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Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Madame de la Rougierre

I'm only a quarter of the way into Uncle Silas, the 1864 suspenseful and sensational work by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. I originally bought this as side-reading for my thesis but I've had so much primary and secondary reading to crack on with that I haven't had the chance to read it before now. I shunted it over to my TBR pile and picked it up yesterday.

So far I'm astounding by the creepiness. I blogged last year about Wilkie Collins's ability to perturb modern readers and I reviewed his particular success in The Haunted Hotel around the same time. However, Le Fanu's atmospheric and claustrophobic novel is so far surpassing that success. I'm petrified and we haven't even been introduced to the title character yet!

Madame de la Rougierre is the protagonist's governess. The reason she was initially engaged and her past are both mysterious at this point but what isn't mysterious is the impact she is supposed to have on the reader: we're not simply to think of her as unpleasant - she is evil and manipulative. Le Fanu adds more anxiety to the protagonist with almost every scene involving her and the governess. The suspense and mystery doesn't let up for a moment. It's disturbing enough reading this in the electric glow of a modern bedroom; I can't comprehend how unsettling it would've been being read by candlelight when it was first serialised in the Dublin University Magazine. It's interesting from a writer's perspective to watch how Le Fanu builds up the tension. From the first moment we meet Madame de la Rougierre we know the protagonist should be careful:

On a sudden, on the grass before me, stood an odd figure - a very tall woman in grey draperies, nearly white under the moon, courtesying extraordinarily low, and rather fantastically. I stared in something like a horror upon the large and rather hollow features which I did not know, smiling very unpleasantly on me; and the moment it was plain that I saw her, the grey woman began gobbling and cackling shrilly - I could not distinctly hear what through the window - and gesticulating oddly with her hands and arms. (Chapter Four)

That's a taster of the language used to describe Madame de la Rougierre throughout the portion of the novel I've read so far. It's creepy stuff and it only builds as time goes on. The combination of facial descriptions, adjectives used about her and her French accent all work to create a sensation of foreboding. This is Katina Paxinou portraying the character in the 1947 film adaptation which I'm now quite desperate to see:

Doesn't she look alarming?

I think I'd kill to be able to invoke the kind of feeling that Le Fanu does in Uncle Silas. And I'm looking forward to seeing how the character's evil personality impacts the rest of the novel. What I am not anticipating, however, is peaceful slumber, neither while I'm reading the book nor when I'm finished with it.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Book Review: Dani's Story by Diane & Bernie Lierow with Kay West

Thank you to Penguin Books and @Francesca_PR who supplied this book to me for the purpose of reviewing.

Dani's Story documents the true tale of how a girl, desperately neglected in the first years of her life, came to find a place in a family when the odds were stacked against her. What could have been a run-of-the-mill human tragedy story was distinguished by the sheer despair of Dani's situation and the persistence of the Lierow family in continuing with their quest to adopt her. Also notable about this book is the fact that the Lierows shied away from media attention. When they were eventually approached by a magazine they only agreed because they were persuaded their story could encourage more people to adopt. As they write in the epilogue, "If we had not told Dani's story, then all of her suffering, all of her struggles, and all of the strength she somehow found to survive would have been for nothing. If telling her story helps other children in the foster care system find a home, then her ordeal may be the catalyst for a positive outcome."

Diane and Bernie Lierow had five children between them when they decided to add to their family and adopt. They saw a picture of Dani at an event and were instantly drawn to her case, an interest that wasn't extinguished by finding out that Dani had severe special needs. She had existed primarily on a mattress in a dark room surrounded by rubbish. She couldn't speak, she hadn't been toilet-trained and she evidently hadn't experienced a day of love in her life. Social workers didn't think it was possible that she could ever find a 'normal' home because of her problems. Enter the Lierows.

This book doesn't shy away from the grimness of Dani's early life. It isn't included to sensationalise; it serves to highlight the remarkable achievements in her later interactions with the Lierows. Many of the important moments in her development are documented but perhaps not as many as I expected. The book focuses on Dani but also on the impact she has on her new mother, father and brother Willie. I got the impression that very little was ironed out in the presentation of the family unit - they come across as a remarkable family though they would argue that they are nothing special.

