Posts Tagged ‘Social Commentary’

the shuttle frances hodgson burnettThe Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett ~ 1906. This edition: Frederick A. Stokes, 1907. Hardcover. 512 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Coming late to the party with this book, I am. I had added it to my Century of Books must-acquire list because of numerous enthusiastic recommendations from other bloggers, and I am thrilled to be able to report that those who gave it the nod were completely correct. It’s an absolutely grand read.

I understand that the currently in-print edition published by Persephone has been edited somewhat, and I can’t help but wonder what they cut out. I’m not terribly concerned that it would have ruined the story – this is a very long book with abundant authorial wanderings just slightly off-topic here and there – but it was intriguing to read the early, as-published text in this lovely vintage edition and speculate as to where it could be gently trimmed.

And golly, I just realized that the book I’m holding in my hands (well, it’s actually sitting on top of the printer beside the computer, but it was just being held in my hands) is a genuine antique. One hundred and seven years old. That’s rather a pleasant thought. It’s travelled through the decades very well indeed, both in physical condition and in staying power of contents.

If you are one of the few of my readers who hasn’t yet tackled The Shuttle, here is a plot summary of sorts.

There were once, in the later years of the 19th century, two American millionaire’s daughters, eighteen-year-old Rosalie (Rosy) and ten-years-younger Bettina (Betty) Vanderpoel. It was just at the time of the first awareness by impoverished English gentlemen of the nobility – second, third and fourth sons, as it were – that here was a rather well-stocked hunting ground for well-dowered wives, who would be willing to exchange the country of their birth and a goodly portion of their fathers’ wealth for an English title and a stately ancestral home. In the best of these transactions, gone into with eyes wide open, both parties benefitted and a certain degree of happy felicity resulted, but occasionally the meeting of American feminine independence and English masculine traditionalist views on the necessity for a wife to submit to her husband’s superior judgement ended in disaster.

Guess which kind of marriage sweet, frail, loving and deeply innocent Rosy Vanderpoel made?

Falling for the seductive wiles of Sir Nigel Anstruthers, Rosy trots innocently off to England, but the honeymoon voyage is not even half over before she realizes that she has yoked herself to a malicious and sadistically abusive man. Sir Nigel is a rotter through and through. He despises not only his new wife, but her family and her country and her ideas and her expectations of at least a modicum of domestic happiness. His bitter disappointment at Rosy’s father’s insistence at leaving the control of her fortune in her own hands and not in her husband’s has Sir Nigel seething; he has hidden his true nature well, but now that the shores of the new world are receding he is preparing to gain control of Rosy’s share of the Vanderpoel millions for himself.

Competently reducing meek Rosy to a grey shadow of her former self, Sir Nigel succeeds in cutting her completely off from her American family, but for the occasional letter requesting more funds. Three babies are born; the first a son, who is born crippled due to his pregnant mother being physically assaulted by Sir Nigel; two little daughters die young.

Ten years pass.

Back in America, Betty Vanderpoel has never forgotten her beloved older sister, and can’t quite believe that the cessation of relations is by Rosy’s wish. (Betty had never liked Sir Nigel, and he returned the scorn she viewed him with in spades.) Taking her father into her confidence, Betty announces that she is going to go to England and see for herself how Rosy is faring. And off she goes, with her father’s blessing and his millions behind her.

What she finds is beyond her worst expectations. Rosy, aged beyond her years, lives a dreary life shut up in a decrepit mansion staffed by sullen servants, her only companion her hunchbacked ten-year-old son, Ughtred. (Aside to author re: “Ughtred”.  What the heck, Frances Hodgson Burnett? That is absolutely bizarre. What were you thinking???!) Anyway, the estate is mouldering away while Sir Nigel pursues his merry way a-spending Rosy’s money on mistresses and riotous living abroad; he returns only to indulge himself in spousal abuse and to browbeat Rosy into sending another brief letter to Papa requesting more money to maintain his little grandson’s estate.

Betty, made of much sterner stuff than Rosy, swoops in like an avenging goddess, and the majority of the rest of the book consists of the rehabilitation of Rosy, Ughtred, the estate and the attached village full of grateful rurals. Sir Nigel reappears to find his despised sister-in-law very much in control of things, and their ensuing battle of wills, Rosy’s deeply good against Sir Nigel’s blackly wicked, is a gloriously entertaining thing.

Oh, and there is a further development. The next estate over belongs to another impoverished nobleman, this one the sole survivor of a long succession of bad eggs. But is Lord Mount Dunstan really as deeply black as his spendthrift, now-deceased elder brother, and the heedless ancestors before him, or is he sullen merely because he feels so darned bad about the decrepit state of his hereditary acres? Any guesses?

I will stop right here, because you can now likely guess the ending from what I’ve just said. Nope, no surprises here. But how the author gets us to the inevitable conclusion is deeply diverting. And how genuinely engaging and interesting her various characters are, from meek Rosy to divinely competent Betty to nasty Sir Nigel and his equally nasty old mother to misunderstood-but-really-deeply-noble Mount Dunstan to random American typewriter salesman G. Selden (who makes up a merry little sideplot himself, what with his precipitous entry via bicycle wreck at the very door of the Anstruther mansion) to busy millionaire Reuben Vanderpoel – what a glorious cast!

I loved this story! It’s a proper saga. Such a treat to have a black and white, good-versus-evil, you know who to root for and who to boo and hiss at sort of thing!

And it does reflect some very real historical happenings, such as the astounding trans-Atlantic traffic in (relatively) poor English noblemen and wealthy American heiresses which took place from the 1860s well into the early 1900s. Fictional Rosy Vanderpoel is represented as being one of the earlier of the transplanted rich girls, and her story is based solidly on fact, though with artistic license in her particular details.

