Together in Spirit

An online reading group ('TIS a reading group!) to bring together friends, and friends of friends, who aren't able to be in a conventional reading group due to constraints of time or geography.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Review of 2009 VMCs

Sue asked me at the TIS lunch which VMCs I’d recommend. She probably didn’t anticipate the screed below, but I have enjoyed putting my thoughts in order, even if you don’t feel the need to read it all. To cut to the chase, the book I’d probably recommend for any or all of you is Nina Bawden’s The birds on the trees. It deals with a middle class family’s anxt as Toby drops out of the life they’ve prepared for him. Although Toby can charm the birds off the trees, I think the title refers to those not charmed by him, those who have to deal with his behaviour, i.e. those who remain on the trees. The characters are all multi-dimensional – not least because the book is written in various voices, past and present, of the main characters. I really enjoyed it, and think it is the only one that would have universal TIS appeal.

But Emily and I have chosen The ballad and the source by Rosamond Lehmann as a future TIS book, so we can see what we all think. I tried Lehmann in my thirties to no noticeable effect: I think I needed to be of mature years to embark on this voyage of discovery with the deep pleasure I have had so far.

The story so far
I conceived the idea of trying to read my way through all the VMCs in 2008 when there was a lot of press publicity on their 30th anniversary. One article in particular, by Jonathan Coe, (My literary love affair, The Guardian 6.10.07) challenged the notion of classics on university English courses in the 1980s and listed some of his favourites. Then Carmen Callil wrote about why she had founded the Classics series (The stories of our lives, The Guardian 26.4.08), describing how friends recommended titles that should not be allowed to disappear into obscurity and also which paintings should be used on the covers (reason enough for collecting many of them). She also explains here the choice of ‘Virago’: ‘We spent hours trawling through books on goddesses ancient and modern, until Rosie [Boycott] spotted an entry for a female warrior, a Virago. We chose it for this heroic meaning: a strong, courageous, outspoken woman, a battler… [When asked] why did I give my women’s publishing company such an aggressive, man-hating name? Irony, I would reply.’

Most of the volumes carry the following, which I quote this at some length as it largely explains why I’ve decided to cram 500+ volumes in to my remaining reading years. At say 20 a year, I’m obviously not going to make it, but I shall enjoy the challenge.

The first VMC , Frost in May by Antonia White, was published in 1978. it launched a list dedicated to the celebration of women writers and to the rediscovery and reprinting of their works. Its aim was, and is, to demonstrate the existence of a female tradition in fiction which is both enriching and enjoyable. The Leavisite notion of the ‘Great Tradition’, and the narrow, academic definition of a ‘classic’, has meant the neglect of a large number of interesting secondary works of fiction. In calling the series ‘Modern Classics’ we do not necessarily mean ‘great’ – although this is often the case. Published with new critical and biographical introductions, books are chosen for many reasons: sometimes for their importance in literary history; sometimes because they illuminate particular aspects of womens’ [sic] lives, both personal and public. They may be classics of comedy or story telling; their interest can be historical, feminist, political or literary.

In The uncommon reader, Alan Bennett is clearly of the opinion that if the first books the Queen had read had been duffs, then the story would not have unfolded as it did. This is true of me and VMCs: the first I read under this new dispensation (I’d read various novels that had happened to be VMCs over the years) was Edith Wharton’s House of mirth, a more melancholy book it is difficult to imagine, but excellent nonetheless; this was followed by Molly Kean’s Good behaviour which made me laugh out loud and then Vita Sackville West’s All passion spent, about an 80 year old living it up in her last years to her own huge pleasure and everyone else’s displeasure, again, extremely funny. So I was hooked. Although, since, there have been three which for various reasons I haven’t finished, that’s not bad out of 30 – and with 500 to go, I can’t afford to waste time.

Review of 2009 VMCs
The full list of 19 VMCs I’ve read this year is appended below and within that list are examples of the ‘types’ recognised in the VMC introduction.
Classics of comedy: I’ve already mentioned Good behaviour and All passion spent which I read in 2008 and I’m now reading E M Delafield’s Diary of a provincial lady (four books in one) which has got me through a pretty trying Christmas. I’m pretty sure Valerie will like this kind of humour – you know in the first page if it’s for you or not.

Classics of story telling: Antonia White’s Frost in May quartet I found unputdownable and, like many other readers, wish she had gone on to write number 5. Frost in May tells the story of nine year old Nanda/Clara, a new convert to Catholicism, who spends her formative years in a convent school in the 1930s where her genuine devotion is at war with her spirited character. As Mother Radcliffe says, more than once, “…every will must be broken completely and reset before it can be at one with God’s will.” For a non-Catholic, this and all the other observances and requirements are fascinating and disquieting. Clara’s story continues in the following books, culminating in her mental breakdown. The depiction of madness and especially of life in the Bethlem Asylum (now the Imperial War Museum) is so harrowing as to seem unbelievable – yet apparently ‘White remembers every moment of the ten moths she spent [there]’. Between these two extremes she falls in and out of love and marriage and tries acting and writing – all of which is autobiographical: ‘My life is the raw material for the novels, but writing an autobiography and writing fiction are very different things’. I think both Sue and Valerie would enjoy these (if Valerie can face another quartet after Paul Scott).

Historical: by definition they are all historical now, even if the subject was current when it was written. This adds a certain poignancy to some of the books – particularly The Lying days written in South Africa as apartheid was being introduced, without any foreknowledge of how it would develop or how long it would last. I’d particularly recommend My Antonia, a wonderful evocation of the life of early pioneers in Nebraska, and Anderby Wold, the story of how a small farming community in the East Riding in 1912 experience the beginnings of socialist change.

Feminist: well, they’re all feminist, from the strident Women’s room to the gentle but acute Diary of a provincial lady.

Political: it is for the context, often the socio-political context, that I really read these books, and none more so than Gellhorn’s A Stricken field and Gordimer’s The lying days. A stricken field is flawed as a novel, but draws on Gellhorn’s experience as a journalist in Czechoslovakia in 1938 when the Nazis began to annex the country and her involvement with the refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. It is certainly the most informative, powerful and disturbing book I have read this year. Even Bobbin up, hopeless as a novel, is unforgettable in its depiction of the lives of women workers in post-war Australian woollen mills - the horrendous working conditions, the impact this has on family life, the near illiteracy of the workers, the inability of the Communists to make any impression, and the inevitable consequences of the strike. The personal is indeed the political.

Literary: maybe someone would like to tell me quite what this means?

Many of these books have again gone out of print and the original ethos of VMCs seems to have been lost, though the imprint remains. New names have been added to the list (e.g. Daphne du Maurier) and the instantly recognisable green covers have been updated, retaining just a coy bitten apple to identify them. Part of the pleasure for me is scanning charity and second hand book shops for another volume, confident in the knowledge that I’m almost bound to enjoy whatever I find.

Nina Bawden The birds on the trees 369
Willa Cather My Antonia
Barbara Comyns Our spoons came from Woolworths
RM Dashwood Provincial daughter 482
Marilyn French The women’s room 437
Martha Gellhorn A stricken field
Martha Gelhorn Liana 248
Nadine Gordimer The lying days
Dorothy Hewett Bobbin up 172
Winifred Holtby Anderby Wold
Storm Jameson Company parade 90
Molly Keane Devoted ladies 138
Joyce Carol Oates A garden of earthly delights 472
GB Stern The matriarch 249
Elizabeth Taylor Angel 135
Antonia White Frost in May 1
Antonia White The lost traveller 13
Antonia White The sugar house
Antonia White Beyond the glass