A couple of final things about Dani's Story: it is a heart-warming read but it could also make you quite angry at the two opportunities that were passed up to remove Dani from her birth mother's care. It isn't any consolation to realise that child protection services can get it as badly wrong in America as they can here in the UK. My last point is highly personal to me and doesn't detract from the essence of the story the Lierows are telling: as an English atheist it was sometimes difficult to connect with, firstly, the American slang and, more importantly, the reliance on religion that permeates the book. It's sometimes tricky for me to comprehend the importance that God plays in this family's life and it isn't something I'm completely on board with.

Nevertheless, this book was an enlightening read that demonstrates the worst in human nature then combats it by showing the unconditional love human beings can offer. Find out more about Dani at this website.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Amusing Summaries

As part of my PhD research I'm reading lots of sensation novels and trying to write a brief summary of events so that I don't get too muddled when trying to recall details of any particular book. Characters and plot melt into one mass of confusion if I'm not careful. It's just a document with a little about the progression of the plot and I include at the end quotations of contemporary reviews. However I just wrote a summary sentence for the past history of a character and snorted. 

  • David Lloyd's Last Will, Hesba Stretton, 1870: "It’s mentioned that Mark lost a fiancĂ© a decade ago when she fell off a cliff and he renounced marriage after that."

Is it just me or did anyone else snort? It makes it all sound so ridiculous. Yep, she fell off a cliff. In fairness to my summary, it sounds as stupid in the actual text. But, as a writer who struggles with writing synopses for her own work, I'm petrified of my plot sounding as contrived and melodramatic as that one. I've located a couple of these humorous summary sentences in my notes on other books.

  • Robin Gray, Charles Gibbon, 1869: "Twenty years earlier McWhapple had been signed over property from Hugh Sutherland who it was suddenly rumoured had joined a conspiracy to overthrow the government."

  • A Woman's Vengeance, James Payn, 1872: "Helen returns from the grave, confesses her sins then promptly dies." 

If I ever write anything like that in a synopsis I want to hang up my writing cap immediately and retire to a life of solitude with cats. I may yet do that anyway, to be fair. One final unrelated note garnered from my novel notes: don't change the sex of a baby half-way through a book.

  • A Life's Assize, Charlotte Riddell, 1871: "Joy gives birth to a baby girl (text later suggests it’s a boy)."

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Book Review: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

One warning before I kick off this review: Of Human Bondage is an exceptionally long book. The copy I've got (from the Vintage imprint) runs to exactly 700 pages and the type isn't exactly large either. However, I felt a unique sense of satisfaction when I finally closed it and I wouldn't say it was a monotonous chore to read.

The novel is known as Maugham's most autobiographical work. I don't know much about Maugham's life but a cursory glance at some biographical facts suggests much of the childhood portion of the book was based on his own experiences. In the novel the uncle who lives at Whitstable in real life becomes the vicar of Blackstable and the city where he received his education, Canterbury, becomes Tercanbury. I was aware of these similarities as I was reading and it helped create a sense of location. I don't think any knowledge of Maugham's early life is necessary to an enjoyment of this book, although it's interesting to see what things fit in and what is invention.

Of Human Bondage follows Philip Carey from his boyhood loss of his mother up to around the age of thirty. He packs quite a lot into life in this time. After the death of his mother he moves in with his uncle and aunt and goes to school in anticipation of becoming a clergyman. However, Philip was born with a club foot which makes integration at school difficult and, indeed, haunts him for much of his life. He frequently comments that whenever he is involved in a disagreement his disability is the one thing that people use as a low blow against him. It shapes the way he perceives the world and the way the world treats him.