A grand exposition on both American and British social structure of the late nineteenth century, with abundant detail and a whole lot of humour. What a good book, in an old-fashioned novel-ish sort of way. If you haven’t read it already, may I suggest that you consider adding it to your Must-Read list, in any edition you can get your hands on? As the publisher’s poster claims, it is a masterpiece.

Edited to add this note on the heroine’s wee little nephew’s name, Ughtred. At first I thought, “No way! This can’t be a real name.” But then a commenter said something about old Saxon names, and the penny dropped. Of course. A bit of internet research (what did we do before Google?!) turned up just a few references, enough to show that Frances Hodgson Burnett did indeed know her stuff. Here we are, then, references from several genealogy websites. (And I did not bookmark the references; bad researching practice, I know. Don’t tell the teens in my family, as this is a constant refrain from me when they are doing online research: “Reference your sources!”)

English: from the rare Old English personal name Uhtred, composed of the elements uht dawn + red counsel, advice. This is a very uncommon given name in the English-speaking world, but remains in use in the Shuttleworth family.


The name “Ughtred” is of Saxon origin, and means “early to counsel”. There were several Ughtreds (also spelt Hurard, Uctred, etc), the first (who did not carry the “de Bradshaw” or “of Bradshaw” surname) was, apparently, living near Preston, Lancashire at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066. He was a “King’s Thane”, that is an trusted retainer of the Saxon King, and he probably held his office by guarding the King’s hunting preserve because he is sometimes called “Forester” or “King’s Sergeant”. He or his son, or grandson, had a brother named Alan de Bradshaw, who held lands in Harwood, near Bradshaw Village. One early descendant was Robert de Bradshaw, a Crusader who died under the wall at Acre, in the Holy Land, circa 1189 A.D…

So there it is. A name with a genuine and quite fascinating history. But I still pity the poor kid in The Shuttle. Crippled from before birth by his wicked father, and then saddled with this. It’s even more eyebrow-raising than Little Lord Fauntleroy’s Cedric. Wonder what his (Ughtred’s) middle name (names) is (are)?

The publisher's American publicity poster from 1907.

The publisher’s American publicity poster from 1907.

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the gilded ladder laura conway hebe elsna 001The Gilded Ladder by Laura Conway ~ 1945. This edition: Collins, 1970. Originally published under author’s name Hebe Elsna. Hardcover. ISBN: 00-233272-8. 159 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Found recently among my mother’s stored-away books was this mildly engaging relationship novel. (One can’t really slot it neatly into the romance category as it has larger ambitions, and the love affairs are off on the sidelines as compared to the niece-aunt partnership at the centre of the drama.)

It is just good enough to get a pass from me, though I doubt it will be high on the re-read list. A keeper, I think, though one for the bottom shelf. It pleasantly helped while away the time I spent in the orthodontist’s waiting room yesterday while my son was getting his braces tightened up a few more notches.

Young Lucy Erskine, ten years old in 1888 when this novel opens, is slightly in awe of her Aunt Madelon. Lucy’s mother is dead; her father’s new wife has produced two step-siblings, and Lucy feels rather out of things and appreciates the occasional attention she receives from her father’s rather glamorous unmarried sister who resides in a small suite of antique-furnished rooms in the Erskine family home.

Lucy has a small but genuine talent for music, both for playing the piano and for composing original little melodies, which Madelon notices and files away for future reference as a trait worthy of further encouragement. Madelon herself is fully occupied with hoisting herself up on the social scale – the “gilded ladder” of the title – and she gains each rung by strenuous though hidden exertions and more than a little single-minded plotting.

In Lucy’s tenth summer, all are agog at the upcoming marriage of Madelon’s old school chum, Lady Pamela, to a wealthy young man who cherishes an altruistic interest in slum projects. Lady Pamela hesitates at the thought of David’s plans to turn the major part of their prospective home into a convalescent hospital for ailing factory girls and as Pamela momentarily bobbles, Madelon slinks in and scoops away the fiancé. Marrying in haste, the two decamp on a honeymoon in France, but tragedy strikes and David is killed in a railway accident, leaving Madelon a devastated widow, albeit an exceedingly wealthy one.

Back then to the Erskine family home, where yet more tragedy has occurred, for Lucy’s father has suddenly died. Bereft Madelon, looking about for a new interest to assuage her grief, offers to give a home to young Lucy, and our story is off and running.

Madelon is truly fond of her niece, but can’t resist speculating about the possibilities of Lucy’s mild accomplishments as a minor musical prodigy to gain entry into noble drawing rooms. Tea for auntie, and a command performance from pretty little Lucy is the unspoken “deal” Madelon makes with her acquaintances in the social strata directly above her own, for Madelon’s new wealth, and, ironically, her past friendship with Lady Pamela, have given her a renewed taste for the joys of class climbing.

The novel wends on its way following Madelon’s steady social progress, and detailing Lucy’s growing awareness of her aunt’s manipulative ways, which Lucy starts to quietly confound when they touch upon herself. Lucy’s growing self-awareness and her rather clever provisioning for an life independent of her aunt’s control were rather admirable and renewed my interest in the plot, which had started to flag just a little.

This is a shortish novel, so things do keep moving at a respectable pace right up until the last chapter, where Lucy’s love affair, originally sabotaged by jealous Madelon’s manipulations, promises to finally come out all right. Madelon herself gets a brutally permanent comeuppance: she perishes rather dramatically just as she reaches the pinnacle of her social ambitions.

