Month: March 2010

The Poet’s Wife by Judith Allnatt

For someone who doesn’t like historical novels, I’m reading an awful lot of them lately. When Aislinn at Transworld emailed and said she was wondering whether I’d like to review a new book about the wife of the poet John Clare a while ago, I jumped at the chance, as John Clare is one of my favourite poets. However, after it arrived, I realised what I’d done and my heart sunk; I’d saddled myself with a dreaded historical novel, complete with ye olde English speech and a spunky heroine. Nevertheless I had made a commitment to read it, so read it I did, with great reluctance and eye rolling book snobbery as I opened the front cover for the first time. As I discovered with my new best friend Anita Shreve a couple of weeks ago, however, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Once I had got over the use of early Victorian speech, which initially jarred with me, as Patty, Clare’s wife, comes across as such a modern, fresh character, I got sucked into this wonderful novel and I didn’t want to finish. It just goes to show; not all historical novels are equal!

Judith Allnatt has written an account, based on the facts of John and his wife Patty’s lives, of the period when John, in his mid forties, returns from four years in an asylum in Essex, and, still delusional and mentally ill, attempts to fit back into normal life. Patty, who has endured terrible hardship and loneliness during John’s absence, bringing up their six children alone and struggling to make ends meet, longs for John to get well and become the man she loved again. However, John is convinced that he has another wife, his childhood sweetheart Mary, and despite Patty’s repeated insistences that she is dead, John persists in fantasising about his ‘other’ wife and family, and it is clear that John has no love for Patty in his heart. It emerges that John has slept with other women while away at the asylum, and he keeps trying to escape across the fields to the nearby village that used to be Mary’s home.  Devastated by John’s faithlessness and desire for the perfect Mary, Patty throws herself into the work of the home, caring for their children, trying to earn money, seeking to make life as comfortable as possible, and help lead John back to health, and to her.

Their life, in a Northamptonshire village in the early 19th century, is hard. The Clares are relative newcomers to their village, and and are disliked by the villagers. Patty has few friends and little external support, which she desperately needs, especially as John can offer her nothing in the way of affection or advice. They have no money and John won’t ask his old aristocratic patrons for any out of pride, leaving it up to Patty, their elder sons and John’s elderly father Parker to do what they can to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. To make matters worse, the Clare’s elder daughter Anna has just been married to the local dandy Sefton, who their second daughter, Eliza, has had an affair with and still loves, leading to strife between the sisters and even more worry for Patty. As John’s mental state gets worse and Patty becomes increasingly short tempered with him, life becomes unbearable, and despite her desire to keep him at home, she is forced to admit that perhaps John needs to go back to the asylum.

This is such a wonderful book because Judith Allnatt manages to draw you completely into the world of the Clares. It is a small life, with few pleasures or events, but it is filled with all of the concerns, worries and small joys of family life. Patty is a terrific woman; strong, courageous, and feisty. She loves John and their children with a passion, and is determined to make the best of things for them, sacrificing her own needs for their good. John is a sad character, intelligent, dynamic, tortured; on rare occasions glimpses of his brilliant, fun and caring true self come through, and it is then that you feel Patty’s pain at all she has lost. It is so evocative of the period and beautifully written; I so enjoyed it and I know want to read more about John and Patty’s life together. Jonathan Bate’s biography is supposed to be excellent and is what Judith Allnatt based her book on.

I am now off to pack for my flight to Cape Town this afternoon; I like to do things last minute! I am feeling very nervous as I have never flown solo before and I have to change planes in Istanbul which I am worried I will manage to muck up somehow and do a Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone 2, ending up on a plane to somewhere else entirely! As such I am packing lots of comfort reading for my two 18 hour journeys, which I hope will help me to keep calm. I am taking my collections of Nancy Mitford novels, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, amongst others. Hopefully they will keep me entertained, and take my mind off the flight!

See you all in two weeks!

