‘I wonder if women brought their knitting when Oscar Wilde talked,’ said Piers.
‘I daresay not,’ said Sybil calmly, ‘but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have liked to.’
(At a dinner party in Barbara Pym’s novel A Glass of Blessings)
Sybil, the tolerant, perceptive mother-in-law of the heroine Wilmet in A Glass of Blessings, can be relied on. Knitting, embroidery, tapestry, sewing: these could come to the rescue of women – and men too – on all sorts of occasions. It’s enough to make you envy those Jane Austen heroines who could bend their faces over their work to hide their emotions of irritation or boredom with whatever is going on around them.
Certainly the Lenten service Wilmet attends with its almost never-ending sermon would have been much more bearable if she’d had something to occupy her hands and despairing mind: We had been subjected – that seemed to be the only way to describe it – to an address of great dullness… Sentence after sentence seemed as if it must be the last but still it went on. I felt as if I had been wrapped round and round in a cocoon of wordiness, like a great suffocating eiderdown.
Being a committed Christian and regular churchgoer, Barbara Pym heard a lot of sermons and you can’t help thinking some of them must have found their way into her novels. Did Archdeacon Hoccleve’s Judgment Day sermon in Some Tame Gazelle with its over-flowing stream of literary quotations beginning at the seventeenth century happen in real life? The congregation shifted awkwardly in their seats. It was uncomfortable to be reminded that the Judgment Day might be tomorrow.’ Another occasion for the soothing effect of needlework.
Embroidery can provide the motif for those preachers of sermons, as in Barbara Pym’s early novel Civil to Strangers: ‘Some people don’t put in enough stitches,’ repeated the rector, in a slow emphatic voice. ‘Isn’t that true of many of us? He leaned forward. ‘Aren’t our lives pieces of embroidery that we have to fill in ourselves? Can we truthfully say that we always put in enough stitches?’ Cassandra, the twenty-eight-year-old heroine, wakes up from daydreaming to realize that she is the ‘old lady’ whose embroidered firescreen has inspired the rector’s sermon; Janie, the rector’s good and dutiful daughter, is whiling away the time eyeing up the curate as a possible husband. Barbara Pym knew that even Excellent Women find it impossible to stop their thoughts wandering, and this must be a comfort to all of us.
It’s more than forty years since I started an embroidered cushion cover in a fit of over-enthusiasm and lack of self-knowledge. Somehow it got put away and forgotten, but it’s come out again now. Just the thing for keeping calm when politicians are fighting: I might even finish it. The wife of the President of the Learned Society in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women knew what she was about, during those endless anthropology lectures, sitting there with her knitting until she nods off to sleep…
Why does Elizabeth Gaskell take a back seat among nineteenth-century classic novelists? Is it because we think her too Victorian – over-doing sentiment, religion and morality?
Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels vary considerably. You might try one, not care for it, and dismiss the rest. Or love one, and feel disappointed not to get more of the same.
Blame Cranford here. Elizabeth Gaskell is best known – and loved – for this altogether delightful account of small town life and the splendidly independent and inter-dependent women living almost entirely without the support and companionship of men. It’s a far cry from the uncompromising depiction of the harsh realities of Manchester’s workers and factory conditions in Mary Barton and North and South. Eye-opening reading at the time, and Elizabeth Gaskell is a terrific story-teller. But nobody could call these two novels cosy reads, despite the satisfying romantic love stories woven into the plot.
Even less cosy is Sylvia’s Lovers, set in a coastal town during the Napoleonic wars and described by Elizabeth Gaskell as ‘the saddest story I ever wrote’. Not a good choice when you want a comfort read. You need to be in the mood for Thomas Hardy-style mischance and tragedy.
Elizabeth Gaskell was married to a Unitarian minister based in Manchester where conditions for the working classes at a time of rapid industrialisation were a squalid mix of poverty, disease, and early death. She was deeply concerned with how Christian belief translates into social action, working alongside her husband and for charitable causes to alleviate the misery she saw around her. In Mary Barton, subtitled A Tale of Manchester Life, published in 1848, she was writing about what she witnessed first-hand: those who are ‘doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want’.
In North and South published in 1855 we are shown the violent clash between employers and employees. Elizabeth Gaskell doesn’t take sides. She tells the stories clearly and sympathetically of those individuals caught up in either side of the conflict. She was interested in the need to reconcile different interests and classes, and how society can work together for the good of all.
