Non-Fiction, Reviews

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin (2016)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I first read Shirley Jackson a few years ago, and saw this biography advertised shortly after – and immediately wanted to read it. Even before I’d read Jackson’s work I was intrigued by her and her life, and of course a biography is the perfect way to explore that. If you’ve ever read any of her work you’ll know what I mean; when she was alive journalists used to say she was a witch (something she didn’t deny).

Having so far read three of Jackson’s novels (currently reading a fourth) and several short stories, I can confidently say that her fiction is filled with the dichotomy between the norms of everyday life, and the unknown horrors that lurk beneath it. Many of her short stories are about women who are in some way lost, or whose worlds are slowly unravelling. And in her novels, the central female characters share these traits, explored on a deeper level. It has been said before that Jackson’s life and personal experiences influenced much of her work, and Ruth Franklin explores this in A Rather Haunted Life. As she takes us along the story of Jackson’s life, she constantly makes links to her work, both fiction and non-fiction, and demonstrates how much of herself Jackson put in to some of her stories. There is no one character that is completely based on her, but parts of her self and experience are dotted throughout her various characters in one way or another.

Shirley Jackson was born in California, and began her life in a well-to-do suburb. When she was sixteen the family moved to New York state, where Shirley would later attend Syracuse University. This was where she met her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, who would become a hugely influential figure in her life and work. Eventually they moved to North Bennington in Vermont, where Hyman taught at the famous Bennington College. Franklin takes us through the early years of Jackson’s life with a perfect blend of detail and overview, and highlights those all-important episodes that would later appear in novels and short stories. Jackson’s tricky relationship with her mother Geraldine is excellently established, and then highlighted very effectively throughout the book. Their relationship was always a source of tension for Jackson, as her mother was very critical and often withholding, but Franklin does not sensationalise this or demonise either one of them – she simply lays out the facts, often with quotations from letters, and shows us the impact and influence of the mother on the daughter, both personally and professionally.

The third chapter, “Intentions Charged with Power” introduces us to Stanley Edgar Hyman, with a bit of background on his childhood and adolescence, up to his meeting Jackson at Syracuse. Normally I would roll my eyes at a big tangent into the life of a man, when I’m reading a biography of a woman, but this chapter is not only necessary for illustrating Hyman’s character, but it is also just really entertaining and interesting. You see that he and Jackson both had ‘big personalities’, and knowing more about him gives you much more insight into their relationship and marriage, for better or worse – which in turn also gives you insight into much of Jackson’s work. They were both deeply flawed but I liked them both very much, and wished I could hear their conversations and see them in their everyday lives.

Franklin depicts them as having an intense and sometimes volatile relationship, with strong emotions on both sides. They obviously loved each other a great deal, and at the same time were capable of hurting each other deeply. Hyman became Jackson’s life long critic, reading her work first and offering searingly honest feedback. He pushed her to write as much as possible, and more than once we hear how he considered time she spent doing other things as a waste, because writing stories in order to earn money and be successful was the most important thing she did – in his opinion.

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Jackson with her children in 1956 (image: sevendaysvt.com)

More than anything I enjoyed being immersed in Jackson’s world as I read A Rather Haunted Life. To me she is utterly fascinating both as a writer and as a woman. I adore her insightful and uncanny depictions of women battling with the ultimate dichotomy in their lives, as she did – the desire to be a good wife and mother, and still achieve things outside of this and be independent. It was a classic dilemma of Jackson’s era in the mid-twentieth century, but I think it is still relevant today, if in a slightly different form – perhaps more as the juxtaposition of our psychological inner life with our day to day existence of work and home, relationships, and everything in between. Shirley Jackson was perpetually torn between looking after her house and four children, and fulfilling her career as a writer (as well as being her own person with her own identity). Both were hindered by episodes of ill health, and her husband’s wonderful combination of not helping around the house but also berating her for not spending more time writing. There was also the fact that Jackson’s mother was never satisfied with her daughter, and seemed disappointed in every achievement that didn’t fit her narrow vision of what a woman should be.

What a woman should be. I think this is a question Jackson grappled with throughout her life and work, and something that I, and I’m sure many other women, still grapple with today. But luckily we have the work of Shirley Jackson to help us, and this wonderful biography to inspire us. I adored this book and its exploration of Jackson’s writing, as well as her personal experiences, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in her work. If anything it shows us that life is rarely easy, but it’s always worth the effort.

*

Published in 2016 by Liveright, part of W.W. Norton. I read the 2017 paperback (pictured above).

 

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Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Half-year review: best books of 2018 so far!

