woman whose gender hampers her advancement in life. Her capacities can’t blossom fully in this context.

Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad portrays his country through his two heroes. Hani fights against religious prejudices when the government sends a Muslim as a primary school teacher in his Maronite village. The villagers don’t accept him as a teacher and Hani will organise his first political fights to defend this teacher. Hani is more moderate than Tamima. He deeply believes in changing things from the inside. Tamima is less afraid of a violent revolution. Perhaps it comes from their difference of background. Hani’s a man and comes from the most influential community in Lebanon, if I understood properly. Tamima is a young Muslim woman whose brother believes he has a right to slit her throat if she doesn’t behave decently. She has more to gain in a revolution and less to lose.

Aouad_EnglishTawfiq Yusuf Awwad was born in 1911, so he was already 60 when he wrote this book. He became a diplomat after the independence of Lebanon and he was posted in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Dans les meules de Beyrouth is a novel written by an experienced man. He’s experienced with life as he’s already 60 and experienced in politics through his career as a diplomat. He wrote this novel in 1972, shortly after the events and three years before the civil war began. His insight is amazing. He perfectly describes the explosive mix between the youth’s cravings for freedom and the political context.

Students push for changes in their country just as other students in the world did at this time. 1968 was an explosive year for student protests. Lebanon became totally independent in 1946, so it’s quite young in 1968. It’s a multi-confessional country and the power is split between Maronite Christians, Shiite Muslims, Sunnite Muslims and Greek Orthodox. The students question the direction their country is headed to and there’s a ground swell among them to abolish the multi-confessional system. For example, a newspaper ordered a poll about mixed marriages between Muslims and Maronites and about civil marriages because it’s a key issue. Tamima wants sexual freedom for women but she comes from a culture where it is “tradition” to slaughter a woman who has a lover. This side of the problem is enough to create quite a stir in the country especially given the very different cultural backgrounds of the population. It’s always difficult to fight against traditions on issues touching marriages and women rights. It takes time and a lot of explaining. In France, the right to abortion was voted in 1973 and it was an ugly fight. And France is a mono-cultural country. Imagine here with populations with so different customs about such intimate and everyday life issues. It’s difficult to reach a consensus about these topics in a peaceful time and quite impossible in troubled political times.

For these were troubled political times. We’re after the Six-Days War between Israel, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Iraq and the South of Lebanon has a border with Israel. Add to the mix the Palestinian Liberation Organization which was created in 1964. The Arab-Israeli conflict weighs a heavy weight upon Lebanon. Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad shows how the international political issues interfere with the student movement. External agents infiltrate the political meetings and radicalise part of the public. He depicts the slow but inevitable slide from moderate and democratic claims to more political demands. He had foreseen the violence that would shake the country a few years later.

In addition to these fascinating elements about Lebanon, Dans les meules de Beyrouth is extremely well-written. The style is descriptive, almost journalistic when Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad relates about political meetings and students fights. It’s poetic when it comes to the descriptions of landscapes and feelings. It reminded me of the lyricism you can find in Mahfouz’s prose. (“Elle aurait voulu lui sauter au cou et cueillir d’un baiser le sourire de ses yeux”.) It has this I-don’t-know-what I associate with literature translated from the Arab and Arab culture. It’s familiar although I have only read Naguib Mahfouz and Khalil Gibran, I think. I don’t know why it’s more familiar than, say, Japanese literature.

I hope I didn’t write anything inaccurate about the political and cultural context. It’s a fascinating read that makes you touch a sensitive atmosphere with your fingertips. I’ve often wondered about people’s lives in long-lasting conflicts. The Lebanese civil war lasted from 1975 to 1990. You can’t put your life on hold for so long. How do you live, go to school, fall in love, marry, raise children, work with such a risk of impending doom? How do you think about the future? How do you have fun on a day-to-day basis with such a threat? In other words, how does life go on?

This is going to be on my best books list for this year. Thanks Nino, I wouldn’t have read it without you. I once wrote a post about how much you can know about someone through their reading. I think you can know a great deal. My blog led you into thinking that I would enjoy this and I did. So yes, the books we love give away part of who we are.

Norwegian blues and a Balzacian tale

October 10, 2013 23 comments

L’âge heureux (Den lykkelige alder) / Simonsen (1908) by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949).

undset_age_heureuxI’m back in English, that’s probably a relief for you! –or not since I make less grammar mistakes in French. I bought L’âge heureux / Simonsen by Sigrid Undset on a whim, I don’t remember when or where. It sounded interesting; I didn’t know the writer and wanted to give it a try. Then Edith from Edith’s Miscellany wrote a review of Jenny by the same Sigrid Undset and that moved L’âge heureux / Simonsen on top of the TBR. And now you’re reading a billet about these two short-stories.

L’âge heureux. (Happy days)

There’s a famous quote from Paul Nizan which says « J’avais vingt-ans. Je ne laisserai personne dire que c’est le plus bel âge de la vie. » (“I was twenty. I will not let anybody say it’s the best period of life”) That’s L’âge heureux in a nutshell.

When the book opens, Uni, an eighteen year old young woman accompanies her aunt Mrs Iversen and her cousins to the family house. The house was once in the country, is now in the suburbs of Christiana. Uni’s parents are dead and buried in the local cemetery. She’s about to start a new life in Christiana and she dreams to be an actress.

After this brief introduction to her circumstances, we follow Uni who is now working in an office, living in a boarding house and dating Christian. The young man is an industrial designer and although he has a decent job, he cannot afford to marry Uni and support her with his current income. He’s working hard to get a promotion while Uni goes to auditions to try to have a role in a play. Uni has a friend Charlotte who still lives with her mother and siblings; she’s an aspiring poet and feels all the angst that goes along with the status.

Undset describes the difficulty of being a young woman in the Norwegian middle class of that time. Uni and Charlotte are poor. They aspire to be artists and they need to work to make a living. Uni hates her job at the office. Charlotte resents her still living with her family and it irritates her so much that she becomes mean to her family. She’s ashamed of it and at the same time, she cannot help it. Uni has difficulties knowing what she wants and what she wants to do with her life, what she expects from it. She reminded me of Esther in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, without the mental breakdown. Charlotte suffers from writing anxiety, struggling to find her poetic voice and feeling everything deeply, absorbing pain like a sponge:

J’aimerais travailler avec tous ces petits mots usés que les hommes emploient indifféremment, avec lesquels ils se blessent, qu’ils échangent dans une caresse, qu’ils murmurent dans un moment de détresse ou de joie… I’d like to work with all these little worn-out words that men use with indifference. Words with which they hurt each other, words that they exchange in a caress or murmur in a moment of anxiety or joy…

A tall order and she’s intelligent enough to know she might not live up to her own expectations.

