Books of the year 2, and 2023 nonfiction

In the overheated summer of 2022 in the UK, I enjoyed reading about the lively group of bohemians who gathered in Polly’s yellow-walled basement restaurant in Greenwich Village, New York in 1913. ‘It’s what makes the Village the Village, this contagious buzz, sitting elbow to elbow with artists and radicals and waiting for the chef, an anarchist poet, to bang down your plate of goulash or liver and onions with his signature hiss “bourgeois pigs,“‘ Joanna Scutts writes. Her new book Hotbed: Bohemian New York and the Secret Club that Sparked Modern Feminism (pictured above) is a lively account of the women who founded an influential debating society, ‘Heterodoxy’ in 1912. Most of these women were college-educated, with rare degrees in law, medicine and the social sciences, and many went on to play important roles in campaigning for workers’ rights, improved access to birth control and anti-lynching crusades. “What women I met! What fights I joined! How many speeches I made!,” Inez Irwin recalled. “But best of all – what women I met!” My TLS review is here.

Two nineteenth-century American sisters who helped to enable women to study and practise medicine around the world were Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, the subjects of  the prize-winning double biography The Doctors Blackwell by Janice P. Nimura (WW Norton, paperback, 2022). Their English parents emigrated to America in 1832, and studious Elizabeth, the older sister, became a medical pioneer almost in spite of herself. ‘Medicine had not been an obvious choice for a young woman who equated illness with weakness, cared little for anyone beyond the circle of her eight siblings, and preferred the life of the mind to the functions of the body, which she found, quite frankly, disgusting,’ Nimura writes. Nevertheless, Elizabeth was determined to prove that women were as intellectually able as men, and she became the first woman in America to gain an M.D. in 1849, followed five years later by her sister Emily. In the decades that followed, Elizabeth, who remains the better known of the two, ‘would make greater use of her pen than her medical instruments,’ and her words were certainly powerful; the course of lectures she gave in London in 1859 directly inspired one twenty-two-year-old in the audience, Elizabeth Garrett, to train and qualify as a doctor, the first woman in Britain to do so. The other Blackwell sister, ‘plainspoken, understated Emily’ would spend her life as a practising physician, surgeon and instructor, and inspire many women by her practical example. The Doctors Blackwell is a moving and engaging book gives both sisters their due.

In the long, misty dog walks of autumn 2022 I happily immersed myself in the audio version of Anna Beer’s latest book, Eve Bites Back (Oneworld, 2022) with its passionate, call-to-arms introduction.  ‘It is not enough simply to refresh the stocks of English literature with works by women,’ Beer reminds us. ‘We need, in addition, to question many of the stories we tell about the lives of women and their work and some of the ways we think about authorship and literature.’ She focuses on eight significant women writers – some well-known, others not – all born in England between 1400 and 1900 ‘who took the courageous step to shape their experiences and understandings into literary form.’ Aemilia Lanyer was the first English woman to have a volume of her original poetry in print. Only a few copies of her Salve Deus (1610) have survived, but its title poem on Christ’s Passion, viewed entirely from a female perspective, and the book’s dedication to women patrons still carry a powerful feminist message. Beer’s book brings her, Aphra Behn, Mary Wortley Montagu and others, as well as their ambitious writing, to life. Highly recommended.

As the nights drew in in November 2022 I enjoyed reading about the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus in Midge Gillies’s engrossing new social history, Piccadilly: The Circus At the Heart of London (Two Roads, 2022). She captures the significance of this London landmark from the late nineteenth century, when Alfred Gilbert’s statue of a naked ‘Eros’ was unveiled at the top of the elaborate Lord Shaftesbury memorial, to the twenty-first century, when Eros was photographed wearing a surgical face mask against a background of a deserted Piccadilly Circus during the pandemic. I loved Gillies’s description of the picturesque flower girls on the steps of the fountain, with their brightly coloured shawls and straw boaters, selling ‘buttonholes’ from large wicker baskets. ‘But in other ways the flower girl represented a troubling ambiguity,’ Gillies writes,

after all, she literally walked the streets, had intimate contact with men from all walks of life, and sold flowers – a commodity that, while associated with the countryside, was also freighted with sexual symbolism. On top of all this, she worked outside – a precinct otherwise controlled by men.