Thoughts on a Thursday

It’s Thursday. Almost the weekend. Hurrah! It always makes me feel joyful when I get to the second half of the working week. So today, in my spirit of abundant joy I thought, why post on one blog when I can post on two? That’s why I am being greedy and guest posting over on the lovely Aarti’s blog, Booklust, today. Do go and check it out – it’s part of Aarti’s fascinating guest post series highlighting favourite forgotten books that bloggers want more people to know about. I’ve highlighted the spectacular Illyrian Spring that SOMEONE needs to listen to me and reprint because it’s actually criminal that it’s completely unavailable! I hope you enjoy the post, and that you will like exploring Aarti’s interesting, intellectual and varied blog if you haven’t done so before.

In other news of my amazingly glamorous life, I am still suffering the effects of quaffing a large amount of delicious canapes followed by several litres of champagne at the Quilts Private View at work last night. Bloomsbury Bell and I did our usual trick of hovering strategically next to the doorway where the waiters come out with the trays of canapes, pouncing like vultures who haven’t had a square meal in ten years as soon as a fresh tray appears. We got an excellent haul, stuffing our faces with delicious mini sausages, hunks of rare steak in bearnaise sauce, tender lamb on crisps (chips for my American friends), fish in breadcrumbs with minted mushy peas, smoked salmon, iced cupcakes…I could go on! Absolutely delicious and an excellent time was had by both of us as we floated around the main entrance of the Museum to 1940s British music played by a 40’s costumed DJ  in our fancy dresses (I wore this in multicolour) and pretended to be professional.  We also saw the exhibition, which opens to the public on Saturday, and I can assure you that it is absolutely phenomenal and testament to the excellent work the curator, Sue, and her lovely asisstant curator Claire, have done over the past six years. If you want to know what it’s like to be an exhibition curator, you can read Sue’s blog here.

I know I keep going on about this exhibition, but I have just been blown away by the gorgeousness of the fabrics and patterns, the intricacy of the handiwork and the powerful personal and political histories sewn into the quilts on display. Normally museum objects are very impersonal, with little known about the makers or owners, but with these beautiful pieces of domestic history, you can trace the contemporary lives of the makers; their hopes, dreams, interests and concerns with each stitch, and as they have often been handed down in families for generations before being donated to the Museum, there is a real emotional quality to them, of having been laboured over, of being loved and cherished, and of being an intimate part of many people’s lives for centuries. They have covered people as they dream, been a soft surface for sitting on at picnics, been a gift to celebrate a marriage, offered a safe place for babies to fall as they take their tentative first steps; they have been wept into and giggled under, seen the beginnings and the ends of lives. They are holders of so many memories, witnesses of so many of the important moments in their owners’ lives, and snapshots into lost periods of time through the shapes, letters, figures and fabrics they contain. They are truly wonderful objects and I do hope that many of you will be able to come and see them for yourselves. Standing in front of them last night I was quite awe struck and moved, and I don’t think many visitors will leave without being powerfully touched by what they’ve seen.

Also, if you are a crafty type, check out the range of quilts related products and fabrics in the V&A shop; I have the fabrics and they are just exquisite! I can’t wait to add them to my quilt.

I am off to South Africa on Saturday but I hope I will have time to review one last book before I go. However, if I don’t, I’ll see you all in two weeks, hopefully with some beautiful photographs to share of my trip!

Glamour: Women, History, Feminism by Carol Dyhouse

Glamour is often seen as a very modern thing nowadays, and it carries a negative, perhaps even trashy, connotation; ‘glamour models’ with their assets displayed for all to see on Page Three of the tabloids and in men’s top shelf magazines, young girls getting ‘glammed up’ for a night out in their short skirts, low cut tops and skyscraper heels, out ‘on the pull’, looking for male attention. Glamour seems to have become a dirty word; it describes women who put appearances above all else, who discount the value of intellect and character, and instead choose to use their looks to make their way in a world that depends on the gaze of men.

