May 2021 Wrap-Up

May! May was a good month. “Good” is a broad word, which we were taught in school never to use in our writing (like “pretty” and “nice”), but May was a good month nevertheless. I read thirteen books, indoor dining and hugs both made a return to our lives, and I got into grad school! (I’ll start with an MPhil and shift to a PhD after two years–I’ll be studying part-time to begin with–on 18th-century literature, specifically literary depictions of sex workers, even more specifically those marginalized by their race and/or gender identity. I KNOW.) Also, it eventually stopped raining.

So, those books. A remarkably high number of them were proofs/reading copies of current hardback releases. Actually, one of those came out in 2019 but it’s still available in hardback so I’m counting it, and also counting it as a dent in the Great Unread: the comedian Sofie Hagen’s memoir Happy Fat, which doesn’t say a lot that anyone who’s done any fat-positive reading won’t already have seen, but which has the great virtue of being funny, and of reinforcing a message that I always, always seem to need to hear. Another was Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms, her newest historical-fantasy novel, and also her best; combining time travel, the Napoleonic Wars, speculative history, and a slow-burning love story, its multiple subplots are handled with greater clarity and aplomb than anything she’s yet written. It’s not what you’d think of as a “quick read”, and yet it reads quickly; once I became invested, I couldn’t stop reading til I was done. One was a Barbellion Prize submission, Sara Gibbs’s memoir of growing up as an undiagnosed autistic woman, Drama Queen. (I won’t comment extensively on the Barbellion Prize books other than to register that I’ve read them; I haven’t discussed this with the chair of judges but I have a feeling it’s not the done thing.) There was Assembly by Natasha Brown, which I discussed a little bit with Rebecca and Laura on Goodreads; it’s marketable as a disaster-woman book but I don’t actually think it is; I think it’s a book about the impossibility of winning as a Black British woman under capitalism, how material success is based upon the exploitation of your labour and material poverty only reaffirms your status as a second-class citizen. The plot twist, such as it is, has been called melodramatic, but I think it’s perfect: the stakes are that high, and (without wishing to spoil anything) the book makes it very apparent that checking out completely can easily look like the only solution. As our narrator muses, in a passage that seems to me to encapsulate the book’s whole project, “Nothing is a choice. Nothing is a choice. Nothing is a choice.” I also read The Dreadful Monster and its Poor Relations by Julian Hoppitt (a history of taxation and spending in the UK from the Act of Union in 1707 to 2010; dry, yes, but more or less comprehensible if very granular, and I’m interested in the British historical economy and how people and governments chose to spend money as imperial ambitions and capacities increased), and The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (as much a love letter to libraries, books, and stories as everyone says it is, with references ranging from Jane Eyre to Norse mythology to The Da Vinci Code, but oddly and problematically disjointed, for me. There’s too much going on, too many characters who want too many incompatible and largely undiscussed things, to hold it all in your head as a singular reading experience, which makes it very unlike Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a book to which it has been much compared. It’s addictive, extremely tense in parts, and I enjoyed reading it, but it’s not perfect and not as immersive as I’d hoped.)

With regards to backlist reading: I read two of the Gollancz ebooks from that 99p sale (I’m getting through them!): Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book (very close to being better than just good; personally, I found Willis’s 1990s conception of a 2050s Oxford a lot closer to 1950s Oxford, which is frustrating on an imaginative level–a huge part of one plot strand revolves around being unable to get hold of an academic because he’s on holiday, Willis apparently not having thought of widespread mobile phone usage, and the gender politics amongst the young characters are ridiculously outdated–but the historical strand works well because it relies on our emotional connection to individuals we know will die sooner or later, and it largely earns that emotional connection) and Sheri S. Tepper’s Raising the Stones, which I really enjoyed: gods who are a sentient fungus! A blistering critique of theocratic patriarchy! An acknowledgment of music as a revolutionary force! If the book has a weakness, it’s a total indifference to minimizing point of view; there are dozens of POV characters, though we move fluidly between each of them and the effect is generally that of an omniscient narrator, which is manageable. Still, I thought it was great and will be reaching for more Tepper (especially Grass) in future. I also finished The Silmarillion, with the help of the Prancing Pony podcast; it is decidedly not for casual Tolkien fans, but I definitely came to it at the right time and, like all the richest collections of myth and legend, it contains some very memorable individual stories (the death of Fingolfin; Beren and Luthien, of course; the children of Hurin, also of course). Much to my surprise, women are better represented here than in The Hobbit or LOTR: there are more of them, elves and humans and demigods, and they achieve more in war and in diplomacy (Haleth, for instance, who leads the defense of her lands, and takes up the leadership of her people when all her male relatives fall). Those who believe Tolkien a misogynist might do well to look to the women of The Silmarillion for role models.

More academically, I read Rebecca Gibson’s The Corseted Skeleton: a Bioarchaeology of Binding, for Barbellion Prize purposes (it’s about the physical effects of corseting on women’s bodies and argues that physical transformation should not be interpreted as oppression across the board), and British Women’s Writing in the Long 18th Century edited by Jennie Batchelor and Cora Kaplan, which, well, does what it says on the tin. Most of it probably won’t be that relevant to my own work, but women did sometimes address sex work–as well as, more commonly, the morality of labour, and constructions of race and otherness–in their writing, and I came away from it with at least two new directions of enquiry. So that’s a good thing.

Finally, two rereads: Tana French’s In the Woods (which I reread almost by accident, in snatches on my phone; the final 25% of it as agonizing as ever, I honestly take my hat off to her for being able to sustain the process of writing such emotionally painful scenes as an intimate friendship falls apart. The case is technically solved, but no one wins and justice is not served, and it’s that as well as her delicate, brutal filleting of motive and social performance that makes her such an unusual crime writer, I think), and Jane Austen’s Persusasion (which I think I hadn’t reread since June of 2007?! That can’t be right, but it must be right. Anyway, it holds up. I hadn’t noticed til reading Gillian Beer’s introduction this time around how closely we are tied to Anne Elliot’s perspective, even to the point that when she lowers her eyes, the rest of the scene is reported only in dialogue–we literally can’t see what she can’t see. It explains, I think, why Wentworth sometimes feels oddly colourless. He’s handsome, rich thanks to his own competence, sensible, kind, dutiful, and dryly witty, but he doesn’t have the vast charismatic charge of Darcy, or even the queasily immoral magnetism of a Willoughby or a Henry Crawford; we love him because Anne loves him. Which feels right, I think, in that the book is about becoming sure of yourself, and of your choice of partner, without needing to justify them or hold them up for the quantification and judgment of others.)

To analyse: only one by a person of colour, which is pretty poor. (I started two others–The World Does Not Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott, and Hard Like Water by Yan Lianke–and abandoned both, mostly for the same reason: more surreal/magical realist than I fancied. It’s really not my mode. Also, Lianke’s narrator kept describing a woman’s breasts as being like handsome white sheep. Hard pass.) Quite a lot of nonfiction, though; five out of thirteen, a figure inflated by Barbellion Prize reading. (There are some nominated novels and poetry collections, but I’m not there yet.) Two books by queer authors and/or featuring queer characters (Happy Fat and The Kingdoms), again not great but present. A pretty good balance of frontlist to backlist, and I definitely feel my choices have been largely directed by thoughtful whim.

For June, I have no reading plans, apart from not buying any books, again. I’m moving in late September and am already planning a joyful way of downsizing my book collection, which I’ll tell you more about later. For now, I’ll try to enjoy my last few months of “free reading” before I start the MPhil, which I anticipate will keep me constantly guilty when I’m not working. (I’m really, really excited, though. Honestly, I am!)

And you? Do you have summer reading plans, wishes, goals, hopes?

