women writers

william, an englishman: a book for its time, and ours

persephone-book-1-william-an-englishman

William, An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton was the first book published by my beloved Persephone Books in 1999, a reprint from the novel’s original publication in 1919. If you don’t know about my love affair with Persephone, do check out this post to be brought up to speed!

I stockpiled a number of Persephones before leaving London and this was among them. I read it at bedtime over the course of a few weeks, not something I’d recommend, as it’s not an escapist read to send you off into a dreamy, calm sleep. But it is an incredible book for its time - and for ours.

William and Griselda are young newlyweds, both heavily involved in various causes and social justice, extremely earnest and ready to fight for what they believe in. But they are in actual fact very impressionable, have been swept up in these various movements that were rocking the social foundations of Britain in 1914 (namely socialism and suffrage), and parrot the beliefs of the movements they support, as opposed to analysing and considering them, determining their own moral compasses rather than blindly following a crowd. They think they know what “fight” means but really, they haven’t a clue.

They honeymoon at a remote rural cottage in Belgium in August 1914. After three weeks of contentment, they are blissfully unaware of the world around them (they don't know war has been declared, let alone that Belgium has been invaded) and they don’t even speak the language so they cannot understand the warnings from the farmer's wife who cooks for them (despite everything it's amusing that William and Griselda are so oblivious).

On the day of their departure, they go to the farmhouse nearby to arrange for the boy to carry their suitcases to the train station, as he did when they arrived. Instead, they find the house deserted, with all the people and animals gone, and a lot of evidence to suggest they left in a real hurry. Bewildered, William and Griselda begin their way into the village to the train station on foot, when they are captured by the invading German troops. They finally learn what has happened and from that moment on, are caught up in the brutal, cruel horrors of war - a real one.

Cicely Hamilton spent the entire First World War on the frontline in France - she wrote this novel in a tent during the hostilities. You can tell. This is a woman who saw the horrors of that war firsthand and was unapologetic about exposing the ignorance of so many people as to what was really going on, what "war" really means when you're caught up in the middle of it. As an Australian soldier I knew, who died of his wounds in Iraq some years ago now, said, "it's not beer and skittles."

At the same time, this novel is not entirely "anti war" - Hamilton actually goes after the pacifists quite a bit too, asserting that they live in a "paradise of fools", that the things that were happening in Europe were horrific and the British war effort was actually very important and vital to fight the evil that was brewing on the European mainland.

William and Griselda are initially taken prisoner by the Germans, and separated at this point. William eventually makes an escape and finds Griselda, whose clothes are torn and spirit is crushed, she is utterly traumatised. Hamilton doesn't spell out what's happened to Griselda - we’ve already worked it out. The restraint with which she writes this scene, when they are reunited, is quite extraordinary.

Weakened from injuries and lack of food, the pair attempt to get to safety through the Belgian countryside to the French border. They are helped by travellers along the way, managing to remain out of sight of the enemy. But a road accident weakens Griselda further - and a few days later, as a kindly villager gives them a lift in their cart, she dies lying on a pile of straw.

William then mercifully finds someone who speaks English and manages to get through the trauma of burying his wife. His Good Samaritan, Edith, helps him get the train to Paris and eventually another train and boat back to England, where he arrives a broken man.

Having seen the horrors of what is happening in Europe and determined to stop it, he attempts to enlist in the Army, but he is rejected because he doesn't meet the height requirement. "Oh don't worry, in a few months they won't care about that," William's friend Faraday consoles him. And oh how true that turned out to be.

In the meantime, William attends meetings that he used to go to all the time, full of fiery speeches to motivate everyone into supporting the socialist and pacifist causes, which he loved and felt a sense of community in. But now, he is appalled. These people aren't brave - he realises - for they have sacrificed nothing. They haven't got the first clue what he's been through, what thousands are going through, of the brutality, the horror of what he's witnessed and what he's so cruelly lost. And it must be stopped. Now is not the time for pacifism, in his opinion. He is incensed, enraged and utterly broken.

Eventually he does get accepted by the Army and ends up in what one might deem a communications job - he writes letters, takes dictation, files documents. But then William moves to the third phase of his character development - utter disillusionment. What difference has he actually made? He has done his duty, yes, but what has been the point?

