Sunday 24 June 2018

Walking Home: Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way, Simon Armitage

Walking Home is an account of Armitage's attempt to walk the 256 miles of the Pennine Way. Whereas most tackle the route from south the north he decided to reverse the route and start in Kirk Yetholm, where he was refused the privilege of signing the book of finishers on account of just beginning. This back to front journey would have him walking to his childhood home of Marsden. His chosen route threw up some interesting challenges, not least having to navigate in the opposite direction. He realised at several points that were he walking in the conventional direction the trail would build up to spectacular features whereas he would witness them first, diminishing what followed.

Part of the challenge was to go penniless and rely on poetry readings en route for money, and the kindness of strangers for somewhere to sleep (and transport the bulk of his luggage in a large suitcase, affectionately referred to as The Tombstone, to his next stop). This was of course made easier by his being one of Britain's best known poets and the benefits of modern technology allowing for broad publicity before he set off, ensuring he had a reliable host and event organiser at each day's destination. This does not of course detract from the effort involved in undertaking the walk and spending his evenings performing rather than recuperating. The readings took place in varied venues from village halls, pubs, and even a host's living room, with equally as varied audiences and distractions.

He was lucky that for much of the route he had companions, many of whom were experts in the landscape. Nonetheless there were moments of getting hopelessly lost and reminders that there are still wild areas of the country with hostile terrain. The times of confusion during solo walks are all the more painfully described as he hopes for help from passing walkers. There's no sugar coating his experience - contained within the pages are tales of exhaustion, frustration and elation on a trail he describes as '... a pointless exercise, leading from nowhere in particular to nowhere in particular, via no particular route and for no particular reason.'

Part travelogue part memoir, this is an amusing tale of endurance on Britain's oldest, toughest National Trail.

Sunday 17 June 2018

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

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Du Maurier’s most popular novel is narrated by the unnamed second wife of Maxim de Winter, broody owner of Manderley, his ancestral home. It is so vividly described and central to the novel that it almost becomes a character in its own right. The couple meet in the South of France les than a year after the death of his first wife, Rebecca. Even during the proposal he expresses no love for the timid narrator and she naively accepts, thinking she is freeing herself from her servitude of companion to Mrs Van Hopper but condemning herself to a passionless marriage and a similar subservient companionship.

On their return to Manderley she struggles with the ghost of Rebecca whose beauty and talents were beloved of almost all. Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper, was particularly devoted to her and frightens the new Mrs de Winter, ensuring that she always feels inferior. In the final quarter of the novel a revelation gives the young bride hope of happiness only for it quickly to be torn away in the dramatic conclusion.

Despite only appearing in memory and imagination it is Rebecca that endures for the reader. The narrator becomes exasperating with her endless doubts and unwillingness to assert any authority. The secret that releases her from her jealousy and inferiority does not paint her in a positive light and she seems selfish in her obsession with being freed from Rebecca’s presence. In saying that, the reader has become so entangled in her narrative that you can’t help but hope events unfold as she wishes, making you question your morals.

The novel dissects the role of women and the expectations of femininity, something which it is said du Maurier struggled with herself. She was shy and did not enjoy entertaining and yet Rebecca also reflects aspects of her creator’s personality in her sexual liberation and aptitude at sailing. The fact she makes Rebecca the stronger, more memorable character may hint at where she felt her true self lay.

This atmospheric novel examines the complex jealousy of a second wife, a topic not often discussed in fiction. We feel so vividly the presence of Rebecca as we walk in the footsteps of the paranoid narrator. Du Maurier successfully created a sense of place so believable we feel as though we have wandered its corridors and explored the gardens. The claustrophobia felt by the narrator is palpable and makes for a disturbing read. 

Pick up a copy:

Sunday 10 June 2018

The Professor, Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte’s much-rejected first novel follows our protagonist and narrator William Crimsworth from a difficult life in northern England to Brussels where he gains a teaching post in a boys’ school. He is full of optimism and innocence as he embarks on his new life, deriding the natives at every turn. In addition to his work at Monsieur Pelet’s school he also teaches lessons at a nearby girls’ school run by Mademoiselle Reuter. He is attracted to the young directress and a flirtatious power struggle ensues. Her deceitful nature is revealed to him and his affection moves toward Frances Henri, an unassuming seamstress who takes English classes with him.

