‘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

Happy Birthday, Severus Snape!

Birthday greetings to Professor Snape, everyone’s favourite Potions Master, who would be fifty-one today if he hadn’t been involved in that unfortunate incident with Nagini in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. He’s a Capricorn, and therefore unlikely to attend his own birthday party because Capricorns “despise wasting [their] valuable time and resources on fun and levity that yield no tangible returns.” (Oh, what a coincidence, I’m a Capricorn, too. Of course, I don’t believe in all that astrological rubbish, because we Capricorns are consistently logical and rational.)

I’ve been a fan of Snape’s since the first book, because I figured anyone who was that mean to poor little Harry had to have some very good reasons for it and must secretly be on the side of Good. Then ALAN RICKMAN was cast to play Snape in the films (oh, that voice)! Is it really any wonder that Snape is now one of the most popular characters in the Harry Potter fandom?

To celebrate, why not dress up as Severus Snape, bake a Severus Snape birthday cake, knit your own ‘delightfully grumpy’ Severus Snape doll, purchase a Severus Snape LEGO keychain or hack into his Hogwarts e-mail inbox.

Happy birthday, Severus! We love you, even if Lily didn’t!

My Favourite Books of 2010

Lots of bloggers are listing their best and worst books of the year, and I’d like to join in. I do have a few problems, though. Firstly, I don’t keep a record of what I’ve read or when I’ve read it, so I’m not entirely certain whether some of these books were read this year, or at the end of last year. Secondly, I’m not going to name any books that I’ve disliked. It is true that I’ve been disappointed by a few books I’ve read recently. In each case, I’d been expecting something great, either because I’d liked previous books by that author, or because there’d been a lot of hype about the book. However, it isn’t the authors’ fault that my expectations didn’t match their books, so I don’t think I ought to criticise them for it. Thirdly, this year has been a bit unusual for me, with respect to my reading. I spent the first few months working my way through two enormous boxes of Australian YA fiction (and some non-fiction), because I was helping to judge a literary award. Then, for the rest of the year, I was immersed in non-fiction about World War Two (with some British 1930s and wartime novels for light relief). Here, then, is a list of the books I remember enjoying (or being intrigued by) this year.

Australian YA Fiction

When The Hipchicks Went To WarI loved Pamela Rushby’s When the Hipchicks Went To War, which won this year’s Ethel Turner Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. It’s a moving account of a teenage girl who goes to Vietnam to entertain the troops, told in a fresh, funny and very Australian voice. I enjoyed all the books on the shortlist for this prize (which is not very surprising, because I helped select the shortlist). I also liked Blue Noise by Debra Oswald. It’s an engaging story about some high schoolers who start a band, with an ending that was hopeful without being too neat or saccharine (also, hooray for an Australian book that is not set in a country town, and a story that does not rely on a teenage girl getting murdered or killing herself). I was also fond of Keepinitreal by Don Henderson (imagine the film The Castle, but with greyhound racing) and The Visconti House by Elsbeth Edgar (an old-fashioned mystery about an intriguing house and its former owner, featuring some beautiful writing).

Other Fiction

I must have read lots of other novels this year, but only two (well, three) remain in my thoughts. The Believers by Zoë Heller has had mixed reviews, but I thought it was terrific. I admit that the characters are extremely unlikeable, and I did find the conclusion to Rosa’s story irritating and implausible. However, I was intrigued enough by this very dysfunctional New York family that I re-read the book, and I enjoyed it even more the second time.

The Night WatchThe other novel that stuck in my mind was The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. Really, this book deserves a blog post all of its own. Suffice to say it’s the story of four people living in London during the Blitz, linked in ways that only become apparent at the end of the book, due to the very clever structure of the narrative. This was the first Sarah Waters book I’d read, and I was so impressed by her writing that I raced out and bought The Little Stranger. Which I did not like nearly as much (see what I mean about high expectations), even though it’s a very well-plotted ghost story with a fascinating setting (a crumbling country house in post-war England).

