Friday, 29 August 2014

What I've been reading: Pride and Prejudice

Okay, okay. This isn't the only thing I've been reading this week. It's just the only thing I've finished because it's the only thing I've been reading with any consistency.

Look, I'd been having a pretty rough week - it's the school summer holidays, we've had lots of visitors and done lots of visiting and I am an introvert with a personal space bubble of about fifteen feet. I'm worn out. I needed a comfort read, something fun, something familiar. So it was a Pride and Prejudice situation.

I have actually turned into my mother.

While it may seem strange that, with all my stated love for the darkness, for blood and thunder, I should be an Austen fan, you have not touched upon some squishy internal emotional wreck here. Let me make one thing dazzlingly clear to those who are not acquainted with dear Jane; this is as far as it is possible to get from mush.

Just as we disgrace Dumas by assuming he wrote for children, so we mutilate Austen by assuming what she created were romances at their worst - dull farragos of misunderstandings that would be resolved if people treated each other like human beings, sentimental works that end in inevitable marriages. Austen's worldview is bleak, dark, realist. Dare I even say it, they are proto-feminist novels.

Yes, yes, I know, we do not see Lizzy Bennet rolling up her sleeves and becoming a surgeon, nor Lydia eloping with Wickham because women should have freedom of sexual choice as well you know. Austen did not write speculatively; if she could not offer her heroines the hammer with which to smash the patriarchy, she at least gave them the clearness of sight to recognise it and a survival kit of workarounds to prevent it from crushing them.

One of the major criticisms of Austen is her desperate focus on marriage, but consider: a character like Elizabeth Bennet has no employment prospects. She could become a governess, work which paid - on average - a little more than farm labouring but which required a full abandonment of any social prospect. The family for whom she worked would view her as a subordinate, the servants would see her as an object of scorn and an outsider. Isolated for her working life, when she became 'too old' - at no more than 40 - she would be cut adrift on what little savings she had managed to amass.

If she could not get an appointment (likely, considering her relative lack of accomplishments) her income - after her father's death would be approximately £40. In 2008's terms that is roughly £1,400 a year before rent. Not to romanticise the position of the working classes in this time, but a labourer with a family could expect some income from his spouse and older children - an unmarried woman could not.

This is not to say that there would have been no way out. There were, of course, remarkable women who flew in the face of such social expectations (Austen herself was one of them, supplementing her family's income by writing) but she was very keen to make her heroines unremarkable. Too many of her contemporaries wrote paragons; she focused upon ordinary gentlewomen of no particular education, fortune or genius.

And yet, these unremarkable women prevail, and, as they do so, she show just how messed up is the system against which they must contend. The wonderful thing about Austen is that she shows us how the system is broken still.

Take, for example, Mr Collins; pompous, creepy, ugly and stupid. He makes Lizzy an offer (as the parlance goes), so, early in the novel, our heroine receives a proposal from a man she finds repulsive. So far, so romance. Yet this overlooks the tacit knowledge of Austen's audience - just as they would know how straitened the Bennets' prospects were, they would also know that 'marriage' is often a shorthand for 'sex'. And, boy, does Mr Collins employ that shorthand here. Among his first reasons for wanting to get hitched is to set a good example to his parishioners - doubtless reminding everyone that the traditional Anglican marriage service includes a bit on marriage being a way of allowing people to experience the pleasures of the flesh.

So, having not so much proposed to as propositioned her, Mr Collins received a refusal. And, in a move familiar to any woman who has received street or online harrassment anywhere, he refuses to accept this rejection as valid. Women, he claims, often say no at first. Of course, they don't really mean it, and with the correct inducements (another proposal, the advice from her parents) she will say yes at a later date. When Lizzy persists in her refusal, because, he turns nasty. In the most verbosely mannerly, 19th Century way he tells her that her market value as a sexual commodity is not particularly high, and she is unlikely to get other offers. Modernised, what he says is no different from the pick-up artists who go from a "Hey, sexy" to, "Fat, ugly slag!" when you tell them to stuff it.

And Lizzy is supposed to accept this. This - according to the mores of Lizzy's time - is a good match. This is security and relative autonomy and the assurance that she will continue to live in the style and class to which she is accustomed. To marry Mr Collins is to have a respectable clergyman's income for some years, and then the equivalent of £70k a year after Mr Bennet's death. She is not being offered mere financial security, but wealth.