I’m back! As you may have seen on my Instagram, I was recently on holiday (again) and so everything was a bit quiet… but I’m now back and ready to get back into blogging. I am right at the end of Emma by Jane Austen, so I will be writing about that soon, as well as my visit to the Jane Austen’s House Museum. But for now, as it’s July, it’s time to look back at the year in reading so far. Here are my favourite books that I have read since the start of the year (in no particular order) – have you read any of these?

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada (1932)

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My copy of this had been hanging around on my shelves for a while, and I finally got around to reading it this year – and I loved it. As I expected from Fallada, the writing and story are both incredibly true to life, and make the ordinary into the extraordinary. My review is here.

The Bridesmaid’s Daughter by Nyna Giles (2018)

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This was a random find on GoodReads recommendations, and I couldn’t resist it. The author’s mother was a model in the 50s and 60s, was a bridesmaid for Grace Kelly, and ended up living in a homeless shelter. It’s a fascinating story of mothers and daughters, growing up, and being a woman. My review is here.

The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor (2014)

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I came across this book in my professional life in academic publishing, and was so pleased I decided to read it earlier this year. It’s a bit heavy-going and very detailed, but if you have the interest in women in the ancient world, it’s definitely worth it! My review is here.

I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake (2018)

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The striking cover of this book caught my eye on social media, and I bought it soon after. It’s short and easy to read, and is one of the most engaging and moving novels I have ever read. Highly recommended! My review is here.

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley (2017)

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I reviewed this really recently, so I won’t go on too long, but if you love Jane Austen and haven’t read any other biography of her, this is a MUST. My review is here.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (2018)

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This book got a lot of attention when it came out earlier this year, partly because it is genuinely brilliant, despite the author passing away before finishing it; and partly because the subject of the book, the Golden State Killer, was identified and arrested a couple of months after publication. Highly recommended to anyone interested in crime and investigative journalism. My review is here.

I’d love to hear if anyone has read any of these, and your opinions on them! Any related recommendations would also be awesome sauce.

Happy reading!

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley (2017)

I bought my copy of Jane Austen at Home while on holiday in Devon, when I ran out of reading material (first time in my life that I only packed one book, silly me). I ended up reading it mostly after the holiday, but starting it in picturesque Devon only added to my joy at reading such a lovely book.

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For lovely it is. Lucy Worsley has a wonderfully easy writing style that is great to read, with her personality coming through nicely at certain points, though not overpoweringly. Her academic background means that she covers her subject comprehensively, as well as proclaiming herself a ‘Janeite’ and including all the small details of Jane Austen’s life that make this book so enjoyable.

I have long been a fan of Austen’s novels, but knew relatively little about her life before reading Jane Austen at Home – so it was wonderful to learn more about her. One thing I particularly liked was the way the Worsley related events and circumstances in Jane’s life to similar examples in her novels. This was peppered throughout, always reminding us of Jane’s work and its roots in social realism. We see that Jane was a keen observer of life and preserved so much of it in her work; but also that she put quite a lot of herself and those closest to her into her characters, and this only serves to make them more real and relatable. As a lover of Persuasion, I adored exploring how Jane’s own experiences and feelings informed her creation of Anne Elliot, and her story.

The premise of the book, and the reason for at Home in the title, is that Worsley sets out to tell Jane’s story through the places she lived, “[showing] us how and why she lived as she did, examining the places and spaces that mattered to her.” This is wonderfully executed as we follow Jane through her various homes (there were many), as well as her visits to relatives and holidays to the coast.

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Jane’s first home, Steventon Rectory (image: janeausten.co.uk)

Worsley also explores the importance of home to women of the Georgian period more generally, using Jane as a starting point but also using the examples of her friends and relatives. Unmarried women like Jane had no real control over where they lived and were at the mercy of their male relatives, and so they made their homes their own through the small spaces they could claim. Jane shared a bedroom with her sister Cassandra, and in some homes they also had their own little drawing room, which Jane seems to have really cherished. Worsley also explores how women would express themselves through their home-based work, like crafts and music. Writing was of course a key way in which Jane expressed and asserted herself, in her novels but also in poems and letters. I loved Worsley’s examination of how important letter-writing was, not just as a means of communication and connection, but also as a way of really expressing the inner lives of the women who wrote them.

As Jane’s readers will know, she was excellent at what Worsley calls ‘double speak’ – saying one thing, that seemed rather plain, but really meaning something else, or something more, that was much more interesting. In this way Jane used her letters to express her real feelings and opinions that she might not feel able to say outright. Worsley highlights the fact that letters were often read aloud to the household, and one didn’t want something private shared openly, and so this double speak was used to imply hidden meanings. This all adds to the distinct impression that Jane and many of the women she knew were full of deep emotions and strong opinions that were hidden beneath their ‘perfect’ exteriors.