The flower girls were in fact part of a much larger invasion by hundreds of thousands of women into the heart of the city in the early years of the twentieth century: among them ‘shop girls’, waitresses and music hall performers. And in 1912 the area around Piccadilly Circus rang with shouts of ‘Votes for Women!’ and the sound of glass smashing, as hundreds of women took hammers to the windows of the department stores and teashops as part of the suffragettes’ campaign.

Less glamorous areas of London provide the backdrop for a remarkable novel set between the two world wars, Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan. First published in 1937, it’s just been reissued by the at University of East Anglia literary publishers Boilerhouse Press with an introduction by acclaimed novelist Rachel Hore. It tells the story of two young people, Robert Thomas, a chemist, and Katherine Bott, a schoolteacher, who meet and fall in love during a time of rapid technological, social and political change in Britain and worldwide from 1919 to 1936. Trevelyan uses dark humour to skewer the bourgeois aspirations of her generation and the prevailing belief in endless progress, ‘the ‘vast, intricate machine, speeding up, quicker and quicker, running on man-power, running with loudening roar and grind through space to nothing.’ It’s a stylistically daring and inventive novel that speaks to even more pressing environmental issues today, and a forgotten literary classic that’s as memorable as Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). Unlike Orwell, Trevlyan’s writing has largely disappeared from view since her untimely death in 1941, so I’m delighted that Boilerhouse Press are planning to reissue more of her novels.

I have written about the final two books in my ‘Books of the Year’ roundup, This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew by Julia Copus and Jude Piesse’s The Ghost in the Garden in my previous blogs, ‘The Ghost in the garden’ and ‘An hour with Miss Mew’ . That makes twelve books (I’m not counting Ulysses, as I listened to a 1994 recording!). I would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations of other fiction and nonfiction you have enjoyed in 2022. I also loved Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus, Delia Ephron’s Left On Tenth and Frederick Leach: A Cambridge Artworkman and his Firm by Shelley Lockwood, among others.

Books I’m looking forward to reading in 2023 include Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Metamorphosis: A life in Pieces and Blake Morrison’s Two Sisters (Feb 2023); Sara Wheeler’s Glowing Still: A Woman’s Life on the Road (March 2023); Ways of Life: Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard Artists by Laura Freeman and DJ Taylor’s biography Orwell: The New Life (May 2023) and, soon to be in paperback, Metaphysical Animals by Clare MacCumhaill and Rachael Wiseman (Feb 2023).

Ann Kennedy Smith, January 2023, all rights reserved.

Books of the year 2022, part 1

My round-up of six of the books I most enjoyed reading and writing about in 2022; six more to follow soon.

In Jane Austen, Early and Late (Princeton University Press, 2021) Freya Johnston argues that by limiting our perspective to Austen’s final six completed novels, published in the last six years of her life, we aren’t getting a complete picture of three substantial decades of her full writing career. Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin describes the young Jane as ‘a tough and unsentimental child, drawn to rude, anarchic imaginings and black jokes’. This can be seen in Austen’s mischievous response to the Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith’s claim to impartiality in his The History of England. ‘Oh! Dr. Goldsmith Thou art as partial an Historian as myself!,’ she wrote as a rebellious teenager in the margin of the family’s edition. My essay on Johnston’s book was published in the Dublin Review of Books in January 2022: follow the link here.

‘The transformation of Ireland over the last 60 years has sometimes felt as if a new world had landed from outer space on top of an old one,” Fintan O’Toole writes in We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland (Head of Zeus, 2021). This is an illuminating history, charting the huge changes across different aspects of Irish society since O’Toole’s parents married and settled in a modern housing estate on the outskirts of Dublin in the mid 1950s. The newlywed O’Tooles were unusual in deciding to stay, as most of their siblings had left or were preparing to leave Ireland; the overall population had shrunk from 6.5 million in 1841 to 2.8 million in 1961. Three out of five children born in the 1950s were destined to leave, mostly to England, and up to 45% of all those born in Ireland between 1931 and 1941 left at some stage in their lives. ‘The idea of disappearance hung over the place’, O’Toole writes, and to stay at home meant ‘a lingering disillusion’. But things did change, in ways no one could have predicted. Thinking about Ireland’s past, and the centenary of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) this year led me to hunt out the unabridged version of this great novel on Naxos Audio (27hr 16min), read by the Irish actors Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan. First released in 1994, it’s free to download if you have an Audible subscription, and highly recommended.

