Monday, October 16, 2006

Viragos and Persephones

After a long summer of reading 19th century novels and 20th century poetry, I’ve been reading women’s novels, especially Viragos and Persephones. I’m having a Viragofest.   Or a Persephonefest.  Maybe both.

Some of the Viragos are first-class literature, like Vita Sackville-West’s THE EDWARDIANS, Oliphant’s  HESTER, Rose Macaulay's TOLD BY AN IDIOT, and Emily Holmes Coleman’s THE SHUTTER OF SNOW.  The latter is a novel about the author’s hospitalization for bipolar disorder. This is her only novel, an account of Coleman's experience and a record of the attitudes of doctors and nurses toward mentally ill patients in the ‘20s.  It’s out of print, but historically significant.  Coleman is an exceptional writer, more interesting in some ways than Janet Frame, a surreal writer about mental hospitals to whom Coleman has been compared.

As for the Persephones, I discovered them quite by accident while browsing at Amazon. These popular novels and non-fiction books of the '20s, '30s, '40s, and '50s have been revived by an English publsher. I think of them as women's comfort reads, but some are superb books one could recommend to one's husband. Viragos tend to be feminist novels, but not all Persephones are feminist. Noel Streatfeild's SAPLINGS, for instance, is a World War II novel which gives a good idea of life during the war. Sarah Waters mentioned this novel in a Guardian article as one she read when researching her own very good novel, THE NIGHT WATCH, a Booker Prize finalist and Orange Prize finalist.

One of my favorite Persephones is Dorothy Whipple's SOMEONE AT A DISTANCE. The novel is beguiling, Whipple's style simple. It's an early example of chick-lit, much more complex and sophisticated, though, with parts having been stolen (perhaps) by Elizabeth Buchan for the much lighter, less interesting THE REVENGE OF THE MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN. The flawless family in SOMEONE AT A DISTANCE is almost too good, honorable and comfortable, but that makes it pleasing: a well-written escape. The characters are completely absorbing, people one wants to spent time with. The forty-two-year-old protagonist, Ellen, gardens and cooks, is always rumpled, and has no idea her husband is having an affair with the disdainful French woman who has come to stay. Their daughter Anne loves her horse and family, especially loves her father, but refuses to see him after she learns about the affair. Her parents' divorce fragments her personality and wrecks her happiness. But Ellen, also destroyed by the divorce, refuses alimony and finds a job. Work saves Ellen. Schoolwork saves Anne. Ellen saves her mother-in-law's ex-maid by finding her a job.

The characters who are not saved--but that would be telling.

This is a feminist novel.

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