Saturday, 25 November 2017

'Guard Your Daughters'

Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton

The first of the autumn/winter Persephone books this year is the 1953 novel Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton, which is a return to the hot-water-bottle texts that Persephone became so well loved for. But it's not an entirely comfortable read. 

While in one sense, Guard Your Daughters is a gentle read where nothing spectacular happens, in another sense it is also a stifflingly claustrophobic text where the face-value peculiarities of the Harvey sisters are peeled away to reveal a deeply dysfunctional, isolated and unhappy family. 

Interestingly, instead of Persephone's usual habit for commissioning a foreword to introduce the book, in this instance they have instead offered at the end a very mixed bag of existing reviews for the book: some of which adore it, while others detest it with a passion that seems extraordinary for a mere novel. But of course, there is nothing 'mere' about a novel. 

Our protagonist Morgan Harvey is the middle sister in a secluded country family with five daughters. Their father is a talented and successful author, but their mother is an emotionally fragile and delicate character who is prone to hysteria, sobbing and wilting if she doesn't get her way or, worse, one of her daughters shows signs of independence. It is clear from the off that there is a deep secret lurking in the background of this family to explain Mrs Harvey's possessive behaviour, and it is the desire to uncover this oft-hinted secret that keeps the reader feverishly turning pages. 

It is strange that Guard Your Daughters is such a compulsive page-turner given that really nothing happens until the end. The body of the book consists of the sisters dreaming about meeting men, or attending a French lesson in a convent, or taking tea in the local cafe. But such is the reader's desperation to know what the family secret is that you rapidly keep turning the pages. I dreamt up such fanciful excuses for Mrs Harvey and such florid reasons for her extreme behaviour that I admit I felt a little let down by the real ending. But I won't give anything more away on that note.

All I will say is that while Guard Your Daughters is a strange but enjoyable little novel, I did find its attitude to mental health rather infuriating. Although I suspect this has a lot to do with the era in which it was written, and had Diana Tutton written the text now she may have approached things differently. 

It is lovely to see Persephone back publishing hot-water-bottle-esque books, and I hope there are many more in this mould to come. It's a long time since I read a book as heart-warming as their Miss Ranskill Comes Home, Miss Buncle's Book or any of the Dorothy Whipples (although I believe one of the spring/summer 2018 Persephones will be the final Whipple available to republish. What a treat!). 

Sunday, 19 November 2017

'Things A Bright Girl Can Do'

Things A Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls

Two Young Adult books about women's suffrage in as many weeks is just wonderful stuff. And hot on the heels of last week's enjoyment of Anna Carey's excellent The Making of Mollie comes Sally Nicholls' Things A Bright Girl Can Do, which steps things up a gear and moves us on a few years in terms of age range.

From the blurb:

"Evelyn is seventeen, and though she is rich and clever, she may never be allowed to follow her older brother to university. Enraged that she is expected to marry her childhood sweetheart rather than be educated, she joins the Suffragettes, and vows to pay the ultimate price for women's freedom.

"May is fifteen, and already sworn to the cause, though she and her fellow Suffragists refuse violence. When she meets Nell, a girl who's grown up in hardship, she sees a kindred spirit. Together and in love, the two girls start to dream of a world where all kinds of women have their place."

I loved everything about Sally's new book. Our three sheroes are all well-rounded, engaging and involved characters and involve none of the stereotypes that some previous suffrage novels have fallen into (and which I grumbled about in this post). Instead, Sally gives us raw and gritty depictions of the realities of suffrage campaigning on the eve of the war and into the war, leading to perspectives I've never previously seen in suffrage literature. 

For example, while Evelyn is arrested for her suffragette militancy, it is the depiction of hunger and particularly thirst strike that dominates the description of her prison stay. Indeed, the harrowing explanation of the damage that six days of thirst striking can do to the body was both compulsive and repulsive in its reading, and is not something I've seen in other suffrage novels which have instead favoured the more conventional graphic depiction of force feeding. 

Another good example is the peaceful campaigning of Quaker May and her mother. May's mother has refused to pay her taxes in common with many suffragettes and suffragists who wouldn't pay taxation without representation. But while popular history has us believing that suffrage campaigning ended the second war was declared, May and her mother show us how untrue this was. Through their characters we are also shown the bitterness that many campaigners felt at the volte-face shown by leaders Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett in their support of the war. Instead, May's mother continues to refuse to pay her taxes well into the war... to the point that the bailiffs come round and not only take away all of their possessions, but also move in with the women for six weeks beforehand. Just startling. 

And to have teenage lesbian romance written about without fuss is also highly commended, as is Nell's insistence on wearing men's clothes because she prefers them even though she is jeered at and ridiculed for it. 

