I stared at the email.”Don’t open it,” I counseled myself. “This will be too sad.”
And yet in a way I wanted to know. Click! First, I downloaded the fun part, a spreadsheet of my old schoolmates’ current email addresses. I remembered them fondly, if hazily.
And then I downloaded the second spreadsheet: the list of obituaries.
As I knew I would, I felt overwhelmed with grief. How could these charming, talented people be dead? Surely they were not old enough. (And yet we are.) The first boy who called me pretty (he was being gallant) died some years back. And I was overwhelmed to learn that the witty hippie girl who had Bob Dylan revivals (on her stereo, of course) and used to chant comically after a night with her boyfriend, “I’m so sore from balling,” has departed this life And when I read her obit and learned how underemployed she had been, I could only think think that this smart, cheerful woman must have brightened the days of her co-workers.
And then–oh my God!–the aloof, cute, artistic boy who never in my remembrance participated in class or extra-curricular activities. He was kind of my hero. A few years ago, he bought my grandparents’ old house. On the rare occasions I returned to my hometown, I felt somehow connected because of this detail.
We think we are the only ones in the world with our name, and that we can look up our friends easily. There are a hundred people with their names, too. And so the internet diminishes us by showing we’re one of hundreds of the same (or if your name is Smith, about a million).
But these people are not diminished. I can picture them.
If you read my blog post of August 29, you gathered that E. Nesbit is my favorite writer of children’s books. One of the pleasures of the e-reader has been the discovery of Nesbit’s out-of-print adult novels in e-book form. The best of her adult novels is The Lark, a delightful comedy published in 1922. Since I read the e-book in 2015, it has been reissued in paperback by Penguin in the UK and by Furrowed Middlebrow in the U.S.
In The Lark, Nesbit establishes a magical atmosphere reminiscent of that of her charming children’s novels. The two heroines, Jane and her cousin Lucilla, are both orphans, and an epidemic of the mumps has gotten them out of school early, since they were lucky enough not to catch it. At their friend Emmeline’s house, they discover a spell book in the library, a “fat quarto volume with onyx-laid clasps and bosses.” And the willful Jane decides it will be “a lark” to try a spell that will reveal her true loves.
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“Wouldn’t I? That’s all you know!”
“You mustn’t dare her,” said a third voice anxiously from the top of the library steps; “if you dare her, she’ll do it as sure as fate!”
I love the lively dialogue, which depicts the three girls so believably. As you would expect from the lines “Wouldn’t I? That’s all you know!”, Jane is adamant. She speaks aloud the spell in the woods at the moment when Mr. Rochester, a handsome man who has missed his train, is passing by. Yes, the novel is a playful riff on Jane Eyre: Jane and Mr. Rochester fall in love. Sort of. But Jane has no idea if she will see him again.
, Jane and Lucilla are comfortably well-off. But a few years later, when they are 19, their guardian loses their money and flees to South Africa. Before he leaves, he arranges for a cab driver to pick them up at school and drive them to a charming small cottage he has bought with the last of their inheritance.
They are unprepared to support themselves–a flaw in girls’ education in the early 20th century, Nesbit obviously thought. At first they try selling the flowers from their garden. It is a difficult business.
Before I go on, let me fill you in on E. Nesbit’s background and the popularity of her children’s books. She has many writerly fans, including Antonia Fraser and J. K. Rowling. In 1963, Gore Vidal wrote an article, “The Writing of E. Nesbit,” for The New York Review of Books.
After Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbit is the best of the English fabulists who wrote about children (neither wrote for children) and like Carroll she was able to create a world of magic and inverted logic that was entirely her own. Yet Nesbit’s books are relatively unknown in the United States. Publishers attribute her failure in these parts to a witty and intelligent prose style (something of a demerit in the land of the free) and to the fact that a good many of her books deal with magic, a taboo subject nowadays.
Edith and her husband, Hubert Bland, were socialists and members of the Fabian Society. To support her husband and five children, Nesbit wrote children’s books. She also supported her best friend, Alice, who had an affair with Hubert, had two children by him, and became Edith’s housekeeper and secretary. A. S. Byatt’s wonderful novel, The Children’s Book, is based on the lives of E. Nesbit and her circle.
