Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Recent reading (MARGARET YORKE, STELLA GIBBONS, JEAN RHYS)

Here are three books I've read recently and didn't manage to do full-fledged posts about, but which are interesting enough to deserve a mention.




MARGARET YORKE, The Limbo Ladies (1969)

I picked this one up at a library book sale in the past year or two and was intrigued. Yorke is best known for her crime fiction, which I have yet to explore, so this novel about divorced women in the late 1960s seems to have been a bit of a departure. And it did indeed turn out to be somewhat intriguing, though perhaps more for its odd placement in time and literary history than as a novel I would highly recommend.

Yorke would have been in her forties herself when she published Limbo Ladies, so was perhaps writing from her own experience or that of women she knew.

'You're probably a bit over-prickly. Sarah,' Frances said. 'We limbo ladies often are hyper-sensitive.'

'Limbo ladies? What do you mean?'

'Oh, the state in which we live. Manless women of our age exist in a social limbo, don't you agree? It's different when you're younger. But after about, say, thirty-two or so, the pattern is, tidy pairs, and anyone who isn't neatly partnered off is out of the club.

The novel is a strange combination—somewhere between a late example of a cozy melodrama that Dorothy Whipple might have written (Sarah begins a new life after inheriting a cottage from a suffragette aunt!) and a somewhat old-fashioned, conservative entry into the realm of Margaret Atwood and Margaret Drabble—the edgier authors who were already exploring the complexities of women's lives with or without men (or perhaps most commonly recovering from relationships with men), seeking new, more feminist meaning in their lives.



It must have seemed like rather a strange anomaly even when it appeared, and now it doesn't really seem to fit in any category we recognize. I'm afraid my feeling was that it ended up neither fish nor fowl—neither lively and entertaining enough to be truly cozy nor quite interesting or profound enough to really shed light on the situations of the women it portrays. It was pleasant but, alas, rather forgettable.



STELLA GIBBONS, Here Be Dragons (1956)

A while back I raved about the final novel by Stella Gibbons, Pure Juliet, only finally published last year, while acknowledging that by no means everyone felt the same about it. This novel, from right in the middle of Gibbons' career, seems to have garnered more positive responses, though I was interested that several of the positive blog reviews nevertheless noted some reservations about it.


I was particularly struck by something Desperate Reader said, that "when reading Gibbons there is often something that jars in her work." This was in the context of a very positive review of the novel, and it made me think about the other Gibbons novels I've loved and why I've loved them, and I have to wonder ultimately if perhaps this jarring isn't exactly what draws me to her so much. Although there are any number of books I love that are delightfully polished and pristine, where every word and every character seems to fall into place exactly the way it should, I think some part of me feels that a book that jars a bit, that challenges me to understand why the author made the choices she did, or makes me interpret the point of it all in a more complex way in order to come to terms with what seems a discordant character or plot twist, is somehow more vivid and alive, more like real life. Books that jar somehow seem to fulfill a potential of literature that more polished works can't achieve.

Thus ends my literary philosophizing for the day. But ironically, after that, I have to admit that Here Be Dragons isn't my favorite Gibbons. Not so much because it jarred. Perhaps it didn't jar enough.

It's an odd novel, wonderfully atmospheric about artistic London in the 1950s, and yet distinctly unromantic in presentation. I made a note while reading it that the characters are interesting and sympathetic only to the degree that the reader is able to empathize with the young and stupid. Perhaps that's overstating it a bit (and anyway I generally have a pretty high tolerance for the young and stupid, within reason), but it is true that the characters, particularly the heroine's cousin John, spend a lot of time trying to be themselves, or to be free, to be artists, or to liberate themselves. What a lot of effort they expend with very little apparent result! They—or at least the more artistic of them—certainly romanticize their situation, but Gibbons never really does, with the result that much of the novel seemed rather drab and dreary to me.

This may be a negative in terms of having an entertaining read, but it's a refreshing contrast to some novels of the period (perhaps particularly those by male authors?) which seem to suggest that suffering for art (and making those around you suffer for it as well) and generally agonizing and wallowing and avoiding all civilized responsibility, are the most glamorous and brilliant of occupations. This is John's attitude, it seems, however unwarranted by any actual achievement on his part, but it's rather wonderful that Gibbons refuses to see him as the romantic figure he so wants to be.

And what prevents the novel itself from being merely drab and dreary itself is that the reader gradually sees the main character, Nell, growing, taking on more confidence, becoming more than the rather bewildered waif she was in the beginning. It's a difficult and—again—entirely unglamorous process, but once one realizes what Gibbons is showing us, it's a fascinating one. I have to admit, though, that in the end I wasn't sure it was all worth it. The setting certainly gives it bonus points, but next to the Gibbons novels I love the most, like Westwood or The Matchmaker or, yes, Pure Juliet, Here Be Dragons pales a bit for me.