More irony here, for, as the author delicately informs us, Madelon’s bitterly hard-won ascent up the social scale is about to be rendered obsolete, as mere wealth alone is now becoming the golden ticket to social status. Madelon was born a generation too early; her long-sought-for prize is merely gilded base metal, and her tragedy is only appreciated by Lucy, who has loved her manipulative aunt for the good qualities of her personality, and by Lady Pamela, who has forgiven Madelon for the long-ago treachery of the stolen husband-to-be.

The writing is far from stellar, being rather pedestrian, more tell than show, full of awkwardly-written dialogue from the lower-class characters, and with the characters remaining at arm’s length from the reader. Despite the flaws, it was well-paced and just good enough to hold my interest, though as the climax of the story approached the strands of plot were increasingly predictable. No surprises there, but I have encountered much worse in some of the “bestsellers” of our present day (Rosemary Pilcher, your name springs to mind), and it was a mostly painless reading experience, though I cringed at the pat predictability of the last few pages.

Though The Gilded Ladder is decidedly a formula story, it is a well-polished one. A search of the internet to find out more about the author yielded little in the way of biographical insight, but it did produce some rather startling information.

Laura Conway was one of the pseudonyms of the terrifically prolific Dorothy Phoebe Ansle, who published, between 1928 and 1982, something like one hundred (!) popular novels under a variety of names, including Hebe Elsna, Vicky Lancaster and Lyndon Snow.

A long list appears on the Fantastic Fiction – Hebe Elsna web page, and the titles are surprisingly intriguing. Now I don’t recommend you rush out and acquire any of these. If The Gilded Ladder is a fair example of the author’s output then it is a very average sort of casual romantic fiction aimed at the housewife market (forgive my using that phrase – it’s not meant to be derogatory of actual housewives, of whom I myself am one, merely descriptive of a certain cliché) and certainly not “literary”.

But don’t some of these sound quite fascinating in an “Oops, I didn’t do the dishes as I was too wrapped up in my latest dime novel” sort of way?

What could This Clay Suburb concern? What is a Receipt for Hardness? Is it really true that Women Always Forgive? What happened The First Week of September? Are Marks Upon the Snow as sinister as they sound?

I sadly suspect that the titles may be the best part of many of these…

Child of Passion (1928) The Third Wife (1928) Sweeter Unpossessed (1929) Study of Sara (1930) We are the Pilgrims (1931) Upturned Palms (1933) Half Sisters (1934) Women Always Forgive (1934) Receipt for Hardness (1935) Uncertain Lover (1935) Crista Moon (1936) You Never Knew (1936) Brief Heroine (1937) People Are So Respectable (1937) Like Summer Brave (1938) Strait-Jacket (1938) This Clay Suburb (1938) The Wedding Took Place (1939) The First Week in September (1940) Everyone Loves Lorraine (1941) Lady Misjudged (1941) None Can Return (1942) Our Little Life (1942) See my Shining Palace (1942) No Fields of Amaranth (1943) Young and Broke (1943) The Happiest Year (1944) I Have Lived To-Day (1944) Echo from Afar (1945) The Gilded Ladder (1945) Cafeteria (1946) Clemency Page (1947) The Dream and the World (1947) All Visitors Ashore (1948) Midnight Matinee (1949) The Soul of Mary Olivane (1949) The Door Between (1950) No Shallow Stream (1950) Happy Birthday to You (1951) The Convert (1952) A Day of Grace (1952) Gail Talbot (1953) A Girl Disappears (1953) Catherine of Braganza (1954) Consider These Women (1954) A Shade of Darkness (1954) The Sweet Lost Years (1955) I Bequeath (1956) Strange Visitor (1956) The Marrying Kind (1957) My Dear Lady (1957) The Gay Unfortunate (1958) Mrs. Melbourne (1958) The Younger Miss Nightingale (1959) Marks Upon The Snow (1960) Time Is – Time Was (1960) The Little Goddess (1961) Lonely Dreamer (1961) Vicky (1961) Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1962) Take Pity Upon Youth (1962) A House Called Pleasance (1963) Minstrel’s Court (1963) Unwanted Wife (1963) Too Well Beloved (1964) The Undying Past (1964) The Brimming Cup (1965) The China Princess (1965) Saxon’s Folly (1966) The Queen’s Ward (1967) The Wise Virgin (1967) Gallant Lady (1968) Heir of Garlands (1968) The Abbot’s House (1969) Pursuit of Pleasure (1969) The Mask of Comedy (1970) Sing for Your Supper (1970) Take Heed of Loving Me (1970) The Love Match (1971) The King’s Bastard (1971) Prelude for Two Queens (1972) Elusive Crown (1973) Mary Olivane (1973) The Cherished Ones (1974) Eldest Daughter (1974) Distant Landscape (1975) Link in the Chain (1975) Cast a Long Shadow (1976) Family Duel (1979) Bid Time Return (1979) Long Years of Loving (1981) Red Headed Bastard (1981) Heiress Presumptive (1981) My Lover – The King (1982)

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These next two books are proving to be something of a challenge to me.

Well, not actually the books themselves. Reading Miles Franklin’s teenage bestseller, My Brilliant Career, and her publisher-suppressed sequel (and apology to her parents) My Career Goes Bung, has been a fascinating process. My dilemma lies in how best to express what these books are really all about, and how they reflect the strong ideals of their author in her own life, while still inhabiting the fictional realm.

I will try to keep things brief(ish); one could go on for pages and pages and pages. Luckily there are others who have covered this ground before, and I think that if I succeed in piquing your interest in this writer and her books I will have to say, “Good enough.” Biographies and resources are definitely available for further study.

my brilliant career virago press miles franklin 001 (2)My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin ~ 1901. This edition: Virago, 2002. Introduction by Carmen Callil. Paperback. ISBN: 0-86068-193-9. 232 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

My sphere in life is not congenial to me. Oh, how I hate this living death which has swallowed all my teens, which is greedily devouring my youth, which will sap my prime, and in which my old age, if I am cursed with any, will be worn away! As my life creeps on for ever through the long toil-laden days with its agonizing monotony, narrowness, and absolute uncongeniality, how my spirit frets and champs its unbreakable fetters—all in vain!

