About Vulpes Libris and Refugees (bis)

Two days ago, I blogged about Vulpes Libris and Refugees. Here I come again with almost the same topic. The issue is too important to be passed by unnoticed.

Vulpes Libris or “Book Foxes” are a group of bloggers who have joined forces to create this shared blog where one after the other expresses her or his choices in literature, essays, fiction, memoirs, etc., while each keeps her or his own blog.

This week has been dedicated to refugees and not only the refugees that are knocking at our doors todays but the concept of refugees through literature, with three examples of writings by (yes, I say BY) refugees or members of people who have been refugees.

The originality of this point of view has spurred me to blog and mention Vulpes Libris. Today is the last entry for this topic on their blog and I would like to associate myself to this enterprise by summing up the links to Book Foxes’ blog.

Sunday, Kate introduced the week:

Monday, Kirsty D returned to Lloyd Jones’s Hand Me Down World and found a renewed relevance in his story of a woman being smuggled into Europe:

Wednesday, Jackie explored the universality of displacement in Benjamin Zephania’s poem We Refugees.

And today, Friday,  In a VL Classic, Hilary revisits her review of Marjane Satrapi’s account of her experience as a refugee, Persepolis.

My own (without false modesty and shilly-shallying) very humble and small  contribution – more political perhaps? – no, I would say more pedestrian and directly linked to the current situation – is this:

As we said in France, at the beginning of the year, when there was this aggression against a well-known satirical newspaper, we are all refugees. Most of all, we are all Human Beings.

About “Vulpes Libris” and refugees

This is an intermediary entry in this blog but the question is probably among the greatest of the century, and it has been courageously tackled this week by a blog I like much: Vulpes Libris.

Vulpes Libris is a blog where friends or colleagues meet to write, one after the other, usually thrice a week, and, very often, each week is dedicated to a thematic. The bloggers, among whom I find Kate MaDonald – one of the specialist of my beloved middle-brow novels -, are mostly academics, but the blog reads easily, and surveys a lot of different topics. Of course, I have preferences but one may always avoid bloggers or matters that one does not care for.

This week is devoted to refugees with this introductory caution:

The BookFoxes have allowed me to hijack our normally non-political site with a week of writing about, and by, refugees.

Therefore, it is clear from the beginning, that there will be no political side but an overview of refugees and the status of refugee from a literary point of view, with books critics.

  • Monday: Kirsty D returns to Lloyd Jones’s Hand Me Down World and finds a renewed relevance in his story of a woman being smuggled into Europe.
  • Wednesday: Jackie explores the universality of displacement in Benjamin Zephaniah’s poem We Refugees.
  • Friday: In a VL Classic, Hilary revisits her review of Marjane Satrapi’s account of her experience as a refugee, Persepolis. 

And it starts with a review from Kate MacDonald:

 https://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2015/09/20/coming-up-on-vulpes-libris-writing-about-refugees/

 of which is the beginning:

“There might be urban foxes in the docks area of Brussels, but I doubt it at the moment. There’s a long sliver of a park there, with a playground and football pitches, between Gare du Nord, the red light district and the canal. For the past three weeks its been filled with over 1000 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea. The camp came into being by the efforts of a small group of volunteers active in the ‘sans-papiers’ movement, helping asylum seekers with housing and food, and when the flood of refugees arriving in Europe from the south and south-east reached Europe’s political capital, they set up the camp. Belgians have long memories about refugees: they have family members who were refugees during the Second and First World Wars, and they have long welcomed refugees from the former Belgian colonies of the Congo and the DRC. The sustained generosity and volunteer effort from Belgians to help today’s refugees is staggering (I’ve been sorting the mountains of donated clothes and tents), especially when you think of how utterly useless the response of Europe’s leaders has been to find a unified political response to help. How can the people’s will be so strongly different from the apparent will of those we’ve elected to represent us? The BookFoxes have allowed me to hijack our normally non-political site with a week of writing about, and by, refugees.”

I shall ask my own question with the following photograph:

We should remember that at one moment or another our families have been refugees. During WWII, my father’s family was a refugee family in the Dordogne. There have been other refugees before in my parents’ family for many reasons, and as we are able to trace both families centuries ago, we are able to see how much they have had to move for several causes. They returned to their roots and grounds, mainly, but some shoots have stayed abroad.

Refugees in France came from other countries quite recently (I mean in the last century) Italy, Poland, Spain, Russia, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, sub- Saharan Africa (I will not talk of the disgraceful French attitude during the genocide in Rwanda and afterwards), what we used to call “Indochina” – but also from one part of France to another because of poverty, like Bretons when Brittany went through a spell of shameful poverty in the beginning and middle of the 20th century. Not to speak about the French families who thought they had a home in colonies who were deservedly given their independence.