April 2021 Wrap-Up

With best intentions, it looks as though my New Year’s resolution to write something about every.single.book. has sort of come to its natural end. Oh well. It lasted for two months pretty solidly, which isn’t bad. I refuse to feel guilt or shame. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if constant churning-out of bookish content is really where I want my productivity to lie. It was a useful exercise for a while there, to bring my mind back into shape, but I already work for the book industry eight hours a day, five days a week. Do I really want my leisure hours to consist entirely of free publicity for that same industry? This ambivalence is partly reflected in the way my reading is shifting away from frontlist titles at the moment. We’ll see how this develops over the course of the year.

On to April, a pretty rich reading month in which I read eleven books! Three of these were proofs of new releases: Florence Gildea’s Lessons I Have Unlearned (a cheering and charming slim volume about mental health, eating disorders, and God; it would be difficult to read it from a non-Christian perspective, but as someone who wrestles with God’s existence and a brutally perfectionist self-image, I found it very resonant), Jon McGregor’s Lean Fall Stand (exactly as good as I wanted it to be, though a different animal, and slightly less technically accomplished, than Reservoir 13; it’s a novel in two chunks, really, the first chunk establishing as protagonist Robert “Doc” Wright, an experienced technician assisting scientists and photographers in Antarctica, the second following Doc’s progress after a stroke leaves him with aphasia, and filtered through the eyes of his wife, Anna; emotionally nuanced but sometimes perhaps a bit distant with its readers. Still, writing aphasia–a condition defined by a loss of control over language–is ambitious and difficult, and mostly McGregor does well there), and Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle (a strong contender for my book of the year so far, a dual-strand historical novel following Marian Graves, a 20th-century female pilot who disappears, like Earhart, on an attempt to complete a type of round-the-world flight known as a great circle, and Hadley Baxter, a “troubled Hollywood starlet” in the mould of Jennifer Lawrence or Kristin Stewart–she’s become famous by playing the female romantic lead in a franchise adapted from cod-fantasy YA novels, whose fans are portrayed as rabidly unable to tell the difference between fiction and reality–who feels compelled to play Marian in a new, and misleading, biopic, and to find out more about her actual life; Marian’s strand gets more pages, and it’s clear to me that Shipstead preferred writing her, but Hadley is never less convincing than Marian; it’s been months since I read a book that made me believe so deeply in the reality of its characters. The descriptive writing is also phemonenal. It might be a tad longer than strictly necessary, but not a single page made me feel I was wasting my time by reading it. It’s magnificent, and will, I hope, be much loved.)

Two were newly released reprints of older books, both from Penguin’s Black Britain: Writing Back series. The first, Incomparable World by SI Martin, is a sort of crime picaresque set in 1780s London amongst a community of Black soldiers who fought for the British in the American Revolution, having been promised freedom from slavery and a new life in England after the war’s end. Martin’s great on atmosphere, noise and muck and mess, the way poverty steals dignity, the necessity of living on the edge, but less good on clear plotting and character differentiation. Still, it’s funny and poignant and provides a much-needed fictional window into a historical experience that remains largely unexplored. The second was The Fat Lady Sings by Jacqueline Roy, in which zaftig, irrepressible Gloria, and skinny, silent Merle become unlikely companions on an NHS mental health ward in the 1990s. Roy slyly forces us to question whether either of them is actually mad, or whether (as has been the case so often for women, especially poor women and/or women of colour) they’ve been sectioned largely for the convenience of people around them. Gloria sings constantly, talks loudly to everyone she sees, and is secretly grieving her female partner of many years, Josie, whose family’s homophobia has made it impossible for Gloria’s pain to be acknowledged; Merle is traumatized by childhood sexual abuse and a toxic current relationship; both make other people uncomfortable. Their growing friendship, and the journals they keep for the scrutiny of their doctors, reveal the essential unhelpfulness and fluidity of labels like “sane” and “insane”. It’s a genuinely joyful book, and the ending is perfect.

I got through a number of books when I went down to Sussex at the start of the month. Two of these were e-copies of backlist sci fi classics that I snaffled in a buying spree at Gollancz’s 99 p sale (Paul McAuley’s Fairyland, which also counts towards my Clarke Award challenge as it won in 1996; heavy on the cyber-punk and biotech but posing fascinating questions about sentience and authority over life, although its curious structure lets it down by deflating tension every time we move location; and M John Harrison’s The Centauri Device, which Harrison himself has described as “the crappiest of my novels”, a kind of anti-space opera in which the half-alien protagonist is defined by his passivity and indifference in the face of a potentially world-ending weapon that only he can unlock; I don’t regret reading it, but I’m pleased to hear that he gets better). One was a backlist title gifted to me by my partner (The Dragon Lady by Louisa Treger, a reexamination of the life of Lady Virginia Courtauld and her husband Stephen–yes, that Courtauld. They lived in Rhodesia because Ginie’s history was too scandalous to keep them in England, which is portrayed as unbearably stuffy and repressed, probably quite accurately; a part of me struggles with being asked to sympathize too heavily with a wealthy white woman for being socially ostracized for being vocally anti-racist, but then, as Treger makes clear, being a “race traitor” in Rhodesia in the 1950s could get you shot.) Two were old copies of books found at my grandmother’s house (A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym, which I wrote about at greater length earlier this month, and A History of Harting by Rev. H.D. Gordon, a private-press reprint of a local history of my grandmother’s area originally published in the late 19th century. Absolutely fascinating explanation of topography and human settlement in that part of the world going right back to the Iron Age, when there was a hill fort, and with some exciting, lurid stories of murder, smuggling and land grabs in later centuries. Obviously of very niche interest, but I loved it).

Finally, one of April’s reads was part of a new-paperback buying spree at BookBar on Blackstock Road: Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, which uses imagination, empathy and analysis to re-present the lives of Black women in American cities in the early part of the 20th century, whose experiments in sexuality, family structure, and earning a living anticipated the 1960s revolution in white social and sexual structures by decades. (There are still four books from this spree I have yet to delve into, but I’m pleased to have read one relatively quickly, instead of leaving the whole pile to languish, as so often happens.)

In terms of reading resolutions, I feel this month was fairly diverse: a number of books by authors of colour, a number of books by or about queer individuals, a respectable sprinkling of nonfiction, some experimental and some “standard”. A good genre spread too: some sci fi, some historical fiction, some contemporary fiction. Though not a whole lot of the latter; this plus the release of the Women’s Prize shortlist yesterday (of which I have read one) makes it clearer than ever that my reading interests are not necessarily making it easy to prioritize frontlist books. Further stagnation on the Great Unread, though. It’s difficult to make room for everything, especially because I really need to start pushing Barbellion Prize contenders to the fore. (I probably won’t discuss those in future reading wrap-ups, apart from acknowledging how many of them I’ve read in a given month. I’m not sure why, but it seems the done thing to keep official prize panel reading to oneself.)

In May, I am going to try not to buy any books. I have my proof pile, my physical-purchases pile, my Gollancz e-purchases (currently reading Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, not totally sure about it), the Great Unread, Barbellion Prize submissions… There’s plenty to be getting on with. (I’m also reading, chapter by chapter and at long last, The Silmarillion, which defeated me utterly as a Lord of the Rings-obsessed ten-year-old but which I think I’m finally coming to at the right time. After each chapter, I’m listening to the corresponding episode of the Prancing Pony podcast, which is a chapter-by-chapter deep dive into Tolkien’s work hosted by two very funny, earnest, passionate Americans. I love it. I so rarely fly my true High Fantasy Freak Flag, but consider it hoisted.)

Also: beer gardens and outdoor dining are back! I had a falafel burger and two glasses of wine at a cafe with my best friend last night, then came back home and promptly fell asleep, like an overstimulated toddler. Happy days.

A Glass of Blessings

Having spent the last two-ish weeks more or less on break over Easter, reading quite a lot (six books in twelve days) and writing about absolutely none of it, I’m attempting to get back on the horse with a little bit of commentary (hardly a review or a critical essay) on Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings, which I picked up on a whim at my grandmother’s house (yes, technically I shouldn’t have been there; she’s double-vaccinated, recently widowed, and lonely, I’m single-vaccinated and basically a hermit, we both accepted the risks).

