Oct 222014

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor, Virago Press, 2013.

Mrs Palfrey is a reasonably well-off widow who takes up residence at the Claremont Hotel in London. She has one daughter who lives in Scotland and a grandson who works at the British Museum. Apart from them, she has no family or current friends. She chose to live at the Claremont because it offers attractive off-season rates for long-term retired residents. The book is set in the late sixties or early seventies – it was published in 1971 – and reflects a world where nursing homes were the last stop before death, and elderly people feared them.

At the Claremont, Mrs Palfrey has a small room with a view of a brick wall, and shares a bathroom with other guests on her floor. She takes her meals in the dining room, and spends her evenings in the hotel lounge with the other residents and passing-through guests. She is crushingly lonely and more than a little lost after her husband’s death. Mrs Palfrey was an excellent wife who dutifully followed her husband on his overseas postings and adhered to social conventions. Now she finds herself adrift in the world and hopes the Claremont will be a safe harbour.

Elizabeth Taylor was a brilliant writer and this, her last novel, is one of her best. She perfectly captures Mrs Palfrey and the other Claremont residents. They are old and wobbly on their feet, and some of them are good haters. There is a boorish gentleman, the product of a public school, who writes complaining letters to the newspapers and bails up the hotel staff and tells them rude jokes. There is an outrageous flirt, a dipsomaniac, a vicious gossip, and a woman so frightened and anxious that she constantly second-guesses herself at every turn. Mrs Palfrey finds herself parachuted into this alien milieu and sets about trying to make a life for herself.

The thing Taylor does in her writing, the way she unfolds characters, like smoothing out a ball of crumpled paper, is so impressive. You can see the characters, hear their voices and, most importantly, you can really feel their pain. Some readers find the narrative funny, but I fail to find much humour in the book. I found it to be beautifully written, but ever so melancholic. I suppose you could laugh at the characters’ foibles and their petty worries if you were of a mind to do so, but I felt such sadness for them all. They are so trapped inside themselves, so trapped within the bounds of what is ‘proper’. Their sense of propriety, their class snobbery and good manners make them all so rigid and I found this ineffably sad. If they had pooled their resources they could have had a good time together, but they were mired in their pettiness and it made me feel claustrophobic on their behalf. It is hard to read about so much despair written so realistically.

The narrative seemed to me to be dark, unflinching, and slightly vicious at times, but Taylor’s writing is often like that. Somehow she manages to make her characters seem so real and emotionally raw and vulnerable, but at the same time they behave in ways that make them appear appalling and fascinating at the same time. I have no clue how she was able to get right to the heart of things the way she did, but it seems to me that she was unafraid to look life in the eye and report back on the loneliness and despair she saw.

Mrs Palfrey first came to the Claremont Hotel on a Sunday afternoon in January. Rain had closed in over London, and her taxi sloshed along the almost deserted Cromwell Road past one cavernous porch after another, the driver going slowly and poking his head out into the wet, for the hotel was not known to him. This discovery, that he did not know, had disconcerted Mrs Palfrey, for she did not know it either, and began to wonder what she was coming to. She tried to banish terror from her heart. She was alarmed at the threat of her own depression.


This is the gorgeous ‘other’ Elizabeth Taylor. I really want to read Nicola Beauman’s bio of her.

Oct 162014

Sisters by a River, Barbara Comyns, Virago, 2013.

First published in 1947, Sisters by a River is an autobiographical novel that tells the story of Barbara Comyns’ childhood. She and her four sisters (and one brother who is only mentioned once in the book because he would ‘hate to be in it’) grew up in a large Gothic pile dating from the sixteenth century. The house itself is almost the main character in the book and is described in great detail throughout. Situated beside a river that sometimes flooded the garden so that the children had to walk around on stilts, the house is also probably the most stable character in the book. The sisters’ parents, and the members of their extended and very dysfunctional family, are really quite grotesque.

