Archive for February, 2013

how to be a woman caitlin moranHow to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran ~ 2011. This edition: Ebury Press, 2011. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-06-212429-6. 305 pages.

My rating: This one was unrateable.

What can I say? It’s all been said. Multiple times.

Outspoken, thought-provoking, vulgar, romantic, profane, profound, controversial, brave, rude … and very, very funny. This is not a book I would give my mother! But I would leave it where my teenage daughter could find it.

I actually did just that, and she (the teenage daughter) dipped into it, and basically said “Ew. Too much information. And swearing. She’s a bit scary, Mom.” So that didn’t take. Which is just fine. We’ve already had all of the conversations that Caitlin missed with her mother. A lot of this one reads like a cautionary tale, a what-not-do-do manual, at least until Caitlin gets herself all grown up and out in the big world. Though even then her decisions aren’t exactly stellar one hundred percent of the time.

This is a big, bold, brassy memoir of British newspaper columnist and generally funny lady Caitlin Moran’s teenage years right up until the present. She has zero barriers; she discusses everything there is to discuss about being born with on the double X-chromosome side of the human sexual spectrum. This is Caitlin’s take on what it means to be a woman. While frequently prescriptive, it’s best taken with a good dash of salt. As one reviewer quipped, this one should perhaps have been titled How to be Caitlin Moran, because it certainly doesn’t apply – or appeal –  universally. Many are – and will be – sceptical, if not downright appalled, at Moran’s Technicolor rantings.

Menstruation, masturbation, obesity, body hair, pregnancy, childbirth –  full coverage of the biological range. Then there are drugs and alcohol and the over-the-top excesses these can lead too. Bad relationships. Good relationships. Marriage. Children. Abortion. Right along with the ethics of employing a cleaner.

And this is what seems to be getting all the attention in the reviews I’ve been reading. Capital-F Feminism. What it looks like today, and what Caitlin Moran thinks it should look like. In a nutshell, good old Golden Rule stuff. Do as you would be done by. Treat each other well.

I’ve been thinking about how to present this review for a few days now, ever since finishing the book, and since reading fellow blogger Claire’s take over on Captive Reader – How to Be a Woman . What I’ve decided is to not really say all that much about this one. The internet is crowded to overflowing with reviews; this one has received capital-H Hype, and some people are taking it really, really seriously.

Here’s the Goodreads – How to Be a Woman page. 2500 reviews. Go wild!

I’m not taking this one terribly seriously. I found it amusing, and I agreed with Caitlin Moran on her various opinions a good majority of the time. I particularly liked her chapters on marriage and motherhood, and the abortion chapter was something very unusual in its sincerity and refreshing lack of sensationalism. I don’t think I could be so detached and unemotional as Moran was, if it were me facing the same scenario, and my decision would likely have been the exact opposite, but her forthright acceptance of what she did felt genuine.

But I’m not about to bow down to her as our newest Feminist leader, our Womanly Great White Hope, as some enthusiastic fans seem to be. She’s not really breaking any new ground here, just repeating what’s already been said with a lavish dash of shazzam.

Moran is a very funny writer. I literally laughed out loud – a rarity for me when reading –  more than once – most notably during the bra and breastfeeding discussions – spot on! Loved it. I’ll likely purchase the book one day, but I’m in no rush. If I never read it again, no big deal. I’d never heard of the woman until a few weeks ago, and I strongly suspect I’ll not hear too much from her in future, but I’ve at least placed her in my personal “cultural literacy” file and can now nod knowingly if her name comes up.

And that’s good enough for me.

As a parting gift, here are some quotes I lifted from How to Be a Woman, courtesy of Goodreads. If anything here resonates, you’ll probably like this book.

*****

If you want to know what’s in motherhood for you, as a woman, then – in truth – it’s nothing you couldn’t get from, say, reading the 100 greatest books in human history; learning a foreign language well enough to argue in it; climbing hills; loving recklessly; sitting quietly, alone, in the dawn; drinking whisky with revolutionaries; learning to do close-hand magic; swimming in a river in winter; growing foxgloves, peas and roses; calling your mum; singing while you walk; being polite; and always, always helping strangers. No one has ever claimed for a moment that childless men have missed out on a vital aspect of their existence, and were the poorer, and crippled by it.

