Month: April 2011

Wait for Me! by Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire

I have been waiting months to read this, as it seems the entire membership of the New York Public Library was in line to read it before me, and they well and truly took their time! However, the wait was absolutely worthwhile and I was enthralled throughout this delightful volume of memoirs from the last surviving Mitford sister. I adore reading everything I can about the eccentric, witty, unconventional and beautiful Mitford sisters, whose lives spanned the tumultuous 20th century and who counted Hitler, Churchill, JFK and the Prince of Wales, among others, as their friends. Debo, the youngest of the clan, never courted fame or controversy like her older sisters; she married Andrew, second son of the Duke of Devonshire, at 21, and settled down to what she thought would be an unremarkable existence as an officer’s wife. Little did she know that three years later Andrew’s older brother Billy, married to JFK’s sister Kick Kennedy, would be killed in action, and that at 30, she and her beloved Andrew would become the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, and responsible for some of the largest and most prestigious country estates in England.

Debo, now in her nineties, uses Wait for Me! as her opportunity to debunk many of the myths about the Mitford clan that have sprung up through the exagerrations of real life people Nancy used in her novels, and the outlandish claims of Decca in her often fictionalised memoirs of her childhood. The early chapters focus on her experience of growing up; of her relationships with her parents and siblings and the household staff, of the variety of ever shabbier homes the family lived in, of the shooting parties and dances and the glamour of 1930′s society. Debo was 16 years younger than Nancy, and was still in her teens when Diana ran off with Oswald Mosley and Unity went off to Germany and fell in love with Hitler. She barely knew these glamorous, beautiful older sisters, who called her ‘Stubby’ and ‘Nine’ because of her short legs and supposed stupidity (Nancy coined the ‘nine’ nickname as she thought it was Debo’s permanent mental age). It’s interesting how all of the drama and unhappiness of this time seemed to largely wash over Debo’s head; she was more interested in her London season and going to parties and balls and meeting eligible young men.

Debo really comes into her own when she describes her life as a wife and as the Duchess of Devonshire. I found myself moved in several places as she described the struggles of her husband’s alcoholism, the sad deaths of those she loved in the war, the devastation of losing three of her children shortly after their births, and of the deaths of her parents and sisters as she reached her seventies and found herself the only one left of the once sprawling Mitford clan. She has a very matter of fact writing style, and does not go in for lots of gory details, melodrama or displays of emotion, but she manages to convey just how deeply her experiences impacted her life in just a few well chosen words, proving that Nancy’s dimissive ‘Nine’ nickname was certainly nowhere near the truth.

I loved the tales of Debo’s mingling with the great and good, finding herself intimate friends with JFK due to her friendship with his sister, spending weekends with the Prince of Wales, playing host to the likes of Evelyn Waugh and Duncan Grant; it was a charmed life, and the most endearing thing about Debo is that she knows it was, and is grateful for it. There is no sense of smug entitlement, or of the blase, about these memoirs; Debo’s sense of awe and her knowledge of her good fortune, and frequent assertion that she was not in any way deserving of it, is refreshing to read in our days of self serving celebrity. She traveled extensively, hobnobbed with the stars, was present at JFK’s inauguration and funeral and the Queen’s coronation, and did all this while running the massively successful Chatsworth estate, bringing up three children and taking part in the variety of charitable and ceremonial activities expected as part of her role as the wife of one of the most senior peers. She was, and is, quite the woman.

Debo doesn’t judge or condemn any of her sisters for their controversial views, apart from Nancy, who she found out, after her death, had been the reason why her most beloved sister Diana was imprisoned during the war. She separates their views from their personalities, and to her, they were just her wonderful, often maddening, but always beloved, sisters, and their extreme views are not of interest to her, or worth discussing. She is very sympathetic towards Diana and Unity, and this seems to have enraged a previous reader of my library copy, who has written rather hilariously snarky comments in big black capitals next to every mention Debo makes of Diana’s kindness etc with comments such as ‘OH REALLY? WHAT ABOUT THE FACT THAT SHE WAS A NAZI AND DENIED THE HOLOCAUST?!” etc. I thought this was a bit much. I love my older sister to distraction, and if she decided to become a Nazi tomorrow, that love for her wouldn’t change; you can disagree with someone’s viewpoints and still love them, and I admire Debo for writing about her sisters with affection and equanimity despite their difficult and unpopular political standpoints.

