‘Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead’ by Paula Byrne

I really enjoyed Mad World by Paula Byrne, which is an engrossing account of the people who inspired Evelyn Waugh’s novels – specifically, the troubled Lygon family of Madresfield Court, so similar to the Flyte family in Brideshead Revisited.

'Mad World' by Paula ByrneThe true story of the Lygons turns out to be even more dramatic and tragic than that of their fictional counterparts. Lord Beauchamp, a very grand earl, didn’t merely choose to live away from England with his lover because he disliked his pious wife – he was forced into permanent exile in 1931 to evade arrest for “committing acts of gross homosexual indecency” with his servants. While aristocratic men of the time often got away with flouting this law, Lord Beauchamp had been flagrant in his disregard for social and legal conventions. This became a problem when it appeared one of his daughters, Lady Mary, might marry Prince George. The King took action and recruited Beauchamp’s brother-in-law, Bendor, the Duke of Westminster, who’d long resented Beauchamp:

“It seemed grotesquely unfair that his brother-in-law should have three sons, a loyal wife, a string of homosexual lovers, a glittering career and great standing in politics, while he himself had got through three wives without producing a single male heir … Bendor set about his task with great relish and ruthless dispatch.”

The Lygon family was torn apart, with most of the children taking their father’s side and refusing to forgive their mother for divorcing him. The girls, previously the most eligible debutantes of their time, were unable to make ‘good’ marriages, due to the scandal. Lady Mary, the most beautiful, eventually married a philandering Russian aristocrat, who left her penniless and battling mental illness, alcoholism and loneliness. The heir, Lord Elmley, married a much older woman and had no children; Hugh, the model for Sebastian Flyte, quickly lost his good looks and his money and spent the remainder of his short life in a drunken stupor, trying to block out the guilt and shame of his own homosexuality; only Lady Dorothy, portrayed as Cordelia Flyte, seemed to live a relatively happy and productive life, although she had her own brief and disastrous marriage.

The author says that she wrote this book because she believed “that Evelyn Waugh had been persistently misrepresented as a snob and a curmudgeonly misanthropist.” However, I finished this book disliking Waugh, as a person, even more than I already did, which I didn’t think was possible. He was a snob. He spent his life attaching himself to a series of rich, aristocratic families, happy to be their court jester if he got to stay in grand country houses for extended periods at their expense, especially if it also provided him with good writing fodder. From his earliest years, he was spiteful and nasty, bullying anyone he regarded as his inferior in either social status or intelligence. He may have possessed wit and humour, but it always had a sharp edge. There is a lot of description of his idiotic drunken escapades with friends, which we are meant to admire:

“…to an outsider, the banter and play that characterised Mad World [that is, life at Madresfield Court with the Lygon siblings] appear frivolous and jejune, but in reality the comedy was a means of survival and a manifestation of love.”

'Brideshead Revisited' by Evelyn WaughHmm. Waugh at least had some self-awareness and admitted, when proposing to the woman who would become his second wife, “I am restless and moody and misanthropic and lazy and have no money…” (It reminded me of Mr Mybug in Cold Comfort Farm trying to appear more interesting to Flora by hinting at his dark depths.) Perhaps the poor woman thought he was joking, but she agreed to marry him and then spent years living in the country, perpetually pregnant, looking after their huge brood of children while he caroused around London. Despite his fervent Roman Catholicism, he had no moral qualms about buying the services of prostitutes, including “little Arab girls of fifteen and sixteen, for ten francs each” in Morocco. Even his brief military service during the war was marked by impropriety, when he falsified the official record of his battalion’s withdrawal from Crete in 1941. He told his friend Nancy Mitford that his behaviour would have been even worse if he hadn’t been under the moral influence of the Church. The mind boggles.

Paula Byrne provides an interesting analysis of most of Waugh’s books, including Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust and the Sword of Honour trilogy, but I found her detailed chapter on Brideshead Revisited the most fascinating. She examines his descriptions of Oxford, homosexuality, Roman Catholicism and aristocratic life, linking the major characters in the novel to their real-life counterparts. I think readers who love Waugh’s writing will find this book rewarding – but don’t expect to feel very fond of Waugh by the end of it.

‘T. H. White: A Biography’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner

It took me a while to read this excellent biography of the author of The Once and Future King – not because it was lengthy or written in ‘difficult’ prose (quite the contrary), but because it often made me sad and I kept needing to put it down to have a bit of a think about what I’d read. Terence Hanbury White had an awful childhood – born in India in 1906 to feuding parents who frequently threatened to shoot one another, and him, and who then bitterly separated in an era when divorce was a great scandal. His father abandoned the family, and his mother alternately smothered and maltreated her only child. White was sent to a sadistic English boarding school, then worked as a private tutor until he had enough money to put himself through Cambridge, with his studies interrupted by a life-threatening bout of tuberculosis. After achieving a First Class with Distinction, he worked as a schoolmaster for a few years, then spent the rest of his life writing, interspersed with various short-lived enthusiasms – for hunting, fishing, falconry, gardening, flying aeroplanes, sailing yachts, making documentary films about puffins, learning everything there was to know about Irish Catholicism or Arthurian mythology or the Emperor Hadrian …