*****

I cannot understand anti-abortion arguments that centre on the sanctity of life.  As a species we’ve fairly comprehensively demonstrated that we don’t believe in the sanctity of life.  The shrugging acceptance of war, famine, epidemic, pain and life-long poverty shows us that, whatever we tell ourselves, we’ve made only the most feeble of efforts to really treat human life as sacred.

*****

Overeating is the addiction of choice of carers, and that’s why it’s come to be regarded as the lowest-ranking of all the addictions. It’s a way of fucking yourself up while still remaining fully functional, because you have to. Fat people aren’t indulging in the “luxury” of their addiction making them useless, chaotic, or a burden. Instead, they are slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn’t inconvenience anyone. And that’s why it’s so often a woman’s addiction of choice. All the quietly eating mums. All the KitKats in office drawers. All the unhappy moments, late at night, caught only in the fridge light.

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a lamp is heavy sheila mackay russell 001A Lamp is Heavy by Sheila MacKay Russell ~ 1950. This edition: J.B. Lippincott, 1950. Hardcover. 256 pages.

My rating: 5/10.

This one just sneaks (on quiet rubber soles, perhaps?) into the “keeper” pile. It did have its moments, though it was mostly just a milder North American version of the stellar Monica Dickens life-as-a-British-nursing-student classic, One Pair of Feet.

Here’s a bit of trivia I discovered while trolling about for a bit of background info on author Sheila MacKay Russell. According to writer Julia Hallam in Nursing the Image: Media, Culture and Professional Identity, a critical examination of nursing as portrayed in popular culture, A Lamp is Heavy was adapted into a movie titled The Feminine Touch in 1956, with the setting changed to England from North America – I originally had said “The United States” here, but it turns out that the author is from Alberta and likely based it on her experiences nursing in Edmonton – and – much to my surprise! – with Monica Dickens herself contributing as a screenwriter.

I can see how A Lamp is Heavy would transfer well to film; it is equally as concerned with a romance between the main character, nursing student Sue Bates, and a handsome young intern, Doctor Alcott, as it is with the events of hospital life.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. I’ll let the author speak for herself. Though the main character in the novel is named pseudonymously “Sue Bates”, she is based strongly on the author’s own experiences; the book is strongly autobiographical, though details have been changed to obscure the people and places it is based upon.

It was my long-standing and persistent longing to be a nurse … [and this] impelled me to take the most portentous step in my life, in spite of the discouragement heaped upon me by all and sundry of my friends, including my mother. Mother, in her own way, was a realist. Nurses in her mind were synonymous with fallen arches, varicose veins, questionable language and backaches, and only the fact that she discovered, quite by accident, that Florence Nightingale was a lady of cultured family tended to reconcile her to what seemed to her to be my unnecessarily earthy inclinations.. She wasn’t really reconciled until the day came when she could comfort herself with the possibility of my salvaging a doctor husband out of the fiasco. She even kept all of my relatives in a similar state of doubt. This included my father. Where I was concerned, he reflected Mother’s attitudes as faithfully as a full-length mirror, and as I was an only child, he insisted on having a serious talk with the Mayor of the town before I was allowed to set foot on hospital soil. What he expected to get, or what he did get, from the Mayor, I don’t know, but he seemed happier. He came home and said that the board members of the city hospital were all Chamber of Commerce men, and perhaps I would be safe enough if I trained there.

Sue enters the hospital with her class of eleven other eager probationers; the twelve manage to stay the course and finish out their three years of training to graduate together; tales of their goings-on, trials and tribulations make up the majority of this memoir, with time out here and there for more serious discussions of some of the tragedies – and, to be fair, some of the more than occasional joys – of dealing with patients and their woes, as well as sidelights on the plight of the poverty-stricken members of the population who could not afford to avail themselves of proper medical care despite the efforts of a developing medical outreach service led by several of the hospital’s doctors.

