My books of the year 2021

Twelve of the biographies and memoirs I have enjoyed reading and reviewing in 2021. Thank you for reading the blog this year, and wishing you a very Happy New Year for 2022.

Burning Man: The Ascent of D. H. Lawrence (Bloomsbury, 2021) by Frances Wilson is a picaresque and immersive biography that paints a brilliant cinematographic picture of a decade of D.H. Lawrence’s life, from 1915 to 1925. (I wrote about the book, and Lawrence’s women friends and supporters, in my blogpost here). I also enjoyed re-reading Frances Wilson’s passionate and brilliant early biography, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Faber), reissued in a beautiful paperback edition earlier this year. It’s timely as Dorothy Wordsworth was born 250 years ago this month, and a recent Guardian editorial celebrated her life and writing as a ‘rare achievement’, not just for inspiring her famous brother’s poems, but as a first-rate nature writer in her own right.

Dorothy Wordsworth was a great walker in her younger days and walked for miles in the Lake District, Scotland and mainland Europe. I enjoyed Windswept: Walking in the footsteps of remarkable women by Annabel Abbs (Two Roads Books) a powerful memoir-biography about how walking in nature changed the lives and inspired the writing of writers including Nan Shepherd, Simone de Beauvoir, Gwen John and the author herself. Another book about women who travelled far from home is Undreamed Shores (Granta) by Frances Larson. ‘They went from the periphery into the unknown’, Larson writes, ‘and I doubt that any of them felt fully at home in England again.’ It’s a compelling group biography tracing the lives of five pioneering anthropologists who were among the first to study anthropology at Oxford University. My TLS review is here. I also loved Emily Midorikawa’s Out of the Shadows: six visionary Victorian women in search of a public voice (Counterpoint Press, 2021), a beautifully written, absorbing group biography that offers new insights into how six enterprising women succeeded in making spiritualism the means of gaining power, money and influence. More on this book, and the American Caroline Jebb’s trenchant views of the Cambridge University spiritualists of the 1870s, in my blogpost here.

Ding Dong! Avon Calling! by Katina Manko (OUP, 2021) is a well-written and perceptive American business history that takes seriously the ambitions and achievements of Avon Inc.’s vast, all-female network of saleswomen from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Avon celebrated these women as entrepreneurs, while systematically excluding them from the company’s senior management. I wrote about it for the 24 September TLS here. I highly recommend Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored In An Economy Built For Men by the Swedish economist Katrine Marçal (Harper Collins). Wittily translated by Alex Fleming, Marçal’s book is a fresh and highly readable account of how women’s brilliant ideas (from the wheelie suitcase to bra technology for spacesuits) have been overlooked through history until men decided to make these ideas their own, at a cost to the world’s economy. Kathleen Dixon Donnelly’s multi-volume series Such Friends: The Literary 1920s presents colourful, diary-like snippets, skilfully woven together, from the daily lives of writers, poets and artists of the Irish Literary Renaissance, the Bloomsbury Group, the Americans in Paris, and the Algonquin Round Table in New York. There are excerpts on her ‘Such Friends’ blog here.

My favourite literary memoir this year was Marina Warner’s evocative Inventory of a Life Mislaid: An Unreliable Memoir (Harper Collins; published as Esmond and Ilia: An Unreliable Memoir in the USA). It’s a richly detailed, sharp and sympathetic memoir, beautifully illustrated by Sophie Herxheimer, that uses treasured mementoes to connect family secrets to Britain’s colonial past, and offers insights into how Warner became a writer. My review is in the 26 March TLS here; I also wrote about Warner’s Cambridge connections in my March blogpost, ‘The Cambridge bookshop’. In November 2021 there was a welcome reissue by Faber of Virginia Cowles’s Looking For Trouble, a wonderfully fresh and vivid memoir of this remarkable, but nowadays little-known, woman war correspondent. A bestseller when it was first published in 1941, Looking For Trouble showcases Cowles’s great courage and ability to write, no matter what dangerous situation she found herself in. She is one of the six women wartime reporters featured in Judith Mackrell’s new group biography Going With The Boys (Pan Macmillan; published in the USA The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II), an entertaining and well-researched book highlighting the lives and work of Martha Gellhorn, Clare Hollingworth, Helen Kirkpatrick, Sigrid Schultz and Lee Miller. Mackrell, a Guardian journalist, is the guest in the latest ‘Lost Ladies of Lit’ podcast, a wonderful series about ‘forgotten’ women writers which I can thoroughly recommend (I was honoured to be a ‘Lost Ladies’ guest myself in April this year, discussing Amy Levy’s Reuben Sachs).

