Books of 2020

If anything good can be said to have come out of 2020, it’s that I had more time to read. I made a concerted effort to read from my own shelves last year (though I did still buy and read plenty of new books, in the end – but when the only pleasure I was seemingly allowed for much of the year was going to a book shop, how could this have been helped?!), which has meant I’ve got around to reading a lot of stuff I’ve had knocking about for years. Some of these books I loved, some I didn’t, but either way, I enjoyed the experience of exploring my shelves, discovering new authors, and feeling the weight of guilt lift ever so slightly off my shoulders as I no longer had to look at shelf after shelf of unread books. I did have ambitious plans of reading literally all of my unread books, but obviously this was a laughable goal and very much did not happen. I did however make it through to L in the alphabet, which is pretty much half way, so not bad. I plan on continuing this project into 2021 – I’m scaling back on the new book buying (largely as I have run out of space, again) and really want to get through to the end of the alphabet. I’d also like to make more time for re-reading – I’m particularly hankering after revisiting all of my Dorothy Whipples.

So, what were my top 10 reads of 2020? Here goes (in order of reading, not rank order), and I hope they’ll give you some reading inspiration!

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

This is an absolutely fascinating exploration of the Jack the Ripper murders, taking a fresh look at such well-trodden ground by focusing on the lives of the female victims rather than their deaths or the possible identity of their murderer. By repositioning our gaze onto the women as people, and not as corpses, Rubenhold not only gives them back some dignity, but also produces a wonderful and absorbing piece of social history. Working class women’s lives are so little recorded in the history books; even if you have no interest in the Jack the Ripper story, this is worth reading for the many insights into nineteenth century working class women’s experiences alone.

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

This is the book I’ve been lending out and buying for everyone I know this year. As I turned each page, my anger grew. Criado Perez’s forensic analysis of how the world is set up to favour men and discriminate against women, from minor annoyances (did you know that mobile phones are designed to fit the span of male hands, which is why so many women struggle to hold them comfortably?), to the downright dangerous (women and pregnant women are routinely excluded from medical trials, with men’s bodies used as a default, despite our numerous biological differences), is absorbingly written, factually sound, and scrupulously fair in its ability to understand and explain why these differences exist, rather than seeking to blame. If you need to prove to anyone who doesn’t want to listen that inequality is embedded into every area of our existence – then pass this book on. The more people who read it and make a fuss, the better!

Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts

This was the last book I bought before we went into lockdown, and it’s what got me through those difficult first few weeks. Sophy Roberts is a remarkable woman, who carried out several journeys into the incredibly inhospitable Siberian landscape to search out the stories behind – and find the remnants of – the pianos brought to this region over the last couple of hundred years. Used by the Tsars and then the Communists as a penal colony, sparsely populated and seemingly on the edge of the universe, one would be forgiven for thinking that there couldn’t possibly have been any musical or cultural life in Siberia to discover. But you would be very wrong, as this wonderful book demonstrates. On her travels, Roberts is welcomed into so many homes and institutions by people desperate to tell the stories of pianos once loved, and through their tales of Siberian life, she – and we – learn so much about what music has meant, and still does mean, to Siberians. I loved every minute – how could I not love a book that combines two of my passions – pianos and Russian history – and it left me desperate to go and sledge my way across Siberia myself. Highly, highly recommended!

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

A work of total genius that had me weeping like a child at the end; a heartbreaking finale to what has been a remarkable series of books. If you’re not a Mantel fan, I know I won’t convince you otherwise, but if you’ve never started the Wolf Hall trilogy, and need distracting from the world and its weariness right now, then get stuck in now and thank me later!

The Sea Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I very much enjoyed discovering Elizabeth Jane Howard’s back catalogue this year, and this is the best of the bunch I read; a lyrical, evocative account of a very complicated love triangle set in 1960s New York, London and Greece, it’s worth reading for being transported so fully to another world alone, though the characterisation is also marvellous. I loved it!

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

I’d had this forlornly sitting on my shelf for years, and wasn’t really sure why I’d ever bought it when I picked it up to read. What a pleasant surprise I discovered inside, when I realised how hilarious Isherwood is, and what a wonderful, perceptive and economical writer – with a fantastic ear for dialogue. Set in Berlin in the days leading up to Hitler’s rise to power, the menace in the air makes the city throb with nervous expectation, and British expat William Bradshaw finds his life taking a very strange turn when he bumps into fellow countryman Mr Norris on the train, who, as it turns out, isn’t quite the gentleman he seems…

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

I’d dismissed this Booker Prize winner as not being my cup of tea, until I gave it a go on a friend’s recommendation and found it utterly absorbing. An exploration of the interweaving lives of various different black women living in London across the decades of the mid 20th century to the present day, Evaristo creates a patchwork of vivid voices that opened my eyes to so many different female experiences outside of my own. There is so much richness in here, and it is so well written – it was definitely my fiction discovery of the year.