Uni is torn between her strong attraction to theatre and her love for Christian. She wants to be an actress and would feel cheated if she didn’t have the opportunity to try that life. She would resent the person who would stand up against this possibility. Christian is too clever to be that person. He thus supports her choice of career.

Je voudrais que tu me comprennes bien, Uni, que tu sois sûre que je n’ai aucune arrière-pensée quand je t’encourage à suivre ta vocation. Je te jure que c’est vrai. Et si parfois je proteste, je voudrais que tu n’y fasses même pas attention. C’est sans importance, c’est simplement que j’ai des idées démodées, je me suis fait une certaine idée du mariage et j’y tiens…Maintenant que tu as vu mon père…Mais je ne veux pas t’imposer une vie qui ne te convient pas. Il n’en est pas question. Uni, I would like you to understand and be certain that I don’t have an ulterior motive when I encourage you to follow your calling. I swear it is true. And if I protest sometimes, I’d like you to not pay attention to it. It doesn’t matter; it’s just that I have old fashioned ideas, that I have a certain imagine of marriage and that I hold on to it…Now that you’ve met my father….But I don’t want to impose on you a life that you don’t want. It is out of the question.

Christian acknowledges with his brain that she has a right to have a career, to make her own choices but his guts struggle with the idea because it goes against his education. It is hard to change something you’ve learnt to be a truth from your young age. I think it’s very interesting that Sigrid Undset voices the difficulties of changing the ingrained vision of women. In a sense, Christian reminds me of Barfoot in The Odd Women by George Gissing. He’s in favour of Uni’s emancipation and he recognises her right to have her dreams and her aspirations. At the same time, he caresses the idea of a traditional wife, although he doesn’t say it openly. When Uni’s career as an actress starts, he’s faithful to his promise though and remains supportive.

Incidentally, like in The Odd Women or in L’argent by Zola, we see characters who love each other but can’t get married because the man doesn’t earn enough to support a wife and a family. Great-Britain, France, Norway, it was a common situation in Europe.

L’âge heureux gives a voice to young women before WWI whose talent and intelligence was wasted because their society didn’t have a place for them to blossom.

Ses mots, ses cris de révolte, ce n’étaient que les plaintes de toutes les jeunes filles désirant le bonheur mais dont la route est irrémédiablement barrée ; c’étaient les paroles que l’on prononce lorsque le monde vous piétine et vous force à rester dans l’obscurité, soit que l’on tourne mal, soit que, travailleuse honnête, on s’épuise toute la journée dans un bureau pour rentrer le soir, seule, dans une horrible pension ; c’était les expressions de fatigue que l’on ressent, au fond, après avoir été fiancée des années à un homme que l’on aime, et que les convenances se dressent contre vos aspirations ; ou les mots qu’on lance quand on prend sa famille en haine, qu’on bafoue sa mère, qu’on se dispute avec ses frères et sœurs : parents qui vous sont chers pourtant, mais à vivre si nombreux dans un petit logement, les heurts se multiplient. Hers words, her fits of revolt were only the cries of all young girls seeking for happiness but whose way was irremediably blocked. It was the words one says when the world tramples on you, forces you to remain in the shadows either because one turns out badly or because, although hard-working and honest, one wastes themselves in an office only to come back at night, alone, exhausted to a dreadful boarding house. It was the expression of weariness that one feels, in the end, when, after being engaged to a man one has loved for years, propriety stands against one’s aspirations. It was also the words one throws away when one takes an immense dislike to one’s family, when one ridicules their mother, fights with their siblings although one cares about their parents. But to live so numerous in such small lodgings can only multiply conflicts.

L’âge heureux is a plea for a better life for young women and its ending shows how powerful society was. I don’t know if it’s been translated into English, but it might be included in an omnibus edition of Undset’s works. It’s worth a try. Now…

Simonsen

If L’âge heureux is a tale of its time, Simonsen has Balzacian accents, and readers of Balzac will understand why. Simonsen is an ageing man who just got fired from his job. Again. He lives with Olga, who is an at-home dressmaker. She’s a lot younger than him. They are not married and have a daughter, Svanhild. Simonsen has also a son, Sigurd, from a previous marriage. Sigurd helps his father finding jobs when he loses one and he’s getting impatient and embarrassed by his father’s way of life. The man is unable to keep a job, lives in sin with a woman Sigurd considers from an inferior social class..

In this novella, we see life through Simonsen’s eyes. Although he is flawed (he knows he should marry Olga, he feels ashamed of losing his job again), the reader understands why Olga keeps him around. He’s nice, generous and he loves his daughter.

It’s a Balzacian tale because Sigurd and his greedy wife will do anything in their power to get rid of the embarrassing old man. And that’s all I’ll say about this short story. I’ve seen it’s been translated into English, you can track it down if you’re intrigued.

I enjoyed these two novellas and I find Undset’s style really attractive. Both novellas or short-stories picture middle-class in Christiana at the beginning of the century. Both show that society rules are stronger than individuals. I’m interested in reading Jenny but I’m not so inclined to try her historical novels set in the Middle-Ages. (I’m not particularly fascinated by this very religious period of history) and I’m not sure I want to discover her works after she converted to Catholicism. But these novellas I warmly recommend.

Several faces of feminism in The Odd Women

September 8, 2013 23 comments

The Odd Women by George Gissing. 1893. 

After my entry regarding the plot of the book, I wanted to write something about the feminist message brought by The Odd Women. As I mentioned in my previous billet, this is a militant book. Three characters are feminists: Miss Rhoda Nunn, Miss Barfoot and Everard Barfoot. The conservative ways are represented by Mr Widdowson and Mr Mickelthwaite. Through his characters, Gissing questions everything regarding the status of women and his arguments are very modern. The first cause that Gissing defends is the right to have a proper education. This is based upon a daring assumption: women are as intelligent as men and are able to learn as much as them. This statement is already a revolution for conservatives. Gissing questions the way his society treats their women.

Our civilization in this point has always been absurdly defective. Men have kept women at a barbarous stage of development, and then complain that they are barbarous. In the same way society does its best to create a criminal class, and then rages against the criminals.