Philip travels to Germany to finish his education and he also spends time in London then in Paris, looking for something he is suited to. He finally settles on his father's profession as a doctor for his career but this is beset with financial problems, primarily impacted by his relationship with a waitress called Mildred. I have to say, his dealings with this woman very nearly had me throwing the book against the wall. It occasionally defied belief that he took so much from her but, I suppose, seen through the eyes of his disability, it makes a little more sense. Still, Philip behaves in a somewhat pathetic manner and his self-sacrifices for the sake of Mildred are painful to read about. Each time she appeared I let out an audible sigh.

I don't think this novel is remarkable for character. Not only does Philip's character infuriate sense at times, other characters seem wooden on occasion. This could be symptomatic of the scope of the novel: so many people pass through the pages that fleshing them all out would be a difficult - and perhaps pointless - task. I found that some characters serve a purpose, or put across a point of view, before vanishing. Some, however, stuck in my memory a little more. Philip's aunt, Mrs Carey, struggles to demonstrate her affection for her nephew in the face of indifference from her husband. One of the most touching scenes of the book for me was the moment she pressed her life savings into his hands to make up for not being a 'proper' aunt to him during his youth. Another female character, the tragic Fanny Price, is notable for the end of her story. Perhaps it was that end which kept her in my mind but it could also have been the desperation to preserve appearances and self-belief which did it.

What Of Human Bondage seems to do best is impart ideas an philosophy. In Germany, for instance, Philip finds the religious doctrines he has followed all his life being challenged as he examines the differences between the Protestant religion he knows and the Catholic religion practised in Europe. When you consider this book was published in 1915, the conclusions are a little startling:

The fact was that he had ceased to believe not for this reason or the other, but because he had not the religious temperament. Faith had been forced upon him from the outside. He put off the faith of his childhood quite simply, like a cloak that he no longer needed. At first life seemed strange and lonely without the belief which, though he never realised it, had been an unfailing support. He felt like a man who has leaned on a stick and finds herself forced suddenly to walk without assistance. It really seemed as though the days were colder and the nights more solitary. But he was upheld by the excitement; it seemed to make life a more thrilling adventure; and in a little while the stick which he had thrown aside, the cloak which had fallen from his shoulders, seemed an intolerable burden of which he had been eased. (p130)

What Maugham does very well throughout the novel is examine the ideas of religion and morality, along with the meaning of life. It's interesting to see Philip's uncle, the vicar, struggling towards the end of his life with a painful thought that he may not be in for eternal peace after all. Along with religion, Maugham uses Philip's time in Paris to discuss art and philosophy. Many of the characters Philip encounters there become merely mouthpieces for ideas Maugham wants to impart.

I enjoyed this book, although I wanted to hit Philip. I think it's worth reading for the ruminations on humanity but don't go to it for character. Go to it for the sheer ease of storytelling or go to it for the intricate scenes Maugham depicts throughout the pages. It may not be an enthralling read but I did come away with knowledge I'm not sure I recognised before.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

I Like Bonnets

I was listening to a little debate on the Radio 2 Jeremy Vine show yesterday. It basically asked whether people were fed up of 'bonnet dramas' and suggested that we need to stop living in the past. Some of the discussion was sensible but some of it was hostile in a way that rather infuriated me. People just wanted to ditch Downton Abbey and things of that ilk, never mind the fact that almost 10 million people tuned in to watch the opening episode of series two on Sunday. Those viewing figures, in today's television climate, are astronomical. If something is that popular why would you get rid of it just because it's a 'bonnet drama'?

Some of the criticisms were pretty spot-on. They ran a spoof of clichĂ©s usually encountered in period dramas; they questioned the sentimentalisation of history that prompts more sympathetic characterisation in situations which otherwise would reflect badly on them by modern standards. A Downton Abbey example of this would be Mrs Patmore's failing eyesight which is benevolently rectified by the Earl of Grantham in the first series. There is a danger that we're imposing our values on a society that wouldn't recognise them because we feel uncomfortable with the reality of our past. Nevertheless, I think the inaccuracies are overwhelmed by the sheer quality of the drama.