JEAN RHYS, Sleep It Off Lady (1976)

My copy of this book was my very first charity shop acquisition on our trip to the U.K. last year. It came from the tiny unmanned (and unwomanned, for that matter) shop at Bodiam Castle, complete with a slot through which to place your pound coins or notes, trustingly assumed to be all present and correct for the books one carries away. I paid all of £2 for this pristine first edition with a pristine (and very lovely) dustjacket, and I knew my charity shop pillaging was off to a grand start.


I hadn't read Jean Rhys in ages. Probably around a decade ago I read her bleak Paris novel, Good Morning Midnight (1939), which I quite liked despite its bleakness, and went on to her final novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), her most famous work and, as many of you know, a sort of prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, explaining how the madwoman in the attic came to go mad in the first place. I hate to keep using the word "bleak," but Rhys certainly had a difficult life and so her perspectives are unsurprisingly a bit on the dark side. And her writing is, nevertheless, lovely and, for me, worth all the bleakness she can throw at me.



Sleep It Off Lady was Rhys's third and final story collection, mostly written, it seems, after her she was "rediscovered" with Wide Sargasso Sea (she published virtually nothing from 1939 until 1966, and had fallen into poverty and obscurity to the extent that she twice had to be advertised for—by the same actress, no less—for rights to dramatise her work for the BBC—rather incredible for an author now considered among the most important women writers of the century!). Her second collection, Tigers Are Better-Looking (1968), contained mostly work done in the 1960s, though some may have been from her earlier, "lost" years. Which means that Sleep It Off Lady, published when Rhys was in her mid-80s and only three years before her death, contains most of her very late work indeed.

There are a few stories here that I found a bit light, not entirely memorable, but there are others that are absolutely unforgettable. In "Heat", a child is awakened to witness, out the window, the eruption of Mt. Pelée and the destruction of St. Pierre in Martinique. That story wonderfully highlights the difference in perspective between superstitious natives who assume the destruction was to punish its wickedness, and the English on the island for whom the wickedness involved (the theatre and the opera house, for example) were small potatoes.


Similarly powerful is "Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers", set in 1899, when a Mr. Ramage arrives in Dominica seeking peace and quiet, married a native girl, and over time goes (or is driven) mad by tropical life. But while Mr. Ramage goes mad by "going native," another British "pioneer", Mrs. Menzies, is seen pompously riding her horse through town, carrying ice for her tea and wearing the "thick, dark riding habit brought from England ten years before". Unlike Mr. Ramage, Mrs. Menzies rather madly refuses to compromise her standards at all.

And there's even something here for fans of girls' school stories, of all things, since "Overture and Beginners Please" is a surprisingly humorous story perhaps reflecting on Rhys's own school days and her progression from school to her unsuccessful career in the theatre.

Three of the stories in particular—"Rapunzel, Rapunzel", "Who Knows What's Up in the Attic", and the title story—deal explicitly with getting old. They're all quite bleak (there's that word again), certainly not for the easily distressed reader, or the reader looking for a bit of good cheer! On the other hand, they are also powerful and dreadfully real in their perspective on the fears, comforts, and vulnerabilities of aging. One of the things one can love about Jean Rhys, if one is not too easily distressed, is her absolutely unflinching honesty and lack of sentimentality about the harsher realities of life.

These stories reminded me how much I love Rhys's voice—so much so that I've now picked up her other short stories, so I can keep it in my head for a while longer.

9 comments:

  1. For Margaret Yorke's crime fiction, I would highly recommend NO MEDALS FOR THE MAJOR, if you read only one.

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    1. Thanks! I've been on a mystery kick in recent days, so I'll make a note of that.

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  2. Halfway through Here Be Dragons, I wanted to climb in and give John a swift kick in his ass.

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    1. Exasperating, isn't he? But I feel like I've met people like him more than once...

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  3. Just the little excerpt is making me search out Limbo Ladies!
    And Scott, since you have been "outed" on the DES list - many happy returns!
    Tom

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    1. Shucks, I should have sent it to you, Tom. I think it may have been among my donations to the Big Book Sale this year. :-(

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  4. I recall this Stella Gibbons novel as one of the handful in which the author drew on her daughter's real-life experiences as a member of the younger generation (before said daughter protested and put a stop to the practice). It's as if Gibbons saw postwar urban youth culture as being quite as mixed-up and misguided as the rural Starkadder lifestyle had seemed a generation earlier. In many Gibbons novels there's a messy social milieu into which an organizer arrives. Here it's not self-assured Flora Poste but the less confident young female protagonist, an embryonic entrepreneuse with ambitions of running a tea shop in the midst of a world made chaotic by young bohemians and an older generation gone off the rails into worship of false values represented by television celebrity. (By way of comparison, think of the novel Angela Thirkell might have written on the postwar young, had not her son Colin MacInnes done the job for her in books like Absolute Beginners.)
    Grant Hurlock

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    1. Yes, and if I recall correctly, Mrs. Thirkell and her son has, at best, an "iffy" relationship.
      Tom

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    2. That's very interesting. Odd that I somehow don't think about Gibbons' age when I read her novels, though I do with some other authors. She seemed to capture the time and place very well and quite unflinchingly. But if John is partly based on someone her daughter knew, one can certainly understand why her view of him wouldn't have been romanticized!

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