Reading Diary: oh dear, part three (holiday reading)

I went to Brussels in the middle of this month. There was no real reason to do this, apart from the fact that I had the time to take a week-long holiday, and I fancied going somewhere Abroad, and Brussels happened to be the city to which I could most cheaply transport myself. (£50 each way on the Eurostar. Even Easyjet flights to places like Malta were more expensive.) It was also the first proper, avowed holiday which I have taken alone. As such, I didn’t really know how it was going to go, but I brought five books, the notebook containing the section of my novel that I’m working on right now, and my laptop, and prepared to spend some time figuring out how much tourism vs. relaxation I actually wanted to do.

In the event, I tourist-ed for three and a half days (Grand Place, the Mont des Arts, the cathedral, various chocolatiers, Parc Josaphat, and the Horta Museum) and spent the rest of the week reading in the sunshine on my Airbnb’s terrace, writing in a coffee shop near the Horta Museum and in my Airbnb, taking very long baths, being intimidated by the local butcher, and bingeing on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Most importantly, I wrote over a thousand words a day, and finished all the books I brought with me (the last one on the Eurostar home, so my back-up book, Villette, was unnecessary).

61s2b5egxvtl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Frost in May, by Antonia White: The first book ever to be published as a Virago Classic, and (according to Elizabeth Bowen) “not the only school story to be a classic, but…the only one that is a work of art.” Its protagonist is Nanda Gray, whose father has recently converted to Catholicism and who is sent to a Catholic convent school, where she is permanently treated as a second-class citizen, albeit one who might (eventually) be redeemable. The story follows fairly closely the events of White’s own early life, and she captures with the extreme clarity of adolescence (and of trauma) the emotional terrorism visited upon the girls of the school by the nuns. Anyone who has been manipulated by an authority figure will find Frost in May both disturbing and familiar. Nanda’s eventual disgrace is also the mechanism of her freedom, although she may not realise it. This might, now that I think about it, have been very interesting to read alongside Villette, also a school story intensely concerned with surveillance, privacy, and autonomy.

91pgumjkzvlKintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: One of the most challenging, and therefore most instructive, aspects of reading fiction that was not originally designed with a Western market in mind is that there are things Western readers expect with regards to narrative structure and characterisation. When those expectations are swerved, as in Kintu they frequently are, it presents an opportunity to examine the lukewarm reaction this provokes in a reader and to consider how growing up in different cultures affects how we tell stories and what we demand from them. Kintu is the story of a curse placed upon a historic Ganda chief for failing to properly bury his adopted son, who is biologically from another tribe. This curse – or is it simply hereditary mental illness, exacerbated by guilt, poverty, and other factors? – is passed down through generations of Kintu’s descendants to the present day. What I found confusing and alienating about the novel – the interchangeability of characters’ names, the repetition of similar events with minor variations, the assumption of understanding surrounding Ganda social taboos – are clearly the very elements that comprise its strength in the context for which it was written (it was first published by Kenya’s Kwami Trust, sponsored by a leading Kenyan literary journal). This is the sort of thing that #WITMonth, for example, is for: asking you to perform a meta-analysis of the way you evaluate literary success.

9780571347018Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s latest novel felt particularly apt reading in the week I was in Brussels. Half of it deals with a very contemporary woman whose family and house both appear to be crumbling around her, and who is required to care not only for her new grandson (whose mother has just killed herself) but also for her dying father-in-law. The politics of care – both in the sense of emotional faultlines and in the very real sense of legislation and regulation and the heartbreaking struggles of American people to access healthcare at this point in time – are at the fore here. In the other half of the book, politics and caring are also foregrounded in the story of Thatcher Greenwood, a young schoolteacher who wishes to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution and who is thwarted by Landis, the man who essentially runs the company town where he lives and works. There are, of course, parallels with the Trump administration: fear of science and experts, dissemination of lies presented as truths, the ability of the rich and powerful to (literally) get away with murder. There is so much going on in both strands of the novel that perhaps elements are short-changed, like Willa’s relationship with her daughter Tig and some parts of Thatcher’s relationship with Mary Treat, the brilliant woman scientist next door who corresponds with Darwin and Asa Gray. But Kingsolver’s central metaphor illustrates perfectly that famous quote about American conflict: that a house divided against itself cannot stand. And that, perhaps, the best thing we can do is bring it all down.