Handsome, charismatic and manipulative Doctor Alcott provides romantic interest; he and Sue have an on-again, off-again love affair throughout Sue’s hospital years, which seems to end quite satisfactorily for all concerned. (Including, incidentally, Sue’s mother!)

A decently readable word portrait of a North American hospital in the just-prior-to World War II years, with likeable characters and enough drama to keep one interested start to finish.

I don’t recommend that you rush out and search this one down, though. Instead, invest your hard-earned dollars in Miss Dickens’  grand tale, unless A Lamp is Heavy absolutely leaps off a used bookstore shelf at you – in that case, it would repay a small investment, returning a few hours of interesting reading.

*****

After I published this review, I received a comment from Susan (see comments, below) to the effect that she thought the author was Canadian. I searched around a bit more and came across this mention on pages 9-10 of Volume 2 of Literary History of Alberta: From the End of the War to the End of the Century, by George Melnyk, 1999, University of Alberta Press.

Sheila Mackay Russell (1920-?) published two novels, A Lamp is Heavy (1950) and The Living Earth (1954). Russell was born in Airdrie, Alberta, went to school in Calgary, and attended university in Edmonton, where she took a degree in public health nursing. After her marriage to a doctor in 1947, she continued to live in Edmonton. A Lamp is Heavy is a first-person account of a nurse during the Second World War. [L&P note: A sharp-eyed reader has mentioned that this is slightly inaccurate, as the novel takes place prior to the start of the war.] This popular novel sold 75,000 copies over five years, including a Dutch translation, and was made into a film called The Feminine Touch with wartime Britain as the setting.

Russell’s character captured an exposed feminine sensibility:

“Witnessing childbirth had a strange effect on me. I can’t explain the close, proud kinship with other women which it seemed to bring me. I only knew, as I watched them, that they were performing a tremendous and elemental act of living.”

Russell’s second novel, The Living Earth,also had a nurse for a protagonist. Set in an isolated settlement in the north of the province (Alberta), the novel tells the story of two women who come from the south to  seek new lives. “It was spring in Mud Creek. Sun and earth, uniting, had thrown off the shackles of winter; the earth steamed from its effort and the sun lingered triumphantly a few minutes longer each day …”

The Living Earth won the Toronto Womens’ Canadian Club prize. The commercial success of Russell’s first novel reflected a need among women readers for literary work that captured their experiences and sensibilities during World War Two. Her second novel dealt with a more specialized topic and a return to an agrarian setting, which did not have the wider appeal of the first book.

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one native life richard wagameseOne Native Life by Richard Wagamese ~ 2008. This edition: Douglas & McIntyre, 2008. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-55365-364-6. 257 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10.

*****

After reading Wagamese’s Indian Horse recently, one of the prominent Canada Reads 2013 finalists, I was curious enough about the author to search out what I could find of his other works. The library proved generously supplied, and I chose two biographies, One Native Life, and For Joshua, and have mentally checkmarked two fictions, Ragged Company and Dream Wheels, for a future time.

One Native Life is a collection of short, three to four page reminiscences, anecdotes and mini essays on First Nations identity. Richard Wagamese was removed from his home in childhood due to physical abuse by adults in his birth family, and lived with non-Native families as a foster child and then as an adopted child until he reached his mid teens, when he left home to live independently, with varied success.

Often the only First Nations person in his school and social circle, Wagamese, especially as he matured, frequently wondered about his “differences”, and pondered his inability to feel fully whole with his First Nations heritage treated either as a curiousity or a non-issue by his adoptive family and his friends.

Serious substance abuse, alternating with periods of sobriety, and career and social success, eventually took its toll, laying Wagamese so low that a complete rebuild of his life was essential to his survival. Richard Wagamese looks to have survived his crash to rock bottom, and has more than successfully rebuilt his life into something new and good, though it is obvious that he views this very much as an ongoing process, and not a “done deal” by any means.