World War Two Non-Fiction

I read a LOT of books about wartime Europe this year, but it was for research purposes – I was interested in facts, not the literary qualities of the books. However, a few of them stood out because they were not only useful, but interesting and well-written enough to appeal to (some) general readers. Firstly, The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary was a fascinating, heart-breaking (and occasionally infuriating) memoir of a young RAF pilot who was shot down and badly injured during the Battle of Britain. The Last EnemyThe book gives an unsentimental account of his medical rehabilitation (his hands and face were surgically reconstructed by the pioneering plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe) and it describes Hillary’s evolving views on the war. The story is made more poignant by the fact that Hillary somehow managed to talk his way back into the air force (despite having only limited movement in his hands) and then crashed his plane during re-training, dying at the age of twenty-three. For a more general overview of Britain’s fighter pilots during WWII, I recommend Patrick Bishop’s Fighter Boys, which paints a vivid portrait of the individual (and very young) men who helped prevent Britain’s invasion in 1940. I also liked The Freedom Line by Peter Eisner, about the underground resistance in Belgium and France rescuing Allied airmen who’d been shot down over Nazi-occupied territory.

The best book I read about the experiences of civilians was Wartime: Britain 1939-1945 by Juliet Gardiner. Somehow, she managed to describe every aspect of wartime life, from rationing to the Blitz to the ‘invasion’ of Britain by American servicemen, in a way that was clear, coherent and accessible. However, at eight hundred pages, this book is probably only for those with a deep interest in the subject. For others, I recommend Keep Smiling Through: The Home Front 1939-45 by Susan Briggs, an intriguing collection of photos, cartoons, advertisements and newspaper articles from the war years, with just enough comment to provide context.

Other Non-Fiction

The God DelusionI think I only read two non-fiction books this year that weren’t about WWII, but they were both amazing. First was Kill Khalid: Mossad’s failed hit and the rise of Hamas by Paul McGeough. It reads like a thriller, but also explains the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. By the end of the book, I had a much better understanding of Middle Eastern politics, and felt thoroughly pessimistic about peace ever being achieved in that part of the world. Secondly, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins was, as I’d expected, a clear, rational argument for atheism. What I didn’t expect was that this book would be so entertaining, inspiring and plain laugh-out-loud funny. Admittedly, I’m an atheist, but I really feel this is an important book for everyone to read, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Phew! I seem to have read a lot of Very Serious Books this year, but this really wasn’t a typical reading year for me. I’m also sure I’ve left out some wonderful books that I’ve simply forgotten (due to my brain being over-stuffed with Very Serious Thoughts). What I have decided is that, from the first of January, I’m going to write down the title of each book I read, with a very short comment. I already have some book titles for my 2011 pile, including:

India Dark by Kirsty Murray
Monster Blood Tattoo Book Three: Factotum by D. M. Cornish
Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley
Anonymity Jones by James Roy
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

and possibly, Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, depending on how brave I’m feeling.

Hope you’ve all had a great reading year, and that 2011 brings you lots of smart, enthralling and inspiring books!

ARCs

I am feeling very Oscar the Grouch because I’ve just seen ARCs of the American edition of The FitzOsbornes in Exile for sale, for almost twice the price of the real book, five months before publication date. This is not the first time this has happened.

An ARC, for the uninitiated, is an Advance Reader’s Copy of a book. It’s a set of uncorrected typeset pages of the book, bound into paperback form, usually with an early version of the cover art on the front. The first page of the ARC gives information about the book’s publication date, price and other bits of information useful for librarians, booksellers and reviewers (who receive ARCs for free). The ARCs of Random House books also include this notice:

“ATTENTION, READER: THESE ARE UNCORRECTED ADVANCE PROOFS BOUND FOR REVIEW PURPOSES. All trim sizes, page counts, months of publication, and prices should be considered tentative and subject to change without notice. Please check publication information and any quotations against the bound copy of the book. We urge this for the sake of editorial accuracy as well as for your legal protection and ours.”

And then, on the front cover of the ARC, it says “NOT FOR SALE”. Which some recipients of ARCs interpret to mean “YAY! LET’S SELL THIS ON-LINE! FREE MONEY FOR ME!” Even worse, according to Liz B. from Tea Cozy, some librarians in the US are actually putting ARCs on their library shelves, rather than buying the proper book.

