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Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik

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The beautiful, Ravilious-style cover of this debut novel is what initially compelled me to pick it up when I saw it sitting on the shelf in Daunt Books. From the illustration, it looked just my cup of tea; rural setting, vaguely middlebrow in tone  – and when I read the blurb, about two women coming together in unusual circumstances to work on a farm during WWII, I was sold. Last week I read it in two sittings, devouring the unfussily lyrical prose, and finding myself utterly absorbed in the world of Elsie Boston and Rene Hargreaves, two unconventional women brought together by the chaos of war and somehow finding within each other the peace that had eluded them all their lives.

Elsie Boston has been left alone to run the family farm, Starlight, after her large family of brothers and sisters has disbanded. Her sisters have gone to live in towns and cities, stultified by the boredom of country life, and her brothers are dead, killed in the first war. An odd fish, uncomfortable in the company of others and unsure how to relate to them, Elsie is considered an eccentric by her neighbours, and largely left to herself. However, the farm is large and help hard to find with a war on, and so pushed to act against her will by sheer necessity, she applies for a Land Girl to come and live with her. Widow Rene Hargreaves signs up to be a Land Girl for a chance to escape her life in Manchester. When she arrives at Starlight, she throws herself into the work on the land, and quickly makes friends in the village with her warm, open and friendly manner. Rene seems to have a way with Elsie, unlocking her from her prison of shyness, and the women quickly form a deep friendship built upon a seemingly innate understanding of the other. They settle into a comfortable domestic routine, relishing their days working in harmony with one another on Elsie’s beloved land, and their cosy evenings listening to plays on the wireless. The war raging in the world outside seems too far away to touch them, and for a while, their friendship seems to have woven a protection about them, giving both the peace and satisfaction they were unknowingly searching for. However, in the background, storm clouds are brewing. Rene is not all she says she is; the past she has left behind in Manchester is far more complex than she had led Elsie to suspect. And a neighbour, keen to take revenge on Elsie for spurning his advances, is looking to get his hands on Starlight and push Elsie and Rene off the land altogether.

I won’t say any more about the plot for fear of ruining it, as there is a surprising twist half way through, but this is a truly wonderful novel that is unexpected in so many ways. There is much left unsaid, and unexplored; glimpses are given of the women’s pasts and their relationship with one another that can be interpreted as the reader wishes. Were Elsie and Rene lovers, or was their contentment grounded in the satisfaction of a deep platonic bond? There is plenty of evidence for both readings, and it is up to us to decide what we feel best fits their characters. The period details are marvellous, and the depictions of countryside life and the characters found there are beautifully and realistically drawn. It is a thoughtful, intriguing and unusual tale of two women who fought against social and moral expectations to live a life that gave them the fulfilment their hearts longed for, carrying the weight of guilt, sorrow and blame along with them as they navigated a path through the barriers that stood in their way. What makes it even more powerful is the knowledge that Rachel Malik based this tale on the story of her own grandmother’s life, which can be read here (warning – this article does provide plot spoilers). It makes you wonder how many more extraordinary stories there are, hidden within families, buried beneath layers of shame and embarrassment. A few newspaper clippings and a clutch of certificates can hint at so much, and yet still tell so little. It’s made me want to go digging into my own family history once more, and I already want to read this remarkable novel all over again. I can’t wait to see what Rachel Malik will write next!