We are now in Europe (and I do not mean the European Union, but the European continent) rather static countries with some wealth and comfort that we do not wish to share with others. We are at the same time going through a financial and economic crisis that is lasting, and we, Western Europeans, are so used to get ting what we want quickly that we do not understand that, even in our economy, there are cycles, and that life is not all consumerism. We have retired into ourselves and we are scared to move ahead. The future is always frightening, more or less, but it is frightening because it is the unknown. 

Let us give the future a chance and remember we have not always been ensconced in our comfortable life – like my Girls who find reassurance in a routine life. We are able to find solutions, whether these are implied in politics, associations, churches, or as individuals. 

This major crisis could have been avoided had we listened to intellectuals, philosophers, economists, anthropologists, and others who told us in the 1970s that the 21st century would be a century of migrations because of wars, of food crises, of droughts, of climatic changes, of too great differences between the Southern countries and the Northern ones… We did not listen and we did not hear. And now we have to be creative now.

Refugees are what we have all been at one time or another and, most of all, they are what we are: Human Beings.

Literature for children and gentle literature: the “Real” in and with fiction

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White morning dress in The Brandons

by Angela Thirkell

For the last two or three years, Virago Press has been re-publishing in the United Kingdom novels written by Angela Thirkell, from the 1930s until her death at the very beginning of the1960s. In the same time, Greyladies Publishing House in Scotland is regularly  giving us novels by  D.E. Stevenson and O. Douglas for instance, of which I have already spoken here: http://camilledefleurville.blogspot.fr/2015/07/small-things.htmlhttp://camilledefleurville.blogspot.fr/2015/07/the-proper-place-and-my-proper-place.htmlhttp://camilledefleurville.blogspot.fr/2015/05/miss-buncle-goes-to-la-dordogne.html -DE Stevenson being also republished by Persephone Press; and if Miss Read is not to be found anymore in Penguin, other publishers have taken over.

In the meantime, children literature is again showing us Angela Brazil, Elinor Brent-Dyer, and other more or less classics or forgotten authors, published by specialised houses like Girls Only, for instance, or re-published ad infinitum in the case of Anthony Buckeridge and Enid Blyton, and others.

And in the meantime as well, I have already mentioned the revival of the interest in the “neglected” women writers of what first was the Interwar (WWI to WWII), then the 1900s to the 1950s, and now that extends from the end of the 19th century to the 1960s. The field was first delineated by pioneers such as Nicola Beauman, who since then has become the founder of Persephone Press, in A Very Great Profession, by Alison Light in Forever England, and Nicola Humble in The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, followed by others and very lately by Kate Macdonald in Transitions in Middlebrow Writing (1880-1930), a book just published even if the author is well-known in academic and non academic but specialised circles.

A Very Great Profession

The Feminine Middlebrow Novel

Transitions in Middlebrow Writing

 Years ago, there were, in gender studies – but this is still a “hot topic” – books like Judith Robotham’s Good Girls make Good Wives, and What Katie Read by Shirley Foster and Judy Simon.
Good Girls make Good Wives

What Katie Read

The explosion of internet has made easier those virtual reading groups of which I have already spoken in http://camilledefleurville.blogspot.fr/2015/05/miss-buncle-goes-to-la-dordogne.html, first in list servs and now on groups on Facebook. They promote THEIR special author, lobbying publishers, trying to meet the remains of the families of said authors, to know the minutiae of their daily life, notes, papers, left over beginnings of books or discarded ones, trying to write biographies and do all the exercises to which academics have led and are leading the way.

Why not? This can be a hobby like any other at worst and a discovery at best. It eases the communication among people who otherwise would not have known of the existence of others, who would have felt they have had wasted talents, who now relate and talk with kindred spirits about shared tastes and  link sometimes in real friendship. However a caveat: there is sometimes amusing seriousness or aggressive discussions about mudane matters. And methods employed go too far and can distort the texts and the intentions of their authors towards their readers.

I shall take one instance that happened in one of these groups lately: a  free sociological reading of children ‘s (girls) literature.

Let’s take two references only: the Chalet School Stories and the Angela Brazil novels.

Chalet School

A novel by Angela Brazil

The discussion started with the diet in England during the first half of the 20th century and  slowly meandered until the topic of latrines was reached when guides and camp holidays were debated. What was the timetable of  the schools meals? What was eaten during each meal? Why were there breakfast, lunch, tea and sometimes dinner or supper? Were there four square meals? What were the the buns that were talked of? And bread and butter? And cakes? And sandwiches? And eggs and bacon? And porridge? And milk pudding? Why so many carbs and milk? What about meat and fish and most of all why no mention of vegetable and fruit, which would have been much, much better for the girls’ diet and healthy snacks? Through such questions, slowly but surely came the famous latrines and the way sanitation was dealt with? Nothing, absolutely nothing, was mentioned in the various books? Why? And what and how the girls did?

