Week 104: Vain Trifles

‘Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us’ (Virginia Woolf, Orlando)2006AH5344_jpg_ds

What the world sees of me in my NorthernReader incarnation is a fairly unvarying uniform of what are known in this house, with grateful acknowledgements to Nancy and Peggy Blackett of Swallows and Amazons fame, as Comfortables. It has not always been thus and clothing freedom is not the least of my Reasons To Be Cheerful these days. An infancy of knitted things was subsumed into a school uniform of Byzantine complexity involving different hats for all seasons and summer frocks with buttons at the front and bows – large lumpy clumsily-tied bows that ground their fists into you just where spine met unrelenting chair – at the back. As a drama student, I spent three insouciant years in a fetching ensemble of black leotard and footless tights (what were we thinking) before becoming engulfed by the City of London. Think BIG: shoulders, hair – it was not a good time and I have burned the photos. I am still sufficiently prey to social mores to own a black coat, funerals for the use of; two pairs of heels (see Week 69 for why I will never need more), and a proper grown-up frock just in case the moment arises. But by and large we do not march to the tune of any ‘dress code’.

imagesYHGBE8FXHow unlike so many fictional worlds. Virginia Woolf, provider of this week’s title, had a keen eye for class difference demonstrated by clothes: Mrs Dalloway’s gorgeous ‘silver-green mermaid’s dress’, for example, serves not least to mark her out as spectacularly cocooned by wealth and privilege. But Woolf knew that we read clothes, in life and in books, to infer so much more than status. If you haven’t read Orlando, what a treat you have in store and I do not wish to spoil it for you by giving too much away, but clothes most definitely maketh the man. Or woman.

Realising the clothes the characters would be wearing can bring so much to our perception and enjoyment of a novel. To see Jane Austen’s world through her first readers’ eyes, I heartily recommend John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen?, not least for his thoughtful chapter on clothes. Her plots are surprisingly often jostled along by death, and many of her characters would therefore be wearing full mourning while going to balls and flirting: a jarring dissonance more obvious to those early-nineteenth-century readers than to us. Austen doesn’t tell us, because she wants us to be unsettled by our not-knowing: when Frank Churchill is flirting his socks off, is he wearing full mourning (shockingly inappropriate)? Or has he instantly ditched the black (equally gasp-making)? Either answer tells us volumes about Frank, and clever Jane leaves both in play, doubling our feeling that Frank is not ideal husband material for Emma.

7e87dba5a205e19ea7b9c591edf94559For worldly vanity, froth and the emptiness thereof, we cannot do better than turn to the wonderful Edith Wharton. I confess it took me half a lifetime (and that might be an optimistic calculation) to get round to reading her. I think I expected her to be heavy and dull (I fell into this trap with her friend Henry James as well and was wrong there too). The House of Mirth shows us an early-twentieth-century Jane Austen on acid. The juxtaposition is deliberate: if Austen’s genius lies in teetering along the edge of the precipice between comedy and tragedy but somehow achieving happy-ever-afterdom, Wharton is her dark twin, sparkling her way towards catastrophe. The heroine of The House of Mirth, Lily Bart, is the dazzlingly-arrayed victim of a ruthless society in which – ah, Austen again – a girl’s only chance of financial security lies in marrying well. Let’s have Wharton’s The Custom of the Country on this week’s bookshelf while we’re about it: when I tell you that Margaret Drabble, no less, describes this wickedly perceptive tale of social observation as ‘one of the most enjoyable great novels ever written’, how can you resist? And the clincher is that Wharton’s heroine is called Undine Spragg. Admit it; you simply have to read on.

If all these frocks and petticoats are a bit too much for you, we could always turn to the chaps for a sterner and more utilitarian approach to costume. Perhaps we should let Robinson Crusoe set the standard with his detailed instructions for making goatskin breeches (first catch your goat …). In no time at all, he has added a goatskin waistcoat and a goatskin umbrella to what must have been a jolly striking outfit. A far cry from theuntitled (8) Mayor of Gloucester’s fripperies, who, as you remember, is to be married in ‘a coat of cherry-coloured corded silk embroidered with pansies and roses, and a cream coloured satin waistcoat – trimmed with gauze and green worsted chenille.’ Like Miss Potter’s Flopsy Bunnies intoxicated with lettuce, I could drown in the heady poetics of all those fabric words and long (provided someone else was doing the ironing) for the days of paduasoy and taffeta.