'T.H. White: A Biography' by Sylvia Townsend WarnerBut as passionate as he was about facts and technical skills, he was not very interested in most people (“How restful it would be if there were no human beings in the world at all”) and he lived a hermit-like existence in various remote cottages for many years. His friend John Verney (author of Friday’s Tunnel), who wrote the introduction to this biography, noted that, “With strangers he could be quite odious; rude and suspicious if he thought they were lionizing him, still more so if he thought they weren’t; shouting down anyone who disagreed with his more preposterous assertions or even ventured to interrupt.” White himself admitted he was “a sort of Boswell, boasting, indiscreet, ranting, rather pathetic” and admitted to “trying to shock people” (to repel them?), although he also had very old-fashioned ideas about modesty, women and sex. Another writer friend, David Garnett, accused White of having a “medieval monkish attitude” and White didn’t disagree. He wrote to Garnett, “I want to get married … and escape from all this piddling homosexuality and fear and unreality.” He tried to fall in love with a barmaid who had a “boyish figure” but this was unsuccessful, as was a later engagement to another young woman. She (sensibly) called it off; he wrote her anguished letters, but his biographer says “his torment in so desperately wanting something he had no inclination for is unmistakable”. He tried psychoanalysis and “hormone therapy” as a cure for homosexuality, which also didn’t work; then he tried to blot everything out with alcohol (“I used to drink because of my troubles, until the drink became an added trouble”). Unfortunately, he wasn’t attracted to men (which would have been bad enough at a time when homosexuality was illegal) but to boys, and he spent years obsessing over a boy called Zed:

“I am in a sort of whirlpool which goes round and round, thinking all day and half the night about a small boy … The whole of my brain tells me the situation is impossible, while the whole of my heart nags on … What do I want of Zed? – Not his body, merely the whole of him all the time.”

He never told Zed of his true feelings, or acted on them (“I love him for being happy and innocent, so it would be destroying what I loved”), but Zed’s parents grew wary and eventually the boy himself broke off contact. To further complicate matters, White told Garnett that he (White) had managed to destroy every relationship he started because he was a sadist and “the sadist longs to prove the love which he has inspired, by acts of cruelty – which naturally enough are misinterpreted by normal people … if he behaved with sincerity, and instinctively, he alienated his lover and horrified and disgusted himself.” Whether White actually acted on his “sadistic fantasies” is unknown (he had a great talent for self-dramatising and might have been trying to shock Garnett), but he blamed it all on his mother and his boarding school experiences.

The greatest love of his life, though, was Brownie, his red setter. She slept in his bed, was fed elaborate meals, wore a custom-made coat and accompanied him everywhere. (There’s a photo here of Brownie with White, the two of them looking as though they’re posing for a formal engagement portrait.) Brownie eventually became as eccentric as her human:

“She used to kidnap chickens and small animals and keep them as pets, and insisted on taking her pet rabbit to bed with her – in White’s bed. The rabbit bit him freely, but he submitted. She had geological interests, too, and collected stones which she kept under the kitchen table.”

When she died, he sat with her corpse for two days, then at her grave for a week, wrote her an anguished love poem, and forever after kept a lock of her hair in his diary, next to her photo.

White seems to have been a mass of unhappy contradictions. He railed against the British Labour government because he hated paying tax, and he moved to Ireland, then the Channel Islands, to avoid taxes, but he could be very generous with his money and time when it came to charitable causes. He claimed to hate people, but hosted week-long parties at his house in Alderney each summer and his friends all seemed to love him, despite his many faults. He was often miserable, but was “always capable of being surprised by joy” and his writing is full of humour. He announced in his forties that he was done with “forcing myself to be normal” and he gave up drinking – but not for very long, and he died at the relatively young age of fifty-seven of coronary heart disease, probably exacerbated by his drinking and chain-smoking.

This biography includes a discussion of each of White’s books, but I don’t think you need to be familiar with his work to find this book fascinating. I’d only read The Sword in the Stone (which I liked because it was full of animals), but I’m now curious about The Elephant and the Kangaroo, a satire set in Ireland. White, according to his Cambridge tutor, was “far more remarkable than anything he wrote” and his biographer seems to have agreed.

What I’ve Been Reading

'Daughter of Time' by Josephine TeyI loved The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, a murder mystery in which a police detective solves a four-hundred-year-old crime while lying immobile in a hospital bed. Alan Grant, with the enthusiastic help of a young American working at the British Museum, examines the facts behind Richard III’s supposed murder of the Princes in the Tower and convincingly argues that the villain was actually . . . well, you’ll have to read it to find out. While I don’t think Richard III was quite as saintly as this author believes, the novel was well researched and fascinating, and I was amused (in a horrified sort of way) by the descriptions of the 1950s hospital setting (for instance, Alan lying in bed and CHAIN-SMOKING). It was especially interesting to read about Richard III, given the recent (disputed) discovery of his skeleton under a car park in Leicester. And yes, I did spend the entire book with this song stuck in my brain (“Can you imagine it, I’m the last Plantagenet . . .”). I’m also happy to say that Sydney City Libraries lived up to expectations and provided me with a lovely old volume from the library stacks – not quite a first edition, but pretty close (see picture).

I’ve also been engrossed in Fun Home, a funny, sad, insightful graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel (of Bechdel Test fame) about her father, who died when she was at college. She found it difficult to grieve, partly because he’d been such a complicated, miserable, angry person, and partly because she’d grown up in a family that suppressed emotions and unpleasant realities. At his funeral, she wonders, “What would happen if we spoke the truth?” and when a well-meaning neighbour says consolingly, “The Lord moves in mysterious ways”, she pictures herself screaming, “There’s no mystery! He killed himself because he was a manic-depressive, closeted fag and he couldn’t face living in this small-minded small town one more second!” The story of her father’s secret homosexual life (which included criminal charges and being ordered into psychiatric therapy) is told in conjunction with Alison’s own, much happier, coming-out story. My only criticism would be that there were an awful lot of references to Important Books (from The Odyssey and Ulysses to As I Lay Dying and The Great Gatsby), which seemed to have more to do with the author saying, “Look how well read I am!” than with the story being told.