In relating Jane’s life to her novels, this book really shows how life was slowly changing and expanding for women in the Georgian and Regency eras. Worsley presents the time and context of Jane’s books, as well as the novels themselves, as a sort of stepping stone on the way to women’s emancipation and freedom. They depicted life as it really was, and showed readers that women were ready to take more power, to express and assert themselves, and to be heard.

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Jane’s portable writing desk (image: bl.co.uk, © British Library)

One particular strength in this book is Worsley’s dedication to dismantling the often negative preconceptions about Jane – that her life was ‘without consequence’, that she was an ‘old maid’, that she was boring and lived a boring life. Many of Jane’s relatives glossed over the more interesting parts of her story in their telling, and Worsley uncovers all of these inaccuracies. She demonstrates Jane’s sense of humour, irony, and sarcasm, and explores her love life over the years. Jane received several marriage proposals, and apparently loved to flirt at dances and parties – far from the image we sometimes get of an old spinster with no romantic prospects. Rather, we see that Jane simply did not want to marry someone she didn’t love; she wanted a home, a family, just like anyone else, but she was particular, and not willing to settle for someone who did not really make her happy. This is another reason I hugely admire Jane.

I really could waffle on about how much I love Jane Austen, and how much I loved this book. It is an exploration of her life, but also of women in her time, and their experiences. We learn about their domestic daily lives, their place in both the home and wider society, and the ways in which they took control. Jane Austen at Home really gives us a sense of Jane’s personality and her experience of life, and how this often directly influenced the novels that we love. For me, it is one of the best biographies I have read, and I shall recommend it to everyone. I only wish I could read it again for the first time; instead, I plan to visit Jane’s home at Chawton Cottage this weekend, where she wrote many of her books, and hope that I can follow in her footsteps.

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Jane’s penultimate home, Chawton Cottage, which is now the Jane Austen House Museum (image: visitwinchester.co.uk)

*

First published in 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton. I read the 2018 Hodder paperback, pictured above.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Joan: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor by Simon Fenwick (2017)

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(Image: goodreads.com)

I honestly didn’t know much about Joan Leigh Fermor when I asked for this book for Christmas last year, but I knew a little about her travel writer husband Paddy,  and the blurb intrigued me. I decided to take the book in holiday with me to Devon, where I read it in two days, mostly while sitting in a cafe overlooking a beach, and on a sun lounger outside our holiday cottage. Bliss!

In his introduction Simon Fenwick reminds his readers that he is primarily an archivist, and his author bio states that he has worked on/in the archives of Paddy Leigh Fermor. Reading the book, you can see his archival skills coming out as he meticulously details documents and diaries, and he reproduces a lot of letters. This was great in terms of accuracy, but after a while I found it a bit list-like and too literal. Fenwick goes into a huge amount of detail about social events from Joan’s one surviving pocket diary, to the point where you feel that you aren’t learning anything real about Joan, just about her calendar.

Fenwick tells us an awful lot about Joan’s social circle, which included the likes of Cyril Connolly and John Betjeman – which is interesting in that you get an idea of her social world and contemporaries, but I felt that there was too much detail about these other people and their lives in ways that were not always relevant to the story of Joan’s life. In a similar vein, the book begins with a little history lesson about some of Joan’s ancestors, which while interesting was totally irrelevant. The second chapter, titled ‘Growing Up’, is also more about Joan’s brother Graham’s time at Oxford than about her; towards the end of the chapter there is a bit about her and her sister’s experience at their boarding school, and a brief mention of her social debut and visit to Buckingham Palace. This is described as a moment she has been waiting for her whole life, and yet it is only mentioned briefly. I didn’t feel like I got a real sense of Joan’s childhood or what it was like for her growing up.

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A happy young Joan (image: patrickleighfermor.org)

As the book, and time, progresses, we learn more about Joan’s own life, and a little about her career as a photographer. This was seen as a suitable career for a woman, and it was one that Joan could do with her small amount of formal education. She was obviously sharp and intelligent and clearly would have benefitted from a chance to extend her schooling and go to university. I got the impression that she did the best she could with what’s she had, and wasn’t willing to settle into a domestic life straight away. She travelled for a job and this lead her to a desire to live abroad – something she shared with her eventual partner and husband, Paddy Leigh Fermor. I enjoyed hearing about their life together, even though they spent a lot of time apart as Paddy travelled and wrote in various locations. Fenwick reproduces a lot of their letters and highlights their adoration for each other, only later dropping in that Paddy had a lot of affairs throughout their early relationship, and maybe later. Once Joan meets Paddy, it becomes even more clear that the author is an expert on Paddy rather than Joan. At times I felt like I was learning more about him than her, and I didn’t get a real sense of Joan’s experiences.