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

I fell in love with Gloria Steinem after reading her wonderfully warm, generous and wise autobiography, in which she tells of the many lessons she has learned in her decades of travelling across the US to support women fighting for change within their communities. She tells of her childhood, of her experiences struggling to make a name for herself as a journalist in a male-dominated industry, of the many enriching friendships she has made throughout her life with inspiring women – and men – and of her discovery that her power is not in speaking, but in listening – because when people feel heard, that’s when they feel empowered. I’ve since gone on to read everything I can get my hands on by Steinem – she’s my heroine.

Summer by Ali Smith

I’d heard of the Ali Smith seasonal novels, but hadn’t given any of them a go until I saw the newly released Summer in a book shop in Scotland this summer. Written and published so quickly that it references the coronavirus pandemic, I felt strangely drawn to it despite knowing nothing about its contents. I devoured it over a couple of days, finding in this tale of interconnected modern lives, a voice that reflected my own thoughts and feelings in a rather uncanny way. When I finished reading, I felt buoyed up, purged, somehow, of my own negative emotions in knowing I was not alone – it was a wonderful experience. Smith is an incredibly clever, innovative writer, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work this year.

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

This is a wonderful account of the lives of five remarkable women who lived in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square during the early part of the nineteenth century: famous novelists Virginia Woolf and Dorothy L Sayers, as well as now largely forgotten historian Eileen Power, classicist Jane Ellen Harrison and poet H.D. Rather than straightforward biography, Wade is interested in looking at what brought them to Mecklenburgh Square at different points in their professional and personal lives, and what living there, at the heart of Bloomsbury, meant to them. It’s an impressive piece of scholarship, though written in a pleasingly accessible way, and I discovered much I didn’t know, and would like to explore further. If you’re interested in women’s history, or the history of Bloomsbury, I know you’d love this.

Merry Christmas!

Here are some photos of the Christmas lights in London to cheer you up and wish a Merry Christmas to you all. I know it will be a strange Christmas for many of us this year, and a lonely one for some, who have been unable to join their families due to travel restrictions or self isolation. I hope that wherever you are, and whoever you’re with, you stay safe, warm and well, and I especially send my love to all of you who are on your own (without wishing to be!). I recommend treating yourself with lots of Golden Age Detective novels, terrible made-for-Netflix Christmas movies, wine, crisps and chocolate, which is how I have been celebrating the season alone at home – I’m sure I’ll regret it in the New Year when I can’t do my trousers up, but right now, I couldn’t care less!

Thank you all for reading and keeping me company during 2020. Here’s hoping 2021 will see a return to normality, and see us all able to enjoy our lives as we wish to do so before long.

Reading from my Shelves: October

Books started: 9

Books finished: 6

Books abandoned: 2

Books kept on the shelf: 6

October was a bumper reading month due to my much-needed two weeks of half term. I spent a wonderful week in Devon, relaxing by the seaside, going on lovely country walks, eating a lot of fish and chips and cake, and generally taking life slowly. It was just what I needed. I then had an equally lovely week at home in London, making the most of my time off to visit museum exhibitions and the cinema. I saw the fascinating Arctic exhibition at the British Museum, which explores the lives of the various Arctic peoples and how they have coped with the challenges of living in such an extreme environment over several hundred years to the present day. Aside from environmental concerns, it is also focused on cultural and religious traditions, the roles of men and women, their relationships with the landscape and the animals they share it with, and how they have adapted to modern living standards and increased interaction with neighbouring, non-tribal communities. I loved watching videos of modern Arctic dwellers, who showed how to perform traditional crafts, how to make clothing from fur and skin, and how to prepare the foodstuffs that have to be so carefully preserved to last them through the winter. I also found it so interesting to see how communities are adapting to changing environmental conditions, but also how they are assimilating elements of more Western, modern culture into their own. It was so lovely to be back in a museum and enjoying learning about something new; I was very lucky to make it into the exhibition before London closed for its second lockdown. I am also very grateful that I went to see the British Library’s new exhibition on the women’s rights movement in the 20th century, entitled Unfinished Business (isn’t it just!), which was brilliant and I will be going back to see again when the Library reopens. It’s so rare to have an exhibition solely focused on women – and wonderful to see so many examples throughout twentieth century history of ordinary women coming together to affect change in their communities as well as on the wider world stage. There was even a small display about the influence of Virago publishing on the women’s movement! I can’t recommend both exhibitions highly enough once these spaces reopen to the public, but they do have fantastic websites and exhibition catalogues should you not be able to make it in person.