I read somewhere that Barbara Comyns’ writing reads like Beryl Bainbridge on acid, which seems like a fair estimation, although I would not want to take anything away from Comyns. I think her writing and that of Shirley Jackson probably have some things in common, and Angela Carter had a similarly inventive and warped imagination. Anyone who likes We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Magic Toyshop would probably feel at home reading Sisters by a River.

It was in the middle of a snowstorm I was born, Palmer’s brother’s wedding night, Palmer went to the wedding and got snowbound, and when he arrived very late in the morning her had to bury my packing under the wallnut tree, he always had to do this when were born – six times in all, and none of us died, Mary said Granny used to give us manna to eat and that’s why we didn’t, but manna is stuff in the bible, perhaps they have it in places like Fortnham & Mason, but I’ve never seen it, or maybe Jews shops.

I have seen reviews of the book where the narration is described as being from a child’s point of view, but I do not agree with that. The narrator, Barbara, who is the second-youngest sister, is clearly an adult reminiscing about her childhood, and at one point mentions that she married one of the other characters. The narrator sounds childlike because she is relatively uneducated: her idiosyncratic spelling and grammar is proof that all the governesses who made the sisters’ lives a misery were not very proficient teachers. Apparently Comyns was upset when the publisher chose not to correct the spelling mistakes in her manuscript but instead added in some more because it was thought the book gained charm by being ‘unlettered’, and I think this holds true. Barbara narrates her story in a matter-of-fact way, even the violent and cruel bits, because having grown up in such a dysfunctional family it all seemed rather normal and unremarkable to her. Her father was cruel to animals and not very kind to people, and her mother distant and disturbed, which rather reminded me of my own parents, and I certainly related to the children’s untrammelled roaming, their hiding in secret places to keep out of the way, and their dispassionate witness of the grown-ups’ crazy antics.

The new year wasn’t nice at our house, the grown-ups got simply frightful, they all drank too much and got depressed, I can’t think why they did it, if it made them unhappy. Daddy was the worst, he would get all sentimental and morbid and keep saying this was the last year we would spend in the house, and we could expect the bailiffs any day now and Granny and Mammy would cry and have another drink to help them to bear up, then Granny and Daddy would both say, ‘This is the last New Year we shall see, they could feel Death coming nearer’ and Granny would cry more than ever and say no one wanted you when you were old, and they never told you anything, and young people were hard and looked like strumpets anyway.

That sounds a lot like my own memories of Christmas en famille; I never knew until I left home that other people had fun family gatherings without adults crying, screaming and throwing plates of food at the wall. Fun times! I would love to read a biography of Comyns if I could find one, because she sounds like a really interesting woman. Apparently, the things she describes in Sisters by a River are true(ish). Her father did have a tenant who was a widow with seven stillborn sons and one living daughter. One day he saw the daughter playing and declared to her mother that he would marry the child when she grew up. He was a fairly wealthy industrialist and brewer who ended up losing his money, but at the time he was a good catch despite his rumoured ‘touch of the tarbrush’, as Comyns puts it. So, when the daughter was seventeen he married her and she had six children in quick succession. During her last confinement something went awry and she became stone deaf. Comyns went to art school, married young and had two children, but the marriage failed. She then became involved with a black marketeer and made a living by breeding poodles and renovating pianos, amongst other things. Comyns’ second husband was a friend and colleague of Kim Philby, the spy, and was sacked by the Foreign Office when Philby was unmasked. Strapped for cash, Comyns and her husband went to live in Spain for eighteen years, long before it was fashionable to do so. Seriously, you couldn’t make up stuff like this.

I wish the cover art for this book was more apt; it just seems insipid to me, considering the powerful and sometimes macabre nature of the book. Oh well, here is a picture of the gorgeous Ms Barbara Irene Veronica Bayley, as she was born, who lived from 1907-1992. She was an artist as well as an author, but I have not yet found any images of her art online.

Oct 092014

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn,Phoenix, 2014.