In The Lark, Jane and Lucilla have sold most of the flowers from their own garden, and wish they could expand by renting the deserted house with a huge garden down the road. When they find the door open one day and decide to explore, Jane falls and turns her ankle. Mr. Rochester, who is the landlord’s nephew, shows up and takes the two girls home in his carriage. He is smitten with Jane (but we knew that) and arranges for his cranky uncle to allow them to sell the flowers from his garden. They open a shop in a shed, hire a gardener, and eventually are given the use of his house, where they take in lodgers (which is very, very funny).
One of the things I most relate to is the young women’s struggle with math and accounts.
“It’s so different doing it with real money,” said Lucilla, fingering the little piles of coin on the table of the garden room, where, with two candles in brass candlesticks to light them, they were seeking to find some relation between the coins–so easily counted–and the figures referring to these same coins which all through the week they had laboriously pencilled in an exercise-book.
“I think it’s the garden distracts us,” said Jane, looking towards the open window, beyond which lay lawn and cedars bathed in moonlight and soft spring air.
The Lark is utterly charming, and I enjoy the rambling authorial asides and occasional slapstick scenes. I also admire novels about work, and though this isn’t super-realistic–could someone please give me a garden?–I love the characters, appreciate the descriptions of gardens, and the burglar episode reminds me of similar episodes in The Phoenix and the Carpet and the Bastable books.
“You must remember it’s two thousand years since I had any conversation—-I’m out of practice.” From The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit
It is an odd thing about the socialist writer E. Nesbit: I seem to be the only American woman of my generation who grew up reading her children’s novels. Did I reside in a parallel reality? I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. After I read her tour de force, The Enchanted Castle, I climbed our back-yard fence into the narrow yard of Ardenia, an apartment house of eccentric design, with a false castle front. It seemed exactly the kind of place where one would have a “magic adventure.” Naturally, nothing happened, except a black cat meandered by.
So here I am, many years later, musing about the brilliance of E. Nesbit (1858-1924), a poet, novelist, and member of the Fabian Society, who has survived into the 21st century as a writer of children’s classics.
And delightful indeed are these all-ages classics. I am currently enjoying a reread of The Phoenix and the Carpet, which is witty and whimsical, one of her most popular books, and the thing to read in 1904 (and in 2020).
The Phoenix and the Carpet was acclaimed by critics, who felt she had found her voice in children’s books. Rudyard Kipling, one of Nesbit’s favorite writers, wrote a letter thanking her for a copy of Phoenix. He said he hadn’t had a chance to read it, since his children had grabbed it and run off to the nursery –but soon he would know it too well, since the kids couldn’t read, and would demand that he, his wife, and their nurse read it over and over.
H. G. Wells was enthusiastic: he wrote a letter saying that Phoenix was the greatest of her characters.
Nesbit grabs your attention: the book literally opens with fireworks. Robert, Anthea, Jane, and Cyril decide to test their fireworks (for the Guy Fawkes celebration) by setting off a few indoors. One of them explodes and the fire destroys the nursery carpet. So their tolerant mother buys an old Persian carpet, which looks like nothing special, but when they unfurl it they find a big egg, which they think is an ornament.
Illustration by H. R. Millar
One day the egg hatches, and the Phoenix pops out. He is is used to veneration, and his feathers ruffle since they are not as overwhelmed as the ancients. And he explains the carpet is not a rug but a magic wishing carpet. (Beware what you wish for, or the cook will accidentally walk on the carpet at the wrong moment, and end up hysterical on the beach of a southern island, while you try to reassure her that she has not gone mad. And when the savages like the look of her and name her the queen, she decides to stay on the island but thinks she is in a dream.)
I do love the Phoenix’s manner of speaking.
“I must have an hour or two’s quiet,” it said. “I really must. My nerves will give way unless I can get a little rest. You must remember it’s two thousand years since I had any conversation—-I’m out of practice, and I must take care of myself. I’ve often been told that mine is a valuable life.”