On to the books! I spent the first couple of weeks of October slogging my way through On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I’ve been meaning to read this classic of the American Beat generation for years, and as someone with grand ambitions to one day drive across America, I thought I would find it inspiring and evocative. Instead, I found it repetitive, self indulgent, and after a while, just plain boring. I made it three quarters of the way through before deciding life was too short, I had got the gist of it after the first chapter – nothing new really happens after that! – and did I really need to spend any more time than I already have to on a daily basis listening to a man talking endlessly about himself?! No thanks! So on the charity shop pile it went, and I can at least now say with conviction that Jack Kerouac is not for me. However, what it did give me was a renewed longing for the wide open roads, motels and diners of America…oh, how I can’t wait to travel again!

The exciting new publication of the month was Marilynne Robinson’s long-awaited fourth book in the Gilead series, Jack (interesting side note – I thought the UK edition was so ugly I ordered from the US – I wonder if anyone else hates the UK cover as much as I do?!). Focusing on the disgraced son of Reverend Boughton, who we are first introduced to as the wayward prodigal son in the second volume in the series, Home, Jack looks at what happens to him before he slinks back into the family home in the earlier novel. A beautiful, sensitive and incredibly moving portrayal of a damaged, despairing man, who can’t seem to ever do right for doing wrong, and whose life lurches helplessly from one disaster to another, Jack once again reveals Robinson’s wonderful ability to write completely three-dimensional, painfully real characters. Largely told in dialogue between Jack and his lover, Della, an ambitious, intelligent young African American teacher, whose compassion and affection for Jack quickly blossoms into love, the novel explores the slow flowering of their relationship, as Jack learns how to allow himself to be loved. Irrevocably complicated by the ban on interracial relationships in their state, Jack and Della have to cope with Della’s family’s fierce opposition to their relationship, and the very real fear of Della losing her teaching job if they are discovered. Their bravery in sticking together despite the odds against them is a powerful avowal of how perfect love casts out fear, and I devoured every single word of this beautiful paean to the eternal possibility of human redemption.

Another standout read of the month was one of the summer’s new Persephone books, The Oppermanns, by Lion Feuchtwanger. Written in the 1930s, during Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, but before WWII, it is a rare contemporary viewpoint of the horrors of what took place as Hitler gained power, and the ease at which so many Germans were willing to become complicit in these. Told through the story of two generations of the sprawling Oppermann clan, Jewish Berliners who have had a prosperous and well respected family furniture business for several years, it reveals how suddenly and humiliatingly Jewish people were persecuted as Hitler’s party began to dominate German politics. It starts with small, and seemingly insignificant indignities, such as young Berthold’s Nazi teacher’s insistence that he apologise for criticising a legendary German hero in a speech. Indignant, Berthold refuses. The dogged campaign against him by his teacher, determined to prove that this Jewish student is a traitor to the Fatherland, will have horrific consequences, despite his family’s belief that it will all blow over. Gustav, his uncle, thinks that his wealth and status will cushion him from any of the unpleasantness he is hearing is happening to Jews on the streets of Berlin – surely no one would dare to treat him with such disrespect. Soon, to his utter dismay, he will find out the reality of the stories of concentration camps for himself. The family’s prosperous business, their leisured, fulfilling lives, their friendships, romantic partners and trusted associates, will all, in a matter of months, come crumbling down, the price paid for the whole family’s complacency in the face of the horrors that are coming. Feuchtwanger portrays brilliantly how easy it is to think ‘that could never happen here’, until it does, and the here is your country, your city, your house, and it’s too late for you to do anything about it. I was so utterly absorbed in this that the pages flew by; it’s a terribly difficult, challenging and emotionally charged read, that certainly makes for uncomfortable reading in our current, increasingly rightwing political climate. Everyone should read this, and everyone should understand – what happened in the 1930s happened because everyone thought it couldn’t. We must never allow ourselves to become so complacent again.

London’s Notable Women: Helen Gwynne-Vaughan

Dame Helen Gwynne Vaughan by Philip de Laszlo

The second in my series of women honoured with Blue Plaques in London by English Heritage is Helen Gwynne-Vaughan (1879-1967). She was a celebrated botanist and the leader of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Force and later Women’s Royal Air Force during WWI, being made a Dame in 1919 for her extraordinary contribution to the war effort. While it must be acknowledged that Gwynne-Vaughan was born into an aristocratic, wealthy household, and was able to pursue much of her interests due to a good education, financial security and excellent connections, it cannot be denied that she made the most of her opportunities and carried them out with an exceptional level of skill and talent.