Whoa, steady on, there!

These emotions, from the introduction of My Brilliant Career, written in the voice of fictional autobiographer, almost-seventeen-year-old Sybylla Melvyn, absolutely sob teen angst. Appropriately so, for their real author, Australian Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, was just sixteen herself when she dashed these words off in the late 1900s, and the youth of the author is very evident throughout the story.

The fictional Sybylla starts life as the indulged child of a successful New South Wales landholder and an aristocratic mother. When Sybylla is eight years old, a prolonged drought inspires her father to change his occupation, to that of a stock dealer in nearby dairy-farming region, and the landholdings are sold and the family relocated to a much smaller farm. Sybylla’s father proves to be a very poor businessman, and his escalating failures start him drinking to excess, until the family’s circumstances become reduced to the point of bankruptcy. Sybylla’s mother is predictably soured by all of this, and her frustration with her declining lot in life and with her continually sulking eldest daughter comes to a head. Sybylla is told to get out into the world and earn a living, as the family cannot support either her careless ways or her continued financial drain on family resources. A reprieve comes through an offer by Sybylla’s well-off maternal grandmother to come and live on the family estate.

Sybylla finds life at her grandmother’s very congenial, and she blossoms into something of a local belle, eventually attracting the attention of the district’s wealthiest bachelor, the dashing Harry Beecham. Harry and Sybylla come to a tentative agreement – tentative, anyway, on Sybylla’s part, though ironclad on Harry’s – that she will marry him once she turns twenty-one. As she is just seventeen when this takes place, anything might happen in the ensuing years, and of course it does.

Harry loses his estate and leaves the district in order to re-establish himself; Sybylla’s parents send for her to take on a post as a governess with a family friend who has loaned the Melvyns money; Sybylla’s labors will count towards the interest. This proves to be a squalid and humiliating experience; Sybylla ends up having a nervous and physical breakdown, and returns to her parents’ home to recuperate, much to their combined dismay.

Harry returns, with fortune well on its way to being restored, but Sybylla has developed a deep antipathy to the married state, having observed the brutal physical and emotional effects of even a happy marriage on the women she has been observing as she becomes ever more acquainted with the wider world. Though Harry offers her a deep respect and swears that he will allow her the freedom to pursue her own interests (writing and music), and she is herself more than a little in love with him, she is ultimately unable to commit herself to him, and there Sybylla’s story abruptly ends.

This novel was an immediate bestseller, and brought the young author – Miles Franklin was twenty-one when it appeared – much fame and notoriety, as it was claimed by the publisher to be autobiographical, and the parallels between aspects of the lives of fictional Sybylla and real-life Miles were too obvious to dismiss. Teenage girls thrilled to Sybylla’s emotional outpourings and her desire to make something of herself, to have a “brilliant career”. The melodramatic tone of the tale caught adult readers’ attention, while family friends and neighbours raised querying eyebrows at the “Franklin girl’s” manipulation of the facts, and eagerly purchased the book for its curiousity value.

Despite the welcome income her debut novel brought, Miles Franklin was appalled at how it was received, and by the assumption that her family was accurately portrayed; she had meant it as a fiction. When her publisher inquired as to whether she would allow a second edition, Miles Franklin staunchly refused, and the book went out of print, until it was finally reissued in 1966, twelve years after her death.

The emotions expressed in the novel, chiefly those of frustration at the lack of opportunities for education and professional development for women, resonated with the modern feminists of the 1960s, and My Brilliant Career has been in print ever since, a highly regarded piece of early feminist literature, and a blazing example of a young woman’s refusal to bow to the status quo.

So much for the “meaningful” aspect of this book. Was it a “good” read?

Well, yes. It really was. I enjoyed it greatly.

Sybylla, for all of her over-the-top rantings about the woefulness of her life, early on turns into a very real and relatable character. I found that I was completely drawn in to her rather heart-rending little saga, and though I had moments of wanting to shake her vigorously – my “mother” side coming to the fore, I’m sure – I was completely on her side throughout. I sighed a bit when she turned down Harry Beecham at the very last; he was a wonderful catch, especially for the time and place. It was touch and go there for a bit, until Sybylla’s deeply entrenched intention of lifelong single womanhood got the upper hand!

Fascinating, then, to read the “sequel” to My Brilliant Career, which was written soon after the first book was published, but which was turned down by the publisher because of fear of scandal. More below.

First edition cover of "My Brilliant Career", which is gently mocked in the author's sequel/rebuttal, "My Career Goes Bung".

First edition cover of “My Brilliant Career”, showing the illustration which is gently mocked in the author’s sequel/rebuttal, “My Career Goes Bung”.

my career goes bung virago press miles franklin 001My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin ~ 1946. This edition: Virago, 1981. Foreword by Verna Coleman. Paperback. ISBN: 0-86068-220-X. 234 pages.

My rating: 9/10

I bless the serendipity which brought this book to me just before Christmas, when I was assembling books for the Century reading challenge. The name “Miles Franklin” was in the forefront of my awareness, having just purchased her first novel, My Brilliant Career, to represent 1901, and that in combination with the green Virago cover caught my eye.

While My Brilliant Career is something of a curiousity, a teenage writer’s attempt at dramatic fictional autobiography, My Career Goes Bung shows a polish and maturity which make me eager to explore more of this writer’s work.