I also enjoyed reading Lennie Goodings’ entertaining and insightful memoir A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago (OUP paperback, 2022), as part of background research into my forthcoming English Review article about the feminist press Virago, who will be marking fifty years of publishing next year. It is sad that its founder Carmen Callil, who died this year, will not be part of the celebrations in 2023. ‘I started Virago to break a silence, to make women’s voices heard, to tell women’s stories, my story and theirs’ she said in this 2008 Guardian interview. Callil chose the name ‘Virago’ in 1973 to reclaim the word’s heroic old meaning of a strong, courageous female warrior – which she herself certainly was.

Another iconic female figure – the Queen – was celebrated in the UK this summer with a series of Platinum Jubilee events. Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women was first published in 1952, the same year that Elizabeth II acceded to the throne, and it is still fresh and sardonic, one of this underrated English novelist’s best. Virago has recently reissued it, along with eight of Pym’s other novels (see above) and to mark the occasion I wrote about ‘The Ascent of Barbara Pym’ for The Critic magazine online here.

My other ‘holiday reading’ was the reissue of Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April by Oxford World’s Classics, first published in 1922. In her excellent new introduction to this much-loved classic, the Cambridge academic Isobel Maddison describes it as ‘an appealing mix of fairy-tale, feminist work, travel and nature writing. It is also, crucially, a post-war novel: a nostalgic, funny book portraying escape to a carefully described pastoral enclave away from the city and encroaching modernity, in an era when the Great War had left many emotionally and physically starved.’ I was lucky enough to read The Enchanted April in the Italian countryside in the summer of 2022, while staying in a medieval castle, and I can thoroughly recommend the experience.

Next time: Six more books, and a selection of new books to look forward to in 2023.

An hour with Miss Mew

This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew (Faber paperback 2022)

When she was on form, the English poet Charlotte Mew sounds as if she was electrifying company. In March 1914 she was invited to read her poetry aloud to a select gathering of women at her friend Catherine Dawson Scott’s house. Although Mew was at first deeply reluctant to do it (‘how I hate it – the performing monkey!’) her friend’s influence in literary circles meant that there was a chance of some of her poems being published as a result. As the sole breadwinner among her all female household (apart from their rambunctious male parrot, Wek) Mew needed the money.

So, one stormy afternoon, Charlotte Mew walked from Bloomsbury to Southall carrying her bag stuffed full of handwritten sheafs of paper. When she got to Dawson Scott’s, she laid out her freshly rolled cigarettes on the table in front of her and began to read. Afterwards, the three women who comprised Mew’s audience in Dawson Scott’s smoky front parlour were left stunned, speechless, and mildly intoxicated by the experience. ‘My dear Mrs. Scott, I feel as if I departed yesterday without thanking you,’ Evelyn Underhill apologized the following day, ‘but really an hour with Miss Mew is like having whiskey with one’s tea – my feet were clean off the floor! Heavens what a tempest she produced – the most truly creative person I have ever come near.’

It’s a delightfully vivid image of this diminutive, often overlooked figure whipping up a storm with the power of her words. A new biography of the tempestuous poet, This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew, is a beautifully written and lucid account by Julia Copus, herself a prize-winning poet and children’s writer. Previously, Mew has been portrayed as a deeply unhappy, rather mousy spinster whose life was scarred by tragedy, shame, and unfulfilled lesbian longings (she is possibly better known for her ‘mannish’ clothes and for her suicide at the age of 58 than for her body of work). This book shines new light on her life by going back to the archives and examining the evidence in order to shift the focus back to Mew’s distinctive poetry. It’s a gripping, beautifully written biography that wears its meticulous research lightly, yet questions everything we might think we know about this remarkable poet,  

The difficulties of Mew’s personal life – a brother and sister who were committed to mental asylums, the family’s constant financial strains and the need to keep this a secret, the prevarications of her publishers and the demands of her parrot– are sympathetically portrayed, but the overall effect is not one of pathos. Instead, Mew’s determination to write in her own way and to make a living from her poetry is even more impressive. She kept herself apart from literary cliques, including the Bloomsbury set, and avoided personal celebrity, convinced that her poetry was powerful enough to speak for itself.