A different take on the subject of coming out was provided by James Howe in Totally Joe, an endearing and funny middle-grade novel about twelve-year-old Joe and his friends (and enemies). While it’s definitely an Issues Novel, the characters are nuanced and the whole idea of Life Lessons is incorporated in an amusing way – Joe has to write an ‘alphabiography’ for English class and explain what he’s learned about life at the end of each chapter. His Life Lessons range from “Middle school is like being trapped in a reality show where there’s no way off the island and you’re always a loser” (after he’s falsely accused of kissing the boy he has a crush on) to “Religion is only as good as the people using it” (after his friend’s proposal for a Gay-Straight Alliance group at school is viciously opposed by the religious parents of the school bully). I’m a bit wary of middle-grade books that deal with pre-adolescent sexuality, whether gay or straight, but this book is about (very restrained) romance rather than sex. While Joe briefly has a boyfriend, their relationship mostly consists of them hanging out with their group of friends, dressing up as Bert and Ernie for Halloween, and on one occasion, holding hands “for all of maybe five seconds” (and Joe thinks kissing sounds disgusting, although maybe in about four years’ time, “I’ll be ready to exchange saliva”). It was nice to see Joe had supportive adults around him (his parents, his aunt, his English teacher who has a gay son), but there were also adults who needed time to grow into acceptance (his grandparents, his school principal) and some realistically unrepentant bigots (the school bully and his family).

'Tea with Arwa' by Arwa El MasriFinally, Tea with Arwa: One woman’s story of faith, family and finding a home in Australia by Arwa El Masri was a gentle, simply told account of the life of a “proud and happy Muslim Australian woman”. Arwa’s parents had been exiled from Palestine after the Israeli occupation when they were small children, and although they eventually established a comfortable, middle-class life in Saudi Arabia (her father was an engineer and her mother a teacher), they were not permitted to become Saudi citizens, so they decided to migrate to Australia. Arwa’s story is unremarkable compared to some recent stories of migration – she herself didn’t flee a war-torn nation or arrive here in a leaky boat, her parents simply decided, quite reasonably, that their children would have a better future in a country where the family could become citizens. Arwa, arriving here as a primary school student with limited English literacy skills, had some difficulties adjusting to co-educational schools where students were often disrespectful to teachers and she occasionally faced racism, but just as often, she found Australians to be kind, helpful and interested in learning more about her life.
Arwa is careful to distinguish her religious beliefs from the cultural and family traditions of the Middle East, although it’s clear that both are immensely important to her and not to be criticised. For example, she feels it’s a little unfair that women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive, because there’s nothing in the Quran that expressly forbids it – but it’s okay, because they all have chauffeurs! She also states that “racism and prejudice do not exist under Islam” and that it’s a religion of “peace and harmony” (especially sad to read, given the hundreds of thousands of Muslims currently torturing and murdering one another in various parts of the world, not that Jews and Christians are much better). She has a tendency to state beliefs as though they are facts, and when this contradicts scientific evidence, well, “some aspects of science are yet to catch up to the Quran’s teachings”. She also discusses her decision, as a young married woman, to resume wearing the hijab, which she regards as “a simple way for a woman to protect herself against unwanted objectionable sexual attention in a world that sexualises women”. (Oh, if only putting on a veil really did provide magical protection against sexual harassment and assault. Then there’d be no rape or violence against women in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, but alas, that’s not true.) Anyway, this is a good reminder that multiculturalism means accepting the values and beliefs of everyone in society (providing they don’t break the law), even when those values clash with those of a modern, secular society. Multiculturalism is about much more than lots of yummy new foods, although a key part of Arwa’s philosophy is that sharing food is an important part of cross-cultural communication. Accordingly, the book includes a number of delicious-sounding recipes, from pavlova and sausage rolls with a Middle Eastern twist, to falafel, babaganoush and tabouli, with many descriptions of the meals Arwa has shared with family and friends. This would be a great book to give to your auntie/neighbour/work colleague who constantly complains about migrants taking over Australia but loves to cook – it might shift her ideas a little, as Arwa seems like a nice person to sit down with for a cup of tea and a chat.

The Mapp and Lucia Novels by E. F. Benson

'Lucia Rising' by E. F. BensonThese books provided a delightful distraction during my recent lengthy convalescence, so I feel obliged to gush about them here, even though you’re probably already familiar with them. Actually, why hadn’t I read them before? They are exactly my cup of tea – comedies of manners, set in England during the 1920s and 1930s, mercilessly poking fun at the trivial pursuits and snobbery of the idle rich. Few of the characters are likeable, but that just makes their frantic attempts to clamber to the top of the social pile all the more entertaining. The queen of their society is Emmeline ‘Lucia’ Lucas, whom even her loyal friend Georgie describes as

“a hypocrite . . . a poseuse, a sham and a snob, but there was something about her that stirred you into violent though protesting activity, and though she might infuriate you, she prevented your being dull.”