In these novels dealing with social problems and industrial relations, Elizabeth Gaskell knew what she was talking about. How Lord David Cecil in his Early Victorian Novelists published in 1934 can write that these subjects ‘… entailed an understanding of economics and history wholly outside the range of her Victorian intellect’ is a mystery. He has to be forgiven much, given his later championship of Barbara Pym, but it’s difficult not to feel indignant at his condescending description of Elizabeth Gaskell as a ‘mild feminine Victorian’ who ‘sees nothing but flowers in the garden.’
Religion in novels – as in life – isn’t plain sailing. Jane Austen, although a devout Christian, largely steers clear of the spiritual lives of her characters. It’s understood they are governed – or not governed – by Christian principles, but we are left to imagine them on their knees in prayer. In contrast, Elizabeth Gaskell is unashamedly explicit in how religion shapes their thinking and behaviour.
Characters talk about God and quote the Bible. In North and South Christian faith is what drives the courageous heroine Margaret Hale and comforts the dying mill worker Bessy Higgins. ‘Nay, Bessy – think!’ said Margaret. ‘God does not willingly afflict. Don’t dwell so much on the prophecies, but read the clearer parts of the Bible.’ ‘I dare say it would be wiser; but where would I hear such grand words of promise – hear tell o’ anything so far different fro’ this dreary world, and this town above a’, as in Revelations? …It gives me more comfort than any other book i’ the Bible.’
Elizabeth Gaskell doesn’t go in for theological debate – we are never told the reasons for Mr Hale’s dissent in North and South – that isn’t what interested her. Instead she shows how disparate people can be brought together. Higgins looked at Margaret doubtfully. Her grave sweet eyes met his; there was no compulsion, only deep interest in them. He did not speak, but he kept his place. Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel knelt down together. It did them no harm.
Mary Bennet pronounces in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice ‘that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin.’ Mary’s sister Lydia gets away with it, but for Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘fallen women’ it involves a life of atonement. It’s a subject which recurs in her work – Esther in Mary Barton, Ruth, and the short story Lizzie Leigh.
Elizabeth Gaskell was the hands-on, intelligent, and perceptive mother of four daughters. In Sylvia’s Lovers, Cousin Phillis, and Wives and Daughters she shows us how young girls are morally exposed, how vulnerable they are. Plus ça change.
Modern readers may well find the highly-charged emotional religion in Ruth, a story of the repentance and redemption of an orphan seduced and abandoned by an older man all too much. She’s the victim not only of a self-entitled rake but a nasty mix of hypocrisy and judgmental morality. It doesn’t sit well with our twenty-first century thinking. What has she got to atone for?
Contemporaries found Mrs Gaskell too much for different reasons: they were shocked at the bold way she wrote about illegitimacy and prostitution. She was ahead of her time in a careful, thought-out compassion – and unswerving in her wholesale condemnation of seducers like the self-entitled Henry Bellingham in Ruth through the voice of the Good Samaritan character Mr Benson. ‘Men may call such actions as yours youthful follies! There is another name for them with God.’
Religion isn’t always presented in what some may feel to be an over- melodramatic manner. In the novella Cousin Phillis, published in 1864, Mr Holman ends the day’s haymaking with a psalm. Elizabeth Gaskell gives us here perhaps the loveliest religious scene in all her work – a moving image of harmony between nature, work and God.
But for those who wish Jane Austen had written another book, Elizabeth Gaskell’s last and unfinished novel Wives and Daughters is the perfect choice. It’s written on a similarly small canvas: families living around the small country town of Hollingford, based like Cranford on the real life Knutsford, where Elizabeth Gaskell lived as a child.
In this novel Elizabeth Gaskell employs almost the same reticence on religion as Jane Austen. Christian values are mostly unspoken but no less present. Early in the novel, the teenaged heroine Molly struggles to overcome her resentment of the new stepmother when her father returns home from the deathbed of a patient. She is remembering what Roger Hamley advised her: to think of others. ‘Papa, I will call her “mamma”! He took her hand, and grasped it tight; but for an instant or two he did not speak. Then he said, – ‘You won’t be sorry for it, Molly, when you come to lie as poor Craven Smith did tonight.’
