This Week In My Classes: Cracking the Case

marple-storiesLast Wednesday, because of the disruption from Hurricane Dorian it felt as if we were starting the term all over again. A week later, it finally feels as if we are getting into something like a routine–even though the add-drop (a.k.a. “shopping”) period is only just ending, so the list of registered students for Pulp Fiction has been changing literally every day. Still, the majority of students in the class have been coming since September 4, and the general air of uncertainty and anxiety is fading into the usual combination of commitment and resignation. Because it’s a 4th-year seminar, Women & Detective Fiction has been a more focused group from the beginning, but there too we are past the getting-to-know-you period and are (I think) comfortably embarked on what promises to be a really good term’s discussion.

johnsonWhat have we done so far? Well, in Pulp Fiction we have done a bit less reading than usual by this point, but we’ve gone through all of the warm-up texts, starting with Lawrence Block’s “How Would You Like It?” and then, to set up our unit on Westerns, Sherman Alexie’s “My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys.” If I am assigned this course again for next year, I would like to replace the Block story with something a bit more on point for the course themes. Alexie’s poem, on the other hand, has proved to be a really good opener for Westerns because it clarifies right from the beginning that this is a genre that both invites and deserves significant pushback. Our reading for Friday, for instance, is Louis L’Amour’s “The Gift of Cochise,” which I think is the worst of our Western readings in terms of flattening and dehumanizing its Apache characters. (I actually think L’Amour is trying to do better by them but does so through a version of the “noble savage” stereotype that doesn’t end up helping at all.) “My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys” has primed us to see this as (among other things) a problem of point of view, one with both specifically literary and broader and still urgent social and political consequences. We read Dorothy Johnson’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” for today, which is a good story for challenging just what kind of cowboy really counts as a hero: as we discussed, the self-effacing Bert Barricune may be the best shot, but he’s a hero for a different reason–because he lets someone else take the credit and the girl. Next week we start Valdez Is Coming, which has not really gone over that well in previous years. Maybe third time’s the charm!

agatha-christieIn Women & Detective Fiction we have just wrapped up three classes on Agatha Christie. Going over my notes from the last time I taught this seminar reminded me that we were struggling a bit, that year, to find enough to talk about–enough that, though I had forgotten about this until it was too late to make the change, I had resolved to assign a novel instead of the stories next time around. Happily, even sticking with the short stories, we had no such trouble this year! The class time has seemed to fly by: not only is it a keen group with plenty to say but the things they are noticing are often things I haven’t really focused on before. We talked a lot, for example, about role playing as a motif across the stories, from the overtly theatrical Jane Helier (an “actual” actress) to Miss Marple herself and the perhaps insoluble puzzle of how far her performance of self-deprecating femininity is a deliberate feint or strategy that enables her detective prowess and how far it is a way for Christie to sincerely re-value the qualities Miss Marple displays. Today was student presentation day and in addition to some useful discussion of her life and works we did an exercise in crime solving ourselves based on her mysterious 11-day disappearance. Next up in this class: Nancy Drew–and one of my students turns out to be an avid Nancy Drew fan and collector, so she is going to bring in some of her early editions to show us. I’m excited: if everyone stays this lively and engaged, it’s going to be a great term.

This Week In My Classes: Stormy Weather

tree-trunkIt hasn’t been stormy in my classes so far–in fact, we have barely had a chance to meet because of the literal storm that passed over Halifax this weekend. Hurricane Dorian churned up the east coast of the United States, and unlike most of the other big storms that head towards us it neither cooled off into an unpleasant but basically harmless rainstorm nor turned out to sea.