Personally, I never understood how societies could waste half of their brains by keeping women at home. Deep down, Gissing questions the idea that women are different by nature and advocates that everything comes from education. It’s an important source of debate, even now. Are women and men equal human beings or are they different in their mind because of their biological differences? For Gissing and for me, it is clear, we are the product of our society. In his time, women never learn how to swim, not because nature made them unable to swim but because their clothes are not practical. Women seem weak but their clothes prevent them from free movements and impair physical activities. I’ve been to an exhibition Les Impressionistes et la mode. (Impressionists and fashion). As you can guess from the title, it was about fashion in the paintings by impressionist painters. It was very educational, as it showed the paintings but actual clothes as well. Visitors commented how uncomfortable women’s clothes were compared to men’s. Big and long skirts, gloves, hats, corsets, everything prevented free movements. In Gissing’s mind, women aren’t meant to stay at home and take care of the children, nor are they naturally good at teaching children. They do it because they don’t have a choice; he dares to say that some are bad at domestic tasks:

And when the whole course of female education is altered; when girls are trained as a matter of course to some definite pursuit; then those who really are obliged to remain at home will do their duty there in quite a different spirit. Home work will be their serious business, instead of a disagreeable drudgery, or a way of getting through the time till marriage offers.

As I said in a comment in my previous post, I really agree with that. I’d be miserable as a housewife. This is not something for me at all. I love my children dearly but PTA meetings, playing the taxi back and forth their various activities, cooking and doing all kinds of domestic chores aren’t part of what I consider a fulfilling life. That’s my opinion for myself, not necessarily for others. There’s no accounting for taste, I’m fine with others feeling good with this life. I just want everyone to have the choice. And that’s what Gissing is saying. He points out that womanly doesn’t mean anything when it is applied to a profession.

Womanly and womanish are two very different words; but the latter, as the world uses it, has become practically synonymous with the former. A womanly occupation means, practically, an occupation that a man disdains.

The man doesn’t mince his words and unfortunately, he’s right. He also knows that women are their first enemies. Here’s Virginia Madden after her first conversation with Rhoda: She is quite like a man in energy and resources. I never imagined that one of our sex could resolve and plan and act as she does!’. The first task is to convince women that they can do more, that they are worth it, that their opinion is as worth as their husband’s. I read The Odd Women just after Brick Lane. This is the journey Nazneen had to do to blossom into a fully conscious human being. She had to erase the preconceived ideas she had about her capacities and learn to believe in herself.

Gissing believes that education will provide women with decent jobs and give them financial independence. This independence will help them growing into adults instead of remaining children depending upon their father and then their husband. He shows the arguments opposed by his adversaries:

‘They will tell you that, in entering the commercial world, you not only unsex yourselves, but do a grievous wrong to the numberless men struggling hard for bare sustenance. You reduce salaries, you press into an already overcrowded field, you injure even your own sex by making it impossible for men to marry, who, if they earned enough, would be supporting a wife.’

Haven’t we heard about this one recently? Every time there’s an economic recession, the temptation is to point out that women should stay at home instead of taking men’s jobs. In France, the State finances parents who want to stay at home with children until they’re three years old. Most of the time, when a couple uses it, it’s the woman who stays at home. (Since women earn 20% less than men, it’s usually more interesting financially for her to temporarily give up her job). In appearance, it is for the child’s well-being. On second thoughts, it helps with unemployment figures.

I think Gissing approached feminism is a broad way, showing the injustice of the condition of women in his time and, depend on the country, in ours. He puts forward feminist arguments and uses three characters to show the different sides of militancy. Rhoda is the most radical. In the 1970s, she would have been in demonstrations, showing her breasts, burning her bras and shouting that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. See her vision of marriage and men in general:

I would teach them that for the majority of women marriage means disgrace.’ ‘Ah! Now do let me understand you. Why does it mean disgrace?’ ‘Because the majority of men are without sense of honour. To be bound to them in wedlock is shame and misery.’

Rhoda is strongly against marriage, although she doesn’t go to the end of her idea and explain how the human species will go on if nobody gets married and has children. She would like women to live as monks because she thinks that love, feelings in general and sex are a weakness:

I am seriously convinced that before the female sex can be raised from its low level there will have to be a widespread revolt against sexual instinct. Christianity couldn’t spread over the world without help of the ascetic ideal, and this great movement for woman’s emancipation must also have its ascetics.’

This is the only area in which Gissing was wrong. He didn’t foresee the pill and contraception in general. It was out of his range of thoughts to imagine how contraception would liberate women and couples from the risk of unwanted pregnancies. Rhoda professes extreme ideas and she’s not against extreme means to reach her goal:

‘And I wish it were harder. I wish girls fell down and died of hunger in the streets, instead of creeping to their garrets and the hospitals. I should like to see their dead bodies collected together in some open place for the crowd to stare at.’ Monica gazed at her with wide eyes. ‘You mean, I suppose, that people would try to reform things.’ ‘Who knows? Perhaps they might only congratulate each other that a few of the superfluous females had been struck off.

Imagine her during the French Revolution. She would have been in a revolutionary tribunal. I didn’t like this side of Rhoda but I think she’s a face of militancy. She wants it all now and thinks that extreme measures are efficient. Contrary to Rhoda, Miss Barfoot is moderate. She’s not against marriage, she wants to act at her level and save one girl after the other. She wants to adapt her teaching to each case and thinks that not all girls are cut out to stay single and live on their own. She doesn’t want to be an example to follow; she aims to serve.

She had come into possession of a modest fortune; but no thought of a life such as would have suggested itself to most women in her place ever tempted her. Her studies had always been of a very positive nature; her abilities were of a kind uncommon in women, or at all events very rarely developed in one of her sex. She could have managed a large and complicated business, could have filled a place on a board of directors, have taken an active part in municipal government—nay, perchance in national. And this turn of intellect consisted with many traits of character so strongly feminine that people who knew her best thought of her with as much tenderness as admiration. She did not seek to become known as the leader of a ‘movement,’ yet her quiet work was probably more effectual than the public career of women who propagandize for female emancipation. Her aim was to draw from the overstocked profession of teaching as many capable young women as she could lay hands on, and to fit them for certain of the pursuits nowadays thrown open to their sex. She held the conviction that whatever man could do, woman could do equally well—those tasks only excepted which demand great physical strength.

She’s intelligent and sees beyond her immediate goals. A Miss Barfoot would rather move the institutions from the inside whereas a Rhoda wouldn’t be opposed to violence if need be. Fights for rights always seem to dither between radical changes and small steps changes. One side thinks violence is acceptable, the other side prefers pacific methods. Personally, I prefer Miss Barfoot to Rhoda. It takes longer but it’s less violent and perhaps more efficient.

