Tuesday 11 August 2020

Malcolm Muggeridge, Zora Neale Hurston and the lives of two working-class women

My last three books, and possibly the last time I post - since Blogger seems to be changing to a format which doesn't work on my laptop at all(!)  

Chronicles of Wasted Time, Vol. II: The Infernal Grove, by Malcolm Muggeridge.

I enjoyed both of Muggeridge’s volumes of autobiography (I read the first a few months ago).  He is good company, funny and dry and a lovely writer (although he does, at one point, use the word ‘surlily’ which, even if it is proper English, sounds rubbish).  His book is full of anecdotes and references to other interesting characters from that time period – Orwell, Greene, Waugh, Wodehouse, Chanel, Andre Gide, Guy Burgess and Kim Philby, among others.

Apparently he wrote a book called ‘Winter in Moscow’, about what was happening in the Soviet Union, whilst many other British socialists were still celebrating Stalin.  Another of his books was called Picture Palace, and was based on the culture in the Guardian offices, which the newspaper successfully sought to have suppressed.  He wrote for Time & Tide like Winifred Holtby, although he does not mention her, and became a soldier in the Second World War – not a role in which he convinces (either himself or his readers) – before switching to intelligence work.

I think it is, in part, his independence as a writer which makes him so enjoyable to read.  When I try to write politically, I tend to latch on to a particular idea, body or personality, and treat it/them as a sort of moral guide.  So I end up, unintentionally, being quite polemical and probably short-sighted.  Muggeridge was writing at the time of the Second World War when politics was particularly polarized by the conflict/cooperation between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and when moral questions were in some ways less clear-cut than ever.  Lots of people seemed to group around particular bodies or ideologies.  Muggeridge for the most part manages to avoid the kind of rabid political loyalities that seemed to infect many of his contemporaries – such as the Webbs and Bernard Shaw, Orwell, and A. A. Milne.  He maintains an idiosyncratic, personal tone, criticizing everyone (himself included) easily and with a sense of humour.  In this way, his account sounds much more authoritative than others, despite lacking, in temporal terms, objective distance.

Something I did find curious was his own personal morality.  When I read the first volume of his autobiography, I vaguely remember warming to him because of his obvious love for his wife.  He seemed, to use a romantic phrase, like a one-woman man – someone who’d found the right person quite early on and for whom, from then on, that part of his nature was settled.  I think also, one of the few things I knew about him before I started reading his books was that he was, without being (at this point at least) particularly evangelical, a man of faith.  Several times he pauses in his narrative to confess to his own faults and sins (e.g. p.145).  At first, I took this to be just the humble, self-effacing side of his personality, but he briefly mentions infidelities when he worked in India, and admits to a sense of relief when, on the start of the Second World War, he can leave his wife and family and go off and do what he wants.  He spends a lot of his time in this book in positions of authority over others – colonial India, Mozambique, liberated France – and although he recognizes and criticises the power structures that exist in these places, he still makes use of them; being carried about by ‘coolies’ in India, visiting brothels and bars in Mozambique.  One could argue of course that his job in Mozambique (he was an intelligence agent) was hardly one for the fastidious, or for the protester, but it made me think that his attitude to people living less advantageously than himself – and particularly to women – wasn’t as benign, as liberal, as he made it sound.

To take women as an example, he divides them broadly into the pretty and amorous, or the hairy and academic, and without admitting to any bad behavior of his own, his references to women get progressively slimier.  On p.139, ‘this sense of importance… was characteristic of SIS personnel at all levels; particularly the females, who, however careless they might be about their chastity, guarded their security with implacable resolution.’

On p.192, he describes someone as ‘one of those well-educated French women who manage to be intelligent without becoming like Simone de Beauvoir.’

On p.226, he tells how one French intelligence agent applied to his employers for, and obtained, a set of Dunlop tyres on the grounds that it would draw attention if he tried to obtain them locally, and then goes on to relate his own suggestion – that a message should be sent ‘complaining of being troubled by his sexual appetites, to the point where it was impossible for him to concentrate on his work, and that he hesitated to avail himself of local facilities for fear of giving himself away.’

On p.232, he talks about the grateful welcome afforded Allied officers in Liberated France, and how, as he made his way through it for the first time, his willingness to accept offerings of drinks ‘and to exchange embraces with any agreeable females in the vicinity’ increased.

On p.237, again in Liberated France, ‘a British uniform continued to procure friendly smiles, embraces, bed-fellows even, as and when required’.

With regard to his wife, it’s sometimes a bit like reading William Burroughs’s Junkie – you don’t even know he’s married until he mentions slapping his wife for spilling his heroin.  With Muggeridge, references to his wife and family, whilst always whole-hearted, are sparse, isolated incidents.

Anyway, incipient sliminess so noted, it was easy enough to ‘read around’.  I still very much enjoyed this book.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston.