Here’s why authors get grouchy about this:

1. Authors don’t earn any money from sales of ARCs. The ARC is produced by publishers and given away free for publicity purposes. A sale of an ARC is not counted towards book sales figures, and it doesn’t earn the author any royalties. Most authors are not rich. They need all the book sales they can get.

2. People buying ARCs are not buying the proper book. They are buying a cheap, flimsy paperback that will fall apart after a couple of reads, instead of a beautifully-produced hardcover.

But, most importantly,

3. An ARC contains grammatical errors, unchecked facts, weird spellings, odd typesetting and many other problems. It is not the final version of the book. My publishers and I go to lots of trouble to proof-read the typeset pages of my books before they are printed, and I want readers to read the corrected, final book, not an ARC. I certainly don’t want readers paying inflated prices for a book full of errors, not when the book has my name on the cover.

So, if you’re a book blogger, professional reviewer or librarian reading this, and you’re wondering what to do with all those ARCs you’ve received – don’t sell them. And don’t give them to someone else who’s going to sell them. If you do, don’t be surprised if the authors and publishers involved get very cross with you.

And while I’m having a whinge – what’s with all those book reviews I’ve been reading lately where the reviewer hasn’t even seen the final copy of the book? For example, a recent review of a YA novel (which I am not going to name, because I don’t think that’s fair to the author or the book) complained about editing problems in the book, then admitted:

“As this review has been assessed from an uncorrected proof, my comments in relation to editing issues need to be considered in this light.”

Well, why didn’t you wait until you could assess the final book, then? This review appeared in a published journal, and its readers want to know about the final, published book, not some earlier, uncorrected version!

Right. Now I’ve got that off my furry, green chest, I’m climbing back inside my trash can for a nap.

Top Ten Girls in Fiction

Earlier this year, CMIS Evaluation Fiction Focus listed their “top 10 female protagonists in recent Australian YA literature”, to mark the occasion of Australia’s first female Prime Minister being sworn in to office. I was chuffed to see my very own Sophie FitzOsborne make the list, and it got me thinking about my own favourite fictional girls.

I found it surprisingly difficult to come up with ten of them, though. There are a lot of great girl characters in my favourite books, but often they had some fatal flaw that kicked them off my list. For example, Hermione in the Harry Potter series is clever, hard-working and loyal to Harry – but has an inexplicable fondness for Ron Weasley, a boy who spends six books mocking her intelligence, forgets to ask her to the Yule Ball and shows a complete lack of regard for her feelings (I pretend that the epilogue to Book Seven doesn’t exist). Here’s my final list, although I didn’t restrict myself to “recent”, “Australian” or “YA” fiction.

1. Myra in Apple Bough (Traveling Shoes in the US) by Noel Streatfeild

Myra broke my heart when I read this book as a ten-year-old. Myra, a “funny, solemn little thing”, is the eldest child of the Forum family, and the only one without any discernible artistic or musical talent. Her brother Sebastian is a musical prodigy touring the world and earning millions; Wolfgang is a child actor; Ettie is a celebrated dancer. All Myra wants is to live at Apple Bough, the family home, with her dog Wag, but both of these are taken away from her by Sebastian’s career – yet she still unselfishly looks after Sebastian, Wolf and Ettie for years. Myra finally starts to realise how important she is to her whole family after her perceptive grandfather tells her,

“You have a trouble which is unique in your family. You underestimate yourself.”

(Yes, Myra is finally re-united with Wag. Thank goodness.)

2. Claudia in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

Claudia is imaginative and sensitive enough to want to escape the “injustice” and “monotony”of her suburban life, but she’s smart and organised enough to plan her running-away down to the smallest detail. She’s also absolutely hilarious in her attempts to control her uncontrollable little brother. I love how Claudia grows up (with some help from Mrs Frankweiler and ‘Angel’) at the end of the book.

3. Cassandra in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Cassandra can be an infuriating snob (for example, see her horrible treatment of Stephen), but she’s so honest and curious about life, and so charming and articulate, that most of the time, I can overlook her flaws. It helps that she loves books as much as I do, and that she has a couple of adorable pets in Heloise and Abelard. And that she lives in a castle.