Really, the best way to think of A Glass of Blessings is as a 20th-century Anglo-Catholic version of Jane Austen’s Emma. Like Emma, Wilmet Forsyth is comfortably well off, reasonably clever, and more than a touch bored. (Unlike Emma, she’s already married, to a civil servant named Rodney whom she met under significantly more dashing circumstances when they were both stationed in Italy during the war. One of the recurring themes is a vague, not entirely negative acknowledgment of how much more respectable and staid their lives, and the lives of their old friends, have become, a sense that nothing else can really measure up but an equal sense that perhaps they’ve simply lost the first energies of youth in a way that would always have happened, war or not.) Wilmet’s boredom leads her to take an increasingly active interest in the life of her local parish church, St Luke’s (Rodney does not attend), and to be drawn towards the three priests there as well as her friend Rowena’s rather enigmatic but good-looking brother, Piers. Wilmet’s prejudices, arrogance and blind spots–like Emma’s–lead her to entirely erroneous conclusions about most of these men, as well as about the spotlessly good and pious Mary Beamish, whose friendship she initially discounts but who later proves to be rather more switched-on, and more valuable as a friend, than previously judged. I should add that Wilmet is never drawn as a horrible person or even an unpleasant one–her problem is comfortable certainty, not cruelty, and a certain ability to bend facts to suit her subconsciously desired interpretation–and she is often the vessel for Pym’s brilliant, sometimes off-the-wall observational capacities, which tell just as much against her as against whoever she’s discussing:

Were the invitations always for Father Thames and never for mild dumpy little Father Bode, with his round spectacled face and slightly common voice, who always seemed to be the sub-deacon at High Mass and who had once read the wrong lesson at a carol service? I was sure that Father Bode was equally worthy of eating smoked salmon and grouse or whatever luncheon the hostesses might care to provide. Then it occurred to me that he might well be the kind of person who would prefer tinned salmon, though I was ashamed of the unworthy thought for I knew him to be a good man.

A Glass of Blessings, p. 7

It won’t take the 21st-century reader very long to determine that Piers, far from being secretly and moodily in love with Wilmet, is gay, and that the roommate he takes such pains to avoid discussing is in fact his lover, Keith (who is not only a man but has a detectable Leicester accent, which is possibly more of a transgression). I was both surprised and impressed by the way Piers’s sexuality seems simply to be accepted by all of the main characters; it is never openly discussed, but neither is he socially shunned once Wilmet works it out, and even her husband Rodney seems both to comprehend the situation and to find the two men’s company more amusing than problematic. Perhaps the acceptance is possible precisely because what Piers and Keith are to each other is never spoken aloud, just made obvious through the intimacy of their living situation. I’m not certain how to feel about the portrayal of Keith, who is depicted as a rather motherly figure (though the younger partner of the couple): an excellent interior decorator, tidier, cook and host. He’s clearly meant to stand as a contrast to Piers, who was miserable and an alcoholic before Keith’s influence entered his life, but is it too stereotypical for a gay character? The novel was written in 1958, which makes it interesting that Pym attempts it at all. I do think she succeeds in making Keith a person, as she makes almost all of her characters; his portrayal certainly doesn’t appear offensive, or stigmatizing.

The first few chapters are taken up with finding a new housekeeper for the clergy house, where two of the priests lodge together, and through Wilmet’s intervention, the successful applicant is in fact a man, a Mr. Bason. He is also a talented cook and admirer of beautiful things (in fact something of a kleptomaniac regarding the latter), also queer-coded, and also clearly lower-middle-class at best. Wilmet and her friends, of a different social standing, have no such apparent hunger for beauty or practical ability to create it (though Wilmet does allow as to how she has a talent for flower arranging). A taste for life’s finer things, Pym seems to suggest, is a quality reserved for people who do not know for sure that they can have such things. The difference between Bason and Keith is that the former is a snob, out of a terror of social exclusion, and Keith is not a snob at all; instead he is almost an innocent, remarking wistfully that Wilmet must see lots of trees where she lives. Pym may notice everything, but she is never unwilling to allow sympathy for her characters. She never lets the reader despise them or feel scorn for them, although we may find them dislikable, embarrassing, or pompous, which is why her novels seem to me to have more heart than the phrase “English high comedy”–certainly applicable here–would suggest.

The best character, after Wilmet herself, however, must be her mother-in-law Sybil, who is neither a tyrannical harridan nor an overbearing smotherer. Sybil is cheerfully atheistic, fond of her son and her daughter-in-law (who both live in her house) but by no means entirely occupied with home life. She immerses herself in shopping, lunches, and academic lectures, which is how she comes into contact with the dry but gentle and kind-hearted Professor Root, who becomes a fixture of the Forsyth’s family life. It is apparent to the reader much earlier than it is to Wilmet that Professor Root and Sybil are romantically involved, and the sweet gentility with which these two older people go about courting each other and, finally, deciding to get married, feels like a little cherry to enjoy on top of the delights of the main characters’ doings. The fact that Wilmet is oblivious to it only makes it more delicious.

This is my third Pym novel–I read Excellent Women in 2014 and Quartet In Autumn in 2010, according to my book journal–and I think I’ve finally reached the age where one starts to actually appreciate her. (Quartet in Autumn depressed me, perhaps unsurprisingly since I was eighteen at the time, and I don’t think I fully comprehended Excellent Women; looking back, I read it during a month of extreme upheaval during which I had three different addresses, so frankly it’s a miracle I remember any of it at all.) Where should I venture next in her back catalogue?


A Glass of Blessings was first published in 1958; my edition is a Penguin paperback from 1983, many of the yellowing pages of which have come entirely unglued from the spine and are simply shoved loose between the covers. A very nice contemporary edition is available in the UK from Little, Brown.

March 2021 Wrap-Up

Hahahahaha. Well, that didn’t last: I managed two months of reviewing pretty much everything I read, and then this month, it all went wrong.

In my defense, that is because I was reading for, and writing up, an application for an MPhil/PhD programme in English, which consumed a lot of time and brain energy. It also led me to read several academic books in quick succession, none of which I could really adequately review, and to reach mainly (although not entirely) for palate-cleansers in between.