This was my feeling throughout most of the book to be honest – I got the outline of the movements of Joan’s life, and the people around her. At times I felt like Fenwick was trying to tell the story of Joan’s life by talking about about everything and everyone around her, rather than the woman herself. He admits that she left a very small personal archive, but still the book feels a bit blank, like there isn’t enough material to go on. There was too much detail and at the same time not enough. It felt a little unbalanced. In my most disappointed moments, I thought that you could tell that this is the first biography that Fenwick has written, and that his career as an archivist means that he presents the evidence well, but doesn’t really go beyond that. So, I was rather disappointed overall, which was a shame, as I could tell that Joan Leigh Fermor was a brave and interesting woman who deserves for her life story to be told.

*

Published in 2017 by Macmillan. I read the hardback edition pictured above.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Bridesmaid’s Daughter by Nyna Giles (2018)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I discovered this book through the wonder that is GoodReads recommendations, which are surprisingly good at times. I have found a number of unknown-to-me books this way that I ended up loving. I’ve been on a non-fiction kick recently, and have always loved reading unusual or off-beat memoirs, especially by women. The Bridesmaid’s Daughter has the perfect combination of mother/daughter relationships, New York in the 1940s and 50s, Grace Kelly, and what promised to be a fascinating life story. I couldn’t resist.

The outline is that Nyna Giles’ mother, Carolyn, came to New York in the late 1940s to become a model, and she was neighbours with Grace Kelly in the Barbizon Hotel, which was a hotel specifically for young women who lived alone in New York. It was run almost like a big university dormitory or boarding school, with a curfew, no men allowed, single rooms, and shared communal spaces. Carolyn was a model, Grace was an actress, and they became fast friends; as the title states, Carolyn was a bridesmaid at Grace’s wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. The book effortlessly blends the story of Carolyn in New York with episodes from Nyna’s childhood, allowing the reader to get a sense of Carolyn’s life from different angles at the same time. As we see her rising to fame to New York with her modelling, we also see her later in life, married and living on Long Island, struggling with motherhood.

We learn from the blurb, and quite early in the book, that when Nyna was a child her mother often kept her home from school, saying she was too ill. There were various doctors over the years who either agreed or disagreed, and in her research Nyna found many letters and reports from the school despairing at her absence and begging her mother to meet with them. As the book goes on and Nyna gets older, she realises that sometimes she is not ill, or she only has a minor medical issue, like a cold, but her mother insists she is too ill and weak to go to school, or to have home tutoring. We also hear about Nyna’s two older sisters, and her father, and her parents’ troubled marriage. This story grows alongside that of the young Carolyn finding success, meeting her husband, travelling to Monaco for Grace’s wedding, and getting married herself. Eventually the two stories meet somewhere in the middle and we get the full picture of Carolyn’s life.

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Carolyn with her three daughters; Nyna is the baby. (image: refinery29.uk)

Reading about Nyna’s side of things, you realise that something was not quite right with Carolyn once she was older and had children. She is clearly neurotic about Nyna’s health, and is unhappy is her marriage, but still she seems off balance. At one point Nyna recalls her mother tearing down her beloved posters because she thought she could hears noises in the walls. The subtitle gives away the fact that by the time Nyna was an adult, with her own children, Carolyn was sleeping in a homeless shelter in New York; this book attempts to explain how she went from the glamour and success of her young life, to the shelter. As the two timelines of her lift come together, we begin to see how fragile Carolyn’s mental health was, and how this affected not only her but her children as well, and how things worsened over time. The sudden deaths of Nyna’s older sister Robin, and of Grace Kelly, obviously had a devastating effect on Carolyn as well.

Looking back, Nyna explores how difficult it was to get any help or treatment for mental health issues in the 1960s and the decades afterwards. At one point Carolyn starts to see a psychiatrist, but Nyna’s father disapproves and makes her stop when she won’t go to a doctor he has chosen; Nyna reflects on several instances like this when help was possible, but Carolyn was either thwarted or did not pursue it. Once you get about two thirds of the way through the book, you realise that Carolyn’s mental health was the point of the story all along, and why Nyna chose certain episodes about which to write. Grace Kelly is at first a fun addition to Carolyn’s story, adding glamour and a connection to the wider world that Carolyn experiences; she also introduces Carolyn to her husband Malcolm, Nyna’s father. As the timeline progresses, especially after Grace gets married and moves to Monaco, she is not quite so present, but serves as a rough parallel to Carolyn’s life, and how different their lives ended up being – although Nyna does see a similarity in that both of them essentially gave up their careers for marriage and children, for better or worse.

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Grace Kelly’s wedding; Carolyn is on the far left. (image: blog.hellomagazine.com)

Before I started The Bridesmaid’s Daughter I worried that there might be too much of a focus of Grace Kelly, or that it would be clunky, but it was actually executed very well. She exists as a symbol of Carolyn’s past, and something to aspire to. Nyna Giles is writing about her own mother, and so she is the focus, and the whole story is handled very sensitively and empathetically. Perhaps because I’m a woman, I find mother/daughter relationships fascinating, and the ones in this book were no exception (we also hear a bit about Grace and Carolyn’s parents, as well as Nyna’s two sisters). Personally I really enjoyed this book – I read it in only two days – and would recommend it to anyone interested in these kind of memoirs, as well as the 20th century history. It is elegantly written by Giles, with the help of co-writer Eve Claxton, and is honestly just a really fascinating story. Another win for GoodReads recommendations!

*

Published in 2018 by September Publishing in the UK, and St Martin’s Press in the US. I read the September paperback, pictured above.

There is a lovely website about the book here, including galleries of Carolyn’s modelling days. Nyna Giles has also shared a lot of great images on her Instagram here.

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Articles, Fiction, Non-Fiction

WWW Wednesday, 19th April 2017

I’m sure you have now heard about WWW Wednesday (even I know about it), but to recap, this is what it entails – you must post about three books:

  • What you most recently finished reading
  • What you are currently reading
  • What you will read next

Here are mine!

What I recently finished reading: Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII by Gareth Russell

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This was the second biography of Catherine Howard that I have read this year, and it really was excellent. I am currently planning a blog about this and the other biography (by Josephine Wilkinson).

What I am currently reading: The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

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This was sent to me by Penguin for review, and I’d wanted to read it for a while. It’s an interesting take on a well-known story and historical figure (Matthew Hopkins) and so far it is very engaging. Review to come!

What I will read next: Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym

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Another review copy from Penguin, which also looks intriguing. I love a bit of narrative non-fiction and this looks like the sort of unusual memoir that I will enjoy.

What are your WWW books?

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Elusive Ada Lovelace

I read a biography of Byron when I was about 17 or 18, having been introduced to him by a teacher. I fell in love with his life story, the drama and romance, the scandal, and of course the poetry. I automatically took his side in the break with his wife Annabella (which happened as a consequence of all his, um, dalliances, one of which was with his half-sister). Cold and repressed, I resented her attitude to his liberal lifestyle. The tragedy was of course the fact that after he left England in 1816 he never saw their daughter, Ada, ever again. She was a year old when he left.

Ada was then molded by her mother Annabella, who was intent on erasing any ‘Byronic’ elements from her daughter. All I knew of the adult Ada was that she was interested in mathematics (inherited from her mother) and worked with Charles Babbage on his difference engine. Given my past love for Byron, I naturally wanted to know more about her, and pounced on this book when I saw it in Waterstones.

2015 Pan paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

2015 Pan paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

I had high hopes for this book, and some of them were fulfilled – I learned a lot about Ada’s life, her personality and attitudes, and more of the details of her work with Babbage. But – this book is ultimately unsuccessful. The long-winded title is the first of many small errors that add up to an unsatisfying experience. For starters the first third of the book is all about Byron and Annabella; while the context of their relationship and history is relevant, Benjamin Wooley chooses to tell the whole story from start to finish, with far too much detail. This may be my opinion because I already knew the story and didn’t learn anything new, but I think to have an interest in this book in the first place you would probably already have some knowledge of Ada’s parents. Either way I think there is too much detail and context at this point, and you begin to wonder when Ada will enter the story.

When she does arrive she is still playing second fiddle in the narrative to her mother Annabella – which is exactly what happened to her in real life. Annabella, the pragmatist, was terrified of her husband’s scandalous and wild behaviour manifesting itself in her daughter; and so she forced upon Ada a rigid life of maths and science, with little time for imagination and creativity. Imagination itself was seen as something dangerous and risky, capable of taking one to untold depths of depravity.

To me, Annabella was an overbearing, insecure, and rather selfish mother that was terrified of letting her daughter just be herself. In the end Ada seems to have been a perfectly normal person with a good balance of intellect and creativity. Unfortunately Wooley takes up pages and pages telling us of the various ways in which Annabella tried to control her daughter’s mind and behaviour, rather than letting us see Ada herself. For most of the book she seems to be a secondary character.

Even when she is an adult, we hear about Ada only in relation to other interesting people of the time that she met or corresponded with. Her initial fame comes from her father and her colleague Babbage – and the way in which Wooley tells her story only compounds the idea that she is only relevant or important because of her associations with other people.