The back story behind the delayed publication of the novel is fascinating as well. Written in 1902, concurrent with the author’s brief social success in Sydney as an up and coming young writer due to the instant popularity of My Brilliant Career, this next novel was returned by Franklin’s publisher with a terse, “No, thanks!”, citing fears of libel suits as well as concerns about its audacious and “advanced” views on sexuality and women’s rights. Miles Franklin then packed the manuscript away, and for decades believed it to have been destroyed, until the discovery of a second copy in an old trunk of her mother’s led to its publication in 1946.

In My Career Goes Bung, we are introduced to the “real” Sybylla, the young woman who has penned a bestseller based very loosely on fact, but which has been accepted as strictly autobiographical. In My Brilliant Career the fictional Sybylla’s parents and associates are portrayed as much less than admirable, and it is not at all surprising that the young author finds herself humiliated by the whole experience, and deeply apologetic to her parents, who were in actuality supportive of the young Sybylla’s literary strivings.

Peeling away the layers then, we have three characters to consider while reading these books. At the core, the very real person, Miles Franklin. Then her sympathetic alter-ego, the Sybylla Number Two of My Career Goes Bung, and lastly the teenage creation of excessive emotion and high imagination, Sybylla Number One, of My Brilliant Career.

Got that? It’s not all that complicated once one is immersed in the books; it all falls into place quite neatly. (Trust me!)

Sybylla Number Two goes off to Sydney to attempt to take advantage of the hubbub around her bestselling novel and to meet some of the literary stars of the day, with an eye to advancing her writing career. She is greeted with enthusiasm as the novelty of the moment, the little “bush girl” in her simple frocks, very much the innocent abroad, fending off the wolves by her impermeable naïvety in regards to their social manipulations, and in the case of many of the men, their sexual advances.

Sybylla attracts the eye of the handsome, calculating and immensely successful Goring Hardy, a thinly disguised version of the real-life “Banjo” Paterson (Waltzing Matilda, The Man From Snowy River, et al), who finds the virginal Sybylla a tempting prospect for conquest. Sybylla submits to his caresses, but allows no further liberties than some hot and heavy fondling and kissing; at the end of a week of secretive meetings, both parties realize that the relationship is not about to progress any further, and politely part ways. (Miles Franklin did have a short-term relationship of some sort with Paterson, hence the libel suit fears in regard to the fictional version.)

Sybylla is apparently something of a “babe” – in the most modern sense of the term – attracting the lavicious attentions of every many she meets. Another suitor, one Henry Beauchamp, assumed by all to be the original of the dashing Harry Beecham of My Brilliant Career, appears to vigorously woo Sybylla, but she spurns his frequent marriage proposals with steadfast determination. Sybylla then rather scornfully dismisses Sydney society as an artificial and fickle atmosphere antipathetic to true creativity, and returns to her family home more than ever determined to live the life of an independent woman, unshackled by the chains of marriage and childbearing, to pursue her ideals alone.

The End. (With the sound of enthusiastic feminist cheering faintly off on the sidelines.)

The real Miles Franklin stood by her convictions as firmly as did her fictional alter-ego. Though courted by many men, she never married. She continued to further develop her unique literary voice, supporting herself while writing by a variety of occupations, including nursing, housemaiding, and working as a secretary. She adopted the unlikely and picturesque nom-de-plume “Brent of Bin Bin”, avoiding her (modified) real name in order to sidetrack unfavourable comparisons of her subsequent work to My Brilliant Career, and had a modest success in her lifetime as a writer of Australian historical sagas and slightly quirky fictions.

Miles Franklin. I don’t think I’m quite done with her yet. What an interesting writer. Century of Books, you’ve already introduced me to a number of new-to-me mind-broadening reading experiences, of which this one stands out, so early along. I wonder what other happy surprises this reading year will bring?

Project Gutenberg Australia has a number of Miles Franklin’s works represented online, well worth looking at. My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung are widely available in physical book form, in some cases as a combined edition, which I highly recommend. The second book enhances the first, and they greatly reward being read together.

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war stories gregory clarkWar Stories by Gregory Clark ~ 1964. This edition: Ryerson Press, 1968. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7700-6027-7. 171 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Born in 1892 in Toronto, Ontario, Gregory Clark was of perfect age to fight in the Great War, heading to Europe in 1916, at the age of twenty-four. Clark entered the fray as a lieutenant, and exited a major. In the trenches and out of them – Clark received the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry” at Vimy Ridge – the young man remembered what he had witnessed, the horror and the gallantry and the moments of respite and delight, to be shared later with his audience of newspaper readers as he took up journalism in the post-war years.

Too old to take active part in World War II, Gregory Clark none the less went overseas once again and pushed his way into the thick of the action, fulfilling a role as a front-line war correspondent, and receiving an Order of the British Empire for his services. Again, his experiences found their way into his short, chatty periodical articles published in the following decades. Clark’s son Murray was killed in action in 1944 while serving with the Regina Rifles, but there is no mention of that personal loss here in War Stories; Clark keeps that particular emotion well buried.

War Stories contains a selection of thirty-eight anecdotes, three to five pages in length, about a wide array of Gregory Clark’s personal experiences. Though the tone throughout  is upbeat and frequently humorous – War Stories won the Leacock award for humour in 1965, which rather surprises me, for funny as these anecdotes sometimes are, there is a sombre tone always present – Clark makes it very clear what his opinions are as to the brutality of what the soldiers and civilians went through.

These stories laud the bravery (and the frequent giddy foolishness) of the farm boys and office clerks and travelling salesmen who find themselves caught up in circumstances beyond their most vivid nightmares, fated to kill and, frequently, be horribly maimed, and wastefully killed, merely because of the circumstance of the time of their birth. Something I noticed is that there is not much sympathy shown here for the soldiers of the “other side”; Clark’s thoughts are ever for his own, and he was reportedly a fiercely protective officer of the men under his charge.