But for the last word in gents’ outer wear we must turn, of course, to the Collected Works of PG Wodehouse. It’s hard to pick a definitive World of Wodehouse costume: from the dandified Psmith to the Earl of Emsworth forced into top hats and stiff collars, from Psmith’s friend Mike, a sort of walking rag-bag, to the unlovely Spode in his black shorts (all shirt colours having been bagged by other Fascists quicker off the sartorial mark), there is no character in the whole pantheon who is not deftly brought to life by his clothes.

untitled (7)Which brings us, of course, to Jeeves. Bertie Wooster’s man, minder, guardian angel , father figure and, untiringly, clothes editor. ‘”There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?’” “The mood will pass, sir.”’ I think we can safely conclude that Jeeves would not have been happy as valet to the Mayor of Gloucester.

PS   This month’s NorthernReader Book Club is on Friday February 19th and we will be sharing our favourite heroes, heroines and villains.  Pop across to the Book Club page for details and do come if you can.

Week 62: Ghost Stories

Not too scary

Not too scary

All Hallows’ Eve. All Saints’ Eve. Hallowe’en. Or, with the directness for which the North East is rightly famous, Spook Night. With the clocks going back, this is the beginning of the dark months. In times gone by, our ancestors lit fires and celebrated Samhain, which like so many Celtic words, is not pronounced as it looks and is probably nothing to do with the rather earnest festivities laid on by modern-day pagans (as mostly harmless people from Brighton with time on their hands like to be called). The fire and the fireworks have shifted a few days to mark Guy Fawkes’ Day in England, and Hallowe’en has on the whole become another shopping opportunity based on ill-understood American customs and, I’m afraid, greed. But as we start to draw the curtains at tea-time, light the wood-burner and settle down for cosy winter evenings in, what could be more cheering than some properly flesh-creeping horror?

No self-respecting bookshelf should be without Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Forget Lon Chaney and staggering around with a bolt through the neck. Among the very many pleasures of reading the book is the sisterly knowledge that it is said to be the product of Mary listening quietly to Percy B and his chum Lord Byron drone on about how marvellously they would write such a story: she then popped upstairs and, unlike the chaps, sat down and wrote the definitive myth-creating novel that defines the Gothic. That showed them. It really is an extraordinary book, poised on the brink of a new age of science and deeply concerned with how we use our new-found understanding. The questions it explores remain piercingly relevant and we would do well to insist that every scientist, and certainly every politician (the ones that can read, anyway), study it very carefully indeed.

Oh, go on then, let’s have Dracula as well. Bram Stoker has much to answer for, not least bequeathing us – and especially the good citizens of Whitby – generations of whey-faced young people drooping around in black clothes and uncomfortable piercings. But the book itself has more merit than that, not least in perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of 1897, the year in which it was published, when Sigmund Freud began his self-analysis, and our sub-conscious minds were hauled out of the shadows and the way back was barred (you freudwill recall Anita Loos’s wonderful Lorelei Lee – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a must-read – being encouraged by Dr Froyd to develop some inhibitions).

Only a year after Dracula first saw – well, ‘the light of day’ might not be the happiest phrase in this context – Henry James played with our minds and undermined our certainties in his compelling novella, The Turn of the Screw. It is fabulously unsettling because it refuses ever to let us decide on a single fixed meaning for it. It gives us joyful literary theorists great pleasure, enabling us to chant our battle cry, ‘meanings are not fixed, or singular, and they can be ambiguous and even contradictory’. And Benjamin Britten’s opera is thrilling, chilling and eerie: like James’s book, it perfectly captures Freud’s idea of unheimlich, the uncanny, the ruling passion of this time of ghouls and ghosts.