I never intended to read Gone Girl. I thought it was just another one of those over-hyped bestsellers, like Twilight and Fifty Shades, which would not interest me at all. However, the film adapted from the novel has just been released here and there is a quite a bit of talk about the book. After hearing a couple of radio segments in which literary cognoscenti said that it was well worth reading, I decided to take the plunge, stump up $12, and buy a copy. There are 47 reserves on the book at the library!

Being me, I could not just start at page one and read to the end. Instead, I had to read the end first to see what happened because I cannot deal with the physical feelings that suspense engenders. It all feels too much like anxiety to me and makes me too jittery and uncomfortable. So, I read the end and went online and looked for spoilers, so by the time I started the book I knew what to expect from the plot. What I did not know is that Flynn is a very clever writer and the book has a lot to say about a great many things. Yes, it is a thriller and a mystery novel, but the mystery is wrapped in existential, psychological and social issues that most of us encounter throughout our lives, and this is what made it a very interesting read for me. I do not want to spoil the novel for anyone who has not already read it, so I shall limit my comments here to generalities.

I was impressed with the structure of the book: dual first-person narrators can sometimes be a clumsy literary device, but it works well in Gone Girl. As the story unravels, we see the same events through the eyes of two very different people. Neither is given to prolonged self-reflection, but through their actions and references to certain events we are able to piece together the story, even though the narrative is extremely twisty. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the writing is how cleverly Flynn manipulates the reader’s reactions to the characters: one minute I was feeling empathy with a character and then wham! the rug was pulled out from under me and I was feeling disgusted or some other strong emotion. Reading the book was like looking through a kaleidoscope while being on a roller-coaster – my perspective and reactions constantly changed – and often I had to stop and question my own assumptions and certainties about life, love and relationships.

The issues Flynn writes about include gender politics; sexism, in all its guises; stereotypes in the media; the effects of the GFC on the Great American Dream; existential questions about how to be in the world; the pernicious influence of the internet on how people ‘perform’ their lives in the twenty-first century; the inherent injustice of criminal trial by media in a country that does not recognise the concept of sub judice; class inequality; the sense of entitlement that some people develop as a result of their narcissistic tendencies; the psychological problems that can develop in children who are subjected to inadequate parenting, and a whole lot more besides. Gone Girl is not only a cracking thriller/mystery novel, but it is also a razor-sharp social critique.

So, I rather surprised myself by enjoying the book a great deal, despite knowing what would happen, and despite the last 100 pages, which meandered a little too much. I thought the ending was fitting and played into the overall theme of the book, which seemed to me to be about two damaged people who live in a fantasy world and are influenced by the media to such an extent that they act out their own lives in ways we would normally only see depicted in movies and on television. In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan wrote about the influence of technology on societal norms and values, and maybe Flynn sought to extend this message, albeit in a way that non-academics can understand.

I liked the riff on the Cool Girl. I see so many girls trapped in playing that role. I also see a lot of men trapped in Nick’s role, which can be equally as stifling to any sense of living an authentic life. I have read that some people think Gone Girl is a deeply misogynistic book, and that Flynn is somehow a misogynist for writing it. I think that view is rather superficial because Flynn is engaged in reflecting and critiquing society, not in re-creating it. Western society IS misogynistic, so it should come as no surprise that a contemporary novel about relationships between men and women in the USA shows us misogyny in all its ugliness. Also, I have seen Gone Girl criticised because the characters are portrayed as stereotypes, and I think this criticism is probably justified. However, we can view the stereotypes as being representative of the ways in which some people really do see and think about other people, and we can ask ourselves questions about why that might be, and what our own perception and understanding of such stereotypes tell us about our own way of being in the world. I think that Gone Girl is very much a catalyst for thinking and questioning and it would be an excellent book club read.

I am not sure if I want to see the film. In the trailer, Ben Affleck looks too old for the role of Nick, and in my imagination, Amy is a very pretty all-American girlie girl. Rosamond Pike is gorgeous, and this is a fantastic career move for her, but she seems somehow more ‘substantial’ in appearance and manner than I imagined Amy to be. There seems to be a lot of heated criticism directed towards both actors for choosing to be in the movie. The film does deal with difficult themes that make some of the characters seem inherently mad and bad, but I see a lot of truth in what Flynn has written about gender politics and relationships. Not every marriage ends in ‘happy ever after’. I am glad to have read the novel and I think it would have been a real trip and half to have read it without being aware of spoilers, because the narrative gallops along and the twists and turns are fiendishly clever.

