Sunday, 25 March 2018

'Tory Heaven'

Tory Heaven by Marghanita Laski

Also going under the title of Thunder on the Right (and inexplicably as Toasted English in the US), this 1940s British political satire by the versatile writer Marghanita Laski has finally been rescued from its long-out-of-print status by Persephone Books.

Laski will be no stranger to regular Persephone readers, because the publisher has reprinted four of her other novels prior to Tory Heaven - which is published in April 2018 (and for which I was fortunate to receive an advance copy). From the haunting ghost/horror story The Victorian Chaise Longue to the wartime social commentary of To Bed With Grand Music, it is clear that Laski was a writer who was more than capable of turning her pen to whatever genre she preferred… and then layering it with nuance.

Tory Heaven was first published in 1949 and is a satire of the British class system. It follows a British refugee, James, who is rescued from a South Sea island in 1945. Our hero makes his way back to Britain where he is met by a very different country to the one he left several years previously: the class system has now been reinforced with a rigidly enforced categorisation of people into As, Bs, Cs, Ds or Es. With As being entitled to every luxury and privilege known to mankind, and Es being treated as barely human.

Fortunately for James, his public schooling and charmed upbringing has him designated as an A - but he quickly realises that for all the good food, comfortable lodgings, obsequious staff and available women thrown at him, he has lost his right to independent thought and action in this Conservative utopia. Upon visiting his family (who are also As), James is horrified to see them uncomfortably dressing formally for dinner and ploughing their way through endless courses of stodgy British fare because this is what their servants expect… and if they veer away from tradition then spies may well report them to the authorities who will strip them of their status.

In this way, it is easy to make a topical comparison to Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, where every home in the new kingdom of Gilead is at risk of housing a secret ‘eye’ for the government who can report back on regimental slips in the home and cause the offender’s hand to be amputated… or an even worse punishment. The class battles in Tory Heaven also reminded me of Henry Green’s 1939 realist/modernist novel Party Going, which claustrophobically hones in on a group of toffs who are stranded at Waterloo Station after fog shuts down the transport system, so they decamp to the railway hotel and behave abysmally as their entitlement and self-perceived authority over one another comes to the fore. In both cases, the upper classes are shown, as in Tory Heaven, to indulge only their own needs and to see the lower classes as nothing more than animate objects that exist to serve their whims. It also called to mind Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd (also reprinted by Persephone), where our once shero returns to an England in the grip of WW2 and finds it an utterly alien existence.

In Tory Heaven, James realises he is in a waking nightmare because his every action is monitored and there is a script he is expected to follow for both his words and actions… and woe betide anyone who falls out of line with the expectation for their class.

The gender roles are also rather horrifying in Tory Heaven, just as they are in The Handmaid’s Tale. When James first arrives in London, he stays in a plush hotel and finds that along with hot water, fresh linen and delicious food, he is also supplied with a beautiful naked woman in his bed to cater to his desires. The Ministry of Social Security (ironically, a far cry from our contemporary understanding of social security) is keen to source bachelor James an eligible debutante for his wife… rather than allow him to marry his own choice of bride, Penelope, who, despite being an A, is also over 30 and therefore not marriage material. And conversely, while men and women who are As lead a luxurious if stifling life, their counterparts in the E class are degraded beyond belief: the only profession deemed suitable for E class women is prostitution.

Laski’s light-hearted style of writing make this an easy and enjoyable read but this certainly doesn’t detract from the message she wants to make. And it’s not a stretch to imagine that Persephone has chosen 2018 in which to reprint this class satire, with its roots in the effect war has on the surviving nation. The parallels readers can make between the Britain of 1949 that Laski writes about and the Britain of 2018 that we inhabit today are, sadly, plentiful. And remain shameful.

Monday, 19 March 2018


With a cover endorsement from the mighty Amy Poehler and a back cover blurb that takes me back to my mid-90s fanzine days, this young adult novel has a lot going for it. It was initially brought to my attention by someone on Twitter, who as a sister mid-90s Riot Grrrl fan recommended it to me - and she was right!

Our shero Viv attends school in a small US town where football is king and casual sexism in the corridors is something the girls are encouraged to shrug off. Rooting through her mum's box labelled 'My Misspent Youth', 16-year-old Viv finds a stash of '90s Riot Grrrl fanzines, photos of her mum as an angry, feminist teenager and tapes of music by grrrl bands such as Bikini Kill and Heavens to Betsy. All of which inspires Viv to secretly start her own fanzine, Moxie, which she distributes to the girls at school to encourage them to fight back against the rampant sexism inherent in their lives.

What I particularly love about Moxie is that Mathieu doesn't shy away from the word 'feminism'. In fact, she goes to great lengths to have the characters realise that feminism is something to be embraced and welcomed into their lives, she shows how feminism makes their lives better, and how it enriches them to live a safer and happier life without experiencing everyday sexism and being grabbed by entitled boys in the school corridors. 

This is a bloody great book - both for teenage girls and for grown women like me who lived through and loved the Riot Grrrl movement. 'Moxie girls fight back!'

Saturday, 17 March 2018


Oh, man! What a blisteringly angry and epic novel this is! Emmeline by Judith Rossner has sat on my to-be-read pile for a few months and I was finally spurred to bump it to the top this week by the news that the brand new Persephone Books for Spring are soon to be issued and I am therefore falling behind in my Persephone reading. And despite being a hefty 409 pages long, I rattled though Emmeline in a mere 48 hours - such was my inability to put her down. 