Like most Victorians, Elizabeth Gaskell didn’t shy away from talking about death in the way we do today. The deaths in Wives and Daughters are affecting and unforgettable. But this is a novel which faultlessly and satisfyingly combines the the profound with the comic. Here is social-climbing Mrs Gibson, who’s always parading and misquoting her superficial reading, speculating about the advantages of the possible death of the heir to an estate: ‘I should think myself wanting in strength of mind if I could not look forward to the consequences of death. I really think we are commanded to do so somewhere in the Bible or the Prayerbook.’
The very last part of Wives and Daughters was never written – Elizabeth Gaskell died suddenly in November 1865 – but we know what’s going to happen, and it’s the ending we long for.
Elizabeth Gaskell doesn’t necessarily give us the secure, happy endings of Jane Austen, the philosophical worldview of George Eliot, the wild passion of the Brontes. But she gives us something equally remarkable. Despite being written over 150 years ago, her novels speak strongly and clearly, and they say something important in the confusing fragmented world of today.
Have the last fifteen months – horrible in all sorts of ways for everyone – changed what we read – and how we read?
Lots of us may have turned to comfort reading – books which make no demands and distract us from the turmoil and sadness around us. Books which help us sleep. Books with happy endings which cocoon us in a safer, more sunlit world. Or historical fiction so we can be transported into another time. The past may have been brutal and squalid for many, but at least it’s escaping from the horrors of the present. Or crime fiction with its pleasures of puzzle-solving and the satisfaction of order restored. Books we loved as children and teenagers, and now search for with nostalgia and a longing to recapture something lost.
Others may have grasped the opportunity to tackle books they’ve always meant to read and somehow never quite got round to – classics, ‘difficult’ authors, unfamiliar genres.
I haven’t managed many of those. The most serious book I have been reading this week is non-fiction: Zero Degrees of Empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor in developmental psychopathology at Cambridge University and director of the Autism Research Centre. It’s not his most recent book, being published in 2011, and I’ve read it before, but events in the UK drew me back to it. The front flap of my hardback says that it ‘presents a new way of understanding what it is that leads individuals to treat others inhumanely, and challenges all of us to reconsider entirely the idea of evil.’ On the back cover Uta Frith, Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development at University College London, writes that the book is ‘a compelling and provocative account of empathy as our most precious social resource.’
Baron-Cohen argues that ‘Empathy is like a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. It is effective as a way of anticipating and resolving interpersonal problems, whether this is a marital conflict, an international conflict, a problem at work, difficulties in a friendship, political deadlocks, a family dispute, or a problem with the neighbour.’
With so much suffering and mental illness everywhere resulting from the pandemic, empathy is something we need more than ever. Reading, as we identify with fictional characters and care what happens to them, must surely be a vital way of building up our capacity for empathy.
Back to how we read. The pandemic and lockdown has meant that even those of us who love the tactile feel of physical books may have taken to e-books for the first time. No shelf space for more physical books and it’s hard to make room for any with the charity shops being shut.
It’s why I’ve relaunched e-book editions of All Desires Known and Of Human Telling. Hard-hitting stories of family and marital conflict behind closed doors – ‘sharp-eyed, funny and redemptive’. They might be a good e-book read at Easter.
Tanya’s story, ‘Not scorned in Heaven, though little noticed here‘ won the 2020 Ellen J Miller Memorial competition, run by the Barbara Pym Society. The brief was to write a short story featuring characters from a Barbara Pym novel. Here, with a few added tweaks, is the story.
This room was, of course, full of books; but I have rather ceased to regard books as being very personal things — everybody one knows has them and they are really rather obvious. It was no doubt significant that Mary Beamish should have the novels of Miss Goudge while Piers had those of Miss Compton-Burnett, but I should have been able to guess that for myself without actually seeing. (A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym, published in 1956)
What is the narrator heroine Wilmet Forsyth actually saying here? Earlier in the novel we learn that ‘Mary Beamish was the kind of person who always made me feel particularly useless — she was so very much immersed in good works, so splendid, everyone said. She was about my own age, but small and rather dowdily dressed, presumably because she had neither the wish nor the ability to make the most of herself. She lived with her selfish old mother in a block of flats near our house and was on several committees as well as being a member of St Luke’s parochial church council.’
Do those thoughts tell us more about Barbara Pym’s heroine than about Mary Beamish, dismissed in another scene as so very much not my kind of person? Is it only good and dowdy people who are likely to read Elizabeth Goudge’s novels?