Dorian is the second hurricane to make a direct hit on Nova Scotia since we moved here: Hurricane Juan made landfall more squarely on Halifax itself in 2003. There has been much discussion about how the two storms compare. Certainly our personal experience is that Juan was more destructive in our immediate neighborhood: we live quite close to Point Pleasant Park, where 70% of the trees came down, turning what was once basically a forest into, well, not a forest! Juan also knocked down most of the lovely big trees that once lined our street: perhaps it pruned away the vulnerable ones, because although there were a lot of limbs strewn about after Dorian, things didn’t look that bad–until we walked a bit further and saw scenes like this:


Other areas of the city saw much more damage, as did other parts of the province and the Maritimes more generally as Dorian crossed over Prince Edward Island and then finally left us alone. Piles of debris lined the streets I drove along to work, and looking down the side streets I could see that some of them are still in really bad shape. We were fortunate to lose power for only about 36 hours–enough to be inconvenient and (once it got dark) fairly boring, and actually longer than we lost it after Juan, but not in the end a crisis.

The clean-up and repair work continues around the city but in our lives things are getting back to normal. Dalhousie was closed Monday, so one of my own storm-related tasks was to figure out how to adjust my class schedules to take the cancellations into account. One advantage to losing a class early on is that you have lots of classes remaining to play with, but the down side is that in my first year class we hadn’t had a chance to develop a routine or build up any momentum yet, so it felt almost as if we were starting all over again this morning. Last week Pulp Fiction met just once as a whole class and then once in tutorials, so we’d barely introduced the basic concepts of the course. We covered more ground in Women & Detective Fiction, because in an upper-year course logistics are simpler and there’s no need for ‘intro to university’ stuff: in addition to setting up the basic framework for the course, I gave my one and only lecture for the term, as the course is otherwise a seminar, laying out a standard history of detective fiction along with some key points about its conventional forms and conventions are gendered, so that everyone in the class has a common set of contexts for the more specific readings and discussions to come.

catch and release by blockI decided to bump the scheduled classes along a day in Pulp Fiction and make up for it later, so today we picked up right where we left off last Wednesday, with the idea of “pulp fiction” and assumptions about differences between genre fiction and literary fiction. Then we turned to our first reading, Lawrence Block’s creepy little story “How Would You Like It?” It’s a story that doesn’t quite fit into any of the genres we’re actually studying–I suppose it is a kind of crime story, but it isn’t a detective story. It’s an attention-getting story, though, or at least I hope it is, and it’s useful for starting conversations about point of view, tone, and varieties of narrators, including unreliable ones. I wasn’t sure students would be willing to talk in class, given its relatively large size (120) and the rather formal lecture hall, but a lot of hands seemed to be going up, so I’m encouraged. I wonder if my using a microphone helps keep people involved because everyone can hear what’s happening: I am trying to be scrupulous about repeating students’ questions before I answer them, and also since it is wireless I can move around the room, including going up the stairs.

orczyIn Women & Detective Fiction, I decided we would stay on schedule: Monday’s class was supposed to be spent discussion a cluster of ‘classic’ detective stories to provide touchstones for our often subversive takes on classic tropes: I’d assigned “The Purloined Letter,” “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and Hammett’s “Death & Company,” one of his Continental Op stories. I think we can hit the main points about these quickly at the start of today’s class, and then return to them through comparisons with today’s assigned readings: Baroness Orczy’s “The Woman in the Big Hat” (one of her Lady Molly of Scotland Yard stories) and Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers.” Both of these stories begin our term’s work of highlighting the ways gender matters to fundamental questions in detective fiction, including who has the expertise and authority to solve the crime and what “justice” means in a context where women’s experiences in particular and a broader context of sexism mean that the law may not provide it.

So that’s what’s up this week! It was a somewhat turbulent start to the term but it’s not as if there’s anything I could have done about that, and things are settling down already. We’re also still in the deceptively calm period before much marking has to be done, so I’m not feeling overwhelmed … yet.


Still Teaching, Still Blogging About It!

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYTomorrow I kick of my 25th year of teaching at Dalhousie and my 13th year of blogging about the process. Five years ago I took stock of what I had to show for what was then just a “20 year investment in Dalhousie”:

My academic research and publications certainly count as accomplishments, but when I am having a “save Tinkerbell moment” and need my belief [in this work] restored, my surest remedy is a browse through the fat file folder I have of thank-you cards and messages from students. It’s enormously uplifting to know that the part I played in their lives mattered to them.