Things A Bright Girl Can Do is utterly wonderful, hopeful and inspiring. Please buy it, read it and share it. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

'The Making of Mollie' by Anna Carey

If there's one thing I am guaranteed to love, it is a novel about the suffrage era. Especially those novels aimed at younger readers, because I am passionate that children should be taught about this important and exciting part of our not-so-distant history. So I was delighted to come across Anna Carey's 2016 novel The Making of Mollie. (I'm no expert on guessing the appropriate age range for kids' books but, given our shero is 14, I'd suggest that's about the right age range for younger readers - although I'm nearly 40 and I also loved it). 

Dublin-based Anna is already a well-established children's author thanks to her popular Rebecca series, for which she has won at the Irish Book Awards. But Mollie is her first piece of historical fiction. You wouldn't know it, though. 

There are many reasons I loved reading Mollie but the absolute number one reason is that it doesn't follow the very well trodden path that so many other suffrage books have. So before I tell you what Mollie is, I will reassure you about what she is not. Mollie is not a working-class girl who meets a middle-class lady who educates her about suffrage; she does not suddenly make friends with Mrs Pankhurst (who was presumably less accessible than the novels suggest); and she does not go to prison and endure a graphic episode of force-feeding. Thank goodness.

Instead, here is what Mollie is. This is a really engaging book written in the form of letters from a schoolgirl to a friend, and our shero is instantly likeable and warm. The period in the book only spans a few months and arguably nothing hugely significant happens (as in, Mollie doesn't do outrageously militant acts, she doesn't get arrested, her parents don't disown her), but because of this it is so much more believable. 

You believe that Mollie and her friend Nora were real people, and that there were hundreds of young girls like them who did exactly the same sort of stunts to feel part of an adult movement. You believe that Mollie existed in Dublin and plucked up the courage to chalk pavements after school and sneak her way out of the house to attend impassioned meetings. You believe that Mollie is real. And that's what makes Mollie stand out from so much other suffrage fiction. Hurray.

I also loved that fact that this book is set in Dublin, and the focus is away from the Women's Social and Political Union and the Pankhurst family and instead is on the Irish Women's Franchise League and its leader Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (of whom I did not previously know). Anna has used several real-life Dublin suffrage events as anchors around which to pin her story and characters, and it works like a charm. The end result is I plan to go away and find out more about suffrage in Ireland (and surely that's a great result for any author, to inspire her readers to read more).

There is so much to praise about this book, so I urge you to buy a copy for the young teenagers in your life and also a copy for yourself. 

The best news of all is that, judging from Anna's recent tweets, it looks like it won't be too long before another Mollie book hits our shelves. And I, for one, cannot wait. Deeds not words.

Friday, 10 November 2017

'The Tin Drum' at Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Steve Tanner

Hurray! Kneehigh Theatre Company is back in town. Everyone loves Kneehigh - the experimental but accessible Cornish company that prides itself on breathing new life into forgotten fairy tales. And now here they are with a re-telling of the 1959 G√ľnter Grass post-war tale The Tin Drum, directed by Kneehigh artistic director Mike Shepherd. Grass’ original book received the Nobel Prize for Literature, such was its impact and its reflection of World War Two.

When Oskar turns three, he decides life would be better if he never grew up so he resolves to remain a child forever by taking drastic action. Fueled by his anger, his angelic singing voice and his indestructible tin drum, Oskar steels himself to face the world from perpetual infancy. But plans don’t always work out how you want them to, and Oskar hasn’t accounted for the Black Witch and her hold on his world.

What follows is a story about love and war, written by Carl Grose from Grass’s original text, and with a musical score composed by Charles Hazlewood; another two Kneehigh stalwarts. I feel special mention must be given to Hazlewood’s score here, which is truly extraordinary. It has strong echoes of early, raw, electro, Travelogue-era Human League throughout, and is extremely successful in conveying the growing, claustrophobia and panic that consumes a community being enveloped by war and hatred.

But how do we know we can trust Oskar as a narrator? He is a peculiarly self-aware foetus at one stage, and later an angry, precocious and bitter toddler, resentful in the most childish of ways. But he has insight and wisdom. And despite being a mere puppet (and I’ll be honest, when I saw there was a puppet in the cast I really sighed as I do feel puppets have been done to death in contemporary theatre lately), his hollow, dark-eyed face manages to convey a range of emotions depending on which angle the light catches him.

However, the stars of this Kneehigh production of The Tin Drum are undoubtedly Hazlewood’s compelling and effective score and the actor Patrycja Kujawska, who has been with the company for almost 10 years and is always an utter joy to watch.

The Tin Drum is a very special and important show, and has stripped a complex novel down to its bare bones. The audience is left with no doubt that although Grass’ novel was about World War Two, the Kneehigh production is equally a statement about the current state we find ourselves in a terrifying new world.

The Tin Drum is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 18 November, when it continues its tour to Cornwall and then Shoreditch. Click here for more info.