At first, Lucia has to be content with bossing around the inhabitants of the village of Riseholme – forcing them into participating in an Elizabethan pageant, ‘educating’ them about etiquette and poetry and Beethoven – but then her husband inherits a house in Brompton Square and she sets off to try to insert herself into fashionable London Society, with mixed success. However, the books really come to life when Lucia and Georgie move to the village of Tilling, reigned over by the formidable Miss Elizabeth Mapp. Lucia usually wins their battles, but Miss Mapp puts up a strong fight. The secondary characters are equally entertaining. There’s sweet, slightly dim Georgie, clutching his “toupet” to his head as he gallops along in Lucia’s wake; Major Benjy with his tall tales of tiger hunting and his fondness for whisky; the Padre who inexplicably speaks “Scotch”, even though he’s never been further north than Birmingham; and Mrs Wyse, who communes on a higher plane with her dead budgerigar, Blue Birdie. My favourite is Irene, roaring up and down the main street on her motor-bicycle, painting scandalous frescoes on the front of her house, and coming up with mad schemes to assist her beloved Lucia, which always go disastrously wrong.

'Lucia Victrix' by E. F. BensonI was intrigued to see how few of the characters fitted into the traditional married-with-children mould, and the most endearing characters were all coded as gay or lesbian. Irene, for instance, has an Eton crop, wears men’s clothes and lives with her not-very-servant-like maid, Lucy. Meanwhile, Georgie is obsessed with his appearance and his favourite hobbies are embroidery and watercolour painting (and Major Benjy sneeringly refers to him as “Miss Milliner Michael-Angelo”). There’s no indication that Georgie is attracted to men – in fact, he spends all his time in the company of women and is devoted to Lucia – but he has a panic attack whenever it seems that a woman might be attracted to him and he eventually settles into a happy, celibate marriage with Lucia. The novels have also been described as abounding in “camp humour”, so it did not surprise me to learn that E. F. Benson was “likely to have been homosexual“. Bonus fact about E. F. Benson – ‘Mallards’, the fictional residence of Miss Mapp and then Lucia, is based on Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, which was inhabited by not just E. F. Benson, but also Henry James and Rumer Godden (not all at the same time, obviously) and was the subject of Joan Aiken’s book, The Haunting of Lamb House.

There are six novels in the Mapp and Lucia series:

Queen Lucia (1920)
Miss Mapp (1922)
Lucia in London (1927)
Mapp and Lucia (1931)
Lucia’s Progress (1935)
Trouble for Lucia (1939)

Apparently there are also a couple of short stories about the characters, including The Male Impersonator. E. F. Benson was a prolific writer, producing over a hundred books. David Blaize sounds especially interesting, but Benson also wrote some memoirs and a biography of Charlotte Bronte (as well as a novel called The Princess Sophia!). The Mapp and Lucia books were made into a television series in the 1980s, starring Geraldine McEwan as Lucia, Prunella Scales as Mapp and Nigel Hawthorne as Georgie, and the BBC has just announced a new series will be filmed this year, using Lamb House as ‘Mallards’.

What I’ve Been Reading

I don’t have to do disclaimers for any of these books, because I don’t know any of the authors.

Growing Up Asian In Australia, edited by Alice Pung, was a fascinating collection of memoirs, short stories, essays and poems by a range of Asian-Australian writers, some of them famous (Shaun Tan, Tony Ayres, Cindy Pan, Benjamin Law and Kylie Kwong), some of them less well-known, but nearly all of them with interesting things to say about racism, cross-cultural communication and family life in Australia. As in any anthology, the quality of the writing was variable, but overall, I think the editor did a fine job of balancing powerful (and often depressing) pieces of writing with lighter, more entertaining, tales. I did wonder how ‘Asian’ would be defined and it turned out to mean mostly Australians of Chinese or Vietnamese descent, with a few writers whose families were from Korea or Thailand, which probably reflects the relative proportions of these ethnic groups in the Australian population. There were also a couple of Indians1 and I may have been biased towards them, but my favourite piece in the book was a short memoir by Shalini Akhil, in which she discusses her love of Wonder Woman with her Indian grandmother (“You can fight all the crime in the world, she said, but if you leave the house without putting your skirt on, no one will take you seriously”). They go on to imagine their own Indian version of Wonder Woman who “could wear a lungi over her sparkly pants, and that way if she ever needed seven yards of fabric in an emergency, she could just unwind it from her waist.” The grandmother also explains that rolling perfectly round rotis is a magic power, then cooks super-hero eggs with chilli for her granddaughter’s lunch. It was a very endearing piece of writing and now I need to track down this author’s novels.

'A Few Right Thinking Men' by Sulari GentillA Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill has been on my To Read list for a while because, hey, a novel about 1930s Fascism, set in Sydney? Yes, please! And this turned out to be meticulously researched and absolutely fascinating, so I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. It’s the first in a historical crime series starring Rowland Sinclair, a gentleman artist with some disreputable friends, who sets out to investigate the murder of his beloved uncle and finds himself entangled in the conflict between Communists, Fascists and the authorities. I knew a little bit about the New Guard due to their hijacking of the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but had no idea about their rival Fascist organisation, the Old Guard, or about how violent some of the confrontations became. It was also interesting to me to compare the Australian Fascist organisations to their British counterparts (with which I’m more familiar). While both had charismatic, upper-class leaders and were obsessed with nutty schemes, conspiracy theories and ridiculous uniforms, the New Guard forbade any female involvement, whereas women (many of them former suffragettes) were a significant part of Mosley’s British Union. I think that says something about how blokey Australia was (and is). I have to say that the writing in this novel was slightly clunky – a bit too much tell-not-show, a few too many information dumps – and I never quite worked out whether the leisurely pace of the mystery plot and the verbosity of the prose was a homage to early twentieth century literature or simply inadequate editing. However, Rowland and his friends were very appealing characters and the historical background was intriguing enough for me to consider reading more of this series.

