Great (and Not-So-Great) Expectations

Life is short and there are many books in the world, so it’s not surprising that readers take short cuts when deciding what to read next. In my case, I often make decisions based on my experience with the author. If I’ve loved an author’s previous books, I’ll probably pick up his or her next book. If I’ve disliked a book, I’m unlikely to give that particular author another try, although I can sometimes be swayed by friends’ recommendations, award short-listings or the fact that there’s nothing else that appeals to me on the library shelves.

So it was that I picked up The Other Family, by Joanna Trollope, at the library last month. I’d read an earlier book by this author (I think it might have been The Choir) and I’d disliked it intensely. I didn’t like the characters, I wasn’t interested in their smug, boring, privileged lives and I thought the plot was stupid and pointless. I didn’t even like the author’s photograph. (Why do publishers put author photographs in books, anyway? I don’t care what the author looks like!) But it was years since I’d read The Choir, and I’d subsequently seen a positive review of Joanna Trollope’s most recent novel, and I was in the library, not a bookshop, so I wouldn’t be investing anything except a little time if I took the book home with me. So I did, and you know what? I liked it.

'The Other Family' by Joanna TrollopeThe Other Family begins with the sudden death of Richie, a moderately successful musician. Chrissie, the mother of his three daughters, is bereft, especially when she discovers he’s remembered his first wife and his son in his will. Worse, Richie never actually got around to marrying Chrissie in the twenty years they were together, so she’s faced with a huge inheritance tax bill and may have to move out of the family mansion in London. I think we’re meant to sympathise with Chrissie, but she came across to me as a spoiled, self-centred idiot, and her two eldest daughters were just as bad. Luckily, there was Amy, the youngest child and still at school, but also the smartest, most compassionate person in the family. Amy is the one who reaches out to Margaret and Scott, her father’s first family, who live in the north of England. Margaret is an especially appealing character – an intelligent, strong-minded woman who managed to bring up her son and establish a successful business after Richie abandoned them. However, I have to admit my favourite character was Dawson, Margaret’s overweight cat:

“If Margaret was restless, Dawson reacted to her by being particularly inert. He would lengthen himself along the back of the sofa in the bay window of the sitting room and sink into an especially profound languor, only the miniscule movements of his little ears registering that he was aware of her fidgeting round him, endlessly going up and down the stairs, opening and shutting drawers in the kitchen, talking to herself as if she was the only living creature in the house. Only if it got past seven o’clock, and she seemed temporarily absorbed in some area of the house unrelated to his supper, would he lumber down from the cushions to the floor, and position himself somewhere that could not fail to remind her that she had forgotten to feed him. He was even prepared for her to fall over him, literally, if it served his purpose.

This particular evening, seven o’clock had come and gone – gone, it seemed to Dawson, a very long time ago. Margaret had been in the sitting room, then her bedroom, then back in the sitting room, then at her computer, but nowhere near the place where Dawson’s box of special cat mix lived, alongside the little square tins of meat that Dawson would have liked every night, but which were only opened occasionally by some arbitrary timetable quite unfathomable to him. He had placed himself in her path at least three times, to no effect, and was now deciding that the last resort had been reached, the completely forbidden resort of vigorously clawing up the new carpet at a particularly vulnerable place where the top step of the stairs met the landing.”

Yes, that’s all it takes to make me approve of a book – the addition of a charismatic cat. But there were other things to like in this novel – for example, the descriptions of Newcastle and the quays of North Shield. The depiction of grief and bereavement felt authentic to me, too, although I never managed to work up much sympathy for Chrissie. I think the concluding chapters wrapped up everything too neatly for each character (even Dawson got his tin of meat for supper), but overall, I enjoyed this book. There are some interesting interviews with the author here and here. And if you have no intention of reading The Other Family, but are curious about the plot, there’s a hilarious (and, I have to admit, accurate) Digested Read of it here.