4. Nona in Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden

I just adore Nona. Despite feeling shy and miserable and lost, she devotes herself to building a dollhouse for poor, homeless Miss Happiness and Miss Flower – an authentic Japanese dollhouse, even though Nona initially knows nothing about Japan. By the end of the book, Nona has drawn together not only her new family, but half the neighbourhood. She’s such an inspiration.

5. Madlyn in The Beasts of Clawstone Castle by Eva Ibbotson

Madlyn is a “very pretty” blonde who loves shopping (which is usually enough to stop me liking a girl character), but she’s also smart, sensible and caring, particularly when it comes to her eccentric little brother:

“She soothed him when stupid people asked after his skunk instead of his skink; she stopped the cleaning lady from throwing away the snails he kept in a jar under his bed; and when he had a nightmare she was beside him almost as soon as he woke.”

Madlyn doesn’t really want to spend two months at gloomy old Clawstone Castle, but she doesn’t complain about it, and she comes up with an ingenious plan to save the threatened Beasts. She’s also very brave during the terrifying showdown with the villains.

6. Brownie in The Hole in the Hill by Ruth Park

Another elder sister (I am sensing a theme here), who’s smart, responsible, and practical. Brownie’s also quietly courageous – for example, when necessary, she grits her teeth and walks along a ledge under a gigantic waterfall, even though she’s terrified of heights. At the start of the book, her father says, “Good grief, you kids of today have no more initiative than a jellyfish”, but by the end of their adventures, he’s forced to eat his words. Go, Brownie!

7. Jo in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Is there anyone who actually prefers Meg or Amy or Beth? Okay, Jo should have married Laurie instead of that old German guy, but in every other way, Jo March is awesome.

8. Sophie in Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

Only a girl as thoughtful, inquisitive and imaginative as Sophie could possibly make sense of all those mysterious letters and postcards that arrive in her mailbox (or in her hedge, on her bedroom floor or stuck to the kitchen window). She’s not afraid to question her teachers and her mother during her search for philosophical truth, and she has a great sense of humour. I also really like Sophie’s real-world ally, Hilde.

9. Anaximander in Genesis by Bernard Beckett

All right, I’m taking some liberties with the definition of ‘girl’ here, but as Anaximander is described as young and female, I think she counts. Her compassion, intelligence and determination to uncover the truth is inspiring – or it would be, if we didn’t slowly realise where it was leading her. (Oh, that book’s conclusion!)

10. Agatha in Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler

Agatha is possibly my favourite Anne Tyler character ever, which is really saying something. She’s another eldest child, left to look after her siblings by hopeless parents, but unlike Madlyn, “Agatha never concerned herself with appearances”. She’s bullied by her classmates, but by high school, she’s “supremely indifferent, impervious” to them (“You could tell she thought prettiness was a waste of time”). However, the main reason I love Agatha is her ferocious intelligence. She’ll take on anyone in an argument – even God. Here she is having a theological debate with her Uncle Ian, who’s getting rather flustered because he’s losing:

“‘Agatha,’ Ian said, ‘there’s a great deal in the Bible that’s simply beyond our understanding.’
‘Beyond yours, maybe,’ Agatha said.”

She ends up becoming an oncologist, marries a handsome, charming doctor, and earns piles of money. I just wish there’d been a final scene where she attends a school re-union.

‘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

‘Dated’ Books, Part One: Wigs on the Green

Some time ago, a fellow Australian writer described one of my books as ‘dated’ (in fact, she stated in her blog that she was going to re-read that particular book so she could learn how NOT to write a novel). ‘Dated’ was an interesting word to use, and I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant by it. If a book was deliberately set in the past, wasn’t it a good thing that the story was ‘of its time’ (assuming that’s what the writer meant by ‘dated’)? Shouldn’t a book set in a particular time show what those people thought and read and did? How could it be a bad thing for a book about the past to reflect the attitudes of the period?

Wigs on the Green by Nancy MitfordWell, I’m still not sure about the writer’s comments and that particular book of mine. However, I’ve recently read a couple of books that even the authors felt had ‘dated’ badly – and I think I agree with the authors. The first book is Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford, written in 1935. She wasn’t famous then, and the book attracted lukewarm reviews and modest sales. It wasn’t until the enormous success of The Pursuit of Love in 1945 that anyone became interested in re-releasing Wigs on the Green. But Nancy Mitford refused to allow re-publication. The world had changed and the book was now in “the worst of taste”, she wrote to her friend Evelyn Waugh. Nearly forty years after her death, a new edition of the book, with an introduction by Charlotte Mosley, has just been published, and it’s fascinating – in an awful sort of way.