One Native Life addresses the healing process of Wagamese coming to terms with his individual circumstance. He seldom comes across as angry or resentful; he is very ready to excuse the actions and attitudes of those in his life by looking at the reasoning – or, often, lack of thought – behind each situation. This is both a memoir and an attempt to address current social conflicts between Native and non-Native ways of thinking and being. From someone who has walked all of these paths, and who has experienced life as a member of both social groups, the thoughts laid out here are definitely deserving of respect and consideration.

Very nicely written, too, as I expected after the more-than-decent quality of Indian Horse. My one nagging problem with this book, the one that kept me from buying into it one hundred per cent, is that it is perhaps a bit too conciliatory and understanding. Wagamese is so darned nice. But he excuses this himself by stating throughout that he wants to see bridges built, not more barricades erected, hence the tone. But it might be easy to dismiss this one because of its gentleness, which is, paradoxically, one of its main strengths.

And I’m also reading another of Wagamese’s memoirs, For Joshua, written five years earlier than One Native Life, and addressed as an open letter to his young son, whom he became estranged from due to his alcoholism, which is plenty full of tragedy and anger and strong emotion. One Native Life, coming as it does later in the sequence, shows evidence of a further healing and a few more years of thinking things through.

An interesting memoir, from an interesting man.

For a much more specific review, go here:   The British Columbian Quarterly – One Native Life

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the alpine path l m montgomeryThe Alpine Path: The Story of My Career by L.M. Montgomery ~ 1917. This edition: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1975. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-88902-019-1. 96 pages.

My rating: Probably an 8/10 – it’s a slender little thing, and tells nothing very new, deep, or startling, but it is nonetheless an enjoyable excursion into the life of the renowned author, written in the relatively early years of her successful career.

A must-read for the L.M. Montgomery aficionado, just to say you’ve read it; a gentle, happy overview of the author’s life for those new to her; a pleasant “light” memoir with only a few mentions of the very real and frequently tragic difficulties the author faced in her childhood, teen and adult years.

The book is a compilation of a series of six autobiographical essays which L.M.M. wrote for the Toronto magazine Everywoman’s World in 1917, ten years after the stunning success of Anne of Green Gables had made her a worldwide household name.

Many years ago, when I was still a child, I clipped from a current magazine a bit of verse, entitled “To the Fringed Gentian”, and pasted it on the corner of the little portfolio on which I wrote my letters and school essays. Every time I opened the portfolio I read one of those verses over; it was the key-note of my every aim and ambition:

“Then whisper, blossom, in thy sleep
How I may upward climb
The Alpine path, so hard, so steep,
That leads to heights sublime;
How I may reach that far-off goal
Of true and honoured fame,
And write upon its shining scroll
A woman’s humble name.”

It is indeed a “hard and steep” path; and if any word I can write will assist or encourage another pilgrim along that path, that word I will gladly and willingly write.

The first half of this slender book is devoted to childhood reminiscences, many of which the author mentions as having been used as inspiration and worked-over anecdotes for her personal favourite of her novels, The Story Girl. Then follows some discussion of the years when she attempted to establish herself as a published, and more importantly, paid author, and of course, the story of the manuscript of Anne, which was flatly rejected numerous times, and laid away

in an old hat-box in the clothes room, resolving that some day when I had the time I would take her and reduce her to the original seven chapters of her first incarnation. In that case I was sure of getting thirty-five dollars for her at least, and perhaps even forty.

The manuscript lay in the hat-box until I came across it one winter day while rummaging. I began turning over the leaves, reading here and there. It didn’t seem so very bad. “I’ll try once more”, I thought. The result was that a couple of months later an entry appeared in my journal to the effect that my book had been accepted. After some natural jubilation I wrote: “The book may or may not succeed. I wrote it for love, not money, but very often such books are the most successful, just as everything in the world that is born of true love has life in it, as nothing constructed for purely mercenary ends can ever have.”

