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Thursday, 31 July 2014

Birthdays Are Book Days

It's that time again. Another year older (which I'm trying not to think about) and something that goes hand-in-hand with birthdays for me - a cornucopia of new books. As far back as I can remember, if people were stuck for a present for me, they just got me a book and I never complained. I recall car journeys to the coast on birthdays with my nose more in a new book than bothered about sniffing the sea air. Don't worry, I eventually put it down and did kid stuff but the point is that birthdays and books are entwined in my head.

I went to York for a few days and went a little crazy in the book department. It's easy to be free with someone else's money but this is my York haul:

Three shops contributed to that. I've been meaning to read Brody's Kate Shackleton series from the beginning since I read A Woman Unknown (reviewed here) over a year ago but I'd got it into my head that I wanted to buy it from a 'proper' bookshop in Yorkshire and, being too dippy to order it in, I was waiting until I found it. Looking forward to that one immensely. The Stella Gibbons book will be the fourth of hers that I've read (and still haven't touched Cold Comfort Farm) and, although the last one I read was a little odd, I do have high hopes for this one. As for Jude the Obscure... Well, I might give that a wide berth for a while. I want to read it but Hardy tends to emotionally break me. 

Now the non-fiction. Out of the five, Dickens and the Artists is probably the most intriguing and the prettiest. Dickens and the Social Order might be put off until I've read two of the novels it discusses but it was too good a deal to ignore and, while I've heard mixed things about the Collins biography, I couldn't really pass that up either. The Virginia Woolf book, although small, is notable for the illustrations so that should be good and as for Yorkshire's Murderous Women... Can I just point out that until I started studying sensation fiction my interest in gruesome historical murders was almost nil? I think we can blame Edmund Yates and Wilkie Collins for that one. 

There's one other book to mention, a present from a good friend who aims to aid my procrastination by giving me books like this: 

She knows me so well.

Here, have Audrey Hepburn singing (with her real, charming voice) in a bookshop in Funny Face:

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Classic Film Review: Tender Comrade (1943)

Tender Comrade stars Ginger Rogers as Jo Jones, a war factory worker whose husband Chris (Robert Ryan) is away serving in WWII. Jo decides to move in with a few other workers to save money until their husbands returns. Barbara (Ruth Hussey) is a little abrasive, seeing other men while her husband is away, while Helen (Patricia Collinge) is the mother of the group with both a husband and a son involved in the fighting. Newly-wed Doris (Kim Hunter) is the baby of the group, having married her new husband an hour before he left for battle. They are joined by housekeeper Manya Lodge (Mady Christians), a German with an American husband who wants to contribute to the war effort any way she can.

This film could've been so much better than it was. The major problem is that story and character are subservient to propaganda all the way through, understandable, I suppose, given the year of release. However, this propaganda sinks the film. It beings with a sentimental ten minute reunion between Jo and Chris before he's shipped off to war. Perhaps this scene would've been more bearable if it hadn't been accompanied by music that told you exactly how you should be feeling. The opening scenes indulged in cliché which probably would've been as familiar to the American public in 1943 as they are to us now. Cutting out Robert Ryan entirely and just having the character of Chris away all the time would've been a better option for the actual meat of the story which should have been solely the women struggling to cope but finding companionship in each other. That would've been a great film, especially with Rogers as the lead.

Other things that irked me about Tender Comrade included the flashbacks. In order to use Robert Ryan, there were lengthy flashback scenes inserted which gave details of their courtship and life before he went to war. Over-sentimentalised, they frequently reminded me that this wasn't a film, more like a propaganda newsreel. In addition, the lengthy scene at the end of the film, while managed well by Rogers, lost all of its emotional meaning by its exposition and the inevitability of the whole thing. Yes, it was making a political point but, somewhere in the midst of that, the writers forgot they should also be trying to entertain their audience.

It wasn't all bad. Once Jo was surrounded by the other women, the character came alive and was enjoyable to watch. The other female members of the cast were the same. There were a couple of excellent scenes, the most notable being when Jo reads Helen a letter from her husband about their son. While this could ostensibly be seen as more propaganda, it came more naturally, stemming from character and the understated emotion of Rogers and Collinge in this scene is worth more than all the tears Rogers sheds in the last five minutes.