So, this month, I read fourteen books, which is a lot more like the olden days. Of those, I have managed to review one, Revolting Prostitutes by Juno Mac and Molly Smith. Of the rest, five were new releases and/or proof copies: The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex (a truly wonderful, eerie novel set in Cornwall and based on the true story of three lighthousemen who disappeared without a trace; Stonex’s ability to depict human emotion and her firm grasp on the nature of insanity is never less than bracing); The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans (I never read anything billed as “stories and a novella” and good Lord am I glad I made an exception for this, a near-flawless collection on emotional loss and the deceptions of American historio-mythology; my two favourite stories are “Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain”, set during a wedding that doesn’t happen, and the title story, a novella that makes devastatingly clear the cost of being honest about history); Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley (a rather broadly drawn but engaging romp through all levels of society, centering on the attempted demolition of a Soho brothel and gentrification of the neighbourhood; Mozley works in types here, and the prose is less remarkable than in her debut, Elmet, but Hot Stew is in a Dickensian tradition of London novels that connect the homeless with the high and mighty and everyone in between; it’s a lot of fun); Harvest by Georgina Harding (the third in a loose trilogy–I’ve read the second but not the first–and a book that grows on you, quietly, the further you read; dealing with the unspoken traumas and losses of a Norfolk farming family which are revealed when Kumiko, the Japanese girlfriend of youngest son Jonathan, comes to stay; Harding moves from perspective to perspective seamlessly and with great empathy, and although the book is certainly a rural tragedy of a sort it never feels melodramatic or Hardy-esque); and The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix (sadly, mildly diverting but there’s nothing going on here that China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, Ben Aaronovitch, Michael Moorcock, CS Lewis, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and JRR Tolkien–the latter four of whom are frequently name-checked–haven’t done already, and better; the story of a half-mortal girl discovering her parentage, aided by an eccentric and sometimes violent extra-governmental secret agency, spirits of ancient wells and mountains evoking a deep-time England, etc; it should all be very evocative but Nix never really grounds his setting in a feeling of place: he gets street names and geographies right (down to his booksellers’ headquarters on, ahem, Curzon Street, in a Georgian townhouse, right across from Shepherd Market… looks a lot like home…) but unlike Cooper, Garner, Mieville and Tolkien (at least), he never manages to make me feel as though I understand the spirit of his settings. Which is fatal for a book about topographical magic.) A final, and unexpectedly wonderful, read for March was Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1920 novel Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, which Penguin Modern Classics have reissued in one of their lovely eau-de-nil-backed editions; the premise–a middle-aged English bank clerk receives a small inheritance, becomes a missionary in Polynesia, feels a call to convert the inhabitants of the tiny island of Fanua, but makes only one convert, a boy, and finds himself put to “a terrible test”–seemed fertile ground for Graham Greene-ish misery, but Warner is nothing like Greene, nowhere near so predictable in her belief in human wretchedness, and instead the novel is profoundly moving: Mr. Fortune’s friendship with the boy Lueli changes his life, and eventually it is love that compels him to give up his own happiness, because he realizes the damage he will do to the Fanuan way of life if he stays. Quietly stunning and under two hundred pages long; I urge you to give it a go.

Three of the other books I read were for background purposes as I worked up an abstract and then a research proposal: Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture by Laura J. Rosenthal (a broad overview of 18th-century literary depictions of prostitutes), Prostitution and Eighteenth-Century Culture, an anthology of literary and historical essays edited by Ann Lewis and focusing on British, French and Dutch sources, and Mastery, Tyranny and Desire by Trevor Burnard, an in-depth look at the diaries of Jamaican slave-owner Thomas Thistlewood, from whose extensive journal-keeping comes much of what we know about the experiences of enslaved people and Anglo-Jamaican colonialists during the eighteenth century. It’s both genuinely fascinating, and utterly horrifying.

In between, I’ve read two science fiction novels as palate-cleansers: a re-read of Alastair Reynolds’s gripping and entirely inessential Revelation Space, whose failings on the level of character become more obvious the second time around but which still has a pretty compelling mystery at its heart, which rescues it, and Tricia Sullivan’s 1999 Clarke Award-winner Dreaming In Smoke, a planetary colonization novel whose plot is catalyzed by the apparent implosion of the AI, Ganesh, that keeps operational a fledgling human outpost on the fiery planet T’nane. (Verdict: also pretty compelling, though with great lashings of cyberpunk-ish technobabble, which I always find myself having to skim, and a protagonist whose profound insecurity and passivity is both infuriating and a fascinating character choice in a genre where indestructible badass bitches are more the order of the day.) I also reread Adam Roberts’s collection of sci fi and fantasy criticism, Sibilant Fricative, which, like all of Roberts’s criticism, is always amusing and largely illuminating. Finally, I read the short story/novella Bloodchild by Octavia Butler, which is utterly brilliant, revolting and entrancing and poignant and horrific all at once, about a reproductive relationship worked out between future humans on an alien world and that world’s indigenous insectoid race, the T’lic. The story’s thirty pages long and says more about consent, bodily autonomy, love, coercion, and choice than most novels can hope for.

What did this all mean for my self-imposed reading resolutions? Oddly, not everything was a loss: nearly half of this month’s books were nonfiction. Only two were by an author of colour, though (The Office of Historical Corrections and Bloodchild), and only one by a queer author (Hot Stew). No translations, and my progress through the Great Unread stalled entirely (although I enjoyed my rereads). I did, however, set myself the goal of reading “eighteenth-century stuff” and “stuff on sex work” in March, which, I think we can all agree, has been a success. And did I succeed at “generally not stressing myself out too much”? Not really. But that’s an ongoing project.

In April, I’ll have little to do but wait for a reply to my application, so my reading can be a touch more expansive. Certainly, maintaining reading diversity and getting through the Great Unread are still general aims. I’m also enjoying my rereads so much, and usually give rereading so little thought, that I’d quite like to do more of it. Finally, I went hog-wild during a Gollancz 99p ebook sale yesterday and bought eight titles for the price of one, so I really must attempt to justify that by actually reading them. (The first I read was the underwhelming Nix, mentioned above, but most of the others are in the SF Masterworks series – aka classics of the genre – so I expect better things to come.)

I can’t think too much about the fact that it’s been a year since lockdown one. I remember it felt like a strange, hallucinatory holiday – I bought a Disney+ subscription and ordered a lot of sushi and drank a lot of gin, and it was a sunny spring, although a lonely one. That feeling is long gone. We’ll readjust, of course, in a superficial way, once we’re allowed to see our loved ones and go out and about again, but we’ll be experiencing the effects of these two years in a more subtle fashion for a long time, I think.

Revolting Prostitutes

Eye-catching post title, no? And eye-catching book title. Anyway—this is going to take the form of some reflections upon, and consolidations of, what Molly Smith and Juno Mac lay out in the above.

Smith and Mac are both sex workers, and their stance on the legal status of sex work is that, first and foremost, it should proceed from the standpoint that a) sex workers are working, and b) workers deserve access to labour rights. These are two seemingly straightforward premises, but, as the current global status of sex work demonstrates, they are remarkably difficult ones for politicians and anti-prostitution feminists (a term Smith and Mac use and which I will adopt) to get their heads around. Using interviews with current sex workers and activists all over the world as well as former sex workers, they draw attention to two false figures, the Happy Hooker and the Erotic Professional. They are closely related, and are often used in media pieces by or about sex workers who are among the most privileged in their profession, the “elite” or “high-class” escorts, many of whom say that they love sex work, find it empowering, and don’t think there is any need for further regulation. As Smith and Mac demonstrate, any emphasis on fulfillment misses the point. An individual in the highest rungs of any industry may love their job and find it empowering (or that may all be part of the marketing material, since many elite escorts are selling emotional intimacy and “the girlfriend experience”, as well as sex). That does nothing to change the fact that there are workers of lower status in the industry who require access to labour law. Whether a high-class escort feels empowered by her work or not is irrelevant to the question of whether we should give workers in her industry legal protections from harassment, rape, eviction, and prosecution simply for trying to exist. One would not expect a representative worker in the retail, hospitality or media industry to find their job “empowering”, necessarily; one would expect that they are undertaking work in order to survive, and that they therefore have the right to work reasonable hours, not be harassed by management or customers in their workplace, and not be subject to punitive measures outside of their workplace (such as being arrested themselves simply for, let’s say, looking like a barista, if they call the police to report a crime committed against them). Yet this is exactly what mainstream media and much contemporary feminism tends to expect of its sex workers—that they either claim to represent all sex workers in their empowerment, or be made to represent all sex workers in moral panic-mongering about degradation and “trafficking”.

Trafficking, as Smith and Mac also point out, is a real phenomenon; it is just that it merges into a wider phenomenon, which is that of people smuggling and undocumented migration. In their early chapters, they skilfully demonstrate that the criminalization of sex work is inextricably connected to much wider issues, like the ongoing tightening of borders, the ongoing criminalization of drugs, and austerity policies that drive more and more people into poverty and homelessness, then punish and humiliate them for being poor and homeless. In these circumstances, it is not at all surprising that people turn to sex work. (Smith and Mac mostly figure sex workers as women, both cis and trans, which reflects the realities of the industry, but they do acknowledge cis and trans male sex workers, and use studies focusing on them, as well.) Smith and Mac are pragmatic about this, and their proposed solutions are radical in the truest sense, in that they strike at the root of the problem: liquidate borders, decriminalize drug use, reinstate (or instate, in some countries) a proper social safety net, and decriminalize sex work. Using both statistics and anecdote, they demonstrate that in every place where drug use and sex work have been rendered safer (which decriminalization would do), and where so-called “exit programmes” prioritize the needs of workers in giving them money and genuine career development pathways, instead of patronizing them with punitive benefits measures and lower-paid jobs making garments or jewellery, neither drug use nor sex work has increased in frequency; in many places, it has decreased, because workers are no longer in such desperate need; and deaths have decreased substantially.

