Valentine’s Day Lockdown Lists

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A bit of Valentine’s Day lockdown timewasting … strange ways in which couples in books met, most romantic places which couples in books visited, key worker heroes in books (other than doctors, there are strangely few of these), and worst proposals in books.  Useless fact of the day – speaking of strange ways to meet, the song by The Hollies, about a couple who meet when they share an umbrella at a bus stop, was inspired by a no 95 bus, which goes within a few yards of my house.  Except that it didn’t then: it’s been re-routed since.  I know that people needed to know that.  As I said, timewasting …

During lockdown, people are finding it difficult to meet potential partners, except online.  Five strange ways in which couples in books met: 

  1. Meggie Cleary and Ralph de Bricassart in The Thorn Birds.  He was her priest.  Don’t try this one at home.
  2. Judy Abbott and Jervis Pendleton in Daddy Long Legs.  He funded a college scholarship for a girl from an orphanage.  She was the girl.  He wanted her to write him letters telling him how she was getting on … but he didn’t tell her that they’d actually met umpteen times and he’d concealed his identity.  I used to find this terribly romantic when I was about 9.  It now seems a bit weird.
  3. Henrietta Rawlinson and Adam Swann in God is an Englishman.  She’d run away from home and was washing her face in a puddle near Warrington.  He gave her a lift on his horse.  As you do.
  4. Madge Bettany and Jem Russell in The School at the Chalet.   They were both on a train which caught fire.  Madge bravely risked her own safety to help an unpleasant woman escape through a window.  Jem was impressed by her pluck.  Very feminist, really 🙂 .
    5. Florentyna Rosnovski and Richard Kane in The Prodigal Daughter.  They met when she was working in a shop of which he was a customer.  Seems normal enough … but she was actually hiding her real identity, and it turned out that their dads were sworn enemies.  Oh dear.

And, because of the infernal travel restrictions, we can’t go anywhere … five very romantic locations visited by couples in books:

  1. The Lake District is the most romantic part of the UK … and features in a lot of poems, but not nearly enough books.  However, lucky Damaris and Brian in Elsie J Oxenham’s Abbey books don’t just go to Grasmere, but move there to live permanently.
    2.  Venice is the most romantic city outside the UK, and is where Katy Carr and Ned Worthington in What Katy Did Next get engaged.  They aren’t a very exciting couple, and it isn’t a very exciting romance, but the fact that they get engaged in a gondola makes up for a lot.
    3.  The Italian lakes (I like water, OK) – the setting for The Betrothed, the eponymous couple being Lucia Mondella and Renzo Tramiglia.  There’s a lot of plague in this, but never mind.  Also visited by Elio Perlman and Oliver (who appears to have no surname) in Call Me By Your Name.
    4. Lake Geneva – (more lakes!) – where Amy March and Laurie Laurence get together in Good Wives.  There seems to be this idea that Amy betrayed womankind by stealing her sister’s man, but she really didn’t: Jo had turned Laurie down
    5.Russia – ignore all the political stuff: Russia is a very romantic country.  Yuri Zhivago and Lara Antipova in Dr Zhivago are one of its many well-known fictional couples.
  2. Five key worker heroes in books not already mentioned:1. Doctor – Gilbert Blythe, in the Anne of Green Gables books.
    2. Vet – Guy Charlton in the Lorna Hill Sadlers Wells books.  Guy is my hero, OK – I had to mention him somewhere!
    3. Farmer-cum-heroic-fetcher-of-food-for-entire-town – Almanzo Wilder in the Little House books.
    4. Policeman – there are loads of policemen in books, but, for some reason, most of them are either idiots or else just annoying.  The best I could come up with was more of a secret agent than a policeman, but he’ll have to do – Bill Smugs/Cunningham in the Enid Blyton adventure books.
    5. Postman/delivery man – this was even worse!   I’m struggling to think of any postmen in books, other than Courtney Elliot in the Adrian Mole books, and he’s only a minor character.  I suppose it’ll have to be Postman Pat, who does feature in books as well as TV programmes!

And, just because lockdown is not actually very romantic, unless you actually enjoy being stuck in, five really bad proposals:

1.  Mr Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice – he tells her that her family are common and vulgar, and that he’s tried to get over his thing for her, but it hasn’t worked, so will she marry him.  She says no.  They do get together eventually, but he’s got his act together by then.
2.  Rhett Butler to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind – this is the best book of all time, and the proposal scene is brilliant, but it’s awful as well!  Her second husband has just died, and Rhett says that he needs to go away on business so will she please get engaged to him before she goes, as, otherwise, she’ll probably have married someone else by the time he gets back.  He does talk her into it.
3. Reg Entwistle to Helena (Len) Maynard in Prefects of the Chalet School – the unheroic Reg, who’s been pestering Len for months, is fished out of a stream by her middle-aged uncle, and put to bed in her parents’ house.  She says he looks dreadful.  He then says “I take it we’re engaged.  Like it, darling?”.  She says that, yes, they are, but they mustn’t tell anyone until the end of the school term.  It’s grim.
4. St John Rivers to (his cousin) Jane Eyre, in Jane Eyre.  He says that he only wants to marry her because he wants someone to go to India with him, to be a missionary trying to convert people.  You do wonder how he’d feel if a missionary from India turned up in his Yorkshire parish and tried to convert all his congregation to a different religion.  Jane is not keen on the idea of marrying someone she doesn’t love.  He tells her that she’s “formed for labour, not for love”.  She turns him down.  Thank goodness.
5.  Bill Thistleton to Anastasia (Tazy) Kingston in The Troubles of Tazy. He says  “Are you game to fix up with one of us? [either him or his brother]”.  Either one will, presumably, do.  I think that this is the worst fictional proposal ever: even St John Rivers didn’t mention his brother (although, to be fair, he didn’t have one).  She does actually accept.  Him, not his brother.