'The Stranger's Child' by Alan HollinghurstOf course, just as I am sometimes pleasantly surprised by a book, there are times when I’m disappointed, and so it was when I read The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst. I’d loved his previous novels, particularly The Line of Beauty, which won the Booker Prize in 2004. And The Stranger’s Child sounded so promising. An aristocratic family with scandalous secrets! A rambling old house in the English countryside! A beautiful young poet, tragically killed in the First World War! The poet’s biographer, who has secrets of his own, struggling to unravel truth from lies! And yet, this novel dragged. There was simultaneously too much detail, and not enough useful information. There were too many unnecessary characters – what, for instance, was the point of introducing the Strange-Paget family, when they added little to the narrative and were never mentioned again after that chapter? And while some of the prose was sharp and amusing, there were too many sentences like this:

“Daphne’s second husband’s half-sister married my father’ s eldest brother.”

That was actually a relatively clear explanation of one of the complicated relationships in the novel. Mostly, the reader was left to figure all this out for herself, and I often found myself flipping back to earlier sections, muttering, “Now, what was Revel’s surname? Does that mean Jenny is his daughter? Or no, she’s too young, must be his granddaughter, except wasn’t he gay? Did he end up marrying Daphne, anyway?”

There were parts I found interesting, particularly in the first section, but I had to force myself to finish this book. (Maybe Alan Hollinghurst should have added a cat or two for my benefit.)

To end on a more positive note, I just finished reading the latest novel of one of my favourite authors of all time, and it really did live up to my extremely high expectations. I’m referring to The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler, which was absolutely wonderful, and highly recommended if you like her work. I will get around to writing a proper blog post about it soon.

Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott

There’s always a bit of trepidation when you re-read an old favourite from your teenage years. Will the book turn out to be No Good At All? Will it be obvious and sentimental and vacuous? Will it reveal that you used to have appalling taste in literature? Thankfully, Careful, He Might Hear You proved to be just as good as I remembered – perhaps even better, because I can now see the immense skill that went into the construction of its apparently effortless prose.

Careful, He Might Hear You was Sumner Locke Elliott’s first novel. It was published in 1963, but he’d been writing plays, radio serials and television scripts for decades before that, and it really shows in his writing. He knew all about plot and pacing, how to balance action with introspection and how to reveal character through dialogue. But writing a novel also allowed him to write beautiful descriptions of a setting he knew very well, that of Sydney during the Depression. The novel is based on his own childhood, in which he was the focus of a bitter custody battle between several aunts. His mother, a popular Australian writer, had died giving birth to him and his father, an irresponsible alcoholic, played no part in his upbringing. On one side of the battle was his anxious, motherly Aunt Lillian (named ‘Lila’ in the book), the wife of a hard-working but poor Labor politician; on the other was rich Aunt Jessie (‘Vanessa’), recently returned from England and determined to transform her nephew into a proper little gentleman. The situation was complicated by his odd Aunt Agnes, disciple of a bizarre American cult, and his bohemian Aunt Blanche (‘Vere’). The author does a superb job of narrating events from the perspective of six-year-old PS, who is by turns amused, baffled and angered by the grown-ups running his life. It’s a pleasure to watch him slowly gain some control over the adults, although the author also manages to evoke some sympathy for them. There is poor, over-worked Lila; her long-suffering husband, George; emotionally-repressed Vanessa; even exuberant Vere is revealed to have hidden sorrows. There are also gorgeous descriptions of Sydney in the 1930s – a cruise liner steaming into Sydney Harbour, a train trip to dusty Woronora Cemetery, Lila’s suburban backyard and Vanessa’s Point Piper mansion and Vere’s chaotic flat in King’s Cross:

“Vere poured the golden-coloured bubbles into two peanut butter glasses and handed one to Opal. They immediately forgot him and began talking about their friends who were all in a mess, thwarted, broke, maddened or suicidal, my dear. They had wonderful names like Dodo, Ukelele, Widget and Gussy. When they came to visit Vere, they brought her old shoe buckles, brooches, half-used pots of cold cream, combs and long, cool bottles because they were always dying of thirst, just dying of thirst, my dear, and their voices would grow brighter as the daylight faded, would fly around the small room like birds let out of cages telling about gay-sounding things, about parties and dancing, full of mysterious words that had to be spelled out in Lila’s house and which made his heart jump for the time when he would understand and be a part of the things they told about with such laughter.”