Last, but certainly not least, is Constance Ruzich’s International Poetry of The First World War (Bloomsbury Academic; forthcoming in paperback in April 2022). As I noted in my previous blogpost, it’s an anthology that draws together a diverse range of often overlooked poetic voices, revealing a more complex picture of the First World War and its aftermath. I particularly valued the careful research that went into the biographical notes accompanying each poem, revealing the personal stories of women and men, combatants and noncombatants and those for and against the war. There is more on Ruzich’s blog ‘Behind Their Lines’, here: and it would be wonderful if, in future years, there might be a film or play about the early jazz musician, bandleader and war hero, Lieut. James Rees Europe, pictured below.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 28 December 2021

The Cambridge bookshop

Image: Cambridge University Press

There’s a spring-like feeling of optimism in the air this week in Cambridge, and it’s good to know that the city’s bookstores are opening again this month. One of them is the Cambridge University Press Bookshop at 1, Trinity Street, opposite the University Senate House. It has a claim to be the oldest bookshop site in the UK, as there have been booksellers there since at least 1581. In 1846 the owners Daniel and Alexander Macmillan employed their nephew Robert Bowes as an apprentice. He later became a partner in the business, and the shop became Bowes & Bowes in 1907. In 1986 it was renamed Sherratt & Hughes, then in 1992 the Press took it over, and turned it into the beautiful, light-filled building that it is today.

This historic Cambridge landmark features in a book that I reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement this week. Inventory of a Life Mislaid is a self-declared ‘unreliable memoir’ by Marina Warner, DBE. It’s an evocative account of how her Italian mother Emilia (always known as ‘Ilia’) and her English father Esmond met and married in occupied Italy in 1944, and the postwar years that they spent in Cairo with their two young daughters. Esmond Warner knew William Henry ‘Billy’ Smith, 3rd Viscount Hambleden, personally as they’d been at Eton together, and persuaded his influential friends at W.H. Smith & Son Ltd to set up business in Egypt in 1948: it would be the first overseas branch of the bookselling, newspaper distribution and stationery operation. Esmond became the manager of Cairo House, known locally as ‘the English bookshop’.

‘Opening a bookshop in Cairo after the war seemed a civilized idea,’ Marina Warner writes, but looking back, the colonial assumptions of the wealthy British abroad during that era now make her flinch. Her father’s character ‘was cadenced by the long, deep roots of the family in the empire’, she tells us. ‘I have been writing throughout my life in response to this background.’ Her parents’ comfortable ex-patriate lifestyle in Cairo was disrupted by an outbreak of rioting and mass arson of January 1952, and one of Warner’s earliest memories is of seeing the charred contents of her father’s beloved bookshop which was destroyed. The Cairo Fire ‘called time on a world and an era’, Warner observes. Soon afterwards, General Abdel Nasser emerged as leader of the insurgents and in 1956 he was elected president of Egypt. Soon afterwards, in the face of British and French fury, he took control of the Suez Canal.

