Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Janet Frame, Victoria Woodhull, Muriel Spark, and a poetry anthology by Alan Bennett


An Angel At My Table: The Complete Autobiography, by Janet Frame, The Women’s Press (2001).

I really enjoyed this book.  It’s a literary book – the life story of a writer and poet – but also of someone who both had terrible things happen to her, and went her own way in life, all of which makes for terribly interesting reading.  The writing itself is wonderfully, creatively dense; not in a way that makes it difficult to read – it is just packed with recollections.  (I am very envious of her ability to remember things and the order in which they happened.  At one point, discussing her childhood, she seems to recall each year distinctly.)

Frame was born between the wars, and grew up in rural New Zealand.  Her family was large and poor and her mother seems to have been overworked and overwhelmed by family, but despite this – and despite losing two sisters to drowning – Frame’s early childhood seems to have been happy.  She is shy though, and compliant, and self-effacing.  When she goes to college, she stays with an aunt, and – so as not to cause any trouble – insists she doesn’t eat much, and she’s happy to eat her dinner in the hall.  It is only when her younger sister joins her, and angrily threatens to write home and tell their parents the aunt is mistreating them, that the ridiculousness of the situation becomes apparent.

I did not quite follow the thought process that led her, as a young student, to walk away from a teaching career.  At any rate, she evidently wasn’t happy and, in confiding her troubles to a friendly ear, naively accepted the suggestion that she enter a hospital for some respite – ‘asylum’ in the more innocent sense – and was then diagnosed with schizophrenia (a diagnosis which is later found to be mistaken).  This allowed her to be detained involuntarily, but it is far from clear that the long periods of time she spent in mental hospitals were completely involuntary.  She had a desire to please, to follow orders, to avoid causing trouble, which apparently made it easier to incarcerate her, but also she found in her diagnosis a means of escaping her problems, and she seems to have gravitated, almost helplessly, towards institutional care in times of crisis.  

In an often cited episode she escaped a lobotomy when one of her doctors heard that a piece of her writing had won an award: writing really did save her life. 

But for much of her youth, she wrote hopelessly; even publication didn’t help her.  The turning point of the book seems to have been her meeting the writer, Frank Sargeson, who gave her both the space (a shed in his garden, where she could live and write) and the encouragement – maybe the permission – to choose writing as a way of life, a job.  He also encouraged her to travel overseas which, in spite of the fright it caused her occasionally, seems to have given her more independence of spirit, more resilience.

I love reading about how writers become writers (having always wanted to write) but this was also a story of an escape, and the pursuit of happiness, and about a woman who discovers she works better alone – albeit with supportive individuals nearby – and successfully lives her life on that basis.

The one thing missing is an actual account of her years in hospital: she omits this because she has written about it elsewhere, in a novel called Faces in the Water, which I hope to go on to read.

Mrs Satan: The Incredible Saga of Victoria Woodhull, by Johanna Johnston, Macmillan (1967).

Another book I bought years ago and finally got around to reading (and another book with fantastic cover art): I did not particularly enjoy it.  I’m not sure which I disliked the most – Victoria Woodhull, or the way she was written about.  Woodhull was an American, born in 1838, to parents who were poor, religious and enterprising to the point of not caring what side of the law they were on.  Her childhood reminds me of that of the poet, Anna Wickham.  Woodhull seems to have spent her youth moving from place to place, being put on stage, telling fortunes and providing spiritual cures.  She and her sister, Tennessee, are two of a kind and, with their large family following in their wake, they go to New York and become variously successful – Wall Street’s first female brokers, newspaper proprietors, free love enthusiasts, blackmailers, proponents of women’s suffrage, candidates for political office.  Woodhull is later involved in a major scandal involving the integrity of one of America’s most popular preachers, Henry Ward Beecher.  She then comes to the UK and marries very a rich man, and – despite it bubbling up repeatedly – manages to live down what comes to seem like a particularly indecorous past.