I also, I noted, had the benefit of experience, and “a drawer full of notes, handouts, transparencies, and other materials, as well as acres of virtual storage devoted to more of the same”–and I had worked out some effective (for me) strategies to handle the logistical chaos of term, from designated shelves for course materials to ample supplies of post-it notes.

officeIt wouldn’t make much of a post to say that five years later, nothing has changed! And yet in most respects that’s true. (Certainly my office looks more or less the same.) I think, or at least I hope, that the consistency in my priorities and methods is a sign of success, not stagnation. I still take class preparation seriously and regularly look for ways to change things up, whether it’s refreshing my reading lists (as I spent a lot of time working on during my recent sabbatical) or taking on new classes (such as Pulp Fiction, which I offered for the first time in 2017). Like the strong scaffolding I aim to provide with my materials for individual courses, my now well-established routines free me up from a lot (though never all!) of the stress of just keeping everything running, so that as much as possible I’m concentrating on matters of substance. This is one of the reasons I wish there wasn’t so much emphasis on innovation in discussions of higher ed. There’s something to be said for stability, and for sticking with things that you know are effective. Change for the sake of novelty is not desirable–but to hear some pundits and administrators talk, you’d sure think it was better to be constantly experimenting with gimmicks and gadgets than focusing your attention directly on your students and the material you’re working through together. (Also, alas, many of the innovations that are hyped these days are really attempts to compensate for the sad fact that we can’t pay as much attention to our students as we’d like given increasing class size and diminished numbers of permanent faculty.)

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsThere won’t be big changes in my pedagogy this year, then: just the usual tweaks to see if I can get an exercise or an assignment or a reading to go a bit more smoothly or get better results. That doesn’t mean there won’t be surprises or challenges, though. That’s the thing about teaching! Every time you do the “same” thing–discuss the same book, assign the same essay topic, ask the same exam question, whatever–you are doing it with a different group of people and in a different context, not just of your own changing ideas but of theirs, which are shaped by the other courses they are taking and readings they are doing and experiences they are having–and by your life in the moment and their lives too. One of the scary, exhausting, and stimulating things about teaching is that no matter how carefully you have prepared, you never know what exactly is going to happen in the classroom that day. You just show up, bring what you’ve got, and try your best to shape, steer, listen, and respond in a way that serves the goals that you have for the course. In my case, though there are more specific objectives that vary from class to class, my fundamental goal is simply to help my students have as good a conversation about our readings as possible (meaning one that is well-informed and attentive to both text and contexts) so that they will carry away with them a sense of both how to do that and why it’s worth doing. We talk a lot these days about “transferable skills,” and those certainly matter, but the reason I teach English instead of something else is that I consider that specific work well worth doing for its own sake.

cassatOn that motivational note, the two courses on my teaching schedule for this fall term are Pulp Fiction (a large introductory-level class) and Women and Detective Fiction (a small upper-year seminar). I’ve spent a lot of time over the last several weeks getting things in order for them; although I’m a bit anxious, as always at the start of term, at this point I’m eager just to get going. Once again, I will be writing about them here. Though sometimes over the years I have wondered if I’ll find anything new to say in this blog series, the exercise itself always proves that I do, and it also always proves valuable in the same ways I explained after my first year of doing it. Blogging about my teaching prods me to reflect on it rather than just get through it and move on; I think it has made me a better teacher as a result. The archive of these posts is also now a helpful resource, for me definitely, and perhaps for others: a record of ideas about both specific texts and broader pedagogical concerns. The high hopes some of us once had for academic blogging may have faded but for me at least, there are still lots of good reasons to be an academic who blogs.