Born in London in 1879, Helen had a peripatetic childhood due to her stepfather’s diplomatic career. Educated by governesses and then later at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, she became one of the first female students to study for a degree at King’s College London, where she gained a BSc in Botany and Zoology. She followed this up with a DSc in 1907, while working at the women’s college of the University of London, Royal Holloway, as a research assistant, specialising in fungal reproduction. While she was at Royal Holloway, she became very active in the suffrage movement, co-founding the University of London Suffrage Society with Louisa Garrett Anderson, sister of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. In 1909, aged 30, she became Head of the Botany department at Birkbeck College in London, where she met her future husband, David Gwynne Vaughan, a fellow academic who died of tuberculosis in 1915, after only a very brief four year marriage.

Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan by William Orpen

In 1919, it was decided that due to heavy casualties in France, a women’s batallion needed to be sent out to do some of the ‘back of house’ jobs such as cooking, typing and driving, so that men would be freed up for the front lines. Helen’s family connections to the military, as well as with prominent women suffragists, meant that she was chosen as an ideal candidate to become the leader of this women’s force in France, which would eventually number 10,000 and be named the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, or WAAC. Her leadership skills – honed during her teenage years working in girls’ clubs, bringing working class women into line – proved to be exceptional, and despite some initial scepticism from male military leaders (naturally!), she became so respected for her organisational might that she became the first woman to be awarded a military CBE, and was promoted to head of the Women’s Royal Air Force in 1918. Her further success at this earned her a DBE, making her Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan.

After the war, Helen returned to academic life, becoming the first female Professor at Birkbeck College in 1921. She published widely in her field of mycology, and made Birkbeck a highly respected and popular centre for the study of botany. She also took a keen interest in politics, standing three times as a Conservative candidate in general elections (though she was never elected), and her reputation in military circles continued to be so great that she was asked to lead the ATS – the women’s branch of the army – on the outbreak of WWII, which she did until 1941, when she was delighted to see the success of her campaign to have the women’s branches of the army given full military status, meaning that the women were no longer ‘just’ volunteers and would be paid for their work.

This remarkably talented woman, who was an organisational powerhouse as well as a gifted academic, made huge strides forward for women in two very different fields that were largely dominated by men. She didn’t find this easy; brought up as an aristocrat, and to flirt and please men, her use of these skills to charm male academics alienated her from her female peers. She was also considered to be ‘aggressive’ and too determined to further her own career, and faced resentment from members of her department as a result. Some of her students found her too demanding, and her colleagues, a micro-manager. In the army, she faced a huge amount of sexism, and yet her attempts to create rules and regulations to prevent this led to her being labelled as too rigid and controlling. Trying to get ahead in a man’s world was a tightrope for Gwynne-Vaughan. Getting ahead often meant being criticised and disliked – both for behaving too much like a woman, and then for behaving too much like a man. She often complained that she had been prevented from progressing as far in her career as she would have liked due to her sex, and I don’t doubt it – though it seems to me that she managed to succeed exceptionally well regardless.

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan lived for most of her adult life in Flat 93, Bedford Court Mansions, where her plaque was erected earlier this year. This portered redbrick Victorian block of flats is a very smart address, and would always have been exclusive, reflecting Gwynne-Vaughan’s aristocratic roots. It’s just off the hustle and bustle of Tottenham Court Road, behind the lovely Georgian Bedford Square, and a stone’s throw from the British Museum. It must have been a lovely place to live; a very suitable address for such a redoubtable woman.