I know, tiny violin. But this choice, this awful choice between lifelong prostitution to a man who is repelent to her in every way and poverty, shows that Elizabeth Bennet is in a damned good social position. She has privilege and opportunity in spades. She has intelligence, family, social standing. Her choices are far wider than that of many of the women around her. This option - which I defy anyone reading this not refuse - is one which Charlotte Lucas - older, less attractive, more pragmatic - grabs with both hands.That is the model, the society, the system in which Austen is working.

But she herself refuses it. Our author is clear; Lizzy should not be overwhelmed with gratitude for the attention of Mr Collins, nor for proposal of Mr Darcy (bringing an income of about 340k) - despite their dreadfully limited possibilities, Austen is adamant: her women are not commodities. Yes, they are circumscribed by money - Elizabeth give up her partiality to Wickham as she their joint income would be insufficient to raise a family - but they never sell themselves. 

Yet, Austen is not painting a utopia. She is showing a world that systematically breaks women down, beats them, constrains them. That she could have written such tales is clear from the palpable misery that surrounds so many of her characters. Would her characters welcome a world where they could love where they liked earn their own living without shame? Almost certainly. But they cannot have that, so they play upon what terms they can, and they win.

 All of Austen's heroines (with the possible exception of Marriane) marry for affection first, and have material comfort anyway. That happiness of that kind can be snatched in the face of such odds is the miracle of Austen's work. She saw the probable outcome of her characters lives and she refused it. Without leaving the stark bounds of realism, she showed that joy was possible, and love, and sexual fulfilment, despite every attempt of the world to destroy those things.

This is not a reconciliation with a broken system, this is a cry of hope. It is an acknowledgement that women are strong, that whatever else is taken from us, we can snatch a little handful of happiness. That with honesty and integrity and just a little bit of pushyness, it can work out. As a feminist model for the rebuilding of a utopia, it isn't much. But as an evisceration of the world's foibles and a, "hang on in there", it's wonderful.

Every time I read Austen, I am breathing relief that I was born in the late 20th century, not the early 19th. Every time I see the messed up conversations we are having about gender, finance, sex and relationships, it is a comfort, a promise, a ray of light. It is a cause for thanks, and for rejoicing.

 All figures taken from: and

Friday, 22 August 2014

What I've Been Reading: The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt and Bad Dreams, Kim Newman

It appears there has been some controversy about this month's book group selection. No, not the more interesting kind of controversy where people get very shouty and use words like 'immorality', more the sarcastic and passive-aggressive controversy that confines itself to the literary establishment. If you yawned and missed it:

While some heralded The Goldfinch as the literary smash hit of last year, it has left some member of the ancien regime rather less convinced. For the hardline snobs, the novel is "further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture", it is a simplistic, hackneyed, unremarkable book. It lacks that certain special something (*ting*) which separates popularist, middle-brow, genre-dross from Art.

And, well, high handed and out-of-touch as such a condemnation might be... I kind of agree with them.

Don't get me wrong, The Goldfinch isn't a bad book. I quite enjoyed parts of it, even though it wasn't really my thing. Yet, while I don't think any less you if you found it one of those worldbendingly fabulous novels that reaches inside your head and rearranges things, it failed to satisfy. To damn it with faint praise, it was okay. Readable, but not compelling; the characters weren't uninteresting, but it never moved me. It was probably a bit longer than it needed to be. It was a little predictable.

You see, here's the thing that I and the head-in-fundament, genre defying Literary types have in common; we don't always feel books should have a payload, a message, a reveal. We know that plot, that compulsive readability is not the mark of quality. We know that sometimes artistry, or exquisite craftspersonship, can be an end in itself. They just make the mistake of assuming a marker of this is slavish realism.

The Goldfinch falls into the rather sizeable crack between our world-views. In terms of 'Art', of Literarty accomplishment, it is lacking. Its subtext is swamped by plot before being finally hammered out in tedious exposition. It slots together too neatly for a literary novel, but for a genre novel the plot is insufficiently realised to make this moment like the pleasing assembly of jigsaw pieces. It felt a little careless, gave the impression of a writer with literary spurs genre-slumming. It missed on both counts.

And here comes the sting, you see, because so many of my favourite authors have been doing what this book attempts for years, without being given the mainstream legitimacy that Tartt takes for granted. If The Goldfinch is neither fish nor fowl, then the works of John Crowley, Poppy Z. Brite and Robert Holdstock (to name but three) are glorious chimeras. Yet, outside of genre circles, you don't see their work heralded as 'Book of the Year'.