To complement my rediscovery of Nesbit, I have also read The Life and Lovesof E. Nesbit, by Eleanor Fitzsimons. This fascinating biography is illuminated by numerous quotes from Nesbit’s work. Nesbit wanted to be a poet, but wrote anything and everything, articles, fairy tales, adult novels, and horror, to support her family: her husband Hubert Bland, their children Paul, Iris, and Fabian, Bland’s mistress, Alice, and Alice’s two children with Bland, Rosamond, and John (known as “Lamb), whom Edith raised as her own.
Nesbit and Bland were ardent socialists and members of the Fabian Society. She infused her work with socialism. In The Phoenix and the Carpet, Jane encounters a burglar, who is actually an orange peddler down on his luck, and she does not turn him in to the police, because she and her siblings had a distressing encounter with them. Earlier that evening, the police threatened to arrest the children because of the mewing of 999 hungry Persian cats, delivered by the carpet. The Phoenix draws the police away, by flying down the street and screaming, “Help! Murder!”
When the burglar says he’d rather that she call the police: “I daren’t,” she says, “and anyway I’ve no one to send. I hate the police. I wish he hadn’t been born.”
Nesbit wrote prolifically, but was also sociable and had hundreds of friends. She was a vivacious and witty hostess, and guests competed to arrive early at her weekend parties so they could bag a bedroom. And at the parties she was always surrounded by men. Fitzsimons thinks most of these friendships were platonic.
Although Nesbit’s poetry seems very slight to me, Swinburne and Oscar Wilde encouraged her. Let me end with this short poem.
“The Choice” by E. Nesbit
PLAGUE take the dull and dusty town,
Its paved and sordid mazes,
Now Spring has trimmed her pretty gown
With buttercups and daisies!
With half my heart I long to lie
Among the flowered grasses,
And hear the loving leaves that sigh
As their sweet Mistress passes.
Through picture-shows I make my way
While flower-crowned maids go maying,
And all the cultured things I say
That cultured folk are saying.
For I renounce Spring’s darling face,
With may-bloom fresh upon it:
My Mistress lives in Grosvenor-place
And wears a Bond-street bonnet!
I have been musing about a multitude of delightful fictitious women writers. And because I have read so many novels in which fictional women writers play a major or minor role, I began to wonder: are they more assured than their authors? Fictional writers struggle financially, but their voices are heard.
Of course, like everyone else, I know the difference between real life and a novel. I used to pore over the VIDA statistics, which proved that too few women’s books were reviewed, there were too few women editors and reviewers, and too few women in translation.
“The sins of the goddamned fathers!” I thought.
And then I forgot, because I seem to register many women’s voices anyway, and I try to read books by both sexes.
At least women writers in fiction are strong. They don’t complain and moan about inequality. (Of course, in real life we may.)
Here are a few of my favorite novels that feature fictional women writers.
1 The Last Resortby Pamela Hansford Johnson. Christine, a happily married writer, decides to spend some days alone in a hotel so she can finish a manuscript. But Christine also proves herself a thoughtful, observant friend as she relates the disturbing events of her friend Celia’s love affair with a married man. (Celia’s parents live at the hotel.) This is a fascinating novel, though a bit melodramatic and slightly dated. You will love Christine, who first appeared in An Impossible Marriage.
2 The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. Trollope’s masterpiece about finance and marriage begins with an introduction to the memorable character Lady Carbury, a 42-year-old widow trying to supplement her income by writing earnest but badly-researched books, her latest being Criminal Queens. She hustles to promote herself, and the letters she sends to editors are hilarious. They work, too.
3 Some Do Not… by Ford Madox Ford. The hero Tietjens greatly respects Mrs. Wannop, who has written a great novel but often turns to him for help when writing journalism. Mad about making connections with the critics and aggressively trying to meet them, she follows in the footsteps of Trollope’s PR-conscious Lady Carbury. Ford writes, “Mrs. Wannop was a woman of business. If she heard of a reviewer within driving distance she called on him with eggs as a present.”