'Careful, He Might Hear You' by Sumner Locke Elliott and 'Sumner Locke Elliott: Writing Life' by Sharon Clarke
'Careful, He Might Hear You' by Sumner Locke Elliott and 'Sumner Locke Elliott: Writing Life' by Sharon Clarke

Careful, He Might Hear You was a huge success in the United States, Britain and Germany, but didn’t sell very well in Australia, as Sumner Locke Elliott explained:

“I distinctly remember that [his agent] told me 50,000 copies had already been sold in Germany, where there had been three editions in six months, and naturally I was elated. Then I asked about Australia and she said, ‘Seven.’ And I said, with some delight, ‘Well, 7,000, that’s not bad at all – it’s only a small country.’ But she said, ‘Not 7,000, just seven – seven copies.’ And you know, I just couldn’t believe it – my own country and only seven copies!”

Actually, it wasn’t his own country by then, because he’d moved to the United States in 1948, escaping a country that had banned his plays and had little tolerance for gay men. He lived in Los Angeles, and then New York, where he died in 1991. Several of his novels (Waiting for Childhood, Eden’s Lost and Water Under the Bridge) revisit the autobiographical themes of Careful, He Might Hear You, but it is his final novel, Fairyland, that’s probably the closest to his real life. Fairyland is the depressing tale of a young man growing up in Australia, desperately ashamed of his desires for other men but longing to find true love. It includes scenes taken from the author’s life, such as when he was bashed nearly to death in Wynyard railway station, and it shows the conservatism, violence and hypocrisy of the country where he grew up. Sharon Clarke wrote a good biography called Sumner Locke Elliott: Writing Life, which I recommend for anyone wanting to know more about the story behind Careful, He Might Hear You. There’s also an excellent film version starring Robyn Nevin and Wendy Hughes, which came out in 1983. (At least, I remember liking it when I saw it, but that was a very long time ago. It is possible I had terrible taste in movies then.)

Anyway, I was very pleased to see that Text is bringing out a new edition of Careful He Might Hear You as part of its Australian Classics series. This book deserves to find lots of new readers.

That GayYA Thing

A month or so ago, while I was locked in my Editing Bunker, there was a bit of a kerfuffle in the blogosphere about the lack of gay (and lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer) characters in books for teenagers. It started off as an argument about whether a particular literary agent had asked two particular authors to remove a gay character from their book, and turned into a wider debate about the experiences of LGBTQ authors and the success (or otherwise) of Young Adult books featuring LGBTQ characters. For those who missed it, there’s an excellent summary and discussion at cleolinda’s livejournal. During the debate, Malinda Lo, a YA author, gathered some data, constructed some graphs and concluded that “less than 1% of YA novels have LGBT characters”.

So: books, teenagers, gayness and maths. How could I possibly resist adding my opinions, even if I am rather late to the discussion? So, here are some of my random thoughts on the GayYA thing:

All of my YA novels contain gay characters. I’ve never had a literary agent or publisher ask me to de-gay my writing. If they had, I’d have gone looking for another agent and/or publisher. I can honestly say that I’ve experienced FAR less homophobia in the YA publishing industry than in my previous career as a speech and language pathologist.

That’s not to say that things in YA Book World are perfect, and I was saddened to read the accounts of YA authors who had experienced discrimination when trying to get their LGBTQ stories published. I’m also wondering how much of this debate is specific to the United States, which (I think) is a more overtly religious society than Australia. The only homophobic comments I’ve seen about my Montmaray books have come from United States readers (one of them was even a youth librarian – how depressing). I know David Levithan would disagree (he made a speech* here a few years back, complaining about how backwards Australia was compared to the United States, regarding attitudes to gayness), but I actually think Australians are more tolerant. Or possibly more apathetic. At least we don’t have crazy book bannings just about every week.

In addition, I’m sad to say I have to agree with Sarah Rees Brennan’s comment about YA books being less likely to be bestsellers if they contain LGBTQ characters. As she points out, books are more likely to sell well if they get a huge push from their publishers, and publishers tend to put a huge amount of effort behind books only if a) the authors are popular already, or b) they think the book is likely to appeal to (that is, not put off) lots of readers. On the other hand, the reasons a book becomes a bestseller are often complicated and mysterious. Certainly, my books don’t sell very well, but I doubt that has much to do with the gay characters. It’s far more likely to be due to the girls in my books being more interested in giving speeches at the League of Nations than swooning over hot male vampires/werewolves/fallen angels.