The last feminist is Everard Barfoot and he brings in a man’s point of view. Everard sees that The gain of women is also the gain of men. He supports feminism because he is convinced it is an intelligent cause. He shares the review of the current state of marriage and relationships between men and women. He sees that men will be happier if women are better educated and marry them for themselves rather than for their wallet. More couples will be able to get married if the wife can bring an income through her job. All in all, men will benefit from progress made for women. The Everards are important for such a cause because men have the power. Only they will be able to change the laws and improve the condition of women.

I hope that after reading this billet, you are convinced that The Odd Women is an intelligent novel  and that you are tempted to read it. I have an immense respect for the man who wrote this novel in 1893 and I wish I could welcome him at home and show him around. He could see that part of his dream came true and that his theories proved right. Women have access to education and can have a profession they like and keep it after their children are born. Marriage is not mandatory to live together or have children. Financial independence helped reaching equality in the couple. Not everything is perfect but the progress is real. Once again, I’m grateful I wasn’t born a century before.

When all women, high and low alike, are trained to self-respect, then men will regard them in a different light, and marriage may be honourable to both.’

Love and marriage don’t go together like horse and carriage

September 5, 2013 15 comments

The Odd Women by George Gissing. 1893

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m a little late to write about our Book Club choice for August, sorry. Actually, I have so many things to say about The Odd Women that it took me a while to find the quality time necessary to write my billet. I introduced the book in a previous billet , we’ve had our Book Club meeting and I’m delighted to say that this novel exceeded our expectations.

The Odd Women opens in the Madden household. Dr Madden is a country physician, a widower living alone with his six daughters. We’re in 1872 when he dies in a carriage accident. Mrs Bennet’s worst fear becomes a reality for the Maddens: six unmarried daughters, no relatives, no income, no perspectives. The girls must fend for themselves. Then we fast-forward in time and we’re now in 1887. Only three daughters have survived: Alice, Virginia and Monica. Alice works as a governess; Virginia is between two governess positions and Monica works as a shop girl. Virginia and Monica live in London.

Miss Rhoda Nunn knew the Maddens from the country and when she stumbles upon Virginia in London, she renews the acquaintance. Rhoda lives with Miss Barfoot and both run a school where they train young women for office work. They improve their minds, teach them typewriting and but also self-respect and the capacity to stand for themselves. Their goal is described early in the novel when Rhoda discusses her work with Virginia:

‘Oh, I’m not so severe! But do you know that there are half a million more women than men in this happy country of ours?’ ‘Half a million!’ Her naive alarm again excited Rhoda to laughter. ‘Something like that, they say. So many odd women—no making a pair with them. The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I, naturally—being one of them myself—take another view. I look upon them as a great reserve. When one woman vanishes in matrimony, the reserve offers a substitute for the world’s work. True, they are not all trained yet—far from it. I want to help in that—to train the reserve.’

A commendable and sensible goal. (20 years from there, the Great War will take care of training the “reserve”). Following her first meeting with Rhoda, Virginia entertains the idea to start a school for girls in the country and run it with Alice. Rhoda also meets with Monica to convince her to quit her job at the shop and join her school to be able to find a clerical job in the future. Monica is at a turning point in her life as Miss Nunn’s offer happens at the same time she is courted by Mr Widdowson whom she had met in a park. He is besotted with her and soon proposes. Monica accepts although he’s much older than her and she perfectly knows that she doesn’t love him.

She felt no love in return; but between the prospect of a marriage of esteem and that of no marriage at all there was little room for hesitation.

Rhoda disapproves of her marriage because she thinks that financial security is a bad reason to get married. Miss Barfoot lets it go, accepting that Monica isn’t built to remain single.

At the same period, Miss Barfoot’s cousin, Everard Barfoot, is back in England after years of living abroad. He’s single and perfectly happy that way. He’s against marriage having witnessed disastrous ones among his friends. He becomes highly interested in Rhoda when he discovers she’s a woman who doesn’t look for a husband. She’s against marriage too and thinks that her being single and successful is an example for the girls she trains. Everard sees it as a challenge to make her fall in love with him and throw her principles to the wind. He starts courting her. Will he win his bet and how will it affect him?

The whole novel gravitates around the two couples, thoughts about the institution of marriage and the condition of women. The question of marriage is predominant in the novel. For Gissing, it has reached a point where it is poisonous for everyone. He questions the possibility to get married, the marriage itself and its termination.

The first problem is that since genteel married women aren’t supposed to work,  a man needs to earn enough money to afford a wife. The first example is that of Mr Bullivant, who works at the same shop as Monica and chases after her. She doesn’t like him and uses rational arguments to push him away.

‘Then will you let me ask you a rude question?’ ‘Ask me any question, Miss Madden.’ ‘How would it be possible for you to support a wife?’ She flushed and smiled. Bullivant, dreadfully discomposed, did not move his eyes from her. ‘It wouldn’t be possible for some time,’ he answered in a thick voice. ‘I have nothing but my wretched salary. But every one hopes.’

Monica’s objection to their marriage is a valid one, one Mr Bullivant can’t deny. She’s satisfied with it because it serves her cause. But imagine how awful it was for two people genuinely in love? This issue is then seen through the example of Mr Mickelthwaite, a friend of Mr Barfoot’s. He has been engaged for 17 years to his wife before he made enough money to marry her. It was too late to have children; they had lived separately for ages and luckily still liked each other. What kind of life is that? Yet, this man considers it a duty to marry a woman when a man has sufficient means and he exposes his view to Everard as the latter explains he will never marry:

‘Then I think you will neglect a grave duty. Yes. It is the duty of every man, who has sufficient means, to maintain a wife. The life of unmarried women is a wretched one; every man who is able ought to save one of them from that fate.’

Who would like to be married to fulfil a duty? Everard has very modern views of marriage. He would like the partners to be equals. He sees a possibility in Miss Nunn because she doesn’t behave like other women. She has a mind of her own, doesn’t play coy, doesn’t want to seduce him with her charms as she is not hunting for a husband. She just enjoys his conversation and he appreciates to have a valuable female companion to talk to:

In this humour she seemed more than ever a challenge to his manhood. She was armed at all points. She feared nothing that he might say. No flush of apprehension; no nervous tremor; no weak self-consciousness. Yet he saw her as a woman, and desirable. ‘My views are not ignoble,’ he murmured. ‘I hope not. But they are the views of a man.’ ‘Man and woman ought to see life with much the same eyes.’ ‘Ought they? Perhaps so. I am not sure. But they never will in our time.’ ‘Individuals may. The man and woman who have thrown away prejudice and superstition. You and I, for instance.’

Think how you may about man and woman, you know that there is such a thing as love between them, and that the love of a man and a woman who can think intelligently may be the best thing life has to offer them.’

