My reading year

In 2020 I enjoyed reviewing some excellent biographies and memoirs, as well as re-reading one of my favourite mid-twentieth-century novels; below are ten of the personal highlights of my reading year.

On 17 January 2020 my essay ‘Cursed with hearts and brains’ featured on the front cover of the Times Literary Supplement. I reviewed three group biographies about mid-twentieth century female writers, including Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars, a compelling study of the quest for creative freedom told through the interwar lives of Virginia Woolf, H.D., Dorothy L. Sayers and Cambridge scholars Jane Ellen Harrison and Eileen Power. Wade makes the case that their time spent in Mecklenburgh Square links the five women, and for each of them it represented independence, a struggle to be taken seriously as a woman writer and a search for a different way of life.  D.J. Taylor’s stylishly written Lost Girls: Love, War and Literature 1939-1951 covers the twelve-year life of Horizon, the literary magazine Cyril Connolly founded with Stephen Spender. Intelligent, sharp and guileful, Connolly had a charm that he used on women like a weapon, and he drew on a favoured coterie of friends for contributions to his magazine, including George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. Horizon published few women writers, but after the war Sonia Brownell took over the day-to-day running of the magazine until her brief, sad marriage to the dying Orwell.

‘Belfast and my childhood have made me suspicious of faiths, allegiances, certainties,’ Brian Moore wrote. ‘It is time to leave home.’ In the spring 2020 issue of Slightly Foxed I wrote about Moore’s first published novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955). My essay ‘Coming Home’ centred on how the novel’s postwar Belfast setting was placed on the map of world literature.  The central character Miss Hearne has little money, so she walks or takes the bus everywhere, and we see the city through her eyes: the grim bedsit she lives in, the grand avenues and pompous city hall, and the gracious university quarter to which she escapes, once a week, to bask in the warmth of a family home. Moore’s biographer Patricia Craig describes how the novelist relished ‘the contradictions that – for him – underscored his independence. First as an Irishman living in Canada, and later as a Canadian citizen who made his home on America’s Pacific Coast, he evaded categorisation by nationality, or affinity.’ My essay is reproduced with Slightly Foxed’s kind permission on my blog here.

In April 2020 my review of Endell Street: The Trailblazing Women Who Ran World War One’s Most Remarkable Military Hospital by Wendy Moore was published in The Guardian. It’s a fascinating book about the women who ran a busy military hospital in London’s Covent Garden during WW1. The all-female team of doctors, trained nurses and orderlies saved thousands of British soldiers from death, permanent disability and the effects of shellshock. Unlike any other military hospital, Endell Street’s wards were decorated with colourful quilts, reading lamps and fresh flowers, and the soldiers accepted the women’s authority and holistic approach to medicine. “What for should we be wanting male doctors here?” one Scottish patient asked. You can read my review here.

Memoirs I enjoyed this year include Norma Clarke’s Not Speaking and Julie Welch’s Fleet Street Ladies, both reviewed by me for the TLS. In June 2020 the Dublin Review of Books published my essay (available to read online here) on Deirdre Bair’s memoir Parisian Lives, about Bair’s (at times) difficult relationship with her first biographical subject, the Irish writer Samuel Beckett. ‘I will neither help nor hinder you,’ Beckett told her when they first met in Paris. ‘My friends and family will assist you and my enemies will find you soon enough.’ Her Samuel Beckett: A Biography (1978) was not a critical success: academic American male critics in particular felt outraged that this unknown female journalist had dared to take on such a serious literary subject.  But Bair’s reputation as a biographer was confirmed when she received the USA’s prestigious National Book Award in 1981. She recalled how one publisher offered her a contract to write a biography of anyone she liked, convinced that she could ‘tackle anyone Irish or even Virginia Woolf.’

In September 2020 History Today published my article ‘The Lessons of shell shock’, marking 100 years since the Tavistock Clinic first opened its doors at 51 Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury, London. ‘My dream has come true’, said its founder, the Scottish neurologist Hugh Crichton-Miller, who with six other doctors worked pro bono to treat the early signs of mental illness in members of the general public. The idea that ordinary people could benefit from psychological techniques used in wartime to treat traumatized soldiers was promoted as early as 1917, in a best-selling little book called Shell-Shock and its lessons. In 1922 Cambridge’s Ida Darwin served alongside Hugh Crichton-Miller on the National Council for Mental Hygiene which later became part of the National Association of Mental Health, known today as Mind.   

On 13 November my essay ‘Let her be Ariadne,’ on the poet Sylvia Plath, featured on the TLS’s front cover along with a large photograph of someone called Joe Biden, who happened to be in the news that week. My review included Heather Clark’s Red Comet (2020), a well researched and beautifully written biography that traces Plath’s development as a writer in America and England, revealing her to be an ambitious, resilient and supremely talented artist. I also enjoyed Sylvia Plath in Context (CUP, 2019), a collection of thirty-four essays on Plath’s life and work edited by Tracy Brain. It’s a well-edited selection that indicates the wide range and ongoing relevance of current Plath studies. A few years ago, the American writer and actor Lena Dunham asked her many social media followers what Plath’s novel The Bell Jar meant to them. Her favourite response was “it made me feel less alone”.

In December 2020 History Today published my review of Sarah Lonsdale’s excellent group biography Rebel Women Between The Wars (MUP, 2020). I particularly enjoyed her chapter on the mountaineer Dorothy Pilley, who in 1921 co-founded the Pinnacle Club to promote the subversive practice of ‘manless climbing’. I’m delighted that his all-woman club will be celebrating its centenary in 2021, and I will be exploring Pilley’s Cambridge connection in my next post. Meanwhile, thank you for reading my blog, and I wish you all a very happy and healthy new year.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 31 December 2021

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