I say “in every place” where drug use and sex work have been made safer; there is only one country in the world that has pursued full decriminalization, and that is New Zealand. A case study on NZ makes up the final chapter of the book, and interviewed sex workers are palpably more confident in their safety at work, their ability to access labour law, and their security from police brutality and abuse. Police abuse of power is a horrifying constant throughout the other chapters. These explore countries that have fully criminalized sex work; the “Nordic model”, which criminalizes buyers but not sellers, and is not the silver bullet its proponents claim it is (clients who are frightened they will be arrested can demand increasingly unsafe environments and practices from their sex workers, who find themselves less and less able to refuse because they need money, while the client can always choose not to purchase sex from them); “legalization”, which is the model used in Germany and the Netherlands, requires things like registration for sex workers and mandatory health checks, the former of which leaves undocumented migrant sex workers out in the cold and the latter of which is a human rights violation; and full decriminalization, which only New Zealand currently uses and which essentially removes state apparatus, and policing, from the sex industry altogether, except in the sense that police officers are required to protect the rights and safety of sex workers at work in the same way they are required to protect the rights and safety of office workers or waitstaff. Sex workers are safer when they do not have to fear the police, either while a transaction is taking place or afterwards. (The numbers of arrests for “brothel-keeping” in countries that criminalize are ridiculous, and include such people as a sex worker’s pal who lets her crash at their place for a few weeks, and, memorably, a seventy-year-old cleaner in Melbourne, Australia who called an ambulance when a client had a heart attack and was promptly arrested under anti-pimping legislation, thus ensuring, as Smith and Mac write, that no one in any part of Melbourne’s sex industry ever again calls an ambulance for a client or worker in need of medical attention.)

If Smith and Mac sometimes seem to focus on the negative or dangerous elements of sex work, it is not because they wish to shame or stigmatize members of their own community; it is because they wish to draw attention to the fact that workers of any kind, anywhere, have a right to safety and comfort, and that when those rights are ignored, the consequences are devastating and unjust. Putting current sex workers at the centre of the movement for their rights seems so obvious, yet so many policymakers, governments and institutions appear not to understand the principle; Smith and Mac never lose sight of it. As a starting point for anyone interested in the political dimensions of sex work, or in how to reduce harm to vulnerable people, or in the interconnectedness of many of today’s most pressing social issues, Revolting Prostitutes is essential reading.


Revolting Prostitutes was first published by Verso Books in the UK in 2018; my paperback edition is from 2020.

The Dead Are Arising

Over at Litro, my review of The Dead Are Arising is up! It’s a new biography of Malcolm X, nearly 30 years in the making, and although it’s a landmark piece of work, it’s not without its weaknesses. You can read the full review for free here.

Gilead

Last Sunday was a very good day and a very beautiful one: I did the work I intended to do in the morning, finishing up a review for Litro and doing the research I’d planned, and then I went for a walk to the nearest Little Free Library to drop off some proofs and old books, which is a roundtrip of about forty minutes. The weather was beautiful; it was the first day of this year that the air didn’t bite, which is always a good day, and the sun was shining in between scraps of drifting cloud. I started off in my jacket but didn’t need it. There were crocuses and snowdrops and daffodils in gardens every other block. On the way home, I bought a fourpack of tinned cider. We no longer have access to a garden, so instead I sat on our front step, barefoot and wearing sunglasses, and drank my way through three tinnies (waving at the downstairs neighbours through their front room curtains when I returned with refills), and re-read a book both completely beautiful and completely irrelevant to any other project I’m working on right now, which is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. According to my book journal, the last time I read this was in February 2008, which would have been my sophomore year of high school. I’ve read Robinson more recently than that—her fourth novel, Lila, made a huge impression on me over Christmas in 2015—but although I did remember the outline of Gilead, much of the detail was lost on me as a fifteen-year-old reader, and probably rightly so. Returning to it at twenty-eight was a good choice.

Better criticism on Marilynne Robinson’s work has been written than I can muster in the morning hour before work, I’m afraid, so this is not going to be a critical essay, just a few comments and responses to what I saw in Gilead this time around. First of all, it is almost the only mainstream contemporary novel I can think of that takes seriously, and allows its characters to take seriously, the notion of divinity as Christian tradition frames it. (The only other one that springs to mind, apart from Robinson’s other work, is Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon. Possibly William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, though there’s a distance between the characters and the narrator, who is looking back on events after several decades, that renders faith less potent somehow. Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River is not in the same category, to my mind, because the purpose of God in that novel is to dazzle the reader with miracle and sentiment, and in my experience that is not a representative modus operandi for God in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. I’m willing to change my mind, though.) John Ames, the minister who is writing the entire book as a letter to his young son, born to him in old age, has lived his entire life within this framework of religious belief, although he has not been without doubt. It allows him, and Robinson, to wrestle genuinely with the ideas of grace and redemption that other writers can only gesture at because the stakes in those novels are not as high. In Gilead, it is not only Jack Boughton, the prodigal son, who needs redeeming; it is also, and urgently, John Ames himself, whose jealousy, misunderstanding and distrust must be overcome if he is to die well and rest peacefully. Blessing Jack, as Jack’s father (also a minister) cannot do, is the crowning redemptive act of John Ames’s life, and when he does it at the end of the book, he has reached a peace with God and himself, the legacies of his own father and grandfather, and left a good legacy for his son. (Significantly, also, Jack’s full name is John Ames Boughton; he is named after Ames, who lost a wife and child of his own as a young man, and Ames acknowledges that Jack is as much his son, in the ways that matter, as Boughton’s. Jack’s fate, in other words, is tied to Ames’s own. He carries the name forward into the world, making his forgiveness and redemption that much more a matter of personal urgency.)

Noticeable, also, is the presence of the American Civil War, which is threaded through the book with Robinson’s characteristic narrative subtlety. This was something I almost entirely missed when reading it as a teenager. John Ames’s grandfather, we learn, was a radical abolitionist preacher who came to “Bleeding Kansas” in the days when the fate of that state—it was about to enter the Union; would it be slave-holding or free?—seemed to hold the key to the fate of the nation. Old Ames, as I’ll call him, was uncompromising: he fought with the rebel John Brown, was hunted by Confederate soldiers, founded hamlets that existed only for the safe passage of fugitive slaves headed for Canada, and converted indifferent settler towns to the anti-slavery cause through tireless preaching. He is, of course, an impossible figure to live up to. As an old man, we are told, he was a pathological giver-away of things, to an extent that distressed and embarrassed his children and other townspeople: his adult daughter takes to hiding coins in jars of food in the pantry; more than once Ames remembers him taking clothes off of washing lines to give to vagrants; there is a memory of him emptying the entire collecting plate at the Presbyterian church into his hat one Sunday. Near the end of his life, he flees Gilead altogether and returns to Kansas, without telling the rest of his family where he has gone. Old Ames is haunted, in other words, by abolition and by what he has seen in the war. He has given his life to a cause and now it consumes him. A preacher who has killed, a freedom fighter who sees the rise of Jim Crow laws and sharecropping, and knows that little has changed despite the blood that was spilt, cannot rest anywhere. John Ames writes that he knows his father was a disappointment to his grandfather, and that he disappointed his father in turn: they are, not to put too fine an allegorical point on it, representative of the generations of post-Civil War America. They cannot help but fail to live up to the demands of their ancestors, who also failed themselves by speaking of liberty and perhaps believing in it, all while founding a nation upon the sin of keeping others in bondage. When John Ames blesses Jack Boughton because Boughton’s father can’t, it’s not only because old Boughton is dying; it’s because Jack has returned to tell Ames that he is married to a “colored woman”, Della, and has a mixed-race son.