The Goths spent a thousand years or so, from perhaps the third to the tenth century and beyond, happily pottering around huge swathes of Europe developing their undoubted talent for laying waste and fighting. At various times, they had a crack at the Roman Empire, the Huns, the Franks and the Moors. As the Geats of Scandinavia, they can register a claim to be the people of Beowulf, and thus enable us to indulge in the joys of re-reading Seamus Heaney’s great translation. But they are not otherwise hugely well-known for their literary bent, which makes it perhaps mildly surprising that, from Horace Walpole onwards, we have appropriated the term ‘Gothic’ to mean melodramatically romantic. This, of course, is where we came in, with Mr and Mrs Shelley and the boys in the Romantic band. Time, then, to add Jane Austen’s delicious Northanger Abbey to this week’s shelf as a helpful antidote to sensational excess. Her heroine, Catherine Morland, is a poppet, and only seventeen, making her longing for the squalid discomforts of mediaeval living almost forgiveable. We can perhaps take Austen’s cheerful practicality with us to temper the marvellous horrors of Angela Carter’s darkly gothic tales in The Bloody Chamber.

completely non-gratuitous

completely non-gratuitous

Will you be lighting the new darkness with a Jack o’Lantern? I have it on good authority that the carving of vegetables to put a candle inside them and make sinister flickering faces is an English tradition, and originally involved turnips and swedes. This is yet another awe-inspiring example of the hardiness and fortitude of the English, because, trust me, turnip-whittling is jolly hard work. How our lives have been improved, in this and in one or two other instances, by the adoption of American habits. Pumpkins are a cinch to hack away at, and a delicious conserve can be made with the resulting pile of golden flesh (think sugar, fresh ginger and lemons). Washington Irving’s story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, unites ghosts, pumpkins and headless horsemen in a highly satisfactory way.

But tonight the wind is wuthering around the house and the candles are flickering. Was that a creak upon the stair? Put away Elizabeth Taylor’s haunting story, ‘Poor Girl’: leave Hamlet, The Spanish Tragedy, Macbeth and Richard III – so many ghosts!- for now: turn away, even, from the Border Ballads – yes, even Kate Rusby singing ‘The Unquiet Grave’. Snuggle up in bed with PG Wodehouse’s ghost story, ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’. I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have learned that Wittgenstein rated it as the funniest thing he’d ever read. Any fears of things that go bump in the night are at once vanquished by picturing the great, but not necessarily uproarious, philosopher, laughing his socks off.

Week 60 Careers for Girls

Nope, no mention of running the International Monetary Fund as a career choice

Nope, no mention of running the International Monetary Fund as a career choice

When I was little, there was a book knocking around our house called The Girl’s Companion. Among much that was thrilling, such as how to cover a lampshade and how to punch leather (I am not making this up), there was a very slim section called ‘Careers for Girls’. We could aspire to be nursery assistants, it seems, or kennel maids, air hostesses or nurses. Mmmm. It turned out that we were the generation surprisingly well-equipped for the social changes that have happened in our life-times. We may, it is true, have nurtured the secret hope that we could marry a scientist, an astronaut or a company director rather than going to all the trouble of actually being one ourselves, but we had one huge advantage over our male contemporaries. We did not grow up in the expectation that we would step onto the career ladder at Point A within company B and progress steadily upwards towards retirement. The lives we have actually lived, stitching together what hindsight grandly allows us to call a portfolio, changing tack with a panache that would warm Ellen MacArthur’s heart, came more easily to us, with our absence of expectations of anything more structured, than it did to the chaps. But today’s bright young things, emerging soggy-winged from university, know in principle that they must be prepared to duck and weave to forge themselves some sort of money-earning path through life. I think it must be perfectly miserable. They are hedged in by former class-mates on one side, glittery-eyed in the pursuit of telephone-number salaries and strapping themselves blindly to the unstable raft of financial service sector jobs as they head for thewhite water ahead: on the other, by dire warnings that they have missed the boat if they

No it isn't

No it isn’t

haven’t yet picked an outfit to which to sell their soul. The idea that you might find your own way through the forest, guided by ethical values and quiet pleasure rather than naked greed, seems to have little currency at present. Time, I think, for some books to come to the rescue.