And then there’s this comment, which I rather smiled at; the author having too-late second thoughts after killing off a character:

Many people have told me that they regretted Matthew’s death in Green Gables. I regret it myself. If I had the book to write over again I would spare Matthew for several years. But when I wrote it I thought he must die, that there might be a necessity for self-sacrifice on Anne’s part, so poor Matthew joined the long procession of ghosts that haunt my literary path.

After the evocative descriptions of her Prince Edward Island childhood, the part of the book I enjoyed the very most was the selection of journal entries from L.M.M.’s winter in 1901 of working on the staff of the Halifax Daily Echo, where she performed all sorts of different roles, from chasing down advertisers for copy – once unexpectedly scoring a new hat from a satisfied client – to proof-reading, and making up endings for serials whose manuscripts are inexplicably incomplete. Grand training for an aspiring writer, as L.M.M. points out, with much good humour!

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the roving i eric nicolThe Roving I by Eric Nicol ~ 1950. This edition: Ryerson Press, 1951. Hardcover. 134 pages.

My rating: 7/10, after some inner debate.

I  am rather sad to have to say that much of the humour is groaningly dated in this one, but despite that single failing, I have a strong affection for Eric’s comic tale of his year on The Continent, some phrases of which are ingrained deeply into my memory. The more eloquent passages obviously resonated deeply when I first read this at an impressionable age.

The Roving I won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 1951, which is commendable but not necessarily a guarantee of, well, of anything! The bits of Roving I which I am fondest of are the more serious bits, hidden beneath the sometimes-forced playfulness of the narrative.

Do I date myself when I assume that everyone knows who Eric Nicol is? As a middle-aged, mostly lifelong British Columbia resident, Vancouverite Nicol has somehow always been there, always on the edges of my awareness, a cultural constant. Exceedingly prolific throughout his writerly life, which began in college – he famously started his career by writing in the Ubyssey under the pen name of Jabez – Nicol went on to write more than 6000 newspaper columns for The Vancouver Province, as well as 40-odd books and a number of mostly-comic plays. Eric Nicol died in 2011, at the age of ninety-one, writing up until the end, despite battling the onset of Alzheimer’s. His last book, Script Tease, a collection of typically whimsical articles, was published in 2010.

But we’re going to go way back, to the early days, to Eric’s more youthful days as a young man after his WW II military service – three years in a non-combat role in the R.C.A.F. –  when he was taking advantage of an opportunity to pursue post-graduate studies for a year at the Sorbonne.

Here’s a sampling, from Chapter One: Debut of a Vagrant, at the start of the long train journey eastward to the embarkation point for ship travel to Europe.

The train lurches forward heavily, trying to take us all out by the roots at once. Mine hang on. Mine and those of the old couple across the aisle, who never thought of buying a newspaper because the news of the day was their being on the train, with a rope around their world.

Another good jerk does it. The station begins slowly to glide out under a full sail of flapping handkerchiefs. No, it’s us. We’re rolling. I and the fat lady sitting opposite me, reluctant to admit one another to the sudden vacuum of our existence, stare out the window at a grey and indifferent Vancouver. Oh, Vancouver, that I’ve given the best years of my life to, how can you dismiss me as though I were just another can of salmon? Is this how I’m to remember you, this motorist stymied by the crossing gate and glad to see the last of us? Couldn’t that woman stop hanging out her laundry for a minute? Is there no one to wave to us, on behalf of the city of Greater Vancouver?

Yes, by heaven! There she is. A little girl, a delegate at large, patting the air slowly and solemnly, making it last for the whole train. The fat lady and I wave back, and, relinquishing Vancouver, smile at each other, having in common someone we both said goodbye to…

That’s a fair sampling of Nicol’s style. Though occasionally it drops into sheer silliness, it is usually redeemed by clever, often very funny phrasings; the man did have – overused cliché fully applicable here – a way with words.