Elizabeth Goudge (1900-1984) was the only child of an Anglican priest and became a best-selling author in the UK and America after the success in 1934 of her first novel Island Magic, set in the Channel Islands. Like her later novels, it combines an almost mystical sense of place and love of nature, with themes of forgiveness, self-sacrifice and redemptive personal growth through suffering.
Characters offer themselves to others and restore them to wholeness. One of the most unforgettable is in Green Dolphin Country when a young sailor in the nineteenth century muddles up names, asks the wrong sister to travel from Guernsey to New Zealand to marry him, and when she arrives doesn’t tell her of the mistake. An almost unbelievable story, but based on Elizabeth Goudge’s great uncle.
Elizabeth Goudge shows us the holiness and interconnectedness, through suffering, love and foregiveness, of all human beings — and they are ordinary ones, like us, dealing with failure, loneliness, poverty, mental illness, disability, feeling misunderstood, undervalued, excluded, unloved. Christian spirituality is interwoven into the text, in unhurried lyrical prose. But this is never in a fundamentalist proselytizing fashion: more just whispers of Teilard de Chardin, Thomas Traherne, C.S. Lewis, St John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Brother Lawrence. Elizabeth Goudge’s Christianity is always generous, non-judgmental and inclusive. There is redemption and happiness at the end for the characters, though this is hard won, and only possible with the help of others and the healing effect of connectedness with them.
The beauty of the places where Elizabeth Goudge spent her life — Wells in Somerset, Ely, Oxford, Hampshire and the New Forest, Devon, childhood holidays in Guernsey at her grandparents’ home — becomes a breathing, life-changing spirit in her novels. God is all the time revealing his presence in what we see around us.
Children play an important role in Elizabeth Goudge’s adult novels and their inner lives are extraordinarily sensitively drawn. It’s perhaps why many of us loved novels like The Dean’s Watch, The City of Bells, The Bird in the Tree, The Herb of Grace, at an early age, as well as her children’s books, including The Little White Horse which won the Carnegie Medal for Children’s Fiction in 1946 and Linnets and Valerians published in 1964.
Are the novels too unrealistic and sentimental and fanciful for modern taste? Is the prose style too flowery, do the books feel as though they belong to a vanished past, to be read only for nostalgia? Elizabeth Goudge believed that ‘As this world becomes increasingly ugly, callous and materialistic it needs to be reminded that old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that makes an ugly street look beautiful is just as real a thing as the street itself.’
Elizabeth Goudge was a founding member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association in 1960, together with Denise Robins, Netta Muskett, Rosamunde Pilcher, Catherine Cookson, Barbara Cartland: very different writers loosely grouped under a broad definition of romantic. Even the word romantic might be misleading. Susan D. Amussen’s essay about Elizabeth Goudge in Anglican Women Novelists published by Bloomsbury in 2019 argues that she ‘frequently offers a critical view of contemporary gender norms in her fiction.’ Elizabeth Goudge’s male characters owe nothing to the Mr Darcy model, while unmarried women are portrayed as fulfilled and successful in their own right. They do not need a man or romantic love affairs to have a full life.
The Joy of the Snow is Elizabeth Goudge’s autobiography published in 1974. It’s as absorbing a read as any of her novels. It’s shortish, with a direct personal note, as if she wanted to explain something important before she became too frail. She died ten years later. A sentence from a chapter titled ‘Pain and the Love of God stood out on re-reading: if we can find a little of our one-ness with all other creatures, and love for them, then I believe we are half-way towards finding God.
The World of Elizabeth Goudge by Sylvia Gower has just been reissued in a lovely new edition by the altogether wonderful Somerset-based Girls Gone By Publishers — they republish some of our beloved out of print twentieth century books that are hard to find second hand. https://www.ggbp.co.uk/
I have never pretended, nor ever will pretend, that Emily was a proper child. Books are not written about proper children. They would be so dull nobody would read them. (L. M. Montgomery Emily Climbs)
Anne of Green Gables when it was published in 1908 was an instant success and established L M Montgomery’s career as Canada’s leading children’s author. Yet it’s Emily of New Moon, published in 1923, that L M Montgomery described in her journal as ‘the best book I have ever written … I have had more intense pleasure in writing it than any of the others—not even excepting Green Gables. I have lived it…’
Both Anne and Emily are highly imaginative girls, intensely receptive to the beauty of the natural world, in love with writing poetry and stories; characteristics shared by their creator. But Anne’s early literary ambitions – which include a comic episode when she wins a short story competition and wishes she hadn’t – are sidelined in the sequels which follow her life at college, working as a teacher and finally as a wife and mother.