I’m also dubious about the “less than 1%” statement by Malinda Lo. Her definition of an ‘LGBTQ YA book’ was fairly broad – she counted any YA book “published by a traditional publisher that includes a main character or secondary character that is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning; or a story line related to LGBTQ themes.” Even so, her list seemed to have some obvious omissions, some of which were pointed out by commenters on her blog post. (Also, why isn’t The FitzOsbornes in Exile on her list? It was published in the US by a traditional publisher; it has gay and bisexual characters; it’s even been nominated for next year’s American Library Association’s Rainbow Books list. Is Toby not gay enough? Is Simon not bisexual enough?) In fairness to Malinda Lo, she acknowledges her list may be incomplete. And she does note that “even if I double the number of titles on the list, the total percentage of LGBTQ YA will still only be approximately 1% of all YA books”. Which is very low. Although this percentage will probably come as a relief to those Montmaray reviewers who complained about Toby’s gayness – they often went on to bemoan the ‘fact’ that every second YA book nowadays contains disgusting homosexuals.

I think it’s good for LGBTQ teenagers to be able to read YA books about their lives. It’s even better if straight teenagers can read about LGBTQ lives, because that might help to decrease homophobic bullying in schools. But I also know that teenagers often read books that are (gasp!) published for adults. This is especially true for books involving LGBTQ issues (ugh, the ‘issues’ word), because until recently, a lot of those books were published as adult, not YA, in Australia, even when the protagonists were teenagers or young adults. This applied to books by Australian authors (for example, Loaded by Christos Tsiolkas and Sushi Central by Alasdair Duncan) and international authors (for example, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon).

All of this made me think about my favourite books about LGBTQ teenagers and young adults, so here are a few of them:

'Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You' by Peter CameronSomeday This Pain Will Be Useful To You (2007) by Peter Cameron

I love this book – it’s so funny and sad and wise and wonderful. I wish I could have read it when I was a teenager, because oh, how I would have related to awkward, alienated James. The novel isn’t really about being a gay teenager, any more than it’s about surviving the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York, although both of these are part of the story. As the starred review in Kirkus said, “Cameron’s power is his ability to distill a particular world and social experience with great specificity while still allowing the reader to access the deep well of our shared humanity”.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985) by Jeanette Winterson

A semi-autobiographical novel about a girl adopted into a Pentecostal family in a mill town in the north of England. Teenage Jeanette is forced to give up her family, her church and her community after she falls in love with another girl. It’s not as grim as it sounds – there’s plenty of humour and originality alongside the rage and heartbreak. What I really liked about this novel, apart from the inventiveness of the writing, is that it doesn’t pretend that being different is easy. It was also made into a brilliant BBC television series.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) by Michael Chabon

About the bisexual son of a Jewish gangster, who spends the summer after his college graduation getting entangled with a charming, sophisticated gay man and his self-destructive friend. I’m not sure if this counts as YA (the narrator is in his early twenties, and it contains explicit – though not gratuitous – sex), but it’s the sort of book that will really appeal to some older teenagers, and the writing is terrific.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010) by John Green and David Levithan

Mostly about a very large and very gay football player called Tiny Cooper, who writes a musical about himself, his many loves and his friends. It made me laugh and cry.

'About A Girl' by Joanne HornimanAbout a Girl (2010) by Joanne Horniman

I can’t write about this book, because it would be weird and awkward if the author, who is on my blogroll, read it. But I agree with this review.

Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) by Rita Mae Brown

I can’t claim this is a Great Work of Literature, but it’s lots of fun. Molly, a feisty beauty from a poor Southern family, fights her way into college, then gets expelled after the authorities discover she’s in a lesbian relationship with her roommate. She then goes to New York to seek her fortune and have many adventures.

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) by Hanif Kureishi

Okay, this was a film first, but the script was published (with an autobiographical essay titled The Rainbow Sign), so I’m counting it as a YA book. It’s about Omar, a gay Pakistani teenager who opens a laundrette in London during the Thatcher years, and his lover is a former skinhead, and Omar’s uncle is a drug dealer, and it’s really funny and gritty and wonderful.