But rather than being a hermit, in her letters she is revealed as a spiky, determined and modern woman ‘who loved nothing better than to make people laugh, valued loyalty and stood loyally by her friends, spoke her mind, had an aversion to authoritarianism and peppered her letters with cartoonish drawings.’ One of her closest and most loyal friends was Sydney Cockerell, who was Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge from 1908 to 1937 and who helped to ensure Mew was awarded a Civil List Pension in December 1923 in recognition of the merit of her work.

Yet Mew’s literary output was modest, with only a dozen stories and essays and one poetry collection published in her lifetime. Despite this, her friend and admirer Thomas Hardy described her as ‘the greatest poetess’ he knew of, and Siegfried Sassoon said she was ‘the only poet who can give me a lump in my throat.’ In more recent times, the Irish poet Eavan Boland has described Mew’s 1916 collection The Farmer’s Bride as ‘one of the most remarkable poetry publications of the early twentieth century’.   

Recently, I was lucky enough to hear This Rare Spirit’s author Julia Copus reading some of Mew’s poems to a small audience in one of the oldest houses in Bloomsbury, near Great Ormond Street Hospital. Listening to  ‘The Trees Are Down’ and ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ being read aloud in such an atmospheric (and, for a brief time, candlelit) front parlour was thrilling, especially with the indistinct, ghostly image of Mew’s face shimmering on a red velvet curtain behind the author (see below). In that room, listening to her poetry come alive as it was read aloud, Charlotte Mew seemed both an absence, and a very modern presence.

Ann Kennedy Smith 15 December 2022, all rights reserved.

Next blogpost: My books of the year 2022

The Ghost in the Garden

In September 1833, twenty-four-year-old Charles Darwin was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, staying at the home of the merchant Edward Lumb and his family. After many months of travelling around South America,  Darwin wrote in a letter to his older sister Caroline that ‘it appears quite strange writing in an English furnished room, & still more strange to see a lady making tea’. Finding himself in such a familiar environment – after almost two years of adventures on the HMS Beagle and in foreign countries  – made him homesick for the people and places he had left behind. ‘It is now the Spring of the year, & every thing is budding & fresh, but how great a difference between this & the beautiful scenes of England,’ he told Caroline. ‘I often think of the Garden at home as a Paradise; on a fine summers evening, when the birds are singing how I should enjoy to appear, like a Ghost amongst you, whilst working with the flowers.— These are pleasures I have to view, through the long interval of the Pacific & Indian oceans.’ (The full text is available to read on the Darwin Correspondence Project website here.)

‘The Garden at home’ at The Mount, near Shrewsbury in Shropshire, where Charles Darwin and his sisters grew up, would remain a subtle but distinct presence throughout his life. In her fascinating new book, The Ghost in the Garden: in search of Darwin’s lost garden (Scribe paperback, 2021) the academic and writer Jude Piesse explores what she describes as its ‘foundational’ importance for Darwin’s theory of evolution. The voyage of the Beagle, so early in his career, was hugely important to Darwin, but even earlier and certainly closer to home, the hours he spent playing in the garden as a young boy also helped to make him the naturalist he became. It led him, years later, to try re-create elements of it at his own family home, Down House in Kent, including the ‘Sandwalk’ path for meditative walking and his aviary for pigeons, not least for his own children’s enjoyment. ‘Gardens provided as crucial a frame of reference for Darwin as his global travels,’ Piesse writes. ‘If a place can be said to follow a man, then the garden at The Mount followed Darwin to the last.’

The Ghost in the Garden mixes elements of Darwin’s biography with nature writing and an account of Piesse’s own research journey: it’s a very enjoyable combination. Piesse’s interest in the Mount garden began when she moved back to Shropshire with her young family to take up her first university lectureship in Shrewsbury and became curious about what had disappeared. A detailed artist’s map of the garden can be seen at the Cambridge University Library website here, but little of it remains today. It is ‘a place that once was and may be again,’ as Piesse writes. Only two acres of the orginal seven-acre Mount site have been kept as a wildlife reserve, with the rest of this lost paradise long buried under housing developments.