Emily is altogether more driven, a fiercer, more complicated character – and possibly to a modern reader more interesting and satisfying. The three books in the series Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest tell Emily’s story from early childhood as she struggles to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. L. M. Montgomery knew about rejection; Anne of Green Gables was rejected many times before being accepted for publication. It’s not surprising that Emily’s courage and self-belief remain an inspiration for girls all over the world.
From early childhood Emily experiences what she calls ‘the flash’ – a moment of visionary awareness when she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside – but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond – only a glimpse – and heard a note of unearthly music.
L.M. Montgomery was only 21 months old when her mother died. Lucy was packed off to live with her Presbyterian grandparents in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, and would later marry a minister. It was a childhood and adulthood she would mine for her novels and short stories.
Even as a small child, Emily has her own ideas about God. When her beloved father dies and as a penniless orphan she is wished onto unknown relatives, she scorns the advice of the housekeeper who has looked after her: ‘There’s one thing I’d advise you to do,’ said Ellen, determined to lose no chance of doing her duty, ‘and that is to kneel down and pray to God to make you a good and respectful and grateful child.’ Emily paused at the foot of the stairs and looked back. ‘Father said I wasn’t to have anything to do with your God,’ she said gravely… ‘I know what your God is like…I saw His picture in that Adam-and-Eve book of yours. He has whiskers and wears a nightgown. I don’t like him. But I like Father’s God.’ …‘Well, you’re bound to have the last word, but the Murrays will teach you what’s what,’ said Ellen, giving up the argument. ‘They’re strict Presbyterians, and won’t hold by any of your father’s awful notions.’
It’s Emily’s ability to withdraw into the world of her imagination that save her in her new life at New Moon – this, and the pride for which all Murrays are renowned. ‘You ought to be thankful to get a home anywhere. Remember you’re not of much importance.’ ‘I am important to myself,’ cried Emily proudly. L. M. Montgomery was writing at a time when children were much more powerless than they are today, and the way Emily gets the better of tyrannical grown-ups with her use of language makes up much of the comedy in Emily of New Moon and Emily Climbs.
Perhaps many older readers like myself will remember a cruel teacher who used sarcasm to destroy our self-confidence and reduce us to misery. The scene in Emily of New Moon where the hateful Miss Brownell mocks Emily’s poetry in front of the class always takes me straight back to when I was caught during prep time at boarding school writing a story when I was meant to be doing maths, but thankfully escaped with only a detention and without the teacher reading it. The unbearable horror of an unsympathetic adult treading on those so sacred words!
But L. M. Montgomery gives us inspirational teachers too in her novels, and the unorthodox Mr Carpenter, though regarded by some as an alcoholic failure, is one of them. He makes Emily promise not to write to please anyone but herself, and his last words to her are ‘Beware of italics’ – today would he say exclamation marks or adverbs?
The delightful Irish Catholic priest Father Cassidy is another of the eccentrics L. M. Montgomery is so gifted at portraying and he too perceives Emily’s gift for words. To the end of her struggle for recognition Emily never forgot Father Cassidy’s ‘Keep On’ and the tone in which he said it. Significantly, when narrow-minded, domineering Aunt Elizabeth dismisses Emily’s ‘writing nonsense’ and even kind Aunt Laura doesn’t understand her compelling need to write, it is so-called simple-minded Cousin Jimmy, the composer of a thousand poems in his head, who is always on her side.
L.M. Montgomery went through periods of depression, made worse by a difficult marriage to a man suffering from some kind of mental illness. She never had the happy life that she gives to Anne in the Anne of Green Gables series. Something of this comes across in the sombre, almost tortured tone in part of Emily’s Quest, where Emily for a time loses her will to write and gives in to the controlling desires of a much older man. It’s hard for readers today to see Dean Priest as anything other than creepy or to forgive him for what he makes Emily do to her first book The Seller of Dreams.
It’s pride that keeps Emily from falling apart during the years of brutal rejection slips and the awfulness of faint praise; it’s also what keeps her estranged from the man she loves. But literary success comes by an unexpected route, and even Aunt Elizabeth (like Marilla Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables she mellows in her later years) can remark ‘Well, I never could have believed that a pack of lies could sound as much like the real truth as that book does.’