More LGBTQ YA reading:

  • Daisy Porter’s LGBTQ book reviews at QueerYA
  • Lee Wind’s LGBTQ book reviews, plus discussion of LGBTQ issues, at I’m Here. I’m Queer. What The Hell Do I Read?
  • Christine A. Jenkins’ bibliography of YA books with Gay/Lesbian content, 1969-2009
  • Malinda Lo’s list of LGBTQ books, 2009-2011 (scroll down to the end of her post for the link to a downloadable pdf)
  • Alex Sanchez’s list of Gay Teen Books
  • The American Library Association’s Rainbow Books lists for 2008-2011
  • William E. Elderton’s annotated lists of gay and lesbian books for teenagers. It hasn’t been updated recently, but contains lots of Australian and New Zealand authors.
  • * The only link I can find to the podcast of David Levithan’s speech is here (scroll down to the first comment for the link).

    Love In A Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

    'Love in a Cold Climate' by Nancy MitfordI love this book. It’s a masterpiece of social comedy and it deserves to be more widely read, so that’s why I’ve decided to rave about it today. Imagine Pride and Prejudice set in the 1930s, and you’ll have some idea of the plot. Not that it’s really about the plot – which, for the record, involves posh English girls attempting to find suitable husbands. The real joy of this novel lies in the characters, particularly Lady Montdore, the wildly ambitious mother of beautiful Polly, who is ‘destined for an exceptional marriage’. Lady Montdore is a monster – self-centred, snobbish, bossy, greedy, completely deluded as to her value in the world – but she’s a very entertaining monster. She provides the author with numerous opportunities to send up the English aristocracy, as in this scene, when Lady Montdore berates our poor narrator, Fanny, the wife of a professor:

    “‘You know, Fanny,’ she went on, ‘it’s all very well for funny little people like you to read books the whole time, you only have yourselves to consider, whereas Montdore and I are public servants in a way, we have something to live up to, tradition and so on, duties to perform, you know, it’s a very different matter . . . It’s a hard life, make no mistake about that, hard and tiring, but occasionally we have our reward – when people get a chance to show how they worship us, for instance, when we came back from India and the dear villagers pulled our motor car up the drive. Really touching! Now all you intellectual people never have moments like that.'”

    Of course, things don’t go to plan, and Polly rebels in a manner calculated to drive her mother mad. This sets the scene for the introduction of another wonderful character, Cedric, the heir to the Montdore fortune. It was unusual enough in 1949 (the year the book was first published) for a novel to mention homosexuality, but it was revolutionary to have a happy and openly gay character who charms nearly everyone he meets. He even manages to dazzle the Boreleys, a family notorious for its intolerance:

    “‘Well, so then Norma was full of you, just now, when I met her out shopping, because it seems you travelled down from London with her brother Jock yesterday, and now he can literally think of nothing else.’

    ‘Oh, how exciting. How did he know it was me?’

    ‘Lots of ways. The goggles, the piping, your name on your luggage. There is nothing anonymous about you, Cedric . . . He says you gave him hypnotic stares through your glasses.’

    ‘The thing is, he did have rather a pretty tweed on.’

    ‘And then, apparently, you made him get your suitcase off the rack at Oxford, saying you are not allowed to lift heavy things.’

    ‘No, and nor am I. It was very heavy, not a sign of a porter as usual, I might have hurt myself. Anyway, it was all right because he terribly sweetly got it down for me.’

    ‘Yes, and now he’s simply furious that he did. He says you hypnotised him.’

    ‘Oh, poor him, I do so know the feeling.'”

    Then there are Fanny’s eccentric relatives – her wild Uncle Matthew, vague Aunt Sadie, hypochondriacal stepfather Davey, and exuberant little Radlett cousins – with many of these characters inspired by Nancy Mitford’s real family. In addition, the author provides a wickedly funny look at English politics, fashion, marriage and child rearing.

