The strange forces of the world seem to have made it so that I have read a book about diaries straight after this year’s and last year’s exams. Last year’s was Alexander Masters’ A Life Discarded read whilst waiting for the EU referendum results. This book follows Masters’ obsession with the 148 idiosyncratic diaries his friend finds in a skip. This year’s was Sally Bayley’s more general The Private Life of the Diary. As the subtitle has it, it is “a history”, not a definitive, authoritative account but rather the work of an academic mind in which scholarly interests and personal history meld.
The diary is a democratic literary form, but only on one side. Any literate person can keep a diary, but that does not mean anyone will read it. Diaries are typically locked away from the eyes of family and friends, but are often written with some intention of preserving things for posterity. Even if we are a nobody now, someone in the future will be fascinated by our musings, we say. When I was about nine or ten I read Anne Frank’s diary more or less continuously and authored my own mundane diary, one volume was even a facsimile of Anne’s red check book. I wrote with the egotism a clever, praised child has. I loved history and was convinced that I was the sort of person who would become famous, so the scribblings of my forming mind would sure to be treasured and poured over.
These diaries went the way of ignominy and obscurity, as is the fate of almost all diaries. But a few are treasured as literature, history or the great expanse between the two. These are the subject of Bayley’s book, selected as exemplars of all the reasons diaries are kept. There is self improvement in the mode of Boswell, natural historical observations like Kilvert, a discovery for me, and a domesticated Orwell. There is the precise documentation of Tony Benn or the racy gossip of Alan Clark in the political diary. The star turns are undoubtedly the visionary literary diaries of Woolf and Plath and Pepys’ personal-political hybrid diaries. But all the diaries are united by a desire to capture experience and explore the workings of the inner self, whether to come to decide on political action or to understand your own conscience.
In a case of form mirroring content, Bayley intersperses her literary criticism with recollections of the role diary writing has played in her early life; from her grandmother’s notebooks full of the contacts needed to keep the household running and her mother’s book of rose breeds to Bayley’s childhood diaries kept under the bed and the teenage diaries hidden from staff of a psyche ward. The diary in its many guises has helped constitute and maintain the self for Bayley and her family.
Many column inches have been written on the rise of narrative non-fiction, some disparage that writers – mostly young women – dare insert themselves into a scholarly work. Admittedly, excessive focus on the author can distract and dilute the effect of the research. But used well, as it is here, I find it academically honest to remind the reader that you are a subjective flawed human, not an omnipotent oracle of academic brilliance. This approach is especially fitting for The Private Life of the Diary. Diaries inherently centre the self, so by bringing her own life into the narrative Bayley doesn’t position herself above her subject matter, but rather shows herself immersed in it.
The book is both personal and universal, and a wonderful work of accessible, humane literary criticism.
I remember first coming across the Mitford sisters in a question on the BBC TV quiz programme Only Connect a few years ago. A question presented a sequence of women’s first names, I think it was Nancy, Jessica, Diana and Deborah, and the contestants had to find the link. The connection is that these are all the first names of some of the Mitford sisters; the Novelist Nancy, the Fascist Diana, the Communist Jessica, the Duchess Deborah and also Unity, the Hitler-lover (Pamela lacks a snappy epithet, Thomas cursed to obscurity by being male). This is typical of how the sisters are treated like a trading card set, an anecdotal edition to the nature vs nurture phenomenon with the added intrigue of the mid-20th English gentry. But it is instinctively fascinating to see how a group of people all raised in the same circumstances can lead so very different lives. It would be called implausible if it was fiction, but is entirely true.
Jessica Mitford’s memoirs of her childhood and early twenties, Hons and Rebels is the main ways that the family is still known quite widely. For a family of eccentrics, Jessica’s life is probably the most unconventional. In a family with a distinct slant to the right (from her parents’ supported the Conservatives to Diana and Unity’s involvement with Mosley and Hitler), Jessica had an inclination to the left from a young age. The socialism of the memoir runs deep and colours all of Jessica’s perceptions, gladly lacking the sanctimony and eulogising accounts by socialists from upper class backgrounds can be (cough, Orwell). If I were auditioning for a column with the Daily Telegraph I might say that Jessica Mitford is a socialist writer who never felt the need to bow and scrap to ‘check her privilege’, like the kids do today. But in truth she does acknowledge her own privilege and diffuses the tension it causes all through humour. She is not a teenage champagne socialist but one better, a ballroom communist who keeps her library of socialist material in a disused ballroom. Jessica political stance is developed from an awakening to injustice in the world, but the reader sense that it was at least partially born out of childish conflict with her (at times) favourite sister Unity (Bobo to the family but Boud to Jessica). This is hinted from the first image in the book describing her childhood home of Swinbrook, where “In the windows, still to be seen, are swastikas carved with a diamond ring, and for every swastika a carefully delineated hammer and sickle”, the work of the childish hands of Unity and Jessica, respectively. In one image are all the elements of the story of the Mitford sisters, the major ideological forces of the 20th century butt heads in the figures of two small Hons each wielding a diamond ring to imprint their chosen icons into the ancestral home. A waggish anecdote, maybe, but as the book moves on the scene darkens in retrospect.
