Monthly Archives: April 2011

South Riding, by Winifred Holtby

I had never heard of this novel before I read a precis and analysis of it in Susan Leonardi’s Dangerous by Degrees, but I was inspired to pick it up because the heroine, Sarah Burton, is headmistress of a girls’ school in the north of England in the 1930s, and one of my characters is going to end up doing a similar job in a similar place and time, so I thought it might be good for a bit of background. It was, but it was so much more than that.

Sometimes billed as a novel about local government, South Riding is a story about several characters who shape a community during difficult times. Sarah Burton, the schoolmistress, is one, but there are many main characters in this story: the landowner Robert Carne, the alderwoman Mrs. Beddows, the disillusioned socialist Joe Astell, the evangelical preacher with a weakness for the ladies, Mr. Huggins, the promising girl from a poor family, Lydia Holly … and many more. Yet each character is vividly and fully realized; the omniscient narrator brings us each of their lives briefly and yet each one is real and memorable. This is an amazing novel which I can’t believe I’ve never encountered before, and I highly recommend it.

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Generation in Revolt, by Margaret McCarthy

This was the only book I read while researching That Forgetful Shore that I could not find a cover image of — it’s that obscure. Even my university library had to dig it out of a storage facility, and I cound find very few references to either the book or the author online. Which is a shame, because it’s a really interesting memoir of a slice of life you rarely read about.

The author, Margaret McCarthy, was a teenage factory worker in the North of England during the years immediately after World War One and the Russian Revolution. She got involved, first with the Trade Union movement, then with the British Communist Party. McCarthy was an active young Communist (I know, it’s funny to see “McCarthy was a Communist” in a sentence, isn’t it?) during the period between the wars, when most English people viewed Communism with wary suspicion but full-blown Cold War hysteria had not yet broken out. She travelled to Russia more than once as a youth delegate to international Party congresses, and became, as many idealistic young Communists of the period were, disenchanted and disillusioned as she gradually recognized that direction the Soviet Union was taking under Stalin. Later in life she became a Labour MP.

McCarthy’s writing style is more formal than readers would expect in a memoir written today (hers was written in the 1950s) but it’s still very readable and provides an invaluable glimpse into the mind and experience of someone who was deeply attracted to Communist theory but ultimately abandoned it.

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Dangerous by Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists, by Susan J. Leonardi

I’ve been a longtime fan of Dorothy Sayers and particularly of her portrayal of life at an Oxford women’s college in Gaudy Night, but while researching higher education for women in the 1920s I came across this great book, Dangerous by Degrees, which examines Sayers in the context of five other women novelists who, like her, attended Oxford’s Somerville College in the early 20th century and whose novels touch, to some degree, upon the questions of women’s education and women’s roles.

Not only is Dangerous by Degrees very well-written and interesting to read in its own right, it also introduced me to writers I hadn’t read or heard of before — some realtively well-known like Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby — as well as those who are perhaps less remembered: Muriel Jaeger, Doreen Wallace, and Margaret Kennedy. The focus is not so much on biography, though Leonardi does talk about each woman’s life in the context of her time at Somerville, but rather on literary analysis. Leonardi chooses a few women characters from each writer’s work and shows how each of the novelists handles the themes of higher education for women, women’s work, and romance/marriage for the “new woman.” There are some really interesting insights here, and it made me want to read more by all these novelists. Actually, even if it had only led me to read Winifred Holtby’s South Riding that would have been enough of a revelation, but I’m hoping that I get to hunt down some more novels by these writers (some are hard to find). Both for itself, and for other books it might point you towards, Dangerous by Degrees is highly recommended.

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Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education, by Jane Robinson

After doing a lot of reading about life in outport Newfoundland in the early 20th century, I veered in a different direction with my research for That Forgetful Shore and started reading about university education for women in England during the same period. The basic premise of my story is that one of the two main characters gets the opportunity to leave her outport home and further her education, and she ends up in England in 1921, which led me to this book, Bluestockings.  This is a wonderful history of the struggle for higher education for women in England, full of lively anecdotes as well as information, highly readable, and also balanced — while it celebrates the accomplishments of the “bluestockings” it also recognizes honestly the difficulties they faced when career opportunities for women lagged far behind women’s desire for, and ability to obtain, higher education. For those who didn’t choose to become teachers, there were often limited opportunities to use the education they had worked so hard to obtain. Bluestockings is a book I highly recommend to anyone at all interested in the history of women’s education.

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More than 50%: Woman’s Life in a Newfoundland Outport 1900-1950, by Hilda Chaulk Murray

 I first read this book years ago when it was originally published, and returned to it during the writing of my current novel to refresh my knowledge of the kind of work women did in Newfoundland outports during the period I was writing about. Then, my daughter ended up referring to it as well, for her Heritage Fair project on women’s work. It is simply an invaluable resource, carefully researched, well-written and not dry. One of the best works of social history going.