    'The Pursuit of Love' and 'Love in a Cold Climate' by Nancy MitfordLove in a Cold Climate is actually the second book narrated by Fanny. The first, The Pursuit of Love, was published in 1945. I hesitate to call it a prequel, because that would suggest you need to read it first, and I don’t think you do. It stretches over a longer time period, and is mostly the story of Fanny’s cousin and best friend, Linda (Lady Montdore, Polly and Cedric don’t make an appearance in this one, unfortunately). Some readers prefer this first book to the second, but I think it really depends on whether you regard Linda as a tragic romantic heroine or a spoiled, self-centred brat. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m in the latter camp (I really can’t forgive Linda’s treatment of her hapless daughter). I also think this book ends too abruptly – as though the author suddenly got tired of typing. However, there’s a lot of enjoyment in the descriptions of the Radlett family, so if you adore Love in a Cold Climate, you’ll probably like The Pursuit of Love as well. There’s also a BBC television series based on both books, but I haven’t seen it (and it doesn’t appear to be available in Australia).

    I’ve previously written about one of Nancy Mitford’s earlier novels, Wigs on the Green (1935), which is interesting for historical and political reasons, but doesn’t have much literary merit. I cannot recommend The Blessing (1951) at all, because it’s awful. However, it and Don’t Tell Alfred (1960) have recently been re-released with lovely illustrated covers.

    'Noblesse Oblige' edited by Nancy MitfordI can recommend Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy, a biased but very entertaining collection of essays and cartoons about ‘Upper-Class English Usage’, edited by Nancy Mitford and including contributions from Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman. Laura Thompson has also written a biography of Nancy Mitford called Life in a Cold Climate, which discusses all her books and the influences for her novels.

    See also: Meet The Mitfords

    More favourite 1930s/1940s British novels:

    1. The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard
    2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
    3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault

    ‘Dated’ Books, Part Three: The Friendly Young Ladies

    Here is a true story about this book. (You know how people say this, then the story turns out to be not very extraordinary at all? This is one of those stories.)

    When I was fifteen, my family moved house right at the start of the summer holidays, to yet another country town. I didn’t have any school friends, because I’d just arrived, and there didn’t seem to be anyone of my age left in the surrounding streets – they’d all gone somewhere more interesting for the holidays, and besides, I would have been too shy to approach them if they had been around. As a result, I spent the entire summer in the town library. One day, I came across a dark green paperback with an old-fashioned painting on the front cover and ‘Virago’ written on the spine. I had no idea what ‘Virago’ meant, but I thought I’d give this one a go.

    The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary RenaultWell. It was a revelation. The girls in this book weren’t like the girls in any other books I’d read, or even like girls I knew in real life. All the girls I knew thought that the point of life was to make yourself as attractive as possible, so that lots of boys would fall in love with you, whereupon you would choose the most popular boy, fall in love with him, marry him, buy a nice house, fill it with nice objects and have a couple of nice children. I’d never had the slightest interest in doing any of those things, but I’d assumed I would when I finally ‘grew up’. This book dangled in front of me the tantalising possibility that I might grow up and still not want those things. The girls in this book wore whatever they felt like, and sometimes wore nothing at all; had fascinating jobs but no husbands or children; had lots of intriguing, oblique conversations with one another; and lived with their best female friends on houseboats. The word ‘lesbian’ was never mentioned, but I probably wouldn’t have understood it, anyway (it was the eighties, and I was a very unworldly teenager). As it was, quite a lot of the book went over my head, but I didn’t mind. I was absolutely loving swimming around in all that deep, opaque water.

    I had to return the book eventually, but when I went to look for it a few weeks later, it was gone. Stupidly, I hadn’t written down the author’s name, and I couldn’t even recall the title – something about ladies? I wasn’t quite stupid enough to ask the librarian if she could locate ‘the green book about ladies’, but I made attempts to find it over the next few years, at that library, at other libraries, at various bookshops. Then I gave up and almost (but not quite) forgot about it.

    Twenty-five years later, my friend H was on holiday in the UK and browsing through second-hand bookshops.

    “Hey,” she e-mailed me. “I found this great book I think you’ll like. It’s really clever and funny, and it’s set in 1930s England, and it says on the back that it’s the antidote to The Well of Loneliness, so I thought of you straight away! Not that you’re anything like The Well of Loneliness.”

    “I haven’t ever been able to bring myself to read The Well of Loneliness,” I e-mailed back. “Sounds too depressing.” Then something swam up from the depths of my memory. “Hang on. This book isn’t about two girls living a bohemian existence on a houseboat, is it?”

