The Penguin Rocker and More Books

I have been very remiss in not showing you a photo of the chair Mr Litlove made me for my birthday. Yes, I know what you are thinking: how many more chairs can be deemed anniversary gifts before there is no more room in the house? A very good question, my friends. The answer: not many.

But in the meantime, I’ve always wanted a rocking chair and now I have one. We’ve been unofficially calling it the penguin chair because it just has that flippered look about it. One misconception I’ve been harboring about rocking chairs is that they have their own momentum. Well, they sort of do, but the experience is akin to being on a garden swing. You need to put a little kinetic energy in to keep going. I do think it’s the perfect chair for listening to audio books. I can’t knit as an accompanying activity, so that option is out of the question, but I can steeple my fingers and nod wisely with the best of them.

Now, some more books and let’s plunge into controversy with Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Cather is one of my all-time favourite authors, and at the start of the year I had a re-reading session with her novels. I read The Professor’s House and A Lost Lady again, which are both flawless masterpieces to me. Sapphira is Cather’s last novel, published in 1940 when she was tired and bitter, nostalgic for the past, horrified by the war in Europe and suffering a chronic wrist injury that prevented her from writing in comfort. Maybe for these reasons it’s a darker novel than many, although Cather never loses touch with the beauty of nature and the innate potential for compassion in her characters. It’s set in Virginia way back in the 1850s and concerns the household of local mill owner, Henry Colbert. His aristocratic wife came to him at their marriage with black slaves from her homestead, and although Henry is deeply uncomfortable with slavery, he understands that this is how his wife manages domesticity. He can’t upset the apple cart to the extent of turning the slaves free (in 1850, he’s not sure where they’d go), and so his intention is to treat his people with as much generosity and kindness he can muster, and ensure their lives with him are good.

Sapphira’s relationship to her slaves is quite different. Although we understand that she has been, across her lifetime, a good and generous mistress, just lately a few distressing problems have soured her outlook. First of all, Sapphira has recently become crippled with dropsy – extremely swollen ankles – and must deal with both physical restriction and pain. As a lady she bears it stoically, but it’s not helping her temper. Added to the humiliation of bodily woes, she suspects that her pretty black maid, Nancy, is having an affair with her husband. Now, no such thing is taking place. Henry admires Nancy and he has respect for the attention she brings to her chores. There may be something a tad guilty lurking in the back of his mind, which is why he can’t bring himself to act when he realises a serious problem exists between the women. But Henry isn’t much of an instigator at the best of times. So, lack of communication between husband and wife is consolidated by Sapphira’s jealous mind with suspicion, and the indignity and embarrassment of encroaching old age. Not content with chiding and scolding Nancy and smacking her with a hairbrush at the least opportunity, Sapphira decides to act out in a far worse way.

She contacts the family rake and invites him for a lovely long stay. Naturally, said rake finds Nancy extremely alluring and, since she’s a slave and readily available to him, he’s determined to satisfy his lust. Poor Nancy is in a terrible position. If she becomes pregnant she’ll be thrown out, but how can she avoid the unwelcome attentions of an arrogant, entitled white master? Well, as it turns out, Sapphira and Henry have a daughter, Rachel Blake, and Rachel can’t abide slavery:

It was the owning that was wrong, the relation itself, no matter how convenient or agreeable it might be for master or servant. She had always known it was wrong. It was the thing that made her unhappy at home and came between her and her mother. How she hated her mother’s voice in sarcastic reprimand to the servants! And she hated it in contemptuous indulgence.

Rachel sets out to help Nancy, only it will come at a heavy price for her.

Now here we run into the controversy. This seems to me to be a pretty enlightened tale for 1940, and it would be a humanitarian miracle for 1850. But the criticism that I’ve read of it says it’s still not good enough for the new millennium. The thrust of the story is entirely about the awful consequences that can occur when some people believe they have absolute power over others. But in the general areas of the narrative, there’s enough to offend the sensibilities of some. The term ‘darkies’ is used occasionally. When the slaves are all finally freed, one goes to the bad, which I’ve seen stated as cause for concern. There’s a general sense of the primitive in the descriptions of the servants. I suppose if you have delicate sensitivities in this area, then maybe it’s better to read something else. But it seems to me that if you open a newspaper,  there are far worse examples of racism to be had in the world today than in this book. If you’re okay with historical fiction and its vicissitudes, then it’s worth reading. Myself, I’d rather not miss out on the message that even good people can be corrupted by a fatal combination of misguided entitlement and their own insecurities. In fact, it seems to me vital that such a message be heard right here and now. It seems essential to me to read books like this, flaws and all, to see how much has changed, and how little.

Well I have wittered on so long that once again I’ve used up my thousand words with many more books still to be discussed. Hope to come visiting you all soon, too, and see what you’ve been reading.

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20 thoughts on “The Penguin Rocker and More Books

  1. I liked Sapphira and the Slave girl – though I understand completely the controversy it causes. There were some uncomfortable moments and it’s not my favourite Cather. However I think it is still good on many levels and fascinating too.

    • I completely agree with you. My reasons for ranking it lower than other Cathers are about different issues – the slightly surprising move into an autobiographical tone at the end for instance. But Cather is Cather, and that woman doesn’t know how to write a dull word.

  2. Love that chair – very impressive! If I ever need anything woodworky done, I know to come to Mr. Litlove!

    As for the Cather – I always think we have to allow for the context of the times when books were written. Let’s not forget it was written at a time when there was still segregation in the South and as you point out we’re not exactly free of racism nowadays. I think you have to be prepared to accept what’s in the book or just not read it – there’s no point reading it just to criticise what doesn’t sit well today!

    • Oh please do! 🙂

      And I agree with you when it comes to historical context. It seems a shame to me that we can’t celebrate authors for their enlightened vision – which is often the case when put in the context of their age – but have to criticize them for not foreseeing the ideology of the 21st century. I do think that as a reader, you’re either in or out. If you’re in then you square up to historical reality. If you’re out, that’s fine. There are plenty of books in the world.

  3. J > Wow. What a wonderful chair! Hogglestock introduced me to Willa Cather. Obviously entirely different in subject matter, but there seems to me to be an inherent tragedy in her life and writing which makes me draw parallels with Mary Webb.

    • Now Mary Webb is an author I have never read. Where do you think I should start? I’d be delighted to give anyone in the Cather category a try! And thank you for your kind words about the chair. 🙂

      • J > Mary Webb’s subject matter is along the lines of Thomas Hardy, though perhaps with more wild romanticism (especially about the landscape) and perhaps at times that can compromise the credulity we bring as readers. Her stories are all set in Shropshire, especially SW Shropshire – an area she knew really intimately (as indeed D and I do from living there at two periods of our lives). Gone to Earth is powerful stuff, but I think the book that left the most enduring mark on me, certainly, is Precious Bane, set in N Shropshire. There are few writers who can evoke a particular landscape, season, and the people who are rooted in that landscape – that can do so as powerfully as Mary Webb.

  4. I haven’t read this, but what strikes me about the way you describe it isn’t so much the window dressing of words like “darkies”, but the fact that it actually seems pretty optimistic—perhaps foolishly so—about the essential benevolence of white people in the South. If Cather wants us to think that Henry is a basically good person, the obvious question is: then why does he continue to hold slaves? If Rachel is passionately opposed to slavery, why does she persist in referring to her family’s slaves euphemistically, as “servants”? These are human psychological foibles which could enrich a novel if the novel tried to delve into them, but my fear would be that Cather doesn’t, that she assumes we’ll take her word for it that these nice white people are just that—nice white people—and that we end up with a novel like The Help, which pats Nice White People on the back for what is, really, not especially impressive behaviour.

    • Well I can reassure you that there are not many pats on the back in this novel. Henry is shown to be unacceptably weak in his failure to intervene. As for Rachel, well, you’d probably have to read it yourself to see what you think. But this is very much my point – how would people either in 1850 or 1940 manage to see beyond the ideology of their times so comprehensively? It’s incredibly hard to do that. For instance, my favourite example on this score is that short people are discriminated against in our society. There’s plenty of research to show that they earn less on average and have fewer chance of promotion. Now why aren’t we all campaigning for equality regardless of height? Or giving up our pay rises to our shorter colleagues? A distinct and well-proven bias exists for the tall. But here we all are going about our business and ignoring it. It’s hard to see what’s so bound up with banality and the everyday.

      The other thing that intrigues me here is what you are calling a ‘good person’. It seems to me that a good person has to be someone who acts in an entirely exemplary fashion. But who amongst us could claim that status? I don’t think in any case there are so very many good and bad people. For the most part we’re just people who are all capable every day of doing good things and bad things, often unwittingly. It’s probably a sliding scale, with child murderers up one end and saints up the other. But still, wouldn’t there always be the possibility of change in either direction while we are alive? And shouldn’t fiction reflect people the way they are – which includes the way they see themselves? As readers we can, after all, take that into account in our reading.

      It feel to me, rightly or wrongly, that this is a very American issue, and I am probably clomping all over it in my big UK boots, for which many apologies! But the question boils down to how we use literature and that does seem important to keep discussing.

      • I agree with you about the complexity of human morality, and I didn’t intend to define a “good person” as someone who acts in a completely exemplary way. I was more interested in (and sceptical about) whether Cather ever complicates these supposedly sympathetic characters, or ever appears to be aware that, although she writes them sympathetically, their flaws are serious. (Also, although is a very American issue, I think it’s really important to consider it from other perspectives! It can be very illuminating to talk about race and Southern history with British friends, who see the whole thing a bit more widely, and whose experience of racial discrimination within Britain often has a different emphasis from the American variety.)

  5. I love the chair – and can imagine you rocking gently in it with headphones on. I’ve never read Cather … one day! You should read (or listen to) Golden Hill by Francis Spufford – which has an interesting 17th century take in its later sections on some similar issues (although of course published last yr).

    • I have a copy of that book and I’m longing to read it! It’s definitely on the much-reduced but highly influential TBR pile. And Cather is fab. I like her middle period novels much more than the early pioneer ones (though they are very good), and always recommend A Lost Lady to begin with. Apparently the American Madame Bovary!

  6. Beautiful rocker! I hope you enjoy hours and hours of reading in it. I have not read Sapphira but I do have a first edition of it that Bookman came across long ago and picked up for a song. I understand the controversy but we can’t expect modern day morals from books published in 1940. Doesn’t make racism ok, but the context makes a difference in our understanding. We are all a product of our times whether we like it or not.

  7. Love that chair -having spent a large part of my day looking in vain for the right kind of cupboards for our conservatory I am rather envious you have someone to hand who can make to order.

  8. Have you read Playing in the Dark, by Toni Morrison? It’s a series of lectures she gave at Harvard, about the influence African-Americans — first as enslaved people, then as free people — had on white authors, consciously or unconsciously, during the entire history of American writing. She writes at length about Saphira and the Slave Girl. I expect you would find it very interesting.

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