Lockdown Timewasting over.  Thank you to anyone who’s read that.  Stay safe xxx.

 

 

 

 

 

Mental Health Awareness Week – 10 kind characters in fiction

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This is Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year’s theme is kindness, something of which many people (although not all) have been showing an awful lot during these very difficult times – very much appreciated.  I nicked the idea of listing ten kind characters, and particular acts of kindness which they show towards others, in fiction from someone else, but I thought it was a really nice one.

  1. Matthew Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables … and the dress with the puffed sleeves.  In most Girls’ Own type books, Anne would have been firmly reprimanded for her obsession with wanting a dress with puffed sleeves.  Look at the grief which poor Meg March gets just for borrowing a pretty frock from a friend for one evening!   And you certainly wouldn’t expect a middle-aged man to understand how much a dress in the latest fashion would mean to a young girl.  But Matthew does.  So he gets Anne a dress with puffed sleeves.  It is just so sweet and kind of him!

2. Madge Bettany in The School at the Chalet … when she takes on responsibility for Juliet Carrick, who’s been abandoned by her cruel parents.  Madge is a young single woman who hasn’t got much money, hasn’t even got a home other than the school, and is already responsible for her sister, but she doesn’t even hesitate about taking on Juliet.  Until this point, Juliet’s been a troublemaker, but the kindness which Madge shows towards her helps her to become a much nicer person.

3. Lucy Pevensie in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe … and her concern for Mr Tumnus and the Beavers.  She’s only a very young child, but she really cares about others.

4. Martha Sowerby in The Secret Garden … and her kindness towards Mary Lennox, who’s been a complete pain in the backside towards her.  It’s Martha who first tells Mary about the garden.

5. Melanie Wilkes in Gone With The Wind … and her kindness towards Belle Watling, who runs the local brothel.  The other society ladies in Atlanta look down their noses at Belle, but, when Belle comes to make a financial donation to the hospital, Melanie just speaks to her as one woman to another.

6. Paddington Brown in the Paddington Bear books … and his kindness towards everyone!  Paddington is such a lovely, sweet character!

7. Nancy in Oliver Twist … and her attempts to protect Oliver.  Nancy’s had a very tough life, and ends up meeting a horrible life, yet she can still show such kindness towards a young boy, even at the risk of her own safety.

8. Miss Temple in Jane Eyre … the kind teacher who takes an interest in Jane’s educational and emotional development, and also cares for the dying Helen Burns.   One kind adult can do so much for a child living in difficult circumstances, and Miss Temple plays a crucial role in Jane’s life.

9. Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice … and her understanding attitude towards Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr Collins.  Jane’s the “good” one of the Bennet sisters, and she’s always nice, but her reaction to Charlotte Lucas deciding to marry a man who’s a complete idiot always particularly strikes me.  Elizabeth, even though she’s Charlotte’s best friend, can only see that Charlotte has agreed to marry a man whom she doesn’t love or respect.  Jane is able to understand Charlotte’s reasons – as a woman who’s plain-looking and has no money, she’s going to struggle to find a husband, and the prospects for an unmarried woman of her time and class aren’t very appealing.  Marrying Mr Collins is her best option.  At the moment, a lot of people are busy yelling and shrieking and judging others for decisions that they’re making over the loosening of lockdown of restrictions.  We need to accept that there is no one-size-fits-all answer.  What is right for you may not be right for someone whose medical, financial and domestic circumstances are different.  That doesn’t mean that either of you are wrong, and it doesn’t give you the right to judge or criticise them – any more than Elizabeth has the right to judge or criticise Charlotte’s choice.  Jane can see that.

10. Almanzo Wilder in The Long Winter and These Happy Golden Years … and his kindness to Laura and, alongside Cap Garland, his kind and courageous decision to go and get supplies for the entire town during the very severe winter which leaves everyone struggling.  OK, he fancies Laura and is hoping to win her affections, but it was still very nice of him to drive all that way to bring her home at weekends when she was teaching at the Brewster Settlement, especially as she kept telling him that it wasn’t going to get him anywhere!  And, yes, someone had to go and get supplies, but it was Almanzo, along with Cap, who actually did.  He’s not presented as a romantic hero in the books, even though he’s the author’s husband, but he is one!

#MentalHealthAwarenessWeek.  Please be kind xxx.