Woodhull does not seem a very likeable figure, and Johnston does not seem particularly concerned to describe her as such.  I suppose I was hoping that beneath the sensationalist book title, there would be more shades of grey.  But story and title alike could have been pieced together from tabloid newspapers, and perhaps they were – one can only write history from the available sources, after all.

But I felt as though more context (and thus more understanding) could have been given on the doctrine of ‘free love’ and why it might have appealed to women whose options were terribly limited.  And, as Woodhull collected male devotees, who apparently worked assiduously to make successes of her various enterprises, there is definitely an implication in the book that she was a figurehead – beautiful, sad-looking, quietly magnetic – short on intellectual abilities.  But Johnston does not seriously address the question of exactly how much input Woodhull had into the articles and pamphlets published in her name.  Surely this is important.

I also felt that context was lacking on the question of her oratorical abilities.  Johnston describes some of Woodhull’s stage successes in detail.  She was apparently a very compelling speaker, and the story brought to mind various other women from the period – Mrs Henry Ward, for example – but with the rise of the women’s suffrage movement, it must have been an era of talented female speakers.  I thought that Woodhull’s accomplishments lost some of their shine in being described so singularly, in isolation.

In this book, Woodhull also reminded me a little of Marie Stopes, of whom I read a biography a little while ago: both self-publicists who broke boundaries through sheer force of personality when younger but who became laughable in later years.  Woodhull, having married her rich Englishman, returned frequently to the United States to pursue her presidential nomination, and quickly returned home when stories from her past came up in the press.  Her devoted (and apparently clueless) husband steps in to defend her at every point.  Then she gets into a very public argument over money with her sister, where her sister says that ‘Victoria sent her money from time to time certainly, but only so that she, Margaret Ann, could put it in a private account for Victoria, from which she could withdraw it as she wished without her husband’s knowledge.’ (291) Back to England they go.  

On the same page, Johnston quotes from Woodhull’s attempt at autobiography: ‘Sitting here today in this north room of 17 Hyde Park Gate, London – dreary, smoky, foggy, insulated as you are in the customs and prejudices of centuries – I am thinking with all the bitterness of my woman’s nature how my life has been warped and twisted out of shape by this environment’.  She then gives up on it, but publishes the fragment as a pamphlet.

Despite finding it quite funny in places, I was a bit uncomfortable at being encouraged to laugh at a woman who, it seemed to me, the book did not make much attempt to understand.

Memento Mori, by Muriel Spark, Virago Press (2018).

I love Muriel Spark’s writing, although this wasn’t one of my favourites of her books.  I was going to say initially that her books always have very strong plots, but actually I think what they have is a very strong idea, and very strong character back stories.  The direction of the novel seems less prescribed.

In Memento Mori, the central theme at first seems to be the anonymous telephone calls, but this turns out to be a more abstract, spiritual idea than you would have thought.  It doesn’t actually have much effect on the direction of the novel.  There’s also the destructive machinations of Mrs Pettigrew with regard to Godfrey and Charmian’s marriage, and this does resolve itself, but Godfrey’s showdown with Mrs Pettigrew is cut short by the announcement about Lettie’s death – which goes back to the issue of the telephone calls.  So there are these two ideas, one practical and one more philosophical, which cut across each other.

Spark’s characters, and the way she tells the story, are very genteel, humorous, polite – very British – but there’s some sturdy stuff underneath.  The scene where Lettie Colston dies is particularly stark – partly because it was so sparsely described; partly because the gentle writing lulled me into a false sense of security.  I love the scene where they have a meeting about the telephone calls: “When Godfrey came in he glanced round at the furnishings with an inquiring air.
    ‘Is this the right room?’ he said.
    Alec Warner thought: He is probably looking for signs of a tea-tray.  He probably thinks we are not going to get any tea.
    ‘Yes, I think this is the most suitable,’ said Henry, as one taking him into consultation.  ‘Don’t you?  We can sit round the table and talk things over before tea.’
    ‘Oh!’ said Godfrey.  Alec Warner congratulated himself.” (p.148)