“Wilderness Begins”: Sarah Hall, The Wolf Border

wolf-borderThe branches rustle behind her, the lipping wind or birds flitting between trunks, something stepping back under cover. There’s no one there, but she suddenly feels self-conscious, watched. She stands and looks into the trees, their dark old republic. The perfect environment for ambushing lynx, or bear. She would like to believe Thomas, to think that the country as a whole will one day re-wild, whatever its new man-made divisions created at the ballot box. She would like to believe there will be a place, again, where the streetlights end and wilderness begins. The wolf border. And if this is where it has to begin in England, she thinks, this rich, disqualifying plot, with its private sponsorship and antiquated hierarchy, so be it. The ends justify the means.

On my recent trip to London, during one of my leisurely browses in the Waterstones nearest my hotel, I got to chatting with the young woman at the counter and mentioned Sarah Moss. “Oh,” she said with enthusiasm: “She wrote Mrs. Fox.” “I don’t think so,” I replied, fairly certain but wondering if I’d somehow missed one of Moss’s novels. She, however, was very sure she was right and went defiantly off to confirm the authorship of Mrs. Fox on her computer. A minute or so later she came back and said (without a hint of apology for doubting me!) “Oh! That’s Sarah Hall.”

It’s an understandable enough confusion–two Sarahs, both alike in dignity! As I read The Wolf Border, though, I found myself thinking that, at least on the basis of this one novel by Sarah Hall, there is more proximity between these writers than just their first names. The Wolf Border had the same kind of propulsive but also cerebral energy that I enjoy and admire so much in Moss’s novels. It is built around a scenario that, like those in Moss’s fiction, is not at first glance terribly complicated, at least not structurally, but as the action unfolds its parts begin to resonate with meaning that amplifies their significance beyond the work they are doing as devices to move the characters along. There is a beautiful tactility to Hall’s rendering of nature, as there is to Moss’s in Ghost Wall, and, similar again, the landscape is haunted by its past, providing an alluring but also faintly threatening and unstable setting for a future that is uncertain in interesting ways. Here’s a small sample of Hall’s prose that for me captures something of its appeal:

She looks towards the hide. Under the netting, Gregor will still be filming, focusing the high-powered lens, perhaps following their progress between the thorn trees, along the ridge to the summit, where they will contemplate the broad expanses of Annerdale, and decide which route to take. Rachel looks over the estate. Russet ferns and the knitted furze. The signature fells beyond. Long silhouettes drool from bushes and trees; all the land’s contours are exposed, every curve, every corrie and glacier cut, everything looks shadow-cast, so beautifully sheer.

hall-wIt’s not mannered or ornate, but its rhythms are varied and its vocabulary and word placement are full of small surprises.

The subjects under observation in that excerpt are the two wolves whose introduction onto the Annerdale estate Rachel has overseen as part of an ambitious plan to restore the natural balance of predators and prey. Through Rachel’s work Hall provides a fascinating overview of this process and trains us to look with awed but also, perhaps strangely, loving eyes at the wolves themselves. While they are still in quarantine during the first phase of their introduction to their new territory, Rachel watches them through the night-vision cameras the team has set up:

After a while, they move up towards the hide, into plain view, their coats strangely highlighted, eyes eerie bulbs of light. Darkness is liberty for them, but what comes in darkness to challenge their dominance is the worst thing they face. Another pack, ambushing. Humans. Juggernauts on the highways. Tonight they are playful. Ra trots alongside and then passes Merle, falls back, passes her again. He rises on his hind legs, circles his head, like a boxer. He tugs at her ruff. The day’s languid canine is gone. He is a night hunter, like the legend. . . Ra rolls on his back, rubbing the top of his head backward and forward on the ground, his legs kicking, dopey, submissive. Merle stands over him. Rachel smiles. It is at night that they seem most sacred to her: ghost-like, elegant, and frivolous.

Later, when the wolves are free to roam more widely, she takes a friend’s daughter out to see if they can get a glimpse of them. They spot them”picking their way past boulders and trees”:

They  move mostly in plain view, disappearing for a time behind rods of stone, Merle smoking through the brown bracken. Ra’s pale coat glows in the winter gloom like halogen. They disappear into a grove of trees beside the river.