On being wrong

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Eating humble pie is not something I enjoy doing, but when I’m wrong, I’m willing to admit it. As an English teacher, one of the aspects of my job that I enjoy the most is the opportunity to reread texts and look at them from fresh perspectives as I prepare to teach them to my students. It’s vital that I can put my own personal opinions aside and present the novel as a blank canvas where any interpretations can be valid; I can illuminate the text and offer suggestions, but I strive to never influence students with my own reading of the characters or authors’ intentions. So, when I am reading with a mind to teaching, I force myself to read more carefully, more considerately, more thoughtfully. I immerse myself in the context of the novel’s period, to place the character’s actions and thoughts within the norms of their time. I refrain from judgement and strive to be dispassionate. And when I do that, I start to see things differently than I did before, and the text comes alive in whole new ways.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been rereading Mansfield Park. I have to teach it to my GCSE class next year, and initially, I wasn’t happy about it. As some of you may remember from when I reread it a few years ago, Mansfield Park has always been my least favourite Austen. When I first read it, I couldn’t understand how Jane Austen could have written such an insipid heroine when she had created so many fabulous ones in her other novels. Where was the wit, the sparkiness, the sass? Where was the striding across muddy fields, the arch looks, the independence of spirit? Fanny Price was just pathetic, Edmund Bertram the least romantic hero ever, and Mary and Henry Crawford, who were clearly supposed to be unlikeable, were the best characters in the novel. As well written as Mansfield Park is, I thought it was deeply unsatisfying on many levels, and definitely not a book I could ever love as I do Austen’s others. I knew all of the context, I understood Fanny’s position as a poor dependent, I could see objectively why Fanny was the way she was, but I just couldn’t care less. And, as I knew I wasn’t alone – there have been actual Fanny wars fought (this actually exists! Though it sounds hilariously naughty to an English ear) – I felt totally justified in my negative opinion. Everyone hated Mansfield Park, so I didn’t need to try and like it. That is, until I needed to prepare it to teach.

Well. What a different book I found! Mansfield Park is the poster child for critics countering the claims that Austen ‘merely’ wrote domestic novels (because obviously what happens in the domestic interior is of no importance at all), as the characters live on the proceeds of slavery; Sir Thomas Bertram owns a plantation in Antigua. The luxurious life in the ‘modern’ built mansion of Mansfield Park is only possible thanks to slave labour, and with slavery forming the background of the novel, the fact that the Bertrams have a niece living in the battered former schoolroom in the attics who is told that she needs to remember ‘who and what she is’ at all times makes for uncomfortable reading. As I began to consider that Fanny is, to all intents and purposes, a slave in the Bertram household, I started to see her entirely differently. While not treated unkindly, she is subject to the whims of all around her, and has no control over her own life. She cannot ask for anything, cannot complain, cannot refuse. She is enslaved by the need to show perpetual humility and gratitude, forever aware of the fact that she is only at Mansfield Park thanks to the kindness of her uncle and can quite easily be returned from whence she came should she prove herself to be in any way undesirable, or undeserving. How can she be spunky and sparky and cutting and witty when she has no right to anything or anybody and lives in a house where she has no certainty of being able to remain? How on earth could I have expected her to be anything but meek, and how could I not have recognised her bravery in standing up for herself when pressed to do things against her conscience, knowing that in doing so she risked everything that she held dear? And goodness me – how on earth did I think Mary and Henry Crawford were so wonderful? They are utterly shallow, insensitive, cruel, mercenary – they might be funny and independent and utterly outré, but they are all of those things to the detriment of those around them. They are horrible people. Horrible. The scales have fallen from my eyes.

I am not backing down when it comes to Edmund Bertram – I still think he is totally useless – but I can forgive Austen that. What I can’t do is forgive myself for having been such a blinkered reader. In looking for something in this novel that Austen never wrote into it, I missed its point entirely. Mansfield Park isn’t like Austen’s other novels, but that doesn’t make it any the worse for it. This is a fascinating novel, so rich and complex, so well written and so fantastically characterised. Two hundred years old, its characters and their emotions and motivations still ring absolutely true to a modern day audience. Edmund Bertram’s total inability to see Mary Crawford for who she really is is a brilliant depiction of how blind love can be. Henry Crawford’s callous delight in making women love him, only to blithely discard them when he is bored, is a perfect portrait of narcissism. It’s going to be so much fun to teach this book, bringing the characters and their world alive for my students. I can’t wait to see what they make of it.

So, readers, I was wrong, and I am glad to have been so. This experience has reminded me of what is so amazing about the written word; come at it on a different day, at a different time of life, in a different mood, and you can see something entirely different in the exact same letters that left you cold before. I’m now considering where else I could have gone so spectacularly wrong in my past reading…I feel there’s got to be a lot of literary humble pie out there for me to eat, as there are many classics I’ve hated…Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, War and Peace, Wuthering Heights…the list is endless!

p.s. In preparation for teaching Austen, I’ve been reading a lot about her, as well as her novels, and I very much enjoyed Lucy Worsley’s new biography, Jane Austen at Home, which was an informative as well as entertaining read, with a particular focus on Austen’s relationships with her domestic environments. I highly recommend it!

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

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It’s always rather galling when you come across a book that’s exactly the sort of thing you wish you had written yourself. Victorian people who enjoy learning about all of the scientific advances of their age, and spend their time collecting botanical specimens and travelling to exotic, uncivilised climes are definitely Victorian people I want to spend time with, and Gilbert’s huge, sweeping and incredibly ambitious novel certainly had me wishing this was a research project I’d had my teeth stuck into. A fictional tale with enough reference to non fiction to make it feel like I was reading about a living, breathing person, it tells the story of Alma Whittaker, born in Philadelphia in 1820 to a wealthy English botanical importer and his intensely practical, phenomenally intelligent Dutch wife Beatrice. Her father being one of the richest men in America, Alma grows up surrounded by wealth and luxury, but she is no pampered miss. Her mother’s love of intellect and reason ensures that Alma grows up with the most excellent of educations, and she is fluent in several languages, conversant in all of the latest scientific theories, and an expert in botany before she even reaches two figures. For a child who loves nothing more than books and the natural world, Alma’s life could not be more perfect. That is until one night a tragedy occurs on the family estate, and a beautiful little orphaned girl, exactly Alma’s age, suddenly becomes her sister when her parents decide to take her in.

Alma and Prudence, brought up by the emotionally cold Beatrice, their minds focused solely on developing knowledge and reason, have no understanding of how to become sisters, or to make friends. Despite being the daughters of a colossally wealthy man, they are not considered a good catch due to their odd ways, and their world becomes increasingly closeted as they reach marriageable age. Alma, sexually awakened thanks to the discovery of a pornographic book in her father’s library, quivers with sexual desire and longs to marry, but her plainness and terrifying intellect have created a formidable barrier to such emotional fulfilment. She watches as her unfathomable, seemingly emotionless sister inexplicably marries their former tutor, and then her only friend marries the man she has loved from afar for some years, leaving her alone and responsible for the running of her father’s business after the sudden death of her mother. However, Alma, ever rational, does not fall into despair at this disappointment; suppressing her sexuality, she devotes herself to her botanical work, determining on becoming the world’s foremost expert on mosses. She achieves much success at this, and derives great pleasure from it, but when love comes to her once again, much later in life, she finds that suddenly all else pales in comparison, and her emotions will lead her to travel paths she could never have otherwise imagined in the pursuit of trying to understand that most unanswerable of natural mysteries: the vagaries of the human heart.

The Signature of All Things is a fascinating, enormously wide ranging novel, taking in all manner of topics, from natural history to slavery, to the position of women and colonialisation. It is an incredibly ambitious attempt to encompass the nineteenth century spirit, and while it is by no means perfect, and could have done with a little more editing, it is a fantastic story with some brilliant characters, and looks at the nineteenth century from a far different perspective to any other historical novel I’ve read. Alma is a wonderful central force whose struggle to find a place for herself in a world that has not given her what her heart desires is incredibly moving but also very inspiring, and she leaps to life from the pages. I have to say that initially I had low expectations, considering that I had only known Gilbert’s name from her Eat, Pray, Love fame, but she is far more than just a new-age memoir writer, and I would recommend this to anyone who wants to be entirely transported elsewhere for a few days. I was quite bereft when I finished, and have a list as long as my arm of places and people and topics I now want to research – nineteenth century female botanists are about to become my new obsession!

Fancy reading some of my fiction?

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I’ve been toying with putting some of my fiction on here for a while, but I’ve been quite nervous about it for a number of reasons. However, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that the benefits of having the opportunity to share and discuss my writing with people will surely outweigh the negatives, so I’ve decided to take the plunge. As anyone who writes will know, there’s always an element of fear involved in sharing your work. It’s hard to open an intensely private part of yourself up to the public eye and risk criticism and rejection. However, I write because I love telling stories, and rather than forever keeping my writing hidden away on my computer, I do want to share it with people. I’m not part of a writing group and I would love the opportunity to have conversations about my writing and how I could make it better. So, I’m hoping that by posting some of what I’m writing on here, I will be able to learn and develop by hearing what people honestly think of my stuff.