Possibly the most famous portrait of Ada, from 1836. (image: wikipedia.com)

Possibly the most famous portrait of Ada, from 1836. (image: wikipedia.com)

To me, Ada seems remarkable in herself. There is a limited amount of her own writing and work left, and perhaps this is why Wooley chooses to go to so many other sources and people for news of her – but I found this tedious and speculative. I wanted to know the real Ada, and I felt like this book only touched the surface. I wanted more analysis of her personality, and her famous and undoubtedly impressive work with Babbage (just google it and look at the complexity!). I wanted more of her. And this book was more about her time, and the ways in which she was continually pulled between her parents’ personalities, a theme which got tired pretty quickly.

This is one of those books that could have been so great, but just fell down at the simplest hurdles. It was first published in 2000, and if a new biography of Ada is ever released I’d certainly consider it, in order to fill in the gaps left by this one. Ada remains elusive.

*

First published by Pan in 2000. The edition I read was a 2015 reprint by Pan.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Can We Agree On No More Sylvia Plath Biographies?

I think we can all agree that a mythology has grown around Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes. Both her writing and her short life were undoubtedly remarkable, but it is also the fact of Hughes’ control over what was published or not published after her death that has gained notoriety and drawn endless attention to both their names. For decades people have written about them, pried into their lives and invaded their privacy, even when Ted Hughes was still alive. Now that they have both passed away it seems that there are no limits on how much or what can be said about them.

In her book The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994) Janet Malcolm confronts the issue of how much the poets’ live have been dragged through the mud and held up to the public for viewing in all their glory and pain. Malcolm examines the various Plath biographies that have appeared over the years and the people that have both written and contributed to them. She speaks to people who knew Plath and those who have decided to take sides in what some perceive to be a divide between those who support Plath and those who support Hughes. I personally think such a divide, the act of taking sides, is ludicrous and serves only to trivialise the complicated and ultimately personal and private nature of their relationship. Taking sides implies that we have a a right to an opinion about what was right or wrong, who should be praised and who should be criticised. The fact is, we do not.

2012 Granta paperback

2012 Granta paperback

And yet, what is biography if not dissecting other people’s lives, and, sometimes, passing judgement? The very nature of biography is to sift through the details of a life and expose what was once personal and private. We love to examine the lives of others, and the fact is that this can be done with respect and discretion – but when the life being examined was in living memory, and more is known, the examination can become too detailed, too personal, and can cross from interest and fascination into gawking and speculation. We forget that they were just people. I think sometimes everyone forgets that Sylvia Plath was just a person, another woman like me or anyone else trying to work through life. She was special in that she saw that life with a poet’s eye, and it is, rightly, for this that she is remembered. But she is also remembered for the dark elements of her life, including the breakdown of her marriage – not that that is any of our business frankly. Her poet’s eye was part literary genius and part mental illness, which is what makes her so fascinating. I think it also makes her hard to understand for some people, which leads to the gawking and over-examination. People become obsessed with getting ‘the whole story’ and understanding the truth.

The nature of truth is something that Janet Malcolm explores throughout The Silent Woman. As a journalist and non-fiction writer she is in the business of finding the truth, and as she interviews various people who knew or wrote about Plath she examines how much truth she finds in each person and their recollections. Ultimately she declares that there can be no real truth in non-fiction writing because we cannot ever know ‘what really happened’ between other people. She states that there can only be truth in fiction, where the author is the omniscient power. I’m not sure if I agree – but I didn’t agree with a lot of Malcolm’s assertions. Malcolm is an opinionated writer, which I liked, but I didn’t always warm to her. To me she was cold and humourless, researching and interviewing with a determination that seemed more like a fixation than a passion. She doesn’t seem to gain any pleasure from her research for this book – it is all bleakly matter-of-fact and while I was fascinated and engaged, I realised towards the end that I didn’t really enjoy reading The Silent Woman. It produced no positivity for me and only proved that some things are best left alone, best kept at a respectful distance. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were both extraordinary writers, and I think we would all be better off if the world focussed on that and left their personal lives to rest.

*

First published by Picador in 1994, then by Granta in 2005 and 2012.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty by Michele Fitoussi

Gallic Books edition. Image: belgraviabooks.com

Gallic Books edition. Image: belgraviabooks.com

This book came to me entirely by chance when I saw it was up for grabs from the publisher Gallic Books on Twitter. I had heard of Helena Rubinstein at some point, not sure where, but my first memory of hearing her name was in an episode of Sex and the City when the girls visit the Helena Rubinstein spa in New York and Samantha gropes her male masseur. The manager throws them out because “Helena Rubinstein is a civilised place for civilised people”. I reckon the lady herself would have agreed.

Personally I’ve come to care a lot more about beauty and skin care in the last few years, and now find myself reading about it more and more, both in magazines and online (XOVain is particular favourite). Helena Rubinstein is a hugely respected name in the industry but has been a little forgotten of late, with no visible campaigns and their products barely mentioned in the press. But, as Michele Fitoussi’s title states, Helena Rubinstein was a pioneer of the beauty industry and was a key player in the invention of what we now know as ‘beauty’ in the modern sense.

Madame (as she came to be known) was born in Krakow, Poland in 1872, the eldest of eight daughters. She refused to follow her parents’ wishes and marry someone just because she should, and so was more than happy to be sent to live with her maternal uncles in Australia in 1902. Her mother Gitte had created a simple face cream that she insisted all her daughters use every day; Helena took twelve jars of it with her and began telling women about it in her uncle’s shop after they asked how she achieved her flawless complexion. She sent for more cream from her mother and after obtaining the formula made it herself, and sold it in her uncle’s shop. This simple face cream, originally called Valaze cream, was the beginning of her beauty empire.

Charismatic and with excellent marketing and sales skills, Rubinstein made her Valaze cream so popular that she was eventually able to set up salons in the biggest Australian cities, after selling it in her uncle’s shop and encouraging word-of-mouth amongst society ladies. She remained a national hero there for the rest of her life. Her empire (an appropriate word once you read her story) spanned Australia, New Zealand, Europe, America, and even Japan in the late 1950s.

From Australia Madame moved to western Europe, conquering Paris and London, before tackling New York. She was always ambitious, and no success was ever enough – work was everything. Even through her troubled first marriage and the births of her two sons, she worked tirelessly, even to the point of neglecting her family. This is where we might not like Madame as much as we did initially. I was certainly thrown by her willingness to leave her children with nannies for such long periods of time, to the point where the boys felt a huge emotional distance between them and their mother. Fitoussi however is sympathetic to both Madame and her sons, and describes their relationships from both sides, examining how their childhood affected their later lives. I think Rubinstein’s approach to motherhood says a great deal about her, as career was everything for most of her life. It was only when bad health forced her to slow down that she began to reflect on her role as a mother and wished she had spent more time with her children when they were young.

She was certainly not without heart, but she was consistently tough with all those around her, demanding more and more from them every time she saw them. Most of her sisters were summoned to work in her salons, as well as nieces and nephews, and even her beloved assistant Patrick O’Higgins, a fixture in her later life, was not immune to her harsh words. It seems to me that Madame greatly appreciated family, but was so incredibly determined to succeed in business that she sometimes forgot just how important they were to her.

Michele Fitoussi documents the life of Madame with obvious affection and admiration, although sometimes the sheer amount of travelling and dramas that happened seem to be too much to fit into the pages, and a list-like structure sometimes appears. Most of the time, however, Fitoussi manages to include all the major life events and key minor moments while still portraying the humanity of the woman at the centre of an enormous business empire. It is glamorous and exciting, but not without the mundanity of everyday life and the struggles of familial relationships.

Despite her shortcomings, I really do admire Helena Rubinstein. She battled through a tough childhood, very uncertain and difficult beginnings in Australia, a constantly changing industry and challenging rivals, not to mention being a woman and a Jew in a world that favoured neither. She was defiant and brave, and unendingly determined to succeed. She was always in charge and never let anyone beat her – even when her home was burgled, she sat in the bed, a defenceless old woman, and hid her diamonds and the key to safe in her nightgown while the thieves tried to find her best jewels. Helena Rubinstein was tough, bold and very intelligent. She is quoted as saying she felt as if she had lived “a dozen normal lives” and after reading Michele Fitoussi’s excellent biography I can see why.

*

Originally published by in France by Grasset in 2010, and was published in English in 2013 by Gallic Books. My copy was kindly provided by Gallic Books for review.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson

UK cover. Image: books.simonandschuster.co.uk

UK cover. Image: books.simonandschuster.co.uk

Deadlines are generally a good thing but when it comes to this book it’s a good thing that I didn’t have one. I bought it of my own volition and read it, and thought about it for a long time, and attended a Q&A with the author, and only now am I about ready to get my thoughts on it down on, well, this blog.

There are many biographies of Sylvia Plath, and rightly so. She is one of the most acclaimed and influential American poets of the 20th century, and an icon of some kind for many an aspiring writer – or indeed, a lost soul. Sylvia Plath was just that – lost.

This new book focuses on Plath’s life before she met her husband Ted Hughes, and I was instantly intrigued by this fact as it is almost impossible to read anything about Plath without reading about Hughes and their relationship at the same time. Hughes’ position as her widow and her editor meant that he had a huge influence on the way Plath was viewed by the reading public after her death, especially since only one volume of poetry was published during her lifetime. Throughout the publication of her novel, The Bell Jar, and countless other poetry collections (including the seminal Ariel), Hughes was in charge of what was seen and read by the world. He presented his wife as he thought she should be seen. He famously dismissed her early writing and her numerous short stories as ‘juvenilia’ that were part of a ‘false self’ that did not showcase her talent fully. Scholars and readers of Plath’s early work, particularly since Hughes’ death in 1998, have largely disagreed with his opinion. As Andrew Wilson deftly shows in this new biography, Plath’s early years and early work were an integral part of her whole self.