The Warners moved to Brussels in 1954 and in 1959 came back to England, where Esmond became manager of the ‘handsome and historic’ bookshop Bowes & Bowes in Cambridge (W.H. Smith Ltd had bought it in 1953 and kept the prestigious name). Esmond loved running the bookshop, chatting with dons and students, and laughing what his daughter describes as his ‘long-cured, confident’ laugh. During the 1960s he opened two smaller branches of Bowes & Bowes in Trinity Street, one specializing in foreign languages, the other in sciences: ‘neither were profitable’ Warner writes, ‘and besides, shoplifting was a problem’.

While Esmond ran his beloved bookshop and grew his prize roses in their garden in Lolworth, Warner’s mother Ilia taught Italian to young people at a local ‘crammer’s’ and learned how to drive. On the quiet Cambridge roads of the 1960s, it seems that she was as eye-catching and beautiful as one of Esmond’s roses. ‘At the wheel of a Triumph Herald coupé, she cut a startling figure in what was then a provincial town,’ Warner recalls, ‘with her big sunglasses and a Hermès headscarf tied under the chin as worn by the Queen’.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 31 March 2021

Sources: Inventory of a Life Mislaid: an unreliable memoir Marina Warner (Harper Collins, 2021); Cambridge University Press Bookshop website (accessed 31.3.21); ‘1, Trinity Street’ on Capturing Cambridge website (accessed 31.3.21)   

Fighting words

9781911072355

Words In Pain: Letters On Life and Death (edited by Jocelyn Catty and Trevor Moore, Skyscraper, 2019)

As part of my series on memoirs, I review a book first published in 1919 – in which a woman’s passionate voice finds honest expression through her letters.

‘In more than one way am I a hopeless case,’ Olga Jacoby wrote in 1911, ‘and nothing except death will stop me fighting.’ Born Olga Iklé in Hamburg in 1874, she was educated with her sisters in Paris, then moved to England in 1896 after marrying her cousin John Jacoby, known as Jack. He had been brought up in Manchester, and worked in the family’s successful lace-importing business. Olga and Jack set up home in West Hampstead, London and brought up their four adopted children there according to their progressive, ‘socialistic ideas’.

In 1909 Olga Jacoby was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Her doctor, a close family friend, told her he could not save her life but believed he could help to make her death easier if she followed his Christian faith. As a rationalist (and a secular Jew), Jacoby was having none of it. She is not ‘a weak-minded woman’, she tells him, and will live and die on her own terms. Words In Pain: Letters On Life and Death is a collection of the letters that Jacoby wrote (mainly to the doctor) from 1909 until her death in 1913. ‘I must go on fighting as long as I live,’ she tells him. ‘I can’t help it, Doctor, and I love to have you as my opponent’.

Jacoby’s letters show her enjoyment of spirited debate about religion and science (‘Science is turning on the light,’ she tells the doctor, ‘but at every step forward dogmatic religion attempts to turn it out’) and humorously describe family life, and the importance of being open and honest with young children: ‘I do stir their little hearts, too much I sometimes think.’ Her children give her joy and a reason to keep living. ‘I was greatly amused by my boy explaining to me,’ she writes, ‘that even should I die they would not lose me, as they would take my skeleton to keep in a corner of their nursery’. She has adventures, travelling through Devon and Dorset, with her bath-chair pulled by a pony and her son walking alongside. She reads copiously and discusses the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Olive Schreiner and George Eliot as well as Thomas Huxley and H.G. Wells.

Jacoby strives to accept the limited years she has left (‘Know that death is not bad; it is we who make it so, and it is in our power to look at it calmly and even joyfully’) but her despair is often heartbreakingly apparent. ‘I had a sorrowful cry again last night; there is so very much I shall have to leave undone’. Despite her sadness at leaving her beloved family, the tone of the book is (like Jacoby herself) far from downbeat. She has strong views on topics of the day including tariff reform (she is against cheap American and German imports), the importance of workers’ rights and women’s suffrage (she believes women should exert their power as wives and mothers, not as MPs). Her passions help to give her the energy to put pen to paper. ‘When I am peaceful I cannot write,’ she tells her doctor. ‘A storm has to brew; some violent enthusiasm shake me; or a thought, new to me, awake my enthusiasm before the little bit of dormant vitality left in me will arise to the effort of writing.’