In this book Carol Dyhouse, a Professor of History at the University of Sussex, explores the history of glamour; of its origins in Hollywood to its present day incarnation in Playboy and the like, and of how women have both been empowered and exploited in the pursuit of its standards. Glamour is not new, as we soon find out. As long as there have been women, they have been aspiring to look good. Even Eve was careful about the arrangement of her fig leaves. ;) With the arrival of mass media and advertising in the 19th century, cosmetic products aimed at the female anxious about her appearance were all over the press. From magic face creams that removed all conceivable blemishes to perfumes guaranteed to make men fall at your feet, women could buy anything and everything to make themselves look and feel gorgeous. As time moved on and Hollywood became more and more famous, the word glamour began to be used to describe its female stars. The original meaning of glamour is bewitching, enchanting; suggesting an element of subterfuge and masking of the real self. These attractive young starlets did just that; swathed in furs, feathers and pearls, these women were sultry sirens that oozed luxuriousness, exoticism and sexuality, often with new names that hid their true identities as ordinary small town girls with big dreams.

The success of Hollywood soon made these women into icons, with their faces appearing in magazines all over the world, leaving legions of women desperate to know how they too could get the glamorous Hollywood look. Much like today, magazines were filled with hints and tips to get a glowing complexion and perfect hair; the right outfits to wear and the best way to get a man. Glamour was all about looking the part; being expensive, being luxurious, being special, despite the humdrum nature of most women’s everyday lives. For most girls in the mid twentieth century, a fur coat was the height of sophistication and was the epitome of ‘glamour'; no self respecting woman could be without a bit of fur and the fur industry at the time was massive, even during the war years, when desperate women, longing for some sparkle in their lives, clamoured to buy war economy standard coats made of squirrel fur.

Moving into the mid century and towards the flower girl image of the 1960s and 70s, glamour became vulgar and an assault on the new feminist movement. Women were encouraged to look childlike, gamine and wide eyed like the popular models, Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. Fur coats and lipstick were out; empire line dresses with floral prints and natural looking make up were in. Glamorous women had become associated with predatory behaviour; fur coats were gifts to mistresses, not wives, and red nails and lips were the sign of a woman hunting for masculine prey. The image of female sexuality had changed, but the infantilisation of women and the vogue for a childish, leggy, prepubescent appearance was hardly in line with the rising tide of women determined to get out of the kitchen and into the boardroom. The 1980’s glamour puss look of shoulder pads, big hair and strong make up, epitomised in shows such as Dynasty, reflected the way women now wanted to appear; strong, sexual, independent; almost masculine. Glamour was back, with a vengeance; instead of being anti feminist, a symbol of female vanity and objectification, it became a way for women to assert themselves and make the most of their sexuality as they began to make their own way in a man’s world.

Glamour has changed from being about star quality, to being an assertion of female power, to now being about fulfilling male fantasies in trashy magazines. However, there has always been an undercurrent of meeting male desires when it comes to glamour; women have always desired to look good to please not only themselves, but the male gaze. Fur and feathers are tactile, sensual, luxurious; worn mainly to allure and bewitch men. Perfumes and cosmetics, worn to obscure flaws and create an aura of sweet, attractive exoticism cannot help but please and reel in the opposite sex. Adverts for clothes and cosmetics show women being admired by men as they show off their improved appearance; but is this really what glamour is all about? At its heart, what does the pursuit of glamour really say about women and their role in society?  Does it cement the notion that women are the weaker sex, forever hostages to the whims of male preferences? Or does it prove that women just enjoy feeling beautiful and precious and special for their own self esteem, and that whatever constitutes these qualities merely changes with the fashions of the times?

It’s a fascinating issue, and one which Carol Dyhouse explores wonderfully. This is an academic book with enough footnotes to shake a stick at, but that doesn’t make it dry or boring. It comes with plenty of illustrations from old magazines, advertisements and Hollywood films, which I really enjoyed being able to look at and compare with modern day examples. Women’s history is a minefield and it’s hard to come to conclusions and concrete arguments without offending or excluding, and Carol Dyhouse is careful not to tread on any toes.  What stands out most from this book is that women’s priorities and interests haven’t really changed over the last two centuries. Despite our emancipation from the kitchen, we are all still as obsessed with looks as we were 100 years ago.  Extracts from magazines printed in 1910 and 2010 are eerily similar, discussing the latest celebrity gossip and giving hints and tips on the best make up for a night out. But is this necessarily a bad thing? Can it be considered a lack of progress, or simply a manifestation of women’s abiding interest in beauty?