Okay, that turned into something of a rant. Now, for something shorter, sharper and sweeter, if - to pinch a metaphor - a peach on the brink of rotting can be called sweet. Genre time, and that genre is horror of the finest, gross-out variety.

 Published in 1990, Bad Dreams isn't a Newman novel I'd encountered before, and while parts of it have dated somewhat, much of it is depressingly relevant. An indictment of the '80s establishment and its exploitative denizens, much of it will seem familiar to those who've read Newman's other work - vampiric entities, left-wing principles, pop culture and vicious satire. Some of the names used appear in later novels, too, (notably, Jago) and the character of Anna Nielson channels both Geneviève and Katie Reed. While it isn't as accomplished as the better Anno Dracula novels, it's well worth a look in its own right. A tightly plotted, skilful little novel, it strikes hard and viciously in all the right places. Great fun.

Friday, 8 August 2014

What I've been reading: Angelmaker, Three Supernatural Classics, The Scarlet Pimpernell

You know, I'm not sure if I've ever read any Algernon Blackwood before - which is a little odd, given that I spent most of my youth and early adolescence reading ghost stories. What I have certainly never done before is had to go grovelling to library to tell them I ruined one of the books.

 I am mortified. 

Suffice to say that a very windy day and a child stuck in deep mud at a beach have ruined the habit of a lifetime, and, more importantly, my local library's copy of Three Supernatural Tales.

But it isn't the outside of a book that matters, *bites fist and moans softly* it's the words in it that make the difference. So, before I die of shame, our supernatural tales ; The Willows, The Wendigo and The Watcher. Of these, The Watcher was easily my favourite. Not to disparage Blackwood's ingenuity in creating less usual supernatural threats, it was the only 'proper' ghost story of the three, with a mystery to be solved based upon the lives of the unquiet dead and a threat to be averted. The denouement was a little weak, but the suspense, the sense of growing madness, the shaking passion of the narrative was utterly compelling. Good work.

The Willows and The Wendigo were far more ambitious, and while beautifully realised (and more narratively satisfying, in terms of explanations) they left me a little cold. Both these stories felt very Lovecraftian in the way that the supernatural threat was inhuman and implacable, primal and horrific. Yet while I found Blackwood a far better writer than Lovecraft (don't shoot!), and his approach rather more literary, there was a sense of missed opportunity. While our dear H.P never lets a moment slip in terms screaming horror (sometimes at the expense of style or clarity) Blackwood has a tendency to undercut his most effectively chilling writing with explanation of that fear. And while his literariness gives him greater scope for exploring the more philosophical aspects of abject terror at the universe, the sense of internal drama in his characters was lacking; we heard that they were distressed, but got no sense of it. In a genre so empathetic as the supernatural story, this is something of a short-coming - and a sadness, as it was a technique at which he excelled in The Listener.

Still, definitely worth a look for fans of the genre.

For a more open-hearted commendation, if you're looking for a holiday read,the only problem with Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker is that you may get so caught up that you forget to do ordinary holiday things like eat ice cream, swim in the sea, or play cricket.
Isn't that just a beautiful cover?

Seriously, my kids got so pissed off with me.

It's a clever book, with characters you genuinely care about, and a real light touch for poignant details. Never mawkish, or sentimental, it is perfectly balanced - like a skilfully made clock. And it's compulsive. A wild ride that flirts with steam-punk and political commentary while never losing the core value of just being a huge amount of fun. Yeah, fun. Look, it isn't the best book I've read this year, but it was beautiful, witty and entertaining. It was gut-wrenching, it was sexy, it was intelligent... and it had a bi-sexual, cross-dressing super-spy. And frankly, that should be enough for anyone.

And talking about bi-sexual, cross dressing superspies.... Except that, outside my headcanon, there is absolutely no evidence that Percy Blakeney batted for both teams. *Sigh*. Still, hot on the tail of The Count of Monte Cristo, I was in the mood for a rather more slushy and anglo-centric rip-roaring adventure narrative, which sent me back into the pages of my beloved The Scarlet Pimpernell.

Look, I could write an essay about everything that is wrong with this book, but I don't want to, so I shan't.

Instead, I'll say that what always interests me about film and stage adaptations of this novel is that Percy's mode of dress becomes part of his ploy- he acts like a brainless dandy, and to do so, he must dress like one. In the novel, he just likes dressing that way. Being daring enigmatic, intelligent and heroic does not preclude on looking fabulous. 

So there.