'Two Boys Kissing' by David LevithanTwo Boys Kissing by David Levithan was a novel I didn’t expect to love as much as I did. Firstly, it has a stupid premise – two boys try to break the world record of more than thirty-two hours of continuous kissing2. Secondly, it’s a YA novel narrated by a chorus of old dead people in the second person. Thirdly, as much as I admire David Levithan’s prose, none of his books will ever pass the Bechdel test. He writes exclusively about gay, white, middle-class American boys3. Sympathetic girl characters, if they exist at all, are merely support crew (literally, in this particular novel). Despite all these ominous signs, I found myself engrossed in this book and was reduced to tears at several points where the dead men talked about their lives in an earlier, less tolerant society. I’m a bit older than David Levithan, old enough to remember the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when each edition of Sydney’s gay newspaper contained pages of obituaries and every community social function was a meeting about the Quilt Project or a fund-raiser for the HIV/AIDS ward at the local hospital, and this book brought back those days vividly for me. The chorus in Two Boys Kissing is there to explain to the teenage characters how much easier life is in the twenty-first century, and while I wholeheartedly agree (life is easier for most gay teenagers now than it was twenty-five years ago), I did wonder what teenage readers might think about this. So I was interested to read Anna Ryan-Punch’s review of the book in the latest edition of Viewpoint, in which she states:

“The use of their commentary comes off as heavy-handed, mawkish, and often didactic . . . there’s a patronising sense of authority, which is likely to put many readers on the defensive: ‘They are young. They don’t understand.'”

I can see that this book might not work for all readers, but it really had an impact on me. And I do agree with Anna Ryan-Punch that this book’s cover is “a literal and lovely picture of progress”.

Finally, I decided to start reading Lives of Girls and Women the day before the author, Alice Munro, won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature. This is because I am psychic. Not really. She’d been on my To Read list for ages, and now I’m kicking myself for not picking up one of her books sooner because this novel was utterly brilliant and I think it would have changed my life if I’d read it as a teenager. Her writing is so lucid and honest, each sentence beautiful and full of meaning – this is Serious Literature without being pretentious or incomprehensible or self-consciously ‘literary’. I was torn between wanting to linger upon each page to savour her wisdom and racing ahead to the next chapter to find out what would happen to Del, the teenage narrator, who is growing up in rural Canada in the 1940s and 1950s. I especially liked how the author described the limitations placed on women then (often by other women, not men) and how Del could so easily be a girl of today, her sexual desires clashing with what society determines is ‘correct’ for girls. This book was a bit like Anne Tyler combined with Margaret Atwood’s autobiographical short stories and they’re two of my favourite authors, so I think I should now read everything Alice Munro has ever written.

_____

  1. Although I don’t tend to think of India as being part of Asia – to me, it’s geographically and culturally closer to the Middle East than to places like Japan and Singapore. But I’m aware most journalists, politicians and diplomats have a different viewpoint on this.
  2. I hate the whole idea of world records, but especially when it involves stretching enjoyable activities into ridiculous feats of endurance. Seriously, do something more constructive with your time and energy, people.
  3. It was nice to come across this interview with Malinda Lo, which suggests David Levithan has an awareness of this issue.

Same-Sex-Attracted Gentlemen in English Society in the 1930s and 1940s

I’ve been meaning to write a blog post on this topic ever since The FitzOsbornes in Exile was first published in North America (that is, two years ago, which says something about my blogging habits). I don’t want to give away any plot spoilers to those who haven’t read the book, but let’s just say that it’s set in the late 1930s, in England, and that at least one male character is gay1. A surprising number of readers seemed to assume that any well-brought-up young lady of this time and place would have been shocked, horrified and outraged at the very idea of homosexuality, and that all gay men were shunned by Society and were in constant danger of being carted off to prison, à la Oscar Wilde. So, there were a number of comments from readers about how ‘implausible’ it was that Sophie and Veronica, the two young ladies at the centre of the story, would be so accepting of their gay male relative.

Now, it’s true that any kind of sexual activity between men was illegal in England between 1885 and 19672, but it’s also true that these laws were applied very selectively. In general, rich, aristocratic men were free to do whatever they liked. Yes, Oscar Wilde was convicted of “gross indecency”, but that was an unusual case because he started the whole thing off (by bringing a libel action against his boyfriend’s belligerent father, when what the father was saying about Wilde was mostly true). Anyway, that case was in 1895, forty-two years before the events of The FitzOsbornes in Exile. Consider current attitudes to gay issues, and compare this to how most people thought in the early 1970s, and you’ll see that things can change significantly in forty-two years. The fact is that in the 1930s and 1940s, there were quite a lot of popular, important and influential same-sex-attracted men who were part of English Society. Here are some of them.

First, the obvious ones. In the world of theatre and music, the most famous were probably Ivor Novello, Noël Coward and Benjamin Britten. There was also stage designer Oliver Messel, who was closely associated with the British royals and designed Princess Margaret’s Caribbean house. Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies held Royal Warrants to design frocks for various British royals (Hardy Amies also happened to be a Special Operations Executive agent who worked with the Belgian resistance during the war), while the crème de la crème of Society queued up to be photographed by Cecil Beaton.

Ivor Novello
Ivor Novello

Meanwhile, the Bloomsbury set was not, strictly speaking, part of respectable Society, but it was influential and included writer Lytton Strachey, economist John Maynard Keynes and artist Duncan Grant.