All in all, this is a lovely, fascinating and warm memoir, written at an emotional distance that perhaps some wouldn’t like – used, as we are, to the tell-all memoirs that have become popular in recent years – but I wasn’t expecting Debo to be overly candid, and as such, I wasn’t disappointed by this. The main interest I have in Debo is in her relationship with her sisters and how she performed her duties as a Duchess and went about turning around the fortunes of Chatsworth House, and this delivered the goods in every department. I don’t need to know the nitty gritty of her marriage, or of her relationship with her children, and I wouldn’t expect her to be overly personal about such things when she has an extensive family who are still alive and could be offended by excessive amounts of disclosure about their personal lives. I loved Debo’s voice, I loved her generous, wise, grateful and matter of fact outlook on life, and her wonderfully funny anecdotes of her friendships with some of the most interesting people to grace the 20th century. She comes across as a thoroughly lovely woman, devoted to her family, friends, staff, and land, and her simple goodness has never been touched or changed by the privilege she has humbly enjoyed for so many years. It was refreshing to read, and a delight from start to finish. Highly recommended!

Also, I totally forgot to announce the winner of Life in Miniature from weeks ago, sorry – Mystica, congratulations! Please email me with your address!

Bonjour, Montreal

Over Easter weekend a friend and I decided to take ourselves away for a relaxing weekend. We were talking idly a couple of weeks ago about places we’d like to visit, and I mentioned, flippantly, Montreal. Suddenly we looked at each other and both said ‘Why not?!’ – a bit of web searching later and we had a hotel room and two seats on a coach booked. At midnight on Thursday we set off on the Greyhound, and eight hours later we arrived in sunny Montreal, which could have been a world away. The skies were blue, everything was in French, and there was not a single skyscraper in sight. As we walked from the bus stop, surrounded by churches and ornate stone buildings, we were astounded at how peaceful and quiet the city was. We couldn’t wait to explore!

We climbed to the top of Mont Royal, after walking through the beautiful campus of McGill University, and basked in the warm sunshine as we took in the breathtaking views of the city. A mixture of historic cobbled streets lined with higgedly piggedly 18th and 19th century buildings, turn of the century and art deco office blocks, impressive churches and more recent, mid century modern concrete structures, Montreal is a very European city, and not one I had ever expected to find in North America. As we wandered through the beautiful parkland, and through the city’s lovely squares with cafe tables spilling out onto the pavements, we really felt like we’d boarded a plane to the Continent rather than a bus across the Canadian border.

Star features of Montreal for me were Notre Dame Basilica and the McCord Museum. Notre Dame Basilica is the most stunning church I have ever stepped inside, and I’ve been to a lot of churches in my time. As you enter, you are confronted by a cacophony of beautiful stained glass, painted frescoes, stone and wood carvings, and lofty architecture, and the combined effect is truly breathtaking. As it was Easter Sunday, the church was positively festooned with fresh, colourful, fragrant flowers, and coupled with the skillful backlighting of the altar and the hundreds of flickering candles that lined the aisles, it was a real feast for the senses and an experience I shall not soon forget. The McCord Museum tells the history of Montreal and the province of Quebec, and it’s a fantastic Museum that has impressively curated displays filled with a variety of interesting objects that paint a wide canvas of stories, giving a broad overview of life in this part of the world. I particularly loved the sections that showed how French and European architecture, culinary favourites and cultural traditions were adapted by French Canadians to fit the much colder climate they lived in, and it was so interesting to see how they tackled the problem of living in a city where snow and extremely cold temperatures are a fact of life for almost half the year. The underwear 19th century women wore to keep warm under their dresses was an especial eye opener – scratchy woolen bloomers, anyone?!

Montreal is certainly a fascinating and diverse city. From the rural French village feel of the old town and port area and the luxurious Victorian and Edwardian houses along the edge of Mont Royal and scattered throughout the McGill university campus, to the magnificent Biosphere on Ile de Helene, and the modern sprawling complex of underground malls that enable Montrealers to get through the harsh winters without spending too much time outside, it is a place of contrasts, contradictions and surprises. In some parts of the city, I could easily forget I was in Canada; in others, I knew I couldn’t possibly be anywhere else. The culinary offerings are distinctly North American; poutine, which I didn’t try, would never fly in France; and the Montreal version of the bagel, which was sweet, dense, and delicious, and can be bought here, would not be preferred over a baguette, I am sure. However, you can sit and eat omelette and ratatouille in the old town, devour bœuf bourguignon and steak frites in any number of traditional bistros, and gorge on waffles with fresh maple butter in the main square. The food was delicious, and I had a wonderful time deviating from my usual New York diet of burgers and pizza!