Eric Nicol’s books are quite easy to come by here in B.C., and are – here’s another cliché – well worth dipping into if you come across them in your travels, though some I find more enjoyable than others. The more hectic ones do seem to be trying a bit too hard, but there are little gems of delicious prose in each and every one. The Roving I is one of my personal favourites, a slight little period piece which captures a moment of time in a fast-moving world and frequently makes us smile at the infinite absurdities of life.

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safe haven larry gaudeSafe Haven: The Possibility of Sanctuary in an Unsafe World by Larry Gaudet ~ 2007. This edition: Random House, 2007. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-679-31383-0. 274 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10.

*****

Here’s the promotional material from the publisher. Heads up for the predictably effusive tone.

“Sanctuary” is a beautiful word: philosophically rich, culturally intriguing and evocative of so much we cherish — protection, safety, contemplation, solitude. But lurking at the edges of this bright concept are some very dark associations: fear, paranoia, the slamming of gates to exclude the threat of other-ness. Whatever the word means to each of us, and whatever our ancestral legacies, the yearning for sanctuary is a malady we all share to varying degrees, a quest that is both our birthright and our affliction.

These are the assertions of award-winning author Larry Gaudet in Safe Haven, an unorthodox and highly engaging work of imaginative non-fiction. Sure to resonate with anyone who has dreamt of escaping from the pressures of the workaday world — that is, all of us — this book is a highly personal, funny and unflinchingly honest investigation of the power and allure of the idea of sanctuary.

Safe Haven begins and ends in the soft fog of coastal Nova Scotia, taking side trips into the ruined shrines of ancient Greece (with a fictional Bayou-born international spy serving as tour guide), journeying by rail through the frozen vistas and forlorn social realities of Canada’s north and dipping into Gaudet’s own Acadian heritage of displacement.

Booking a year for this project, Gaudet moved with his wife, Alison, and their two small boys to a newly constructed barn by the sea in the fictionally named community of Foggy Cove. His intent: to chart the meaning of sanctuary through the ages, using his family’s solitude as an idyllic jumping-off point. But the project becomes far more complicated than he’d envisioned, and far less idyllic. Envying his children who can oversee uncomplicated imaginary civilizations in a sandbox, Gaudet cannot shake the awareness that he is complicit in the very iniquities from which he seeks to shelter his family, from the environmental toll of their septic tank on this ecologically sensitive land, to the wince of a lobster he is about to boil for dinner. He must also contend with the guilt he feels for having hijacked his wife and children, potentially for naught. As Alison’s desire to return to the comforts and stimuli of urban life grows with every month spent in isolation, Gaudet knows their idyllic days in Foggy Cove are numbered.

In his search for the diverse meanings of sanctuary, Gaudet illuminates the dysfunctions and hidden costs of the way we live — and challenges us to find ways to bring down the walls that keep so many of us estranged from our own experiences. Safe Haven is an entertaining and illuminating romp through the fog-shrouded territory of sanctuary through ages and mythologies, guided by an engaging author who is not afraid to shine the light directly on his own fallible and highly likeable self.

My take:

This book is quite beautifully written, but my initial desire to totally enter into and embrace the author’s ideas was increasingly difficult to maintain as I learned more and more of the author’s personal life, and, in particular, his relationship with his wife, Alison. This seems deeply troubled, and Gaudet’s continual apologies to Alison for dragging her way out to the wilds of Nova Scotia, despite her yearnings for her “real life” of urban sophistication in the city, felt very passive-aggressive in a “this marriage may have issues” sort of way. Or perhaps a cigar is just a cigar, and it was all stream-of-consciousness writing with no below-the-surface vibe breaking through.

Some fascinating stuff in here, all about the author’s most complicated life and how he got to where he is today, but the continual first-person referencing ruined it for me. If one counted up all of the “me”s and the “I”s in this one, they’d outnumber every other word ten to one. Or at least that is the impression I am left with.

So – basically a vanity project, with some gorgeous passages worth anthologizing, or at least quoting in a blog, except that I didn’t mark those pages and I am very ready to part ways with this book and return it to the library shelves. Here’s the thing: it is stamped “Received 2007” by the library, and it appears to have been unread until my checking out of it in 2013. Absolutely crisp and clean and tight. That’s five years, and no one has apparently touched it, except for me on one of my random-selection forays into the non-fiction aisles.