4 Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym. Catherine Oliphant spends her days in an apartment in Bloomsbury writing short stories for women’s magazines. While she types her formulaic stories, she keeps an eye on the new anthropology library across the street. Her boyfriend, Tom, has been away in Africa for two years, and now neglects Catherine for his work . But over the course of the novel, we get the feeling that Catherine is the true anthropologist
5 Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Jo March, an aspiring writer, is Alcott’s most famous character. The second daughter in a family held together by Marmee while Father is a chaplain in the Civil War, Jo writes plays when we first meet her, and continues her career writing for magazines as an adult–though her boyfriend Professor Bhaer spoils the fun of her writing blood-and-thunder stories. (Louisa Alcott loved writing blood-and-thunder.)
6 Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood. This charming, early novel by Atwood is narrated by Joan Foster, a romance writer and poet who has metamorphosed from an unpopular fat girl into a seductive, secretive adult. Joan tells no one about her successful writing career, not even her husband, who is oblivious of the hours she spends writing. This very funny, charming novel deserves more attention.
7 The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. Anna, the heroine, is cynical about her mawkish best-selling first novel, and as a result is blocked. Now she writes only for herself, in five different notebooks. There are many layers in the notebooks, and this fragmented novel reflects society in the ’40s, ’50s, and’60s. A masterpiece.
8 The Box Garden by Carol Shields. The likable narrator, Charleen Forrest, a poet and part-time assistant editor at a botanical journal, is depressed about the impact of divorce on her family life. Her husband left her and their fifteen-year-old son to live in a commune and raise organic food five years ago. Meanwhile she is dating an orthodontist—whom her friends think very unhip—and corresponding with a man whose philosophical essay on grass (not marijuana) was rejected by the botanical journal.
9 Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay. In this moving, deftly-written novel, Macaulay meticulously sketches four generations of women in a family. One of my favorite characters is thirty-three-year-old Nan, a bohemian novelist. She has decided to tell her lover she will marry him as soon as as she finishes her book. But then her 20-year-old niece Gerda gets in the way, falling in love with Nan’s boyfriend. You can imagine the turmoil. This is, however, one of many crises in the family.
Do you have any favorite fictional writers? You may notice I couldn’t think of a tenth, though I like my lists to have ten.
True confession: we love e-books. At first we were wary, but in the zips we began to read free books on a palm pilot (a friend in a book group told me about the palm pilot). Everybody back then was saying the e-book would bring down the book. Well, that proved to be hysteria: a financial issue in the industry. Still, when I bought a Nook tablet in 2011, I wondered if it was too “space-age.”
While my mother was in the hospital, I found the “space-age” e-reader convenient. I was forever going back and forth to her house to fetch things (a mirror, tweezers, special soap, a fleece throw, a pack of cards), and the Nook fit in my purse. I did not neglect real books: I dashed around the block to an excellent used bookstore (now defunct) and bought a copy of Flora Thompson’s trilogy of memoirs, Larkspur to Candleford. I discovered e-readers are excellent for hospitals, books better for staying at Mom’s house.
I have happily read dozens of e-books over the years. The only problem is: they don’t give you much idea of the physical book. I have an e-galley of Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, which is longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. Somehow, I had the impression it was a short book. At the store I was astonished to see it is a chunky book, with 430 pages. Wow! The percentages and locations at the bottom of the e-pages didn’t help me visualize at all.
People have embraced their space-age e-readers, but is reading on a cell phone going too far? (And are they still called cell phones?) In 2016, Sarah Boxer wrote an essay for The Atlantic about reading Proust on her phone. Fascinating, but I prefer a landline… Wait, there’s no screen!
Words are are etchings in the sand, symbols on the page. Think of all our blurtings on the internet. We revere books, but most of them are transitory.
And novels rooted in political movements are precariously situated: often they die a natural death, because they seem dated. I don’t doubt that Nancy Hayfield’s Cleaning House, a rather wan novel about a lonely American housewife, had more significance when it was published in 1980.
The narrator Linda’s observations are very sharp–she allows herself to read only after a certain number of cleaning tasks, though reading is what she most enjoys. Washing dishes gives her a special sense of accomplishment. And Linda is guilt-racked, because she married to get away from home, is furious with her traveling-salesman husband for leaving her stuck at home with two children, and her house is never clean enough. And because she is slightly wacky, she converses in her head with her dead Aunt Ruth, an obsessive cleaner who believed all things were filthy and you had to be vigilant all the time to keep things clean.
Finally Linda meets a kindred spirit, Maggie, an artist, who changes the way she sees the world. Maggie teaches her that quilts have stories. and Linda begins to look at Aunt Ruth’s homemade quilt with interest. But I must confess I didn’t finish this novel. It is reasonably well-written and very short, but surely this unhappy housewife genre had almost run its course by 1980. And I prefer Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife, Marge Piercy’s Small Changes, Lois Gould’s Such Good Friends, and Sheila Ballantyne’s Norma Jean, the Termite Queen.
If you have a favorite mad housewife novel, please share it! I was very interested in these for a while, because they kept appearing at used bookstores.
Articles on the internet are so often written in the imperative mood. Read more diverse literature, and read it now! Every day I find new lists of LGBT literature, Black literature, Latinx literature, LGBT Y.A. audiobooks… the list goes on.
Do I seek diversity in reading? No, I do not. This is not to say I do not read so-called “diverse” books. But the “diverse” literature comes into my life by serendipity. I simply pick up a book at a bookstore and start reading.
I am currently reading Crooked Hallelujah, a charming, poignant first novel by Kelli Jo Ford, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. It is certainly the most original debut novel I’ve read this year. I love Ford’s portraits of three generations of Cherokee women, Lula, who suffers from epilepsy and belongs to a fundamentalist church, her rebellious daughter Justine, a single mother who works two jobs, and her daughter Reney, who receives mixed messages by observing her mother’s rocky relationships. Ford’s style takes me back to the spare, less padded fiction of the ’90s: I am simultaneously reminded of Susan Power and Elizabeth Tallent.
I also read and loved Louise Erdrich’s breathtaking new novel, The Night Watchman, which is one of her best. And I enjoyed Elizabeth Thomas’s Catherine House, which turned out to be more SF than literary fiction, very light. I had no idea Thomas was Black until after I wrote the review, because I read an e-galley. And then I realized with chagrin that I would have given the book a better review if I’d known the author was Black. And that’s not right, either.
Here is a diverse book on my TBR: Natalie Diaz’s new poetry collection, Postcolonial Love Poem. According to the Guardian, the author “identifies as queer, Mojave, Latinx, and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian tribe.” That ticks all the boxes. But you know, I just want to read it.
PublishersWeekly recently published an article, “Diversity in Publishing in the Age of Black Lives Matter.” It begins, “Since the killing of George Floyd in late May, the book publishing industry, overwhelmingly white at every level, seems to have reached a period of reckoning about its own history of exclusionary hiring practices.”
I’m not ticking boxes, but someone has to do it, and publishers always need good people. But there are so many issues we women need to support: abortion rights, voting rights, women’s rights, equal pay for equal work, health care insurance….
We all have our issues, and not everyone is on the same page at the same time.
I love my computer–that is, when I don’t want to throw it in the trash after too much time online. But certainly I have enjoyed my access to international news, book clubs, and reviews for years.
As a woman who abandoned math so long ago I barely remember what π is (except as a Greek letter), I seldom contemplate the not-very-personal data gathered by internet companies. Personal? It comes from the Latin persona: mask, false face, character, a part, or person. We may show the mask to people online, or perhaps gussied-up bits of who we are. (See Instagram.) But personal matters are confided to your dearest friend, your husband, your book club, or support group. Some people prefer online relationships because, on the surface, people you don’t know seem more sympathetic. And real people are often disappointing: you do meet controlling people who try to shut you up about personal matters.
We hate having data gathered, but I say, Knock yourself out if you want to know how often I visit The New York Times. Of course the mysterious data-devouring technology also gobbles information about how rapidly we scroll down the pages, or our weird pauses in the reading of articles–perhaps Kat went to the bathroom here.
But alas, the seemingly pointless, and doubtless very boring, information collected by internet companies is the point of the internet, as I understand it. People’s mild enjoyment of YouTube, writing Facebook posts, and other social media are a byproduct of sales. Stores, big companies, browsers, newspapers, e-readers, neurotics, and Russians gather this data and use it–sometimes for sales, sometimes for control. (I learned the latter from Homeland and 24!)