All in all, it was a wonderful weekend in a wonderful city. I’m not sure if I feel the need to go back, but I’d certainly like to explore more of Quebec; perhaps Quebec City will be seeing my face sometime soon!

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Many people have told me how good Brooklyn is, and that I should read it, as the theme of a girl moving to America by herself has many a similarity to my own recent experience. As such, I have kept it on my radar, but it was only when my good friend who hasn’t read a book in a year waxed lyrical about it last week and lent me her copy that I thought I should probably read it asap, as it really does take something truly special to make her sing a book’s praises! I plunged into the pages of Brooklyn during a dull bus trip to Washington D.C., and I was surprised by how drawn in I was. It’s not a spectacularly written, literary novel; there are no striking turns of phrase, no lyrical passages of prose that leave you breathless. However, it is an engaging tale of a young girl who rises above the circumstances of her impoverished childhood in a dingy back street of a nondescript postwar Irish town to seek a new life in the bright lights of Brooklyn, and the twists and turns that greet her on her path to independence. Read straight after The Group, it raised many similar points about choices and disappointments and disillusionments as the teen years merge into the twenties, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Eilis (pronounced AY-lish to those of you not used to Irish names!) Lacey lives with her widowed mother and older sister in 1950’s Ireland, in the bustling village of Enniscorthy, where everyone knows everybody’s business and the same families have lived in the same houses for generations. As cosy and comfortable as Enniscorthy is, there are few opportunities to ‘get on’ in life, and no work for girls like Eilis. Eilis’ brothers have already left for England, where jobs are more widely available, and thirty something spinster Rose largely supports the family through her wages. Eilis is clever, and is studying to be a bookkeeper alongside working in the local grocery shop. Her world is small, but she has friends and family and dances on a Saturday to keep her busy, and the thought of leaving little Enniscorthy never crosses her mind. Rose, however, has other ideas. She arranges for a family friend, Father Flood, who has already emigrated to Brooklyn and has a flourishing parish there, to find Eilis work in America, and give her the chance for a more colourful life. Eilis doesn’t really get a say in the decision; Rose and her mother have already decided for her, and before she gets a moment to catch her breath, she is on the boat to America, set for a new start, miles from anyone and everything she knows.

In Brooklyn, Eilis moves into a boarding house run by the rather difficult Mrs Kehoe, and populated with an assortment of Irish and Italian-American girls. She starts work at a department store on bustling Fulton Street, and kind Father Flood arranges for her to take evening classes at the local college so that she can complete her accounting exams. Brooklyn, despite being filled with Irish immigrants, is a completely alien environment to Eilis, and she struggles at first with terrible homesickness and culture shock. Her life, split between the shop and college and her dingy bedroom at the boarding house, is not the glamorous, exciting existence America promised to be. It is only when she meets Tony, a charming Italian-American boy, at a dance that colour seems to come into her life, and as she gets on with her classes and gets noticed at work, and more and more opportunities for growth and change come her way, Brooklyn becomes the land of promise Eilis was told it would be, and Ireland seems years away. However, shocking and tragic news from home shake Eilis’ new foundations, and she has to make the decision of whether to go back or stay. Torn between her new and old lives, Eilis will face the difficulty of choosing which life she wants; one of familiarity and ease, or one of challenge and opportunity. Most troubling is that both can bring her happiness, in their own ways, and realizing that there is not one way forward, that life is not black and white, and that she has to take responsibility for her own future, will be the making of her.

Eilis’ experiences in Brooklyn were fascinating to read about. The ethnic tension between immigrant communities and negroes, still segregated, was touched upon, and gave an interesting context to the Brooklyn I know today. I laughed knowingly at the description of Eilis’ struggle to cope with the brutal New York winter compared to the more temperate winters in Western Europe; how well I know those icy winds that make you feel you’ll never be warm again! Most touching for me, though, were the descriptions of Eilis’ feelings of homesickness and guilt at leaving her mother and her sister behind. I could fully appreciate her moments of feeling terribly lonely and miserable, and wondering why on earth she had come so far from home. Missing the sound of people’s voices, missing the feel of my nephews, heavy with sleep, in my arms, missing nights out with my friends, long chats with my mum and sister over a cup of tea – simple things, but painful nonetheless.  No matter how exciting pastures new may be, looking back at what you have left behind makes you appreciate things you never bothered to notice before, making you feel guilty that you didn’t make the most of them when they were at your fingertips.