Words In Pain is about how to live, and also how to die. Olga Jacoby chose to end her life by taking the sleeping tablets she had saved up, at a time when suicide was still considered to be a capital crime. But  Jack, Olga’s husband, followed Olga’s lead in being honest. Under the heading ‘The Right to Die’, the Globe newspaper reported how during the inquest he sought a verdict of felo de se, and told the jury that his wife’s decision was based on the same principles by which she had lived. ‘His wife only did what she felt she had a perfect right to do, ‘ the report recorded. ‘He did not desire them to return a verdict from sentiment, because if they did it would be an insult to her memory.’

Words In Pain was first published anonymously in 1919, with the identities of the children and doctor concealed. The Times Literary Supplement of that year praised Jacoby’s ‘direct and simple literary style’, and ‘the clear-eyed, exalted spirit in which she faces death’. In 2019 Words In Pain: Letters On Life and Death was reissued in an elegant ‘centenary edition’, with an informative introduction and supplementary endnotes by Trevor Moore, a lawyer and humanist funeral celebrant. He has identified the book’s author and the doctor, and traced her surviving descendents including Olga Jacoby’s great-granddaughter, the psychotherapist Jocelyn Catty. Her excellent afterword ‘Olga in life, death and writing’ adds fascinating details, including the moving stories of what happened to Jack and Olga’s four adopted children. As Sandi Toksvig writes: ‘These wonderful letters prove that true immortality lies in what we leave behind.’

In my TLS review last year I compared Words In Pain to W.N.P. Barbellion’s outstanding The Journal of A Disappointed Man, coincidentally also first published in 1919. One hundred years on, both books are well worth re-issuing and re-reading, and have new relevance in the ongoing debate over assisted dying. ‘But this is not a letter for the Doctor only,’ Olga Jacoby wrote in her first letter, as if aware that she would have, in time, a larger audience for her words.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 5 February 2020 (all rights reserved)

Hidden Lives

Clarke

“Women’s lives were meant to be hidden,” Norma Clarke writes in her memoir Not Speaking (Unbound, 2019). Her Greek mother Rena moved from occupied Athens to London when she married a British soldier in 1945. Unable to speak English, far from family and friends, she had to learn how to survive in a society that did not make her welcome. It was no wonder, Clarke writes, that for Rena and women like her, “those lives came to be all about subterfuge. Secrecy, silence, subterfuge.”

Clarke is a retired professor and literary historian who began to understand her mother better only when she started writing about her. Watching “my untaught mother’s scholarly zeal” with religious pamphlets and icons, Clarke realized that they had more in common than she thought. Themes in Clarke’s book Not Speaking (Unbound, 2019) include romantic and family love, historical war and the effects on those who survive it, and the battle to communicate. My review of this moving and insightful memoir appears (with a lovely photograph of Rena) in the first Times Literary Supplement of 2020, and can be read here with no paywall. My next review – of three fascinating new group biographies of 20th-century women’s “hidden lives” – will appear in the next TLS. It’s published on 17 January 2020 and I’m pleased that my review features on the cover.

Good life-writing has the intensity and narrative pacing of fiction, and the best memoirs have a ruthless honesty about them. “A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying,” George Orwell wrote, “since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” In a future blogpost I will list some of my favourite memoirs; I hope you will tell me about yours.

‘My Past Is a Foreign Country’ review

downloadMy Past Is a Foreign Country by Zeba Talkhani (Sceptre, 2019): a moving and compassionate memoir with an emphasis on a daughter’s difficult relationship with her mother. One of a series of my occasional reviews of recent biographies and memoirs with Cambridge connections.