The first half of the memoir is on her childhood, a rural life surrounded by eccentric grown-up relatives mercilessly eased by the siblings. Despite what would be her 100th birthday occurring in September later this year, her upbringing now presents as criminally negligent. Ignoring protests, all but one of the sisters were ever sent to school. Instead, a governess furnished them with a light sprinkling of education and robbed Jessica of the chance to get to university. Her mother (or “Muv”) also had strange ideas about health, prescribing to the doctrine of the pious “Good Body” which would resolve illness by itself, hindered by the meddling of doctors. None of the children were vaccinated, then illegal, and which likely lead to the death by measles of Jessica’s first child. But what would now turn their children over to social services is here only a thread in a tapestry of eccentricity, alongside the nursery menu de facto keeping kosher out of a conviction that “Jews don’t get cancer”.
Jessica famously ran off to the Spanish Civil War when she was nineteen. She went with the seasoned fighter, her second cousin turned fiance Esmond Romilly. She was driven by her political convictions, but also by a desire to desire to flee her stultifying family and seek adventure, anywhere. The pair spend some time as hapless journalists in Bilboa, but her family soon discovered that she was not on a delightful holiday in France and rapidly made a ward of the court. She was compelled to leave on a destroyer for France with Nancy, whose first remark to her includes informing her of “Nanny crying about what must be the state of your underclothes by now with no one to wash them for you!”
After spending some months in France and London, the newly married couple try to find what jobs the unskilled and cheerfully inept young gentry can land. Jessica begins market research and they have a baby but who then dies of measles when Jessica is only 20. By now it is 1938 and the political situation is inching towards war, though it is unclear on whose side Britain will turn out on. Because of this added to their inability to realise that though electricity comes from the sky supplying it to the household will incur a fee they flee the unpaid bill by leaving for America.
Much of the last quarter of the memoir is about Jessica’s first tastes of America, the country to become her naturalised home. These parts are the familiar Brit in the Big Apple/ DC shtick told with a lovely and lightly self-depricating humour. Most memorably, when Jessica tried to explain to her fellow shopgirls what her “old man” does, explanation of his slow perusal of the Radio Times and unsuccessful investments in empty goldmines draws pitied and the affirmation that “in America who a person’s folks are doesn’t matter a bit, here I would be judged strictly on my own merits without regard for unfortunate heredity”, lovely obliteration of the British class by American optimism.
But in Europe darkness brews, personal and political. After the outbreak of war between Germany and Britain, Unity attempts suicide in Berlin and becomes significantly disabled. Any illusion of an idyllic life are broken, and soon after Esmond leaves to Canada to join the Air Force, and is killed in action in 1941. Though not mentioned in the book Unity died in 1948 of meningitis caused by the bullet left in her brain for eight years. The two tragedies signalling the book’s end are not dwelt on excessively, but a sense of Jessica’s loss is conveyed deftly. She broadens to the We of Generation Talk when she mourns Esmond. He was a remarkable character himself, nephew of Churchill and teenaged firebrand after running away from Wellington College to found an anti-fascist newspaper. She looks back with affection at the foolhardy heroism of the communists of her generation who “not only egged each other along to even greater baiting and acts of outrage against the class we had left, but delighted in matching wits with the world generally; in fact, it was our way of life.”
