Our Women: Chapters on the Sex Discord by Arnold Bennett

1920s women

You know who needs to comment on the role of women? It’s Arnold Bennett! In 1920! Look, obviously nobody is looking for a man’s opinion from nearly a century ago to help with contemporary debate – but I can’t resist this sort of glimpse back into the past. A bit like the Ursula Bloom book I talked about the other day, albeit a different sphere. And so, yes, my relaxing holiday reading started with Arnold B’s chapters on the sex discord. What, you didn’t see it at the airport in their 3-for-2?

Bennett proudly labels himself a feminist, which was rather a surprise to me (and a welcome surprise). His definition of ‘feminist’ definitely doesn’t match up to any 21st-century definition, but I daresay none of our definitions will find favour with 22nd-century feminists. We’ll leave some of his more controversial opinions for later…

A positive? He is a big fan of women having jobs. Yes, he does more or less think these should work around their domestic duties, but it’s… something? But he does rail against the current state of things, with women expected never to change their role at all, never earning money and yet having vital places to fill in civilised society. True, his vision of the far future is female pilots (IMAGINE), but he is at least thinking that things could be different from how the world is organised in 1920.

The first chapter is ‘The Perils of Writing about Women’, where he acknowledges potential minefields (and, incidentally, his own complete lack of knowledge of Havelock Ellis). ‘Change in Love’ and ‘The Abolition of Slavery’ follow on next, setting the scene for ways the world may change – and that women should be more appreciated for their contribution to that world. I doubt a 2017 author would throw around ‘slavery’ in the flippant way he does, but he’s doing his best.

Where things get super troubling – and thus, at the same time, super interesting from a reading-for-historical-interest angle – is the chapter ‘Are Men Superior to Women?’. Spoilers: Bennett thinks they are.

Some platitudes must now be uttered. The literature of the world can show at least fifty male poets greater than any woman poet. Indeed, the women poets who have reached even second rank are exceedingly few – perhaps not more than half a dozen. With the possible exception of Emily Bronte no woman novelist has yet produced a novel to equal the great novels of men. (One may be enthusiastic for Jane Austen without putting Pride and Prejudice in the same category with Anna Karenina or The Woodlanders.)

Firstly – who on earth would pick The Woodlanders as their ammunition in favour of Thomas Hardy?? Secondly – this is obviously something I don’t agree with, but when he goes on to ‘can anybody name a celebrated woman philosopher’ and so forth, the obvious argument is ‘well, women didn’t get a chance until quite recently’. He tries to rebut this, but pretty unconvincingly… it’s all rather a peculiar position to take, and not very coherently argued, and rather undermines other parts of the book. Still, this all works together to make it an interesting history piece.

At other times, he wrote things that would have been SO useful in my doctoral thesis. It’s a few years too late for me, but I had to highlight this for anybody who might want to write about spinster lit of the 1920s at any point…

I will not attempt to determine at what age an unmarried virgin begins to incur the terrible imputation of spinsterhood; it varies, being dependent on a lot of things, such a colour of hair, litheness of frame, complexion, ankles, chin (the under part), style of talk and of glance. I have spinsters of twenty-five, and young girls of at least forty. 

My favourite section of the book is definitely the end. It’s probably not a coincidence that this is where he stops writing about theories and starts writing fiction – he dramatises the same situation in two chapters, one from the wife’s viewpoint and one from the husband’s. The scenario is pretty simple: an argument about a flower show on the day that their son is coming home from boarding school. I don’t think the scenes are as instructive as Bennett thinks they are, but it shows that he is on much firmer ground – and certainly more fluid and more entertaining – as a writer of fiction than of, well, anything else.

While Bennett’s views are, of course, not today’s – it’s quite impressive that a man in his 50s in 1920, and a man who was very much considered one of the old guard, should even have thought of writing it. And for anybody who wants to know more about the 1920s and issues around gender at the time, this is an interesting (surprising, frustrating, etc.) book. Add it to the list for when you’re feeling particularly able to cope with reading things you don’t agree with, maybe?

Disappointing myself (with The Age of Innocence)

Age of InnocenceYou know when there’s a book that you really assume you’re going to love, and you end up not loving it? Everybody you know who usually shares your taste are big fans; the author seems right up your street, but… it doesn’t work. And it’s not just the disappointment of reading a book that doesn’t hit home – it’s the added disappointment in yourself, for somehow not measuring up to your own expectations.

I’ve given the game away in the post title. It’s The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

For those who don’t know, The Age of Innocence is about 1870s upper-class New York (published in 1920, in four serialised parts, and then as a novel) and particularly about Newland Archer, his fiancée May, and the mysterious woman (Ellen Olenska) who catches his eye. It’s basically your classic love triangle, surrounded by the details and mores of society.

The positives: there are occasional lines that I loved, where Wharton lets her slightly barbed wit or satire come through. This one was a joy, about an opera:

She sang, of course, “M’ama!” and not “he loves me,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.