Those with connections to Oxford included Maurice Bowra (Warden of Wadham College, later Vice-Chancellor of the university and awarded a knighthood), Brian Howard (poet, journalist, supposedly an inspiration for the character of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited) and Harold Acton (writer, also supposedly a model for Anthony Blanche). Other famous same-sex-attracted male writers were Siegfried Sassoon, Raymond Mortimer and E.M. Forster.

Then there were a whole lot of aristocrats who didn’t do much, but were certainly accepted in Society, starting with Prince George (brother of King Edward VIII and King George VI), whose male lovers were rumoured to have included his cousin Louis Ferdinand, Prince of Prussia, Noël Coward and Anthony Blunt (art historian, cousin to the Queen, Communist spy). There was also Stephen Tennant, who “spent most of his life in bed” and supposedly inspired the character of Cedric in Love In A Cold Climate. However, I think my favourite aristocrat would have to be Gavin Henderson, 2nd Baron Faringdon: “Described by David Cargill as a ‘roaring pansy’, Henderson was known for his effeminate demeanour, once opening a speech in the House of Lords with the words ‘My dears’ instead of ‘My Lords.'”

What is more interesting to me is the number of gay men in positions of real political power, either in the House of Commons or the diplomatic services. For example, Oliver Baldwin, son of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, had a long career in politics, first as a Labour MP, then as Parliamentary Secretary to the Secretary for War. When he was appointed Governor of the Leeward Islands, a British colony in the Caribbean, he took his partner, John Boyle, with him. Other politicians included Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, Harold Nicolson, Tom Driberg and Robert Boothby. It’s true that these men did not always receive unconditional positive regard from their family and colleagues. For example, Oliver Baldwin never became a government minister, despite his experience and political connections. He was also recalled from the position of Governor after three years (although this was more because he supported socialism and anti-colonial attitudes in the islands than because the white colonials were scandalised by his relationship with John Boyle – and Oliver’s parents did eventually come to accept his partner as almost a son-in-law).

Some of these men had long, happy, unconventional marriages with women (for example, Harold Nicolson’s marriage to Vita Sackville-West); some entered into brief or unhappy marriages in an attempt to placate their families and produce an heir; others were ‘confirmed bachelors’. Some of them were definitely gay, others were probably bisexual, and very few of them were ‘out’ in the public sense that we mean now. But all of these men participated in Society, and other people in Society knew about them and accepted them to varying degrees – which isn’t so different from the way things are now.

So I think Sophie and Veronica’s attitudes in The FitzOsbornes in Exile are entirely plausible – especially as neither of them is particularly religious, and Veronica makes a habit of rebelling against conservative values. And I also think Veronica would have loved a chance to debate Marxism with Oliver Baldwin.

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  1. Yes, I know they probably wouldn’t have used the word ‘gay’ in 1937, but the vast array of words used for male homosexuality in the twentieth century would take up an entire blog post of their own. For those who are interested, A Dictionary of Euphemisms, by Judith S. Neaman and Carole G. Silver, has a good discussion of North American, British and Australian terms.
  2. Lesbians did not exist, according to the law.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

Otherwise known as, A List Of Things I Bookmarked Months Ago But Didn’t Ever Get Around To Posting On My Blog.

In January, the American Library Association announced the 2013 Rainbow List of LGBTQ1 books for children & teenagers. At the end of last year, YALSA also blogged about LGBTQ books appearing on lists of the year’s best Young Adult literature and mentioned “several books with secondary or tertiary characters who are LGBTQ and aren’t necessarily struggling with their sexuality . . . It’s wonderful to have books about teens dealing with issues of sexuality and gender, but to me, it says more about the status of LGBTQ characters in YA fiction that there are so many books where the sexuality of gay, bisexual, transgendered, or otherwise queer characters isn’t an issue.” Hear, hear!2

Remember the kerfuffle a couple of years ago when the Booker Prize judges decided to shortlist books based on ‘readability’ rather than ‘literary quality’? Even though I don’t agree with all of Jeanette Winterson’s criteria for determining whether a novel is Literature, I laughed out loud at this: “The most unreadable books I have read recently were Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.”

I was also interested in this article by Lionel Shriver about how women authors behave when shortlisted for literary awards, compared to men: “Any victory that translates into beating someone else makes women feel guilty.” Ms Shriver is impatient with such ‘girly’ attitudes. When asked whether she was surprised that her novel We Need To Talk About Kevin had won the Orange Prize, this was her response:

“No,” I said. And then I made a wrong answer worse by adding, “It’s a good book.”

I wonder if her overt self-confidence, and the reactions of others to this, have more to do with her being a self-confident American living in self-deprecating Britain than her being an ‘ungirly’ woman novelist. I’m also surprised that she believes that literary awards inevitably go to a ‘good book’.3

There’s been a lot of discussion about New Adult books lately, although I’m still trying to figure out what constitutes Young Adult.

Courtesy of The Hairpin via Bookshelves of Doom, here are some text messages written by the characters of Little Women. For example, Jo and Meg:

Jo, Father still isn’t dead
really?
I saw him not four hours ago
could have sworn he died at sea

See also, Texts from Jane Eyre:

DID YOU LEAVE BECAUSE OF MY ATTIC WIFE
IS THAT WHAT THIS IS ABOUT
yes
absolutely
BECAUSE MY HOUSE IN FRANCE DOESN’T EVEN HAVE AN ATTIC
IF THAT’S WHAT YOU WERE WORRIED ABOUT

Australian bloggers may be interested in the 2013 Best Australian Blogs Competition, while writers for children and teenagers might like to check out the Aspiring Writers Mentorship Program (which I’ve previously written about here, for New South Wales writers only) and the Text Prize (for Australian and New Zealand writers only).