As for Unity, her life is mourned as much as much as her death. When Unity was the same age as Jessica when she ran off to Spain, she went with Diana to meet Hitler, and joined his inner circle. The childish sparring darkens to a disturbing incomprehension. Having a full set of ideologies within a family may seem comic from the outside, but having such a deep affection for someone whose thoughts processes are so alien to ones own is unnerving in the extreme. As Jessica writes; “How could Boud, a person of enormous natural taste, an artist and a poet from childhood, have embraced their crude philistinism? […] She was always a terrific hater […] but I had always thought she hated intelligently […]. But when she wrote gaily off to Der Stürmer, ‘I want everybody to know that I am a Jew-hater’, I felt she had forgotten the whole point of hating and had once and for all put herself on the side of the hateful”. Jessica saw that the contradictions within Unity at the outbreak of war between her beloved country and her beloved ideology proved too much and caused her self-destruction.
Ultimately, the story of the Mitford sisters show how for the class privileged then and now, class can free and constrain and individual in important, but not deterministic, ways, and the ideological commitments that we take up over our lives can have more influence over the details of how our fate is set.
I first heard of Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder when it was read as the Book at Bedtime on Radio 4 (after all, middle age starts at nineteen). I only caught a few wisps of dialogue but was intrigued by the premise; in a barely post-famine Ireland, a pious eleven year old girl has refused food for four months, and a nurse and a nun have been employed to keep watch over her to see if this claim is true or not.
I knew of Emma Donoghue from Room (which I have regrettably yet to read) but it was the theme of the Victorian Fasting Girl that lead me to my first book of her’s. I was familiar with anorexia mirabilis from the over-intellectualizing that constituted my eating disorder recovery. These (almost without exception) women and girls claimed to be nourished by God so spurned earthly food, as the eleven year old Anna claims. Anna is pious in the extreme, understandable for a girl with little else to do in a poor household in the Middle of Ireland. The miraculous fasting girl has attracted the attention of pilgrims and the secular press alike, and a committee significantly biased towards believing the claims has employed two nurses to keep watch. These are a mysterious Sister of Mercy and a Nightingale trained nurse from England, Lib, our narrator. Between them, Lib and Sister Michael must watch Anna continually for two weeks, and Donoghue conveys well the feat of endurance such tedious work is.
The narrative is framed to give a tight spatial and temporal focus; the reader arrives with Lib the outsider at the farm house and we stay for the two week watch. In this claustrophobic setting, the body and habits of a young girl are observed with clinical detail for signs of the scam Lib is sure is happening. Lib is only employed as a pair of trained eyes to ensure that Anna is not being fed on the sly, but inevitably concern for her patient’s wellbeing surfaces. As the days bear on, Lib probes into the community, with some help from out of town reporter William Byrne, trying to uncover why Anna believes that she should not eat earthly food. As Anna’s health starts to deteriorate, Lib’s desire to save Anna generates suspense masterfully. Lib becomes Anna’s defender against the committee who sees her only as a symbol, not as a real girl.
When considering the novel as a whole, it is clear that Anna is a character carefully maintaining a carapace as the perfect devout child, but behind which yawns a chasm of trauma which Lib only uncovers when the immortal currents of the society is revealed. Anna’s obsessive faith leaves her in a bind, it is both her coping method and means of destruction. Donoghue creates a subtle and psychological astute portrait of how trauma and stigma can consume a person when a society colludes to shame her and encourage self-destruction.
The historical setting of the novel is intriguing. Donoghue has clearly done her research, the Author’s Note credits a source on 19th century Catholic devotional objects. It is also an interesting take on the story of the Scutari nurses. Everyone thinks they know about Florence Nightingale, but what happened to her nurses, trained in novel nursing methods? For Lib, she languished unappreciated in English hospitals before taking up a temporary job in Ireland. Here she faces an unfamiliar world of a quasi-feudal world, steeped in a Catholicism mixed with a belief in fairies. Lib arrives with a thick veneer of prejudices against the reported miracle, Catholicism (but really religion as a whole) and the Irish. The initial sneeriness of the narrative voice does jar as I find it hard to believe that a well-educated nurse would be so ignorant and prejudiced as Lib is, despite her nationality. Her slowness at realizing the whereabouts of the O’Donnell boy also leaves me incredulous, a Victorian nurse would surely consider the possibility that a child could have died. But despite these initial false steps, as the novel progresses Lib’s skepticism is laid aside as the watch continues and her nurse’s compassion and maternal affection towards Anna grows. In the end, the novel is a tribute to the power of compassion across cultural and religious boundaries.