It is “less than a minute’s payoff for half a day’s investment” but the girl is thrilled: “she is the first child in England to see wild wolves at large.” The excitement is contagious: I found myself completely absorbed by the drama of these animals, so fierce and beautiful and yet, by some, feared and unwelcome and thus vulnerable.

mrs foxThe wolves’ story is entwined with the story of Rachel’s pregnancy, the birth of her child, and the evolution of her relationships with her brother, from whom she has long been alienated. Without setting up overt or heavy-handed parallels, Hall creates a sense of common rhythms to the two stories: Merle and Ra grow in confidence, expanding their domain and skills and, eventually, their own family, as Rachel in her turn is easing the tight control she has always kept over herself, allowing other people into her space and finding there is room in it for feelings she had always thought were antithetical to her independence. As the wolves grow wilder, she becomes more domestic–but that is too pat a way to put either unfolding story. Rachel’s experience in particular shows there are risks and challenges at home too: different needs and desires to be held in what is sometimes a precarious balance. Then alongside this personal drama there’s also a political dimension, one that didn’t really come into focus for me until fairly late in the novel, though it’s clear from early on that Hall is interested in the artifice of human barriers (fences, walls, borders) and the tension they create with nature, which does not understand or respect them. One thing Rachel and her team cannot do is let the wolves run truly wild, for example, but as long as they are enclosed, no matter how generous the space allotted, they must be managed, their natural proclivities shaped to fit man-made limitations. What would it mean for them (or us) to override these boundaries?

michelangeloTo return to my Sarah Moss comparison, I found The Wolf Border not just well-written and engrossing but consistently interesting in the same way that I did The Tidal Zone or Ghost Wall. It’s a novel that is clearly motivated by ideas but it isn’t overwhelmed by them. I have stepped lightly across its specific events, partly because it isn’t really a plot-driven novel, but its plot does have an elegant arc to it that does more than provide an excuse to write marvelously about wolves. I chose The Wolf Border because it looked a bit more conventional than Hall’s other novels, but I trust her enough now that if I only could, I would duck back into Waterstones and pick up the rest of them.


“Instead of Nothing”: William Trevor, The Story of Lucy Gault


She should have died a child; she knows that but has never said it to the nuns, has never included in the story of herself the days that felt like years when she lay among the fallen stones. It would have lowered their spirits, although it lifts her own because instead of nothing there is what there is.

The Story of Lucy Gault is a melancholy, tender, and strangely comforting novel about the devastating consequences of hatred, violence, and loss. It begins in 1921 with an act of self-defense, a shot fired to scare away boys who have come to “fire” the Gaults’ home of Lahardane on the coast of Ireland. They had been by once before but the dogs had scared them away; “within a week the dogs lay poisoned in the yard, and Captain Gault knew that the intruders would be back.” The bullet strikes one of the boys, and though he does not die the incident makes the anger and suspicion and fear in the community worse and finally Captain Gault and his English wife Heloise decide to leave Ireland. “The trouble will go on,” Heloise tells her husband, “truce or not. You can tell it will. You can feel it. We can’t be protected, Everard.” So they make their plans, pack their things, and say their goodbyes.

But they underestimate their daughter Lucy’s fierce resistance to leaving her home, where she knows and loves every stream and path and stone:

“I won’t go.”

She ran from the room and ran down to her crossing stones. They came to find her, calling out in the woods, but everything she said to them on the way back, they didn’t hear. They didn’t want to hear, they didn’t want to listen.