Love it. That’s in the first few pages of the novel, and gave me hope – but I found that we lost that, and instead were treated to the minutiae of 1870s etiquette and the minutiae of Newland Archer’s ummings and ahhings. Now, the etiquette thing I could cope with. If Wharton had been writing about the 1920s, I’d probably have loved it. But so much of The Age of Innocence seems to be implicitly drawing a distinction between the 1870s and the 1920s of Wharton’s original audience that the 2010s are out of kilter with whatever framework she is building and conclusions she is coming to.

As for Newland Archer, well…

This was a book group choice, and a few people commented on the fact that he’s not a very nice person. He’s certainly unkind, selfish, and hypocritical – not the ‘charming, tactful, enlightened’ that my edition’s blurb claims; is it being sarcastic? – but none of that matters. A great book can be written about an unpleasant person. I could read about Lady Catherine de Burgh for days. The characters in The Age of Innocence committed a far worse crime in my eyes. I found them all boring.

If the crux (or a crux – can you have more than one crux?) of a novel is whether a man chooses the woman he loves with the messy past or the woman he likes and has Society’s approval, then it’s essential that the reader cares. And millions of readers obviously have cared. This book is a classic, after all, and I know plenty of people who love it. But… I just wasn’t bothered. I didn’t want to spend any time reading about these people. I couldn’t even tell the difference between most of the supporting cast, who lived in one identical rarefied building after another.

Perhaps all this would have been saved if I’d been able to get along with Wharton’s writing. This isn’t my first Wharton – I read Ethan Frome years ago – but I don’t remember what I thought of that. There’s something in her style that I find curiously obfuscatory. It was a bit like looking at something through translucent plastic, or trying to follow an autocue that was moving too fast. I couldn’t connect.

Frustratingly, I couldn’t work out why the style didn’t work for me. Clearly Wharton is a good writer. She isn’t even the Henry James-esque ‘good’ writer whose sentences are so laboured down with clauses that they’re unreadable. And it’s certainly not anything like being the wrong age or the wrong nationality, or any of those slightly silly reasons that people sometimes come up with. I didn’t hate it, but I certainly didn’t enjoy it. I confess to being disappointed with myself.

Oh well. Chalk this one up to experience, I suppose, and a recognition that sharing 90% of a person’s taste won’t account for the other 10%.

Which books have you found leave you cold when you were expecting to love them?


There’s Nobody Quite Like Agatha

In 2000, or thereabouts, I read an awful lot of Agatha Christie novels – mostly Miss Marple, because my love of slightly eccentric old women started way back then – but since then, I’ve only read one or two.  In 2010 I read The Murder at the Vicarage, and thought it might issue in a new dawn of Christie reading.  Well, two years later that dawn has, er, dawned.  After hearing an interesting paper on Agatha Christie covers at a recent conference, I decided that a fun way to fill some gaps in A Century of Books would be to dip into my shelf of Christies, many unread.  Since she wrote one or two a year for most of the 20th century, she is an ideal candidate for this sort of gap-filling.

Before I go onto the two novels I read (pretty briefly), I’ll start with what I love about Agatha Christie.  She is considered rather non-literary in some circles (although not quite as often as people often suggest) and it’s true that her prose doesn’t ripple with poetic imagery – but the same is true of respected writers such as George Orwell and Muriel Spark, who choose a straight-forward seeming prose style, albeit with their own unique quirks.  Leaving aside Christie’s prose talents – and they are always better than I expect, and often funnier than I remember – she is most remarkable for her astonishing ability with plot.

For a lot of people, myself included, reading Agatha Christie is our first experience of detective fiction.  She sets the norms, and she sets the bar high.  Only after dipping my toe into books by Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers do I realise quite how vastly superior she is when it comes to plot.  It was once a truism of detective fiction that the author would be unfair, only revealing important clues at the last moment.  “What you didn’t know was that the gardener was Lord Alfred’s long-lost cousin!”  That sort of thing.  Dame Agatha never does that.  There are almost invariably surprises in the last few pages, but they are the sort of delightful, clever surprises which could have been worked out by the scrupulously careful reader.  Of course, none of us ever do fit all the clues together along the way – it would spoil the novel if we did – but Christie has a genius for leaving no loose ends, and revealing all the clues which have been hidden thus far.  Other detective novelists of the Golden Age still (from my reading) rely upon coincidence, implausibility, and secrets they kept concealed.