Ten hair disasters in fiction

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Well, I’m very grateful that my lovely hairdresser fitted me in for a cut and dye four days before the UK went into lockdown, but it’s really getting to the point where it needs doing again.  I’ve got as far as acquiring some roots touch-up stuff, but I haven’t dared use it yet.  I’m scared of trying to dye my own hair.  I blame Anne Shirley.  There’ve been quite a few other hair-related disasters in fiction, as well …

Ten hair-related disasters in books/films/soap operas:

  1. Anne Shirley dyes her hair green – Anne of Green Gables.
  2. Frenchie dyes her hair pink – Grease.
  3.  Jo March burns some of her sister Meg’s hair off with curling irons – Little Women.
  4. Simone Lecoutier cuts her own hair off to try to impress Jo Bettany – The School at the Chalet.
  5. Bridget Jones tries to straighten her hair by ironing it – The Edge of Reason.
  6. Mr Brocklehurst demands that the hair of all the girls at Lowood School be cut – Jane Eyre.
  7. Maria Sutherland dyes Vera Duckworth’s hair purple – Coronation Street .
  8. Amy Ashe has all her hair cut off due to illness – What Katy Did Next.
  9. Ruey Richardson’s home perm goes wrong – Ruey Richardson, Chaletian.
  10. Maggie Tulliver cuts off her own hair – The Mill on the Floss.

But hey.  There’s always Laura Ingalls giving herself an amazing “lunatic fringe” in Little Town in the Prairie

 

Fictional characters and the coronavirus

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This is meant as gallows humour, OK.  If you are one of the people who thinks no-one should be joking, please don’t have a go at me – I’ve got an anxiety disorder and am permanently convinced everything I say or do offends people anyway!  But I was reading a ridiculously pompous “critique” of Little Women the other day – Jo having her hair cut symbolises castration, seriously?! – and I started thinking that Beth March would never have got scarlet fever if she’d practised social distancing with the Hummels.  Then I started thinking that, if Helen Carr were around now, she’d be writing some sick-making poem about “The School of Self-Isolation”.  And what about other fictional characters?  A few thoughts …

1.  Adrian Mole would chronicle it all carefully, and constantly be convinced that he’d got the virus when he hadn’t.

2.  Anne Shirley would think up dramatic-sounding names for everything.  “Covid-19” is really pretty naff compared to “the Black Death”.  “The sweating sickness” is at least descriptive, and “the plague” sounds very Biblical.  “Covid-19” sounds like a robot off an ’80s children’s TV programme.

3. Bertha Rochester wouldn’t notice any difference – she’d been locked on the upper floor for years, and never gathered in groups of more than two people.

4. Beth March would be so keen to help struggling neighbours that she wouldn’t observe social distancing and would end up being ill herself 😦 .

5. Gwendoline Mary Lacey would insist that she should be allowed into the supermarket during the times reserved for vulnerable people, due to having a “weak heart”.

6. Heidi wouldn’t need to think about panic-buying food, because she’d stockpiled all those white buns, but she might end up being fined for breaking the curfew due to sleepwalking.

7.  Helen Carr would write a vomit-inducing poem called “The School of Self-Isolation”, about how it was bringing you closer to the angels.

8. Joey Bettany would catch the virus from standing by an open door whilst someone passed within six feet of her, and would be terribly ill but would recover after being serenaded with “The Red Sarafan”.

9. Laura Ingalls (OK, not actually fictional, but never mind) would say that the virus was transmitted by eating watermelons.  I love Laura’s books to bits, but where on earth did the watermelon thing come from?!

10. Scarlett O’Hara would cut up the curtains to use as toilet paper.  Bobbie and Phyllis from The Railway Children would do the same with their petticoats.

Gallows humour, OK?  Gallows humour!!

Stay safe and well, everyone xxx.  And I apologise if I annoy people by over-posting, but just ignore me if so – I can’t really work much from home as I need access to files and other things, so I’ll need to write to keep my brain active!

Ten book characters who’d be good in this time of crisis

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I’ve said “book” rather than “fictional” because I think I could do with having Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland around, to go out for supplies if the Toilet Paper Hoarders (an issue not actually mentioned by Laura Ingalls Wilder, come to think of it) strip all the local shops’ shelves bare.  On a more serious note, I’ve just had a message from my favourite café, urging people to buy, if possible, from small local businesses which are really going to struggle to weather this situation.  If there’s an equivalent of the De Smet store nearby, and it isn’t out of barrels of wheat or Ma’s sewing ribbons or whatever, that sounds like a very good suggestion.  So, who would be the best book characters to have around?

1a and 1b – Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland, from The Long Winter.  They heroically went out in the heavy snow and ice, and made a 24 mile round trip to bring back supplies and save the whole town of De Smet from starvation.  No mention of hand sanitiser or toilet roll, admittedly, but still.

2 – Jane Eyre, from (to state the obvious) Jane Eyre.  Jane lived through the typhus epidemic at Lowood School.  She’s been there and done that.  OK, she left her stuff on a coach, but no-one’s perfect.

3 – Melanie Wilkes from Gone With The Wind.  One of the genuinely inspiring things about Gone With The Wind is the way that all the petted Southern ladies go to work in the hospital, in horrible conditions.  Scarlett hates it, but Melanie throws herself into even the most unpleasant of work.  She’s also practical – she accepts donations from the local brothel, because the hospital needs it, when everyone else gets all holier-than-thou over it.  Melanie is clearly a gal to have by your side in difficult times.

4. Karen from the Chalet School books.  Whilst Matron Besley is getting hysterical over a thunderstorm, Karen calmly marshals all the domestic staff to make sandwiches and hot drinks for everyone.  And she’d be able to make something nice out of whatever food you’d got left in stock.  She managed to feed everyone during the “Famine” in the early Swiss years, even when Miss Annersley sent some of her flour over to the Maynards.  Just a shame that she specialises in coffee rather than tea, but, as with Jane, no-one’s perfect.

5. Madge Russell from the Chalet School books.  Madge’s words about being brave look like they’re going to be sorely needed over the next few weeks, and probably months.

6. Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey.  Being quarantined with Mr Darcy sounds rather nice, but he’d probably do your head in after a few days of being together 24/7 with no-one else around.  Henry Tilney, on the other hand, would make you laugh and keep your spirits up.

7. Charlotte, Duchess of Southport from the Morland Dynasty books, who sets up her own hospital.  OK, she was well able to afford it, but not everyone was so philanthropic and so concerned for other people’s well-being.  If you can help in any way, please do so.

8. Tatiana Metanova from The Bronze Horseman, who survives the Siege of Leningrad, works as a wartime nurse, donates her own blood to save her husband’s life, drives to the Finnish border despite being shot, and persuades the US authorities to let her into America.  As you do.  She copes with any sort of crisis!

9. Katy Carr from the What Katy Did books.  For a start, she’d tidy everything up if you didn’t feel up to doing it, as she did for Miss Jane. She’d look after the kids if the schools were closed.   And she wouldn’t mind her holiday plans falling through, seeing as she seems to hate everywhere she visits anyway.  When you got all upset over your holiday of a lifetime being kyboshed, she’d just tell you that you didn’t really want to go there anyway, because the weather was horrible and so was the food.

10. Gilbert Blythe, from the Anne of Green Gables books.  Well, the list has to include a doctor, and it may as well be one who can double as a romantic hero.  I would obviously prefer Guy Charlton from the Lorna Hill books, but I’m not sure people’d really want to be treated by a vet.

If anyone’s reading this, hope that you and yours are OK in these difficult times, and, if there are any book characters you’d particularly like to have around at the moment, please share ideas!!

How to be a Heroine; or, what I’ve learned from reading too much by Samantha Ellis

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  I’d quite like to meet Samantha Ellis.  She, Lucy Mangan and I are all almost exactly the same age – does that signify something?  Anyone who gets Gone With The Wind and Chicken Licken (/Henny Penny) into the same book and asks neurologists if “brain fever” really exists definitely sounds like my sort of person.  Not to mention managing to group together Pride and Prejudice, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Riders in a single chapterThe big questions – who were your book heroines when you were growing up, what did they teach you, and do they still seem like heroines to you now?  And then all sorts of questions about them.

Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw?  Jane, obviously.  The only good thing about Cathy is that Kate Bush sings about her.  Scarlett O’Hara or Melanie Hamilton?  Melanie’s the one who holds it all together, but can you really identify with someone so good?  Elizabeth Bennet?  Earlier this week, I told a really annoying person that they puzzled me exceedingly.  I actually use her lines: that’s how much I love Elizabeth.  Was Anne Shirley better before she became a Smug Married?  Definitely.  Should Jo have ended up with Laurie?  Could everyone just get past this, please?!   Should there be “a special place in hell” for Cousin Helen? That’s a bit harsh, but I can see where the author’s coming from.

There are some interesting comparisons which I’d never really thought of before – Anne Shirley being allowed to enjoy her puffed sleeves versus Meg March being made to feel guilty for wearing a fancy frock for one evening, and Scarlett O’Hara’s efforts at dressmaking with curtains versus Fraulein Maria’s.  Scarlett’s (or, more likely, Mammy’s) are better, but, to be fair, she had better curtains.  And, apparently, Lace is “a career woman’s handbook”.  I’ve never heard it called that before.  Mind you, it probably beats my own teenage theory that the path to career success is to try to conceal your total lack of self-confidence by turning up to interviews dressed like Alexis Colby.  Don’t try this: it really doesn’t work.

And, in amidst all this and more, there’s the author’s family history of fleeing the persecution of Jews in Iraq (the maternal side of her family, in particular, went through some horrific experiences and were mentally scarred for life as a result) and her experiences of growing up in London as part of a tiny and rather insular community of Jews with Iraqi heritage, whose culture and traditions are very different from those of most other British Jews.

She does a lot of criticising – I don’t think it’s very fair to expect heroines of Georgian or Victorian books to be feminist role models in the 21st century – but she makes some very thought-provoking points.

There are two main themes to the book. One, as with Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm, is the role which books played at different stages of the author’s growing-up. The other is whether or not the heroines of those books still stand up to her scrutiny now.

She says that the idea for the book came from a discussion with her best friend about Bronte heroines. She’d always idolised Cathy Earnshaw. Her friend persuaded her that Cathy was an annoying brat and that Jane Eyre was a much better heroine. I’m totally with the friend on this one: I admire Jane and I can’t stand Cathy.  But I’ve always felt like that.  With other people, though, my views aren’t quite the same as they used to be, and they certainly aren’t what their creators intended them to be.  Nor are Samantha’s.

The book starts with fairytale princesses – making the very good points that a) even before Disneyficiation, the versions of fairytales told to children bore no resemblance to the original stories and b) there should probably be more to a heroine than bagging a prince –  and goes through a wide range of different heroines from different books. I’m not going to write an epic essay about all of them.  I don’t even know some of them, TBH.  Conversely, there are people whom I’d have included but she doesn’t – there isn’t one school story heroine in here, unless you count Sara Crewe – but obviously we all have our own favourite books and our own ideas about them.

I do need (OK, want) to write about some of the heroines she mentions, though.  Starting with Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Hamilton. She doesn’t mention them until the fourth chapter, but never mind.  Gone With The Wind is the greatest book of all time.  Yes, I know that it was written in very different times, and that the racial attitudes are unacceptable to modern eyes, but we’re just talking about the characters. The ending isn’t really about Scarlett vowing that she’ll get Rhett back because “Tomorrow is another day”. It’s about Scarlett realising that, all these years, she’s had it wrong about the important people in her life. It’s always been Rhett and Melanie who’ve had her back. They’ve always been there for her. And she’s always been too busy mooning over Ashley, the teenage crush she never got over, to see it. On top of that, she’s fallen out with all her other old acquaintances and got in with a crowd she now realises she doesn’t even like.   A lot of people will have been there – desperate to keep/get in with a friend or a crush or an in-crowd, or spending years wanting someone who isn’t even right for you, and only realising belatedly that they’re the wrong people and you’ve failed to appreciate the right people as much as you should have done.  We think of it as a historical novel, or as a romance, but it also says so much about life that’s valid in any era and for any person.

So, is Melanie the real heroine of the book? She also copes with everything, but, whereas Scarlett alienates the entire community, Melanie keeps their affection and respect. But … well, Melanie falls for the whole “Glorious Cause” thing, and Melanie’s so sweet and innocent that she can’t even see that her husband and best friend are lusting after each other. And Melanie is dependent on Ashley, who’s financially dependent on Scarlett, whereas Scarlett gets out there and sets up her own business and fights for her home and her family. I’m not nice enough to be Melanie or confident enough to be Scarlett, so I’d never claim either of them as role models, but … which of them is the real heroine? Very interesting question.  Samantha goes for Scarlett.  I think I do too.

I think I take both Scarlett and Melanie the way they were intended to be taken, but how about Katy Carr? Counsellors must love Katy and Cousin Helen. They both accept things and try to make the best of them. However, I’ve never known anyone have a good word to say about Helen and the vomit-inducing School of Pain/School of Love stuff.   And the supposedly sweet and lovely menage a trois with her, her ex-fiancé Alex and his wife Emma is just plain weird.  No-one is telling me that Emma was OK with it.

And Katy … the point at which she really starts to annoy me is when she’s wrongly accused of and punished for something she didn’t do, and prances around singing “Let It Go” “Live It Down”. She’s got a point, because being bitter about something doesn’t help. And I don’t like the nasty prank that Rose Red plays on the teacher involved in order to avenge her friends. But do we really want to accept that, if we’re the victim of an injustice, we should just let it go.   Sorry, but I’m not that saintly!   Anyway, doing that can be dangerous.  OK, Katy has been wrongly accused of writing a note to a boy, not wrongly named all over social media as the perpetrator of some horrific violent crime, but even so.

And who wants to belong to a school gang called “the Society for the Suppression of Unladylike Conduct”?  OK, I was never going to be cool enough to belong to the Pink Ladies (not that our school had any gangs like the Pink Ladies), but “the Society for the Suppression of Unladylike Conduct”?!  Seriously?!  I still love these books, but Katy is not my sort of heroine.  I just don’t see her like readers are meant to see her.  I think I used to.  But not now.

Anne Shirley, though, is different. I still love young Anne and how she imagines everything into being far more exciting and romantic than it really is. I still do that too much myself – I end up saying things I shouldn’t, because I’m trying to make things into a drama.  It’s quite a problem in the age of e-mail, when your melodramatic purple prose ends up on someone else’s computer or phone until or unless they delete it, but Anne didn’t have that problem!  So I was very pleased that the author says that she too still loves young Anne, and is grateful to Anne for showing her that being imaginative is a really good thing.  But, as she says, it’s hard to find much inspiration in adult Anne, who gives up her dreams of writing to become Mrs Dr Blythe and concentrate on “writing living epistles” (i.e. her children).  Although apparently Anne is quoted on religious blogs written by people who say that she’s a wonderful example of a woman who devotes herself to her husband and children.  I don’t think I want to think about that .

But I think it’s a bit unfair to criticise Anne, or Jo March, or, rather, their creators, over the fact that both characters give up their writing.  Times were different then.  They live in the world they were written in, not our world.  It does rather make you appreciate Jo Bettany (not mentioned in this book), though.  OK, as an adult she’s incredibly annoying, and she wouldn’t be able to carry on writing if she didn’t have two live-in domestic staff, but at least she doesn’t pack in her writing and just become Mrs Doctor Dear.

There’s also a reference to how preachy Little Women is, and how you might not realise that as a child but it hits you in the face as an adult.  I recently had the same experience with Heidi, re-reading it for the first time in years.  Don’t get me wrong, I love these books, but, bleurgh, are they preachy?!  Three cheers for young Laura Ingalls complaining that she hates Sundays!  And there’s a very interesting comparison between lovely Matthew making sure Anne gets her puffed sleeves and poor Meg March being made to feel that she’s committed the crime of the century for borrowing a friend’s sister’s pretty frock and having her hair done.

The author is really scathing about Little Women and Good Wives.  I think she goes overboard, really.  I don’t think we’re meant to see Beth as an ideal of womanhood.  I don’t think Laurie fell for Amy’s “womanly pain and patience” – I like to think that there was a big spark between them when she boldly told him to stop being such a pathetic idiot and get his act together. And  I don’t think Meg was “tamed” – she chose the man she wanted, and pretty much told Aunt March where to shove her comments.  And could we all just please get past the idea that Jo and Laurie should have married each other?!  Still, what Samantha says makes you sit up and think.

She’s a bit hard on most people, really.  She talks about how wonderful Elizabeth Bennet is – well, yes, I couldn’t agree more.  But then she even has a go at her, saying that she’s prissy for being disgusted by Lydia’s behaviour.   What??  Lydia makes a complete show herself at Mr Bingley’s party, then runs off with Mr Wickham and lives with him before they’re married.  How was Elizabeth supposed to feel?   About the only book that she doesn’t have a bad word to say about is Ballet Shoes.  She really waxes lyrical about that one, which surprises me a bit.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely book, despite the use of “Petrova” as a first name when it’s actually a surname and only a surname, but Sylvia annoys me.  Why doesn’t she try to get a job?  Elizabeth Bennet never annoys me.

Each chapter bears the name of a heroine, but actually covers several heroines … and (Judy Blume)’s Margaret Simon is in the Elizabeth Bennet chapter.  Sadly, though, she’s only mentioned briefly.  Margaret is a great heroine for teenage girls.  If Enid Blyton had written Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, domineering Nancy would have been the heroine.  As it is, we get all Margaret’s worries and insecurities.  Margaret is brilliant.  But she only gets three paragraphs, before the author moves on to Jilly Cooper.  Laura Ingalls Wilder, in a later chapter, also only gets three paragraphs.  They both get nothing but praise, though, which is good.  Laura is brilliant as well.

By this point, the author’s life story’s on to her teens.  Most bookish females read a lot of the same books as children – and a lot of these books have been around for years and years, and our mums and aunties and grandmas and great-aunts read them too.  With adult books, other than the “classics” and a few other legendary books – like Gone With The Wind – it’s different: people branch out.  So I didn’t know all the heroines of the books Samantha read when she moved on to “grown-up” books. They were mostly still older books, though.  No Barbara Taylor Bradford!   I’d definitely have had Emma Harte in there.  OK, Emma Harte first appeared in the late 1970s, but she was still pretty big in the late 1980s: I must have been about 13 when I first read A Woman of Substance.  I’d have had Fee from The Thorn Birds in there as well. Meggie’s the heroine of the story, but her mum Fee is the best character in it.  If you’re a melodramatic sixth former looking for lines to make your life sound like an epic novel instead of just sad and boring, The Thorn Birds is the place to go to.  Scarlett can try to win Rhett back, because tomorrow is another day.  Fee doesn’t realise that she really loves Paddy until he’s killed in a fire.  “It was like all of my life, too late.”  Whenever I’m feeling particularly melodramatic (which I’m afraid is quite often), that line comes out.

She does talk a lot about Lace, though.  I’ve never heard it described as a “career handbook” before.  Back in the day, if I wanted careers advice, I went to Dynasty – which was how I and my zero self-confidence level ended up going to my first few interviews in a bright red jacket with bright gold buttons and huge shoulder pads.  I got turned down right, left and centre, but, to be fair, it wasn’t the jacket’s fault.

But, from Lace, she goes on to the Brontes.  I know where I am with them.  As I’ve already said, I can’t stand Cathy.  And I have no idea why anyone thinks Heathcliff is a romantic hero.  He’s a thug.  I love Jane, though.  And I love Samantha’s theory that, if she’d taken more notice of Jane when she was younger, Jane might have taught her to value herself even though she wasn’t beautiful.  I never thought of that.  I just thought I was Charlotte Lucas instead of Elizabeth Bennet.  And, for a while, I even thought I was Bertha Rochester, because the managers at my first permanent job kept me hidden away from clients (seriously).  Maybe it’s because Jane is small and thin.  If she’d said “Because I am poor, obscure and fat” rather than “Because I am poor, obscure, plain and little”, I might have got the idea.  Charlotte isn’t fat either.  Book heroines are not fat.  Caroline Scott in the Sadler’s Wells books is a bit, but magically “sheds her puppy fat” in her teens.  And Bridget Jones constantly talks about being fat, but, FFS, she only weighs about 9 1/2 stone.    Anyway.  Jane is amazing.  But I don’t really get Samantha’s ideas about looking to the Brontes for relationship advice.  Stick to Jane Austen for that.

The penultimate chapter is about adult heroines who aren’t defined by their relationships with men.  The only really good one seems to be Mary Poppins, who isn’t the ideal role model unless you possess a flying umbrella.  Oh dear.  I really feel that Miss Annersley, Miss Grayling and Miss Theobald are needed here.  Then there’s a final chapter, which is presumably meant to be inspirational, about how the heroine we really need to be is Scheherezade, writing our own stories – but they need to be the stories of our own lives.

It sounds great, but it’s no good.  I need heroines from books.  The problem is that most of them are so young.  If the book does follow them past their twenties, they either fade into the background and become Mrs Dr Blythe or else become annoying because the story needs them to fade into the background and they don’t (Jo Bettany, I’m looking at you).  Even Emma Harte fades into the background as her granddaughter Paula becomes the centre of the story.  Ah, but hang on!  My melodramatic line – “It was like all of my life – too late”.  Towards the end of The Thorn Birds, both Fee and Meggie do the fading into the background thing, as vibrant twentysomething Justine takes centre stage, but Fee finds her voice and her personality.  Everyone realises how great she is, how intelligent she is, and how clever she is with words.  She was also good at saying things in just a few words, which I’m not – I go on and on and on, so I shall shut up now, and, if anyone has actually read all this waffling, well done and thank you!

Well, I’ll shut up about book heroines, anyway.  Just a bit about the author’s family history, which she keeps explaining has had a huge impact on her life, on her choice of reading matter, and on her relationship with fictional heroines.

I read quite a bit about Iraqi Jews a couple of years ago, when I was reading up on Shanghai (I know that sounds weird, but quite a lot of Iraqi Jews moved to Shanghai in the 19th century), but it’s not a well-known story.  She talks about how her mother and maternal grandparents – her father’s side of the family having left before things got as bad as they did later – were mentally scarred for life by being imprisoned, how they escaped with the help of the Kurdish community.  She also talks about how the Iraqi Jewish community in London was very insular, to the extent that arranged marriages were common when she was growing up, and she was expected to marry someone from the same background (which she didn’t).  The community put so much emphasis on girls bagging a suitable husband that, in the 1980s, families kept a layer of their daughters’ bat mitzvah cakes (just before anyone thinks I’ve got the wrong term, it’s Samantha herself who talks about a “bat mitzvah”, despite it being at an Orthodox synagogue … and involving making cheesecake which was then scoffed by some naughty boys from the bar mitzvah class), to be eaten at their weddings.

This isn’t a history book, but (in case anyone’s reading this!) I think it’s worth adding a few notes on the subject.  In 1941, due to the belief that Iraqi Jews had supported British forces against the pro-Nazi Iraqi government, there was a huge wave of violence in Baghdad, in which around 200 Jews, maybe more, were killed and 1,000 injured.  There was also widespread destruction of property.  In the late 1940s and early 1950s, many Iraqi Jews were sacked from public sector jobs, there were boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses, and many well-to-do Iraqi Jews had their property confiscated on trumped-up charges.  Things got worse during the 1960s.  From Wikipedia:

With the rise of the Ba’ath Party to power in 1963, restrictions were placed on the remaining Iraqi Jews. Sale of property was banned, and Jews had to carry yellow identity cards. After the 1967 Six-Day War, Jewish property was expropriated, bank accounts were frozen, Jews were dismissed from public posts, their businesses were closed, trading permits owned by Jews were cancelled, they were not allowed to use telephones, were placed under house arrest for extended periods of time, and were under constant surveillance and restricted to the cities. In late 1968, scores of Jews were jailed on charges of spying for Israel, culminating in the 1969 public hanging of 14 men, 9 of them Jews, who were falsely accused of spying for Israel. Other suspected spies for Israel died under torture. After Baghdad Radio invited Iraqi citizens to “come and enjoy the feast”, half a million people paraded and danced past the scaffolds where the men were hanged, which resulted in international criticism. An Iraqi Jew who later left wrote that the stress of persecution caused ulcers, heart attacks, and breakdowns to become increasingly prevalent in the Jewish community.

Here endeth the history lesson.  And here endeth this extremely long blog post.  I’m off to read yet another book …

 

Favourite Stories of Courageous Girls: inspiring heroines from classic children’s books

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This is definitely an eclectic selection of heroines – 24 of them in all.  They include Enid Blyton’s much-discussed George Kirrin and rarely-discussed Margery Fenworthy, a range of characters from older Girls’ Own books, from Jo March and Anne Shirley to Pollyanna and Rebecca Randall, and from Bobbie Waterbury to Mary Lennox; fairytale characters such as Gerda from The Snow Queen, The Little Mermaid and Kate Crackernuts; Proserpina/Persephone from the Greek myth, girls from fantasy-eque novels – Alice and Dorothy – and, bizarrely considering that the title says “children’s books”, the wonderful Jane Eyre and the horribly irritating Catherine Earnshaw.  (Full list below!)

Whilst I’d certainly class, say, Bobbie and Gerda as courageous, I’m not really convinced about some of the others – Mary Lennox isn’t really courageous, and Catherine Earnshaw just needs a good slap!  Some of the extracts chosen seem rather odd as well – even if it was her one beauty, was having her hair cut really the bravest thing that Jo March ever did?!  A lot of authors are featured twice, which seems rather unimaginative, and I think some of the books were chosen more for being famous than for anything else.   And it’s just really a collection of extracts, with no discussion about why they’ve been chosen, and very little background information for readers who aren’t familiar with particular characters.  However, the Kindle version was going for 99p, and for 99p it was worth a read.