One sensible voice came up at that point and I stopped wondering whether I had to intervene or not – being non native Anglo-Saxon or Scot or Pict or Irish or Welsh or belonging to “the colonies” (including the USA and Canada who were largely represented) and non native English speaker, being by far the youngest of the group, my comments and contributions may be either left aside unanswered or considered as interference or unworthy.

The sensible voice from an “elderly” English lady reminded every-excited-body that sanitation was not a topic to be broached in public and, most of all, in books for well-bred girls when one was at the beginning of the 20th century; that it was quite new and almost contemporary to enter into such details however important and essential they were. I was relieved. And I would have gladly added but for fear of being banished, that James Joyce’s Ulysses had been censored and banned from the UK for such a topic, among others…

But it is a paradox in such a group that books like Ulysses are never quoted (and perhaps have never been read), and usually sex, natural fluids, natural movements of bowels, and even parts of the body, never mentioned! Let’s keep to the word paradox and not skid to stronger ones, or let’s compromise to delicacy, modesty and decency.

I had in fact chirped in about the food but had had no answer.

I had taken for example two more modern series of school and children books: Jennings and Darbyshire by Anthony Buckeridge:

Jennings and Darbyshire

and The Famous Five by the renowned Enid Blyton:

The Famous Five

It is very easy and one does not need to be an academic to know that these books are written to entertain and to give indications towards gender, social, and moral codes, among other values. What does a girl do? There are two girls in The Famous Five: one is a tomboy, the other is more of a little mummy, sister,  and timid mouse. One of the boy is “the chief”, a father-like figure, the second is practical, efficient and a faithful second. The dog is … the dog, the one who shares joys and pains with children, and who comforts, protects and guards his little masters; he is the almost compulsory bond between children and the animal world. The adults are a little far away. They are parents but mostly Uncle and Aunt – parental figures but not to be strictly identified with the readers’ parents. Therefore they may be more aloof, indulgent, rewarding and less scolding.

In Jennings and Darbyshire, we are back to the school story but the traditional older genre of the boys school story. It is of course gentler than Tom Brown’s Story and Stalky and Co. It is more humorous. The time stands still: the boys stay during all the stories in the same form and the same dormitory, at the same age; the adults do not grow old, they teach the same courses, and their characters do not evolve. It might be compared to Jeeves and Wooster or life at Blandings: intricate, hilarious plots, awkwardnesses, misunderstandings, and all strands gathered at the end in a magnificent braid which leaves one ready for a new adventure – but gentleness, respect to adults, good-will, helpfulness, are taught. Some values are instilled, drop by drop, and help make foundation of the Code of the Wooster – no, sorry, The Code of the Public School Boy and Future Gentleman.

There must be an outlet to these apprenticeships both in The Famous Five and in Jennings and Darbyshire: it is food. From Freud onwards we know and have admitted that food is synonym of sex and of affectivity. In these books, it is the ultimate comfort and affection. It is the perfect “comfort food”. No wonder there are so many fruit cakes, tins of sardines, buns, afternoon teas, muffins and tea cakes and toasted crumpets, and jellies, jams, potatoes under all guises and recipes, sausages, bangers, milk pudding or bread and butter pudding… What comfort value would have Brussels sprouts, broccolis, spinach, beetroot, tomatoes, or the occasional leaf of lettuce?

These books are not sociology manuals but books for children and it is not the reality of the school life that must be looked for but the values that the adults want to inculcate into young ones at the same time as they make them like reading and help them imagine, play, and be entertained.

This reflexion goes further than the children’s books that were discussed in this reading group. It leads one to the old question of reality and fiction, of reality into fiction, of the value of fiction as a standard against which one might measure reality. Can fiction be considered as a serious (secondary) source for research about reality?

One preliminary and corrective point in favour of the research about diet in children’s fiction by the reading groups: members compared their own reading experiences and their own real life experiences to the books. No definite sociological conclusion was drawn from readings only: it was all the more confusing as the gap grew between the books and real life.

So, can fiction be considered as a serious (secondary) source for research about reality?

The first immediate answer is NO. Fiction is fiction, reality is reality. Why then this fad (?) or fashion (?) to read fiction with so many glasses and so many (for want of a better, more English sounding term) “grids of interpretation”?

My first serious brush with this problem came when I read the famous book by Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a history of representation in Western literature from ancient to modern times and frequently cited as a classic in the study of realism in literature. It is an old book, written in 1946, and probably out of date for modern scholars. It came to me as a revelation. It starts with Homer and ends with Virginia Woolf and gives a fair travelog across the Western literature. Of course, there is no existentialism, no structuralism and de-structuralism, no Foucaldism, no Barthes, no Levinas, no Lacan, no new thinking and no new thought. But I feel it is well worth reading for non academics.

In France, we have established categories for reality and fiction: Balzac and people writing like him some sort of Comédie Humaine belong to the Réalisme. Then comes Flaubert who is like a hinge in the middle of the 19th century. And after him, along with Zola and Maupassant, the long line of the Naturalisme marches in. And bringing the rear, the even longer line of disputes about the respective definitions of Réalisme and Naturalisme as the border is as thin as a hair between both. Thus I prefer the term “Littérature du Réel” or The Real in Fiction.

Of course, you have the same in British and American literatures, and I could give you references in your own language but what would be the point of a French blog with French culture … and yours – their similarities, their differences, their shocks, their entente cordiale? Let’s take for once my French tools to examine a very small section of your fiction. We have seen the use and misuse of a sociologic approach in the real case of the study by non fully learnt analysts in the case of children’s literature; what is now done by the same reading groups when it comes to THEIR authors.

Let’s take again three gentle writers to which people full of good will and good intentions are devoted and scrutinize world without end: 

D.E. Stevenson

Angela Thirkell

Miss Read (Dora Saint)

There could  be of course many, many more as the resurgence of these “neglected women writers” grows each day a little stronger.

But to make a link with the school stories, let’s look at two delicious and frothy books published by Greyladies and written by Susan Pleydell about a boys public school.

Summer Term

A Young Man’s Fancy

In fact, in these two novels, the boys slightly appear if they appear at all. They are the pretext for gentle comedy between the masters, the staff at large, the headmaster and his family – notably his daughters – and the little town that lives mainly from the school – a bit like Linbury in Jennings and Darbyshire. Are we invited to believe the narrative? Of course, there are verisimilitudes with a real English (border of Scotland) public school and the masters have been drawn partly from real life. Of course, the headmaster family life is not to be found fully in dreams and in the clouds. There are elements of reality but they are, for our greatest delight, blended with castles in Spain or in the air, with wishful thinking, with comedy, and a little of fairy tales. They are delightful to read and enjoy, but I should not think anyone would sift them with sociology or, even, gender studies.

Then why are Angela Thirkell’s public schools stories treated differently and sempiternally discussed by reading groups (I know at least three separate ones), the subject of papers, and journals, and bulletins?

Let’s take two books again – almost everything goes in pair in this blog!

Summer Half

Cherfulness Breks In

The public school and his headmaster’s family (the Birketts) appear from the first book of what is called the Barsetshire series in homage to Anthony Trollope’s Barset Chronicles. The school is located in Southbridge and is a  true pool for teachers, prospective teachers, places to put boys to learn and “discipline” (read learn the code of the perfect gentleman), to “old boys”, future lovers, and for family life, village and community life around this centre of learning, ironic, funny, humorous stories, interactions with other learnèd and “county” characters, set pieces and “turntable” or centre for more and further stories.

In Summer Half, the headmaster, Mr Birkett, his sensible wife Amy, and their two daughters, the beautiful and silly Rose and the younger gawky Geraldine, are invited to spend the week-end (half term holidays) at the Keith’s, a county family well established in a “nice” house (read rather great, but not a hall or castle or mansion) with home farm and all commodities. Mr Keith is a solicitor in Barchester as is his elder son and as will probably be his second son.The two daughters are the quiet and homely, prematurely wifely Kate, and Lydia, the tomboy who attends a daily school for girls in Barchester with Geraldine Birkett, under the hateful (why is never clearly explained) Miss Pettinger. By way of making a full party and because the school at Southbridge would be vacant during the half term holidays, collected Everard Carter, one of the masters and house heads, Communist Phillip Winter, another master betrothed to Rose Birkett, and three boys left in the care of the headmaster by their families, have joined the party. The time is the middle of the 1930s.

All right, I concede it is school story out of the precincts of a school but the characters are more or less linked with it. It is the story of how school story characters evolve at large, in the world. The young people are vividly drawn: the boys are already gentlemen but retain something of childhood and food is again prominent with “old” nannies who love the little ladies and gentlemen”; the girls play with the boys and are far from being “ladies”: there is still a lot to learn as they are modelled on the pattern of the tomboy with flights of literary references (Horace in Latin), which make a nice comparison between the education given to both sexes. All occupy themselves with river tasks (after all it is Summer Half), get dirty, fight verbally, go on the river, deal with “people” (Mrs Thirkell is, according to our times, snobbish, but a perfect reflection of the class system of the time), and generally have a good time.

A love story evolves slowly and romantically between the housemaster and the elder daughter of the Keiths about sock darning and button sewing; a love story dramatically evolves between the school master and the elder daughter of the Birketts (lovely, half-brained, silly, flighty Rose) and culminates in its drama during a picnic on the river.

Parents watch patiently and wisely, knowing that all will be well that ends well. They go through endless rounds of meals and teas and visits from friends and sandwiches and servants who maintain everything well oiled for a perfect almost idle life.