I love buying new clothes and making myself look pretty for special occasions by wearing make up and doing something fancy with my hair. I hardly think I’m turning back the tide of feminism by doing so. The notion that women who like to look good are somehow letting the side down doesn’t get very far with me; the whole point of feminism is to allow women to be who they want to be, surely?  I can be an intelligent, politically and culturally engaged career woman while wearing make up. Yes, some women do choose to use their bodies and looks to objectify themselves in men’s magazines; I am not one of them, and I don’t support the ‘glamour’ industry in that respect, but if these women want to do that, then it is their choice. No one is forcing them to do it. The original icons of glamour were the Hollywood sirens of the 1930s and 40s – strong, independent women who had successful careers, healthy bank balances, and the freedom to do what they wanted with their lives. They were also mostly unmarried, which was quite revolutionary, really.

The way I see it, and what I’ve learnt from the experiences detailed in this book, glamour is about looking good, but it’s also about confidence, self esteem, and aspiration. If looking good gives women the confidence to step out and achieve their dreams, then I’m all for women embracing glamour. Though I draw the line at buying a fur coat.

I’d be so interested to hear what other women think about this issue, and I do encourage you to read this book, as it truly is excellent. Thanks so much to the lovely Ruvani at Zed Books who was so kind and sent me this to review after I begged for it!

The Victorian Chaise Longue by Marghanita Laski

What a bizarre little book this was! I’ve had it on the teetering TBR pile for almost a year…I bought it in a charity shop in Richmond when visiting Ham House last Spring, but came across mixed reviews that put me off reading it straight away. However, sometimes books just jump out at me and this week The Victorian Chaise Longue managed to leap the highest and gained my immediate attention. I feel a bit ambivalent about it, a couple of days after finishing. It wasn’t spectacular, but then it wasn’t bad, either; I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. After reading and adoring Little Boy Lost last year, I was expecting it to pack a bit more of a punch, if I’m honest.

The book is about Melanie, a recovering TB sufferer, who lives in a nice house in London with her handsome husband and baby son in the early 20th century. She is pampered, surrounded by prettiness and luxury and adoration and she is almost ready to resume normal life again after being in bed for quite some time. On the day the book opens, Melanie is allowed to leave her bed at last, and is carefully placed on a beast of a piece of furniture; a heavy, rose-embroidered Victorian chaise longue, to enjoy the sun streaming through the windows of her pretty living room and feel part of the goings on of the house. As she drifts off to sleep on the chaise longue, some sort of odd time shift appears to happen, and Melanie wakes up in a completely different body in the past, still lying on the chaise longue. Terrifyingly, Melanie is now considered to be Milly, a dying TB sufferer, who is too weak to even raise her head.

Melanie, as Milly, finds herself passive and helpless, in a body that can no longer function properly. She is cloistered in a hot, smelly room and closely monitored by her sister, Adelaide, who seems to hold some sort of grudge against Milly for something she has done wrong. At first Melanie is horribly confused and at a loss to understand anything; she doesn’t recognise her surroundings or the people around her, and she is convinced she must be dreaming. However, as time goes on, she realises that this is no dream, and most frightening of all, she starts to notice her thoughts and words begin to echo those of Milly and become less and less like hers. She recognises things, knows things, and feels instinctively emotional towards people, all of which, if she were Melanie in someone else’s body, she shouldn’t know or recognise or feel at all. This leaves Melanie, and the reader, wondering; where does Melanie end and Milly begin? Has Melanie been absorbed into Milly? Will Melanie ever be herself again? Or was she ever real in the first place?