Eilis’ confusion about who she is and what she wants and where she belongs was also very poignant. As my time in New York comes to an end and I must face going ‘home’, to a place that isn’t really home any more, I feel just as she did as she contemplated returning to Ireland. I miss the people I love in England, and I miss London, and I miss being at home in a culture that is unthinkingly a part of my very being, but when I think that the lights of New York won’t be surrounding me anymore, that the wonderful friends I have made here won’t be a subway ride away, that the energy and the passion and the sheer oddity of New Yorkers will no longer be a part of the rhythm of my life, I recoil in terror at the very idea of having to leave all of this behind. Unlike Eilis, I don’t have a choice of where to make my life; I have a year’s visa and after that I have to go back to England, but I know what it feels to like to be torn between two places and to know you could have an equally good life in both, but a type of good life that would be worlds apart from the other. Which to choose? Which way to go? It’s a conundrum indeed.

Brooklyn is not a superb novel; there is much more that I felt Colm Toibin could have done with it, and the simplicity of its prose was not anywhere near as skilful in its sparseness as, say, Richard Yates’. I read no genius in this slim volume, but I did read a lot of heartfelt wisdom, touching portrayals of the sacrifices people make for those they love (reading about Rose’s life will make you cry), and a very realistic depiction of the emigrant’s plight, and for that, as well as the gentle, ordinary character of Eilis, I would recommend it highly.

Cherry Blossom, President Spotting, and Me

Oh, Washington D.C.! Why did nobody tell me you were so beautiful?!

The streets are filled with beautiful Victorian houses, painted in pretty pastel shades and topped with lacy gingerbread woodwork and elegant turrets.

The roads are lined with trees, laden with fantastically fragrant cherry blossom. Stately marble columned buildings sit on manicured lawns. Wide rivers provide a stunning vista across to the neighbouring states. Running through the centre is the most amazing surprise; a forest that could be in the middle of the English countryside, dense with greenery and a genuine haven from city life.

I went to Washington for the weekend to visit my dear friend Emily. She took me for walks through gorgeous neighbourhoods, shopping in the very Hampstead-like Georgetown, and to the bookshops in Dupont Circle. We went to see if we could spot the President on the White House balcony. I visited the Lincoln Memorial; something I have wanted to see for years. I had the best french toast and chai tea ever at Teaism, amazingly fluffy blueberry pancakes at Open City, and a delicious jerk chicken and mango salad at Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe. The air was heavy with the scent of cherry blossom, and the sun shone down and gave a beautiful glow to the historic buildings.

Washington was relaxing, balmy and a world away from the hustle and bustle of New York. I felt like I was visiting a small town in Europe, not the seat of the American government. The openness, architectural beauty and semi rural quality of this city left me in raptures. By the end of the weekend, I couldn’t take in any more; it was all just too, too lovely. I’ll be back, soon.

The Group by Mary McCarthy

What a fantastic book this is. Ignore the somewhat chick lit cover and the reference to a preface by none other than Sex and the City creator Candace Bushnell, and proceed straight to the action, because what is found there is superb, eye opening, and an excellent account of the lifestyles and choices available to educated women in the 1930′s. I was riveted from page one, and so packed with insight is this novel that I could not bear to put it down. Preconceptions I had had about this era about the lives of women; about the things they would surely have been ignorant of, of the choices they did and didn’t have, of their sexual freedoms, of their relationships and working lives, were all shattered in an instant. These were the women Betty Friedan was writing about in The Feminine Mystique; intelligent, well educated, politically and culturally engaged, ambitious, passionate; struggling to reconcile their desires for independence with the expectations of husbands and parents and children, realising too late that their education had prepared them, largely, for nothing more exceptional than a life that would, by and large, revolve around the mundane activities of running a home.

‘The Group’ are six girls from largely well to do backgrounds, who met as students at upmarket Vassar College. As the book opens, they have just graduated and are set for exciting futures. Well educated, attractive and ambitious, they appear to have the world at their feet. They are independent, but are not  against marriage and motherhood. In fact, Kay, one of the most ambitious of the girls, is the first to marry, straight upon graduation, to a man she idolizes. After graduation all of the girls move to New York, apart from Lakey, the glamorous, wealthy leader of the Group, who flees to Europe.  In New York, the girls are wonderfully ordinary; they have jobs and little apartments, they have casual sex and worry about contraception, they go on dates, they meet each other for lunch and dinner and walks, they worry about having the right clothes and when they’ll have time to get to the supermarket, and they struggle with budgeting and competitiveness and inferiority.