    “Yes, and the little sister of one of them runs away from home and comes to live with them, and there’s this hilariously awful doctor who fancies himself as God’s gift to women and tries to seduce all three of them – for their own good, of course.”

    “This book isn’t green, is it?”

    “Yes, and it’s got a lovely painting of two girls in 1930s clothes on the cover.”

    “And is there a scene where the little sister gets badly sunburnt, so they use green face powder to disguise it?” (For some reason, this was the scene that had stuck with me. Green face powder. Would that really work?)

    “Maybe,” she said. “Haven’t got up to that bit yet. I’ll send it to you when I’ve finished.”

    And it was the very same book – well, the cover was different, but it was still green. It was Mary Renault’s 1944 novel, The Friendly Young Ladies, and it was just as good as I’d remembered. Lots of sharp social satire, and some wonderful insights into the convoluted thoughts and emotions of the characters. For example, here’s the self-satisfied doctor, who sees himself as a saviour of lonely female patients:

    “His dislike of hurting anyone was entirely genuine, as traits which people use for effect often are; and from this it followed that if anyone insisted on being hurt by him, he found the injury hard to forgive.”

    There are also some funny, irreverent comments about writing and publishing. One character, who writes cowboy books, describes herself cheerfully as a “competent hack” and says,

    “Personally I always think people are rather sickening who make out they could write better than they do. It’s like losing a game and then saying you didn’t try.”

    And here she is, complaining about an editor who says he wants to see more romance in her manuscript:

    “I did put a girl in. I’m sure I did. Her name was Susie, or Sadie, or something. And I mentioned her again at the end . . . I always think it would save such a lot of trouble if you could just indicate it with a row of crosses, or BERT LOVES MABEL, or something quick, and get on with the story.”

    So, lots to enjoy – except for the conclusion, which I’d forgotten entirely. And this brings me to why this book is ‘dated’.

    As with The Charioteer, there are no descriptions of any form of sex. In an afterword, written forty years after the book was first published, Renault says,

    “I have sometimes been asked whether I would have written this book more explicitly in a more permissive decade. No; I have always been as explicit as I wanted to be, and have not been much more so in recent books. If characters have come to life, one should know how they will make love; if not it doesn’t matter.”

    That’s interesting, although I don’t agree with her. By her argument, if the characters have come to life in the first half of the book, then the reader ought to know how they’ll interact in the second half, so why bother writing the rest?

    Renault also criticises the “silliness of the ending” of this book. She’s quite right, it is extremely silly, although so are some other aspects of the plot. As a discussion of this involves plot spoilers, I’ve hidden the next three paragraphs. Use your mouse to highlight the blank space (or use your browser to ‘select all’ text) if you’d like to read on.

    It turns out Leonora, the tomboyish elder sister of runaway Elsie, had an unsatisfying sexual experience with her friend Tom when they were both teenagers. As a result, Leo has turned to women, and eventually ends up in a happy, satisfying, long-term partnership with the beautiful, talented Helen, who loves Leo devotedly but not possessively. It seems an ideal relationship, supportive without being suffocating. Leo is also close friends with Joe, who lives up the river from them. He’s handsome, clever, sensitive, a brilliant writer, from a wealthy family but not at all snobbish, able to fish, paddle a canoe, climb mountains, rescue drowning women and build houses with his bare hands. And, in the final chapters, he ‘cures’ Leo of her lesbianism by having (dubiously consensual) sex with her. Then Leo abandons Helen and goes off with him to America.

    I mean, what?!

    Renault thinks the conclusion is silly because Leo and Joe would have a chaotic domestic life, and this would prevent Joe from writing. I think it’s silly because Leo’s previous unsatisfactory heterosexual experiences are due to her being a lesbian, not the other way around, and that Leo abandoning Helen makes absolutely no sense.

    Despite the conclusion, I think this is a terrific read. If you’re interested, Charles Taylor has written a very thoughtful review of the book.