Originally published in 1980, Rossner's sixth novel is a furious tour de force set in 1800s America, following the life of our shero Emmeline Mosher. Born as the eldest daughter in a large, working-class family in the small pioneering town of Fayette (a real town located in Maine), aged just 13 Emmeline is sent nearly 200 miles away to work in a cotton mill in Lowell, Massachusetts - because her destitute family is depending on her paltry income ($1 a week) for their survival. 

Just a child, our 13-year-old protagonist has no knowledge of the world. She is a naive and young girl with nobody looking out for her welfare, so she clings to her Bible and her code of good behaviour to protect her honour. Desperately homesick and feeling out of place in Lowell, being several years younger than most of the other mill girls, when her employer Mr Maguire shows kindness, of course young Emmeline responds. The child is desperate for someone to pay her attention... which the loathsome Maguire certainly does after getting her drunk and dazzling her with the luxuries of his home. 

It's hardly a spoiler to say that 13-year-old Emmeline becomes pregnant, despite having no concept of how babies are conceived nor of what the man 27 years her senior is doing to her (save only for the horrifying comment that because it makes him happy, she doesn't mind him doing it: "She did not understand precisely what had happened between them, though she knew that it was wrong because he had taken off some of her clothes. She had been uncomfortable - even briefly in pain - but none of that had mattered when measured against his holding her, his kissing her, his speaking to her affectionately ... The guilty feelings wouldn't matter, if he seemed happy." I mean - jeez! If that doesn't make you seethe with rage, I don't know what will). Of course, to a reader in 2018, it is clear that Maguire is not only a rapist but a paedophile. Worse, is the clear implication in Emmeline that this is far from the first time he has done this. 

And of course, it is not Maguire's life that is ruined. Sure, his unseen wife seems to sound a bit irked about the whole thing (and who could blame her?), but once Emmeline's pregnancy is revealed to him he pays her to leave and gets back to his life as before. No doubt looking for the next homesick, innocent child to seduce. 

Being an unmarried teenage mother is not even the worst thing that happens to Emmeline, but it is explicit that Maguire's abuse of her is the catalyst for the catalogue of sadness and injustice that fills her long and lonely life. I won't reveal the plot in the second half of Emmeline, but I will say it filled me with an overwhelming anger and sadness. None of what happens to our shero is her own fault. We are told again and again that she is a good, God-fearing young woman, whose only crime is her naivety. But if nobody is willing to educate young girls, that is hardly the fault of the girls themselves: how can they know what it is they do not know? This lack of education certainly doesn't stop her family, friends or neighbours from holding Emmeline responsible. But how can you be responsible for what you do not know you have done?

In the early chapters of Emmeline, I was reminded of the young Jane Eyre and her ousting from the cruel Reed family to life at the barbaric Lowood Institution. The documentary-style depiction of Emmeline's day-to-day life in the Lowell mill and boarding house is reminiscent of Jane's loneliness and drudgery at the school. But when Emmeline starts to fall under Maguire's spell, the tone becomes more reminiscent of work from Tracy Chevalier, who has mastered the art of writing compulsively readable contemporary historical fiction - and that's certainly what Rossner has written here. Emmeline is impossible to put down. The story fires ahead at a fast pace and the pain and perplexity Emmeline feels at the way she is mistreated and cast aside is fierce. The reader demands to know what happens next and is incapable of putting the book down!

What's even more staggering is that Rossner based her novel on the real life story of Emeline Bachelder Gurney and that is possibly the most anger-inducing element of this whole episode. That this was actually allowed to happen to a young child. Of course, there is more than just the patriarchal society to blame for Emmeline/Emeline's tragedy - we could also blame her family and her religion, who both compelled her to think kindly of others and to act to please others. The afterword by Lucy Ellmann in this new Persephone edition offers a thought-provoking and furious way to consider what you have just read.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

'Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage'

Those with an interest in the suffrage movement are being spoilt for choice with new books to read at the moment, but one I have enjoyed enormously is Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote by historian Jane Robinson. Not least because, look! What a beautiful cover it has!

Hearts and Minds is a refreshing read because it takes as its focus not the Pankhursts and the militant suffragettes of the Women's Social and Political Union, but instead the law-abiding suffragists who campaigned peacefully for the vote for half a century or more. Since the 1860s, the suffragists lobbied and marched and petitioned for women to have the vote, never breaking the law or harming anybody in the process. Frustrated by the lack of movement, the Pankhurst family in 1903 started the Women's Social and Political Union, which ultimately led to a few years of headline grabbing stunts that are sadly what remains etched in most people's minds when they think of 'votes for women'... though this is not the true picture of the movement at all. 

So instead, Jane Robinson uses her wonderful new book to set the record straight and explain why the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (led by the peaceful Millicent Fawcett) were actually the ones who effected change. This culminated in the powerful Great Pilgrimage of 1913, which was made so much harder for the peaceful women who were often misjudged as militants and greeted with hostility and even death threats as a result. 

The Great Pilgrimage saw thousands of women march from all over the UK to congregate in London's Hyde Park for a huge rally, lobbying government for women's suffrage. Jane charts the adventures of the women focussing less on the stories of the big name women who are familiar to us, and more on the lesser known stories found by trawling personal archives, personal diaries and letters and so on, to uncover nuggets of information about their day to day lives during the six-week pilgrimage. I am inclined to agree with Jane that the stories of the everyday women involved in the suffrage movement are often a lot more revealing and interesting than those of the big name campaigners.

It is an utterly fascinating and absorbing read, illustrated by a wide range of photos that I had not previously seen and found very interesting indeed. This is a beautifully written and presented book, and is absolutely essential for anyone with even a passing interest in this fascinating period of women's history.