Donoghue’s real achievement here is to create a novel as compelling as a thriller from the close details of the bodily suffering and psychological trauma of a young girl. Between the excruciating details of a child who is clearly starving and the burning compassion of her nurse the reader is whisked deftly along to the only (happy) conclusion a book like this could have; in three words – fire and emigration.
For more on the book, see the publisher’s website.
Writing Historical Fiction with a Victorian setting in the 21st century is a battle with cliches. Will it be a comedy of manners, a dive into the seedy underbelly, a safari into the past, where we can point and gape at how they lived ‘back then’. In her Author’s Note to her novel The Essex Serpent, Perry as good as outlines her manifesto for the novel by thanking the authors who for her “opened the door to a Victorian age so like our own I am almost persuaded I remember it”. In The Essex Serpent, Perry has no interest in exoticising the difference of the past. Instead, her characters all embody difference facets of a culture so similar to our own. With the devices of knife attack, housing reform and that eponymous serpent, Perry sets then spinning into each other’s orbit.
The novel’s heroine is Cora Seaborne, who begins the novel as a new widow gladly freeing herself from her abusive civil servant husband with natural history. News reaches London of a serpent returned to the Essex marshes and frightening the villagers. To Cora the serpent is an ichthyosaur and heads to Essex the idea of catching it and having her name on its exhibit in the British Museum. But to the vicar of the serpent-worried village of Aldwinter it is a nuisance superstition, and to his wife Stella it becomes a cause of her tuberculosis-induced euphoria or spes phthisica. The book is about preconceived notions as much as it is about a serpent. Each character has their own idea of the serpent, and Perry uses it as a deus ex machina to bring together her varied characters from the consumptive and the autistic boy to the reverend and the lady naturalist. The novel is no creature feature, though the (double) reveal of the identity serpent is dealt with masterfully and suspensefully, it is largely to fill plot holes than to delight in strange beasts.
The novel ranges around the varied landscape of the Victorian world with intellectual honesty, Perry resists sneering or caving to cultural relativism. It is a novel that couldn’t have been written at any other time than the present, as the 21st century narrative voice, language and dialogue peppered with first names reminds the reader. In Perry’s novel, rebels aren’t crushed under the weight of social convention as they might in a Victorian novel; Cora is a very modern liberated woman; as a wealthy widow can wear men’s clothes or ballgowns when she sees fit without consequence. Cora is everything Tess of Tess of the D’Urbevilles isn’t, the last line of the novel shows her having it all, “I love and I am content without you”. Some of the other female characters, such as Cora’s socialist maid Martha and the rector’s daughter, a budding intellectual are on the way to shedding the chains of femininity and are successful. Even the madwoman of the novel, Stella, does not have her illness madness induced by a cruel husband and an oppressive society, a la “The Yellow Wallpaper”, but rather by simple organic disease. The modernity of the female characters means that Perry mostly sidesteps tackling what gender means and how it limits her characters within their society.
Similarly, there I feel that there is something lacking in the depiction of science in the novel. The reviews I read of the book gave the impression that it would be a novel about a female Victorian palaeontologist. But whilst palaeontology gets Cora to Aldwinter and science draws together her and Rev. William Ransome, a man betwixt science and faith throughout the novel, it extends little beyond a plot device. Cora’s scientific awakening isn’t told with the awe and wonder found in autobiographies of science, instead Cora spends her time collecting shells, not in reverential awe at nature or concocting her own theories, and science is dropped as one of Cora’s fad towards the end of the novel. The passages on her long walks through Essex are much more engaging and emotionally evocative piece of nature writing, but the flatness of her scientific interest does a disservice to novel’s theme of the Victorian clash of science and faith.
More engaging were the unexpected sub-plots of the novel. Perry adds in the an interesting subplot about the history of surgery, manifest in the figure of the surgeon Dr Luke Garrett, “friendzoned” by Cora. He is a phenomenally skilled surgeon and sews up the pericardium of a man stabbed in the heart who would otherwise be left for dead. But this feat brings greater problems for Luke and he is brought to earth by rejection and one of the worst injuries a surgeon could sustain. The mysteries and miracles of Victorian surgery are conveyed well, and earn the book its place on the Wellcome Book Prize longlist. Additionally, I loved the way autism was treated in the novel. Of course the word is never mentioned, but Cora’s son Francis has all the hallmarks of an Asperger’s-like condition; the emotional distance, the obsession with collecting “treasures” and so on. Francis is treated with understanding by the characters and has a shadowy existence throughout much of the novel. Late in the novel he develops a friendship with the reverend’s wife, Stella, who is similarly driven to collect blue “treasures” in her spes phthisica, and find some solace in each other. This is part of Perry’s broader genius with this work; in her plotting she guides the needles to knit the disparate strings of her characters together in friendship; romantic, platonic and everything else these labels don’t cover. The novel’s structure is perfectly rounded and more importantly deeply humane, conveying a deep and unsentimental belief in the goodness and kindness of humanity.