If you can look past the propaganda and focus on the scenes between the women, this is a much more enjoyable film. Look out particularly for the scene when Doris's husband comes home and they try to feed him up.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Characters Waiting to Flourish

Being more of a 'pantser' than a 'planner' does have its upsides. It means that I get first drafts done, however terrible, without stopping to second-guess myself halfway through. Knowing I can fix something later is a huge weight off my mind and I rather like spewing rubbish onto the page - gets it out of my head anyway. Then I can move on.

However, that word vomit isn't the only reason I enjoy plunging into a story and seeing what happens, as I learned this month when I ran off the first draft of a play. It's an idea that's been floating around for a while but I had neither time nor desire to start a new project at the moment. Then, in the midst of my academic conference schedule this summer, I just decided to go for it, reasoning that I needed a welcome distraction to giving papers and trying to be a normal human being for long periods of time.

With this idea, I had an end point, some brief character sketches and progression notes but no meat on the bone, so to speak. During this (brief) planning stage, I realised that I needed another character if my two main 'events' were going to occur, otherwise my distraught heroine would be talking to herself, a drunkard and a schemer. Entertaining, perhaps, but not ideal for moving the story forward. So I came up with another character, practically at random. And you know what? She easily became my favourite.

The thing about not having many preconceptions about your characters in a first draft is that you can just let them go where they want and let them speak. This is particularly relevant in a play draft, of course, where the vast bulk is just dialogue. What came out of this was that the character I'd thought so little about took charge in a way I hadn't been expecting. She became a substitute leader with frailties she doesn't like to acknowledge and one gaping hole in her armour. Her scenes took precedence over all the others, including the sisterly relationship that's supposed to operate at the heart of the play.

I suppose this gives me food for thought when I write the second draft. There's a lot of character work to be done and the whole thing needs rewriting into something akin to coherence. No idea when that'll be with my PhD work plus the novels I'm trying to force myself to rewrite. But at least I got the draft down - and discovered a brilliant character in the process. Not bad for a few illicit weekends in July.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Classic Film Review: The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950)

The Happiest Days of Your Life stars Alastair Sim as Wetherby Pond, the headmaster of a boys boarding school which is unexpectedly told on the first day of term that another school is going to be billeted with them. He is annoyed enough before the school arrives, led by Margaret Rutherford as Muriel Whitchurch and full of girls. Chaos ensues but the pair will have to work together when Pond's potential new employers come to look around at the same time as some anxious parents want to see the school where their girls are staying. Can they make the school simultaneously appear like an all-boys school and an all-girls school?

I found this film hilarious. It takes a little while to set the scene but once it gets going it's brilliant. The supporting cast includes John Bentley as Richard Tassell, Gladys Henson as Mrs Hampstead and Joyce Grenfell as Miss Gossage, along with several other good comic performers. With all the teachers, it's difficult to get a complete sense of characterisation but that doesn't matter entirely - all the characterisation you need is employed with the two giants and this titanic battle is beautiful to watch.

It's a very British film. Of course, I don't use that as an insult, more as a warning to those who don't appreciate that type of humour. It's full of little looks and little sayings that appeal to my sense of humour, especially anything spoken by Rutherford. The scene close to the beginning where she is analysing Pond's office to see what kind of headmistress resides there is brilliant, as is Sim trying to give a lesson in the entrance hall that keeps getting interrupted. I think the thing about The Happiest Days of Your Life is that it's difficult to pinpoint particular scenes or moments - the whole film just combines to be hilarious.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Book Review: Persuasion by Jane Austen

Persuasion, Austen's last completed novel, was published posthumously. It tells the story of Anne Elliot, a derided middle-sister whose capabilities far exceed those of her two sisters and vain father but her family consistently ignore her. Only her dead mother's friend, Lady Russell, sees her value but even Lady Russell has steered her wrong in the past, encouraging her to break off an engagement with Frederick Wentworth, a young naval officer, because of his status and lack of money. Years later, the family seat is rented to relatives of Wentworth and Anne is thrown back into his circle.

The exposition that, by necessity, forms a chunk of the beginning of the novel is quite meandering. Once the novel settled down - once the rest of the family had removed to Bath and Anne was left in the country with her younger sister's household - the pace picked up. From then on, the story remains interesting, with a cast of characters that generally infuriates.

Austen's depiction of selfish human beings is nothing less than exquisite in this novel. As well as Sir Walter, Anne's father, whose extravagance and penchant for 'keeping up appearances' has led them to leave the family estate when Anne's good management could've saved it, there is the oldest sister, Elizabeth. Her attitude towards her sister is more damning than their father's and she is a thoroughly irritating woman. Mary, the youngest sister, is an attention-seeking hypochondriac whose interest in her sons depends on what exciting thing is happening nearby. As a family, they constitute a brilliant portrait of selfishness and stupidity, with Anne the long-suffering exception.