As a young girl growing up in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, Zeba Talkhani was fascinated by her elegant, rather mysterious mother. “I was obsessed by Mama’s every move and watched her like a hawk,” she recalls. As a result, her mother became ever more secretive around her small child, warning friends of her daughter’s ‘antenna’ and speaking to Talkhani’s father in a language from their native south-west India. But somehow their bright, curious daughter was always able to understand them.

Talkhani’s father worked for a large company in Jeddah and spent much of his time travelling. Living so far from their Indian relatives meant connections to their fellow expatriates were important. Large weekend gatherings were the norm, and it was her mother’s job to provide a generous array of food for twenty or more families. “Looking back, it feels as though Mama spent her twenties and thirties cooking for people she did not know,” Talkhani recalls. On one occasion she witnessed a kitchen accident and her mother “wailing and withering” in pain from her bloody injury. A few hours later, ‘Mama’ seemed a different woman: beautifully dressed, smiling graciously and presiding over the party as if nothing had happened. “It was the first of many times that I was in absolute awe of her ability to perform the role that society had forced upon her,” Talkhani observes. “I still feel a sharp sting when I ask myself why the party was not cancelled that day.”

Keeping up appearances was important to her mother, and there were countless unspoken tensions living under Saudi Arabia’s patriarchal laws. Both at home and at school Talkhani was taught that “bad things happen to girls who are not “good Muslims”‘. As she grew into a teenager and questioned why women were treated as they were, she was often scolded by her mother, whose natural protectiveness often shaded into bitter reproach. “I felt that Mama held my joyful hope against me,” Talkhani writes. “I wanted a mother who could see me for who I was and not worry about how I would be perceived by our society”. Their relationship became more strained when, at the age of fourteen, Talkhani began to suffer from hair loss, and her mother feared this would mean the end of her daughter’s marriage prospects.

The memoir charts Talkhani’s progress into adulthood as she moves away from the family home and the restrictions of this society. She began her studies at Manipal University in southern India, where she found greater freedom and awareness of wider political issues. Under Saudi Arabia’s strict censorship laws of the 1990s and 2000s she had no access to modern culture, and an extremely limited overview of history: she had never heard of the Holocaust or the impact of slavery in America. (In this, her book is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s Educated, another excellent recent memoir with a Cambridge connection.) Talkhani’s university education involved more than attending classes and reading set texts. She became absorbed in magazines, going to the cinema, watching popular American TV series and discussing ideas with friends. But it was the university’s well stocked library that made her see the world, and herself, through fresh eyes. “I realised that I did not subscribe to the tyrannical, homophobic and misogynist Islam I was exposed to in my early years,” she notes. “I was only just embarking on my feminist journey and I was keen to marry Islam with it.”

A central part of Talkhani’s feminist education was understanding why her mother behaved in the way that she did. In Manipal, reading Sylvia Plath for the first time helped her to understand “the conflicted reality” of motherhood: “I saw my mother in her words.” She studied in Germany, then in 2012 followed in Plath’s footsteps to Cambridge, where she began studying for an MA in Publishing at Anglia Ruskin University, the “tiny university on the wrong side of Parker’s Piece” as she puts it. Although at first it seemed a cosmopolitan city, it soon became apparent that her fellow students struggled with the idea that she could be both Muslim and feminist. With her mother increasingly fretting about her marriageability, where did she fit in? Then, in a Cambridge café one day, Talkhani overheard an older woman resembling “a ghost from my future” blaming all her failures in life on her mother. At the age of twenty-three she decided that she must take control of her own life.

This original and insightful memoir is a testament to a young writer’s experiences of gaining a meaningful education for herself in very different places. It is beautifully paced, with a touching freshness and honesty that makes you want to keep reading. Like the inquisitive child she once was, Talkhani is able to tune into things that are both said and unsaid around her, and as she grows up, gradually works out her own story. Her growing self-awareness brings her closer to her mother, and the two women begin to trust one another: “It felt like we were fighting our demons together.”

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 26 August 2019, all rights reserved