As a result, much of Piesse’s literary reconstruction is achieved by visiting archives to read the family’s correspondence. ‘Words merged with footsteps, and facts with speculation,’ as Piesse puts it. It’s a lively combination that works well to bring the ‘provincial sensibility’ of the young Darwin to life. Charles and his sisters were brought up in rural Shropshire by their father Robert, a medical doctor, and their mother Susannah, a keen amateur botanist from the famous Wedgwood family. The Ghost in the Garden is excellent on the lesser-known people in Darwin’s life, as Piesse pays tribute to ‘The Mount’s less famous gardeners – the mother, sisters, and workers lost in the background of most traditional Darwin biographies’. Yet it was largely thanks to them that Charles spent such a happy early childhood, fishing, collecting birds’ eggs and pebbles, playing in the garden with his sisters, and examining flowers with his mother who also happened to be a keen pigeon-breeder. All of this undoubtedly contributed to Darwin’s later scientific work, Piesse notes, and taught him that ‘even the naturalist’s pursuit of truth must be held in check by a deeper moral feeling. Only a single egg should be taken from the nest, Caroline explained: curiosity alone will not suffice – a boy must learn to be humane.’

The Ghost in the Garden is particularly revealing on the influence of Darwin’s mother Susannah Wedgwood Darwin (1765-1817). A deep shadow fell over the family’s life when she became ill and died when Charles was eight years old. Darwin famously said that he had no memory of his mother, but his former classmate William Allport Leighton noted that it was ‘green-fingered’ Susannah who taught her young son ‘how by looking in the interior of a blossom he could ascertain the name of the plant.’ It’s likely that she was trying to teach him about Linnaean classification, and Piesse describes how this ‘close-up view that Susannah would have known’ and her passion for gardening played a crucial part in encouraging her son to attend to tiny, yet crucial, differences in plants and other species for the rest of his life.

In her excellent article, ‘Susannah Wedgwood Darwin: A Portrait’, the scholar Nancy H. Ramage gives a detailed and wonderfully vivid account of Susannah’s life, sparked by the miniature portrait that Charles Darwin saw for the first time in 1881 and which was acquired by the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge in 2012 (see below; details here). As Professor Ramage so movingly writes, Susannah ‘had close ties to her brilliant father and, as a woman, to her brilliant son [but] …she deserves our respect and admiration for being the strong character that she was in her own right, despite her lifelong struggle with ill health.’ (Nancy H. Ramage, “Susannah Wedgwood Darwin: A Portrait,” Ars Ceramica No. 30 (2014, published 2018) 3-11.)

Over forty years after his mother’s death, Darwin published The Origin of Species (1859) in which he wrote: ‘Few would readily believe in the natural capacity and years of practice requisite to become even a skilful pigeon-fancier.’ Even if he had no conscious memory of Susannah, he was indirectly paying tribute to his mother’s skills as she was almost certainly the first pigeon-fancier that he knew. The birds she bred with her husband at the Mount during the early 1800s were famous for in the surrounding counties for their ‘beauty, variety and tameness’. Although Susannah referred to these birds in her correspondence as ‘doves’, almost everyone else knew them as ‘The Mount pigeons’. ‘Doves and pigeons may be worlds apart in connotation,’ Piesse writes, ‘but it seems there is nothing in science to distinguish them.’

The philosopher Bertrand Russell’s mother died when he was just two years old. In the second volume of his Autobiography, published in 1968, he described how, although he could not remember his mother, he gradually became aware that her presence had never left him: ‘I have loved a ghost, and in loving a ghost my inmost self has become spectral. I have therefore buried it deeper and deeper beneath layers of cheerfulness, affection and joy of life’.

Susannah Wedgwood Darwin might be absent from many books about Charles Darwin, but it’s certain that she remained a presence in his life and work – a ghost in the garden, perhaps – as much as the Shropshire paradise that she helped to create.

CODA: Susan Campbell, a garden historian, provides rich details of the garden at The Mount during the Darwin family’s time in her book, The Garden Diary of Doctor Darwin (Unicorn, 2021), details here. In 2021 she generously donated the original nineteenth-century manuscript to the Cambridge University Library, and there is an online article about it here, with a particularly lovely illustration of how the garden looked in 1867, when it is likely to have had plants grown from the seeds brought back on the Beagle by Charles Darwin from South America in 1836.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 9 December 2022, all rights reserved