41li6jgb7il-_sy445_ql70_Jeeves and the King of Clubs, by Ben Schott: An homage to P.G. Wodehouse (as the subtitle says) has got a lot to live up to, and Ben Schott pretty admirably fills the shoes of the master here; without trying too slavishly to pastiche PGW, he manages those signature goofy similes with aplomb. (My only objection might be that his Wooster is actually not enough of an idiot.) In this outing, Wooster discovers that the Junior Ganymede Club, the organisation of gentlemen’s gentlemen to which Jeeves belongs, has in fact been functioning as an arm of British intelligence for decades, if not centuries: who, after all, is better positioned to acquire information about the great and the good (or not so good) than their butlers? (Though it is not just butlers; the Junior Ganymede, apparently, recruits from all ranks of domestic service. “Pigmen,” as Jeeves notes in one of those delightfully poker-faced asides that Wodehouse himself would be proud to have written, “have been particularly cooperative.”) The plot, such as it is, involves Jeeves and Wooster having to intercept some sort of code on its way to the carbuncular British fascist Roderick Spode, which requires a lot of careening all over the West End. There’s a particularly enjoyable chase scene through the interconnecting doors of Pall Mall’s private clubs: the Athenaeum, the Travellers, the Oxford and Cambridge, the RAC, all are name-checked. For my money, Wodehouse plotted better – he’s madcap but he’s as precise as clockwork, where Schott is a little scattergun – but it feels so churlish to complain when you’re having this much fun.

EDIT: I forgot The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K Dick! Perhaps this is because I’ve been reading it on and off for months, on my phone, in spare moments. As most of you will probably know, it is set in a United States that lost WWII, and is now divided into several zones, mostly governed by the Japanese, who were thrown North America after the war by their victorious Nazi allies. To be perfectly honest, this on-and-off reading technique was obviously bad for this particular book, because when I picked it up properly again, none of it really hung together and I couldn’t work out what the main thrust of the story was, and when the big reveal appeared, the fact that it was so unclear whether we were in a parallel universe or what the mechanism was, exactly, was just intensely irritating. Is there a better Dick? (…shut up.)

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne DuMaurier

“There are some women, Philip, good women very possibly, who through no fault of their own impel disaster.”

9781844080403

~~here be not-really-spoilers, but I do tell you my opinion of the novel’s central “crime”~~

The excellent Daphne DuMaurier suffered, during her lifetime, from critics not knowing where to put her. They tended to settle for dismissing her work as feminine pot-boiling; Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, probably her two most famous novels, are deeply melodramatic and romantic, so you can see the justification in a way. My Cousin Rachel, as Sally Beauman points out in the introduction to this edition, is a different kettle of fish, because there is so obviously some serious social commentary going on under the surface. Quite apart from that, the plotting is so good, the tension wound so tight, that even crusty old 1950s newspaper reviewers had to admit that it showed incredible story-telling ability. (Dubious though “story-telling” was considered to be in the literary world of the 1950s, it has always been a quality that people admire, willingly or not. It’s harder than you think to just tell a story well. Look at how people try, at dinner parties or in the pub, and how often they don’t quite manage it.)

Sally Beauman’s introduction is invaluable for another reason, which is that it makes the reader aware at once that Philip Ashley, our narrator, is not to be trusted—or is to be trusted only contingently. Philip, and his older cousin and guardian Ambrose, are inveterate woman-haters; Ambrose can’t stand the “chatter” and “vulgarity” of feminine company, to the extent that he refuses to have any woman servants in his house, and dismisses Philip’s nurse when he catches her paddling the little boy with a hairbrush. (Not because he finds the corporal punishment distasteful, though; just because she has “great coarse hands” and is “too unintelligent to comprehend” how to properly discipline a young gentleman.) When Ambrose is advised by his doctors to winter on the Continent for the sake of his health, then, he goes alone. It’s a huge shock when he writes back to England to say, firstly, that he’s met a distant female cousin by chance who turns out to be a bearable companion, and then, secondly, that he has married her.

This woman is, of course, cousin Rachel, or rather, my cousin Rachel, of the title. The possessive is important. Philip is a deeply insecure young man (he’s twenty-three when we first meet him, twenty-five when the novel ends) whose sheltered, privileged and eccentric upbringing has equipped him astoundingly badly for the realities of adult life and emotion. Ambrose is his father figure, his brother figure, the only male authority he has ever known—the only authority of any kind he has ever known—and the love he feels towards him is both fiercely familial and vaguely Oedipal. Upon being notified of Ambrose’s marriage, he is sick with jealousy and frustration at the thought of having to share his beloved cousin with anyone else, especially (God forbid) a woman. He spends a good deal of time inventing identities, none of them flattering, for cousin Rachel:

One moment monstrous, like poor Molly Bate at the West Lodge, obliging one to avert the eyes from sheer delicacy, and the next pale and drawn, shawl-covered in a chair, with an invalidish petulance about her, while a nurse hovered in the background, mixing medicines with a spoon. On emoment middle-aged and forceful, the next simpering and younger than Louise, my cousin Rachel had a dozen personalities or more and each one more hateful than the last.

