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.