It is a very clever exploration of the woman’s role in Victorian society, of her restrictions and reliance on the world of men, and how this role changed  so rapidly from the turn of the century onwards. The chaise longue is a metaphor for the perceived notion of female as weak, passive, idle; needing a ‘lie down’ in the afternoons on her special sofa. Milly embodies the entrapment women in Victorian times experienced, and this is also physically manifested in the hot, airless room she is forced to lie in, too weak to even lift her own head, and at the mercy of those around her. What, for Melanie, is insufferable and stifling is normality for Milly, who has no free will and no ability to make choices for herself. When she manages to muster the strength to speak to the men who could have power to help her, they dismiss her as a silly girl who must submit herself to their superior knowledge. Melanie, on the other hand, cosseted and pampered in her modern day world, has been given all the freedoms entitled to women, and Milly’s situation terrifies her in its helplessness. However, what Melanie fails to see is how similar they are; they are both lying on the chaise longue, both of their lives revolving around men. While Milly cannot help but have her life controlled by men and the social standards men have created, Melanie has had the choice to be an independent woman, and yet she denies it, preferring to be treated as a delicate, decorative object rather than a person with a mind and will of her own. She is a coquette, a flirt, an ultra feminine wide eyed delicate thing, who seeks men’s attention and protection, and has no real role outside of it, rendering her, in a way, equally as powerless as Milly.

It’s a small book with a powerful message and a very interesting plot that has no simple conclusions or satisfactory, neat ending, but it did come across as a little bit too much of an attempt to make a point about female subordination to me. While something along the lines of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper tackles the same themes of male domination over women and female madness, it manages to somehow be different, more menacing, more immediate, than The Victorian Chaise Longue. Perhaps, because Gilman was writing from the point of view of being in a society that devalued women and marked those who dared to be different with the label of ‘insane’, there is more of an urgency and terror about her words, which is something Laski, from her modern perspective, doesn’t quite manage to create. Ultimately, while I was fascinated by this very different and clever story, I was left cold and uncaring towards the characters; Melanie’s lack of spine made me not care less whether she remained trapped in the past or not, which I suspect was not the reaction Laski was aiming for. However, she has done an excellent job of creating a claustrophic and cloying atmopshere throughout the book, which did make me physically feel the real sense of entrapment that Melanie and Milly were suffering. Despite my reservations, it is a good book and I do recommend it, but don’t expect the same brilliance and emotion that you’ll find in the superb Little Boy Lost.

Finally, the winner of The Diary of Miss Idilia is…Heather! Email me your address (my email’s on the About Me page) and I’ll get it sent out to you!

The Diary of Miss Idilia by ?

This is a book I requested a review copy of, as I was so intrigued by its premise. (Review copies don’t count in the not buying books thing, by the way). It purports to be the true diary of Idilia Dubb, a 17 year old Scottish girl who went missing whilst on holiday in the Rhineland in the 1850s. Despite an extensive search, no trace of the girl was ever found, and her heartbroken family returned to Scotland without her. A few years later, a half ruined castle near where the Dubbs had been staying was in the process of being restored, when, to the shock of the men working on it, they found a recent skeleton, with clothes, jewellery, etc, near it, at the top of one of the turrets. A doctor examined the bones and said they were of a 17 year old girl, there or thereabouts, and Idilia’s mother and brother travelled to Germany to identify the belongings. They confirmed that the effects found with the skeleton had indeed belonged to Idilia, but the mystery had only deepened; how had Idilia got up to the top of the tower, and why had she gone there in the first place? Then, during the restoration of the castle, an intact diary was found, tucked into the stonework in the tower, detailing Idilia’s last days, as well as her family’s trip to the Rhineland. The diary was given to Idilia’s best childhood friend, Genevieve Hill, to decipher and edit, and this edited work is what this book claims to be, published in full and in English for the very first time last month by Short Books.