There are several characters who drop in and out of the narrative but the most important characters, aside from the immediate family, are Frederick Wentworth and Sir Walter's heir, William. With William seemingly seeking Anne's hand and Frederick insisting to himself that he feels nothing for the woman who gave him up so easily, the stage is set for a succession of romantic entanglements and disentanglements that left me with a smile on my face.

Thoroughly recommended, if only because this novel proves that two hundred years ago we were still as self-centred as we are today and, really, we worry about much the same things. Some things never change and most Austen novels reaffirm that.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Book Review: The Odd Women by George Gissing

The Odd Women is my third Gissing of the year, following earlier reviews of New Grub Street and The Emancipated. Chronologically, this one comes later and it draws on the themes of The Emancipated but in a much more coherent and pleasurable style. It tells the story of a group of 'odd women', that is women who have no hope of finding a husband because of the surplus and those who are actually 'strange'. It's a commentary on the marriage and employment markets for women and the rigid attitudes, both external and internal, which prevent women doing what they would like.

A number of women are introduced throughout the book. The main characters are Rhoda Nunn, Mary Barfoot and the three Madden sisters - Alice, Virginia and Monica. Rhoda and Mary run a secretarial school and the elder Madden sisters push Monica into bettering her prospects by learning these skills instead of working in a shop. However, Monica has been accosted by a strange, and fairly well-off, man, and chooses to marry him instead. Much of the novel documents her irritation with her husband's desperation for their isolation and her temptation by another man.

The other main strand of the novel is Rhoda's relationship with Mary's cousin Everard. This is the more fascinating strand, though the two do collide at different points. After first meeting Rhoda, Everard wants to see if he can make her fall in love with him and therefore test her opposition to love and marriage. He eventually falls for her but the struggle between them occupies a central part of the book. Misunderstandings and personality differences combine to impede any chance of a marriage between them.

With Gissing, I'm learning that not only will I be disconcerted throughout the reading of a book but I will also be a little miffed by the ending. The Odd Women is on a par with New Grub Street in this respect, leaving the reader pondering the other permutations the book could've left them with. In this sense, it was certainly a book that lingered with me for a few days.

Rhoda is an excellent character, full of contradictions that she's aware of and tries to reconcile with each other. The last picture of her in the narrative is a powerful one. On the other side of the coin, Monica is irritating, though she does mature a little as the book goes on. The contrast between the woman who doesn't need a husband and the one who wants the security of one could be heavy-handed but Gissing portrays Rhoda's struggles and Monica's realisations effectively. For me, one of the best scenes of the novel is the final encounter between Rhoda and Monica.

There are many incidental characters who tended to get confused in my head. Of the other more prominent characters, though, it's Virginia with her concealed alcoholism who stands out. It's half-funny, half-tragic and I do like the fact that both she and Alice get a reasonable due at the end of the novel.

Overall, I enjoyed The Odd Women. It didn't take as long to get going as The Emancipated and had a similar, strong female character at the heart of it who captured my attention. Definitely a book I'd like to re-read in the future.

Monday, 14 July 2014

My Summer Conferences

I've given papers at three conferences this summer in rather different locations and to different groups of people. The actual conferences themselves have been enjoyable and informative, though my personal difficulties have made them a little more traumatic than I would've preferred.

The first one, at the beginning of June, was the Oxford English Graduate Conference 2014 on the theme of 'Margins'. Of course, this gave me the brilliant excuse to see Oxford - and to see Oxford in the sunshine - which was a very pleasant experience. My paper, entitled 'Reclaiming a Sensation Novelist: Re-evaluating Edmund Yates', was on a 9:00 am panel, probably a good thing because once it was over I started to enjoy the day a little more. The programme was packed full with four sets of four simultaneous panels. The variety was excellent, though I tended to stick to the more Victorian ones. Perhaps my favourite panel was 'Nineteenth-Century Women' that included three outstanding papers from Ruth Ashton (University of Leicester), Teja Pusapati (University of Oxford) and Rebecca Shuttleworth (University of Leicester) who looked at 'fallen'/'new' women, the English Woman's Journal and provincial women in abolitionist discourse respectively. The day was a success overall and I managed to overcome my inherent shyness and hold a few conversations with some interesting people.

