Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Costume Drama

If all goes well, my next trip to London will be in November to see The Heiress graduate.  So I held my breath as I read about this exhibit, five years in the planning, at the V&A.  There was a little happy dance going on at my house when at the bottom of the article it stated the exhibit opens October 20,  *squeal*.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

'...I turned and began to run, to flee from the graveyard and the ruins and to put the woman at as great a distance behind as I possibly could.  I concentrated everything upon my running, hearing only the thud of my own body on the grass, the escape of my own breath.  And I did not look back.'

While in London a handful of years ago, R and I stopped by the half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square and bought tickets for The Woman in Black playing since 1989 at the Fortune Theatre.  We were prepared to be scared out of our wits but settled into the impossibly tight seating arrangements and smiled as the curtain opened.  The first time I felt any sense of dread or the inclination to scream was when we paid the equivalent of over eight dollars for two tiny cups of ice cream, the sort with a flat spoon under the lid, at intermission.

The second act was something different altogether with the audience screaming several times and even jumping out of their seats at one point.  It took me days to get the final scene out of my mind and I'll never think of rocking chairs with my old sense of blissful relaxation ever again.

Arthur Kipps, in hopes of putting some demons to rest, writes about a ghostly incident during his early career as a solicitor in London.  Sent to organize documents at Eel Marsh House after the death of Mrs Drablow, he encounters an eerie sense of reserve about the place from the residents of the village.  Located some distance away and due to the tide, the house virtually becomes an island as the water converges over the narrow trail leading up to it.  Add in some dense fog, screeching birds and a sucking bog and you'd have to be half-mad to spend the night there.  Or young and desperate to gain the respect of your senior colleagues at the law firm.

The spectre of a woman dressed in black, with a ravaged face of pale skin pulled tight against her features, haunts Arthur.  And quite literally things do go 'bump' in the night.  All of which threaten to scare poor Arthur to death as he digs through Mrs Drablow's pertinent papers with only a scruffy dog named Spider for company.  The discovery of a packet of letters and three death certificates provide some answers but I'm certainly not going to tell you any more about that!

Susan Hill has the formula to get your heart pounding down to perfection.  There is no blood or gore but every time the fog appears or the night would close in, I would tuck my chin down into my shirt and pull my knees up on the sofa.  The movie version of The Woman in Black is set to open next month.  Judging by the trailer there has been plenty of liberty taken with Hill's novel but I'm very much looking forward to being scared out of my wits for the third time by this story.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beauman

It was approximately four years ago that my first Persephone catalogue arrived in the mail.  Flipping through its pages there were only a handful of titles I recognized.  As someone who desperately wished to pursue higher education but was thwarted by parents who refused to entertain the idea, there were themes within these works that I gravitated towards.  Women who thought they were worth more than they were given but made the best of things.  But that internal struggle with 'is this all there is for me?' is ever present.  There are days when I would give anything to work eighteen hours a day for a museum and days when it's lovely to clean the house all morning and bake all afternoon.  Which isn't to say that some men don't have the same daydream but today this post is about a woman's perspective.

Through passages from interwar novels written by women, Nicola, brilliantly points out the way things are, the frustration which sometimes accompanies these situations, social mores from that era and what authors had to say about it.  From Dorothy Whipple's The Priory.

'Well, this has taught me one thing,' she thought wearily, picking up another paper and turning to the advertisment columns.  'If I've to scrub floors or eat the bread of dependence all my life, Angela shall be educated to earn her own living.  She shan't find herself in the hole I'm in now if I can help it.'

Dorothy Whipple picked up her pen in the thirties and expressed the thoughts I had, and still have, over sixty years later.  While I may not be in 'the hole', the lack of faith from my parents to be anything other than someone's wife and mother is something I'll never come to grips with.  The Heiress, poor thing, never stood a chance, for her university was never about 'if'.  Regardless of whatever comes from her degrees or the hours her parents have toiled to pay their cost, we never want her to doubt our faith in her ability.  But despite the strides made by women in society, she may yet experience prejudice against her sex in the job market due to the prospect of fertility.

In fascinating chapters such as War, Feminism, Sex, Psychoanalysis, Beauman highlights sections illustrating those aspects from works by various authors.  In my favourite chapter, Domesticity, she points to a hilarious section from the Diaries of Cynthia Asquith.

 'Eddie told a very good child story, about a dog called Paddy run over by motor and killed.  Mother hardly dared break the news to child.  Did so during pudding.  To her intense relief, after a second's pause, the child calmly continued pudding.  Later mother heard crying, and found child with absolutely tear-congealed face. 
'Oh Mummie, Paddy's killed.'
  Mother: 'Yes, but I told you that at lunch,darling.'
  Child: 'Oh, I thought you said it was Daddy!'