Wilson chose the title Mad Girl’s Love Song after reading an early poem of the same name, written by Plath in 1951 while she was a student at Smith College. It was inspired by a boyfriend at the time and depicts a woman trying to work out if her lover is real or a figment of her imagination. She wonders if their passion is real of if she made him up “inside her head”. I can see why it was chosen – in some ways it is so evocative of Plath’s state of mind throughout her life, conflating what is real and what she has imagined for herself.

This theme comes up again and again throughout the book when it comes to Plath’s friends and boyfriends, and even her family. She sees all of them not quite as they really are, but how she wants them to be, casting them as idealised or exaggerated versions of themselves. Devastated by her father’s death when she was eight, Plath spent the rest of her life looking for a “colossus” that could replace him, seeing all her dates and boyfriends (including Ted Hughes), as well as male friends, as potential father-figures that could protect her and make her happy. Inevitably, none of them lived up to her ideal. “Colossus” was the name of the only poetry collection published in Plath’s lifetime, and the term comes up again and again throughout this book when Plath refers to ideals of men.

At a reading and Q&A on 13th March at Waterstones in Covent Garden, Wilson stated that Plath turned certain people in her life from real people into “spectres” of themselves, projected images of what she wanted them to be. This happened mostly poignantly with Eddie Cohen, a young man who wrote to her after reading one of her short stories in a magazine. They became regular pen pals and discussed almost every facet of their lives, from writing and art to sex and relationships. As an objective and, crucially, detached male voice, Cohen gave Plath his opinion on how she should conduct herself with men, and how he felt she was progressing as a writer. Reading snippets of their letters in Wilson’s book, I did not always like Cohen for his harsh judgements of Plath and his insistence that he was right and she was wrong. Despite his criticisms they continued to correspond and it seems that Plath benefitted from a critical voice that told her when she being an idiot and when she was on the right track. Wilson’s research and carefully chosen quotes suggest that Cohen knew Plath better than most of the people in her life. As someone entirely separate from her everyday life, she was able to share more with him than with those around her, whose judgements could potentially damage her.

When Cohen turned up unexpectedly at Smith College one day, Plath was furious, and he left after only a few hours. She felt as if he had violated her privacy and she could not stand to see him in real life – as a real person. She needed him to remain as a spectre, as a critical and reassuring voice that came to her only in letters and entirely removed from her personal, physical self.

Mad Girl's Love Song, 1951. Image: tristavega.blogspot.com

Mad Girl’s Love Song, 1951. Image: tristavega.blogspot.com

It seems to me that Plath had a tendency to ‘dream away’ what she didn’t like in her life and replace it with fantasy and writing. As her state of mind deteriorated throughout the early 1950s, she seemed less and less real to her friends, and lived more and more in her own head, particularly after her 1953 suicide attempt and hospitalisation.

Ted Hughes looms large in the distance towards the end of Mad Girl’s Love Song. You know she will meet him soon, and indeed their meeting in included in the book. When Plath met Hughes, she was still involved with Richard Sassoon, the man that has come to be called her “great love”. They had a passionate, intense relationship and spent blissful hours in hotels and restaurants, and even a trip around Europe. But when Plath had to go back to Cambridge, Sassoon had to go to Spain – and in his absence she returned to her fledgling romance with Hughes. She later severed all contact with Sassoon and married Hughes, four months after they had met.

At the Q&A Wilson keenly pointed out that he was not ‘anti-Hughes’ and that he hopes that now we can live in a world where readers and scholars are not divided into two camps, one supporting Hughes and one supporting Plath. Neither one was right or wrong. Yet it is inevitable that, after reading this intense and fascinating book, one might feel some anger towards Hughes for the fateful role that he played in Plath’s life, and the emotional damage that he did to her. However, one might also feel angry (as I admit I do) at Plath for not always addressing her problems directly and her rage and anguish overwhelm her. There were times when I was reading this book that I wanted to shout at Plath for running off with another boy or venting at Eddie Cohen instead of dealing with her issues head on. I wanted her to fight, more than she did. But I think she fought as much as she could, and reached a point where she just could not fight any more. I may not agree with all her life choices, and I may regret certain circumstances (if only Sassoon had been able to stay with her!) but the flow of life cannot be changed. The past is the past.

Sylvia remains captured in it, somewhere between a moment of intense happiness, and one of equally intense despair.

*

Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted was published in January 2013 by Simon & Schuster in the UK, and Scribner in the US.

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