Like cowboys on the plains

‘Tragedy and comedy, I thought we were all agreed, are the warp and woof of life, and if we have agreed to accept life and accept it fully, let us stand by our compact and whoop like cowboys on the plains.’

WNP Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man (1919)

In 1915, at the age of twenty-six, Bruce Frederick Cummings (1889-1919) discovered that he had MS (then called ‘disseminated sclerosis’) There was no cure, or effective medication, and he knew that he would not have many more years to live. He had always dreamed of becoming a great writer and poet, even as he spent his days working on cataloguing insects in the basement of the British Museum. Writing a diary about his illness would instead become his literary legacy; and his book The Journal of a Disappointed Man was the memorable result, published just months before his death under the pseudonym WNP Barbellion.

It combines edited extracts from his hilarious diary of a nature-mad boy (like David Attenborough crossed with Adrian Mole) through his first experimental romances, then marriage to the artist and costume designer Eleanor Abbey (1890-1979). ‘Though he nowhere actually names his disease, he tracks the progress of his failing health with an outlook alternately humorous and tragic,’ writes the biographer and critic Frances Spalding, and describes his book as the twentieth century’s ‘most outstanding piece of writing on multiple sclerosis.’ (Gwen Raverat, 2001).

Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces, a recent memoir by the literary scholar Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, is another outstanding exploration of learning to live with MS from a twenty-first-century perspective. It’s also a brilliant exploration of The Journal of a Disappointed Man. My double review of Metamorphosis and Michael Rosen’s moving, funny Getting Better appears in this week’s TLS below.

Kingdom of the sick

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.

F.M. Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter (1924)

Flora Mayor (1872-1932)

The Rector’s Daughter belongs to the finest English tradition of novel writing. It is like a bitter Cranford… Mary Jocelyn’s ‘nothing’ is a full and rich state of being.’ Sylvia Lund, Time and Tide, 18 July 1924

When F.M. (Flora Macdonald) Mayor’s second novel, The Rector’s Daughter, was published by the Hogarth Press in 1924, the Woolfs were surprised to have a bestseller on their hands. ‘Lytton Strachey, my sister and Duncan Grant have all been reading it with great interest’, Virginia Woolf wrote. E.M. Forster described it as ‘a very great achievement’, and critics on both sides of the Atlantic praised it. The Rector’s Daughter was a runner-up for the 1925 ‘Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse’, a literary prize for a work ‘calculated to reveal to French readers the true spirit and character of England’ (Forster’s A Passage to India won that year instead). Then, for almost fifty years, F.M. Mayor’s novel was out of print and apparently forgotten, although reading it during the Blitz did give the English novelist Rosamond Lehmann some comfort: ‘In its quiet and personal way The Rector’s Daughter is a piece of history’, she wrote in 1941.

But it’s not exactly a neglected twentieth-century classic. After Penguin Books reissued it in their Modern Classics series in 1973, The Rector’s Daughter hasn’t been out of print for the last fifty years. In 1987 the new publishers on the block, Virago, took it over and reissued it in their own highly successful Virago Modern Classics series, with its distinctive bottle green spines, and it was reprinted in 1999, 2008 (twice) and 2009 (three times). The Rector’s Daughter has the rare distinction during the same period of being one the few novels that merited new editions as a Penguin Twentieth Century Classic (1992) and a Penguin Modern Classic (2001). Even so, in 2010 BBC Radio 4 ‘Book at Bedtime’ described it as ‘an unfairly neglected classic’ when it was read in ten episodes by Juliet Stevenson (it’s still available on BBC Sounds, and well worth listening to). In 2021 The Rector’s Daughter was reissued by Persephone Books in an elegant new edition with a biographical foreword by Flora’s great-niece, Victoria Gray, who in 1992 wrote a radio play based on the book with her late husband, the dramatist Simon Gray.

Yet, for all this, The Rector’s Daughter is still a novel that seems to exist just below the literary radar, much loved by its readers, but also, somehow, not widely read. Little has been written by scholars about this or F.M. Mayor’s other works, perhaps because she produced so few in her lifetime (a collection of her ghost stories, said to be admired by M.R. James, was published posthumously). Her two other novels, The Third Miss Symons (1913) and The Squire’s Daughter (1929), were also reissued by Virago Modern Classics in the 1980s.  Sybil Oldfield’s Spinsters of this Parish: the life and times of F.M. Mayor and Mary Sheepshanks (Virago, 1984) is a well-researched dual biography that provides a fascinating social context for Mayor’s life and unsuccessful attempt to make a living as an actress. The chapter on her four years at Newnham College, Cambridge in the 1890s is particularly revealing, including the revelation that Mayor and her former tutor, Mary Bateson, remained close friends until Bateson’s early death in 1906.

Flora Mayor’s lifelong poor health made her unable to fulfil much of her literary promise, sadly. However, she was a successful author with a three-book contract with Constable when she died of pneumonia in 1932, aged fifty-nine. In a recent piece for The Times, the writer D.J. Taylor describes The Rector’s Daughter as ‘one of those curious novels in which a cauldron of suppressed emotion and unrequited love boils away behind a landscape in which, for all practical purposes, hardly anything happens’ and says that as a novelist, F.M. Mayor ranks with Jane Austen and George Eliot.

I agree, and believe that The Rector’s Daughter is nothing short of a masterpiece. My essay on it will be published in the Spring 2023 issue of Slightly Foxed.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved