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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

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  I normally steer clear of the vast numbers of books “inspired by” Pride and Prejudice which have appeared over the past 25 years.  The quantity of them out there is truly astounding: there must be thousands!  However,  I decided to try this one because I felt that Mary Bennet deserved a break.

Much as I love Jane Austen’s books, it has to be said that some of her characters are more pantomimish than nuanced, and also that some of her characters seem to deserve a lot more sympathy than she gives them.  Mrs Bennet is mercilessly mocked, even though she’s the only one who seems to appreciate the precarious position that her daughters are in.  And Mary never does anyone any harm – she’s hardly Caroline Bingley or Isabella Thorpe – but neither the author nor any of the other characters have a kind word to say to her or about her.  She’s the only plain one in a family of five girls, the odd one out in between two pairs of sisters who are also close friends, and, sadly but not unrealistically (in her time and maybe even in ours), no-one puts much value on her intelligence – good looks, charm and money are what matter.  Poor Mary.

In this book, Mary blossoms, due largely to the support of her Uncle and Aunt Gardiner.  It’s lovely to see the Gardiners – and remember that the last two sentences of Pride and Prejudice are actually about them –  given a prominent role.  And she finds herself being pursued round the Lake District by two handsome men!   Furthermore, I’m convinced that the unnamed inn in Grasmere where they’re all staying is the place where I stay when I go to the Lakes, and, being very Lake-sick at the moment, I’m inordinately jealous of them.  Yes, I do know that that’s beside the point.  But I am.

Some parts of this don’t ring particularly true, and none of the Jane Austen fanfic novels are ever going to live up to the original books, but this isn’t bad.

How do you judge books like this?  On their own merits, or by comparison with the originals.  Well, if you’re going to use someone else’s characters and someone else’s world, then you have to expect to be judged on whether or not you show the characters behaving in a way which fits in with how they do in the “canon” book(s).  For the most part, in this book, they do here.  The only one who doesn’t is Charlotte, who’s become rather unkind.  That’s explained, not unrealistically, as the result of being married to someone she neither likes nor respects; but it’s a shame, because she’s such a lovely character.  She’s desperate for Elizabeth to find happiness, and she’s not the slightest bit jealous when Elizabeth bags Mr Darcy.  I wish Janice Hadlow hadn’t chosen to change her so much.  But everyone else is much as they were.

As for the general atmosphere of the book … most of it’s OK, but Jane Austen would never have shown Elizabeth thinking about how much she’d like to hold Mr Darcy’s hand or stroke his hair, and certainly not about “what they would be to each other” once they were married.  OK, I’m sure she did, but we don’t see it.  And things go rather bonkers towards the end, when one of Mary’s suitors proposes that they forget about the ties of polite society and go off and live in unmarried bliss in a villa in Italy!   All right, the Georgians weren’t the Victorians, and some quite scandalous stuff goes on in Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice, but that was a bit much.

So what actually happens?  Well, the first part of the book is about the events of Pride and Prejudice.  Some passages are copied out word for word.  Rather strangely, one of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s speeches is copied out word for word in a later part of the book, set two years after Lady Catherine actually said it.  There’s a nice friendship between Mary and Mrs Hill, and seeing things from Mary’s viewpoint is interesting.  Imagine her humiliation at the Netherfield ball, when Mr Bennet tells her to stop singing and give someone else a go.  And there are strong hints that she thought she and Mr Collins might be a good match – only for Charlotte Lucas to get in there first.  We hear a lot more about that here.

Then the author kills Mr Bennet off – which is rather sad, but necessary for the rest of the plot.  The Collinses move into Longbourn, and Mrs Bennet and Mary are out on their ear.  However, Mary is not Miss Bates: she’s never going to end up “sinking lower” and struggling for money, because Jane and Elizabeth are both now married to wealthy men and will never see her stuck.  Incidentally, Kitty is, in accordance with Jane Austen’s own letters, now married to a clergyman near Pemberley, but she doesn’t appear in this book, and nor do the Wickhams.

Mrs Bennet and Mary move in with the Bingleys, but Caroline Bingley’s also there, and makes Mary’s life a misery.  So Mary goes to stay with the Darcys, but feels distinctly surplus to requirements there.  She then, being fond of Charlotte and missing Longbourn, asks if she can stay with the Collinses.  And here we see Mr Collins being treated more sympathetically – he thought Charlotte really liked him, and has now had to accept that it was a marriage of convenience for her.  He and Mary, both being keen on reading and studying, become quite close … and Charlotte gets jealous and tries to get rid of her by hinting that Lady Catherine find her a job as a governess.  The portrayal of Charlotte really didn’t work for me, I have to say, but I liked the portrayal of Mr Collins.  He seems a lot more real and a lot less caricatured here.

So Mary then goes off to visit the Gardiners, and this works out brilliantly.  She likes living in London, and grows in self-confidence in a happy home.  She’s also persuaded by Mrs Gardiner that she deserves some nice clothes, which suit her better.  We learn that she never used to bother much about her clothes, because she thought she didn’t deserve nice clothes.  That used to be me in the late 1980s!  I used to insist that I didn’t “like” trendy clothes, but the truth was that I thought a fat girl didn’t deserve to have anything nice to wear, and that people’d just laugh at me if I looked like I was trying to make an effort.  So I did find it very touching and realistic that we were told Mary never made much effort with her appearance because she felt that, as a plain girl, it wasn’t appropriate.

Along comes an attractive, personable and eligible relative of Mrs Gardiner’s, a young lawyer, Tom Hayward.  Jane Austen said that Mary married one of Mr Phillips’s clerks, so maybe that was where the idea of the lawyer came from?   But, in keeping with Austen-esque tradition, the course of true love doesn’t runs smooth.  Along next comes his friend, Mr Ryder – who turns out to be a connection of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s, living on an allowance provided by her.  It seems rather unlikely that Mr Darcy has never mentioned this man.  And, if Lady Catherine is supporting her young male relatives, what about Colonel Fitzwilliam, who’s never mentioned?   It’s also a rather unlikely coincidence.  But then Jane Austen’s books are full of unlikely coincidences.  Any of her heroines can usually guarantee that any new person they meet will have a complicated history with someone they already know!

Mr Ryder is being pursued by Caroline Bingley, but takes a shine to Mary.  The Gardiners then decide to take the trip to the Lake District which had to be postponed in Pride and Prejudice, and ask Tom to go with them.  This seems a bit implausible, and indeed improper, as does the amount of time which Mary spends alone both with Tom and with Mr Ryder.  However, off they go.  They duly arrive, via Windermere, in Grasmere … only for Mr Ryder, Caroline Bingley, and Mr and Mrs Hurst all to turn up at the same hotel.  There’s an outing which ends in drama, and a misunderstanding which results in Tom Hayward making his excuses and going home.

Once everyone’s back in London, some interesting points are made about how Mary, as a woman, is unable to contact Tom to try to clear things up between them.  And, if Mr Ryder proposes, should she accept him, on the grounds that a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush, rather than turn him down in the hope that Tom will come back to her?  Of course, everything turns out OK in the end, and Mary and Tom get married and live happily every after, but her dilemma’s certainly interesting.  Elizabeth didn’t like Mr Collins, Catherine Morland didn’t like John Thorpe and Fanny Price didn’t like Henry Crawford, but what if their unwanted suitors had been all right, and possibly worth settling for?   It gets stupid when what Mr Ryder offers isn’t marriage, but, until then, Mary faced a thought-provoking choice.  We get the feeling that she’d say no anyway, because she really loves Tom, but she only really has that choice because she’s got the options of a home with the Gardiners, the Bingleys or the Darcys.  So there’s quite a bit to think about there.

And, hooray, we see Mary getting the better of Caroline Bingley!   How many of us have longed to stand up to a bitchy bully, but not had the confidence to do so?   Very satisfying.

I don’t know that the book was entirely satisfying, but I certainly never got upset and frustrated, as I’ve sometimes done before with reading fanfic/spin-off/rip-off novels.  Don’t get me started on the dreadful Scarlett, the so-called sequel to Gone With The Wind.  In fact, as I got towards the end, I couldn’t put it down until Tom came back.  I won’t be reading any more of the Jane Austen fanfic novels, because I’m not really that keen on the idea of them, but I’m not sorry that I read this.  Mary deserved a break!

 

 

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.

Valentine’s Day – who would be your fictional Valentine?

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 And which so-called romantic heroes or heroines of fiction definitely would not be?  Seven for whom it’s a definite yes please, and seven for whom it’s a definite no way … to make fourteen, for the 14th of February.  If anyone’s actually reading this, and wishes to cheer me up by making their own suggestions – I need cheering up, seeing as Storm Ciara ruined my plans for last Sunday and now Storm Dennis has ruined my plans for this weekend, bleurgh – then please, please do.   People usually think I have terrible taste in fictional heroes, so yours are probably much better!

Yes please to:

  1. Orry Main from North and South, but only to the TV mini-series version played by Patrick Swayze.  The real Orry (i.e. the real fictional Orry) drinks too much and has a scruffy beard.  The TV version has a great deal to do with my very long love affair with American history.  Seriously.
  2. Guy Charlton in the Sadlers Wells books.  Yes, I know I am the only person in the world who thinks Guy is a romantic hero, but he is!  I accept that he is a pain in the Marjorie books, but people do grow up, and adult Guy is amazing.  He can rescue me from a Scottish mountain any time.
  3. Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.  Well, he does own Lyme Park … er, sort of.  And, OK, he starts off being rude and obnoxious, but he’s a good guy at heart, and it’s so romantic how he changes his ways when he realises how unworthy are all his pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.  Henry Tilney and Captain Wentworth would also be “yes please”, as far as Jane Austen heroes go.  Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram less so.  Mr Knightley is a maybe.
  4.  Almanzo Wilder in the Little House in the Prairie books.  I never used to think of Almanzo as a romantic hero.  His silly name doesn’t help, especially as it probably came not from the Crusades but from a daft story that was being serialised in a magazine.  But he, along with Cap Garland, goes out in the blizzards to find food to save everyone else in the town from starvation.  And then he, again in bad weather, goes to collect Laura from the Brewsters’ every weekend, brings her home, and takes her back again – even though she tells him that it doesn’t mean there’s anything going on between them.  Bless!
  5. Gilbert Blythe in the Anne of Green Gables books.  He gives up the teaching job at the local school so that Anne can stay with Marilla after Matthew dies.  How lovely is that?  And I love the way he tries to get Anne’s attention at school – so typical of what boys of that age can be like.  Then they end up getting married.  So sweet!
  6.  Jem Russell in the Chalet School books.  Yes, OK, he can be bossy, but he is supportive of Madge keeping the school open, he adores his sister Margot, and he is clearly a feminist because he pays for Daisy to go to medical school.  Better than all of that, when Madge is upset because of Joey’s nasty remarks about her weight, and decides to go on a diet, he tells her that she’s fine as she is.  This is a man telling a woman that she does not need to lose weight!  Now there’s a true romantic hero.
  7.  Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music.  He counts as fictional because he’s nothing like the real Captain von Trapp!  OK, he’s very rude to Maria at first, he runs his house in a very odd way, and you’d get lumbered with looking after his seven kids … but you so would, wouldn’t you?  And he makes a stand against the Nazis!

But a definite no to:

  1.  Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.  Why on earth is Heathcliff classed as a romantic hero?  The guy is a complete psycho.  He wants locking up.  And the key throwing away.
  2.  Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre.  OK, he’s better than Heathcliff, and I accept that he was trying to do his best for Bertha, but he tries to trick Jane into a fake marriage, and, when she finds out the truth, assumes she’ll be happy to be his mistress!  And he’s horrible to Blanche Ingram as well.  Jane had terrible luck with men – St John Rivers was probably even worse than Mr Rochester – but I’m sure she’d have found someone decent if she’d kept looking.  But she didn’t.
  3.  Maxim de Winter in Rebecca.  Again, why is he classed as a romantic hero?  He murdered his first wife!
  4. Theodore “Laurie” Laurence in Little Women.  Amy tells Laurie that he is a sulky idiot and that she despises him.  Unfortunately, she then marries him.  She was right about the sulky idiot bit.  He’s OK as a teenager, but he’s a complete pain as an adult.  Why does everyone wish he’d married Jo?  OK, Prof Bhaer’s hardly Mr Darcy, but Laurie isn’t either.
  5.  Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary.  Well, more in The Edge of Reason.  He doesn’t realise that he’s supposed to be going out with Rebecca, but he spends the night with her because they’re put in the same room.  Even though he’s supposed to be in love with Bridget.  Oh please.  Mr Darcy, he is not.  Well, he is, but you know what I mean.
  6.  Jack Maynard, who’s probably actually supposed to be the hero (insofar as there is one) of the Chalet School books.  He keeps giving his wife sleeping pills.  That’s not romantic.  It’s creepy.  And he deals with stroppy kids by refusing to speak to them.  And spends money given to him by a grateful patient on buying a lime-green minibus, instead of handing it over to the sanatorium.  Jem would never have done that.
  7. And, last but not least, Rhett Butler.  Gone With The Wind is the greatest book ever written, and I love the way Rhett is always there for Scarlett.  Every time things go wrong, Rhett is there to help put them right – even though she just can’t see that he, not Ashley, is her true love.  He should be the greatest romantic hero ever.  But Margaret Mitchell spoilt it by including the marital rape scene.  I know that times were different then, but there’s no getting past that.  It’s horrendous.  I really wish that scene wasn’t there.

So there we are.  Seven hits and seven misses.  And that’s about as romantic as my day is going to get, but, hey, if anyone’s reading this, I hope yours is better.  And your list of romantic heroes is probably better as well, but this is mine!

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 …