Posts Tagged ‘Hostages to Fortune’

hostages to fortune elizabeth cambridge 001Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1933. This edition: Jonathan Cape, 1933. Hardcover. 304 pages.

My rating: 10/10. Not only met but exceeded all of my expectations.

He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.

~Francis Bacon

I loved this book on so many levels; I suspect it will be high on my “most memorable books of 2013” list. Not only is it beautifully written, but the themes of marriage, motherhood and personal fulfillment struck very close to home; I couldn’t help but recognize many parallels with my own experience, which (of course!) is not unique, as Elizabeth Cambridge so eloquently demonstrates.

*****

Catherine lay still. Through the slats of the blind she could see the hard white light of early morning; the bars were like a ladder. Black, white, white, black … was the white the rungs of the ladder or was it the space between? A white ladder or a black ladder?

Water splashed. The voice of the newcomer, hoarse and uncertain, rose and fell, broken by deep, sobbing breaths.

A girl. An anti-climax. A girl … after all that! Oh well, William would be pleased. A ‘nice little girl’. That was nurse, standing up for another woman.

‘Can I see her?’

‘Not yet. I’m just giving her a bath.”

Catherine closed her eyes. She wondered if being born hurt as much as giving birth. Somebody pulled up the blind and opened the window. Instantly the room filled with the smell of slaked dust. It had been raining in the night, but the morning was windless, damp, and fresh. An early tram clashed and rattled down the hill, the overhead wires sang as it passed. Out in the Sound a tug hooted. The tide must be falling now … all down the coast over miles of brown rocks, the gulls screaming in the pale June morning.

A girl. But who wanted girls, now, in the middle of a war? Catherine had never believed in the equality of the sexes. Women simply did not have the same chance as men. Nature had seen to that. If you wanted to produce a human being at all, it was common sense to want to produce the kind of human being that was going to have the best time.

Best time? The expression was the wrong one. Surely? What did she mean by the best time?

… She opened her eyes. Nurse was standing over her, the baby held upright against her shoulder, like the bambino on a Della Robbia plaque.

Catherine stared. So that was her baby. Baby? Babies were sleepy, amorphous, unconvincing and ugly. This creature was not amorphous, it was not even ugly. It stared at life with bright, unwinking eyes. Its underlip was thrust out, tremulous, indignant.

‘My word,’ Catherine thought. ‘That’s not a baby. It’s a person.’

And with that delicate little epiphany, the stage is set for the years to come of Catherine’s motherhood. The girl child, Audrey, is eventually followed by two more siblings, Adam and Bill, and through it all, the tedious business of ministering to infant needs, the small heartaches and exquisite joys of mothering toddlers, small children, increasingly independent and opinionated school children, teenagers, Catherine finds herself secure in that attitude, that these are, above all, persons, not merely extensions of herself or William, though of course there are glimpses of genetic imprint which for a moment here or there stand out and give sharp pause.

This is an episodic novel in which “nothing ever happens”, but it is a beautifully observed and documented series of vignettes of family life, with a view to the broader scene in which it is set. It reminded me most strongly of another book that has a similar tone and an equally well-depicted mother, Margery Sharp’s 1935 novel Four Gardens, another hidden gem of a book which I wish would receive the same attention from modern re-publishers of almost-lost small literary treasures.

These women are, of course, more than “just mothers”, but their maternity is an inescapable part of their lives, and though it does not define them, it forms their lives in various unforeseen ways, and their emotional and intellectual responses to their motherhood are well worth considering. Elizabeth Cambridge’s Hostages is said to be semi-autobiographical; Margery Sharp was childless; but both writers have identified and played upon a strong chord of shared experience which resonates with me, a person (and mother) of several generations later, living in a very different time and place.

I am having a hard time putting into words the deep appeal this book had for me; not only regarding the subject matter but how strongly the author’s voice came through. I will therefore leave it, at least for now, with a strong recommendation, and links to other reviews.

Hostages to Fortune is extremely readable, frequently very amusing, thoroughly thought-provoking, and occasionally poignant. An excellent book. Other readers agree; I don’t believe I’ve seen a single negative review.

Here is an excerpt from Claire at The Captive Reader‘s post. Please click over and read the whole review; she says much more.

Cambridge gives us a very ordinary, unremarkable story about ordinary, unremarkable people, just trying to do their best as they move through the years.  The focus is primarily on Catherine, mother and wife, who begins as a not unusually selfish young woman, concerned with her writing aspirations and her husband and, eventually, her babies.

…(S)howing a … mature marriage, I was incredibly impressed by the portrait of Catherine and William’s union through the years.  The novel begins during the First World War, with Catherine giving birth to Audrey while William is away.  When he returns, invalided out, they settle in the country and William begins his stressful work as the local doctor.  With William running about the countryside at all hours and Catherine struggling to manage at home with first one, then two, then three children, both spend the early years of their marriage frazzled, pressed for time, patience, and money.  They go through phases where they don’t particularly like one another, where they can’t even remember what they used to like about the other, where they question why they ever thought marriage was a good idea.  But, in the end, they are partners and, however distant they may have felt over the years, they shared the same vision and values.  They can respect the work the other has done over the years and, year by year, that brings them closer together…

…(T)his is truly a novel about parenting, about the limits of control.  Catherine’s greatest struggle is learning that she cannot give her children everything she’d dreamed or planned for them.  That she must “not grab nor claim, nor try to insist on what they do and what they are.”  There comes a point where, if you’re going to keep them close and on good terms, you have to let go rather than attempt to orchestrate their lives for them.  And you have to resign yourself to the fact that the fates they chose for themselves will be different than the ones you planned for and that they will potentially achieve much less than what they’re capable of…

Hostages to Fortune is a thoughtful novel full of well drawn characters and relationships, presented with admirable simplicity.  I was so taken with it, was so easily able to relate to not just Catherine but also William and their children, that I’d say it is now probably one of my favourite Persephones…

And a few more links:

A Window to My Soul – Hostages to Fortune

Heavenali – Hostages to Fortune

Fervent thanks to Persephone Press for re-publishing this novel. Here’s hoping that many more forgotten books which still speak to us today will continue to be brought back into circulation, and to garner the attention which they so richly deserve.

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