“He hated the war as it affected himself, was weary of the war in general; all he longed for was its ending, which meant his release from imprisonment; but neither hatred nor weariness had blinded his eyes to the folly of that other blindness which had denied that war could be.”

Eventually, as was the fate of so many, he is involved in combat, suffers massive injuries, and dies quietly in a field hospital.


It is not a happy read, but Hamilton did not intend it to be. I think she thought people had their heads far enough into the sand and they needed a reality check. This book won the Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse, the highest honour bestowed on female authors in 1919 (probably the equivalent of the Stella or the Women's Prize today) and no wonder. It’s unforgettable. And I think it's just as relevant a read now as it was then.

to the east of your own island: remembering margaret scott

This is a piece I wrote for my old blog Green Ink, about 10 years ago. As today would have been Margaret Scott’s 85th birthday, I thought I’d republish it here.

When I was sixteen years old, my school held a kind of activity day in late October in the lead up to the end of the year and the Christmas holidays, when attention levels were drooping and we were in need of some fun, with the HSC (Oz equivalent of GCSE) exams on the horizon for most of us. The day was filled with workshops in various recreational activities designed around the theme of "Let Your Lives Speak", as per the Quaker ethos.

I signed up for the creative writing workshop which was to be run by Margaret Scott. Margaret was a poet, novelist and well-known intellectual, both throughout the state and on a national scale, and at this time she was a regular on Good News Week. Students and teachers alike were abuzz with excitement about her coming to the school - I, on the other hand, almost exclusively inhabited the world of nineteenth-century literature at that time (oh, how cool I was!) and didn't really know who she was. I was just interested in doing a creative writing workshop!

She gave us a topic to write on and we were given fifteen minutes to write a piece, and then we went around the room where everyone read theirs aloud. I was surrounded by students who I think quite fancied themselves as the top dogs of the arts at the school, and most of them eagerly volunteered to go first, with Margaret offering some brief comments, but nothing along the lines of "oh my goodness, that is amazing for one so young", which I think they were expecting! (I'm sure you all went to school with people like that!)

It came to my turn and I read my piece. When I finished, no one said anything.

Margaret started saying something, but then she trailed off and looked directly at me. Her eyes were so perceptive I felt like she could see right through me.

"Would you read that again?" she asked.

Being an insecure teenager with no confidence in my abilities, my immediate thought was "why? What's wrong with it?!" I felt very stupid! But I seem to recall the rest of the people in the room looking at me with a mixture of awe and envy. So, I read it again. Of the whole group, I was the only one asked to read again. And then the piece was discussed for almost the rest of the session, until one of the teachers supervising remembered that there were a few more people to get through! I can't even remember what it was about, but I seem to recall everyone's comments on the hidden symbolism in my piece making me sound far more in command of the craft than I actually was.

I never told anyone about it at the time because as I say, my first reaction was to be embarrassed, but I look back on that episode now with pride. Sometimes in my low moments I think back to it, and think that if a piece I wrote made a fine writer and scholar such as Margaret Scott have to think twice, then maybe I do have something.

It's a memory I treasure. Thank you, Margaret.

She passed away in 2005. It was only in the last few years of her life that I got to know her through her work, not just this memory. I love her poems, particularly the housework ones (which I'm trying to find a copy of) and I recommend trying to find her novel Family Album - if you're in Australia you should be able to get a copy from most libraries. It's a lovely book.

Do you have a moment like this that you look back on, to spur you forward?

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

CASTAWAY

 

Sometimes a neighbour's look, a post-card, a telephone call

will carry you up the shore of another life

and leave you gaping amazed at sudden jungle

a world away from the dolorous desk

the spruce back-yard, the brick-and-tile in Rosebud.

This glimmering shade's cacophonous with

unfamiliar names of long-dead pets and teachers,

side-streets in distant cities and faithless lovers.

The canopy's alive with flitting shapes unknown

beyond the confines of this island.

Here is the castaway's camp, his palisade,

contrivances he's fashioned year by year,

stores he saved from the wreck of his old ship

before it sank from sight beyond the reef.

Fragments of once-proud sails now patch his roof.