Wigs on the Green is a satire about Fascism, written back in the days when Hitler was still a funny little man with a silly moustache, and Mussolini was much admired for making Italian trains run on time. The novel is set in a peaceful English village, and the main character, Eugenia Malmains, bears a close resemblance to Nancy Mitford’s sister, Unity. Eugenia makes impassioned speeches on an overturned wash-tub on the village green, forces the villagers to join her beloved ‘Union Jackshirt’ movement, and eventually organises a ‘Social Unionist’ pageant that turns violent after her supporters are viciously attacked by local ‘Pacifists’. The other characters seem to have escaped from a P G Wodehouse novel. There’s a weak-willed young man whose aunt has left him a small fortune, his caddish friend, a snobby (and stupid) girl fleeing her engagement to a duke, an ambitious (and stupid) society hostess, and a couple of dotty old aristocrats. Compared to these people, Eugenia is, at least, sincere and hard-working. Perhaps it was this ambivalence, this refusal to condemn Eugenia outright, that Nancy Mitford was worried about? On the other hand, Mitford gives Eugenia plenty of mad speeches, outlining the ridiculous policies of the Fascists. Here’s Eugenia, for example, giving some relationship advice to her cousin:

“She turned to Poppy and said, ‘If your husband is an Aryan you should be able to persuade him that it is right to live together and breed; if he is a filthy non-Aryan it may be your duty to leave him and marry Jackshirt Aspect. I am not sure about this, we want no immorality in the Movement …'”

This is after Eugenia has explained to Poppy and her potential husband, Jasper, that:

“‘A non-Aryan is the missing link between man and beast. That can be proved by the fact that no animals, except the Baltic goose, have blue eyes.’
‘How about Siamese cats?’ said Jasper.
‘That’s true. But Siamese cats possess, to a notable degree, the Nordic virtue of faithfulness.'”

Clearly, the author is making fun of Fascist ideology, but what was funny in 1935 is not so funny now, after the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

There were also personal reasons why the author might have wanted to pretend the book had never existed. Its initial publication led to a rift between Nancy and her sister Diana, who married Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. Diana spent much of the war in prison (Nancy’s own testimony helped put Diana there), and Unity shot herself in the head when war was declared. Fascism tore the Mitford family apart, so it’s not surprising that Nancy Mitford might have become reluctant to laugh at her own jokes about it.

Well, whatever the author’s motivation for not wanting the book re-published, Penguin has now released it (as well as four other Mitford novels) with a very nice illustrated cover. Yes, it’s ‘dated’. Apart from the Fascist jokes, there’s racism (people from Uruguay being called ‘fuzzy wuzzies’, et cetera), as well as blatant misogyny. The plot is predictable, and most of the characters are boring and unlikeable. If you haven’t read any of Nancy Mitford’s writing and want to try some, please don’t start with this book (I recommend Love in a Cold Climate). However, if you’re a Mitford fan, you might find this one really interesting – because, rather than in spite of, its ‘datedness’.

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

Just A Girls’ Book

So, I was reading the latest edition of Viewpoint and came across a review of India Dark, Kirsty Murray’s new novel. This book has been on my To Read list ever since I heard of it, because a) it’s by Kirsty Murray, b) it’s set in India and c) it’s historical fiction based on a fascinating true story, all of which suggest it will be an excellent read. The review, by Tony Thompson, was very positive, but then, towards the end, he had this to say:

“It would be tempting to suggest this is a book for girls but I think that would diminish a novel that is told with such skill and precision.”

William-Adolphe Bouguereau's La leçon difficule (The Difficult Lesson)Yep. You see, books told with ‘skill and precision’ are wasted on girls. To give such a book to girls would ‘diminish’ the book, because, as everyone knows, girls can’t cope with complex plots, rich language or vividly-described settings. Only boys have the vocabularies, reading comprehension skills and attention spans that are required to read and understand a well-written novel.