Much later, Everard will insist that this was their failure, that they carry the blame for what happens next: “that a child’s anxieties had been impatiently ignored was the cruelty that remained.” Because of it, Lucy comes up with a scheme to derail their planned departure. It goes horribly awry and the consequences change everything, for her parents, who leave believing they have lost her forever, and for Lucy, who ends up staying on at Lahardane but in circumstances none of them ever imagined.

gault-3There’s an almost stately simplicity to the novel’s unfolding after this precipitating crisis, which launches its characters into a strange state of limbo. Lucy’s parents, unaware of developments back in Lahardane, roam Europe, exiled from home and happiness by their grief and guilt; Lucy, shamed by what she has done, pays penance for it with a life of near total isolation, even refusing love, when it is offered, as something she cannot accept “until she felt forgiven.” When a reunion finally comes, it is almost too late to repair the damage they have collectively wrought or to make up for the time spent apart, mourning and waiting. There is redemption in the story, though, and it comes from what the nuns who visit Lucy late in her life call her “gift of mercy.” Lucy herself sees nothing extraordinary in what she has done, nothing that needs the kind of explanation others wish they could command: “for what does it matter, really, why people visit one another or walk behind a coffin, only that they do?”

The Story of Lucy Gault is elegantly structured, bringing us patiently around to complete the pattern begun by Everard’s shot in the dark. The story itself is first gripping then almost unbearably heart-wrenching, and then, slowly, it unfurls into a kind of sad, calm beauty. There’s something mesmerizing about the cadences of Trevor’s prose, which is measured but not minimalist, evocative but completely without flourish. Unlike some contemporary writers whose sparse writing seems very flat to me, with little of interest below its dull surface, Trevor’s pulses softly with meaning and feeling. Every page yields a potential example, though it is the cumulative effect that is most powerful. Here’s a sample that perhaps conveys the qualities I liked so much. “For her part,” he tells us,

Lucy did not wonder much about the nature of exile, accepting, with time, what had come about, as she did her lameness and the features that were reflected in her looking-glass. Had Canon Crosbie raised with her the question of going out into the world, she would have replied that the nature and tenets of her life had already been laid down for her. She waited, she would have said, and in doing so kept faith. Each room was dusted clean; each chair, each table, each ornament was as they were remembered. Her full summer vases, her bees, her footsteps on the stairs and on the landings, and crossing rooms and in the cobbled yard and on the gravel, were what she offered. She was not lonely; sometimes she could hardly remember loneliness. ‘Oh, but I’m happy,’ she would have reassured the clergyman had he asked her. ‘Happy enough, you know.’

lucy-gault-2Is the story of Lucy Gault a tragic one? I don’t think so. It is a sad one, certainly, but for all its heartbreak the novel conveys the same sense of peace that draws the visiting nuns to Lucy’s home:

Her tranquillity is their astonishment. For that they come, to be amazed again that such peace is there: all they have heard, and still hear now, does not record it. Calamity shaped a life when, long ago, chance was so cruel. Calamity shapes the story that is told, and is the reason for its being: is what they know, besides, the gentle fruit of such misfortune’s harvest? They like to think so: she has sensed it that they do.

It’s not that there’s a silver lining to the Gault family’s “calamity”: Trevor offers us nothing so pat. I think what makes the novel comforting in spite of its characters’ thwarted joy is that, like Lucy, it settles us into the day-to-day possibilities of grace without insisting that a life without more than that is a failure. “Instead of nothing there is what there is,” Lucy reflects, and what there is has beauty that is its own kind of happiness:

She settles in her chair by the window, to gaze out at the dusky blue of the hydgrangeas. The avenue has gone shadowy, the outline of its trees stark against the sky. The rooks come down to scrabble in the grass as every evening at this time they do, her companions while she watches the fading of the day.

The Whipple Line: Someone At A Distance

whipple“We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink. Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us. A considerable body of women novelists, who wrote like the very devil, bit the Virago dust when Alexandra, Lynn and I exchanged books and reports, on which I would scrawl a brief rejection: ‘Below the Whipple line.'” — Carmen Callil

A few years back, reading Vera Brittain’s The Dark Tide got me thinking about “books that are bad in uninteresting ways and books that are bad and yet somehow still interesting.” The Dark Tide, I concluded, was of the second sort: conspicuously flawed but energetic and purposeful in a way that made me want to engage with it. Reading Dorothy Whipple’s Someone At A Distance made me wonder: can a book be good and yet also uninteresting? What would that mean, exactly, for any reasonable definition of “good”? Reverting, as I often do, to George Henry Lewes’s remarks about Jane Austenthat she was “the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end”maybe what it means is that a book can be good on its own terms (the means to its end), but that those terms (that end) might not be particularly challenging or complex.*