Parents and children—specifically, though I think not exclusively, fathers and sons; sin and redemption; freedom and slavery; black and white; God and human. These are huge concerns and cannot necessarily be reconciled by intellect or ingenuity, no matter how hard or how cleverly we try. Ames acknowledges the nature of the problem in one of his theological asides:

Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing. If the Lord chooses to make nothing of our transgressions, then they are nothing. Or whatever reality they have is trivial and conditional[…] After all, why should the Lord bother much over these smirches that are no part of His Creation?

Well, there are a good many reasons why He should. We human beings do real harm. History could make a stone weep. I am aware that significant confusion enters my thinking at this point. […] Though I recall even in my prime foundering whenever I set the true gravity of sin over against the free grace of forgiveness.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson, p. 190

The only peace and reconciliation that comes to Ames is through blessing a young man who has, in the past, hurt others terribly. Where is the justice in that? Is Jack Boughton held accountable for the damage he did in his youth? Ames may blame him, but he cannot judge him. That, we are given to understand, is God’s job, as is forgiveness. Ames can only forgive him, too, in his own heart, and bless.

(It is also, to my surprise, a very funny book. Ames is alive to the ridiculous and the joyful as well as to the sacramental and solemn. Robinson’s descriptions of Ames and some friends as children baptizing a litter of cats, some of whom escape, rendering their status of salvation uncertain; or of a story told by his grandfather in which a stranger’s horse sinks through a weak road and a shed has to be moved on top of it; or of his young son camping out with his best friend Tobias but being kept awake all night (“You heard growling in the bushes. T. has brothers”), are all beautifully judged, with the lightest of touches. Nothing is ever grotesque, but there is a lot of joy in Ames’s recollections of what it has been like to live, and that includes, of course, the many things to be laughed at in the world.)

Worth returning to repeatedly. There was a very good long piece on Robinson’s fiction, relatively recently, in the New Yorker, which I think came out when her most recent book, Jack, did (retelling Jack Boughton’s life from his own perspective). I’ll try to find that again, too.


Gilead was first published in the US in 2004 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. My edition is the 2006 Picador paperback.

Fanny Burney: Her Life

Without wishing to underestimate anyone, I think you’d be hard pressed to find the general reader in 2021 who has even the remotest idea of who Fanny Burney is. Fantastically famous and well-regarded in her own time, and a favourite author of Jane Austen—indeed, influential enough that the title of Pride and Prejudice is taken directly from the final chapter of Burney’s novel Cecilia—she’s now largely read by students, professors, and nerd-types. This is unjust: her work is not only fascinating as a direct literary forebear of Austen’s, but in its own right. Her novels of young women beginning the world, heiresses forced to reckon with the culpable greed of marriage brokers, and heroines fleeing political upheaval are not only diverting for their plots; they’re also studded with minutely observed dialogue and social interactions. Burney’s shrewd ear for phrasing and tone was first honed upon the famous connections of her musical father, such as David Garrick, Hester Thrale, and Samuel Johnson; then upon Queen Charlotte, King George III, and their court, when she was a member of the Queen’s household; finally, as a married woman whose husband’s identity as a French national and a professional soldier, in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, put her family in a constant state of instability for nearly twenty years. Kate Chisholm’s marvelous biography, now rather over twenty years old itself (see bibliographical information at the end of this piece), is a wild ride through the events of Burney’s life—a very full one for a woman as shy and retiring as she was—as well as the general history of mid-eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century Europe, and a vivid introduction to Burney’s fiction and drama.

Chisholm starts with Burney’s father, a man who was to have a significant claim on her affection and loyalty throughout her life: Dr Charles Burney, an eminent musician, teacher and musicologist, whose ambitions to mix in the highest society were realized in a manner almost impossible for even the most talented to emulate. (One of Fanny’s brothers-in-law, also considered an extremely gifted musician, never attained a fraction of the acclaim, money, or access to elites, suggesting that Dr Burney’s achievements were exceptional and owed as much to his personal charms, and to good luck, as to his technical abilities.) She also had a mentor figure in the person of Samuel Crisp, a family friend to whom she repeatedly referred as “my Daddy”. Twenty-first century readers will have some questions about this, and I think rightly so; Crisp was one of the few adult men who took Fanny’s mind seriously, and with whom she could have conversations about art, literature, history and culture, but it came at the price of a level of control. Crisp’s letters show that he was unusually fond of the company of young women; it seems unlikely that his interest in Fanny was menacingly inappropriate, since they remained affectionate towards each other throughout their lives and we know Fanny to have been an almost prudish person with regards to perceived impropriety, but certainly it appears to have pleased him to have such a clever, and such a seemingly malleable, young woman in and around his house and at such close emotional proximity, so regularly. Crisp gave her some very good advice, but also some very bad: her play The Witlings was suppressed because Crisp and Dr. Burney believed it too bluntly satirical towards people who had offered Fanny specifically, and the Burney family more generally, their patronage and support, such as the literary hostess Mrs. Thrale. She may have listened to them, but she wasn’t happy about it: when Crisp’s “patronising response” (Chisholm, p. 95) to her disappointment was to suggest another topic for a more straightforward comedy, she didn’t bother to reply to the letter.

By this point she was already famous, since her first and still most widely known novel Evelina had been published in 1778. Her protagonist is a young woman trying to enter society whilst labouring under the disadvantage of being unacknowledged by her father: she knows who he is, but until he will publicly admit to her being his daughter, she is a nobody despite the upper-middle-class milieu in which she has been raised and educated by her kind guardian, Mr. Villars. The book takes the form of a series of letters, mostly from Evelina to Villars back home, as she navigates London society for the first time. It is, technically, a romantic plot, as she ends up married by the end, but what really brought the novel to critical attention and acclaim, as well as that of readers, were Fanny’s skewering powers of observation. Her ear for dialogue was exceptional and was to be her trademark as a fiction writer all her life; she depicts the conversation of vulgar City upstarts, country-bred gentlemen, young women, conniving older women on the make, foreigners and servants, with a precision that creates comedy. She rarely physically describes anyone (we never know what colour Evelina’s eyes are), but her powers of scene-setting and creation of atmosphere are immense. Her perceptiveness and memory gave her both the ability to reproduce conversations word for word and great power over fictional tone, but this initially worried her: “if you do tell Mrs Thrale [that I am the author of Evelina], —won’t she think it very strange where I can have Kept Company, to draw such a family as the Branghtons…” (quoted Chisholm, p. 57) Her identity was at first anonymous; all of her communications with her publisher took place through a brother or cousin, suitably disguised (both of the male relatives she pressed into service for her here seemed to relish the amateur theatrics of it all). She was terrified to be thought unladylike. When the secret was finally revealed (by her father), she was only persuaded of the acceptability of her public authorship by the knowledge that both Mrs. Thrale and Dr. Johnson (another family friend) regarded Evelina very highly.