    More ‘dated’ books:

    1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
    2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
    3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
    4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
    5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
    6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
    7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
    8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence

    ‘Dated’ Books, Part Two: The Charioteer

    Is this book ‘dated’? Well, not in the same way as Wigs on the Green. The Charioteer wasn’t out of print for decades, it was never rejected by its author, and it continues to be discussed and admired by readers. However, it is definitely a novel of its time. It’s set during 1940, and was written in the early 1950s. The author, Mary Renault, was a nurse during the Second World War. She looked after soldiers who’d been evacuated from Dunkirk, and she worked in the same sort of hospitals described so vividly in the book. In part, the novel is about the war, about the moral (and occasionally physical) conflict between wounded servicemen and young, male conscientious objectors. However, to quote the summary on the back of my 1968 paperback edition:

    “The theme of this compassionate and deeply understanding novel is homosexual love . . . Each [character] in his own way wrestles to compensate for what he feels to be biological failure.”

    And doesn’t that sound like something out of a 1970s journal for psychotherapists, and make you want to avoid this novel like the plague?

    'The Charioteer' by Mary RenaultBut if you did, you’d be missing out on a compelling story. Yes, this is a deeply serious book, with little of the humour that lights up Renault’s earlier novel, The Friendly Young Ladies. Yes, The Charioteer does go to ridiculous lengths to ‘explain’ (or perhaps ‘excuse’) the homosexual natures of the characters. Most modern readers will feel a bit bemused by the author’s careful explanations that Laurie, the narrator, had a philandering, alcoholic father who abandoned his family; that Ralph’s mother was a religious fanatic who had him flogged as a six-year-old after she caught him ‘discussing anatomy’ with the little girl next door; and that Andrew’s father died before Andrew was born and was probably bisexual. At social gatherings, the characters all sit around and have solemn debates about whether homosexuality should become legal, with one arguing:

    “I didn’t choose to be what I am, it was determined when I wasn’t in a position to exercise any choice and without my knowing what was happening . . . I think we’re all part of nature’s remedy for a state of gross over-population . . . I’m not prepared to let myself be classified with dope-peddlars and prostitutes. Criminals are blackmailed. I’m not a criminal.”

    To which, another retorts:

    “[The authorities have] learned to leave us in peace unless we make public exhibitions of ourselves, but that’s not enough, you start to expect a medal. Hell, can’t we even face the simple fact that if our fathers had been like us, we wouldn’t have been born?”

    (Actually, perhaps this isn’t so dated, after all. The same debate is being played out right now in the Australian parliament, except over same-sex marriage, rather than the decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour. Conservative politicians continue to trot out the ‘But they can’t reproduce!’ line, along with other, equally idiotic, ‘arguments’ against gay and lesbian rights.)

    Anyway, the characters of The Charioteer live in England in 1940, so their lives are ruled by terror. As if the war isn’t bad enough, they’re also terrified of attracting the wrath of the police, their commanding officers, their families and God. Not surprisingly, many of them are suicidal, alcoholic or drug-addicted. Also not surprisingly, they have enormous difficulties being honest with each other. It’s the sort of book in which many of the characters’ problems would be solved if they simply sat down and talked about how they felt. But no, Ralph can’t tell Laurie he’s in love with him, because he thinks it will turn young Laurie gay. Laurie can’t tell Andrew he’s in love with him, because he thinks Andrew is too religious to cope with the knowledge. Ralph still can’t tell Laurie he’s in love with him, years later, because he knows Laurie is in love with Andrew. Andrew can’t tell Laurie he’s attracted to him because . . . Arrgh! It made me want to smack them all over the head. Still, I kept turning the pages, desperate to find out what would happen next. And the writing is superb – thoughtful, rich, beautifully-paced. The only issue I had with it was the coy fade-to-black whenever anything sexual happened, which again, is probably due to when the book was written. Perhaps the publishers censored it; perhaps the author censored herself? Still, after Laurie obsessively describing every thought, word and eye twitch during his interactions with Ralph and Andrew, it seemed bizarre that when he finally went to bed with one of them, there was a big blank in the narrative. I doubt a modern writer would have flinched at describing the scene (for example, see The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, set during the same period but published in 2006). Surely how these two men interact in bed is just as significant to the story as how they act when they’re eating a meal together in public?

    So, yes, The Charioteer is ‘dated’. However, it’s an authentic depiction of the experiences of gay men during the Second World War, and I found it impossible to put down.

    More ‘dated’ books:

    1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
    2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
    3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
    4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
    5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
    6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
    7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
    8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence