“I work on two inches of ivory, Austen said”

I’m not the biggest Hilary Mantel fan, but there’s a lot of truth in this:

“But the real reason the books are underestimated – let’s be blunt – is that they are by a woman. Until very recently there was a category of books “by women, for women”. This category was unofficial, because indefensible. Alongside genre products with little chance of survival, it included works written with great skill but in a minor key, novels that dealt with private, not public, life. Such novels seldom try to startle or provoke the reader; on the contrary, though the narrative may unfold ingeniously, every art is employed to make the reader at ease within it. Understated, neat, they do not employ what Walter Scott called “the Big Bow-wow strain”. Reviewing Austen, and admiring her, Scott saw the problem: how can such work be evaluated, by criteria meant for noisier productions? From the 18th century onward, these novels have been a guilty pleasure for many readers and critics – enjoyed, but disparaged. There is a hierarchy of subject matter. Warfare should get more space than childbirth, though both are bloody. Burning the bodies rates higher than burning the cakes. If a woman engages with “masculine” subjects, it has not saved her from being trivialised; if a man descends to the domestic, writes fluently of love, marriage, children, he is praised for his empathy, his restraint; he is commended as intrepid, as if he had ventured among the savages to get secret knowledge. Sometimes, perfection itself invites contempt. She gets that polish because she takes no risks. Her work shines because it’s so small. I work on two inches of ivory, Austen said, ironically: much labour, and small effect.”
— Hilary Mantel on Elizabeth Jane Howard and other undervalued women writers in today’s Guardian

(Thanks to the London Review of Books tumblr page for this quote.)

Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: the Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4

Before a trip to England last year, I read a book called London Stories, edited by Jerry White, which, unusually, combined both fiction and nonfiction pieces in one volume. One of the stand-out stories from the collection was Good Evening, Mrs. Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes, about a mistress whose lover goes off to war; with his increasingly infrequent letters, she must cope with her loneliness and anxieties (such as: what if he was injured or died? How would she ever find out?). It’s such a powerful, poignant story that when I finally arrived in England, I made sure to make my first visit to Persephone Books and came away with two volumes of Panter-Downes’ work, including Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: the Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, which I finished this evening.

With a skillful, light hand, Panter-Downes is able to show us in these stories – written between 1939-1944 – what it was actually like to live in the war. Her heroines are mostly upper middle class women trying to adjust to wartime realities, such as sharing their homes with soldiers and evacuees who aren’t particularly grateful. Her women may have actually found peace by living on their own while their soldier husbands are away, or, in the latter days of the war, find themselves lonely, missing the bonhomie among neighbors when the Blitz was going on.

In The Danger, Panter-Downes writes of Frances, who married quickly before the war, but has grown quite used to her loneliness without her husband:

She became used to the light-clip of feminine conversation, to light eating on trays. When a man came to the house, his voice seemed to roar like a giant’s and the floors seemed to shudder under his unaccustomed tread.

You can feel in these stories a society that suspects, but cannot yet know, that it is undergoing breathtaking changes. Servants will not come back to the big houses after WW2; society will stop shaming (eventually) unmarried mothers; women will enjoy greater degrees of independence. Panter-Downes’ observations are all the more valuable because they show us what was happening at the time, and not with history’s 20-20 hindsight.

Panter-Downes wrote over 850 pieces for The New Yorker between 1938-1987, including short stories, poems, reviews, profiles and more. She only wrote five novels, including One Fine Day (1947), which was the only one Panter-Downes championed throughout her long career. I already can’t wait to read it.


Author (and friend extraordinaire) Neil Griffiths is considering doing a #ProustAlong this year. Let him tell you about it here. If you’re interested, let me know below or tell him on Twitter or YouTube.

Proust is just one glaring omission in my reading history, so I’ve committed to reading the first book. But I’d like to spend the year trying some other significant omissions, like Dostoevsky,  or Middlemarch and The Bell Jar.

Who are the authors you want to finally try in 2016?

Mrs. Dalloway’s Party

I’ve been curious about participating in the #WoolfAlong on Twitter, but hesitant about joining in Jan/Feb because I’ve already read Mrs. Dalloway five times and To the Lighthouse three times. While I could read and enjoy them both every year, I don’t want to dull their impact. I value the ability to come to them in fresh delight and wonder over parsing them in a deeper, more academic understanding.

I decided instead to read Mrs. Dalloway’s Party, a series of seven stories written around the same period as Mrs. Dalloway. The stories begin before the party starts, with Mrs. Dalloway buying gloves in Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street (indeed, Woolf originally intended this to be the first chapter in Mrs. Dalloway) and Richard Dalloway inviting an old friend he bumps into in Deans Yard to the party that night (The Man who Loved His Kind).

These two stories are fine, but it’s in the next five stories, which take place at Clarissa’s famous party, that Woolf’s genius most shines through. Each story pins and dissects the psyche of a different guests, laying bare their vulnerabilities and desires.

  • In The Introduction, Lily Everit, proud of the high marks on her essay on Jonathan Swift, watches her achievement dissipate when faced with the arrogance of the insolent Bob Brinsley.
  • In Ancestors, Mrs. Vallance compares the partygoers to her beloved family and comes away enraged by their superficiality.
  • In Together and Apart, a Mr. Serle and Miss Anning momentarily connect when they realize they share a similar warmth and nostalgia for Canterbury:

Their eyes met; collided rather, for each felt that behind the eyes the secluded being, who sits in darkness while his shallow agile companion does all the tumbling and beckoning, and keeps the show going, suddenly stood erect; flung off his cloak; confronted the other. It was alarming; it was terrific.

  • In The New Dress, Mabel arrives at the party only to realize the dress that she’d had specially made is wrong, all wrong, and can’t overcome her humiliation. “She felt like a dressmaker’s dummy standing there, for young people to stick pins into,” Woolf writes. But Mabel isn’t all self-pity,  as when she thinks of  her dressmaker, Miss Milan:

… Miss Milan pulling the cover over the canary’s cage, or letting him pick a hemp-seed from between her lips, and the thought of it, of this side of human nature and its patience and its endurance and its being content with such miserable, scanty, sordid little pleasures filled her eyes with tears.

  • Sasha Latham of A Summing Up, the final story in the collection, is a different kind of guest:

She walked rather like a stag, with a little give of the ankles, fanning herself, majestic, silent, with all her senses roused, her ears pricked, snuffing the air, as if she had been some wild, but perfectly controlled creature taking its pleasure by night.

  But even Sasha is a traditional Woolfian character, subject to insecurities and the wax and wane of her moods, as we watch her heart overflow with love and humanity one minute, then her vision crash to despair the next.

I’d read Mrs. Dalloway’s Party as a substitute for Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse, but these stories just reminded me of the brilliance of the novels themselves. Perhaps it’s time to revisit To the Lighthouse, after all.

Ophelia’s parry

I’m reading Hamlet for the first time in over 20 years. Shakespeare’s women never impress me – least of all Ophelia – but in all the productions I’ve seen, I’ve never quite noticed her perfect reply to Laertes’ advice to stay chaste – and steer clear away from Hamlet. Would that there were more lines like this!

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

– Hamlet (1.3.48-52)

An interesting aside: I’m also reading Harold Bloom’s Hamlet: Poem Unlimited. Shortly after I posted the above lines, I read his chapter on Ophelia, which begins:

“We first encounter Ophelia in a familial context, with her departing brother Laertes and her father Polonius alike warning her not to yield her person to Hamlet. ‘I shall obey, my lord,’ she gently says to her father, and so her strategy is already in place.”