Finally, because you can never have too much Kate Beaton, here’s her take on various Nancy Drew book covers.4

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  1. That’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning, in case anyone was wondering.
  2. Especially as one of those “several books” was The FitzOsbornes at War.
  3. Whether We Need To Talk About Kevin is actually a ‘good book’ is another issue, and probably not an issue that Lionel Shriver and I would agree on.
  4. If I had to choose a favourite, it would probably be Mystery of Crocodile Island (“This was not a mystery that needed to be solved.”)

Book Banned, Author Bemused

I’ve previously written about my books being edited so that the vocabulary, punctuation and spelling make sense to overseas readers. However, I didn’t mention another issue, which is that different countries often have very different cultural values. Contrast, for example, attitudes (and legislation) in Australia and the United States regarding gun ownership, capital punishment and universal healthcare. And also, book banning.

'The FitzOsbornes at War' North American editionEarlier this year, I was interviewed by Magpies (an Australian journal about literature for children and teenagers) and was asked about the reaction of US readers to the epilogue of The FitzOsbornes at War. As the book hadn’t yet been released in the US, I talked about reactions to the previous two books. I said I’d always expected some US reviewers and readers would object to my gay and bisexual characters, but that I’d been surprised by some of the things they’d also deemed ‘controversial’ – for example, that some of my characters were atheists or socialists, that not all of the married couples were happily married, and that there was a brief discussion of contraception. One US reviewer of The FitzOsbornes in Exile complained at length about the “sketchy moral questions that permeate the book” and hoped that there’d be some signs of moral improvement in Book Three. Um . . . well, not really.

But I suppose it depends on how you define ‘moral’. I think The FitzOsbornes at War is all about morality, but I quite understand that some readers won’t approve of some of the characters’ actions. It’s a novel full of conflict and drama and people in extreme circumstances making difficult (and occasionally stupid) decisions. But reading about characters doing things that you regard as against your own personal moral code is not the same as doing those things yourself. For instance, teenagers reading about a gay character will not suddenly turn gay (unless they already are gay, in which case what they read will make no difference to who they are, but might possibly make them feel less alone). Will reading about such ‘immoral’ behaviour make the behaviours seem more ‘normal’, more ‘acceptable’? Well, maybe. The US librarian who’s pulled The FitzOsbornes at War off her library shelves certainly seems to think so.

Note: Sorry, I’m going to have to include plot spoilers for The FitzOsbornes at War here. If you haven’t read the book but are planning to read it, you might want to skip the next seven paragraphs of this post.

I’m not going to link to the librarian’s review, because I don’t want anyone to go over there and hassle her. (Not that you would – I know the people who regularly visit this blog are always respectful and courteous, even when they disagree with a post – but just in case someone else does.) Still, I found the librarian’s reasons for removing the book really interesting, so I would like to quote from her review, which awarded the book one star out of five:

“Does it not bother anyone that this novel seems to have characters that are entirely amoral? I was wondering whether to overlook the PG13 content and language because of the educational aspects of this well researched historical fiction World War II novel, but really–I just have to wonder about everyone being okay with the gay king living with his wife and his wife’s lover and their children in happy wedded bliss (This was a recommended book in the Parent’s Choice awards!)…Sorry this one is not staying at our library.”

Firstly, as far as I know, the book isn’t recommended in the Parents’ Choice awards. A Brief History of Montmaray was, several years ago, but The FitzOsbornes at War hasn’t been.

Secondly, is it just me or does it read as though it’s okay to have a gay character in a book, but only if he’s utterly miserable? Heaven forbid that gay people and their children could ever live in “happy wedded bliss”, either in books or in real life. Oh, wait, some people’s version of heaven does forbid it . . .

Thirdly, if the “content and language” is regarded by the librarian as PG13, doesn’t that mean that this book should be okay to shelve in the Young Adult fiction section? Shouldn’t it be suitable for readers over thirteen, with some parental guidance if necessary? Can’t teenage readers and their parents decide for themselves whether they want to read this book?

Fourthly, does this librarian truly believe the characters in The FitzOsbornes at War are “entirely amoral”? The word ‘amoral’ doesn’t mean ‘disagrees with my own moral values’. It refers to someone who has no understanding of morality, no sense of right and wrong. I’m assuming the librarian is referring to Toby, Julia and Simon, given the reference to the “gay king” and his family (although, who knows, perhaps Veronica and Sophie are included in the condemnation, for having had sexual experiences outside marriage). Really, these characters are “amoral”? In a novel that also contains Hitler, Stalin and Franco? So, should all books with amoral characters be banned from libraries? I’m guessing that particular library doesn’t have a copy of Richard III or Macbeth, either. (Not that I’m for one moment suggesting that my novels approach the literary quality of the works of William Shakespeare. But it seems ‘literary quality’ isn’t a factor in determining which books are stocked at this library, anyway.)

(Fifthly, and quite irrelevantly, did the librarian really describe Simon as the “wife’s lover”? Poor Toby! You’d think he’d have more of a claim as Simon’s lover than Julia, after all those years.)

This is where the cultural difference thing comes in, because I am trying, and failing, to imagine a librarian in an Australian public library taking The FitzOsbornes at War off her library’s shelves – not because a library patron had complained, but because the librarian herself thought the book ‘amoral’. Australia has a long history of banning books, but it would be very unusual for a book in an Australian public library to be challenged or banned nowadays, particularly if the only objection to the book was that it contained a gay character who was happy.