So. If you fancy seeing what I’m working on, you can find it under a new tab at the top of the blog – ‘My Writing’. I’ve posted the first three chapters of a book I recently finished writing, and any feedback – positive or negative! – would be very gratefully received.

Long Live Great Bardfield by Tirzah Garwood

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Tirzah Garwood was the wife of the mid century artist Eric Ravilious, whose work has been enjoying a much-deserved renaissance in recent years. The air of tragedy about him, lost in his prime over the Icelandic sea while working as a war artist, has only added to the appeal of his romantic, unsettling, marvellously modern watercolours, largely of the rural English landscape. However, behind every great man is an even greater woman, as the saying goes, and Tirzah Garwood is no exception. A highly talented artist in her own right, her ability to pursue her work during the years of her marriage to Eric was stymied by childrearing and illness, and so she has not received the lasting recognition she deserves. Hopefully, the reprinting of her autobiography, and recent renewed interest in her woodcuts, will change this. Her lively, vibrant voice and passionate interest in art and creativity sing out from this marvellous book, that chronicles not only the life of an artist and her friends, but that of an ordinary woman struggling to carve out a life for herself amidst the everyday drudgery of childcare and housework. For as much as the Ravilious’ life was glamorous and bohemian, surrounded as they were by illustrious friends and well-connected relatives, it was also beset by the banal concerns of all of our lives, from eccentric landladies to frozen pipes, broken heating to unwelcome guests. It is these observations of the ordinary that make this book so special; not the accounts of what such and such a famous person said or looked like, but how Tirzah coped with the many and various challenges her life threw at her, while still managing to maintain a sense of joy, wonder and impressive acceptance of the world she lived in.

Great Bardfield, in the depths of rural Essex, was the village where the young Raviliouses, alongside many of their artist friends such as Edward Bawden, lived for several years in the 1930s and 40s. They shared homes, lives and even partners, and the village itself seems to have been home to a great deal of eccentric types who provided plenty of colour to what was often a hard existence. Anyone who fantasises about English country life should read this book to understand the reality of what living in unheated, unmodernised houses in the middle of nowhere was really like; there is very little romance in the drudgery of hauling buckets of water up several flights of stairs, wading through muddy lanes to get to a shop, and wearing fifty cardigans to keep warm in a house so cold you can see your own breath. There was much to entertain, too, of course; parties at the local manor, bonfire night celebrations, countryside rambles, picnics and endless sources of gossip, alongside the constant stream of new artist friends joining what swiftly became a close community of creative types who seemed to have few qualms about falling in love with each others’ partners. One of the most surprising things about this memoir is just how relaxed and open Tirzah was with discussing her sexuality and her feelings. She and Eric were openly unfaithful in a marriage that was much more complex and tumultuous than I had realised, and the requited and unrequited love affairs they had amongst their circle of neighbours and friends caused troublesome fractures of friendships that clearly preoccupied much of Tirzah’s energies during her time in Great Bardfield.

Tirzah did not intend for this to be read by anyone but her family, but it is a valuable and precious account of pre-war life that offers a fascinating insight into both an artistic life and the life of a woman brought up in the Edwardian era. So much of history deals in stereotypes and generalisations, and the impression we are given of women of this time always seems to place them at an impossible distance from our own existence. However, Tirzah paints a portrait of a thoroughly modern woman, living with thoroughly modern people, whose lives were just as complex as our own and certainly not ruled by the strict social standards historians seem to want to place pre-war life within. Tirzah’s approach to life was impressively reasonable, fair, refreshing; she loved freely and forgave freely, and never begrudged others for their failures. She did not have an easy life; Eric’s early death was devastating, as was her own protracted battle with the cancer that would eventually kill her, leaving her unable to see her children grow up, but she faced it with an irrepressible curiosity, fearlessness and zest that made me wish I had known her. This is a marvellous book, that is so much more than a glimpse into the world of the Great Bardfield circle of artists, and even if you know nothing – or care to know nothing – about them, it is worth reading for Tirzah’s generous, lively and wonderfully honest depiction of a woman’s life in the pre and post war era alone. I can’t recommend it highly enough.