I was a great admirer of Sue Barton, the heroine of Helen Dore Boylston’s series, without ever feeling the slightest tug towards nursing as a vocation. The Sue Barton books – Student Nurse, Senior Nurse, Rural Nurse – you get the idea – are in fact set in the American hospital and nursing world of the Twenties and Thirties, but what impressed me as a child was the comradeship, warm friendships and selflessness of the central characters. They worked hard, overcame difficulties, and went at life with zest and passion: not bad as role models. Helen Dore Boylston was following that age-old advice , ‘write about what you know’, having been a nurse in Massachusetts and New York. I am only sorry that she did not also send Sue Barton off to re-enact her extremely action-packed life as a nurse on the Western Front in the First World War and later as an American in Paris – and Warsaw, and Albania.

If not medicine, how about teaching? Governesses in fiction very rarely lead lives of beer and skittles (Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, the very peculiar governess in Henry James’s Turn of the Screw), but the life of a country schoolmistress had its charms once upon a time. How about the gloriously-named Miss Fancy Day in Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree? Or, indeed, that NorthernReader favourite, the shrewdly perceptive Miss Read, heroine and pseudonymous author of a wonderful series which, beginning some sixty years ago, is already taking its proper place as an important contribution to English rural social history. Most villages now, alas, have The Old Schoolhouse, along with The Old Post Office and The Old Bakery, and few and lucky are the children who can run across the green to school

Happy smiley faces: why on earth would you want to do this?

Happy smiley faces: why on earth would you want to do this?

There’s always office work, of course. George Bernard Shaw (oh blast! We really must talk about the lure of the middle name one of these days) simultaneously examines, celebrates and undermines the new and few opportunities for employment available to women at the turn of the last century in Mrs Warren’s Profession. While Mrs Warren’s career choice has been what has long been coyly referred to as the oldest, her daughter rejects her mother and her business empire in order to begin her own, more legitimate, business. But, this being Shaw – in other words, clever, thought-provoking and dancing with wit – the play questions our whole notion that one career might have a greater or lesser moral value than another or be more or less freely entered into. This seems as good a moment as any to notice that the dreary trajectory of job-related sexism across the ages has been for a career to be exclusively male and high status – teacher, secretary – and, once women have won the hard-fought battle to gain entry, to be largely deserted by men and become lower-paid and lower status. It is going to be grimly interesting to see what happens to the public perception of doctors now that more than 50% of medical students are female.

But at least there are now no jobs that women cannot consider. Goodness, even the Church of England has got over itself and agreed that God might not be revolted by women bishops after all. The world of my childhood, in which all taxi-drivers, lorry drivers and pilots (civilian, military or sky) were male seems now as remote as the age of chivalry.  That Girl’s Companion proved a false prophetess: I never did become a hairdresser, a beautician or a florist. Nor, in truth, did I become an engineer or a lion-tamer, but at least I was barred from all these occupations only by lack of talent and interest rather than gender. No, better by far to follow the career advice given, perhaps unsurprisingly, by so many books. Sometimes, as in life, we’re not sure if it’s ever going to work out – Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – but deep down, don’t we all want to be writers?writer

Week 46: America

usa_cookiesHappy Independence Day, dear American readers. Almost two hundred and forty years ago, you picked up the ball and ran with it. As the dust settled, you produced the Declaration of Independence, one of the best pieces of aspirational prose ever produced. The lovely, the startling, the truly revolutionary, thing about it is its unqualified commitment to the human right to happiness. If we were only to acknowledge the indivisible relationship between happiness and kindness and have a go at living up to the Dalai Lama’s rigorous instruction to us all, ‘be kind whenever possible. It is always possible’, well, to quote another great American icon, Louis Armstrong, what a wonderful world.