As they get older and start to marry off and have babies, they have to deal with the erosion of their selfhood, the expectations of their husbands, the demands of their children, the demands of their friends, and the demands of their own ambitions. Priss, the first to have a baby, is bullied by her husband into breastfeeding her baby, and bullied by her mother to bottle feed; she is always in agonies over whether she is doing the right thing, is completely subordinate to her husband, and she worries that she has lost herself in creating another human being. Kay’s husband is serially unfaithful and her marriage is a sham, but she is unable to imagine herself outside of a relationship that she has allowed to define her, and apart from a husband whose ambition she has allowed to become her own. The girls who choose to remain single must navigate often disappointing and heartbreaking relationships, shattering their mother’s romantic tales of courtship and chastity. Throughout their twenties, the girls of The Group, who all started from such similar points, are all navigating very different paths for themselves. Some will be more successful than others and some will find more fulfillment than others, but all will ultimately discover that life is not the oyster they had been led to imagine, and that the compromises, struggles and difficulties of being a woman in a man’s world are nigh impossible to conquer, even with a degree from Vassar in your front pocket.

What struck me most strongly about this book is that the girls’ lives felt so current. I could hardly believe that they were living in a New York eighty years’ previous to my own. Libby, the career girl, works all hours of the night and day to get ahead in publishing; Polly trudges home to her apartment on First Avenue after long days at her unfulfilling job, taking a detour so she can get food for dinner; Dottie has a one night stand and goes to sort out her contraceptive options (this bit is very informative, ladies!); Kay hosts parties in her apartment for a glamorous crowd and argues in the kitchen with her husband; Priss takes her baby for walks in Central Park and is embarrassed by her inability to potty train her son. They have such ordinary, everyday lives, and I recognized much of my own life in theirs. Something they all have in common is a crippling sense of indecision and uncertainty, constantly worrying over whether they are doing the right things, pursuing the right paths, if their lives will ever change, if they will ever have what they dream of. Married, single, career driven, or just working to pay the bills, the girls all struggle with their own challenges, and none is truly fulfilled in what they do or with what they have. Too intelligent and ambitious to be content with mediocrity, their tragedy is that the world they live in is not equipped to offer them the opportunities they long for, and they realize too late that happiness and fulfillment are not as simple to achieve as they once so naively believed.

This book should be required reading for the twentysomething woman, who thinks she is alone in feeling adrift from the moorings of life. While being in your twenties is wonderful in many ways –  the sense of  liberation after having been under the control of parents and teachers for so many years is exhilarating, of course – it is, at the same time, a terribly difficult, confusing and often lonely time, full of disillusionment, disappointment, heartache and struggle. Work isn’t the fantastically fulfilling, exciting environment you think it will be. The job you want requires 10 years’ worth of experience, so in the meantime, you’re making the tea and have to look like you’re enjoying it. The only flat you can afford to rent leaks every time it rains and is surrounded by drug dealers at night. You’re so tired all the time that your major relationship in life becomes the one you have with your television. Your mum still tells you what to do, you still never have any money, and it seems like the life you dreamed of will never happen. At the same time, all of your friends are more successful than you, you’re starting to get wrinkles, and you realize just how much time you spend doing pointless things like washing up, which, if you think about it too much, becomes depressing. Not to mention that throughout all of this anxiety and stress, you still feel 12 inside and totally incapable of handling anything life throws at you. It’s enough to make anyone feel depressed, and it’s fascinating to think that women in the 1930’s felt exactly the same way. Too much choice, too much possibility, can be disabling, and it’s not the modern disease women’s magazines would have you think.

The Group is a remarkable, and timeless, depiction of the woman’s struggle to be everything to everyone, to modify her dreams to suit the needs of husband and children, to compete with other women, to work out who she is, separate from her obligations to others. It isn’t an indictment of the limited opportunities available to women; the girls actually have very full and varied lives, and those who marry and stay at home with children openly choose to. However, the girls do struggle with domestic violence and discrimination, and the way they are expected to submit to their husbands and put up with marital infidelity is eye opening. These sections still feel very current; controlling men and managers unwilling to hire women of child rearing age are sadly very much part of life today, and anyone who believes that women have equality in 2011 is sorely mistaken. Overall, McCarthy demonstrates just how difficult it is to reconcile real life with the dreams and ambitions women have, and how important female solidarity is in helping to weather the storms that hit twentysomethings unequipped to deal with the pressures and blows of adult life.  It is real, searingly honest, and incredibly powerful. I’ll be giving it to all of my friends.