A Fortunate Term by Angela Brazil (Facebook group reading challenge)

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Angela Brazil very briefly attended my old school, when her family first moved to Manchester.  Her horrified mother withdrew her on discovering that the girls there behaved with “perkiness”, bought sweets from corner shops and even, horror of horrors, ran along the pavements.  There was not one person considered suitable to be asked chez Brazil for tea.  Good job that Mrs Brazil never knew the place in my day, some of the language we used and all the complaints that the bus company made about us!  Dear Angela was consequently sent to a very select establishment, known as a “ladies’ college” rather than anything as plebeian as a “school”.  So I think I can be forgiven for not having the most positive of images of her – but I read this as part of a reading challenge, and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and there was actually very little snobbishness in it.

Having said which, I was spitting feathers after reading the first page, which involved a girl who addressed her mum as “Muvvie” (seriously – Muvvie?!) and a lot of negative remarks about the evils of northern industrial landscapes.  Dark satanic mill type stuff.  Ooh!  If there’s one thing I can’t be doing with, it’s people making negative comments about northern industrial landscapes!   OK, there are lots of things I can’t be doing with, but that’s certainly one of them.  It was particularly galling given that Angela Brazil’s dad (or maybe that should be Farvie?) worked in the Lancashire cotton industry, a fact which Angela tended conveniently to ignore.  However, our friend and her sister – Mavis and Merle – didn’t have to stay amongst the dark satanic mills too long, because they were off to stay with their uncle in “Devonshire”, land of witches and pixies.  After that, they pretty much shut up making negative comments about the North.  Hey, they even acknowledged that we have our own mythical creatures – boggarts.

Off to Devon.  It’s interesting how Girls’ Own authors seem to have this idea of the Celtic Fringe (I just mistyped that as “Celtic Fridge”) – yes, I know that Devon isn’t Cornwall and isn’t generally classed as being Celtic, but I’m not sure that Angela Brazil did, and Elinor M Brent-Dyer seemed to think that the two rival counties were actually interchangeable! – as being all fey and mystical.  I suppose it was a combination of the Celtic Revival and the interest in the Scottish Highlands brought about by Queen Victoria and Sir Walter Scott.  Clotted cream got mentioned several times as well – although it was referred to as “scalded cream”.  I am a big fan of clotted cream, but have my scones the Cornish way, jam first!  And there was a local festival to mark a local saint’s day.

Anyway, off they went to Devon, to stay with the uncle, who, like the dad, was a doctor.  Girls’ Own authors are very keen on doctors.  Darrell’s dad in Malory Towers is a doctor, the eponymous heroine’s husband in the Dimsie books is a doctor, and all good Chalet School girls and mistresses get to marry doctors.  I got a bit annoyed at a snooty comment about “trippers” dropping litter, but it was only the one comment.

Like a lot of Angela Brazil books but unlike a lot of other Girls’ Own books, this one involved a day school, and there were two main storylines – one about the school, and the nasty girl who had the headmistress and the other teacher (the unfortunately named “Miss Fanny”) fooled into thinking that she was all sweetness and light, and one outside school hours, involving a mysterious boy called Bevis, who’d been brought up by foster parents after his mum had dropped dead at a local hotel without leaving any clue as to who she was.  As you do.

Contrary to the image of Angela Brazil books being snobby, it was stressed that Bevis, despite his humble upbringing, was a really nice lad, and that it was fine for the girls to be friends with him.  We were clearly meant to approve of him, but not of the rich boy whose family were renting the local squire’s house (the squire, an elderly man with no heirs, being abroad).  Well, OK, there was some snobbishness there, in that the nouveau riche family were clearly to be detested, and you just knew that the poor-but-noble-minded Bevis was going to turn out to be the scion of some upper-class family, but there certainly wasn’t the sort of snobbishness that you get from, say, Julian in the Famous Five books.

Nor was there any of the gushing that people associate with Angela Brazil books.  None of the girls went around kissing each other, hugging each other, developing grand passions for the prefects, writing soppy notes, bursting into tears every five minutes or anything else along those lines.  Even the language wasn’t that bad.  There was some strange slang, such as “Judkins”, but nothing too daft.  Anyway, all schoolkids use weird slang; and, for some reason, the word for “silly person” (which is what “Judkins” appears to mean) tends to change every term or so.  We went through wally, plonker (thank you, Only Fools and Horses), berk, prat, dork (thank you, Neighbours), derbrain, dweeb, dormant, nob, neb and assorted other terms, none of which were really any worse than “Judkins” 🙂 .  And some of the descriptions of the countryside were extremely well-written and a genuine joy to read.  Someone did get extremely ill from being out in the rain, but even Jane Austen uses that trope.

Needless to say, the nasty girl, one Opal Earnshaw – a very northern-sounding name for a Devonian! – eventually showed her true colours, and the teachers saw her for what she was.  Equally needless to say, it turned out that Bevis was the long-lost heir to the local squire, the house being rented by the nouveau riche types (the son of whom turned over a new leaf and became quite a nice bad) and most of the other land and property in the area.

So it was all a bit cheesy and predictable, but, OK, I wasn’t expecting it to be deep and meaningful.  The main characters were genuinely likeable, and it certainly didn’t fulfil the stereotype of the early school story that gets mercilessly parodied in something like Daisy Pulls It Off.  It’d been a good few years since I last read an Angela Brazil book: I must read a few more of them.

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Les Miserables – BBC 1

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This looks like it’s going to be a brilliant adaptation of a complex and fascinating story, as you would expect from Andrew Davies.  Great performances all round.  No historical bloopers with the scenery.   I kept waiting for the characters to burst into song, though!  Sorry, I know we’re not supposed to say that, and I know very well that Les Miserables was originally a book (and I know the publication date, because I know that it was published during the American Civil War, which is totally irrelevant!), but I know the musical so well that it was impossible not to compare the two.  The musical is incredible.  This was pretty good too!

Consequently, what I picked up on were the bits that aren’t in the musical!  Obviously that’s not a criticism of the musical: you can only fit so much of a very long book into a stage show.

For a kick off, we started with the Battle of Waterloo.  Hooray!  My one and only real gripe with the musical is that it doesn’t make it clear at the beginning exactly where in history we are, and I think that’s caused a lot of confusion, with people who are perhaps not overly familiar with 19th century French history getting the impression that the rising is in 1789, not in 1832.  So hooray for the historical scene being clearly set!  And the character fighting at Waterloo was Marius’s dad.  I’m afraid I’ve never read the book, despite having owned a copy for about fifteen years.  Oops.  I am not proud of this fact, but it’s such a huge book and I’ve got so many other books waiting to be read!   So I didn’t know anything about Marius’s background, other than that he was from a well-to-do family, and was fascinated to learn about the pro-Napoleon dad and the pro-ancien-regime grandad.  Now we were really getting into Bourbon Restoration era France!

The Thenardiers haven’t really come into it yet, but we’re going to see that Marius’s dad believed that Monsieur Thenardier saved his life.  It’s confusing in the musical, because we don’t really understand how Marius and Thenardier know each other.

Then there’s Fantine.  In the musical, we only get to know her as a struggling single mother.  Everyone knows I Dreamed A Dream, but we don’t actually see the doomed romance, or get to know the girl that Fantine was before she got into trouble.  The scene with Fantine and her mates in a bar, on the pull, could have been set today, and yet it didn’t seem anachronistic because it worked just as well two centuries ago.  It seemed very Andrew Davies: I don’t know how it’s put in the book, but it was really good.

I haven’t mentioned Jean Valjean or Javert yet, which is weird because they’re surely the two central characters.  They didn’t seem as central here as they do in the musical, though.  The musical is very much about Javert’s ongoing pursuit of Valjean and the various clashes between the two.  I hadn’t realised that the other characters feature so much more in the original story.  Both characters were played very well and very convincingly, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of them.

Er, so what I’ve done is compare the TV series to the musical.  This would really annoy Andrew Davies, who’s claimed that he’s rescuing the book “from the clutches of that awful musical with its doggerel lyrics”. But I hope all the newspaper reviewers compare the two, because Andrew Davies deserves to be annoyed in return for making that remark.  It’s a brilliant musical which a lot of people love.  There’s no need for him to make nasty remarks like that!  The book doesn’t need “rescuing”.  But it did need adapting into a mini-series, because the musical, due to time limits, can’t show everything, and I’m really enjoying seeing the bits I didn’t know were there!  It was an excellent first episode: there wasn’t one poor performance, and there wasn’t really anything to criticise.  Good stuff!

The Chalet School Annexe by Adrianne Fitzpatrick

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This is a fill-in that’d been waiting to be written!   It’s very frustrating that EBD, having set up the Annexe and located some of the main characters there, never showed us anything of Juliet’s time as a mistress, Juliet and Grizel working together, Madge’s temporary return to teaching, or Robin’s maturing from a rather irritating “Engelkind” to the girl who braved a crowd of baying Nazis to try to help Herr Goldmann.   Robin’s the central character in this book, which I think is probably what most readers would have expected.

(Although this is set in the 1930s, and therefore classes as being historical even though there’s no history as such in it, nothing I’m saying will make much sense to anyone who doesn’t read Chalet School books.  I’m just indulging myself by writing it.  It’s “Twixmas”, after all!)

Jo barely features.  Hooray!  I don’t dislike teenage Jo, but I do dislike the way that, as the series progresses, she’s placed at the centre of everything, even in situations which shouldn’t involve her at all. I’m very fond of Madge and am always sorry that she’s shoved into the background, quite probably so as to leave centre stage free for Jo; so it’s great to see her involvement here … although it can’t have lasted for long, as Sybil was born at the end of the following term.  There’s such a nice scene in which Madge gently ribs Juliet about being so keen to make the Annexe seem like the Chalet School that she insists on referring to a tiny little room as “Hall”, and it really does get across that lovely lightness and humour that we get in the early books, before the School starts taking itself and its institutions too seriously.

Juliet, despite her youth and inexperience, manages things very well, although we do see her being nervous early on.  Strangely, there’s not a single mention of Donal, or the general fact that Juliet will only be teaching until she and he can afford to get married.  I can’t stand the man and wish Juliet had sent him packing, but it does seem a bit odd that there’s no reference to him.  Oh well.  The interaction between Juliet and Robin comes across very nicely, and Gertrud’s absence – we were originally told that “Grizel and Gertrud” would be helping Juliet, but then Gertrud never appeared!  – is satisfactorily explained as being due to a ski-ing accident.  I have such great admiration for the way in which fill-in authors work their way round EBD-isms 🙂 .

I’m sorry that Grizel, although it’s nice to see her getting a chance to teach Games as well as music, is portrayed unfavourably, though.  I’m sure it’s exactly what EBD would have done, because she always seemed keen to insist that Grizel disliked Robin and was jealous of her, but I think Grizel gets a raw deal in the later Tyrol books.  Surely anyone would be upset if they invited an old friend for a catch-up and just got “Can’t.  Where’s my Robin?” in response, without so much as a “Sorry” or “Maybe another time”, or if they had to hear of an old friend’s engagement second-hand?  Grizel put herself in considerable danger to rescue Robin in Head Girl, and that gets forgotten about.  As I said, I’m sure the way Grizel’s written here is the way EBD would have written her, had she written a book about the Annexe, so it’s no criticism of Adrianne Fitzpatrick, but I do think it’s a shame.

Most of it’s about the girls, though, as you would expect, not the staff.   EBD never named most of the twenty-two pupils of the Annexe, so a fill-in author was free to guess at them.  It’s great to see Lilias Carr included: we hear very little about the school-age pupils at the San.  I’d like to have seen more of Stacie, but I suppose there’s only so much you can fit into a book of this length.

The main plot is one which EBD liked and used several times – in New, Bride, Oberland and Feud -, that of a group of Chalet School girls and a group of girls from another school/other schools having to find a way to come together.  Seeing as EBD used it no fewer than four times, it’s hardly original, but it’s good to see Robin and Amy, two of the central characters of the early days, at the heart of it, along with Signa.

There are also a whole load of minor plots.  We see, very realistically, that some girls aren’t at all happy with being moved to the Annexe.  EBD, who didn’t like to criticise either the school or the doctors, never really hinted at that, but surely it was inevitable.  Amy misses Margia.  Inga misses her friends.  Renee is worried about her music lessons.  Irma feels that she’s missing out on all the excitements at the main school.  They must have felt like second-class citizens, and that must have been hard for everyone – and it must also have been strange knowing that most of the girls hoped to be moved to the main school ASAP.  And, yay, one girl rebels and has a hot bath!  I always find it very unrealistic that no-one in the entire canon series ever does that!

There isn’t that much about “delicacy” and health issues.  We’re told that they only have short lessons, and are encouraged to go out for fresh air in between lesson periods, which is interesting, and there are some references to medicine, but there’s not actually that much sense of it being a special school in any way.  Doctors are barely mentioned!   However, it would have been pretty miserable if it’d been some kind of set-up in which no-one was allowed to do anything in case they hurt or tired themselves – and that wouldn’t have fitted with the emphasis on fresh air and exercise anyway.  And, as the author pointed out, Jem would definitely not have wanted them sleeping outdoors in all weathers, which was the way it worked at some “health” places at the time J.

There are no major accidents or disasters, but there’s a lot of the usual Chalet School stuff that we know and love!  Cookery lessons, making stuff for the Sale, expeditions, etc.  It’s very well-written, and it reads a proper Chalet School without ever slavishly following EBD’s use of language or syntax.  There’s no point at which you think that that wouldn’t have happened, or that that character wouldn’t have behaved in that way, but, at the same time, it’s different, because a lot of the characters are unfamiliar and the whole Annexe set-up is unfamiliar.

It’s not particularly exciting, in that there aren’t any dramatic incidents/accidents, but, quite frankly, it all gets a bit too much in some of the Swiss books, where there are meteorites landing on cricket pitches, sudden blizzards and avalanches every five minutes and people lying “still, grey and to all appearance dead” all over the show!  There’s more than enough in the plots and the characters here to hold the reader’s attention.  The only things I’d moan about are criticisms of the Chalet School (I love it to bits, but nothing’s perfect!) rather than of this book, i.e. the portrayal of Grizel and the repetition of the two-become-one plot.  It’s a really enjoyable read – and the Tyrol-era Chalet School books are so good that anyone who can write a book that genuinely feels like one of them deserves a lot of credit!

Mary Poppins Returns

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Obviously this requires deep historical analysis 😉 .  Jane Banks is now a trade unionist, and runs a soup kitchen.  And wears trousers.  And acquires a working-class toyboy.  Go Jane!   Michael Banks is one of many people at risk of having his home repossessed due to the effects of the Depression.  Oh all right, all right, I just want an excuse to talk about Mary Poppins Returns.   It was never going to be as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and practically perfect in every way as the original, and it’s a bit unfair of critics to compare the soundtrack to songs which have been around for over half a century and which everyone knows and loves, but it was still pretty good.

Sadly, I have never acquired the ability to make things tidy themselves up and put themselves away just by clicking my fingers.  But Mary Poppins has taught us all that a laugh and a song help the job along, and that we should prioritise spending time with people who are important to us over work.  That’s important.  Then there was that GCSE history lesson when the teacher started talking about suffragettes – and my school was absolutely obsessed with suffragettes, because the Pankhurst sisters all went there (Christabel hated the place, but the teachers never told us that) – and someone piped up that they knew about suffragettes because of Mary Poppins.  “Mary Poppins was a suffragette?” asked the teacher in bemusement.  “No – Mrs Banks was,” this girl explained helpfully.  And the class started singing the Sister Suffragette song.  See – it’s proper historical stuff!  Very educational 😉 .

Quite seriously, whereas the original film was set in what’s become mythologised as the pre Great War Edwardian summer when it was Grand To Be An Englishman in 1910, the mood in Mary Poppins Returns is very different.  This is the Depression.  Jane is running a soup kitchen, and organising meetings in support of workers’ rights.  Michael, a widower with three children, has borrowed money from the Dawes et al Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, can’t repay it, and is at risk of having the house repossessed.  Like a lot of upper-middle-class fictional characters in books set during the inter-war years, with the very honourable exception of Madge Bettany in The School at the Chalet, it doesn’t seem to occur to him to try to reduce his living expenses, and he seems rather put out at having had to get a job; but, hey, we wouldn’t really want him to lose the house on Cherry Tree Lane.  Mr and Mrs Banks have presumably passed on, but Ellen, now played by Julie Walters, is still around, as are a lot of the neighbours.  And Michael’s three kids are incredibly cute – especially the youngest boy, who is absolutely gorgeous.

All is not lost!  Michael and Jane have inherited some shares in the bank from their father.  But they can’t find the share certificate – and the Banks entry in the share ledger has, unbeknownst to them, been destroyed by the dastardly nephew (played by Colin Firth) of Mr Dawes junior.  So maybe all is lost after all.  And, in the middle of this, Mary Poppins returns.  Hooray!

Emily Blunt plays Mary Poppins with a really OTT posh accent, which was a bit annoying.  I didn’t expect her to try to sound exactly like Julie Andrews, but it sounded a bit artificial, more like someone doing an impression of a posh accent than someone who genuinely has a posh accent!  Oh well, never mind.  She’s still got the talking umbrella.  And the handbag which a million things seem to fit into.  And there are magical adventures!

Not too many spoilers, but the adventures do very much mirror those in the original film. We haven’t got Bert, but we’ve got Jack, a lamplighter who was one apprenticed to Bert, and he and the other lamplighters have got a dance scene which is very reminiscent of Step In Time.   Meryl Streep plays Mary’s cousin Topsy Turvy, who runs a mysterious shop, in this film’s answer to the scenes with Uncle Albert floating up to the ceiling.  There isn’t a horse race, but there are adventures under the sea, and a brilliant music hall scene in which Mary Poppins sings a Marie Lloyd style number with a lot of innuendo … which doesn’t really sound like something Mary Poppins would do (although presumably it’s in one of the books?), but it’s a brilliant scene!

There’s no equivalent to the Bird Woman scene, but it is very much a London film.  I don’t entirely get London – most Northerners don’t! – but it is always lovely to see a film paying homage to a city which someone loves, and this film does do that, just as the original does.

And, of course, it all comes right in the end.  The kite – the original one, from Let’s Go Fly A Kite – is involved.  And everyone floats off on balloons.

I feel as if all I’ve done is compare it to the original, legendary, Mary Poppins, film, but the directors and scriptwriters have made it inevitable that everyone will do that, by including so many scenes which mirror those in the original film.  And, whilst nothing could compare with Mary Poppins, this is really very entertaining, and it’s a great film to see over the Christmas period.

The Long Song – BBC 1

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The brutality with which the Jamaican plantocracy reacted to the Christmas Rebellion/Baptist War/Great Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831-2 was so horrific that it may well have been what got Abolitionism over the line in 1833; but it’s rarely spoken about. Maybe it’s just too easy to think of Abolitionism as being about people in black bombazine singing “Amazing Grace” in assembly rooms.  And stories about slavery and uprisings are usually told from the viewpoint of the slaveowners: this is a rare example of a story in which the protagonist is a slave.  She’s called July.

My one real quibble with it is that Caroline, the main white character, comes dangerously close to caricature, or at least did early on. That’s no criticism of Hayley Atwell: she’s only playing her as she was written, and doing a very good job of it. Tamara Lawrance as July is also excellent, and Lenny Henry as Godfrey, the head of the house slaves, is incredible.  We all know what a great comedian and comic actor he is, but I’ve never really thought of him as a serious actor before.  And the character of Caroline does improve as the first episode goes on, to be fair.

So what’s going on? Christmas 1831.  The slave trade’s been abolished across the British Empire in 1807, but hopes that that would lead to the abolition of slavery itself across the British Empire have as yet failed to materialise, although the Abolitionist movement – notably the Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1823- is growing in size and influence.  There’ve been attempts to improve living and working conditions for slaves, but the Jamaican Assembly hasn’t wanted to know about them. Led by Baptist deacon Samuel Sharpe, one of a number of slaves who’d become religious ministers/preachers, a general strike’s planned, to demand a wage and more free time.

It turns into an uprising. The uprising only lasts eleven days, being quickly put down by British and free black Maroon troops, but there are violent reprisals by the slaveowners afterwards, with hundreds of slaves being executed for very minor offences such as stealing a cow.   The brutality horrifies public opinion in Britain, and it almost certainly hastens the abolition of slavery.  The Jamaican sugar-based economy has already begun to collapse and there’ll be severe economic decline for the rest of the 19th century; and the white upper-classes will continue to dominate financially and politically until well into the 20th century.  But at least the days of slavery are over.

July is born about 18 years or so before this (it’s not clear exactly how old she is in 1831) as the result of the rape of a female slave, Kitty, by the plantation overseer. We see the plantation owner’s sister, Caroline, take a fancy to her because she thinks she’s sweet and cute, and take her away from Kitty to be trained up as her maid, without a thought for the feelings of either mother or child at being separated.  It should be a heartrending and shocking moment, but, unfortunately, at that point the character of Caroline’s so pantomimish and OTT that it doesn’t quite work as it should do.

At that point, I wasn’t very impressed – but it did get better. Caroline is an interesting character.  She’s actually a very vulnerable character.  She’s the only white woman on the plantation, and, for some reason, there don’t seem to be any other relatives or friends around.  I suppose she has to seem foolish because it’s important to the story, later on, that she can’t manage the slaves herself and is dependent on July, who becomes the housekeeper – but it does all go overboard early on, with a lot of yelling and shrieking and hysterics.  The idea of the cunning slave/servant and the stupid mistress/master’s a stock storyline in sitcoms, but this isn’t a sitcom.  Anyway, as I said, it got better – the character of Caroline was working much better by the end of the first episode.

She insists on calling July “Marguerite”. Dehumanisation’s a key theme here – a child is seen as being cute, as if she’s a puppy or a kitten, and is taken away from her mother without a second thought, and then her name’s changed.  OK, it isn’t quite comparable to the famous Kunta Kinte/Toby scene, but there’s a telling scene during the rebellion in which Godfrey makes Caroline call July by her real name.

In the build-up to the rebellion, or uprising, or revolt, or war, or whichever term’s preferred, we see little acts of defiance by the slaves. July and Godfrey use a soiled bedsheet as a tablecloth at a posh dinner being given by Caroline.  Godfrey tells Caroline outright that the plantation can’t afford all the candles she wants for decoration – and she hits him for it.  The slaves throw their own Christmas party.  And then the actual rebellion.

July isn’t involved in it. Instead, she and her lover, a free black man called Nimrod, are enjoying themselves in the bedroom of the master, Caroline’s brother John.  John comes in, and shoots himself.  Caroline, not wanting to admit that her brother’s killed himself, claims that she saw Nimrod shoot him.  Nimrod is executed.  July’s sent to work in the fields – but is eventually brought back to the house as housekeeper, because Caroline can’t manage without her.

At the end of the first episode, a new plantation manager, Robert Goodwin, brings news that emancipation is coming. He seems sympathetic to the slaves, but, with two more episodes to come, it’s obviously going to get very complicated.

This is the story of a woman’s life. It’s not a story of a rebellion and emancipation … but that’s like saying that Gone With The Wind isn’t about the American Civil War/War Between The States and Reconstruction, or that War and Peace isn’t about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  It could be argued that it’s not the responsibility of Andrea Levy, the author of the book on which this is based, or of the BBC, to teach us about it.  Or is it?  If you write a book, or adapt for TV a book, about such an important and sensitive issue, then surely you are accepting some responsibility for that.  Novels, TV programmes and films reach a far wider audience than academic books do.  And this does a good job of it.  It’s not angry or aggressive.  It’s not sick-makingly preachy like Uncle Tom’s Cabin is.  Sorry, but I cannot stand that book!  It just tells the story.   Good choice by the BBC.

 

Before Bethlehem by James Flerlage

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Biblical novels, notably The Red Tent, can be very good.  This one’s only so-so, but it does have a reasonable stab at setting the nativity story in the historical context of the struggles faced by the people of Judaea and Galilee under the control of both the Romans and the religious courts.  It’s easy to forget that the nativity story’s set only 70 years or so before the outbreak of the war that culminated in the mass suicide at Masada, because no-one ever really talks about the two things as part of the same history.  It also includes some interesting Tudor-esque suggestions about Herod’s fears of being overthrown by either the line of the Maccabees or the line of King David.  However, the author’s unwillingness to choose between a Red Tent-type novel presented as historical fiction and a religious story with angels and divine messages means that the book doesn’t really work that well as a whole.

The story follows an Orthodox tradition that Joseph was a middle-aged widower with several children when he met Mary, and is told from the viewpoint of James, his youngest son. I understand that all the details of Joseph’s family as given in the book – his children, his brother and sister-in-law, the name of his first wife – come from the same tradition.  He’s shown as being a reasonably well-to-do man, rather than a “humble” carpenter.

I’m hardly an expert on the Bible, but I don’t know that it actually says anything about Joseph not being well-to-do.  Is the “humble” idea some sort of English thing from the Peasants’ Revolt and “When Adam delved and Eve span”, or am I overthinking this?  And the idea that Joseph was a fair bit older than Mary makes sense, because he disappears from the story fairly early on – although I suppose he could just have died young.  Anyway, whatever, this is the picture we get.

Archaeologists agree that Nazareth, as it is now, was only a two bit village at the time, and the book shows Joseph and his family being based in Sepphoris, a now-ruined city nearby, but also owning and farming some land at Nazareth. It suggests that Herod wanted to force all the builders/craftsmen in the area to leave their homes, close to harvest time, and go and work on constructing his new city at what’s now Tiberias.  Tiberias is – thank you, Wikipedia – supposed to have been founded quarter of a century later, but, OK, I suppose people must have been working on it beforehand.  I’m not sure how well this idea works, but it does get across the point that everyone in the area was very vulnerable at the time – you couldn’t really argue with either the Romans or the religious authorities, and just had to try to keep your head down.

Unfortunately for Joseph, in the story of this book, he not only caught the eye of Romans looking for workers but also caught the eye of the religious authorities, who were looking for a husband for Mary. And this is where the author gets himself all tangled up.

By this point, around a thousand years have passed since the time of King David. The Bible is a historian’s nightmare and it’s well nigh impossible to be sure who did or didn’t really exist, or when, but it’s generally accepted that the reign of David was around a thousand years before the birth of Jesus.  However, according to all the sources, there were still people whose line could be traced back to David, and Joseph – so the New Testament says – was one of them.  And Mary was, according to the book, considered special because she was descended from Aaron, brother of Moses (I think that’s quite a common tradition?) and had been dedicated to the Temple from birth by her parents.

This would make any child of theirs a double threat to Herod. Think Katherine Grey and Edward Seymour, or Arbella Stuart and William Seymour!   This idea works really well, and would explain quite logically why Herod might have had it in for Joseph and Mary.  Herod was only king because he’d sucked up to the Romans.  He’d replaced the Maccabee dynasty.  Yes, all right, all right, it’s officially called the Hasmonean dynasty, but (the nickname) Maccabee works better.  You don’t get football teams called Hasmoneans, do you?  He’d married a Maccabee princess, but she wasn’t his first wife or the mother of his heir.  Meanwhile, most people still regard the descendants of King David as the rightful heirs.

The nativity story totally contradicts itself on this bit. The “king” has to be descended from King David.  Joseph is descended from King David.  Therefore Jesus has to be descended from Joseph.  Let’s not go there, because people can get very offended if you start questioning religious texts, but, as a historical novel, this seemed at this point to be working really well – it was all very plausible.

It was also very interesting, with descriptions of life at the time, of the harsh punishments meted out by the religious courts, of the issues of Roman occupation, and of James and Joseph journeying to Jerusalem and their time there. The idea was that Joseph had agreed to marry Mary – who was very young, and came across as being rather a brat –  in exchange for the religious authorities using their influence with the Romans to get him out of having to work at Tiberias.

However, it then all goes a bit awry, because the author presumably couldn’t bear to abandon the religious story, and brought in angels and miracles. He couldn’t bear to leave Bethlehem out of it either, even though historians can’t find any evidence to support the census story and it’s likely that Jesus was actually born in the Nazareth area and the stable/Bethlehem stuff was “created” to provide a link to Royal David’s City.  He doesn’t go with the census story, and instead, having included angels – although he doesn’t actually show angels appearing in Nazareth, instead saying that they’d appeared “offstage”, whilst Mary was staying with her cousin Elizabeth – and insisted that it’s a miraculous virgin birth, says that they decide to leave Nazareth to get away from the gossip, the scandal, and, above all, fears of punishment by the religious courts.