On this your sort-of-birthday, America, I’m not going to say a word about some of the less praiseworthy things you have brought to the party (but that does not mean that I am condoning your really extraordinary continued espousal of killing people as a method of justice). No, today is a day for celebrating what you have done with the English language and how American literature has added to the sum of human happiness.

archy-and-mThank you for your poets. From Walt Whitman to the Beat generation and beyond, they have spun and whooshed into the language store with verve and energy and freedom and fun, and we are all the better for it. I’m choosing just three for this week’s bookshelf. The first is Don Marquis. Journalist, humorist (please note American spelling in honour – can’t go too far – of the occasion), novelist and playwright, Marquis is best remembered in the NorthernReader household as the poet behind Archy the cockroach who had been a vers libre poet in a previous life. Using Marquis’s typewriter (lower case only: it is tough to be a cockroach), Archy writes poems of great humour and poignancy about Mehitabel, the great love of his life who happens to be a cat – as in feline, although jazz culture and argot underpin Archy’s world. And that’s why I love the Archy and Mehitabel poems: they are the voice of NewYork, every bit as distinctive and authentic as Woody Allen, reminding me that the modern era started at least a decade before we tend to think it did (Marquis created Archy in 1916) and that by the end of the First World War the baton had already passed from tired old Europe to up-and-at-‘em America.

My second poet (I’m taking it for granted, by the way, that we already have the usual suspects on the bookshelf: Whitman of course; Longfellow – although a little of that relentless tum-ti-tum-ti rhythm goes a very long way; Pound and Eliot) is Robert Frost. Friend of Edward Thomas, which is accolade enough, surely, Frost was in many ways an old-fashioned poet; perhaps, even, the last of the old-style poets. Long-lived and prolific, his poems use colloquial language and, very often, a New England rural location to set out, scene by scene – he is, I think, a particularly visual poet – a careful exploration of the human condition. To my mind, Frost is second only to Auden as a poet of the twentieth century with the knack of coining perfect phrases. As a taster, let me remind you that Frost gave us ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’ (perfect for us here in the debatable lands of the North) and ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,/ I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.’ Exactly, now I come to think about, what America herself did, and something for us all to check our actions against from time to time.

And my third great American poet (all of the twentieth century this week, you’ll have noticed) is E E Cummings, another celebrant of the typewriter’s lower case (although not for his own name: e e cummings was an orthographic imposition of his publishers later copied by critics). The Fourth of July is the day to remember his sonnet, ‘next to of course god america i’. Fiercely critical, satirical and unswervingly ready to call his country’s failings to account, Cummings is a splendid figurehead for the necessity for free speech (please don’t forget the Al-Jazeera journalists today, by the way: there is an Amnesty International petition here that you might consider signing). Cummings didn’t so much eschew the capital letters and punctuation in his poetry as play fast and loose with them, and one of the pleasing consequences is that you really do have to read his work aloud. His work is free-wheeling, exuberant and musical, and as American as they come.

We must have novelists too. Another trio, then, chosen pretty much at random from another crowded field: how about Henry James, Edith Wharton and Ernest Hemingway? The lives of all three overlap, and James and Wharton were chums. I do  rather long to discover that Hemingway dropped round for tea and gossip with them both, and it would in strictly temporal terms have been possible, as he was sixteen by the time James died and I’ll bet he was precocious. But, whatever the vast chasms of difference between them – and the idea of James wrestling with lions is almost as enchanting as that of Hemingway getting to grips with Upper East Side manners – all three share the distinction of being indispensably great. If you have never got round to reading Henry James, you might not be expecting his dry observational humour. Granted, The Turn of the Screw isn’t terrifically

Correy Stoll as Hemingway in Midnight in Paris

Corey Stoll as Hemingway in Midnight in Paris

comedic, but, by and large, trust me. If Edith Wharton has so far passed you by, you’re going to love her acid and astute analysis of the power of money. Try The Custom of the Country. Think of her as an American, early twentieth-century, Jane Austen. And if you didn’t think Hemingway was your sort of thing, try Across the River and Into the Trees, not least because it made me cry and I don’t see why I should be the only one.

This birthday reflection has thought only of America’s past, dominated by white men. The present and the future are different, gloriously different. The land that said (through Emma Lazarus, a woman from an immigrant family) ‘give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’, has often lived up to such magnificence. America the generous, America the advocate of happiness, happy Independence Day.lady-liberty

Week 14: Bringing Up Baby

We are trying to persuade our lovely neighbours to use us as baby-sitters so that they go out together for the first time in more than a year.  Better not give their darling children a copy of Mary Rayner’s Mr and Mrs Pig’s Evening Out then.  Even better than Mr Pig wondering why his best shirt no longer seems to fit so well is the sinister image of the baby-sitter’s long, hairy legs as she goes upstairs to the children.  I don’t want to give the plot away, but the fact that she is called Mrs Wolf should give you some idea (and for those of you who love to ponder these things, it is the NorthernReader’s contention that this is a book about the Holocaust.  No, really it is).