All is not muck and death and destruction though. Interludes of inactivity brought forth pranks and hi-jinks, while there were times of repose behind the lines, time for memorable meals and quiet conversation, and musings on what was going to come after, if there was going to be an after.

An appropriate book for this Remembrance Day weekend, this time of sober reflection. Clark reports the realities, but he persists as well in highlighting the lighter moments, the bits of sanity in a world of war.

A good read.

And a much more eloquent review of this book, well worth a click-over, may be found at Canus Humorous.

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after the falls catherine gildinerAfter the Falls: Coming of Age in the Sixties by Catherine Gildiner ~ 2009. This edition: Vintage, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-307-39823-9. 344 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Wow. That was unexpected. I was tidying up some books I’d casually piled on a corner of the couch, sorting out already-read from want-to-read, and I leafed through After the Falls to refresh my memory as to how urgently I wanted to read it, or if it could be put on the maybe-someday pile.

It caught me.

Suddenly I was sitting down, and reading away like a mad thing. Clean-up abandoned, outside chores abandoned, and it’s a good thing the roast was already in the oven or cooking my family’s evening meal would have been abandoned, too. It grew dark. I switched on my reading lamp. I read this thing right through to the end. My afternoon was completely lost. Abandoned pell mell, while I lost myself in a book.

My seduction by After the Falls was so unexpected because I knew when I purchased it that it was a sequel to an earlier volume of memoir by Catherine Gildiner, Too Close to the Falls. I had a vague little plan to get the first book and read it, and then continue on with the second if the first one was indeed as great as everyone seemed to think it was. I wasn’t really thinking about it too much; I’m fairly immune to mainstream rave reviews, having been disappointed by banality too many times.

After the Falls is not banal. It is over-the-top, frequently jaw-dropping (“Did she just say that? Did she really do that?” How much of this is fictionalized???!”), and funny and sarcastic and joyful and heart-breaking and occasionally awkward and sometimes vague as major incidents are brushed over with a single sentence or two (this, the occasional vagueness and awkwardness, lost the 1.5 points in my personal ratings system), and rather contrived here and there, but never no mind those last few criticisms. It is a very readable book, and I happily recommend it. And I’ve elevated the need-to-buy status of the first installment to high on the list, and, having learned that a third volume is coming soon, have earmarked it as a buy immediately book.

So now you’re all wondering – those few of you who haven’t already ridden this particular train – what the darned book is about. Well, the internet is seething with reviews (mostly favourable) so I will cheat this morning and steal the flyleaf blurb. (Must address all the chores I neglected yesterday; must cut this short!) It’s a tiny bit inaccurate – do these blurb writers read the whole thing? or do they just ask for the high points? – but it condenses things reasonably well.

When Cathy McClure is thirteen years old, her parents make the bold decision to move to suburban Buffalo in hopes that it will help Cathy focus on her studies and stay out of trouble. But “normal” has never been Cathy’s forte, and leaving Niagara Falls and Catholic school behind does nothing to quell her spirited nature. As the 1960s dramatically unfold, Cathy takes on many personas — cheerleader, vandal, HoJo hostess, civil rights demonstrator — with the same gusto she exhibited as a child working split shifts in her father’s pharmacy. But when tragedy strikes, it is her role as daughter that proves to be most challenging.

Actually that’s a very lame flyleaf blurb. It doesn’t at all catch the spirit of the memoir. Here’s a much better blurb, from Publisher’s Weekly, November 2010:

At age 12, Gildiner and her family moved from their Niagara Falls home to a Buffalo suburb, leaving behind a family business, smalltown contentment, and the rebellious childhood chronicled in her first memoir, Too Close to the Falls. While her uprooted parents struggle to adjust, Gildiner stumbles in making new friends and edging into puberty. Her restlessness and a fundamentally outspoken and argumentative nature regularly catapult her further than simple teenage trouble, and she frequently fails at the standard American girlhood, often with comic results. The conflicts between the narrator’s individuality and conformity propel her into her first relationship at the same time that the seismic shifts in American society, culture, and politics hit home with ever-increasing force. On the page as in life, comedy, tragedy, and elegy live right on top of each other, and as with most remarkable memoirs, the straightforward, honest voice and perspective are steady even in the most painful moments.

And I’ll link the author’s website, so you can look around there.

Cathy McClure Gildiner – After the Falls

And here is what my blog friend Jenny had to say: Reading the End: After the Falls. Everything she says, I agree with. But I think you should read Chapter 4, because it explains an awful lot about how the memoirist relates to men from that point forward.

The writer also has a blog, Gildiner’s Gospel, which made me late for bed last night, as it was as compulsively readable as her words on paper. Check it out!

One last thing. The memoir is set in the United States, and at the time she writes about, Catherine was an American citizen. She moved to Canada some forty years ago, though, and reports that she is firmly entrenched in Ontario. In my mind she unquestionably deserves the “Canadian” tag I’ve given her.

Highly recommended.

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sapphira and the slave girl willa catherSapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather ~ 1940. This edition: Knopf, 1940. Hardcover. 295 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This book passed the ultimate reading test last weekend. I picked it up while browsing the treasure trove of vintage books at the very recently opened (a year or so ago) Pulp Fiction Coffee House & Robbie’s Rare Books right downtown on Pandosy Street in Kelowna, British Columbia. I settled down with Sapphira and an excellent coffee mocha, and then I read and read and read. The place was busy; the conversation levels loud; I was a at tiny, tippy, table-for-one and it wasn’t exactly what one would consider prime reading conditions, but it didn’t matter. The story won out.