Such imaginings are, of course, poisonous, and poison is the book’s central metaphor (more on that shortly). Ambrose dies in Italy quite suddenly, of symptoms much like those that preceded the death of his father from a brain tumour. Philip, who has received panicked, fearful letters from Ambrose, suspects that all is not as it seems, but when he arrives in Florence, he can find no answers, and his cousin Rachel has left the city. Once he returns to England, however, he receives a letter from her: she is in Plymouth. More out of a sense of duty than anything else, he invites her down to stay, and it becomes immediately evident that Rachel is nothing like his ridiculous fantasies.

What’s immediately evident to the reader is that Rachel is, at least to some extent, playing him. She makes a great point of not minding whether he smokes indoors or puts his feet on the chairs; she sets about beautifying the house, but in a subtle, charming way, asking the opinions of the servants and getting Philip interested too. As I read I thought of her as a proto-Cool Girl (thanks, Gillian Flynn, for that concept): the woman all the men like because she challenges none of their existing prejudices. Of course, Rachel challenges Philip’s prejudices about her, but that’s as far as it goes. She does not require him to change anything about his way of thinking, his mode of living. Cleverly, this results in some actual changes in Philip’s thinking and living, but only because she does not insist on them. It’s a classic use of soft power, and it’s the reason people think of emotional manipulation and passive aggression both as feminine and as inferior ways of fighting. For a very long time, these were the only social and emotional weapons that women had.

Another classically female weapon is poison, which I mentioned above as the book’s central metaphor. DuMaurier barely mentions it by name in most of the 300+ pages: one of Ambrose’s letters wonders, amongst other ravings, “Could they be trying to poison me?” No more is heard of it until the discovery of laburnum seeds amongst Rachel’s possessions, at the very end of the novel. (Even that discovery is inconclusive, as Philip’s childhood friend Louise points out. Rachel is a keen gardener and orders plants from all over Europe; that she possesses the seeds of a plant poisonous to cattle and humans but used extensively in ornamental horticulture is hardly a smoking gun.) But venom—the slow, insidious drip of it—is present throughout the book. It’s there when Ambrose takes little Philip to see a hanged man when he is only seven or eight, a man who killed his wife. It’s there when fear and paranoia start to percolate through Ambrose’s mind. It’s there when Philip grows envious of anyone sharing Ambrose, and again when he falls in love with Rachel and seeks to control and limit his neighbours’ access to her. It’s there when he makes reckless withdrawals of jewels and rewrites wills for her (again, without her ever mentioning the inheritance or money.) This naive, romantic, stunted, immature man-child’s entire life is poison, all the way down to the root.

And Rachel might very well be poison too, although the great glory of the novel is that it’s impossible for us to know for sure. That exercise of soft power, if she’s doing it intentionally, is peerless; she never asks Philip for anything. Indeed, she seems genuinely embarrassed when he tries to give her a very valuable necklace, and she immediately returns it to his lawyer. And yet… Ambrose’s death is suspicious, and Philip begins to experience similar symptoms. Is this just what happens to hopelessly under-socialized men when they encounter worldly women—they begin to lose their minds? Do Philip and Ambrose simply share a genetic inheritance that dooms them to early deaths? Or is Rachel a calculating gold-digger and a killer? She is certainly more sexually sophisticated than poor Philip (possibly the only time I felt sorry for him is when he loses his virginity to her, then believes that this means they will be married. She is really horrified when she realizes this, and points out that he has never actually asked her to marry him, much less received a positive verbal response. Rachel is modern when it comes to sex—she thinks of the seduction as a thank-you present for the jewelry Philip eventually suceeds in giving her—and Philip is behind the times even for his own, unspecified but probably mid-Victorian, era.)

If she is a killer—and personally, I think she is—I can’t say I blame her too much. We are told that, like Becky Sharp, she grew up abroad, only half-English (and therefore, unspokenly, only half worth protecting), and without parental guidance. DuMaurier delicately omits to discuss the details of her former life, but from the conversations Rachel has with her financial adviser Rainaldi, we can guess that it involved a form of high-class prostitution: born of a good family, attending the best parties in Florence and Venice, but trading sex for financial stability nonetheless. If her behaviour has a pattern (find a wealthy, inexperienced man; become indispensable to him; marry, kill, inherit), it’s a logical one. And perhaps she never meant to kill, at first. Perhaps she married and realized that Ambrose was intolerable, and only then decided she couldn’t wait another thirty years.

Rachel suffers the sort of fate that most sexually liberated, autonomous, frightening women had to suffer in novels up until very recently. (You’ll have to read it to find out exactly what happens, though; I shan’t give it away.) DuMaurier’s brilliance is to keep us asking questions—did she really kill anyone? Is Philip merely a fool or is he actually abusive?—until we begin to wonder whether such women deserve their fates at all, no matter what we think they did. To suggest that a woman doesn’t deserve punishment for something, anything, is a slyly radical move even now; DuMaurier made it in 1951.

Many thanks to Poppy Stimpson at Virago for the review copy. My Cousin Rachel was published as a Virago Modern Classic on 5 May.