Everard is the living example of Austen’s statement in Emma when Mr Knightley declares Men of sense, whatever you may chuse to say, do not want silly wive. Everard would rather be a bachelor than be burdened with a woman he doesn’t consider as his equal. Before Rhoda, he thought no woman on earth could be his match. Contrary to Everard, Widdowson represents the old-fashioned vision of marriage and women.

Widdowson, before his marriage, had never suspected the difficulty of understanding a woman; had he spoken his serious belief on that subject, it would have been found to represent the most primitive male conception of the feminine being. Women were very like children; it was rather a task to amuse them and to keep them out of mischief.

In the traditional way of thinking, women are barely above the animal –I suspect some men thought their horse was more intelligent than their wife—and like children, need guidance. The poor and jealous Widdowson sees himself as a pastor for Monica and this belief combined with his possessive love turns him into a tyrant.  Unsurprisingly, Widdowson has trouble interacting with Monica, who, even if she’s not as radical in her behaviour as Miss Nunn, has nonetheless stayed long enough in her company to behave like a feminist. He sees her as his possession and is puzzled when the living object he calls a wife thinks, objects and makes decisions of her own.

Gissing is revolutionary in his vision of marriage. In his opinion, marriage as it is can only lead to unhappiness. He advocates a marriage based on love, equality and trust. He writes clearly that it should not be permanent when these criteria aren’t met anymore.

How many marriages were anything more than mutual forbearance? Perhaps there ought not to be such a thing as enforced permanence of marriage.

Or

But—perhaps, someday, marriage would be dissoluble at the will of either party to it. Perhaps the man who sought to hold a woman when she no longer loved him would be regarded with contempt and condemnation.

This vision is close to mine and it’s rare that I agree with a Victorian writer about marriage and relationships. Usually, I don’t share their views and take them for what they are, a reflection of their era. If Jane Austen is discreetly subversive, Gissing is openly subversive. Marriage shouldn’t tie couples forever; women should have the right to work according to their skills. Both men and women should have the choice to select a profession they enjoy. They should decide to get married or not. His feminism is blatant and I’ll write more about this in another billet. Austen and Gissing are subversive because they put the happiness of the individual before the needs of the society. Perhaps Austen is an heir of the Enlightenment; after all the right to pursue happiness is in the Declaration of Independence of United States, written at that time. In any case in Pride and Prejudice, the main characters consider that their happiness is more important that what the society wants from them. Elizabeth first refuses to marry Darcy, even if this alliance would provide financial security to her whole family and Darcy prefers to marry out of his social class to have a wife he loves. Gissing shows what marriages of convenience do to people. Monica’s choice is a disaster but the author also gives other examples such as poor Mr Poppleton who married a silly wife or Everard’s brother who married a selfish and whining one.

This is a militant book and yet, the novelist is not set aside by the activist. The characters are subtly drawn, Gissing investigates their inner minds, dissects their feelings and thought processes. He pictures their hesitations, their struggles against their ingrained vision of the world and relationships. Through their difficulties, he shows how hard it is to change of mind set. It serves his cause and makes of The Odd Women a compelling page-turner. Gissing seemed like a city Thomas Hardy in the way the events unfold. Apparent fate and coincidences play a role in the story. I say “apparent” because, like in Hardy’s Life Little Ironies, the coincidences are more like the collateral consequences of tiny decisions made by one of the protagonists than sheer chance.

I absolutely loved this book both thought provoking and entertaining, the best combination in literature. We all loved this novel and I’d buy it in French for every reader around me if it were translated. This new Book Club year starts divinely.

HIGHLY HIGHLY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

PS: Once again, thanks Guy. Read his excellent review here.

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

August 6, 2013 15 comments

Brick Lane by Monica Ali. 2003. French title: Sept mers et treize rivières. 

Nazneen was a premature baby born in 1967 in rural Bangladesh; her survival was left to Fate. Deliberately, her mother decided not to take action to save her but let Fate decide if her baby should survive or not. This part is very important because it’s the crux of Nazneen’s education.

What could not be changed must be borne. And since nothing could be changed, everything had to be borne. This principle ruled her life.

Ali_Brick_LaneNazneen was born in a village and she and her sister Hasina hardly receive any education. In 1985, when she’s eighteen, Nazneen is sent to London to marry Chanu, a Bangladeshi emigrant. Chanu is in his forties, he’s an old man to her. She moves with him in an apartment in Tower Hamlets, near Brick Lane, London. Brick Lane relates Nazneen’s story, her slow adaptation to her new life and her new environment. She doesn’t speak English, her only contacts are with other Bengladeshi women in the apartment complex. At the beginning, Chanu works for the council as a clerk and is dissatisfied with his job. He’s educated and hopes for a promotion that never comes.

Brick Lane is a four dimensional book. The first dimension is the slow opening of Nazneen’s mind to her right to individuality. The second dimension is Chanu’s personal journey. The third one is the evolution of the neighbourhood, the Bengladeshi community and the children of the first immigrants. The last one is Hasina’s life, back in Bangladesh.

As I said before, Nazneen is a simple woman. She barely knows how to read and write, she has no opening on the world, she’s a devout. She’s passive because that’s how she was educated. She’s a woman therefore she was born to serve her husband. She cooks, cleans the apartment, cuts Chanu’s hair, nails and corn. All this is normal to her. She had no preparation for what she would find in London. She tries to adjust to her new environment as best she can. Things puzzle her:

This woman was poor and fat. To Nazneen it was unfathomable. In Bangladesh it was no more possible to be both poor and fat than to be rich and starving.

She’s introduced to respectable women of her community. Her life really shifts when her children grow up enough to bring the outside world at home and when she starts sewing at home and earning money. The whole novel is told through Nazneen’s eyes. She has difficulties to process her thoughts. The prose of the early chapters reflects her struggle. She doesn’t know how to think by herself but her being left alone in her apartment in a foreign country forces her to. Progressively, she opens her mind, lets herself assess her husband, the community around her. She dares to act, to go against fate and her ingrained acceptance of others choosing her life for her.

Her husband Chanu likes to read and to learn but isn’t really a man of action. He’s discontent because he wants to succeed. He thinks his education is his passport to success and he wants to make it in the English world. For example, he doesn’t want to rule a successful business aimed at his community, he wants to be a success among the whites.

But he was slighted. By customers, by suppliers, by superiors and inferiors. He worked hard for respect but he could not find it. There was in the world a great shortage of respect and Chanu was among the famished.

When you read Chanu speaking, although he’s bombastic, you realise he is actually cultured. Nazneen is too ignorant to realise her husband is cultured. His political analysis of the consequences of 9/11 is good. He has a good knowledge of the history of India and Great Britain. He reads intelligent papers, loves poetry. In a way, doing what he does for a job, he’s wasting his intelligence and he resents it.