Yes, I am being sarcastic, Mr Thompson. But what’s that you say?

“. . . astute English teachers will recognize that, despite the female narrators, this is a book that will appeal strongly to the boys in the class . . .”

So, boys ought to be given a chance to read this book, despite the fact that it contains characters who are (ugh!) girls. But only ‘astute’ English teachers will recognise this, because apparently it takes a huge amount of wisdom to see that boys might benefit from learning about the other half of the human population.

Of course, English teachers, astute or otherwise, don’t seem to have any problem making girls read books about boys. When I was in senior high school (a quarter of a century ago), only one female writer existed – Jane Austen. There were no female poets, playwrights, short story writers or contemporary novelists in the English-speaking world, according to our syllabus. The current list of texts for New South Wales senior high school students shows some improvement, but in junior high school, texts about boys still predominate. The thinking seems to be that, as boys are more likely to be reluctant and/or poor readers, they must always be indulged at the expense of girls. Girls will read anyway. Besides, it doesn’t matter so much about their academic skills, because they don’t have to get a job – they’ll get married and be supported by their husband. (Don’t laugh – this is what I was told by the parents of one of my students, a girl who’d just been identified as having learning difficulties).

I understand that teachers need to consider many issues, including themes and language, when they’re selecting books for their students. I just don’t see why the gender of the characters is only an issue when the characters are female. Teachers don’t often say, ‘I can’t give this book to my co-ed class – the narrator is a boy!’

It’s depressing enough that the Children’s Book Council awards so often seem to privilege stories about boys over stories about girls. But do we also have to read patronising reviews about ‘girl’ books that are so good, even boys might like them? That’s insulting to both girls and boys.

EDITED TO ADD: Two pages on in Viewpoint is yet another male reviewer who has interesting views on girls and books. Here’s Malcolm Tattersall reviewing Kate Elliott’s alternate history/fantasy novel, Cold Magic:

“One aspect of Cold Magic will be a problem for half its potential readers and a strength for the other half: it is intrinsically a girls’ book. That is apparent on the surface level in the protagonist’s clothes-consciousness and romantic crushes, but it also pervades deeper levels, in the greater significance accorded to relationships than to deeds and Catherine’s ongoing, if unarticulated, struggle for self-determination in a male-dominated world.”

I haven’t read the book, but . . . really? Boys never have ‘romantic crushes’? They never care about what they’re wearing? They have no interest in relationships? They never struggle for their own self-determination? And they have no interest in reading about someone else’s struggle for self-determination?

You’d think boys and girls belonged to completely different species, reading this. Maybe I just give teenage boys more credit than these reviewers do.

UPDATE: Just A Girls’ Book, Redux

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This series is one of my favourite comfort reads, and has the added benefit of being set before and during the Second World War (this means that I can pretend I’m re-reading it for ‘research purposes’).

It won’t be to the taste of those who expect novels to be tightly plotted, with a single protagonist whose goal is clearly stated on the first page and achieved by the last. However, for those of us who love rambling, realistic family sagas set in a fascinating period of history, these books are just about perfect.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane HowardThe first book, The Light Years, introduces the Cazalets, a middle-class English family who are rich enough to own houses in both London and Sussex; to send their sons to expensive ‘public’ schools and hire a governess for their daughters; and to have a large number of maids, kitchen staff, gardeners, chauffeurs and secretaries. The story is told from the point of view of all three generations of Cazalets, as well as various servants, friends and mistresses, which does make things confusing at first. Who is the eldest out of the Cazalet brothers? Is Christopher the cousin of Teddy or Simon? On my first (and even my second) reading, I often found myself having to refer to the family tree and the list of characters at the front of the book. However, once all that was sorted out, I was drawn to the teenage Cazalet girls: melodramatic Louise, who longs to be an actress; kind-hearted Polly, who dreads the idea of another war; and plain, clumsy Clary, who hates her stepmother, brother, cousins and practically everyone else in the world, but has a vivid imagination and a wonderfully honest outlook on life (as you can tell, she’s my favourite). The girls’ worries, resentments, dreams, tragedies and triumphs are beautifully portrayed. Their parents are equally realistic, but less easy to like. They vote Tory, believe the British Empire will last forever, think of women as weak, intellectually-inferior beings, have a vague dislike of Jews . . . all typical attitudes of their class and time, but it doesn’t make them very endearing to most modern readers. However, this attention to historical accuracy is one of the strengths of the series. The author describes everything, from what people ate for breakfast, to how they reacted to the Munich Crisis of 1938, so clearly yet so unobtrusively. (This may be because a lot of the story is autobiographical.)