In the end, that’s what I felt about Someone At A Distance. It read very easily: its interlocking stories of an English family and the young French woman who infiltrates and then destroys it are neatly executed; its people are sharply delineated; the consequences of the affair are believably painful, especially for the blindsided Ellen, who up to the very moment her husband Avery’s betrayal is revealed has thought herself the happiest of wives. She is wholly unprepared for a life without him at its center. “We’re not the new sort of women,” an unlikely ally later tells her,

with University degrees in Economics, like those women who speak on the Radio nowadays, girls who can do anything. We’re ordinary women, who married too young to get a training, and we’ve spent the best years of our lives keeping house for our husbands. Not that we didn’t enjoy it, but now you’re out on your ear like me at over forty.


Whipple conveys Ellen’s shock and grief with real pathos. She also does a good job with Ellen and Avery’s daughter Anne, knocked abruptly out of her childhood idyll by these adult complications:

They stood in the morning sunlight, looking at each other, and from her mother’s face Anne learned, in another lesson, that the grown-up world was not what she had thought it was, not a place of power and fulfilment, but a place of helplessness, pain and ugliness. A world not to enter. Until now, Anne had run joyfully forward, but now she was halted. She shrank back. She had learnt suspicion and distrust and most of all the fear of life that sickens the youthful heart and from which it takes too long to recover, if recover it does.

That’s all pretty well done, I think, and the unfolding of Ellen’s gradual recovery in counterpoint with Avery’s bitterness and regret carries the novel nicely through to its conclusion.

whipple-3But. It really doesn’t do more than tell this story. There aren’t any layers to it. The characters are fairly two dimensional, especially the French temptress Louise, who to me was the novel’s weakest element. She’s a selfish narcissist who takes what she wants for her own gratification. The whole catastrophe, in fact, is the result of her resentment at an old lover in her home town in France, himself blithely ignorant “that he, at such a distance, could have had anything to do with the breaking up of that family” or with the rift that opens up between Louise and her own parents. Her unmitigated nastiness sapped the novel of any chance of a real moral or emotional dilemma at its center: Avery is wrong to get involved with her and that’s that. Whipple plays out the moves on the board she has set up, but there’s nothing in it for us to think about: we just follow it all through to the end. And that is just not a terribly interesting exercise: Ellen is a bit of a limp noodle, and the solution that unfolds to her problem of finding her own place in the world is too pat, too easy.

trollopeI did enjoy Someone At A Distance in the moment, but I also found myself comparing it unfavorably to another much better book (in my opinion) about an affair, Joanna Trollope’s Marrying the Mistress. In Trollope’s novel the “mistress” is a genuinely sympathetic character; the relationship that develops creates a genuine tension for the husband and then, eventually, for his children, who can’t help but like his new partner in spite of their loyalty to their mother; and the marriage that ends, while not a bad one, has weak spots that made it vulnerableindeed, that maybe even made its end, while painful, a change worth bringing about. Yet even though her mistress is not an evil temptress, Trollope is less sentimental about love, and less blandly optimistic about fixing what has been broken. Someone At A Distance ends with the promise of restoration, but why? Knowing what she now knows about her husband, what is that promise worth to Ellen? I didn’t really care, though: by that point I was ready to be finished with her.

I guess for me the bottom line (my version of the Whipple line?) is that competence in story-telling, and even in characterization, isn’t enough. I’d rather read a more ambitious novel that falls short than a novel that doesn’t do more than Someone At A Distance, no matter how well it’s done. I think Carmen Callil may have been on to something with her disparagement of Whipple as not quite good enough. And yet I can’t argue with the introduction, which praises Whipple’s ability to “take an ordinary tale and make it compulsive reading.”