‘I could hardly make a big production of it, you know… when he told me, about how he’d spent the night with some girl called Rebecca, all I could think of was the fact that I’d bought turbot for supper…’
Catherine Heath’s fifth and final novel Behaving Badly gives us one of the most brilliantly-conceived comic heroines ever. Published in 1984, it is somehow perfect escapist reading for today, taking us to a past which feels in retrospect to have been more innocent and less complicated.
‘I was going to do Hollandaise sauce, and I thought, oh dear, our lovely dinner’s going to be quite wasted. So when he told me about this girl I just said, oh, yes, I see. Oh, thank you for telling me. And that was all and we ate the turbot and do you know I quite enjoyed it… So I mean, there’s no point in putting on a tragic act. It stands to reason that nobody, nobody that greedy has much dignity to stand on.’
Fifty-year-old Bridget Mayor has dutifully filled her life with hobbies, television and church-going after her husband dumped her five years earlier to marry a much younger woman. Nothing very unusual about that for women in seventies Britain. But what happens when an Excellent Woman stops being excellent and decides she will start pleasing herself instead of other people? What’s the point in clinging to dignity? To her husband’s horrified discomfiture Bridget insists on moving back into her old home in Hampstead, where her devious ex-mother-in-law Frieda conspires to get rid of the intruder Rebecca. But that’s just the start…
Writing in The Times, Isabel Raphael wrote of Behaving Badly: Here is an exceptional novel, brisk and unsentimental, touching and subtly romantic. It is also very funny. Her style is poised and cool and her dialogue as artfully artless as that of Barbara Pym; and there is no higher praise in novels of this kind.
There are connections between the two novelists Barbara Pym (1913-1980) and Catherine Heath (1924-1991): both studied English Literature at St Hilda’s College Oxford, both seamlessly combine wit, satire and sympathy, and both died of cancer aged sixty-six. But it’s disappointing that Catherine Heath remains relatively unknown. In the Barbara Pym Society’s publication Green Leaves of November 1998 Hazel K. Bell wrote how she hoped that Catherine Heath’s wonderful novels would one day be rescued from obscurity, in the same way as Barbara Pym’s have been.
That hasn’t happened, despite Judi Dench’s superb performance as Bridget in the 1989 British television series of Behaving Badly, now available as a DVD. If only they would show it again!
Behaving Badly clearly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It will seem too dated for some, too much a piece of social history, even too trivial. But for others it’s an altogether delightful read where favourite lines can be relished over and over again: Upstairs Frieda closed a detective story. It was useless. She had no access to South American arrow poison. And as one character says near the end, using a very Barbara Pymish word, ‘Isn’t it, in a way, splendid?’
In rereading Jane Austen, we are able to experience something of that age of elegance which too often eludes us in the twentieth century. We are unrepentant about this form of escapism and turn to her six novels for relaxation… Like Mr Woodhouse, we enjoy the company of these old friends best; and though we prefer their actual company to secondhand discussions and speculations about them, anything concerning them will always hold a fascination for us…. writes Another Lady AKA Marie Dobbs.
In her An Apology from the Collaborator, included at the end of Jane Austen’s Sanditon completed by Another Lady published in 1975, Marie Dobbs admits that she offers her version for our sheer enjoyment, aware that Jane Austen’s language, integrity and meticulous technique cannot be faithfully copied.
She was too hard on herself. Marie Dobbs’ completed Sanditon is peppered with delightful passages poking fun at human vanity and folly, which feel as though they could be written by Jane Austen herself. The Miss Beauforts…were certainly no longer content to remain on their balcony now these two personable young men were to be perceived strolling about admiring the Sanditon views. Indeed, they felt a definite obligation to improve the landscape for them immediately by dotting graceful feminine silhouettes wherever they be most visible. The very next day Miss Letitia carried her easel out of doors and began moving it from sand to shingle, from hill to Terrace with tireless and unselfish activity. No concern for completing her own sketches interfered with her sense of duty to adorn whatever vista might require her presence.
There is some splendid Austen-ish dialogue too, as in this speech from Reginald Catton, one of the only two on-stage characters added by Marie Dobbs: ‘So that was Miss Denham! Predatory female – Sidney warned me. He said I would not be in the least danger from anyone else – could handle all the Miss Beauforts with ease – but Miss Denham would be hanging about me forever if once she caught sight of my barouche. I told the groom to keep it well out of sight in the stables.’