Now, what is true about the scholars, the lawyers, the family life, the love life, the childhood life, the social life? Reading memoirs or dreary studies and statistics alongside the novel, one might pick up true elements and testimonies of the times: that’s how the gentry lived and thought about “inferior classes”. That’s also our own mentality that is projected in our reading, our filters, our mentalities, our values. It must be remembered that these were the 1930s, in England, written by a middle-class writer for middle-class readers, and carrying the writer’s ideas and wishful thinking while wishing to entertain and sell the book – therefore to cater to the tastes of her readers.

In Cheerfulness Breaks In, the tone of the author changes slightly and must alert the careful reader to be cautious and perhaps change his or her frame of reference.

The book is set at the very beginning of WWII and deals with the refugees coming from big cities, London and its surburbs, to rural Barchester. A whole London school – and not a public school – has to be fitted into the buildings of Southbridge School. No need to say that the headmaster does not see eye to eye with Mr Birkett, and that the standards of the pupils, masters, and school “spirits” are different. The headmaster and his family finds a home in a row of cottages in the village nearby and, again, there is an underlying confrontation and observation between Barchester “nice” society and the newcomers – socialists if not downright communists. There is as well a very keen study of the manners of the refugees others than those of the school, from the parents (mainly mothers) down to toddlers and babies, which culminates in theChristmas festivities offered by Southbridge and Southbridge School to the homeless.

Again, what is real and what is imaginary? One may always draw upon memories, less and less easy to find nowadays from first hand. On second hand, they have been already sifted. There are memoirs, there are other novels, there are letters, there are academic and administrative documents. Facts are always biased by the authors’ feelings – whoever the author, and here, we are face to face with a staunch Conservative -, and biased to enter into the structure and the spirit (again) of the novel. But in this case, most may be considered as representative of what happened throughout England when London was hit by German bombs at the beginning of the war. Compared to “serious” sources, attitudes and facts hold on fast. The “Real” is present in fiction, and in school and gentle fiction. The novel may be submitted to close reading, even perhaps to reading against the grain and is sociologically interesting.

It would work in the same way for almost all the “war novels” by Angela Thirkell – more or less. One would find the same values in The Headmistress, which considers the move of a London boarding  public school for girls into a private home too big to be lived in by its owners. There are elements of the school girl crush upon the Navy officer on leave, the organisation of the school itself, the life of the headmistress eponym to the title, the mistresses, the village and the residue of evacuees, the lease and the agreement between the owner of the big pile and the administrators of the school, the change from the ancestral home into a lovely comfortable home on the High Street, and some elements of romance, romantic tale, and love stories.

The Headmistress

It has to be said that Angela Thirkell was producing one book a year; they are sometimes rather formulaic and unequal in interest and facture. However, at the same time, she was a kind of reporter: her “war books” stick to the Real because she had no hint of how the war would develop and if the Allies would win. Other novels follow the same rhythm and the same pattern, and left the reader with no clue as to the future. The element of romantic interest is needed as a relief for the 1940 or 1943 good soul would have gone to find a book in the library and would have looked for some hours of escape in the middle of a world he or (mainly) she knew too well.

This was what probably happened  with Dorothy Emily (D.E.) Stevenson and the two books (again a pair) I have chosen for the purpose of this blog:

The Four Graces

Charlotte Fairlie

The Four Graces form the last volume of the Miss Buncle quartet. The war that had begun in the third volume (The Two Mrs Abbotts) now rages and we are somewhere in 1943, near the well-known town of Wandlebury where the former Miss Buncle, happily married since the end of the first volume, and now mother of a boy and a girl, lives with husband and children, and her little society of family and friends. The Four Graces are the four daughters of the vicar, Dr Grace, in a nearby village and the link with the former Miss Buncle is real but distant. Again, we find children evacuees, attached to their foster parents and sometimes loath to go back to their true family and surroundings in East London, coupons, ration books, difficulties to find fish, people working and “digging for victory”, raising chickens, doing housework, being landgirls or engaged in the services, officers and soldiers encamped for a few days, weeks near the villages and falling in love with the resident girls, trying to help or to amuse themselves, mixing with the local population for worst and best, pell-mell with the traditional chit-chat found in such romances/novels with the church “business” (flowers rota, for instance), the fête in the gardens of the local big house, the village gossips, the faithful gardener or retainer, etc.

It is once more fairly easy to delimitate what belongs to the Real and what belongs to the novel. The novel may give latitude to research of what could have been such or such thing (an engagement ring, a hat bought in London that could be worn for one’s wedding and later on for daily life, etc.), but these are merely assumptions, no real facts. They help one visualise vaguely the context through the novelist’s biases and creeds, however they cannot be taken as proved facts? Coupons, ration books, “digging for victory”, etc. can steadily be intersected with other sources, literary or academic, or historical, and taken as proofs of the insertion of the Real in fiction.

Charlotte Fairlie has been chosen because of its topic about private boarding school for girls. It has been written post WWII and is known under various other names: Blow the Wind Southerly or The Enchanted Isle. I quote the blurb of my book:

Charlotte Fairlie, while still under 30, had been appointed headmistress of St. Elizabeth’s, a fine school with great traditions. Charlotte soon learned, however, that a headmistress’ life is the loneliest of all – a long round of coping with the hidden tensions of the staff room, the handling of over 300 girls and – worse still – their parents. Yet it was one of those parents, Colonel MacRynne, father of young Tessa whose early days at the school had been very unsettled, who was to be the means of her escape from a setting that was satisfying professionally but lonely on a personal level. “

D.E. Stevenson has created the girls boarding school of Saint Elizabeth and uses it in various books, as a background. Here, the novel is clearly divided in two parts: the life at school and the the invitation in the “enchanted isle”, Targ, in the Southern Scottish Islands, at the home of one of her pupil and the growing love story between the pupil’s father and the headmistress – doubled with some (to my mind) embarrassing preaches about Christian faith in the tradition of Charlotte M Younge for instance. All the first part leads to the second. The pupil whose father is so attractive, has conveniently “lost” her mother who has gone away from her family with another man as she could not live more longer with the customs of the Island so much beloved by her husband and daughter. The Island has something of Prospero Island in the Tempest, and there IS a tempest in the book as a kind of climax. Can St Elizabeth be searched for elements of Real? No more than Jennings and Darbyshire. It is a romance, an escape book for adults as the other ones are escape books for children.

Let me be clear: I have no objection to escapist books; they are needed in time of distress, when one is tired, when one wants “to escape” reality and to forget one’s life. They play the same role as detective stories (mostly the “cosy” ones – but this is entering into another hot debate), the historical novel, the romance. They are useful and nothing is fundamentally wrong with the facts described: there is only too much of coincidences, happy endings and other literary tricks. They reveal more of the wishes of the author to please his or her audience than the facts of life.If I were really and truly unsympathetic, I would say, they are too sugary for my taste as I do not have a sweet tooth.

But D.E. Stevenson and Angela Thirkell were both prolific writers and their writings differ in each corpus. Their art or craftsmanship may be applauded as they juggle with more or less Real entering into their fiction according to their purpose, their goal and their needs for each book. At the same time, this makes them unreliable for a consistent support as to sociological (or psychological) forays. One has to read all and to make a judicious choice among the books.

Another and last example is that of  “Miss Read”, nom de plume taken by Dora Saint who died but two or three years ago. Dora Saint had been a teacher in a rural area near Oxford, and is mostly well-known for two series of books : Thrush Green and Fairacre:

Three Thrush Green novels

One of the first books of the

Fairacre novels

Basically, in both series, village life and little community life are described with almost stereotypical characters. 

In Fairacre, Miss Read is both the author and the main character through whose eyes all things are seen. She is the headmistress of a day school depending from the Parish that has only two forms and therefore only another teacher. First written at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, the stories have the same timelessness than Jennings and Darbyshire. Each book covers a year but the pupils remain the same even if the adults change and live a more normal life according to passing years. This gives a feeling of split between two times plus the time of the reader who is led into the stories. 

In Thrush Green, a little community, complete with its school and church again, lives through years with a set of characters from the GP to the retired civil servant, the architect, the doctor’s wife and the young couple who has taken up the cabinet and its practice, the head mistress and her teacher, changing to a newer couple and children, two ladies, long time friends who have joined their means and solitude to give together in a cottagemade less expensive, the sexton and his daughter and erring wife, to the odd “Dotty”, living dangerously from her patch of vegetable and berries or herbs gathering, with a full array of animals in different states of health.

Both villages, Fairacre and Thrush Green depend on bigger market towns more or less close – very close when it comes to Thrush Green. They are useful for shopping, meeting, having elevenses, going to a museum or a “big” event, or the pictures, for socialising, for meeting more people outside the small communities, have other friends, extend the narrative.

Then what happens? Both are gentle pictures of England (Oxford and Southern England) in the 1950s-1960s, with nostalgic reminiscences of the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. There is the Women Institute, the church fête, the farmer, the squire, the Harvest Service, the flowers rota and all things done for the church including the work of the vicar (and his wife), the community gatherings for big decisions in the “Hall” – the communal room for all events – the school routine, the cooking, the household round, the gardening, the gossips, the fair, the changing seasons, the sherry parties, and so on. This is definitely less posh than Angela Thirkell, and even D.E. Stevenson – more lower middle-class. 

What about the Real? The author draws obviously upon her experience and deals with real facts. But they are swathed in a gentle, slightly nostalgic and “fairy-talesque” gauze that gives it an aura of unreality. Could they be used to draw sociological data? No.

At the same time, and even earlier, another novelist was wrestling with the Real and fiction: Barbara Pym.

Crampton Hodnet

Jane and Prudence

Barbara Pym’s history with publishing is well-known. She started writing after leaving College in Oxford in the 1930s, worked during the war, was published and knew a constant if moderate success until the beginning of the 1960s when she was deemed out of fashion. She persevered in her writing and knew a resurrection thanks to Philip Larkin among others in the 1970s. She died shortly afterwards. Since her redeeming, she has been always in print and Virago Press has made a lovely new publishing these recent years.

All Pym’s novels are rooted in her knowledge of life: spinsterhood, love affairs, jobs, anthropologists, indexers, librarians, academics, locations in small villages or in suburbs or in London, Church and churches and “excellent women” who get around vicars and curates, including their wives. She wove gentle and astringent, nay, acerbic, comedies of manners. Little fairy tale in her first novel Crampton Hodnet: a tyrant spinster who receives students for tea on rainy Sundays in Oxford, with her companion, another spinster who dreams of a better life; an academic and his wife more or less estranged by years of common life; a very tempting student who will not attempt everything; the academics’ daughter who dreams of wedding and tangles herself into love stories with her father’s students – or others; a curate who goes “bunburrying” as in Wilde’s play; the vicar and his wife; teas, sherry parties, a scrupulous attention to the details of meals, and dressing, and cars. Not a school story but a college story and its environment…

In the later Jane and Prudence, the vicar’s wife has doubts that may well be about her own adequacy as … vicar’s wife – but she is only vague; the not-yet-but-close-to-it spinster dreams of love affairs and almost catches a prey; the real spinster… But that would be to say too much. Better read it.

In all these novels, there is a strong touch of “Real” either because it has been lived through, or has been closely observed, analysed and digested, or has been documented. No romance but little facts adding one to another. No fairy tales but dreams of better lives in front of a sink when washing up; no Christmas festivals full of good will but, in the very last novel, A Few Green Leaves, the bare statement by the vicar that previously people were talking to him about their problems and that, now, they go to doctors to heal their bodily and psychological aches and ills. Don’t we know this?

***

What does all this tell us?

That there is always an authorial voice through fiction and that therefore the novel is biased, all the more because the author belongs to a time, a social context, has a gender, has idea and his or her agenda.

That the author needs to be read and therefore to precede their readers, but then to follow them to suit their tastes, so that once he or she has found his or her niche, it is difficult to go out of it, unless he or she is a genius. But geniuses exceed the borders of sociology.

That even well written fiction and well researched fiction cannot be taken for granted as a base for a sociologial sudy but only as a means or a source that gives hints. Fiction must be compared to hard facts, to studies, to statistics, to history, to be sifted and viewed through various grids before being employed. Emile Zola made thousands and thousands of files about his particular researches for each of his books: through each one, Zola speaks, facts are there but according to his plans.

That a very pleasant novel can be a fairy tale hanging upon it as decorations to the  Christmas tree elements of verisimilitude – but only elements that push the reader to believe all as true when only a minor part is real.

That it is more than a pleasant hobby to read for finding sociology or any other discipline, but that it is not of great sociological value for the lay readers and others. It needs the expertise of the specialist who will try to put aside his or her own values, ideas, context to get to the naked core of the text and of the scientific truth of the author – as a surgeon comes into the operating theatre bare of his daily costume and with no idea but the operation at hand.

That it is a marvelous good news that lay men and women get interested so much in what they read.

That they try to repeat the specialist movements.

That they practice close reading or reading against the grain.

That they help the specialists and show him or her the way to new authors and new worlds.

That there is always something to be discovered in books.

That there are books even in the worst sadness or pain.

Autumn

Last week, I was still believing in a longish end of summer that would have trailed its mists and sunshine a little more. Six days, two loud thunderstorms and several heavy showers later, notwithstanding a sharp decrease of temperature and a laden grey sky where clouds could not be chased and banished by a fierce wind, I have to surrender to a precocious autumn.

Of course, there is still the first part that looks like the end of summer with its “mellow fruitfulness”, but it smells more of the mists and fog of pre-winter.

There is lots of water – rivers, brooks, rivulets and ponds in the Dordogne, therefore mist easily turns into fog and humidity creeps and seeps inside the houses, unwanted, through open doors or carelessly windows left open a little too long.

Apples and plums do reign over the fruits, marrows have come on the market stalls, soon the children will collect the gleaming fruits of the guinea chestnuts for fights in the playground and in a while chestnuts will be gathered and stored to eat with the turkey at Christmas.

Meanwhile, the vineyards are almost ready for grape harvest in the South of the département, near Bergerac and Montbazillac. The weather is studied with scientific concentration to get the perfect grapes and the right ripeness.