Of all of Brontë’s novels this seems to be the one critics find the hardest to separate from biography. Written on her return from Brussels in the throes of painful unrequited love she seems to choose a male narrator to give more freedom, and also perhaps to rewrite reality into a fantasy with an ending she so longed for.

The distaste for the Belgians is a reflection of sentiments expressed in a letter from Brontë to her friend Ellen Nussey on first arriving in Brussels. This may have been enhanced by their Catholicism, a not uncommon target for derision at the time but felt keenly by Brontë, presumably in part because of her Anglican upbringing. The fact Mademoiselle Reuter, dishonest and seductive, is Catholic and Frances Henri, loyal and diligent, is Protestant is likely no coincidence.

Frances is also intriguing for her sense of nationalism. Born to Anglo-Swiss parents she has a deep love for England, although she has never been. Comparatively, Hunsden, a friend of Crimsworth’s from England has no sense of national loyalty and sees himself as a ‘citizen of the world’. These themes feel very relevant in today’s Brexit obsessed atmosphere.

Regardless of its reputation as Brontë’s weakest novel, I thoroughly enjoyed The Professor. Crimsworth is not always a particularly likable character but that is no flaw in creation. His prejudicial feelings and odd behaviour towards those who impress him make him believable as a young man trying to find his way in the world. We see him mature and achieve what Brontë set out in her preface as an aim – to have the characters make their wealth from hard work, not by a lucky chance. As in other of her works, she sets out to write about ordinary people living unextraordinary lives, which is not to say boring. The ending was a little neat for my tastes, but I am now a great advocate of recovering this novel from its critics.

Sunday 3 June 2018

Hay Festival 2018, Part Three

Fiona Sampson spoke to us of her research for her new biography, In Search of Mary Shelley and how she felt comfortable writing a biography of Shelley as she was herself a biographer. She told of the sadness for Mary growing up in the house where her mother died and how her father taught her to write by tracing the letters of her name on the grave, meaning that writing and morbidity were linked from a young age. Despite the fact she came from a family who were very interested in memorializing themselves, no letters to or from Mary in her youth, or any of her juvenilia, survive.

Sampson highlighted what an error Mary made in believing Percy’s lies and running away with him, a mistake she would pay for dearly. Sampson believes that although Mary wanted to write, she wanted a nuclear family, not bohemia. There is also the suggestion that she was innocent of gender politics. When writing Frankenstein she still believed she could do the same as men – her great tragedy was realizing that she couldn’t.

The led nicely into the next event – Margaret Atwood in conversation. We started with the slightly unusual topic of subway adverts which she believes tells you much about the preoccupations of the age – from underwear suggesting you needed some kind of infrastructure in the 1930s and 40s to debt and helplines today.

She spoke of her first experiences of publishing and how crushing her first rejection was, made worse by a poetry book being accepted but not making it past the third editor. Her second novel was then lost by a publisher for two years. A difficult start to a glittering career.

Naturally, it wasn’t long before we got on to The Handmaid’s Tale which she wrote whilst living in West Berlin. She sees it as a warning – don’t walk into that hole, and yet the fact she didn’t put anything in it that hasn’t happened somewhere in the world (the same is true for the TV show) highlights the ongoing need for such warnings. Indeed, many believe the message is more relevant today than when it was written. The handmaid costumes have proved popular in protests. Atwood thinks this is an effective way to protest without having to say anything.

She also spoke of the inspiration for Alias Grace – a real life convict named Grace Marks who she first came to via Susanna Moodie’s writings on the subject. Atwood initially wrote a TV play working only from this, but when she came to write the novel she left no stone unturned, yet still can’t say whether or not Marks was innocent.

It was a fascinating evening with an author who clearly knows what she’s talking about and is incredibly insightful.