The second book, Marking Time, begins when war is declared. The women and children move into the family’s country house and most of the men join the forces. By the third book, Confusion, tragedy has hit the family hard and the girls are embarking on adult life with various degrees of success and happiness. Both books examine war from the perspective of women and girls, and are absolutely fascinating. I also like some of the new characters who appear – for example, Stella Rose and her family, who moved to England from Austria before the war.

The final book, Casting Off, is set in the immediate post-war years, and wraps up the story for each of the characters, not always realistically. I devoured this book, just as I did the others, but it does consist mostly of ‘then X married Y’ – unless X had been unhappily married, in which case it’s ‘then X divorced Y’. Polly’s story is particularly silly, but even Clary’s happy ending doesn’t seem all that believable to me. Still, the male characters who’d been getting away with horrible behaviour for years (specifically, Edward and his nasty son Teddy) do get their comeuppance in this book, which made me very happy – however unrealistic it might have been.

The Cazalet novels were made into a BBC television series, which I haven’t seen, and I’m also curious about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s memoir, Slipstream.

EDITED TO ADD: BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a series based on the Cazalet books in 2013 (thanks to Jed for the link). This interview with Elizabeth Jane Howard also says, “It looks as if 2013 will be the year of Howard’s maturation: while the nation tunes into the story of the Cazalets, Howard will be finishing the fifth volume of the Chronicle.”

See here for my thoughts on All Change, the fifth volume of the Cazalet Chronicles and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s final novel.

Romance Without Kissing

Booklist has published a list of their Top 10 Romance Fiction for Youth for 2010, and they’ve very kindly included A Brief History of Montmaray. As lovely as it is to see my book on any list of favourite books, I can’t help wondering why readers keep attaching the word ‘romance’ to it. The new Australian paperback edition features six snippets of reviews on the cover, and three of them, including the most prominent one on the front, mention some version of the ‘r’ word. Look up A Brief History of Montmaray in most catalogues, and it’ll be listed under ‘historical romance’.

A Brief History of MontmarayBut how can A Brief History of Montmaray be a romance when there’s no kissing? When it contains no mutual confessions of ardent love, no marriage proposals, not so much as an invitation to a dance? But wait, what exactly is a romance? The Romantic Novelists’ Association gives a confused definition that suggests it’s anything where the love story is the most important part of the plot. Others claim that the novel’s conflict and conclusion must be about the romantic relationship between the main characters, that the primary aim of the heroine must be to find (and keep) true love, and that it must have a happy ending. I admit that poor Sophie does spend quite a bit of the first half of A Brief History of Montmaray pining after a young man, but it can’t be said that her feelings are in any way requited, and subsequent events make any romantic musings of hers pretty much irrelevant – she’s too busy running for her life.

Well, then, it’s definitely NOT a romance. Why, the very suggestion makes me feel like Kate Beaton’s version of Jane Austen.

A Brief History of Montmaray is not a romance!’ I huff. ‘It’s a serious novel about the political implications of the clash between Fascism and Communism in 1930s Europe! What? Yes, all right, there might be a castle in it. And princesses. And dark family secrets and . . . Never mind about that. It’s definitely not a romance! Here, I’ll prove it. These are the words my thesaurus lists as synonyms for ‘romantic’: sentimental, mawkish, saccharine, syrupy, mushy, gooey, corny, sappy, soppy. See, my book is not those. Also, the thesaurus says: fanciful, head-in-the-clouds, starry-eyed, optimistic, hopeful . . . Bother. That’s Sophie. All right, then. A Brief History of Montmaray is a serious political novel that happens to have a romantic heroine. But there’s still no kissing.’

So, not a romance. I know Jane Austen would agree with me, if only she hadn’t been driven to drink by the horrible things people are doing to her books . . .