I heard about this book on the Radio 4 programme, A Good Read’, and I really enjoyed it.  I was slightly put off initially by the dialect writing.  I found it difficult to read, although I did get used to it.  Less easy to shake was the suspicion that some kind of stereotyping may be involved.  In one of the volumes of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, there’s a bit where she gets work in a record store and the lady who runs it is white  - the first friendly white person Angelou has had much contact with.  At one point the white lady tells her about some small black boy who came into the store asking for something, and she tries to imitate the dialect.  It doesn’t go down well with Angelou, who regards it as an attempt to caricature black people.  At any rate, I felt slightly better about it in this book when reading the contextual information in the afterword (see further on).

The story is about a black woman, Janie; her grandmother was born into slavery, her mother was raped by her school teacher and ran away after she was born.  Janie is more or less corralled into marriage with a man of property by her grandmother, who thinks this is the way to safety and security for a woman.  She is unhappy so she walks out and marries someone else (bigamously?).  Her second husband builds a big house – builds a town in fact – becomes mayor of it, and owns and runs the general store.  So Janie has everything material she needs, but to her husband, she is another possession, another mark of his status; he expects her to curb her own personality and behave like the mayor’s wife.  Then he dies and she meets Tea Cake – a property-less, wandering gambler, with whom she falls in love, marries, and goes off to live with, sharing his home and his work and his friends.  Then there is a hurricane, and in their rush to safety, he saves her life but gets bitten by a dog in the process.  From there on, he sickens.  I think I’ve probably spoiled most of the story for anyone who hasn’t read it(!) but I’ll leave the end part for you.

It’s a love story, and also a story about a woman who gradually moves towards choosing her own way of life – although, as Holly Eley points out in the introduction, the secure position Janie is in by the end of the book has everything to do with the conventional feminine role she took early on, and nothing at all to do with her own chosen way of life as reflected in her third marriage.  Given that fact, perhaps it’s not possible to read any strong feminist message into the story.  On the other hand, I’m not sure the financial security of the final pages is particularly important.  I read this as a story about personal happiness, through being genuine, honest and independent.

I loved the relationship between Janie and Tea Cake.  However, two things rang alarm bells for me – both probably products of their era (or rather, perhaps my concern is a product of my era).  One was the fact that he was a gambler.  The other was a weird moment where he gets jealous and ‘slaps Janie around a bit’, ‘no brutal beating at all’ – just a bit(!) (p.218-219)  Hurston doesn’t make much of it – it seems a bit of a non-issue to her in the 1930s.  Nonetheless, for me it blotted out the supposition of equality and independence of spirit in the relationship, which I think was one of its chief attractions.

I was very taken with Hurston’s way of expressing things.  When Janie’s grandmother is talking about the time when her own daughter was young, she says, ‘Ah said Ah’d take a broom and a cook-pot and throw up a highway through the wilderness for her,’ (p.32) which is a dramatic and beautiful way of talking about raising a child in difficult circumstances.  A few pages on, when Janie is trying to express to her grandmother about her dissatisfaction with her first husband, she concedes that he does chop wood and keeps the water buckets full for her.  Nanny’s response is ‘Humph! Don’t ‘spect all dat tuh keep up.  He ain’t kissin’ yo’ mouf when he carry on over yuh lak dat.  He’s kissin’ yo’ foot and t’ain’t in uh man tuh kiss foot long.  Mouf kissin’ is on uh equal and dat’s natural but when dey got to bow down tuh love, dey soon straightens up.’ (p.40-41)  Love, in other words, doesn’t work for long when you put someone on a pedestal.

There were lots of occasions throughout the book where I stopped to write down particular turns of phrase.  ‘Some folks need thrones, and ruling-chairs and crowns tuh make they influence felt.  He don’t.  He’s got uh throne in de seat of his pants.’ (p.78-9)  And, ‘it happened over one of those dinners that chasten all women sometimes.  They plan and they fix and they do, and then some kitchen-dwelling fiend slips a scrotchy, soggy, tasteless mess into their pots and pans.’ (p.111-112)  And, ‘she sent her face to Joe’s funeral, and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world.’ (p.137)  I have a notebook full of such quotes.

The afterword by Sherley Anne Williams was also interesting.  Apparently Hurston wrote a particularly uninformative memoir, but there is a biography by Robert E. Hemenway which fills in some of the gaps.  Hurston was born in Eatonville, Florida, an all-black town with a general store, like in the book.  ‘The gatherings on the front porch… came to symbolize for Hurston the richness of Afro-American oral culture, and she struggled for much of her career to give literary renderings of the oral richness and to portray the complex individuality of it’s unlettered, “uncultured” folk creators.’ (p.290)  I remember, when I was studying history, much the same was said about working-class and European peasant cultures: they had a strong sense of tradition but it was handed down as oral histories.  At some point around the middle of the twentieth century, there were efforts made to start recording such histories – hence the availability of some ‘working-class autobiographies’ – but otherwise, they were lost.  In terms of historical evidence, the next best thing, I guess, to autobiography is contemporary writers using such material in novels.

The only thing to add is that this novel reminded me of Sula by Toni Morrison, in the way a rural township is described and given personality as a single entity, creating a strong sense of community.  There must be other books that do this, but I can’t think of any.

Dear Girl: The diaries and letters of two working women 1897-1917, edited by Tierl Thompson.