Nazneen and Chanu’s mind follow adverse courses. While Nazneen slowly learns that she has a value as a person, that she can think, act and take care of herself, Chanu realises his ambitions will not be fulfilled.

Meanwhile, the neighbourhood undergoes through changes. The parents want their children to be Bengladeshi but they are English instead. Chanu tries to teach Tagore to his daughters, to infuse pride of their culture into them. It only leads to conflicts. Children crave for normality. They were born in England, they are in the English school system and they want to be English. At the same time, rampant racism doesn’t help and some have trouble building their identity. The years go by and drugs appear in the building. Foreign imams open prayer groups and preach about oppressed Muslims in the world. They teach about the jihad. The youth are stuck between their parents’ culture and their country’s culture.

To be honest, I almost abandoned Brick Lane along the way but I was interested enough to push a little farther and finish it. I ended up liking it a lot and the flaws that almost made me give up on it appeared to be strengths. There are interesting passages about immigration. Chanu has a negative analysis of the immigrant’s situation:

‘But behind every story of immigrant success there lies a deeper tragedy.’ ‘Kindly explain this tragedy.’ ‘I’m talking about the clash between Western values and our own. I’m talking about the struggle to assimilate and the need to preserve one’s identity and heritage. I’m talking about children who don’t know what their identity is. I’m talking about the feelings of alienation engendered by a society where racism is prevalent. I’m talking about the terrific struggle to preserve one’s sanity while striving to achieve the best for one’s family.

However, other Bengladeshis see their circumstances differently:

 ‘Why do you make it so complicated?’ said the doctor’s wife. ‘Assimilation this, alienation that! Let me tell you a few simple facts. Fact: we live in a Western society. Fact: our children will act more and more like Westerners. Fact: that’s no bad thing. My daughter is free to come and go. Do I wish I had enjoyed myself like her when I was young? Yes!’

Where is the truth? Somewhere in the middle. If I lived in London, I’d cook French meals and I’d want my children to speak French. As I come from a Western country, everybody would find this natural or that this bi-cultural environment is a chance for my children. If I came from Bangladesh, would people find it normal? Don’t we think in the West that our culture is superior to theirs and isn’t it why we don’t understand why immigrants don’t drop it to embrace ours? Chanu points out that when it comes to India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, we don’t hear about Tagore, we hear about floods and misery. Sadly, it’s true.

Ali_sept_mersI think Monica Ali wrote a great novel. Being in Nazneen’s head is not for everyone as she can be annoying when you look at her with your Western eyes. I tried to detach myself from my cultural background to see things through her eyes. It is hard for her to allow her mind to wander out of the path her education programed her to follow. I thought it was a fair portrait of a woman’s life. Chanu is a good man. He’s much older than Nazneen but he’s kind, respectful, sober and faithful. Monica Ali could have thrown her heroin in a terrible marriage. She didn’t, it would have been too obvious. Chanu is nuanced and she didn’t make a tragedy of this arranged marriage. I appreciated that she didn’t go for the easy dramatic path.

The life of the neighbourhood seeps through Nazneen’s thoughts and it is clear that she doesn’t see or understand everything that’s going on. Monica Ali describes the fights between gangs, the search of identity for young men. For example, Karim, the young man Nazneen knows, idealises Bangladesh but he’s never been there. He sees her as the perfect Bengladeshi wife. For him, religion is a way to find his roots. He changes from sweat pants to Panjabi clothes and grows a beard. What Monica Ali describes applies to French banlieues as well for young French people coming from the North African immigration. The only difference is that they’ve all been to the country their parents or grand-parents came from. It’s not far; you can drive and take the boat to visit for the holidays, even if you don’t have much money. It’s different story to plan a trip from London to Dhaka.

Through Chanu, Monica Ali also points out the behaviour of white people. She remains factual but I think she nails it. At the same time, she doesn’t hesitate to picture the abuses inside the Bengladeshi community. How women gossip and spy on each other. How some take advantage of poorer members of the community and lend money at usurer rates. How people back home beg them to send money. Every time I wondered if Nazneen would have been happier in her home country, a letter from her sister Hasina popped in the book, reminding me that her life could have been much worse. Hasina is beaten by the husband she married out of love. Her life becomes a constant struggle when she leaves him and tries to survive by herself.

I also enjoyed this book because it is well written. Monica Ali’s prose adapts to Nazneen’s thought process. Her writing is more assured as Nazneen broadens her mind. She also has a knack for descriptions, like this:

DR AZAD HAD the misfortune of youthful hair. It was hard not to smile at his thick and shiny pelt, especially as the years had not bypassed his face. They had, in fact, trampled it. His cheeks hung slack as ancient breasts. His nose, once so neatly upturned, appeared to crumble at the end. And the puffy skin around his eyes was fit to burst.

Brick Lane has a message but it’s not black and white. Immigration is a complex issue on a human being level (Nazneen, Chanu) and on a collective level (how to “integrate” these migrants) Monica Ali shows both sides, doesn’t make accusations or portray victims of an unjust system. She states facts. Chanu’s unsuccessful life is both due to his lack of personal skills and to his origins. Thinking he wasn’t slighted because he was an immigrant would be hiding from the truth, thinking it was the only reason is equally wrong.

I value books that make me think and this one did. For another take about this book, here’s the review published in the Guardian.

PS: I hate the title of the French translation and I hate the cover of the paperback edition. It’s not faithful to the book.

Our Book Club reads The Odd Women by Gissing and you’re welcome to read it along with us

August 1, 2013 24 comments

 The Odd Women by George Gissing. (UK, 1893) 432 pages

book_club_2August is the first month of our new Book Club year. You can find the list of books here. This month our Book Club is reading The Odd Women by George Gissing. For a reason I don’t understand, it is not available in French. If there was a translation and it’s just OOP, then let’s hope it gets republished, at least in an ebook version. Regular readers of this blog know that I like Victorian literature very much and that I’m interested in the condition of women. So when I read Guy’s review about The Odd Women, I knew I had to read it. I’m very happy it is part of our Book Club reading this year as it’s always interesting to discuss thought-provoking novels. Here’s the blurb:

gissing_women_travail

“A novel of social realism, The Odd Women reflects the major sexual and cultural issues of the late nineteenth century. Unlike the “New Woman” novels of the era which challenged the idea that the unmarried woman was superfluous, Gissing satirizes that image and portrays women as “odd” and marginal in relation to an ideal. Set in a grimy, fog-ridden London, Gissing’s “odd” women range from the idealistic, financially self-sufficient Mary Barfoot to the Madden sisters who struggle to subsist in low paying jobs and little chance for joy. With narrative detachment, Gissing portrays contemporary society’s blatant ambivalence towards its own period of transition. Judged by contemporary critics to be as provocative as Zola and Ibsen, Gissing produced an “intensely modern” work as the issues it raises remain the subject of contemporary debate.”

gissing_two_womenOn Wikipedia, it is stated that there was an excess of one million women over men in Victorian England. This meant there were “odd” women left over at the end of the equation when the other men and women had paired off in marriage. I wonder why there were so many more women than men at the time. Girls were more likely to reach adulthood than boys? Untimely deaths left many widows? It must have worsened after WWI and all the young men who were killed.