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Uncle Mose: The Life of Ted Russell, by Elizabeth Miller

I read this as a complement to the Chronicles of Uncle Mose; this book is Elizabeth Miller’s biography of her father, Ted Russell. While there’s a certain oddness to a daughter writing a supposedly objective biography of her father, as opposed to a personal memoir — especially when she has to refer to herself in the third person — this is an important book because Ted Russell is an important figure in Newfoundland culture and literature. It was interesting to me, of course, because Ted Russell is the other major Newfoundland writer (along with the playwright David French, whom I’ve mentioned elsewhere) to be born in Coley’s Point, the town that provides the inpsiration for my novel That Forgetful Shore, so it was an interesting read for me in particular.

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The Chronicles of Uncle Mose, by Ted Russell

The book pictured here isn’t actually the one I read — I read a much older, now-out-of-print collection of Russell’s “Uncle Mose” stories, called Tales of Pigeon Inlet, but many o the same stories are in both and this is the one you’ll find on a bookstore shelf today if you go looking for Ted Russell’s stories.

For those who don’t know, these stories were originally broadcast on local CBC radio in the 1950s and went on to have new life as a TV series, recordings, stage plays and on the printed page. Russell’s stories, usually short and funny, captured life in a fictional Newfoundland outport, Pigeon Inlet, during the years when the traditional fishing lifestyle was just beginning to be a thing of the past. He was interested in preserving that lifestyle and the “characters” of the outports and though some may argue that he idealized outport life, these stories, which were always intended to be light rather than serious, are charming in the best possible sense and really do capture a slice of life from a time that now seems impossibly long ago. These stories are well worth a read, or a re-read if you haven’t been introduced to them before.

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Saltwater Moon and Leaving Home, by David French

It’s hard to review the written text of plays in a blog that’s dedicated pretty much to reviewing novels and nonfiction, but I wanted to included Salt Water Moon and (to a lesser degree) Leaving Home in this round-up of books I read while researching That Forgetful Shore. What led me to read them was that David French is one of the two well-known Newfoundland writers to have been born in Coley’s Point, the town where my novel is more-or-less set (though it has a different name in the novel). Salt Water Moon is also set in Coley’s Point in the 1920s, so I read it mainly for local colour. Leaving Home deals with the same characters many years later (though I think it was written earlier) when they are living in Toronto, so was a little less relevant to my research, but I read it just to round out the story.

I’ve seen Salt Water Moon performed, as has almost everyone in Newfoundland I guess, and it really is a lovely little play and does indeed contain some nice little bits of period detail and local colour such as I was looking for. Leaving Home didn’t work as well for me but I’m sure that’s because I was reading it without ever having seen it; plays are meant to be performed not read (as I tell my students every year before we get ready to butcher Shakespeare). I recommend going out and catching a performance of either of these plays if they’re ever being performed near you, because French really is a fine playwright.

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Cold Pastoral, by Margaret Duley

Unlike Anatasia English’s Only a Fisherman’s Daughter, this is a novel by an early Newfoundland woman novelist that almost everyone in Newfoundland has heard of, and deservedly so, because it’s a fine book. I’m not sure how many people have actually read it — I picked it up when I was in high school, couldn’t get into it, and never attempted to read Duley again until I was looking for books written in 1920s and 1930s Newfoundland, at which point it was an obvious choice.

I enjoyed this book so much more than I expected to. It’s the story of a girl from an outport fishing family who, due to an encouter with the fairies, ends up being adopted by a wealthy St. John’s family and educated well above her station in life.  Mary Immaculate is, at first, a difficult character to relate to, but I found that she grew on me, as did Duley’s writing style. I love the perceptiveness, the humour, and the complexity of the characters. It’s by no means easy to figure out exactly where this novel is going to end up, and the “happy ending” may not seem particularly happy to every reader (I wasn’t happy with it!), but I found the journey through the book, and through Mary’s life, was always engaging and worth the read.

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Only a Fisherman’s Daughter, by Stacia English

This is the first known novel ever published by a Newfoundland woman, and it’s amazing that I only heard of it last year. Just because of its place in history, it deserves to be better known, and the editor of this edition, Iona Bulgin, has done an excellent job in the footnotes and preface of putting Anastasia English’s work in its proper context in the history of Newfoundland literature.

For its own sake, divorced from its historical context, the book is a bit forgettable, as the story is quite a cliche romance about a young girl from a humble family background who wins the friendship of a girl of higher social status and the love of a well-off young man — but not without the usual amount of hardships, misunderstandings, tears and trials. Everything works out perfectly predictably, but what makes the book worth reading are the glimpses of social history you get between the predictable lines of the romance. A modern writer could write a historical novel that’s a far better story with more believable characters, set in this time period (and I hope I have done just that, with That Forgetful Shore…), but there’s something a later writer composing historical fiction can never capture as well as a contemporary writer, something about the essential feel of a time and place, not only small domestic details (which you can research) but attitudes and values (which are so much harder to reproduce without imposing one’s own values upon them). Only a Fisherman’s Daughter won’t rock your reading world or anything, but if you’re at all interested in Newfoundland literature or the history of women’s writing in this part of the world, you definitely should not bypass this book.

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