Reading a detective novel demands quite a different approach from most other novels.  Everything is pointed towards the structure.  There can be innumerable lovely details along the way, but structure determines every moment – all of it must lead to the denouement, and everything must adhere to that point.  Many of the novels we read (especially for someone like me, fond of modernist refusal of form – witness my recent review of The House in Paris) are deliberately open-ended, and the final paragraphs are structurally scarcely more significant than any arbitrarily chosen lines from anywhere in the novel.  With an Agatha Christie, the end determines my satisfaction. My chief reason for considering a detective novel successful or unsuccessful is whether it coheres when the truth is revealed.  Is the motive plausible?  Does the ‘reveal’ match the preceding narrative details?  Are there any unanswered questions?  That’s a lot of pressure on Agatha Christie, and it is a sign of her extraordinary talent for plot that she not only never disappoints, but she casts all the other detective novelists I’ve tried into the shade.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)

I’d never read Christie’s very first novel, so it was serendipitous that 1920 was one of the few interwar blank spaces on my Century of Books.  I’m going to be very brief about these two novels, because I don’t want to give anything away at all (a carefulness not exemplified by the blurbs of these novels, incidentally.)  Suffice to say that there is a murder in a locked bedroom – and a lot of motives among family and friends.

“Like a good detective story myself,” remarked Miss Howard.  “Lots of nonsense written, though.  Criminal discovered in last chapter.  Every one dumbfounded.  Real crime – you’d know at once.”

“There have been a great number of undiscovered crimes,” I argued.

“Don’t mean the police, but the people that are right in it.  The family.  You couldn’t really hoodwink them.  They’d know.”
I love it when Christie gets all meta.  In One, Two, Buckle My Shoe one character accuses another, “You’re talking like a thriller by a lady novelist.”  Heehee!  But the best strain of meta-ness (ahem) in The Mysterious Affair at Styles is adorable Captain Hastings.  He narrates, and he is not very bright.  He considers himself rather brilliant at detection, and is constantly sharing all manner of clues and suppositions with Poirot, only for Poirot to laugh kindly and disabuse him.  Hastings really is lovely – and doesn’t seem to have suffered even a moment’s psychological unease at having been invalided away from WW1.  Poirot, of course, is brilliant.  It’s all rather Holmes/Watson, but it works.

You’ve probably read the famous moment where Poirot is first described, but it bears re-reading:

Poirot was an extraordinary-looking little man.  He was hardly more than five feet four inches, but carried himself with great dignity.  His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side.  His moustache was very stiff and military.  The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.  Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police.  As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day.

Isn’t that line about the bullet sublime?  (Although, again, demonstrates a remarkable lack of shellshock on Hastings’ part.)  What I found ironic about this, the first Poirot novel, is that (with decades of detection ahead of him), Hastings thinks:

The idea crossed my mind, not for the first time, that poor old Poirot was growing old.  Privately I thought it lucky that he had associated with him someone of a more receptive type of mind.

Hastings is wrong, of course, but as a retired man, Poirot must enjoy one of the longest retirements on record.  As for the novel itself – Christie tries to do far too much in it, and the eventual explanation (though ingenious) is very complicated.  Colin tells me that Christie acknowledges the over-complication in her autobiography.  It’s not surprising for a first novel, and it does nonetheless involve some rather sophisticated twists and turns.

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940)

Onto another Poirot novel!  For some reason I love the idea of titles being nursery rhymes or quotations, and Christie does this a lot.  And Then There Were None is my favourite of her books (that I have read), and I also think the twist in The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side is brilliant.  I hadn’t read this one, and chose it over Sad Cypress for the 1940 selection.  Which turned out not to be very clever, as it is set at a dentist’s, where I will probably have to go soon…

The plot of this one isn’t amongst Christie’s best, and does depend upon one minor implausibility, but it’s still head and shoulders over other people’s.  I realise I’m giving you nothing to go on, but I don’t even want to give the identity of the victim (even though they’re killed very early in the novel) because every step should be a surprise.  What I did like a lot about the novel was this moment about Poirot:

She paused, then, her agreeable, husky voice deepening, she said venomously: “I loathe the sight of you – you bloody little bourgeois detective!”
She swept away from him in a whirl of expensive model drapery.
Hercule Poirot remained, his eyes very wide open, his eyebrows raised and his hand thoughtfully caressing his moutaches.
The epithet bourgeois was, he admitted, well applied to him.  His outlook on life was essentially bourgeois, and always had been[.]

Having sat through an absurd talk recently, where the embittered speaker spat out ‘bourgeois’ about once a minute (and then, after lambasting his own bottom-of-the-pile education, revealed that he’d been to grammar school) this came as a breath of fresh air!  One of my few rules in life is “If someone uses the word ‘bourgeois’ instead of ‘middle-class’, they’re probably not worth paying attention to, and they certainly won’t pay attention to you.’  The other thing I loved was the morality Christie slipped into Poirot’s denouement… but to give away more would be telling.

So, as you see, one of the other issues with detective fiction is that it rather defies the normal book review, but I’ve had fun exploring various questions which arise from reading Agatha Christie – and tomorrow I shall be putting a specific question to you!  But for today, please just comment with whatever you’d like to say about Christie or this post – and particularly which of her novels you think is especially clever in its revelation (giving away absolutely nothing, mind!)