Secondly, at the end of June, was 'Recoveries 2014: Reconnections, 1714-1914' held at the University of Nottingham. The paper I gave there was a variation on my Oxford paper, slightly shorter and with more of an emphasis on Yates's novel Black Sheep in relation to Dickens. I was pleased with how it went and got some interesting questions. Once again, there was a nice mix of paper within the time period, my favourites perhaps being Amy Watson (Nottingham Trent University) discussing Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Adam Abraham (University of Oxford) talking about imitations of The Pickwick Papers and Elizabeth Adams (independent) on the collaborative authorship questions surrounding Mary Elizabeth Braddon. The university campus at Nottingham is stunning, a perfect place to discuss literature and culture.

Finally, I attended the 6th annual Victorian Popular Fiction Association conference which was on the theme of 'Victorian Treasures and Trash'. I attended this conference last year and it was brilliant. I'm pleased to say that this one was exactly the same. Spread over three days, there were plenty of papers to hold my attention, dealing with some Victorians I know a fair bit about and some of whom I know absolutely nothing. There's something equally fascinating and terrifying about being in a room with a heap of Victorian experts but they're all lovely people. I didn't get the chance to talk to some people I wanted to but that was partly due to time and partly due to my shyness going into overdrive. I did spend a lot of time hiding but I was there. That's the important thing.

My paper was on the Thursday morning and was a completely different creature to the Oxford and Nottingham papers. While they focused on the collaboration rumours surrounding Edmund Yates, this one delved into textual analysis and comparison to Dickens in a paper called 'Bleak House to Black Sheep: Literacy and the Street Boy'. I was fortunate to be on a panel with Sarah Lill (Northumbria University), whose paper on Edward Lloyd was both fascinating and slotted most neatly in alongside mine. There were too many excellent papers to name and I wouldn't want to leave anybody out so let me just say that it was a brilliant conference with some thought-provoking panels.

All of these conferences have thrown up things I want to now read, whether related to my research interests or not. Thanks to Oxford, I need to get more acquainted with Dickens's Christmas journals, read some Marilynne Robinson and delve - quite carefully - into George Moore. Nottingham taught me that I need to finally read The Pickwick Papers and dramatically improve my knowledge of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's 'lesser' novels. The VPFA gave me a lot of potential reading material including stories by Louisa Baldwin, Dr Paull's Theory by A.M. Diehl, Behind the Mask by Louisa May Alcott and a few texts on stammering from the nineteenth century. I may also give The Mill on the Floss another shot.

It's been a busy five weeks but rewarding nonetheless. I only hope my papers proved as interesting to others as theirs did to me.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Theatre Review: The Pajama Game

On Monday I was lucky enough to see The Pajama Game at the Shaftesbury Theatre. I've wanted to see a Chichester Festival Theatre transfer for quite some time and this one didn't disappoint. It tells the story of Babe Williams (Joanna Riding) and Sid Sorokin (Michael Xavier) who are on opposite sites of an industrial dispute at the factory they work in - Babe is vigorously campaigning for a raise while Sid is having to tow the line of boss Hasler (Colin Stinton). Caught between a rock and a hard place, the romance between the two falters but Sid endeavours to rescue it - and the workers' cause.

First of all, the musical numbers are fantastic. Each one, I decided, was my new favourite, until it was superseded by the next. With a little distance, I think my favourites were probably 'I'm Not at All In Love', 'I'll Never Be Jealous Again', 'Once-a-Year Day', 'There Once Was a Man' and 'Hernando's Hideaway' (yes, I'm aware that's half the score!). 'I'm Not at All in Love' is Babe trying to convince her colleagues that she doesn't have a thing for Sid, quite unsuccessfully. The camaraderie in that number is brilliant and it fully establishes Babe's character. 'I'll Never Be Jealous Again' is a duet and dance between foreman Hines (Gary Wilmott) and Mabel (Claire Machin), with her testing his resolve to be more trusting of his girlfriend Gladys (Alexis Owen-Hobbs). Honestly, this pair form a wonderful double-act with many little comedic moments throughout the show, especially when Hines can't quite get his trousers back on (long story).'Once-a-Year Day' is a production number involving the whole cast at the factory picnic and the choreography, as it is throughout the musical, is exquisite. The energy of this cast is outstanding. 'There Once Was a Man' is another energetic song with Babe and Sid expressing their love for each other while 'Hernando's Hideaway' is an ensemble number where Alexis Owen-Hobbs shines as Gladys. There's nothing substandard about the songs I haven't mentioned but this is already turning into an essay!