What does that mean, I wonder? It’s not a bad book; some parts are truly excellent. The man can definitely write. Maybe the pervasive (though most probably non-intentional) self-promoting tone has prevented this one from being truly likeable and accessible to the vast majority of those of us unable, through the results of our own career and lifestyle choices, or by those unpreventable twists of fate, to sit out on a sabbatical year in our second home and ponder on the deeper universal concepts implicit in our lifestyles.

Am I glad I invested the time in reading this? Sure. It was thought-provoking and life affirming and occasionally mildly amusing. A lot of Gaudet’s thoughts resonated deeply with me; I felt much the same when I had small children under my care, as he did when writing this book, all broody and protective and suspicious of the world’s vast potential for hurting those I love. And Gaudet’s cutting comments on the prevalence of “sanctuary porn” in our society were absolutely spot-on. I liked him the very best when he probed delicately and accurately on what we choose to divert ourselves with, and how we feed, and are fed, on the stuff of fantastical escapist dreams.

Would I read this book again? Not very darned likely. Unless, of course, it would be to mark out those few memorable passages for future reference. Long ago in another time of my life I kept a series of journals, in which I frequently noted down personally-appealing bits of other people’s writing; I no longer do that, but I thought of it while reading Safe Haven.

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cheerful weather for the wedding  julia stracheyCheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey ~ 1932. This edition: Persephone, 2011. Preface by Frances Partridge. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-906462-07-9. 119 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

*****

This slender novella read much better the second time around. The initial attempt rather threw me – I wasn’t quite sure what I was dealing with – it was decidedly unexpected. Much more noir than I had anticipated from the other reviews I’d read, and from the Persephone description.

Having sorted things out, I was able to read with more attention to detail the second time around, and to pin down my impressions much more firmly. Though, the more I think about it, the more complicated my responses seem to be!

Dolly Thatcham is getting married in a few hours, and upon meeting her in the opening pages of the book we take a deep breath and hold it for the duration. This book is strung out with tension. Something is going to happen. Something more than a mere marriage ceremony, the veiled implication teases us.

Her mother, whom Dolly appears to tolerate with thinly disguised disgust, is fluttering about micro-managing the action, and confusing the servants by constantly contradicting her impulsive orders. Dolly’s younger sister, Kitty, a brash but deeply insecure seventeen-year-old, barges about and loudly plays the knowing naïf. Dolly’s close friend Evelyn tensely hovers at the edges of the action. The bridegroom is about somewhere, but does not seem to be a prominent player in this drama; it is a very feminine world we are glimpsing: the bride, her sister and mother, her best friend, the inside servants.

Several hours before she is due at the altar, Dolly seems immobilized with a kind of fixated lethargy. On her way through the drawing-room to breakfast, she sits down at the writing-table, and we see the room and Dolly’s face reflected in the clouded surface of an antique mirror.

It was as if the drawing-room reappeared in the mirror as a familiar room in a dream reappears, ghostly, significant, and wiped free of all signs of humdrum and trivial existence,. Two crossed books lying flat, the round top of a table, a carved lizard’s head on a clock, the sofa-top and its arms, shone in the grey light from the sky outside; everything else was in shadow. The transparent ferns that stood massed in the window showed up very brightly and looked fearful. They seemed to have come alive, so to speak. They looked to have just that moment reared up their long backs, arched their jagged and serrated bodies menacingly, twisted and knotted themselves tightly about each other and darted out long forked and ribboning tongues from one to the other; and all as if under some terrible compulsion … they brought to mind travellers’ descriptions of the jungles in the Congo, – of the silent struggles and strangulations that vegetable life there consists in it seems.

To complete the picture, Dolly’s white face, with its thick and heavily curled back lips, above her black speckled wool frock, glimmered palely in front of the ferns, like a phosphorescent orchid blooming alone there in the twilit swamp.