Reginald Catton may also remind fans of Georgette Heyer of her comic young men about town, such as Ferdy Fakenham in Friday’s Child. Marie Dobbs makes the hero Sidney Parker resemble the witty, charming, teasing Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, but in his unassuming kind-heartedness there are echoes of Georgette Heyer’s endearing Freddy in Cotillion. The later developments of the plot come close to Heyer regency romances too – no problem for those of us who love both authors, as we must suspect Marie Dobbs did – but perhaps some literary critics might argue that Jane Austen was intending to take a different and sharper line.
It’s difficult not to feel disappointment that Andrew Davies’ recent television adaptation of Sanditon didn’t follow the story and tone of the Another Lady/Marie Dobbs completed version. In the eleven chapters Jane Austen wrote before illness stopped her in March 1817, she set up everything we love in her other novels and Marie Dobbs fulfils the sparkling early promise with grace, respect and humour. Added to this we have in Sanditon a merciless satire of hypochondriacs and medical quackery, speaking to us all the more poignantly when we remember that Jane Austen was only four months away from her death on 18th July.
But as the ever-so-sensible heroine Charlotte says to the would-be seducer Sir Edward who has read more sentimental novels than agreed with him: ‘our taste in novels is not at all the same.’ Nor is our taste in television adaptations all the same, and this is probably a very good thing.
What’s the connection between Jilly Cooper and Barbara Pym apart from them being quintessentially English and writing splendidly funny novels?
Jilly Cooper’s introduction to the 2007 Virago edition of Barbara Pym’s Jane andPrudence, first published in 1953, tells the story of how she borrowed the novel quite by chance from a library and fell in love with it. ‘I shamefully lied to the librarians that I had lost it, paying a 3s 6d fine … over the years, as Barbara Pym replaced Nancy Mitford, Georgette Heyer, even Jane Austen, as my most loved author, I devoured all her books, but Jane and Prudence remains my favourite.’
Jilly Cooper was therefore the perfect and altogether delightful guest at a magnificent tea in Oxford, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Barbara Pym Society, as part of the Society’s weekend conference featuring Jane and Prudence. Some of those attending might never have read a Jilly Cooper novel; others like myself have delicious youthful memories of revelling in her stories serialised in magazines like 19 and Petticoat, some of which were subsequently expanded into short romantic novels named after their heroines.
It’s in Harriet, partly set in Oxford and published in 1976, that we get a rather endearing echo of a scene in Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence; in both novels young girls remark to each other that thirty sounds so old but forty must be worse… whereupon they brood silently upon this horror!
Jilly Cooper might be more famous now for her ‘bonkbuster’ novels, starting with Riders in 1985, but perhaps the older among us will always have an affectionate soft spot for the irresistible heroes and scatty/naughty/dreamy/kind-hearted/unselfconfident/innocent heroines of the early romantic novels Bella, Emily, Octavia, Prudence, Harriet, Imogen and her collection of short stories Lisa & Co, first published as Love and Other Heartaches. They offered the escapist, romantic, comfort-with-comedy reading we sometimes needed when growing up.
As Jilly Cooper wrote of her short stories in 1981 ‘I cannot pretend that these stories are literature. They are written purely to entertain… Their mood is rooted firmly in the sixties, where we all lived it up… when the young were still optimistic about marriage, and believed that God was in his Heaven if all was Mr Right with the world.’
Jilly Cooper met Barbara Pym just once – at the Hatchards Authors of the Year Party in 1979 – a wonderful memory she will always treasure. I know I will do the same after meeting Jilly Cooper.
‘Swanking is still unacceptable’ says Mary Killen, on the (always enjoyable) Your Problems Solved page of this week’s The Spectator magazine. She is replying to an anxious letter from a reader who would like to give copies of his/her two ‘respectably published’ novels to neighbours and acquaintances who are unaware of the novels’ existence, but worries that these gifts put the recipients in an awkward position.
There is something altogether endearing about this concern for the feelings of others and the appeal for advice in general ‘about trumpet-blowing, however subtly done’. The writer says that in his/her younger days ‘swanking’ was considered the worst of sins …
Mary comes up with a creative solution to the problem perfectly tailored to this particular correspondent. But for most of us it may be that swanking is now a necessity – part and parcel of publishing and marketing novels, however much it goes against the grain.