I wrote a piece last year about why Downton Abbey is a master-class in story-telling. I stick by that wholeheartedly. It doesn't matter what period a television series is set in: what matters is how the story is told and who the characters are. Downton Abbey had excellent scripts, an exceptional production team and a cast perfectly suited to their roles. Critics may sneer at the success but isn't it all a matter of taste?

Some commentators in the discussion yesterday claimed that there is too much of the 'bonnet drama' on television. Well, I'm sorry but that irritates me. There is plenty on television for people who don't enjoy drama: reality television viewers, soap addicts, chat show devotees are all catered for. Drama, if anything, is woeful in this country at the moment.We commission small runs of things, therefore leaving huge gaps in the schedules which is - in my own personal opinion - filled with dross. Saturday nights have become the home of reality television. I'm sorry but what about the rest of us who would only watch it if you tied us up and nailed our eyelids open? I'm forever frustrated by the pandering to reality television that channels do. The BBC is considering taking an axe to sections of their best channel BBC4 but are happy to shell out millions on a new reality import about choirs. What am I missing?

People who complain about the abundance of 'bonnet dramas' are within their rights to complain, of course. However, their criticism that we should focus more on modern society misses the richness of our heritage. I am happy to watch modern drama, I thoroughly enjoy some of it. But I don't appreciate the implication that just because a drama is about something old it's nothing to be interested in. That kind of mentality has thrown us into a fame-solves-all mentality where much of the youth in this country believes that if they get famous then they can live comfortably without having to do much. Watch some period drama; have your interest in a historical time or event piqued and go research it for yourself. We have precious few ways of connecting ourselves with our past but period dramas can become that connection.

But, most of all, I would ask people not to criticise something that is obviously filling a vacuum in British society. We like 'bonnet dramas'. So what? Your nectar may be my poison but I have to suffer. If you don't like it, don't watch. It's simple. 

Friday, 16 September 2011

Performance Time

Last night I attended a showcase of work by writers, directors and actors which celebrated work in this region. I was lucky enough to have a piece included: a ten-minute play called 'Shards' which revolved around a woman's inability to communicate with her dementia-suffering mother following the death of her father. The problem is exacerbated by the woman she deems responsible for her father's death becoming friends with her mother. Honestly, it takes longer to explain the piece than to watch it!

I was pleased with the way mine looked on stage. I don't think there's anything that quite matches the sensation of hearing words you've written come out of other people's mouths. The three actresses involved in my piece were excellent. I saw a rehearsal on Wednesday evening and the first thing I said afterwards was that the actress playing Eliza was scary. The director pointed out that I'd written her that way but words on a page can sometimes be so subdued and the effect has to be seen to be enjoyed. Judging from the audience reaction, I think my play went down quite well and - when I remembered to breathe - I found I enjoyed it too.

The other twelve pieces were very varied. However, my father did point out afterwards that a running motif seemed to be death. That probably says a lot about the preoccupation of writers at the moment, feeding off the gloomy atmosphere and worrisome news stories. The comedies were very good though and provided some much-needed laughter in the midst of all the death and pain.

It was an excellent night all round and I'd like to thank my family for coming to support the hyperventilating writer and the various friends who have kept me calm over the last few weeks - Claire, Sal, Laura and Nicola included! Well done to everyone involved in the performances and I hope I get to work with some of them again in the future.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Some Words On Satisfaction From W. Somerset Maugham

In the foreword to Of Human Bondage I found some words from Maugham which seem to sum up the writer's predicament:

Though authors are touchy about their productions and inclined to resent unfavourable criticism they are seldom self-satisfied. They are conscious how far the work on which they have spent much time and trouble comes short of their conception, and when they consider it are much more vexed with their failure to express this in its completeness than pleased with the passages here and there that they can regard with complacency. Their aim is perfection and they are wretchedly aware that they have not attained it.

We strive for an excellence we'll never achieve but where do you draw the line? When do you give up on perfecting something and settle for what it actually is on the page? Anybody who's serious about their craft knows that the first draft contains a myriad of errors. You have to resolve these to your satisfaction. But then you may think that your second draft is as incomplete as your first. So you try it again and again. You could spend your life trying to perfect one manuscript but if you manage to get it up to your exacting standards on one draft you'll become disillusioned with it on the next.