No stable as such. Instead, the birth takes place in a watch tower.  On the Day of Atonement.  Well, it couldn’t have been December, or shepherds wouldn’t have been watching their flocks by night – and the idea is that they originally went to Jerusalem but the reason everywhere was full up was because there were loads of pilgrims there.  That makes sense, I suppose.  And then three astrologers sent by Herod turn up, everyone keeps going on about miracles and messiahs, and they head off to Egypt.

So it’s a strange mixture of actual, practical history, Orthodox tradition relating to the life of Joseph, and a religious-miracle element which the author evidently couldn’t bear to be without. I’m not knocking religious-miracle stories, if that’s what people are into, but I don’t think that trying to work them into a historical novel really works very well.  It would have been much better to have stuck with the idea of Herod being after Joseph and Mary because he was worried about the threat from a scion of the rightful ruling dynasty.

It might be worth a read, if only for people to remind themselves of the historical context. As I said, no-one ever really relates the nativity story to the issues of Roman rule in Judaea and Galilee.  The Christian stories move on to Rome and Ephesus and don’t cover the destruction of the Second Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Siege of Masada, and the Jewish stories don’t do Jesus, so you don’t get them together. But trying to combine a historical story and a religious-miracle story can get a bit muddled.

Great Lives: Laura Ingalls Wilder – Radio 4

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This didn’t half pack a lot into thirty minutes!   I have loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books ever since I was a little girl, and it made me rather happy 🙂 to hear them being discussed by three people – journalist Samira Ahmed, author Tracy Chevalier and Laura’s biographer Pamela Smith Hill – who obviously love them as well.  It makes me sad 😦 that the books have become the subject of so much controversy in recent years – the much-discussed issue of racism, the question of whether or not it was actually Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane who did most of the writing, and the argument that the books give a completely sanitised view of events.  I thought that this programme tackled and answered all those questions really well, without letting them take the discussion over completely.

I loved how enthusiastic they all were! So often these days, you listen to or watch or read something about a particular author, and it feels as if the broadcaster or author is only interested in pulling their work to pieces.  Quite often, it feels as if they haven’t even read the books properly, especially with some of the rubbish that people spout about Enid Blyton.  What a refreshing change to hear people who were obviously genuine admirers of Laura talking about her life and work.  I always think of her as “Laura”, never as “Mrs Wilder” 🙂 .

They started off by pointing out that the books were first published during the Depression, and appealed to the sense of nostalgia for a bygone era that always tends to flourish in difficult times, and also to the whole romanticised idea of the West. I can’t say I’ve ever really been that into the whole romanticised West thing.  Westerns don’t really appeal to me that much.  I can talk all day and all night about the Civil War, the build-up to the Civil War, Reconstruction and even the Mexican War, but not so much the West.  I don’t even know that the Little House books are “Western” in the “Wild West” sense that people generally use “Western”: they certainly don’t involve showdowns at the OK Corral and all that sort of thing!  But the idea of the pioneers certainly has a very romantic appeal.  I’m being earwormed by the Pet Shop Boys’ Go West now!   One of Pa’s songs was something about “Uncle Sam is rich enough to build us all a farm”.  It’s the American Dream, to own your own land.  And the idea of the American Dream still holds today.  People are trekking across Central America because of it.

They also suggested that writing the books must have been therapeutic for Laura. Reading the books as a little kid, I had no idea that Laura had written them because she desperately needed money after her family lost their savings in the Wall Street Crash, nor about Almanzo’s health problems.  Was it therapeutic for her?  It’d be nice to think so.  And, as they also pointed out, the white settlement of the West is often presented as a male-dominated experience.  With Laura’s books, we see it from the point of view of a girl.  It’s fascinating how we get this incredibly tough lifestyle, but we also get all this really girlie stuff about dresses and hairstyles and wishing that you were prettier than you are.  I still want a delaine dress with buttons that look like berries!

One thing that wasn’t mentioned at all was the religious aspect: I don’t know why that was missed. Having said which, they did say that the books are sometimes presented – presumably in America – in a moralistic way.  Maybe it’s best not to go there.  The Bible Belt culture is something that be quite difficult to get your head round, and which I don’t think most British people are at all comfortable with.  I doubt that Laura would be too comfortable with some of what goes on, either.  As I said, best not to go there.

I never watched the TV series. I don’t know why, given how much I’ve always loved the books, but I never did.  But I gather that it’s that which is largely responsible for the saccharine sweet image that the books have got in some quarters.  As Samira and Tracy stressed, they aren’t saccharine sweet at all.  OK, some of the most unpleasant aspects of Laura’s childhood, which are in Pioneer Girl, aren’t in the Little House books; but the books, especially the early ones, were written for young children, not for adults or even for teenagers.  But the books are essentially a tale of bad luck and failure.  And, as they said, maybe that’s part of the appeal.  The Ingalls family keep having to pick themselves up, dust themselves down, and start all over again.