Well, after reading this, I have to say that I don’t believe a word of it. Idilia Dubb’s disappearance and discovery is a true story; she definitely existed and she did die at the top of Lahneck Castle (pictured), near Koblenz, in Germany, when the ladder she used to climb the tower collapsed after she reached the top, leaving her with no way down. Whether her diary was really found or not, I don’t know, but this book certainly isn’t it if it did exist. While I was reading it, I did initially think that Idilia Dubb might have had a fanciful imagination, and as the diary was written to be sent to her friend Genevieve, as was apparently the girls’ practice (they sent each other their diaries in lieu of letters), I assumed much of the stories told in it were an elaborate attempt to incite envy and admiration. Every man she comes across falls in love with her and is willing to fight duels for her hand; she is the most beautiful woman everyone has ever seen; she sleeps around; she gets separated from her family when their ship leaves port without her, and she then has a series of adventures and near misses with her new love, whom she met aboard the said ship and who is also stuck behind with her – they are mistaken for thieving gypsies and hauled into jail, they stay in fancy hotels and run away without paying, they pay a ship’s captain to race alongside their boat so they can jump onto it across the water, and so on and so forth. None of these things are activities a well bred middle class Victorian teenager would ever do. Idilia is also incredibly sexually aware for someone who would never have been in a position to learn about or experience such things, and the portrayal of her parents is very negative, with her mother having an affair with a bearded wine salesman in front of an entire boat load of people and her own family. Not convincing at all, considering the social standing of the family and the period this is set in. Also, the amount of Ominous Signs that Something Bad was going to happen was laughable! Idilia got her palm read and the woman reading it recoiled in terror, Idilia read and saw and dreamt lots of things about people having early and tragic deaths; if this was real, poor Idilia would have been a quivering wreck by the time she’d got to the tower, and I should think she would have avoided doing anything so dangerous with such a black mark over her head! So, by about half way through, I’d come to the conclusion that Genevieve Hill, a failed authoress, must have created the whole diary herself and pretended it was Idilia’s true words. I also suspect it has been more recently embellished, as some phrases definitely do not sound Victorian – I picked up at least one reference to someone being a ‘loser’, which I doubt was in popular use in the 19th century!

Whoever did write it, whether it was Genevieve or not, didn’t even try that hard to make it tragic; I was expecting a harrowing last few pages depicting Idilia’s entrapment at the top of the tower, which is mainly why I wanted to read this book (yes, yes, I’m an awful person). However, her last days seem an afterthought to the main body of the ‘diary’, with a bit of overblown lamentation about her heartbroken family who she never seemed to care for that much anyway tacked on, and then ending in a few trite phrases about God having mercy. No real anguish, no real terror. What a wasted opportunity! If you’re going to make up a diary about such an experience, you’d give the majority of your attention to the most dramatic part, surely?!

I presume the writer wanted to dwell on Idilia’s adventures before she climbed the tower, and depict her as a high spirited, lively, beautiful and adventurous young girl whose life was unfairly cut short, making her memorable and so ensuring the survival of her tragic story. After all, if Idilia’s real diary, if it ever existed, was just the chronicle of an average seventeen year old girl’s life, it would have most likely been rather pedestrian and largely forgettable. However, in refashioning Idilia Dubb’s life into something from a Girl’s Own adventure story, and making her into somebody she never was, the writer of her ‘diary’ has done Idilia no favours, for what is the point in being remembered, if who you’re remembered as being is a lie?

I thought this ‘diary’ was very interesting, despite it being false. It was fascinating to consider what the writer thought the readers of this would want Idilia to be like; what he or she clearly thought would make the reader find her memorable, sympathetic, admirable, and so on. I was surprised to find out that this ‘diary’ has been considered watertight for over one hundred years; it has been available for a good while in other European languages and has, from what I can find out, been largely accepted as fact. I love how myths and legends can so easily be created from a grain of truth and a lot of waffle, and this is clearly what has happened here. Even so, it was still a very enjoyable read; it is mostly written in the vocabulary of a Victorian adolescent, with the odd modern lapse, which gives it a fun, What Katy Did sort of feel, and there are also plenty of ripping adventures and enough action to keep the pages turning at speed. It might not be what it says on the tin, but it’s still worth a read to discover why the story of Idilia Dubb has captured the imaginations of many for a century.

As I’m not planning on reading it again, I’m happy to pass this on to someone else. If you’d like it, say so in the comments and I’ll do a draw in a few days if there’s more than one person who fancies giving it a go. I’m happy to post anywhere, so don’t worry if you’re not in the UK, you’re still welcome to ask for it!