Fanny occupies an intriguing place in women’s history, and particularly in the history of women writers: she was not a political radical or a feminist by any means, deferring to her father frequently and eventually marrying a French aristocratic emigré, General d’Arblay. (Their marriage seems to have been the happiest of all her siblings’; they were very much in love, and remained so throughout their lives. She was forty-one when she married him, forty-two when they had their first and only child, Alexander.) Yet her writing—she produced three other novels, Cecilia, Camilla, and The Wanderer, and many other plays, though few were ever staged and one at least that was staged was disastrously received—is consistently interested in how women can make their way in the world without patriarchal protection; in what happens to a woman who perhaps has money but no one to represent her interests, and little or no respect from her guardians; and in representing events occurring in the world without attaching an obvious moral. Her work was satirical but does not partake of the clear agenda to “improve” that defines Richardson’s and Fielding’s writing; she trusts her readers to understand the rights and wrongs of her characters, but is much more an observer than a moralist. Particularly in her early work, there are eruptions of violence (a monkey bites off a dandy’s ear) and cruelty (two lords make two elderly peasant women race each other so that they can have something to bet on) that are, even now, grotesque and shocking to read; there are encounters with sex workers at Vauxhall in one novel, frank and funny dialogues between servants, milliners, and other working women in her plays. Fanny is never easy to categorize, either as a person or as an author.

She was restored to public attention primarily through the publication of her journals and letters, which made it clear that she was present at many of the great historical moments of her time. As a child, she plays with the famous actor David Garrick, a frequent house guest thanks to her father’s musical work in the theatre. As a young woman, she matches wits with Dr Johnson, Mrs. Thrale, Mrs. Montagu, and Richardson. As an unmarried woman in her thirties, a friend introduces her to Queen Charlotte and she is appointed Second Keeper of the Robes; although miserable as a courtier and eventually released from royal service, she becomes close to the royal family, witnesses the first illness and madness of King George III, and is present in Kew Gardens for his recovery (she runs away from him, unaware that he is now well again, and he chases her through the shrubbery with his doctors). In her forties, she becomes part of a circle that includes French emigrés fleeing the Revolution, and falls in love with one, whom she marries. In her fifties, her husband is part of the army of allies that challenges Napoleon at Waterloo; she is in Brussels while the battle takes place, and her account of the confused intelligence coming from the battlefield regarding the victor is an extraordinarily immediate portrayal of that historical moment.

One of the most famous accounts from her journals describes her endurance of a seventeen-minute mastectomy; she had a cancerous lump in her right breast and was operated upon in 1811. It took her nine months to complete her account of this ordeal, and it is frankly a wonder that she managed it at all. I defy anyone, with or without breasts, to read her testimony unmoved. She was without anaesthetic apart from some wine mixed with laudanum, and refused to be held down by the surgeon’s assistant; she held her own breast for him to cut, and describes the linen handkerchief that was placed over her face for a measure of dignity and discretion. “[w]hen, Bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished Steel,—I closed my Eyes,” she writes (quoted Chisholm, p. 214) She did this without her husband, forbidding her servants to fetch him from his office; in a foreign language and land (they were living in France at the time, and although she spoke the language well, it must have added another layer of fear and estrangement to proceedings); and her own maids, save one, had been sent out of the room by the surgeon and “7 Men in black” (ibid.) who were present to assist him. Her bravery, and her suffering, is unthinkable, and the fact that she left a record of the experience makes her braver still. If you read one thing by Fanny Burney, make it that account. (If you read a second thing, make it Evelina.)

Responding to such trauma by memorializing it verbally is more indicative of Fanny than anything else that can be said: she was a writer through and through, an observer and recorder. We’re lucky to have her words, and lucky to have Kate Chisholm’s biography, which gives such an exciting and entertaining yet scholarly account of her life and world. As Stella Tillyard has already said, if the best literary biographies make us want to seek out the work of their subjects, Chisholm succeeds admirably. I read Evelina over a decade ago, but will be returning to it, and seeking out her other novels too.


Fanny Burney: Her Life was published by Vintage in paperback in 1999. It is now out of print, but can be found on AbeBooks. My copy is from The Second Shelf. Burney’s novels are all in print from Penguin and/or Oxford World’s Classics, except for The Wanderer, a 1991 edition of which is also available secondhand through AbeBooks. The Second Shelf might also be able to find you a copy if you ask nicely.

A Still Life

Josie George has been ill most of her life, on and off. She’s never had a diagnosis, or more accurately, she’s had many: chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, psychosomatic, and a dozen more. None has quite described what happens to her body: the dragging fatigue, the hot leaden pain in her legs, the fainting, the immobility. She has a mobility scooter, and her mother and best friend both live nearby, so she’s not without help, but the pain and the indignity are still there. Her young son, age ten at the time of this book’s writing, knows her bad days well enough to be able to get himself dinner or entertain himself in the evenings, when he has to.

The book is structured in four parts, seasonal: winter, spring, summer, autumn. In every part, George oscillates between past (“Then”) and present (untitled sections). Then contains the story of her childhood, the early manifestations of her illness, the way it has affected her relationships—an early, terrifying boyfriend from her church, who controlled and manipulated her and coerced her into sex at the age of thirteen; an ex-husband who did nothing bad except to be the wrong person for her—and the work she has loved to do: early jobs in an office, typing up invoices; in a care home for the elderly, which she loves with the passion of someone called to the work; at a library in a high school, where she reads and talks to the children for whom that room is a refuge. The present is the story of the year she spends writing the book—2017-2018, I think, judging by the date of the foreword—during which she raises her son, spends a lot of time observing the motions of the world around her, and, most unexpectedly, falls in love.

George’s response to physical limitation is an extraordinary attentiveness to what is around her. Her capacity to attend, to note, to see, to connect, is heightened by the extra time and effort it takes her to get anywhere. In one beautiful, bravura passage, she’s in her local community centre, listening to Vivaldi, and the movements of everyone around her in the cafe become somehow, miraculously, rhythmically entwined with the music:

A pause in the arrangement followed by a considered, swelling note coincides with a man bracing to leave his armchair opposite, veins thick on his hands, and a nose-scratch behind him catches the staccato note that follows. I watch a coat shrugged off in perfect 3/4 time. A slow cello joins and I watch an elderly woman raise knife and fork with each glide of the bow: a fragile, hesitant conductor […] Thank goodness for the days when my tight, egotistical hold on a hoarded reality slips and I can see it all for what it is again: that nothing and no-one is separate.

A Still Life, Josie George, p. 316

It’s common, in works about chronically ill and disabled people, to either find or seek a sense of inspiration in them; to gain the impression that the life of a sick person is designed specifically in order to make you, in your whole body, marvel at the wonder of their continued ability to exist. It’s patronizing, and wrong, and I also have a complicated relationship with it, since I too am a chronically ill and disabled person (one entire organ has failed to work since I was three, for reasons best known to itself). George could be seen, I suppose, as inspirational, but that would be to ignore the thread that runs through her work, fierce and gentle, of choice. She writes about choice throughout A Still Life, and it’s not the frantic, choose-not-to-be-sick capitalistic fetishization of productivity and well-being and mindfulness, although she talks about a time when she tried to be that person. It’s about raising her son to see that the body does not limit the mind, that pain and suffering and difficulty are never all that there is, and that, to a very large extent, you can decide whether to despair or not. You can decide what stories to tell yourself; you can decide how you see your own life.

I carry power inside of me. I carry it hot and ripe. I need only point my will and move, infinitesimally slow and ordinary but forward. It doesn’t need to be dramatic or impressive. No one need see it but me and him, as we hang the laundry together, as I pull the plug on the dirty dishwasher, as we decide to watch nature programmes on my laptop in bed.

Power is given and taken, but not all of it. Never all of it.

A Still Life, p. 119

A little later, she talks again about how to approach life from a slowed-down vantage. It’s not all calm acceptance; there are days when she is furious, frightened, when it takes too long to walk from room to room and she feels like time is wasted; when she has fallen on the bathroom floor and must crawl to her bed, grateful her son is at school; when she is so sick and in pain that she can’t move from bed in the first place. Buddhist teaching helps her with some of this: to understand that pain is occurring to her but is not all. She writes about acting where and as she can, about the nature of resting in a world that glorifies work, and about how it is possible to rest badly as well as to rest well. (Anyone who has stuffed their brain with Netflix and Twitter late into the night, then felt vaguely hungover the next morning, will recognize this. She admits she’s done it too; among George’s great qualities as a narrating voice, one of them is the distinct lack of judgment or superiority. One gets the impression she would find any assertions of superiority intensely funny.)