You have to let go. I'm terrible at this. I have two manuscripts I've redrafted four times apiece. I'll concede that they are a lot more coherent and structured than they were in the first draft. I'll admit they make me smile, want to cry and also ache in appropriate sections. My characters are much more rounded and realistic than when I first started and, for the most part, I think they sound more individual too. Yet I'm still not happy. I'll never be happy. I want to rework them a million times. If I allow myself that luxury there's no chance they'll see the light of day.

A good way of fighting this is passing your writing onto other people who will give you relatively honest criticism. If you let go long enough to allow one person to take a peek then you might be ready to face the hurdle of submission. I'm almost there. Actually, I am there. Maugham reminded me that absolute perfection is unattainable and you have to compromise with yourself sometimes.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Book Review: Flick by Geraldine Meade

First off, may I say thank you to Little Island and the Book After Book blog for this book, which I received free as a winner in the LGBT Book Challenge 2011. I'd urge anyone interested in LGBT fiction of any genre to go take a look and participate. Details can be found on the sidebar.

Flick isn't the type of book I would've picked out for myself, primarily because it isn't the kind I would stumble across in my searches. It's aimed at young adults, in the 15+ category, and this is backed up by the extremely difficult themes and, occasionally, language used in the novel. The blurb describes it as a 'searingly honest depiction of teenage life as it is lived today', and I'd say it lives up to that label. The novel deals with Flick (Felicity) who is struggling to be 'normal' when she feels anything but. Along the way she makes some huge errors but is finally forced to confront the underlying issue about her sexuality.

This book was very readable. As suits the audience, it's not very long and it's cut up into bite-sized chapters. This interrupts the flow a couple of times but it suits the tone and style of the book. The narration of Flick feels very realistic and honest. I'd say that perhaps the interactions with some of the adults in the novel are slightly patronising but perhaps realistically so. I love the portrayal of Flick's father, along with that of her brother Kev. Meade portrays a family with differences but one which is built on a base of love. As far as structure goes, it doesn't waste time before pushing you into the action. It also isn't predictable. I found myself more than once surprised at where we were going.

I liked this book, especially the depiction of family life as the flawed and difficult thing it is. Give it to a teenager struggling with being different in any aspect of their lives or read it as a parent to understand a little more about the psyche of a teenage girl.

This book was read as part of the LGBT Book Challenge 2011. Learn about the author here.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Book Review: The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier, published in 1915, is one of the most powerful Modernist texts I have come across. It's fairly short at under two hundred pages but I would urge anybody reading it to digest in as few sittings as possible. It's one of those novels where every word matters and you're expected to analyse every action dictated to you.

The novel tells the tale of an English gentlemen, Edward Ashburnham, and his wife (Leonara) as seen from the perspective of narrator John Dowell. The Ashburnhams seem like the perfect couple, the traditional concept of 'good people', but their marriage is a lot more complex than at first sight. Slowly, as you progress through the novel, you discover that Dowell himself in the most interesting of characters, the unreliable narrator who frequently contradicts himself. The narrative flow means the reader is trapped in Dowell's head, travelling back and forth in time with him as he sees fit. It may make the text difficult to follow at times but it is certainly reminiscent of a person searching their own memories - recollections rarely occur in a linear manner. Dowell explains his predicament at the beginning of Part Four (there are five sections to the novel):

I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea, the story as it comes. And, when one discusses an affair - a long, sad affair - one goes back, one goes forward. One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognises that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression. I console myself with thinking that this is a real story and that, after all, real stories are probably told in the best way a person telling a story would tell them. They will them seem most real. 