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns

Last week I was on holiday in Devon, and while browing a lovely second hand bookshop in Topsham (a very pretty town on the River Exe estuary – well worth a visit!), I came across an entire bookshelf filled with Viragos. These weren’t just the usual Viragos; there was a huge collection of very early ones, in a design and by authors I didn’t recognise. Intrigued, I spent some time reading the blurbs to find out more, and ended up walking away with one that sounded like a British precursor to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale: Benefits, by Zoe Fairbairns. Published in 1979, the novel starts in the author’s contemporary world, before eventually moving through to a projected future in the late 1990s. It centres around Lynn Byers, who, in the 1970s, is a young, married journalist who feels ambivalent about having children and is interested in the Women’s Liberation Movement, but not actively involved. She and her husband live on Seyer Street, a Victorian slum in South London that really should be condemned, and at the end of the street is an abandoned Local Authority tower block of flats, Collindeane, which immediately after its building was deemed unfit to house people and so has been left to slowly rot, and is then taken over by a group of radical feminists as a commune. Lynn has no relationship with her neighbouring feminists until the government decides to stop paying women Child Benefit, which causes a great deal of feminist outrage, and so Lynn heads over to Collindeane to hear what the women have to say about it. While there, she meets Posy, the enigmatic Australian ringleader of the commune, and timid, impressionable Marsha, its well-to-do young financier, who has run away from her wealthy background and its expectations to live life on her own terms. Posy sees herself as the head of a new worldwide feminist revolution, but her desire to lead is at odds with the women’s opposition to hierarchical structures. She is in love with Marsha, but Marsha’s fear of leaving her boyfriend David, and a conventional life, is creating a great deal of tension between the women. Into the fray enters Lynn, keen to know and understand more about the women’s movement and how to bring about societal change.

Fast forward a few years, and the government has been taken over by the Family Party, who want to pay women to stay at home and look after their children and restrict them from working. Family First and a return to traditional values is touted as true freedom for women, who can devote their energies to the home, without having to worry about money. However, this payment, called Benefit, can be withdrawn if a woman is deemed not good enough at her work of motherhood – if she is a feminist, or a lesbian, if she refuses to have sex with her husband, leaves her husband, or tries to earn any money outside of the home, and if this happens, she has to go to a reeducation centre in order to learn her true role and earn back her right to Benefit payments. As the book progresses, Family First’s policies become even more extreme, with enforced sterilisation of ‘undesirable’ women, the encouragement of people reporting on neighbours and friends who might be ‘undesirable’, increased removal of Benefit payments from ‘unsuitable’ mothers, and a corresponding plunge into mass austerity, as families struggle to make ends meet in a country whose economy has declined rapidly. When Marsha returns from a decade of travelling the world with Posy, spreading the message of feminism, to find her former boyfriend David in charge of sterilisation in the Family Party and a country in tatters, she decides that it’s time she stopped relying on everyone else to take action and did something herself. Rallying the women of Collindeane together, with the support of Lynn and her husband Derek, they start to mount a resistance. But how far are they willing to go to achieve change, and if they are successful, can they agree on what an equitable future would look like?

The story is far more complicated than this brief summary can explain, and I’ve left out various characters and details that would spoil the plot if I told you, but the overarching story of how quickly a government can take control of women’s rights, freedoms and reproductive choices is both compelling, and chilling. The blurb on the back compares it to an H.G.Wells novel in its dystopic vision, and I can see the comparison, but there is also much to compare with Atwood in its sensitive, complex and emotive exploration of women’s experiences, relationships and internal conflicts over their life choices. Lynn fears what motherhood would do to her intellectual life, her career, and her marriage and friendships, but she also has a genuine desire to be a mother and bring up a child, and in her thirties, she doesn’t have much time left to make a decision. If she does have a child, will she regret it as much as if she didn’t? Would the sacrifices she had to make be worth it? The fact that women still need to have these debates, forty years after this book was written, is a powerful indictment of how little progress really has been made for women in the 20th and 21st centuries. Derek, Lynn’s husband, doesn’t really have much to say about the matter, as he knows it won’t affect his life in the same way; after all, it will be Lynn juggling the childcare while still trying to have a life of her own, and we know from the statistics of how much childcare and housework women do compared to men, despite working full time outside of the home, that this is not a situation that has changed for many women. The feminist commune’s outrage at a male government making choices about women’s reproductive rights also feels depressingly contemporary; you only need to look at the debates surrounding access to abortion in America to know that this is still so many women’s daily reality in the so-called liberal Western world.

Benefits is a brilliantly written, incisive exploration of the complexities and absurdities of gender roles and expectations, and while it absolutely advocates the power of women to bring about change through collective action, it also sensitively and realistically depicts how difficult it can be to have a collective movement when everyone’s experiences of being a woman are very different. It also has much to say about the challenges of social economic policies and of juggling support of the vulnerable without incentivising irresponsible behaviour; David, Marsha’s former boyfriend, is a fascinating character in this respect. While it is a little dated in places, it really doesn’t feel forty years old, and I loved every minute. It gave me so much to think about, and I really can’t understand why it hasn’t become a more foundational feminist literary text. It’s easily on a par with The Handmaid’s Tale, and would be an excellent comparative text to teach alongside it. I’m going to be recommending this to everyone; it’s still in print, though no longer by Virago (I wonder why not?) and I really encourage you to read it. I’m so excited to have found Zoe Fairbairns’ writing, and I can’t wait to read more of her work!