For five or six minutes, the pale and luminous orchid remained stationary, in the centre of the mirror’s dark surface. The strange thing was the way the eyes kept ceaselessly roaming, shifting, ranging, round and round the room. Round and round again … this looked queer – the face so passive and remote seeming, and the eyes so restless.

The light perhaps caught the mirrored eyes at a peculiar angle, and this might have caused them to glitter so uncomfortably, it seemed even so wildly – irresponsibly, – like the glittering eyes of a sick woman who is exhausted, yet feverish.

Is this the portrait of a joyful bride? Obviously not, and as the narrative continues we discover nothing to change this initial impression of the bride as having some serious emotional turmoil going on under her numbly complacent cooperation with those preparing her for her imminent ceremonial change of matrimonial status.

For we soon become aware that this bride has a back story, and that story has another main character, and he is actually in the house, waiting for a chance to speak to Dolly, who in her turn seems most reluctant to encounter him.

Joseph Patten is an anthropology student who is obviously on familiar terms with the Thatcham menage. Apparently he has been a bosom friend of Dolly’s; they spent the previous summer inseparably together, though they have since parted ways. Yet here is Joseph, lurking about, waylaying people as to the whereabouts of Dolly, obviously hoping to speak to her before the ceremony, after which she will be immediately departing with her new husband to embark for South America where the bridegroom has a diplomatic posting.

Dolly is avoiding Joseph, and he whiles away the hours by popping out of rooms and dropping inflammatory comments into the midst of conversations, before retreating into sullen silence which builds until the next outburst.

Dolly makes it into her dress and eventually out the door with the aid of a bottle of rum, which, in a memorable vignette, we see clutched in her hand and swathed in the lace of her antique lace veil as she droops down the stairs in the final moments of her spinsterhood. She and Joseph do connect, but as neither of them can articulate their Great Big Expectations of each other – if indeed they actually have fully formed expectations – the wedding day proceeds as originally planned.

Once the bride and groom are seen off, the dregs of the guests and the family mingle in anticlimactic winding-down mode. Joseph is still hanging about, and he lets go with a shocking but highly suspect account of what Dolly has been up to the summer before while in Albania. Mrs. Thatcham, the target of this bizarre allegation, dismisses it with a fine cold shoulder, and we are left reeling a bit at the swirling undercurrents of this brief and highly disturbing glimpse into this collection of fictional lives.

Julia Strachey has put together a quirky, memorably stylized, very visual bit of fiction with this short novella. The exceedingly unlikable Mrs. Thatcham was based on Strachey’s first mother-in-law, whom she apparently despised; it is a damning character portrait, if that is indeed the case.

I did find myself surprisingly in sympathy with both Dolly and the almost-invisible Owen at the end of the tale; I suspect and hope, from a few tiny clues dropped here and there, that they will create a marriage with some hope of success, once they have escaped the physical bonds of their old lives in England and can recreate themselves in a new world.

Joseph – well – I found myself rather on his side as well. In his “affair” with Dolly, and his failure to further develop their relationship, he’s perhaps had a fortunate escape. The Thatchams in general so obviously scorn him, and Dolly herself is so reluctant to acknowledge any sort of affection or lasting committment to their prior dalliance, that we must accept the obvious. That is, that a Dolly-Joseph alliance was never a real option.

Or possibly not.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is a rather gloriously intriguing little bit of literature in that the speculations it spawns are endless. I’m going to quit right here with it, at least for now, but it’s been great fun kicking ideas around regarding what the author intended, and how we’re supposed to read her characters and the seething back story.

Thank you for initiating this discussion, Simon!

And to everyone else who has been much prompter in posting their reviews, your thoughts were most fascinating and beautifully presented. I am in awe of the clever people who post on these topics; you find the most intriguing angles and nooks and crannies to illuminate; thank you all so much for sharing your thoughts!

Here’s the link to the post which kickstarted my discovery of this arcane author:

Stuck-in-a-Book – Cheerful Weather for the Wedding Readalong

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