That last line sums up the danger of the novel: things seem real but, with Dowell as your only portal, they may very well not be. It's up to the reader to analyse Dowell's motives as best they can. It might make reading the novel a little challenging, but no one ever said Modernist texts were easy to read. I enjoyed the book. It reminded me of my love for Modernism, prompted by an unit on my undergraduate degree. Although The Good Soldier is considered to be Ford Madox Ford's greatest work, I certainly plan to read more of his books in the future.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

My Heart - Doris Day

There are so few women still around who represent what I consider to be the best of old Hollywood. These women had voices and talent beyond the realms of modern experience. They could act, they could sing and they could dance - compare that to some of the lifeless performers of modern cinema these days and see where it gets you. The likes of Debbie Reynolds, Angela Lansbury and Mitzi Gaynor are fortunately still with us. However, until the last few months, everybody who didn't know otherwise believed Doris Day had left us. Doris has actually spent her years out of the spotlight caring for animals in a small town in California. This new CD of songs includes some beautiful unreleased tracks which she mainly recorded in the 80s. They include some more modern standards: 'Daydream', 'Disney Girls' and 'You Are So Beautiful', along with other songs that she picked because they demonstrate her love for her late son, Terry Melcher, and her passion for animals.

It's an outstanding CD. The whole thing melts together so perfectly that it's very difficult to pick favourite songs from it. Every track is so wonderfully Doris, the smile that's evident in many of her recordings is more than evident here. Her version of 'Daydream' beats most others for me - it's a finger-clicking smile-fest, perfectly suited to her smooth voice. Equally, 'Disney Girls' is gentle and wistful and 'You Are So Beautiful' is - there's no other way to say it - absolutely beautiful itself. The album includes a tracked called 'Happy Endings', sung by Terry but introduced, quite bravely I think, by Doris herself. 'My Buddy' is probably the most painful recording to listen to if you know anything about her close relationship with her son. 'Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries' is included on the album because it was Terry's favourite song of hers, and it truly is gorgeous.

If I had to pick one song that stands out a little above the rest it would be the song that has been picked as the UK single and was consequently played quite a bit in the build-up to the release - 'Heaven Tonight'. It's an easy-going love song that snared me at first hearing. But, to be perfectly honest, there isn't a dud track in the bunch. I know Doris fans will be delighted with this album and if, Doris has any further inclination to check her archives for unreleased material, I can guarantee there will be several million people interested.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Climbing Back to Progress

The other week I went indoor climbing for the first time in six months. Prior to that, I hadn't been for about eight months. So I was somewhat out of practice. Add to that the fact that my fear heights usually consumes me each time I manage to get a few feet off the floor and you'll understand why I was apprehensive. However, after conquering my first (very high) wall by nervously singing songs from Sweeney Todd under my breath, I did something I'd never done before - literally threw myself into climbing until everything hurt and I was dangling precariously on a rope while reaching for a hold I could never get. Previously, I wouldn't go for anything remotely out of reach, my fear of slipping and bashing myself was too vivid. But I actually did slip and bruise my knee quite badly. The worst sort of happened and I was still climbing.

This past weekend I opened up a WIP I abandoned a few weeks ago when my PhD schedule became all-consuming. I'd left it at around 28,000 words. I'd finished Part One (of three) and faltered as I couldn't fathom how to progress. Taking a leaf out of climber-me's book, I just started writing. I knew my characters pretty well; I had a vague idea of where I wanted to go - why shouldn't I write? Well, on Saturday I added 3,500 to my word count and at least another 1,000 on Sunday. By forcing myself to begin writing, much as I forced myself to begin climbing, I found that I soon got into the swing of it.

One final note: after climbing I was in agony for two days. My forearms burned to the extent that reading a book was painful. When I awoke one morning I thought I was fine, then I moved and pretty much started crying. I've experienced something similar with the writing: by devoting my weekend to this novel I woke up on Monday utterly drained and lacking a weekend break. My head feels like sawdust and, I suspect, my PhD work thus far is demonstrating that. Still, progress in one area is better than progress in none...

Friday, 2 September 2011

Book Review: Women Who Did ed. Angelique Richardson

The full title of this collection is Women Who Did: Stories by Men and Women 1890-1914. The individual stories by authors such as Katherine Mansfield, Thomas Hardy and Kate Chopin examine the 'new woman', the turn of the century female who was beginning to demand and expect equality with men. The introduction by Angelique Richardson is well worth a read as it sets up the context nicely. There are also short biographical notes at the end of the book for the twenty-five authors included.