And Samira said exactly what I think every time I revisit the books – that, as a young reader, you think that their life sounds very exciting and that Pa is wonderful; but that, as an adult female, you think that Pa is an idiot and you feel desperately sorry for Ma. That poor woman, being dragged from pillar to post, with four kids, all because of Pa’s “itchy feet”!  I want to cheer when she finally puts her foot down and says that they’re staying put, so that she can make a nice home and the girls can go to school.

Then they, inevitably, got on to the “culture war” question. As we all know, the Association for Library Services to Children in America recently renamed its Laura Ingalls Wilder Award as the “Children’s Literature Legacy Award”, due to concerns in the books about the attitude towards Native Americans and African Americans.  It’s a very difficult and controversial subject, and I said all I had to say about it at the time.  Samira made an excellent point about how – she said especially in America, but I think it’s happening everywhere – we seem to be losing the concept of nuance.  Everything’s becoming so polarised, and people seem so keen to stick labels on things.  I think it’s largely because of people with extreme views at both ends of the spectrum dominating social media, and dominating universities: surely the majority of people do not view things in such polarised terms.  As she said, surely we can read a book and say that, yes, I enjoyed that book, but/even though there are things in it with which I’m not comfortable.  Why is that a problem?  I thought that she put that very well.

Then on to environmentalism! I am not scientifically-minded, and I can’t say that I’d ever thought very much about how digging up the topsoil on the prairies caused the Dust Bowl phenomenon of the 1930s, but, yes, it’s interesting to think that Laura lived through all that.

And then to the idea of Manifest Destiny. That I can go on about that at very great length – and obviously it’s an extremely problematic concept now, and the treatment of Native Americans, from well before Laura’s time, was beyond appalling, but it’s something that does have to be understood in order to understand the historical context of the books.  Samira commented that the US is still struggling to come to terms with this.  It doesn’t seem to be talked about that much.  The issue of discrimination against African Americans is rarely out of the news, but very little seems to be said about Native Americans – certainly far less than about the First Peoples in Canada, or the Maoris in New Zealand, or the Aboriginal Peoples in Australia.

They then made another interesting point – that the happiest book is Farmer Boy.  I’d actually have said that the happiest book was These Happy Golden Years, but I suppose that doesn’t have the level of security and comfort that Farmer Boy has.  Laura, at 15, having to go to a strange place and teach pupils who are older than she is, isn’t actually a very happy idea at all.  OK, OK, they’ve probably got it right and I’ve probably got it wrong!   And they picked up on the scene in Farmer Boy that most sticks in my mind – Almanzo’s enormous breakfast!  The amount of food they eat for breakfast!   Most people don’t eat that much in two days.  Why did Almanzo and Royal, who both seem to have had considerably more sense than Charles Ingalls, leave that life behind to Go West?  They didn’t mention Eliza Jane, but why did she Go West?   Again, it’s got to have been the American Dream.  All that hope.

And, in poor Almanzo’s case, it all came crashing down. In The Long Winter, he was this super-fit young man who heroically went off with Cap Garland to bring back supplies in order to save the residents of the town from starvation.  Then he was struck down by complications from diphtheria when he was only 31, making it impossible for him to do all the hard physical work their lifestyle required, just as several years of severe drought were making life in South Dakota incredibly difficult anyway.  It’s a sad story.  The American Dream went sour for a lot of people.  Really, it never worked out for the Ingalls family in Laura’s childhood.  The books don’t gloss over that.  And yet they’re never gloomy or miserable.  But they’re certainly not saccharine-sweet.  They might not be an exact historical reflection of Laura’s childhood and youth, but they’re very realistic.

She’s only four in the first book, and, if we include The First Four Years, she’s in her early twenties by the end of the series.  We do grow up with her – as Samira and Tracy said, the tone of the books does change, and they do move from being books for very young children to being books for young adults.  I read the lot when I was aged between about 7 and 9, but I can still read any of them, and enjoy them.

They were scathing about Rose Wilder Lane, though!   I think there’s quite a lot to admire about her life, but she certainly doesn’t sound like a particularly nice person.  They pulled apart the suggestions that she wrote most of the Little House books, and even said – quite rightly! – that Let The Hurricane Roar is basically a rip-off of Laura’s real life experiences.

They finished up by saying that adversity had been the making of Laura, which is something that I don’t think anyone can argue with. I’ve never listened to Great Lives before, so I don’t know whether it should have focussed more on why Samira Ahmed, who nominated Laura, thought they she had a “Great Life”, rather than just being a general discussion about a popular author and her much-loved books, but they got through an awful lot in half an hour, and it really was very interesting.  And it was just so nice to hear people being positive, at a time when so many people in the media only seem ready to criticise.