In some ways, this book reminded me of the life of Canon Barnett, in the way it plods along – gently interesting, but with no thrilling plot twists.  Interestingly, there was a reference to ‘Mr Barnett’s sermon’ (p.67), although I’ve no guarantee it was the same Mr Barnett.  It could well have been though: Ruth seems to have spent some time around Whitechapel.  She also mentions the Whitechapel Art Gallery (and it’s Tuberculosis Exhibition) and Beatrice Webb, who she describes as ‘a winsome, sweet-faced little lady, with a very beautiful voice’ (p.143) – perhaps not a description Malcolm Muggeridge would have recognized.

The book is made up of the letters and diaries of two women – Ruth Slate and Eva Slawson.  They were clearly not the poorest of the poor – both had clerical jobs, and Ruth talks pityingly of the very poor people she saw when doing outreach temperance work with the Church.  However, there are various incidents of drunkenness and domestic violence among neighbours, and one of Eva’s very close friends has to apply for parish relief on several occasions, after her husband dies (p.201).  She also receives baby clothes sent by ‘a lady’. (p.200)

One of the notable things about the book is the evidence of ‘romantic friendships’ – where women wrote to and about other women in passionate, sometimes lover-like terms, without apparently attracting comment.  On p.130, Ruth writes ‘Mrs Horncastle fascinated me completely.  She is a very beautiful character.  I fell in love with her.  I believe I fall in love with a certain type of woman as easily as some girls fall in love with men.’  On p.193, the husband of one of Eva’s close friends dies.  ‘I slept with my darling, or rather lay close beside her, my arms around her, for we scarcely slept… I have lived at my Minna’s, and at night she has wept in my arms, and I have started from a tiny doze to hear her murmuring “My comfort!”  Once she threw her arms around me and whispered, “Oh Eva, I should have died without you.”’

As has been said elsewhere (see, e.g. Lillian Fadermann), this may be partly literary convention, and partly also that the parameters of female relationships were different, back then.  Passionate friendships between women were fairly common and unsuspicious, in a way that they were not between men (male homosexuality was both illegal and increasingly the object of study by people like Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis).   Female life partnerships, whilst by no means unimaginable, were not taken quite so seriously, or seen as threatening.

Both women also suffered from ill health – which was a bit of a Victorian convention, imputed to women (although how much adopted by them is a question that still needs addressing).  As with Mrs Barnett though, it is sometimes difficult to gauge (indeed, probably ridiculous to try to gauge) how much of this was due to the conventional understanding of the female constitution, and how much to organic illness.  Certainly in the case of Eva, who dies suddenly from undetected diabetes, the terrible problems she had with aches in her legs and side can hardly be written off as a sort of psychosomatic response to a medical model of the female body which predicted dire consequences from exhausting one’s finite supplies of nervous energy on ‘extraneous’ mental or physical activity.

However, it is interesting that when Eva sees a doctor (see pp.187, 191, 260), the diagnosis given is neurasthenia, of which the dictionary says ‘(dated) an ill-defined medical condition, characterized by lassitude, fatigue, headache and irritability, associated chiefly with emotional disturbance.’  This does sound very Victorian.  The doctor’s recommendation, perhaps a little unhelpfully, was ‘a complete change of life’ (p.260).  Later on, writing to Ruth about her health, Eva says ‘I am feeling so much better nervously’ and refers to ‘these mental conditions into which I frequently get’. (p.292)  It would appear therefore, that she did see her physical ill-health as being rooted in a nervous condition – and that she was encouraged in this interpretation by the doctor she saw.  In other words, her reproductive cycle was making her ill; or she was ill because she was a woman.

What else to say about these women?  Both of them took up academic study at Woodbrooke Settlement (I had no clue about university settlements until this and the Canon Barnett biography).  Whilst both were academically inclined, it was Ruth who excelled – being apparently both clever and terribly practical and adept at social relationships.  Eva failed her first set of exams, but she was more introspective, more philosophical than Ruth, which is some ways makes her diaries more interesting to read.  ‘If there is any truth in the possibility of an “ideal man”’, she wrote (p.167), ‘woman will not aid his development by meek submission – she will only create tyranny; she must compel him to recognize her as a personality.’  And on p.265, ‘some men are blind – pearls scattered before them are wasted.  What they need is a surgical operation.’  Whether she means an eye operation or something of a different nature, I’m not certain(!)

She writes a lot about her reading too – for example, on Walter Scott’s Quentin Durward: ‘I found it difficult reading, and comprehended but little.  Oh! how wearisome are Scott’s long sentences, and unnecessary padding!’ (p.164)  L. M. Rossetti’s Life of Mrs Shelley however, comes highly recommended. (pp.266, 269)  Also, both women make continual dubious references to ‘the Odd Women’, a ‘New Woman’ novel by George Gissing.  I suppose I should read it, but it does sound rather depressing from the Wikipedia blurb.  Finally, in this connection, there is a dashing French woman who appears in the book, Francoise Lafitte, who runs round having babies outside of marriage, helping with the French Resistance, living with Havelock Ellis, generally eschewing convention and doing what she wanted.  Apparently she wrote an autobiography, which sounds like it would be a cracking good read.

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