I can see that this would work splendidly

I can see that this would work splendidly

Looking after children has tended to get a bad press in books.  Yes, I know Jane Eyre ends up marrying the boss, but you must admit she has to jump through an awful lot of hoops to do so.  And, in Emma, Jane Fairfax (you don’t have to be called Jane to be a governess, but it helps) is pretty clear-sighted about how soul-destroying, character-eroding and fraught with sexual and social danger the job can be.  Agnes Grey also has a loathsome time at the hands of her horrible little charges (let’s face it, the Brontë sisters did not gush about children.  There is, in fact, no compelling evidence that they could stand the little poppets). Elizabeth Gaskell, famously the friend of Charlotte Brontë (and how infuriating to go down in history as someone else’s chum) very cleverly has it both ways in the altogether enjoyable Wives and Daughters, which features both an unscrupulous and husband-hunting governess and a sweet loving nursery-maid who is not only French (gasp!) but Catholic (gasp! Gasp!). At the head of all her tribe, of course, stands the governess in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Un-named and of uncertain temperamental stability, I would have thought that the Situations Vacant columns in The Lady might have seen a bit of a lull after publication, but perhaps the nanny-hiring set and the Henry James-reading set never did overlap very much.  Still, it might not be a coincidence that a few years after The Turn of the Screw was published, Mr Darling preferred to employ a Newfoundland dog as nanny for Wendy, Michael and John.

PL Travers’ Mary Poppins was a pleasingly cantankerous old bat, with more than a little in common with her progenitor, and not much like Julie Andrews – although it must be acknowledged that Miss Andrews’ great strength, whether as M Poppins or as the – don’t you think? –  exploited child-minder Maria in The Sound of Music is that she notably lacks the saccharine touch.  The line between servile doormat and monstrous tyrant can be a thin one, with, if we are to believe the world of fiction, not much in the way of between-ground.  So one is either brought up by Christopher Robin’s nanny, who sounds a bit of a sap, frankly, or by Miss Havisham, which must have had its exhilarating moments but also more in common than you might like with Mowgli’s child-care arrangements.

Being brought up by wolves, as it happens, has had its moments in the sun.  The poster-boys for this experiment in trans-species nurturing are of course Romulus and Remus, who, let me remind you, are fictional (and therefore grist to our mill).  Tarzan, too, is raised in the jungle (and let me tell, you, it took me years and years to realise that ‘jungle’ and ‘rain-forest’ are the same thing: a moment of realisation, I might add, in which my world got suddenly a bit smaller and a bit less colourful).  But I doubt there are many takers for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books these days, not least because all that white-supremacist stuff makes uneasy reading  (try the film Greystoke: the Legend of Tarzan, which avoids that while being otherwise quite close to the original and also stars Ralph Richardson’s memorable eyebrows).

So, child-rearing is far from easy and we need help.  ‘How-to’ books on parenting have come and gone and shaped generations: were you a Dr Spock baby (quite different from being a Mr Spock baby)?  Or a Penelope Leach alumna? No, better perhaps to get our tips on good parenting from such joys as the mothers in The Railway Children and Swallows and Amazons, who trust their children and treat them with respect, or from Mr Bennett, who has his faults but does at least let Lizzie know that he loves her.  A cheer or two for the parent in Martin Waddell’s Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? Because he is – well, a he – and caring and nurturing and all those other good role models for little boys.  But perhaps the best child-minder of them all, as he waltzes in, stirs their little minds up like scrambled eggs and whooshes off again, is the splendid, anarchic lexiphile – here he comes now, to a bedtime near you – ladies and gentlemen, the purveyor of Green Eggs and Ham, it’s ol’ Black-Dots-for-Eyes himself……. The Cat in the Hat.  It’s enough to make you glad you never grew up.

cat in the hat