I’m not a specialist but I’m under the impression that these “feminist” novels are a distinctive characteristic of British literature. In Pride and Prejudice and in Emma, Jane Austen has her leading characters discuss the position of women. It’s Mrs Bennet, all stressed out about marrying her daughters to be sure they won’t live poorly and Charlotte explaining to Lizzie that Mr Collins is her best prospect in life. It’s Emma saying that being single isn’t a problem as long as you have your own money. In Miss McKenzie, Trollope also describes the fate of women. If Miss McKenzie doesn’t find a husband, what can she do after her brother’s death? I haven’t read Agnes Grey but I understand it is about with the life of governesses, one of the acceptable positions for gentle women who had to earn their income.

Gissing_women_femmeI don’t remember reading a French novel of the 19thC challenging the role of women in society and showing how narrow their life choices are. I’ve been thinking about the Balzacs, Maupassants, Flauberts, Dumas or Zolas I’ve read and I didn’t find a title about this. There are hints in Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées by Balzac, but both girls are married and it’s more about the different kind of marriages one can enter into. Otherwise, women are for passion, lust, social ascension. They are mothers, daughters and lovers. They are rarely partners. They are either seen as cruel and manipulative or mocked for they naiveté and seen as feeble creatures, like in La Cousine Bette.

There is Notre Coeur by Maupassant which portrays an independent woman, Mme de Burne. I always think of Maupassant is a terrible chauvinist and it is visible in the names of the characters of Notre Coeur. Mme Michèle de Burne doesn’t want to remarry. Her name suggests that she has balls (des burnes) and her first name is both masculine and feminine (Michel/Michèle), so she’s not a real woman, right? The main male character, André Mariolle respects her position and his name means clown; so his opinion cannot be taken seriously. I haven’t read all of Zola, so there might be a volume about women in Les Rougon-Macquart. Can you think of a 19th French novel which depicts with objectivity the lack of prospects for women beside marriage?

Gissing_women_belle_epoqueI’m quite fascinated by this aspect of British literature. I will publish my billet about The Odd Women at the end of the month. Anyone interested in The Odd Women is warmly encouraged to reading it along with us. I’ll read all the blog posts you’ll publish about it and you’re, of course, more than welcome to leave comments below my billet.

I have included several book covers because they’re quite different for the same book. They don’t convey the same image at all. I wonder which one I’ll think best fitted to the book after I have read it.

Want to know more about The Odd Women? Discover Guy’s review here

Wandering into general background, an experiment

November 17, 2012 23 comments

I know, I know, I should be writing by billet about Breathing Lessons or the one about Classé sans suite. Right now, I can’t. My brain cells have been fried for a couple of weeks; I haven’t reached the page 50 of Grand Hotel; Marcel acts like a stalker with Albertine and I won’t go on with these books as I don’t want to ruin them for me by reading them at a bad time. That leaves me with books for fried brains and the radio.

Let’s start with the radio. The other day, I heard an interview of François Reynaert and Vincent Brocvielle, co-authors of the recently released Le Kit du 21e siècle, Nouveau manuel de culture générale. I don’t know how to say culture générale in English. The dictionary says general knowledge but I’m not happy with it; it’s more like cultural background to me. Well, these two writers have described in their book the basic cultural background needed to live in the 21st century. One of them argued that this cultural background cannot be only literary as the elites think it should be, but more a common base of general knowledge about the world we live in. It goes from basic economy, to books and without forgetting TV shows, commercials and films. His opinion is that these common references are a cement to a society, a way to build a collective psyche. I agree with that.

But then I started challenging myself on this. I don’t watch TV, I have no idea of the latest shows, the commercials or the star anchormen of the moment. I know nothing about the new humorists or singers. The only thing I want to do when I have free time after work and family life is crawl on the couch with a book or play the piano. That interview made me question my way of living. Am I excluding myself from my environment, cutting myself from the general background of the French society? This is still nagging at me and I don’t have a clue. I’m not going to start watching stupid TV shows to be on the same wavelength as my fellow citizens, am I?

This brought back a conversation I had a month ago with my in-law when she asked me whether I planned to read Fifty Shades of Grey whose French translation was just released. I’d never heard of the book at the time and that she knew about a book I didn’t stung a little. I’m the bookish one in the family. So I investigated. I saw a small article about it in Télérama, not in the literary section (how wise) but in the news section. The curiosity I have for books is so endless that I’m ready to try a book like this to understand why it is such a success, something I’m not ready to do with TV shows.

And here I am, downloading the English version of EL James’s success. A nous, “mommy porn”, fried brains should suffice for this.

So what? Let’s say this read could be the source of endless sarcasm on my side and I’ll spare you the summary. I think that Stephenie Meyer could claim at least half of the money EL James makes with her book as it is only a transposition of Twilight. It’s everywhere, in the secret required from the heroin (she signs a NDA), the descriptions of the main characters, their parents, the location, the plot. It’s so blatant that it’s almost painful. Sure, EL James crosses the PC line and dares to use fuck and all its grammatical derivatives, but when it comes to style, compared to EL James, Stephanie Meyer is a reincarnation of a Brontë sister. I swear I will never make fun of creative writing classes in the future, because I wished EL James had attended some. Her style is so appalling that she doesn’t deserve to be called a writer. Scribbler sounds more appropriate. The good thing about reading this kind of book in English is that you’re sure to memorize the few words you actually don’t know because they’re hammered so many times that in the end, they stay in your memory, fried brains or not. So Christian Grey smirks and I’ll never forget that word.

The substance of the book is terrifying of stupidity but I wonder what it means about our century. Why is it so successful? It’s marketed for women. Is this what we consider a glamorous relationship? A woman needs to be submissive? And you, poor men, you need to be frightening, mercurial, controlling and domineering? When were kind, funny and attentive flushed in the bathroom of the 21st century relationships? As a feminist, I wonder what the readers find in this book. It’s not about sex games between consenting adults, it’s about power, hurting and suffocating someone’s personality. It’s about psychological harassment. Is that glamorous?