Most - if not all - of the stories in this collection can be described as exquisite. Even the satirical 'She-Notes' by Borgia Smudgiton (Owen Seaman) was charming because of, rather than instead of, its satire. Many of the stories have a didactic tone and the occasional lighter moments offset that quite nicely. Some of the stories I'd encountered in other collections but as a whole they point to one huge shift in the way women viewed themselves and were viewed by others.

I didn't dislike any one particular story but there were some I enjoyed more than others. 'The Yellow Drawing Room' by Mona Caird tells of a woman who has painted a room this disgusting shade of yellow but is nevertheless attractive to the male narrator who wants to marry her and change her. He courts her sister to make her jealous, something which the object of his affections could never forgive him for. A couple of the stories deal with race and the 'taint' of black blood. The most striking of these for me was 'Desiree's Baby' by Kate Chopin. A man rejects his wife on the basis of their baby obviously having a black ancestor, prompting her to walk into a river with her son. Thomas Hardy's 'An Imaginative Woman' was a story I was already familiar with but fitted into the collection perfectly. It tells of a aspiring female poet who develops an attachment to a man she has never met and the grief this causes both her and, later, her family. George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne) supplies several stories, my favourite being 'Virgin Soil' where a young married woman condemns her mother for hiding from her the truth about married life.

My absolute favourites from the collection are two of the shortest. Kate Chopin's 'The Story of an Hour' tells of the reaction of a woman when learning of her husband's death. It was so potent that it stayed with me long after I'd finished the two pages it covered. My second favourite was Katherine Mansfield's 'Leves Amores', primarily because of the lesbian content and Mansfield's intense use of imagery, despite the small space in which to do so. I'd read this before, in relation to Claire Tomalin's biography of Mansfield, but included in this collection it certainly had a new resonance for me.

The most famous piece included in this book is probably Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper'. I have to say, that story never bores me. To be honest, I think that sums up my view of this entire collection - none of the stories bored me and all I would want to read again.

The twenty-five authors included in this book are: Mona Caird, Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, Gertrude Colmore, Mary Samuel Daniel, Ella D'Arcy, Rudolph Dircks, George Egerton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, George Gissing, Sarah Grand, Thomas Hardy, Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins, Katherine Mansfield, Alice Meynell, George Moore, Clarence Rook, Saki, Olive Schreiner, Evelyn Sharp, Borgia Smudgiton, Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf and Zitkala-Sa.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

A Little Friendly Inspiration

I was reminded recently how much speaking face to face with other writers can give your lagging enthusiasm a kick up the behind. Oh, I know that the Internet is a fantastic tool and allows you to interact with people you've never met. It can open so many doors. But it can also leave you feeling a little solitary on one side of a computer screen while the writing world trundles on somewhere else.

During my MA I was thrown together with some very vivid personalities. Some I liked and some were creepy. I remember many an evening sitting with people and talking about our work, talking about the rest of the world and our lives, even talking surreptitiously about which tutors we thought were talking out of their...well, you get the picture. While discussing your writing with sympathetic family members is something of a solution, they can become a bit vacant half way through an explanation. They might appreciate what you're trying to do but they may not understand the driving force behind your work.

On Saturday, as Sal and I (she won't mind me mentioning her name) were chatting over coffee, I suddenly felt a rush of enthusiasm for the stories that either I'd abandoned or I was trudging through like an obligation. I wanted to get home and get writing. As it happened, I couldn't do that due to other circumstances, but the feeling lasted. I want to write. That's a sensation I may have been lacking recently.

I wish I saw my writing friends more often. However, in the meantime I'll enjoy it when I get the chance and always keep a notebook handy when I do.

Oh, and Sal (@Bamdaph on Twitter) has recently started a blog about learning how to drive. It's going to be funny so you may want to take a look!