Spark is very minimal in her descriptions of appearance – hair, clothing, and so on.  In the first chapter, for example, we are introduced to Lettie, Charmian and Godfrey, but we’re not told what any of them looks like.  There is a description of Olive’s appearance (p.86), but this stands out for being one of the few – and she is appearing as a ‘love interest’ (or object of desire) to Godfrey in that scene, so her appearance is perhaps especially relevant.  Even when Dame Lettie is scared by the appearance of two strange men, their appearance is not actually described. (p.183) I suppose I find this remarkable because, whenever I have attempted creative writing, I have felt like I have to describe the characters’ appearances in minute detail before getting round to plot.  Spark’s insouciance with regard to the visual aspect is refreshing, and the book does not suffer from its lack.  Indeed, perhaps it benefits.  AL Kennedy writes in the introduction that there are no long Muriel Spark novels: they are very succinct.

I like also the way Spark retains an authorial voice – she doesn’t speak through any one character – so she can describe how one character feels, and then go on to talk about them; she has no particular investment in a single protagonist.  Again, whenever I attempt creative writing, I immediately become heavily invested in the protagonist, to the detriment of every other character, and the story becomes one-dimensional very quickly.

Spark also has a rather ominous way of describing the actions of characters, and making their motivations perfectly clear, without actually stating them expressly – as on p.80-81, where Mrs Pettigrew smells food burning, but goes back upstairs and says nothing about it.  And on p.85, where Godfrey first visits Olive.  His movements are described minutely, but the purpose of his visit is not revealed – until it eventually becomes plain.

I’m not sure why I didn’t enjoy this as much as I have some of Spark’s other books – possibly just tired from too many early mornings!  I think it lost focus for me as the plot was diluted by other themes and personalities.  You could say similarly of, for example, Barbara Pym’s books, but Pym’s books – those I have read – do have protagonists, which provide a focal point as the story bobs its way along.

Six Poets: Hardy to Larkin. An Anthology by Alan Bennett, Profile Books (2014).

There was a great deal of poetry in Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table: not only did she write poetry herself, but her mother was fond of it, and it was something that Frame grew up with.  I didn’t, particularly, but I’m always quite envious when I read about people for whom poetry is important: it’s a world apart from the one I know.

But who better to introduce it than funny, awkward, colloquially English Alan Bennett.  I admit I found the commentary more interesting than the poetry.  Who knew that Thomas Hardy didn’t like to be touched, or that his cat came to be called Kiddleywinkempoops Trot.  Such gems warmed my heart, which had been thoroughly frozen towards him by the first chapter (and decidedly no further) of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  Then there is Bennett’s description of Auden’s status among the 1930s poets (p.157), or his quotation from MacNeice about his Oxford days: ‘‘Homosexuality and intelligence, heterosexuality and brawn were almost inexorably paired.  This left me out,’ he said, ‘and I took to drink.’’ (p.153)

Nonetheless, after this, I would happily pick up books of poetry by Hardy (‘Christmas: 1924’), A. E. Housman (‘I Did Not Lose My Heart’), and John Betjeman (‘Business Girls’), and perhaps even Louis MacNeice (‘Death of an Actress’, although I’m not sure I understood much of Larkin or Auden.

Both this book and Janet Frame’s are reassuring on the point that it’s fine to enjoy poetry for it’s rhythm and sentimental appeal, even if some of the sterner stuff remains a bit foggy in meaning.  

I can’t help thinking though that poetry is one of the big advantages of public libraries.  I’m sure I once bought a book of Auden’s poems, aspirationally as it were, thinking – ‘come on, he is highly-acclaimed – of course I’ll enjoy it’ but, as here, I couldn’t really make a dent in it.

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