A Very Great Profession is a book to be revisited many times as my knowledge of women writers from the interwar period increases.  I'm quite proud of the education I've received through reading my favourite book blogs, as well as novels published by Virago and Persephone, which meant I could relate to quite a lot of what Nicola was writing about.  But there is still lots of reading to be done and to expand my horizons even further she has piqued my interest in May Sinclair, Vita Sackville-West, Rose Macaulay and F. M. Mayor. 

The afterword in which Nicola writes more personally about her research and plans for this book are touchingly honest.

  'So it was these chapters that went off, in the late summer of 1972, to Barley's reader.  His report was crushing.  I cannot actually say that I was devastated because I cannot remember how I felt:  I think the energy went out of me, that the criticisms, destructive rather than constructive, just made me not want to bother.  I simply stopped.  His report arrived on 23rd November.  My third baby was born on 31st August next year.  The arithmetic is neat.  And what it reveals about psychology.'

That passage reduced me to tears but I am so glad Nicola Beauman persevered.  Not just to publish a book which is both delightful and informative but to create a publishing company, Persephone Books.  An incredible and much appreciated bright spot in my reading world.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Teasmade

Thank goodness for The Woman's Hour.  It's one of my favourite programs to listen to on my iPod while out walking with Deacon.  Jenni Murray and Jane Garvey are like having a sister, a friend, a teacher and sometimes even a Mum tell you what's what depending on the subject matter.  On the episode I listened to yesterday, Jenni mentioned a Teasmade.  I was completely ignorant!

Being one whose ears are constantly pricking up at the mention of anything social history-related I made straight for Google once I got in.  The coffeemaker is commonplace but I never realized there has been an appliance that automatically makes tea which has existed for decades.  Apparently, Victorian era versions involved an open flame with disastrous results at times.  You can't beat a cup of tea first thing in the morning but not at all costs!  So for the benefit of others who are also in the dark about this fascinating piece of equipment I'm posting a model from the 1950s and a newer version.  If you would like to read more about their history, simply click here.

Monday, January 9, 2012

At Mrs Lippincote's by Elizabeth Taylor

'How happy we are' thought Julia.  The sunlight reflected in her teacup danced on the ceiling.  Oliver looked up and smiled.  "Vanish, angel!" he said, as he had done as a baby, and from habit she placed her hand over the top of her cup.'

I will no longer entertain the idea of feeling completely bereft upon completion of Taylor's oeuvre.  It will be my absolute pleasure to revisit each and every one of her books, gleaning ever more, time and time again.

The Davenants have arrived in a new town due to Roddy's most recent order from the RAF.  The furnished house they rent belongs to Mrs Lippincote who has made plans to stay elsewhere for the duration.  In a few eerily funny scenes her daughter, Phyllis, doesn't seem to understand that she can no longer appear unannounced and dig through her mother's belongings in the attic or closets.

While Roddy is busy being an officer, Julia Davenant fills her day running the house, looking after their son and spending a fair bit of time with the darning basket.  My image is one of Julia wearing a string of pearls and high heels while she does so.  When Roddy's spinster cousin, Eleanor, isn't busy with her fellow communists she dreams of just the sort of life Julia has.  Oh yes, she'd very much like Roddy all to herself.  Just to build in some tension, Eleanor has lived with the Davenants since her nervous breakdown. 

Usually a tedious household can be buffered somewhat by the presence of a child but a pale and sickly Oliver only adds to the strain.  His lack of robustness hardly impresses the alpha-male in Roddy and his weak frame worries Julia.  Delightfully for the reader though he loves books and there are all sorts of references to various authors and their works.

'In London, he would go every Saturday morning to the Public Library to look at a picture of Lorna Doone.  Some Saturdays it was not there, and he would go home again, wondering who had borrowed her, in what kind of house she found herself that weekend.'

While Julia may appear to be the dutiful wife she holds a bit of herself back for her own sake and I really enjoyed her character.  She ventures out the odd night rather than keep her husband company and is quite friendly with a couple of men.  One being the Wing Commander, who much to my pleasure knows his way with a ball of yarn and some knitting needles.  Julia might be guilty of the odd bout of hand-wringing but she holds her own when push comes to shove as it does during a twist towards the ending.

I've reached the midway point, this being my sixth Taylor novel from her list of twelve and she has yet to disappoint.  To celebrate the centenary of Taylor's birth there is a group of readers over at LibraryThing on the Virago Modern Classics forum reading one title per month if anyone is interested.  Up next for February, I believe, is Palladian.  Laura, from Musings is also an enthusiastic supporter of this event so keep an eye out for her posts!