Still, I’m in pretty good company. Here are some of the books that were most frequently banned or challenged in US libraries between 2000 and 2009:

The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451? Seriously, a novel about books being outlawed in America is on the US banned books list? I can only shake my head and turn to John Stuart Mill, who’s quoted on the American Library Association’s website:

“. . . But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

My Favourite Novels About Britain At War

1. Small Island by Andrea Levy'Small Island' by Andrea Levy

Jamaican airmen stationed in England during the Second World War find that the ‘Mother Country’ is less welcoming than they’d expected.

2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault

A soldier wounded at Dunkirk and recovering in an English hospital falls in love with a conscientious objector working as a hospital wardsman.

3. Marking Time and Confusion from the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The Cazalet family’s privileged lives are changed forever when England goes to war.

'Westwood' by Stella Gibbons4. Westwood by Stella Gibbons

Plain, bookish Margaret and her beautiful friend Hilda are drawn into the orbit of a pompous playwright in Blitz-battered London – but who is exploiting whom?

5. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Four Londoners – all on the outskirts of society because they’ve fallen in love with the wrong people, all terribly damaged by the war – have their interlinking stories gradually revealed in a clever narrative that travels backwards through the 1940s.

Reading Roundup

I’ve read some really good novels lately, which is fortunate for me, because the non-fiction I’ve been reading (as research for my next book) has been very heavy (in both the literal and figurative senses). Here are some of the novels I’ve enjoyed:

The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

'The Beginner's Goodbye' by Anne TylerI’d feared this might be merely a reprise of The Accidental Tourist, and it’s true the protagonists of these novels have many similarities – they are both introverted, socially-awkward men who write guidebooks, and they have both just lost a beloved family member in shocking circumstances. However, this book feels quite different in a lot of ways. It’s shorter, for one thing, and lighter in tone. In The Beginner’s Goodbye, Aaron’s wife has died in a freak accident, and there is nobody he can blame – not even God, because Aaron is an atheist. He copes with the loss of Dorothy by moving out of the house where she died and throwing himself into his work at the family publishing firm. He tells everyone he’s doing fine and he even believes it, until he suddenly begins to ‘see’ Dorothy. At first, she is a silent presence in his life, but eventually they begin to talk, and to argue, with more honesty than they ever did when she was alive. Aaron’s growing self-awareness feels true, his well-meaning friends and relatives are interesting and funny, and I loved the customary glimpse of a character from a previous Anne Tyler novel (in this case, it’s Luke from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, now grown up and yes, running a restaurant – perhaps he inherited it from his uncle Ezra). My only criticism would be that the final chapter wrapped things up a little too neatly (Luke even provides the moral of the story, as if we couldn’t work it out for ourselves), but by that stage, I was so fond of the characters that I was happy to see that they were happy. This is highly recommended for Anne Tyler fans, even if it’s not her best novel. There’s a good review of the book here and you can read my previous post about Anne Tyler here.

The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson

I had read this before, but that was so long ago I couldn’t remember anything about it, except that I’d liked it. This is a wonderfully honest story of a precocious, headstrong country girl sent to a snobby boarding school in 1890s Melbourne. Poor Laura gets into one scrape after another as she attempts to ingratiate herself with her classmates, but her gaudy, home-made frocks, outspoken manners, and lack of interest in boys means she’s doomed to failure. Fortunately, she manages to make it out of school with her self-esteem intact, and the final chapter implies she goes out into the world and achieves great things (unlike her classmates), because “even for the squarest peg, the right hole may ultimately be found”. The edition I read also included a hilarious review quote from a 1910 journal, which sternly declaimed:

“The book is calculated to impress very unfavourably those who do not know that the Australian girl is a much cleaner, wholesomer and straighter person than any of the characters portrayed. It is a book we should strongly recommend adults to keep out of the hands of girls.”

So, you’ve been warned.

Insignificant Others by Stephen McCauley

'Insignificant Others' by Stephen McCauleyThis felt a lot like a grown-up version of Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, as both narrators were droll, articulate and perceptive when observing the failings of others, but were quite unable to acknowledge or fix their own problems. And the narrator of Insignificant Others, Richard, has plenty of problems. He has a distant relationship with his live-in boyfriend, who is probably cheating on him; he has an affectionate but futile attachment to a married man; he has become obsessed with exercising at the gym, to the detriment of his health; and he’s frustrated by his job at a software company. I’m not sure I’d usually care about any of these problems, but Richard’s narration makes the whole thing into a very entertaining satire of modern American life. For example, here’s Richard contemplating his homophobic, religious-fanatic secretary:

“The degree to which one is obliged, for the sake of tolerance, to be tolerant of the intolerant has never been clear to me.”

And, when arguing with his cheating partner:

“I hate when truthfulness is offered up as a sign of love and friendship, especially when it’s truthfulness about betrayal.”

And, after being berated, yet again, by his sister for not having children:

“The world of parents was divided between those like Benjamin who, worries about Tyler notwithstanding, had unqualified love for their kids and saw childlessness as a disability, and those like my sister Beth, who had ambivalent feelings about their offspring and therefore labelled childlessness as unmitigated selfishness.”

Recommended, unless you’re a fan of George W. Bush (Richard’s hilarious rants about Bush’s inadequacies feature throughout the novel). If you’d like to know more, there’s a review and excerpt here.