Full list of “courageous girls”, FYI (if anyone’s reading this!). The order of these felt as if someone’d drawn them out of a hat.  Maybe the idea was to provide contrasts between one girl and the next, but surely it would have better to have arranged them by genre, or maybe by publication date?  Anyway.  Here we are:

  1. Jo March from Little Women.  I’m OK with the choice of character, but not with the choice of extract,  Whilst I get that it was her one beauty and hair was a woman’s crowning glory, was Jo having her hair cut really braver than moving to New York on her own?
  2.  Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – again, a poor choice of extract. Instead of a scene with the Wicked Witch, it was just a scene with Dorothy meeting the rest of the gang.
  3. Gerda from The Snow Queen – rescuing Kay.  Go Gerda!  Although this story used to frighten me when it was serialised in Twinkle when I was about 6!
  4.  Bobbie Waterbury from The Railway Children.  Stopping the train with red flannel petticoats.  Absolutely iconic scene!!
  5. Jane Eyre.  Seeing as this is supposed to be about children’s books, they went for the Mr Brocklehurst bit.  I talk about this scene a lot, because I think it’s a brilliant example of how bullying religious Victorians could be.  Who’s the actual heroine of it – is it Jane or is it Helen Burns?   I think it’s probably both of them.
  6. Kate Crackernuts.  I don’t think I’d heard this story before.  It’s a Scottish fairytale – and it’s great, because Kate saves her sister, who’s been put under a spell, and sits up with a sick prince, whom she later marries, rather than a prince rescuing a girl which is what usually happens.  Quite a contrast to have a fairytale straight after the Jane Eyre/Mr Brocklehurst episode!
  7. Rebecca (Randall) of Sunnybrook Farm.  I’m not big on these preachy-type books, but Rebecca isn’t bad compared to the likes of Elsie Dinsmore and Cousin Helen Carr, and this is a nice scene in which she gets the better of a bully.
  8. George Kirrin from Five on a Treasure Island.  I read this book when I was only about 5 or 6, and the word “ingots” fascinated me.  I have no idea why!  George can be really annoying, but she can be really brave as well.  And, let’s face it, compared to Anne, she definitely seems like a heroine!
  9. White Chrysanthemum.  I didn’t know this one.  It’s a Japanese fairytale.  Kudos for the inclusion of stories from different cultures, but, as the heroine is rescued from bandits by her brother, I’m not sure why we’re meant to think she’s being courageous!
  10. Understood Betsy.  Another one I didn’t know, but it involves Betsy rescuing a girl from a pit, so, yep, that classes as courageous!
  11. Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  The Queen of Hearts/”Off with her head” scene.  I would never have picked Alice as an example of a “courageous girl”, but, when you think about it, she really is very brave in this scene.  Hmm.  That’s one to think about.
  12. The Princess Who Loved Her Father Like Salt.  This is an Indian fairytale.  It’s a nice story, and, again, kudos for including stories from different cultures, but no-one really does anything very courageous.
  13. Sara Crewe from A Little Princess.  Sharing buns with a “little ravening London savage”.  I do find this book a bit sick-making, but I do also acknowledge that Sara is brave in the way she copes with the situation in which she finds herself, so, OK, fair enough.
  14.  The Phoenix and the Carpet.  Er, who is actually being brave here.  Is it Anthea?  No idea why this is in there!
  15.  The Seven Ravens.  Nice little fairytale in which a girl rescues her brothers, but very short.
  16. Pollyanna.  Again, I’m not big on preachy books, but I suppose she was brave to go to the home of scary-ish John Pendleton.  But would you really choose Pollyanna as an obvious example of a “courageous girl”?
  17. Anne (Shirley) of Green Gables.  The bit where she saves the baby with croup.  I’d say that that was more about being bright and keeping her head than being courageous, but, on the other hand, it was pretty brave for a young girl to give medical assistance like that.  And I love Anne!
  18. The Pomegranate Seeds – the Proserpina/Persephone story.  When I was 6, I had a nice shiny hardback book of Greek myths, and this one was my favourite!  But I’m not sure that Proserpina’s “brave” as such.  Still, I’ve always liked the story.
  19. Wuthering Heights.  WTF?  If it’d been Cathy junior, coping with evil Hindley, OK, but what is courageous about Catherine Linton?  She needs a good slap, if you ask me.  I think this was just included because it’s a very famous book, and that’s a lazy/sloppy way of doing things.  Not impressed!  How can Catherine Linton be called courageous?  She’s a nasty little madam!
  20. Emily of New Moon – in dispute with a nasty teacher.  I don’t mind Emily, but I’m not sure you’d say she was “courageous”.
  21. The Wise Princess – a fairytale, but one written in modern times.  Girl drowns trying to rescue baby.  Moral of the story is that she learnt how to be happy.  Er, no, me neither!
  22. Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden.  The bit where she meets Colin.  Like a lot of these girls, Mary has to learn to become a better person, but … I don’t know, is that “courageous”.  I suppose it is, in a way, but I’m not sure how meeting your cousin makes you an “inspiring heroine”.
  23. Margery Fenworthy from The O’Sullivan Twins at St Clare’s, rescuing another girl from a fire.  I’d half-forgotten about this – probably because Margery isn’t one of the major characters in the series.  It’s actually one of the most dramatic scenes in any of Enid Blyton’s school stories, though.  Poor old Margery – no-one ever talks about her.  I’m quite glad she’s been included here!
  24. The Little Mermaid.  Not the animated film!  The real story, in which she rescues a prince … although, weirdly, it didn’t include the actual ending, just said that she’d rescued him but he’d never know, and left it there.  That missed the whole point of the story!

In summary – it was a good idea for a book, but it just wasn’t very well-executed..  There’s been a big swing towards Disney princess stuff for young girls, and, whilst there’s nothing wrong with that per se, it’s important to have strong, courageous girls as role models as well.  But I think there are far better examples than some of these, and I’d have liked a bit more discussion and commentary on why these particular girls and these particular examples of their “courage” had been chosen.  Great idea.  Not such a great book.