At home, the house is slowly covered by red Virginia creeper. The Girls are reminded each day that mornings and evenings call for jumpers now, that can be sometimes discarded during the day when it does not rain. Our diet is slowly turning to warmer meals and soups will soon be usual instead of salads on the dinner table.

I fear the incoming seasons: the deepening autumn and the bleak winter. I already miss the light, the sun, the colours of spring and summer even if I am not a fanatic of high temperature. For the first time, this year, I feel the rain and the cold creeping in my bones, and the sadness of the declining year instead of the joy of the gathering of “the fruits of the earth” and the prospect of a new year. I would gladly stand like lizards, basking in the sun, without moving and wishing for time to stop. Just a while, please, just a while!

Of course, there are still books to be read and music to be listened to. There will be pleasures of a warm home and closed shutters and the soft glow of lamps. Before that, there is the sky to be seen through coloured leaves, last brilliant flowers, hopefully friends to come, cooking to be done, writings to be written…

But I miss the smile and the laughs of those dear lives who have come away too soon and I hear their silent footfalls in the passages of the house or their voices in the garden. There are empty places around the table that no one will fill again.

Autumn is like Janus: one face for the happiness of the harvest and the rich, deep colours of a satiated earth, and one face for the sorrow of the incoming bareness of the earth and the night over the world. This is rest of course, as the departed ones just rest after a life full of joys and noises and sorrows and loves and worries.

But, what for us who remain?

Hope and confidence that springtime will come again.

End of summer

I have been willing to write an entry to this blog for some time now as the last one becomes to be rather stale, but I could not. I was not able to read or write either in English or (worse) in French. I have searched my mind why and racked my brain and found no explanation.

There was the occasional bout of depression coming arm in arm with its friend the migraine; there was the coming-too-swiftly autumn although under our skies it should still be summer until the third week of September; there were anniversaries of sad events; there was, there were… However, reading and writing are magical means to change my inner world and to save me from bad memories and anxieties towards the future.

So, what is happening now?

I still have no answer. I try to go on living as if nothing was happening as much as I can. It is no good for The Little Family when its Head is lying down on her bed in the dark and does not cook and makes the daily chores that reassure.

As there was nothing left to eat at home, I went early to The Village this morning. The children were entering their classrooms: the bell was ringing. The chuch bells were ringing: market morning mass at nine thirty. People busy at the market (what you call the farmers’ market); people at the bakery and “not buying these fancy croissants, young miss: they are for those who do not work much and wake up late; WE are buying real bread, young miss!” (ahem); people at the newsagent’s buying the local newspaper and “a fancy TV programme magazine is allowed, young miss: we know The Girls read it!” (thank you very much: am I not allowed to glance at it at least?). I did not go to the Supermarket: it would have been full of shoppers: too long when The Girls were waiting for their breakfast!

I went back by the back lanes and I saw that summer was not yet gone. The sky was blue without not even a puff for cloud – all blue without a hint of mist – all deep blue without the clearness it takes later when autumn comes. The rolls of hay are still in the fields even if the grass is growing again.

The gardens are ablaze with the end-of-summer flowers, dahlias, zinnias, second flowering of the bush trees, the very begining of bays in the bay trees, a many-hued tapestry ablaze with ringing colours, reds, yellows, oranges, alive on the green background of the leaves.

And, of course, the sunflowers have not yet been cut. Nor the corn, which still rippens in the fields.

In a few weeks now, the grapes will be cut in a dust of golgen light.

While in the gardens and orchards, it is time to collect apples, pears,

and figs, which are so good with local goat cheese bought at a stall at the market!

All this is so simple, so far from the pandemonium of towns and big cities that I wonder why I still miss them so much. It is a life that flows according to the seasons. It is not cut from the reality of the world and the politics and economical problems. It is not idyllic. It is firmly anchored in time, space and matter. However, it does respect the human time and the “time of the spheres”. Space is counted from one field to another, from one house to another, from village to village. The earth is real; it can be touched with fingers, hands, feet. Work is here to be seen and done. In the Roman Catholic Church, there is a moment when we pray to thank God for what He has given us and which has become bread and wine, “fruit of the earth and of the work of men”. This is the exact time of the year where this prayer becomes parrticularly alive.

And besides all this, the glow of the light

and the flow of the river.

There should be no sadness, no tears, no depression, but thanks for what we receive as stewards to share with those who have no land and no roof and to pass on to those who will come after us – as stewards as well. The earth does not belong to men: it is only into their custody to enjoy and to make it fructify. Within reason.

And so, this morning I enjoyed the light that was bathing The Village, as I enjoyed the smiles of my girls when they discovered the fresh croissants and explained that they had seen the sun growing through the lattices of their shutters while they were awaking in their beds. Why ask for more?