Online life seems to prepare us to anthropomorphize A.I. Are Alexa and Siri our friends? In books and movies, AI can be threats or products of human sexploitation (Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein), while others are our friends (Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and the TV show Better Than Us).
I think we can agree that e-books are our friends (Kindle, Nook, and Kobo), but why gather data about what we underline and bookmark? Enough!
We are human, and we are more than our consumption of goods. We should be respected as humans.
Paula Fox is best known for Desperate Characters, a 1970 masterpiece which nimbly delineates a weekend in the lives of the Brentwoods, an unhappy couple in Brooklyn. Not much happens–except that Sophie, a translator, is bitten by a stray cat. But this book is remarkable for its nuances and elegant style.
Fox’s other books are not bad, either. I recently read her first novel, Poor George, which strikes me as an American-Dostoevskian narrative of chronic unhappiness. (That is, if there is such a thing as an American-Dostoevskian novel).
Fox is fascinated by flawed characters, and no one is more flawed than George Mecklin, a depressed, self-centered, mopey thirtysomething anti-hero, well-spoken but without emotions, a completely egotistical American type we recognize from literature of the ’60s and ’70s. (Think of Updike and Frederick Exley.)
George hates everything about his life. He is a depressed English teacher at a posh school in New York, and though he is diligent, he no longer cares about the unappreciative students who constantly nag him to raise their grades so they can get into Ivy schools. Empty as his life is at school, he cannot even enjoy his vacation, and when he tells his wife Emma he has no interest in taking a weekend trip with her, we see how desperate and close to the edge she feels.
George thinks only about his own feelings. And the following passage humorously captures George’s ironic attitudes toward his students and his own pretences.
… he opened his briefcase and took from it a worn copy of Moby-Dick, along with a handful of blue notebooks in which were written the answers to an examination he had given his ninth-grade English class. Most of them would have written three pages on the symbolism of the whale’s whiteness. Most of them would not have read the book at all. He didn’t like it himself; the passion for revenge, he thought, was too alien to him. He placed book and examination papers on the card table he used for a desk. The whale wasn’t white at all—it was pale with exhaustion from being hounded by a New England autocrat.
And then Fox’s witty novel changes shape: a quirky incident convinces George to play amateur social worker. One afternoon when he goes home, he finds a stranger roaming around the house. The stranger, 18-year-old Ernest, claims he has broken into every house in the neighborhood, and proceeds to give amusing character sketches of the neighbors. Instead of calling the police, George offers to tutor him so he can go back to school and graduate. Without a diploma, “You’ll end up a bum!”
Ernest himself is not keen but has nothing else to do. It takes George a while to recognize that nothing–absolutely nothing–he says sticks with Ernest, except a few passages he has read aloud from Joseph Conrad. Ernest refuses to read any books, and does no homework, despite George’s admonitions. And Ernest is even less promising than the rich kids, though George doesn’t admit it. But Ernest has no interest in going back to school, and tells George kindly: “Mr. Mecklin, you ought to have a kid.”
And poor Emma! Ernest’s presence in the house is the last straw. George invites him to say in the spare room for a few days–thus heightening the tension in the marriage. George is annoying and Emma is a cipher, but we are still fascinated, and Fox has a knack for creating vivid minor characters. I especially like George’s sister Lila, a single mother who works in a bookstore, and Mrs. Palladino, a disheveled housewife.
Mrs. Palladino reveals to Emma that she is an agoraphobic alcoholic.
“I’ve been afraid to go out of the house since you moved in because just a week before that, I passed out on the road… in a ditch. A bastard we know told Joe she had seen me there and he came to get me.” She paused, looked at the cup in her hand and set it down on the floor. “Would the doctor tell me the truth? How could he? I can’t find it myself. Every time I turn around and try to see how it all began, the past reshapes itself.” She held up her hands as though fending off something. “No!” she cried. “Why must I blame someone?”
A bit overdramatic, but I love Mrs. Palladino, whose husband Joe is unfaithful–even with George’s sister, Lila.
A fascinating short novel, but you should read Desperate Characters first. Then you’ll appreciate what she does in Poor George, which is slight but perfect in its way.