A saw, a pannikin hang by the bed

where every day he wakes alone at dawn

to a view of mountains. Those peaks rise

over the trees in a blue scrawl whose message

you seem to have read from a different angle

on the wall of sky to the east of your own island.

© Margaret Scott

[poem] advice to myself by louise erdrich

A coffee I enjoyed in Bali last week.

A coffee I enjoyed in Bali last week.

Advice to Myself 

Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don't patch the cup.
Don't patch anything. Don't mend. Buy safety pins.
Don't even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don't keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll's tiny shoes in pairs, don't worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic-decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don't even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don't sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we're all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don't answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons 
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in though the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don't read it, don't read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

Poem: "Advice to Myself" by Louise Erdrich, from Original Fire: Selected and New Poems. © Harper Collins Publishers, 2003.  Sourced from The Writer’s Almanac.

my favourite persephone books

persephone-books-and-pansy-jug

I've had a bit of a love affair with Persephone Books since I arrived in London. Their charming shop in Bloomsbury's Lamb Conduit Street is one of my favourite places to go when I feel like a treat. 

Persephone reprints "neglected fiction and non-fiction" by 20th century writers, mainly women, and the shop itself is an absolute haven for writers and book lovers. Not only are the books beautiful but there's always fresh handpicked flowers dotted about, vintage posters, bookmarks and other enchanting paraphernalia to get your imagination going. I never fail to feel inspired after visiting.

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persephone-books-london-2

And, needless to say, I also never fail to leave the shop without a few books!

One of my favourite podcasts, Tea and Tattle, devoted an entire episode to discussing their favourite Persephone reads last year so I'd highly recommend you check out that episode if you're new to Persephone books and are wondering where to start, because it's quite an impressive catalogue. Many of Miranda and Sophie's recommendations are my favourites too, but they also mention some that I hadn’t thought to check out before - and as they both have great taste in books I’ll certainly be doing so.

The books themselves are also beautiful - as you can see in my main photograph, they are the most elegant shade of grey and look really lovely arranged together. Each book has its own individual endpaper and bookmark, usually a pattern related to the content of the book or the time of publication. Everything has been thought about with Persephone books, and it really shows. 

So I thought I'd share the Persephone books I've most enjoyed since I discovered them - and since my love affair was revived after listening to the Tea and Tattle episode! - but this is a mere drop in the ocean as I am nowhere near through the range. I have many more Persephones than the ones I’ve mentioned below, but I’ve enjoyed every book from them that I’ve read and we’ll be here all day if I list them all! So these are the ones that I think are great ones to start with, in my opinion. If you want some absorbing, well-written books to curl up with on a rainy day with a warm mug of something delicious, you can't go wrong with any of these.

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski (Persephone no. 28)

This was the first book of Marghanita Laski's I've read and it's made me want to read everything she's ever written. I read it in one weekend and it was absolutely breathtaking. It was desperately sad at times, even depressing, as it follows a father's journey to try and find his missing five-year-old- son after the Second World War, but all in all, it is a stunning novel about loss and hope. I'd even go so far as to say it's a masterpiece. I would also highly recommend To Bed With Grand Music and Tory Heaven: or Thunder on the Right, also by Laski and published by Persephone, and they’re both brilliant. The latter feels particularly pertinent in a post-EU referendum Britain!

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple (Persephone no. 3)

This is probably my most favourite Persephone book (so far). Described as "a fairly ordinary tale about the destruction of a happy marriage", I was quite unprepared for how compelling and absorbing this tale would be. It's a novel all about relationships, how they form and also how they fall apart. Sometimes all it can take is 'someone at a distance' for that to happen. The novel follows what happens to this family when the husband/father is unfaithful, and the emotional devastation that has on everyone - there’s no great twist, per se, but the book’s genius and charm lies in how it explores the emotional lives of the characters, and how compassionately Whipple manages to do this. And I think Louise (the other woman) is by far the most repugnant character I’ve ever come across in literature, and that is saying something! I absolutely loved this book and have all of Dorothy Whipple’s other books on my Persephone wish list!