Oct 062014

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, Barbara Comyns, Virago Press, 2000.

First published in 1950, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a thinly disguised autobiographical novel about Comyns’ first marriage. Sophia and Charles are both twenty-one when they marry, and although they come from families with money, Sophia has only tenuous ties with her brother and sister, who are her only close living relatives. Charles’ divorced parents are very much present in his life, and judging by his behaviour they did a fairly ordinary job of raising their son. He is a painter and far too precious to contemplate getting a full-time paying job, so Sophia, who is also an artist, has to work in order to feed and house them both. There is quite a lot of drama surrounding their wedding day and I do wish that Sophia had chosen her husband more wisely. Charles does not want children and is very cross when it becomes obvious that Sophia is in the ‘family way’. She has to leave her job and things really go downhill from there. She and Charles are very poor and live off the cheques in the dresser drawer until their money runs out. Fortunately, Sophia is taken on as a charity case and is able to have her baby in a hospital, but the grimness of it all, which Comyns describes in quaint but sick-making detail, made me feel sad.

Sophia is naive and does some stupid things after she starts working as an artists’ model, and everything gets rather messy and awful.

The woman’s heavy jaw dropped. She looked kind of scared and began to close the door, but I slipped in before she quite shut it. I heard Peregrine shouting something, and he suddenly appeared wearing a dressing-gown, the same one I’d worn when my clothes had got all wet. In his hand he held a tooth-brush all neatly spread with paste. He said, ‘Good God, Sophia! what are you doing here?’

I went up to him and took his hand and said, ‘Do be pleased to see me, Peregrine. I’ve come earlier than we expected. Do tell this woman about me. Haven’t you told her anything about me at all?’

After this unfortunate encounter with her lover’s wife, Sophia passes the night sheltering in a church doorway, clutching her baby and trying to keep her warm, but nothing good comes from sheltering in a church doorway, it seems. The entire narrative lurches from one crisis to another, most of them of Sophia’s making, but the story does have a happy ending despite Sophia’s best efforts. I found myself vacillating between wanting to wrap Sophia in a blanket and feed her soup, and wanting to slap her on the side of the head – she really is an infuriating character.

Comyns cleverly captures the 1930′s British bohemian zeitgeist, but it all sounds terribly cold and miserable, especially when the electricity, gas and phone are cut off. Having to farm out your child to strangers so you can work, and only being able to earn a pittance because you are not qualified to do anything that pays well, sounds awful. And not having anything to fall back on when life went belly-up, especially when there were children involved, must have been brutal. I am all for people being artists and living a bohemian lifestyle, but I am also very much for socialism, so that women and children have a safety net when they need it.

This is the third time I have read Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and I still like the book very much. Comyns writes wonderfully well, and Sophia’s self-deprecating and ingenuous voice adds a soupçon of bravado to what would otherwise be a fairly demoralising read. Sophia has to battle her way through her first marriage, giving credence to the adage about marrying in haste and repenting at leisure. England in the 1930s was not kind to poor people, as Stephen Spender eloquently shows us:

In Railway Halls ~ Stephen Spender (1939)

In railway halls, on pavements near the traffic,
They beg, their eyes made big by empty staring
Railway Hall And only measuring Time, like the blank clock.
No, I shall weave no tracery of pen-ornament
To make them birds upon my singing -tree:
Time merely drives these lives which do not live
As tides push rotten stuff along the shore.

There is no consolation, no, none
In the curving beauty of that line
Railway workers Traced on our graphs through history, where the oppressor
Starves and deprives the poor.
Paint here no draped despairs, no saddening clouds
Where the soul rests, proclaims eternity.
But let the wrong cry out as raw as wounds
This Time forgets and never heals, far less transcends.