The trope of the ordinary family facing a medical emergency which tries their relationships is the bones of a thousand TV soaps. Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone opens with such a medical emergence, a teenager’s unexpected anaphylaxis and cardiac arrest. It is an incident which would occupy five minutes’ attention on a hospital soap. Moss, however, eschews sensationalism. Instead she takes the incidence and its consequences and stretches out onto a broad, rich canvas, tracing the ripples it sends out through time and memory. She pulls the reader through the narrative with the hooks of so called “sick lit”, but avoids high-octane drama and a simplistic resolution. We are instead given an exquisite exploration of parental anxiety, dependence and human frailty.
The novel is written from the perspective of Adam Goldschmidt, a ‘househusband’ sporadically employed as a lecturer, whose daughter Miriam suddenly and inexplicable goes into cardiac arrest in a field at school. Adam’s voice is well realised, he is astute yet uncynical. For example, when he yearns for normality Moss captures both Adam’s extreme distress and self-awareness well, in “May we live long enough to despise the cliches again, may we heal enough to take for granted the sky and water and light, because the state of blind gratitude for breath and blood is not a position of intelligence.”Adam knows how his crisis pales in comparison to the endless global massacres that flicker by on the news. Crisis and emotional turmoil are written without sentimentality, but it is not dispassionate.We share in Adam’s anxiety which drives him to his children’s rooms at night to check they are still breathing, the novel is tense with foreboding and dread which Moss thankfully doesn’t give into releasing in a sensationalist conclusion.
Adam is the archetype of the good modern father. Gender politics savvy, devoted to his children and overworked GP wife but knows not to crow about it. A man in a woman’s world, he washes his daughter’s underwear yet gets suspected of paedophilia for taking his daughter to a swimming pool. He’s at the cross hairs of a culture war. He enjoys the routines of family life and is ambivalent about the academic world he drifts through, playing with toy knights in a meeting. Without over-egging the point (as Adam would no doubt insist upon) it is refreshing to see a father embrace without regret the domestic life, and it not be the focus of the novel, it would work just as well if Adam and his wife Emma swapped roles.
An interesting aspect of this novel is the relationship between Miriam and Adam. Miriam is a moderately rebellious whip-sharp fifteen year old. She’s at a stage where she can sign herself up to a political party but needs to be reminded to wear her coat. She fucked the patriarchy and got the T-shirt, but her parents won’t let her wear the shirt in public. She is not the tragic elfin heroine of much YA sick lit. Adam is a moderating influence on her rather than a disciplinarian, and respects her independence and unique vivacity. His is not a smothering love but an awestruck love. He seems to ask himself, “how have I made that?” The parent’s manner of seeing their own children as miracles brings into focus the miraculous nature of a human life even beginning and continue to be, but no amount of love can stop a body from failing.
Scattered through the narrative of Miriam’s anaphylaxis is exerts from Adam’s history of the rebuild of Coventry Cathedral after it’s destruction in the Blitz. The theme of recovery and moving past trauma, medical and architectural, is obvious, and shows well how an academic’s subject colours their personal life. Less successful are Adam’s grandfather’s tales of his Holocaust-survivor parents and his time in communes, which add little to a novel already rich in meaning.
But the novel’s structure is wonderful. It’s tight, neat focus on the days between Miriam’s cardiac arrest to a holiday six months later stops it from bloating indulgently. The chapters are slices of no more than ten pages which make the narrative as episodic as life and memory and allowing the other narrative threads to slot between the main events.
Aside from what the blurb would tell you there is no real plot to The Tidal Zone If it was accidentally shelved next to the misery memoirs and sick lit, there would be a lot of disappointed customers, to give no spoilers. But Moss’ more impressionistic literary approach captures what crisis and trauma is really like. Those events that feel like a punch but lingers like a bruise, changing the skin but not developing.
In The Tidal Zone, Moss shows how crisis crystallizes what would otherwise slip you by, and acts as a catalyst for seeing the past and the future differently.