The cast is superb. Joanna Riding captures Babe perfectly, from the punchy and spiky factory grievance committee spokeswoman down to the heartbroken woman who sings a reprise of 'Hey There'. She irresistibly captures the eye during any scene, even when she's not speaking. Equally, her chemistry with Michael Xavier works very well, especially in 'Small Talk' and 'There Once Was a Man'. Xavier himself portrays the conflicted Sid delicately enough and the rest of the cast all have their shining moments, some of which I've mentioned above. However, for me at least, Joanna Riding stands out from the excellent crowd.

The Pajama Game concludes a limited run on 13th September. I'd highly recommend it as a fun night out at the theatre with some memorable songs. Four days later, I'm still singing 'Hernando's Hideaway'...

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Classic Film Review: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Kind Hearts and Coronets stars Dennis Price as Louis, the distant heir to a dukedom who plots to murder the eight family members standing in his way. The film opens with Louis in prison writing his memoirs and we find out how the law caught up with him We also see his relationship with Sibella (Joan Greenwood) develop, his first love who disparages his pretensions and marries Lionel (John Penrose) instead, only to start an affair with Louis later, and the widow of one of his victims, Edith (Valerie Hobson), who he takes a real shine to and is more equal to him in station. What will be the cause of Louis's downfall?

This is a brilliant film. It's a softly satirical piece of comedy, no laugh out loud moments but utterly hilarious in its way. Dennis Price does a good job as the suave, disgruntled killer but the real star of this is Alec Guinness who plays eight members of the D'Ascoyne family including Lady Agatha. The most interesting of these is probably the vicar is probably the best, dithering and pondering as he shows Louis, dressed as a continental bishop, around the church. Each death is excellent, completely different to the one before and Louis pulls them off with aplomb.

Joan Greenwood as Sibilla certainly grows in prominence and personality throughout the film. From an ambitious young woman, she becomes a coy adulteress and, finally, a manipulator worthy of Louis himself. She is a nice foil to Edith who is desperately nice and far too good for the murderer. He and Sibilla certainly deserve each other.

The twist towards the end was very welcome and fitting. The final scene when Louis realises what he has forgotten is golden and it allows you to fill in your own conclusion. Ultimately, Kind Hearts and Coronets is a dark comedy about jealousy and revenge but it also serves as a reminder that sometimes it's the things you don't count on that bring you down - and that nothing is as dangerous as a woman scorned.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Book Review: The Wisdom of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton

Coincidentally, I reviewed the first collection of Father Brown stories in June 2013 - obviously I like reading Chesterton's short mysteries in the summer! The thing I enjoyed most about this collection was the eclecticism: Father Brown flits around all over the place, sometimes with his companion Flambeau and sometimes alone. It means that no one story is similar to the one preceding it, something which I greatly appreciated.

The first story is 'The Absence of Mr Glass' which ridicules a doctor's deductions and is quite hilarious. It's brilliant in its simplicity, as is the second story, 'The Paradise of Thieves', which, despite being fairly confident about what was going on, entertained me nonetheless. The fourth story in the collection, 'The Man in the Passage' is both ingenious and a little heartbreaking. It tells of an actress with several suitors in her dressing room and who is mysteriously struck down by a suspect who is described differently by every witness. Father Brown's cross-examination here in this story is downright wonderful.

Story number seven, 'The Purple Wig', is enjoyable for its variation in narrative style as well as the substance of the mystery while 'The Perishing of the Pendragons' is notable for its description of the environment as well as the mystery. Similarly, in the ninth story, 'The God of the Gongs', the desolate descriptions of a seaside town out of season are very evocative.

All of the stories in this collection have something to recommend them but my favourites are probably the last two, 'The Strange Crime of John Boulnois' and 'The Fairy Tale of Father Brown'. The former's characterisation is wonderful and, again, it toys with narrative style at the beginning. It tells of a philosopher accused of murdering his love rival but this philosopher is far too disinterested to lift a finger - he just wants to be left alone with his book. 'The Fairy Tale of Father Brown' is an exploration of a past event by Father Brown and Flambeau. I always love these two together and the tale of a prince who was shot when guns were banned from his kingdom is a wonderful little teaser to conclude on.

I suppose that by this point I'm more adept at spotting where Chesterton is going with his mysteries. However, much to my delight, he still manages to surprise me on occasion and, regardless, his stories are both evocative and clever. However, I do think I should put off reading the next collection for a few months - delay the pleasure!