Mariana by Monica Dickens (Persephone no. 2)

This book is a real delight - Persephone refer to it as a “hot water bottle novel” and that’s exactly what it is. A book you can curl up with on the sofa and escape into. Mostly set in England between the world wars, it’s the coming-of-age story of Mary, whom we follow from childhood right through to the early years of the second world war where she is desperately waiting to hear whether her husband has survived the bombing of his ship. We see Mary’s idyllic childhood summers at her grandparents’ country home, her school days and life at home in a London flat with her widowed bohemian dressmaker mother and actor uncle, her hilarious adventures at drama school and eventually travels to Paris, and all the misguided decisions, in love and all else, she makes along the way. It is a very funny and heartwarming book all at once, for Mary realises, looking back at her younger years, that perhaps they weren’t as perfect as they seemed, and that the grownups did a good job of hiding harsher aspects of reality from her. For most of the book, Mary is less concerned about making her own way in the world and more about filling in time before she meets Mr Right (who will of course be able to provide her with everything, hence not really needing skills or a career of her own as such). And yet by the time the book is nearly over, Mary has realised something else - that her husband is potentially now dead and she will have to carry on, independently. That she will only ever really have herself, and that she doesn’t need anyone else to complete her. Quite a revolutionary thought for 1940! '‘When you were born, you were given a trust of individuality that you were bound to preserve. It was precious. The things that happened in your life, however closely connected with other people, developed and strengthened that individuality. You became a person. Nothing that ever happens in life can take away the fact that I am me. So I have to go on being me.”

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson (Persephone no. 21)

I read somewhere that this book is the closest thing to a Fred Astaire film in print, and I think that’s very accurate. Every time you think it can’t get any crazier, it does. It’s a rollicking romp of a book that is so much fun to read. On an ordinary day, the nearly destitute governess Miss Pettigrew, who has never really known a day of fun in her whole life, is sent by an employment agency to interview for a post….to the wrong address. She somehow gets drawn in to the highly dramatic, hilarious and scandalous antics of her would-be employer, Miss La Fosse, and finds herself doing, saying and experiencing things she never thought she would. There’s cocaine, nightclubs, a woman with a few men on the go…racy stuff! The dialogue is so witty and well-written, I read a lot of it out loud to myself (at home!) and plan to ask my grandmother if she’d like me to read it aloud to her when I’m next at home, because I think she’ll love it. Another ‘hot water bottle’ novel, for sure. It’s just fantastic, and proof that just one day is all you need for your life to completely change!

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E Stevenson (Persephone no. 81)

I loved this one too! A bit like Miss Pettigrew, without the financial security of marriage, Miss Buncle finds herself needing to supplement her already meagre income. She does what many people think will bring certain fame and fortune - write and publish a book! She writes a novel based on her village and all the people who live in it, thinking that changing names and writing it under a pseudonym will be sufficient to hide their true identities. To her huge surprise, her book (or John Smith’s book!) is a huge bestseller and her publisher wants a sequel, but lo and behold, all the villagers have read it, recognise themselves and their village immediately (which says it all, as some of it isn’t flattering!), are outraged and determined to find out who ‘John Smith’ is and make ‘him’ pay. No one suspects the dowdy and quiet Miss Buncle for a second, which is where all the hilarity ensues - but also makes an interesting observation that people often do have hidden lives and assumptions we make about others can so very often be wrong. It’s absorbing, intelligent and very charming.

Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll (Persephone no.30)

If you love cookbooks and social history, you will love this. I was quite surprised to learn that ingredients like camembert and parmesan were available in England in 1921 - I guess one needed to know where to go! I don’t know what it is about food writing, but the best of it recalls a time and place just perfectly. And this book does this beautifully, every essay and recipe evokes a bygone era of gracious living where, if you could afford to (most of the recipes assume the reader has a cook and hired help of some kind!), every meal could be quite indulgent. And Jekyll’s turn of phrase is quite exquisite - instructions for baking biscuits, for example, "they should be of a deep cream colour, merging along their edges into the delicate brown of faded magnolias" had me in raptures. 

**

So I hope these suggestions might inspire you to give Persephone Books a try, if you haven’t already. I must say when it comes to fiction these days, I am finding myself drawn more and more to the past, to women writers of the nineteenth and early to mid twentieth century. It might be a reflection of where my head is at in terms of writing my own novel (set in 1948) or perhaps because I find them comforting and a much-needed escape. Reading about the world I currently inhabit (modern day London) isn’t all that relaxing! There’s another blog post in that, for sure….