Still investigating the phenomenon, I learnt that it will be made into an American film. Immediately, I wondered about the business plan –can’t help it, job conditioning—and about the scenario for such a book in a country that has explicit lyrics stickers on their CDs. How are they going to make a profit on a film that will be forbidden to people under 18? Through DVDs and derivatives? Are they going to bowdlerize savagely and cut all the BDSM sex scenes? But then, what’s the point? I’m curious about that and about who will dare to play the main roles.

So, the conclusion about Fifty Shades of Grey? I’m glad I read it, I can criticize it freely now. After reading it, my advice is the following: if you want to read about a controlling guy, a stalker and man who has a sick vision of love relationships, just read La Prisonnière by Marcel Proust, there’s plenty of that in this volume of In Search of Lost Time and at least you’ll have a brilliant literary style. (More of that in an upcoming billet). If you’re really curious about submission, try Histoire d’O by Pauline Réage. And if you want real kinky sex, just go back to the source and read Justine ou les malheurs de la vertu by the Marquis de Sade. But forget about EL James.

After this enlightening experience, where do I stand about sharing the general background? The thought is still nagging at me, but honestly, I’m not sure I want to experiment further. May I stay in my bubble with my TBR and my piano?

Norah, Fanta, Khady Demba and many others we never hear of

October 26, 2012 15 comments

Trois femmes puissantes de Marie Ndiaye 2009. English title : Three Strong Women

Their names are Norah, Fanta and Khady Demba. They live in France or in Senegal or have lived in both countries. Their stories are not exactly linked but more adjacent like pieces of fabric composing a patchwork quilt. The novel is structured into three parts, each one relating the story of one woman.

The first part is for Norah and it’s her voice we’re hearing. At 38, she’s the daughter of a French hairdresser and a Senegalese. His father left his wife and children behind to go back to Senegal when Norah was a little girl and her mother struggled to raise her and her sister on her own. Now Norah’s father has begged her to come and visit him in Senegal. The novel starts when she arrives at her father’s house. As Norah gets reacquainted with her father’s way-of-life and adjusts to the changes, she recalls her childhood, analyses her present fears and her mixed feeling toward this man. Then she discovers why he called her.

The second part is for Fanta and the only image of her that we will have is through her husband’s eyes, Rudy Descas. He used to live in Senegal and met Fanta there when they both worked as teachers in a French high school. Fanta comes from a poor family and with a lot of work and willpower, she started a career as a teacher of French literature, quite an achievement for an African woman from her origin. We quickly understand that Rudy pushed her to move back to France but they never found work as teachers there. They are now living rather poorly, Rudy sells kitchens, Fanta doesn’t have a job and their marriage is falling apart. Rudy loves her madly but doesn’t seem to know how to show it anymore; he’s too embittered by his life and he feels like a failure.

The third part is the sour voyage from life to hell of Khady Demba, guilty of being a young widow with no children. When her in-laws throw her out of their house, she starts a voyage to the unknown with little experience, little education and no financial means.

Trois femmes puissantes is a tribute to all women who fight for their dignity through adversity. Norah, Fanta and Khady Demba have things in common: they fought to climb the social ladder, to achieve something and be independent. And men smash all their hard work. Norah’s father undermined her confidence from the start with his lack of interest in his daughters who were unfortunate not to be sons and girls who didn’t meet his definition of what a woman should be. Her partner messes up with the orderly life she has patiently built with her daughter in such a way that she feels that she admitted an enemy in her home. Her brother is the catalyst of two radical changes in her life, once as a child, once as an adult.

For Fanta, she fell in love with Rudy and following him to France was the beginning of her end. She couldn’t be a teacher there and she lost her identity. It’s difficult to have a clear portrait of Fanta because Rudy is the one who describes her. And dear, doesn’t he have heavy issues to cope with! His mother believes in angels and promotes angels through fliers. In France, I can tell you that a mother who leaves fliers around te enlighten her fellow citizens about the presence of angels among us is not seen as religious but as totally crazy.

For Khady Demba, the untimely death of her husband turns her life upside down in the most horrible way. After their in-laws have kicked her out, she’s the victim of other men too.

The three women remain strong in their mind and face the worse although sometimes their sanity wobbles. They stick to who they are and cling to their identity as a life-saver. They keep their dignity and Kadhy Demba’s attempts at dignity are the most poignant I’ve read in a long time.

The three stories are also an indirect thought about the relationship between France and Africa. Marie Ndiyae is black, her father is Senegalese. Her mother raised her as a single mom after her father left when she was a little girl. She has only met him a couple of times. She doesn’t feel African but she has mixed-blood and it can’t be discarded because it’s visible.

Although Trois femmes puissantes reveals terrible events, there is no useless pathos. Marie Ndiaye describes the inner minds of her protagonists –Norah, Rudy and Khady Demba –in a most realistic way. She’s analytical and with a dose of surreal elements sometimes. There’s a recurring pattern of birds in the three stories, a recurring pattern of bad luck. Fanta’s story appears less terrible than the two others, perhaps because she’s seen through Rudy’s eyes, she’s less real. Each part ends with a short paragraph, a sort of conclusion. It gives a feeling of an oral tale.

The novel is wonderfully composed and echoes to other forms of art. It’s a literary triptych of stoic and strong women, like iconic paintings put in churches. It’s a symphony with three movements, telling about women’s condition in general, in Senegal and in France in particular.

When Trois femmes puissantes was first published, I remember reading a glowing review of it and that the article included a quote from the book and I thought I wouldn’t like it. I picked it again by chance at the library, when I was looking for an audio book. I started listening to the audio version read by Dominique Blanc but it proved difficult to enjoy the beautiful prose of Marie Ndiaye while driving, therefore I eventually borrowed the paper edition. Dominique Blanc reads marvelously though, giving the rhythm of her steady voice to the rhythm of the author’s sentences. It could have been enchanting to hear it in good conditions.

You can also read reviews by Stu at Winston’s Dad and Iris at Iris On Books. Like Iris, I preferred the first and the last stories but Rudi’s struggle with his life and the terrible guilt he feels for not being able to make her precious wife happy got to me too.  I’m glad to say I was wrong to shy away from this book. Marie Ndiaye won the Prix Goncourt in 2009 for this novel and it’s well-deserved. Although it wasn’t an easy read, I felt compelled to read further. This book has everything to become a classic: excellent and unique prose, universal theme and stories without obvious references to current events which anchor a book in its time.

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