I believe in gentle, creative, practical action now above all else: conscious, malleable, chosen. Action not to prove my worth or meet anyone’s expectations, but an unseen, calm momentum. Action that looks life straight in the eye.

A Still Life, p. 142

In the twenty-first century, especially in the past twelve months, where it has been proved one hundred thousand times in the UK alone that a human life has value to our government only insofar as it can perform as a productive economic unit, this is a radical assertion. George invites us to the quietest of revolutions. It’s not uplit or #inspo; it’s something much better. It’s the idea of becoming. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this book on the Barbellion Prize shortlist next year.


A Still Life is published by Bloomsbury on 18 February, 2021.

Without Prejudice

~~Some spoilers may follow. Trigger/content warnings for open racism and sexism, rape, sexual coercion~~

Without Prejudice, one of the six entries in Penguin’s new Black Britain: Writing Back reprint series (curated by Bernardine Evaristo), is a crime novel from 1997 that both speaks urgently to contemporary issues and reveals just how far we’ve come in twenty-odd years–though often this is less a question of battles being won than of the fight simply moving underground. Lee Mitchell, the protagonist, is a barrister from a working-class Caribbean background; one of only two women in her chambers, and the only Black person at all, she comes up against constant institutional resistance, from colleagues as well as clients. When a tasty, high-profile fraud case involving the Omartians, a City investing family, lands on her desk, she takes it in the knowledge that this could be The Case, the win–or at least the media attention–that catapults her into the big-time. It wouldn’t be a courtroom drama, of course, if things went exactly as planned, and soon it becomes clear that Lee’s client, Clive Omartian, could destroy everything she’s worked so hard to achieve.

One of the great features of Without Prejudice is that it is likely to surprise even relatively sanguine and realistic people about the prevalence of biogtry in English society. It’s not that it exists, but the sheer nakedness of its expression, that is so jolting. Clive is pretty clearly some degree of wrong’un from the start, so perhaps his increasingly sexualized remarks come as less of a revelation, but even Lee’s head of chambers, the odious Giles Townsend, thinks of her as “abrasive” (whilst also secretly pulling strings to get his 23-year-old lover, to whom he grotesquely refers as his niece, installed as Lee’s pupil), and the celebrity barrister George Amery reflects, unbecomingly, on how much he’ll enjoy “taking this arrogant bitch down a peg or two”. These are such classic instances of sexist-inflected language that I felt almost impatient with them; I learned that “abrasive”, “brusque”, “intimidating”, “rude”, “cold” and “arrogant” were dog-whistle euphemisms when I was eighteen or so–which admittedly was late; I got lucky not having to learn sooner, and I was at university in the early 2010s, when fourth-wave feminism was just stirring and #MeToo wasn’t even a speck on the horizon. (None of us, as far as I can recall, had Twitter.) So the language and undisguised nature of the prejudice on display in this novel from 1997 struck me as rather self-evident, or even quaint. Which, of course, is the most perfect illustration of how we’ve changed since then, or how we haven’t.

Although it’s a subplot and not particularly connected to Lee’s Omartian trial, the aspect of the book that conveys this most effectively is the way Lee’s friend Simone is treated when she makes an allegation of rape against a man whom she had been seeing casually, and whom she let into her house to use the bathroom one evening. Simone doesn’t want to prosecute at first, and when her rapist leaves the house, she washes herself thoroughly and bleaches everything (including, horrifyingly, herself; Williams writes that a juror winces at this). Both of these actions, plus the fact that she is still legally married to but separated from her husband, who has left her because she has miscarried a much-wanted baby, and the fact that she was sleeping with her rapist but (horrors!) not in love with him, torpedo her case in court. Here, for instance, is a portion of her cross-examination by her rapist’s defence barrister:

“Mrs Wilson, let’s talk about the pictures. I suggest that those bruises were due to sexual activity that was a little, shall we say, more energetic than usual.”

“I don’t get excited by being hurt, Mr. Amery.”

“And what does, to use your words, Mrs. Wilson, ‘excite’ you?”

Without Prejudice, Nicola Williams, p. 259

It is not inconceivable now that a defence barrister would take such a line: the rough-sex defence for serious harm or murder was only outlawed in the UK in July of 2020, less than a year ago. (Please note, by the way, that the URL for that article shows us that it is not archived on the Independent’s website under “news/uk/crime”, but under “life-style/women”. Clearly, we haven’t made all that many intellectual and cultural leaps since 1997.) It is slightly less conceivable that a vulnerable witness would be allowed to take the stand, in a highly emotive case, before a jury, with apparently no guidance from her lawyers with regards to how to give her testimony, and these days Simone might not have to appear in court in person at all (page 35 of the government’s Victim Strategy from 2018 suggests as much, anyway). For which, reading Williams’s meticulous account of her cross-examination by the defence and the Crown’s failure to assist her, one can only say thank God.

There are other, telling moments that bring class into the equation, as must always eventually happen in discussions of British inequality. Lee is at last alerted to the presence of a mole in her team by a former client, Ray Willis, a career criminal whose defence she has conducted many times. Ray manages this under the nose of a minder from a higher-up, by giving her a copy of Julius Caesar, which was, he tells her, the only thing he paid attention to in school before he dropped out. Paging through it, Lee finds that he has highlighted the famous statement about “yon Cassius”, with his “lean and hungry look”, and realizes to whom it refers. Williams knows that this is something a snob would consider implausible; when Ray is visited later by the truly awful Clive, “he had a bemused look on his face: ‘So it’s true, a Peckham lad who reads Shakespeare as well as Loaded.'” To Clive, it’s incongruous, even suspicious; but poor people read Shakespeare, and like and understand him as well as Harrow-educated fraudulent financiers do. Perhaps better: Ray loves Caesar so much because he sees reflected in it a relentless jostling for power that he recognizes from his own life. In another incident that blends class and race prejudice, Lee is mistaken for a defendant in a drugs case by a young Oxbridge clerk on summer work experience (who is, to top it all, late for the relevant trial). Her response is delicious (“Please, don’t say anything more. We’re done here.”), but she faces it every day, from every conceivable angle.

Something my housemate and I like to talk about is: where are our blind spots now? Broadly speaking, racism, sexism and homophobia are the “how did you not get that was bad?” issues of our grandparents’ generation; our parents struggle with neurodiversity and transsexuality; we, I suspect, will be intolerant of transhumans, people who believe themselves to be a consciousness which belongs more rightly in a mainframe than a body. It’s interesting to see an author twenty-five years ago trying to grapple with that herself. Williams introduces, very briefly, a trans woman named Tonia, who used to be Winston and who went to school with Simone and Lee. When Simone cannot acquire justice through the courts, she turns to vigilanteism. [trigger warning now for rape/revenge rape] Her rapist, Steve, is “fooled” by the stunning Tonia in a club, goes back to her place, and is promptly beaten to the ground and raped by that same Tonia, who still has a penis, while Simone looks on dispassionately from the shadows. As trans representation goes, it’s very, very bad. Cis straight men have historically responded to their fear of being “fooled” or “tricked” by enacting murderous violence upon the bodies of trans women; to suggest that the threat is the other way around may look like empowerment, but is in fact an early manifestation of what’s now turned into the bathroom debate. Tonia endangers her own life to enact vengeance for Simone. (And are we to assume that she can simply summon an erection on command?) That scene is hazardous, and more than anything else, that’s what marks this novel as out-of-date. The rest of it, though, is eye-opening. I have two more reprints from the Writing Back series–one a historical novel, one an exploration of ’90s Britain’s mental health system–and look forward to exploring them both.


Without Prejudice was originally published in the UK in 1997; my edition, from Penguin’s Black Britain: Writing Back series, is published 4 February 2021.