When Sapphira Dodderidge Colbert first moved out to Back Creek Valley with her score of slaves, she was not warmly received.  In that out-of-the-way, thinly settled district between Winchester and Romney, not a single family had ever owned more than four or five negroes.  This was due partly to poverty–the people were very poor.  Much of the land was still wild forest, and lumber was so plentiful that it brought no price at all.  The settlers who had come over from Pennsylvania did not believe in slavery, and they owned no negroes.  Mrs. Colbert had gradually reduced her force of slaves, selling them back into Loudoun County, whither they were glad to return.

Sapphira Colbert is now in her late fifties, and she and her husband Henry Colbert have lived in Back Creek Valley for thirty years. Between them they have built up a modestly successful business in a notoriously poor region; Henry is the flour miller. Sapphira herself is of modestly aristocratic stock; her mother was born in England, and Sapphira’s family heirlooms furnishing her house and her own finicky attention to “proper” speech and deportment set her apart from most of her neighbours. For the last five years Sapphira has been wheelchair bound; she suffers from dropsy and suffers even more from the loss of her physical freedom, though she still rules her household and keeps a keen eye on the mill and Henry’s doings there.

And Sapphira has recently not liked what she is seeing. One of her most-favoured slaves is pretty and intelligent Nancy, the half-white daughter of Till and granddaughter of Jezebel; the third generation of a family line owned by the Dodderidge family. Sapphira has made something of a pet of Nancy, keeping her as a personal servant and giving her trinkets and pretty clothes, but recently she has turned on the bemused girl, lashing out at her verbally and physically. Nancy has no idea why her beloved mistress has turned against her, but everyone else on the place has an opinion on the matter.

Nancy has been in the habit of cleaning Henry Colbert’s bedroom over at the mill – Henry and Sapphira lead very separate lives, and no longer share their marriage bed – and has started bringing Henry small nosegays of flowers, which she leaves in his room. The two have recently been seen in earnest conversation, and Sapphira, viewing Nancy’s lushly blossoming adolescent figure with a cynical eye, suspects that her husband and her slave girl are up to something even more intimate in the hours of the night.

She is mistaken, though. The relationship between Nancy and Henry is innocent through and through. Henry views Nancy as a pure young girl, and himself as her paternal protector. It has never crossed his mind to look at her in a sexual way, and she herself is  vehemently virginal, shuddering at the thought of sex with anyone, least of all her fatherly patron.

Henry is a noble character, of a sternly righteous Lutheran heritage; the thought of slave ownership is anathema to him, and only his vast respect for his wife has made it possible for him to keep quiet about what he sees as a fundamentally wrong practice. It is pre-Civil War Virginia, though, and marriage laws are such that Sapphira is unable to sell her property – including her slaves – without her husband’s permission. She has made her intention of selling Nancy clear to Henry, and he has categorically refused to allow such a thing, believing that Sapphira owes her slaves a permanent benevolent protection, adding fuel to the fire of Sapphira’s suspicion. So Nancy continues to receive sharp words and sharp cuffs, while Sapphira muses on other ways to revenge herself on her two supposed betrayers.

How Sapphira plots her revenge, and how Nancy is able at last to escape her wrath is the storyline which runs through the book, though there is a lot more going on here too, and numerous cleverly drawn characters besides the three key players.

Willa Cather tells her story in a spare, clean style, mincing no words whatsoever. As a matter of fact, the frequent colloquial language made me wonder rather why this novel has not suffered the same criticism as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has recently received; Sapphira, her compatriots and the narrator herself have no problem with calling anyone a “yellow girl” (for the half-white Nancy) or a “darkie”; “nigger” is an everyday expression and is used abundantly throughout.

Perhaps it is the overall theme, a critique of the practice of slave ownership, and an ongoing discussion of moral obligations, which has made it less of an issue? Or maybe the book is just that much more obscure that publicity has so far escaped it. In any event, it is there, and slightly shocking to a modern day reader; I did find myself glancing around to see if anyone was reading over my shoulder, and I angled the book to prevent a casual glance from catching the potentially offending words.

An excellent read, which kept me engaged even through the increasing melodrama, and Nancy’s continual jittering vapours. Sapphira as the key antagonist is cold and calculating, and we are very cognizant of her manipulative ways, but we are also given a chance to see behind the façade, to glimpse her fears and insecurities and internal conflicts, as well as those of every other major character.

In Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Willa Cather lives up to her reputation as a brilliant writer and a keen observer of American culture and personal history.

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the family nobody wanted doss 1 001The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss ~ 1954. This edition: Little, Brown & Company, 23rd printing. Hardcover. 267 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Well, this was an interesting read, and I’m still trying to decide what my personal reactions really are.

On the surface it is a simple feel-good memoir about a young childless couple adopting twelve children in the 1940s and 1950s, but there are deeper currents to the tale, especially from a half-century later perspective. In particular, there is a damning sub-text of racial intolerance which is very much a part of why and how this family came together.

I didn’t yearn for a career, or maids, or a fur coat, or a trip to Europe. All in the world I wanted was a happy, normal little family. Perhaps, if God could arrange it, Carl and I could have a boy first, and after that, a little girl.

God didn’t arrange it.

In fact, as our doctor regretfully informed us, Carl and I couldn’t have any children of our own. No children, no sticky fingerprints on the woodwork, no childish tears and laughter, no small beds in the other bedroom. Just barren, empty years, stretching aimlessly into a lonely future…

So Helen’s husband Carl, driven to distraction by his wife’s continual bemoaning of her barren future, suggests that they adopt a baby. Helen loves the idea, and the two optimistically prepare a room and trot off to the nearest orphanage, where they learn that it isn’t quite as simple as all that. Most of the babies in the orphanage were simply not available, being only in temporary care, or waiting for relations to take them in, and the adoption agencies which are the next resort are not particularly helpful either. Helen and Carl are informed that waiting lists are years long, and that each baby must match its potential parents perfectly in ethnic makeup and family background. And of course the parents must be financially stable, as well as sterling characters in all other aspects.