*I am not saying Austen is not great! Just that the idea of suiting means to end is a useful way to gauge literary success.

“I’m a disgrace”: Cressida Connolly, After the Party

connollyWe all have our crosses to bear, our own personal sorrows. Mine is that the people who should be dearest to me, my own children, my sisters, consider me a bad woman. The grandchildren have been taught to be wary. I think I’m a disgrace to them, really. After the war when the newsreel film was shown of what had gone on in Germany and Poland, those places, the horrors . . . It all got tangled up in their minds, as if we’d stood for such barbarism.

Reading Cressida Connolly’s After the Party I kept waiting for the storm to burst–for some twist or spin or revelation to up-end the unnervingly sedate account of an upper-crust family’s entanglement with Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.  It never really happened, and as I finished the novel I felt disappointed, but then as I sat and thought about it for a while I started to wonder if the easy slide of the whole story was in fact the point. For Phyllis, the main character, “the party” is just another political option. She is baffled and offended when her ailing mother’s caretaker tells her off: “I’ve no quarrel with her,” she says;

She doesn’t parade about the streets in uniform, like your children and your sister Nina. It’s you two that need to look to your consciences, following that wicked man … You with your salutes and uniforms and speechifying: you’re nothing better than a bunch of traitors. Thugs they are, most of them. Just because you don’t bring your flags and banners here, don’t think word doesn’t spread.

“Our politics are no concern of yours; nor yours of ours,” Phyllis replies huffily; “We vote by secret ballot in these islands for this very reason, so that neighbours and friends shall not be divided by their beliefs.”

connolly-2Even after her long imprisonment Phyllis remains indignant that her commitment to Mosley’s cause has cost her anything at all and especially that it has led to people concluding she is not a good person. It would be at once pathetic and laughable if it weren’t also plausible and unhappily timely: Phyllis insists that she and her fascist friends were very fine people. The novel approaches them with sly delicacy, never presenting them as outright villains but allowing the us to experience their moral corruption through the lens of Phyllis’s own self-justifications. It also focuses on the personal relationships that naturalize and sanitize the fascist cause for those directly involved, keeping the political context just vague enough that the reader almost has to shake herself to remember that what they stand for is not acceptable, that fascism isn’t just one reasonable choice among many no matter how elegantly its proponents are dressed or how preoccupied they are with their families, lovers, and friends.

There’s something sly about the way the novel mimics a different kind of country-house saga, just as there’s something quietly insidious about the ease with which, once introduced to it by her sister Nina, Phyllis and her husband Hugh embrace the Party and come to admire “the Leader.” They aren’t coerced or bullied; they aren’t suffering from economic anxiety or facing any deprivation or threat; they just go to luncheons and picnics and summer camps and dinner parties … with Oswald Mosley. It’s all superficially very civilized–but under this influence their daughter Julia vandalizes a local theater with the slogan “PJ” (for “Perish Judah”). Phyllis is initially uneasy. “Surely that’s taking things rather too far,” she says to Nina; “I don’t suppose any of them have ever even seen a Jew,” to which Nina knowingly replies, “You’re not quite up to speed with it all.” Hugh, too, is unconcerned: the theatre troupe is made up of “frightful people” who refused to rent their space to the Party when “the Leader himself was coming down to give a talk”: “the theatre people were quite rude. Said our views were against the principles of common decency, anathema, that sort of thing.” When Phyllis argues that “we don’t want anyone to perish,” Hugh urges her not to “overreact.” And so Phyllis slips ever further into the abyss.

So much for a free country,” Phyllis complains as she looks back on the disgrace she and Hugh faced after their release; “You may have the freedom to express your views, but they’ll still damn you for them.” Anti-semitic violence, apologists for fascism, self-righteous hostility about deplatforming “controversial” speakers, willfully ignorant both-sides arguments, and over it all a veneer of civility that smugly insists protest and confrontation are more offensive than the loathsome ideology being protested against: it’s a good thing After the Party is a historical novel–we wouldn’t want to see anything like that going on today!