The Persephone Bookshop in Lamb’s Conduit Street, London.

The Persephone Bookshop in Lamb’s Conduit Street, London.

But back to the topic at hand, I have to say I have never been disappointed with a Persephone book. Hand on heart, I have enjoyed every single one I have read. I’m sure if you’re tempted to check out the catalogue, there’ll be something there for you!

On my next visit, I plan to add The Fortnight in September, The Home-Maker and High Wages to my collection. What about you?

Are you a fan of Persephone Books too? What are your favourites?

 

belong to nobody but yourself

Simone de Beauvoir ( source )

Simone de Beauvoir (source)

‘In order to write, in order to be able to achieve anything at all, you must first of all belong to nobody but yourself.’ - Simone de Beauvoir responding to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One's Own, in a 1966 lecture called ‘Women and Creativity.’

I have been a (silent) fan of fellow Australian writer Louise Omer (formerly Heinrich) for years. Today, browsing through my Feedly in between bits of spicy leftover rice noodles at my desk, I saw she had updated her website, with a different name. Curious, I read on and clicked on the article she shared which explained why.

I find it interesting that we (and by we, I mean society) are always curious about why a woman changes her name, or doesn't. We assume so many things. If you've been reading me for a while, you'll know I didn't take Tom's surname when we got married eight years ago and no one has ever questioned that decision, least of all him. But sixteen years ago I did take my first husband's surname and I was very excited to, because the idea of being an entirely different person was kind of the point of the whole thing (something I can only acknowledge looking back). Strangely, I would have taken Tom's surname if he had really wanted me to…but he didn’t. And that signalled to me that I’d made the right choice. A man for whom that was vitally important would not have been the right man for me to marry. 

The world is no doubt on the cusp of change, and hopefully it won't always be this way, but it's weird that a woman changing her name or choosing what name she will be known by, still feels like a political act. But to me, and it sounds like to Louise as well, it was a deeply personal way to reclaim my identity and do what felt right to me, in my bones, not just what the convention was. It was time, as Louise says, "for my grown-up name." Which in my case had been my name all along. But for others, their "grown up name" is taking the surname of the person they love and have chosen to spend their life with. Which is totally fine too. We're all just making our private, personal choices. We are all different - a fact that hasn't really been reflected in how women have been treated and expected to behave over the past few centuries. 

Perhaps it comes back to this idea that many of us still feel inhibited when it comes to meeting our own needs. Being selfish, I suppose, which I was raised to think of as a bad thing to be and something to avoid at all costs. But the flipside of that is that you suppress your feelings and desires because you learn early on that expressing them is not safe. In the end you become numb to them and on the rare occasions you are asked directly what you want, you have no idea. 

And there's the "selfishness" you need, in order to create, in order to be an artist. For men this never seems to be an issue but for women it always surfaces at some point. I listened to a podcast a few weeks ago, an interview with American novelist Stephanie Danler, whose words stopped me in my tracks:

"The reasons I left my marriage were not clearcut but they had something to do with writing the book. And that has always felt like a very ugly thing to talk about. There was a point where I felt I had to either choose my life with my husband - the one we had spent six years building together - or I had to choose myself and my novel. And even with the success Sweetbitter has had, I still to this day don't know whether I've made the right choice. But this is the one I'm living with.....I couldn't have done it [written the book] in the relationship I was in, not because it wasn't supportive....but because I couldn't be selfish in the way I found was necessary for me to create. I feel that's a bit of a taboo, it's not something I find women talking about often - is that you actually might have to be deeply, deeply, painfully selfish in order to make art a priority."

 

It’s funny. As I get older and (hopefully) mature, I feel I know my younger self better now than I ever did then. Every time I'm brave enough to confront something in myself, or I read articles like this or listen to podcasts with people who have also been through a divorce young, another lightbulb goes off, another penny drops and I think, yes, that was it, that was what I did, that was what I thought, that was me too

I long for the day when it will no longer be radical for a woman to belong to nobody but herself.