Carl and Helen are sure their characters are good, but the money thing is definitely an issue, and the waiting list situation seems cruelly stressful. So they set aside their ideas of forming a family and instead decide to pursue other interests. Both enroll in college, Helen to study literature and writing, and Carl to pursue a long-held dream to become a Methodist minister. And then, miraculously, one more attempt at adoption through an agency results in a beautiful blue-eyed baby boy. Helen is ecstatic; Carl more reserved. They can barely feed themselves, so this new addition is a challenge in more ways than one.

Young Donny thrives and grows, and all is well for a while, until Helen starts to brood over the loneliness of the only child. “If only he could have a little sister…” But another child is an impossibility, declares everyone they contact. “Just be happy you managed to get the one.” Unless, of course, they would consider a mixed race child. Lots of those were languishing in adoptive limbo, and, three years after Donny’s adoption, Filipino-Chinese-English-French Laura joins the family. And, only two months later, frail and sickly Susan, undesirable because of her weak constitution and a tumorous red birthmark on her face.

Helen is still thrilled, though she finds three children something of a challenge, but all three thrive, and Helen starts thinking again. Maybe just one more, a brother for Donny…

Eventually, with increasingly strident resistance from Carl, Helen collects a round dozen of children, six boys and six girls. She writes about the family’s experiences, and the tragedy of mixed race children being seen as undesirable by families otherwise desperate to adopt a baby; even though the Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Malayan, Burmese, Spanish, French and American Indian children she and Carl eventually acquire are accepted by family and neighbours, a constant refrain is “As least they aren’t Negro!” Carl and Helen do attempt to adopt a part-black child from a German orphanage, child of black American GI father and a German mother, but the transaction is strangled by red tape; their families and friends are loudly vocal in their relief, and one of the most passionate chapters in the book strongly condemns this attitude, and addresses the degrees of racism inherent in American society, and its effect on innocent children along with its part in much greater societal ills.

Helen and Carl come across as truly sincere in their attitudes that colour means nothing, and that human is human; Helen starts writing articles about their “United Nations” family, and the Dosses catch popular attention, being interviewed, photographed and featured on radio and television, as a kind of shining example of American acceptance and tolerance, though in reality the very existence of their family group has come about through blatant American racial discrimination. These are, after all, the children that nobody wanted.

the family nobody wanted helen doss 2 001

The book ends only twelve years after that first baby, Donny, is adopted, and the tone is happily optimistic, but there are undertones that perhaps all may not be so well in future. Carl is a reluctant participant in the continual enlargement of the Doss family, though he is very willing to tout its benefits for interviewers; Helen persists in collecting children in the face of Carl’s outright “No more” plea, time and time again. The news that the Doss marriage ends in divorce in 1966, twelve years after the publishing of this bestselling book, comes as no surprise, though it is sad; one hopes that the children – some at that time well into adulthood, one must admit –  weathered their family breakup with a minimum of trauma, though one doubts that would completely be the case.

Knowing several cross-culturally adopted children who now, as adults, are seeking diligently to reconnect with their birth parents’ heritage, I wonder what happened to those twelve children as they grew up, and what they each personally made of their inclusion in this unique family, and of the publicity which their parents’ outspoken willingness to discuss their adoptive choices attracted.

I do think, both from the tone of Helen Doss’s memoir, and from other reports on the Doss family I read on the internet, that their intentions were, once they started adopting, only the best. And, also, I do tend to think that children deserve a loving family versus being institutionalized, and that if the only fit possible is cross-cultural, so be it. If it were more widely accepted (as it wasn’t in the 1940s and 1950s) then at least the “novelty factor” would not be such an issue.

I’ve tagged this post with a “religion” designation, because it is also very apparent that Helen and Carl Doss were motivated in a great part by their Christian faith. Carl Doss is quoted as saying that

…The whole idea of Christianity is radical (a)nd the whole idea of democracy is radical.  Think how really it is to say that all men are created equal, and that all men are brothers – and that the individual is important!

Conflicted as Carl seems to be by his wife’s acquisition of child after child, once they are brought into the family he apparently embraces his fatherhood fully, being as full of latent paternal affection as he is of “radical” Christian ideals.

A thought-provoking memoir, and, as I said, a bit uncomfortable to consider more deeply, given that a whole lot must have been left out. Though I was interested and pleased to see that Helen Doss was very frank about her own motivations of needing children to “complete” her idea of true womanly fulfillment; the ideal of a happy, multi-racial family group seemed to develop as her circumstances changed.

I did my usual look-around the web, and was interested to see how highly this book was rated on Goodreads; a large number of people apparently read and loved it in their school years; the reviews are by and large quite glowing.

It is very readable, and provides a truly fascinating (though superficial) glimpse into the mid-20th Century’s social dilemmas and attitudes towards both adoption and racial and interracial societal division lines. It is also frequently very funny; Helen Doss’s anecdotes of her children’s doing are downright adorable, and well targeted at the sentimental readers who have obviously embraced it as a “sweet tale”. It is a sweet tale; it is also an indictment of the bitter evils of racial discrimination; and a strong advocate of true Christian behaviour; and a revealing portrait of a marriage not without deep personal conflicts, despite its publically positive façade.

For more on the Doss family, these links will be good starting points.

Helen Doss – Obituary

Adoption Topics – The Family Nobody Wanted

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