Frenchman’s Creek

johnny deppEver since the success – and general pervasiveness – of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, I’ve found it hard to imagine a pirate without the vision of a heavily guylinered Johnny Depp floating across my mind. But the pirate in Daphne du Maurier’s romantic classic, Frenchman’s Creek, is not very Deppish at all. He is refined and artistic, thoughtful and efficient, a gentleman warrior whose crimes are mostly bloodless. He is not a drunken maniac, teetering on the edge of madness. And yet still Johnny Depp’s face persisted. Oh, popular culture, what an unexpected stranglehold you exert!

frenchman's creekDu Maurier’s novel, first published in 1941, stands up very well indeed to present day reading, partly because it’s already set in a Restoration past, partly because the heroine is as spirited and lively as any modern reader could wish. Dona St Columb is a spoiled party girl, bored with marriage to an aristocratic oaf, and desperate for some release for her excessive energies. She’s caused scandal in London already, frequenting taverns with her husband and his cronies, wearing men’s breeches to ride her horse bareback, flirting with all the beaus who cross her path. Shortly before the story begins, she has taken her quest for fun too far, pretending to be a highwayman with the rather sinister Lord Rockingham and threatening the carriage of a rich elderly lady. Sickened by her own behaviour and determined to escape the unwholesome influences at Court (of which Rockingham is clearly the worst), she takes her two young children down to Cornwall, where her husband’s childhood estate, Navron, is situated.

Navron is evoked every bit as gorgeously as you might expect, and at first all Dona wants is peace and quiet. There’s only one servant in situ when she arrives, a strange little man called William, who is quite adroit at being both cheeky and deferential to her, a combination she rather admires. Though when she finds tobacco and a book of French poetry in her bedside drawer, she wonders if she should sack him for the impudence of sleeping in her chamber when she was not there. Not long after her arrival, she is visited by one of the local lords, a very ponderous and smug man called Godolphin, who warns her that the coast is being terrorised by a French pirate and his band. Ships and jewels have been taken, local women have been ‘distressed’, and Godolphin is all for summoning Harry, Dona’s husband, to protect her.

In actual fact, it’s Dona that the locals will need protecting from, for of course, you will have guessed by now whose tobacco was by her bed, and whose servant William is. Dona stumbles on the pirates at anchor in a hidden creek on her own land, and before you can say ‘not a bit like Johnny Depp’, she has fallen passionately in love with their Captain and taken to piracy with a ready will. It’s represented in the story as a sort of fulfilling-her-potential affair, a matter of growing up and finding her soulmate, though really all she’s done is swap a botched attempt at amateur crime for a more encouraging attempt as a professional. But hey, du Maurier tells her tale with terrific verve and panache and frankly I didn’t even care, it was such a fun piece of froth.

Although that’s unfair. It just so happened that while I was reading the book, I also read an essay by Adam Phillips entitled ‘On Getting Away With It’. If there’s one imperative in Frenchman’s Creek, it’s that Dona and the pirates should get away with their activities, though as a mother and a wife, Dona has limits to what she can give up lightly. Phillips points out that getting away with things is in no ways a ruination of the law, in fact, transgression needs the law in order to be validated. You can’t be getting away with something there’s no injunction against. What happens is that the character changes while the world stays the same, and what changes is that the character swaps being a Good Person, for being an Impressive Person.

This makes a lot more sense when applied to the laws in place for women in 1941, or indeed in the Restoration period. Restrictions on women’s behaviour were not about to lift any time soon, the only option they had was to try to find their adventures in a space outside the law and hope to get away with it. It’s funny how most fiction assures us that you can’t get away with things – that there will be a price to pay of some kind, a final reckoning or an absolute judgement. But Daphne du Maurier allowed her heroine to be impressive at the cost of being good. Perhaps also in 1941, in the middle of the war in Britain, women were actually getting away with more danger and excitement than they had ever been able to access before. Maybe Daphne saw how they could finally play at being boys, just as she had always longed to do herself.

Frenchman’s Creek is vintage du Maurier, a quick and engrossing read with a romance that is not in the least sentimental, portrayed in writing that has a touch of class. I thought I’d enjoy it, and was surprised by how much I did.

Friends, I continue to be a dreadful blogger but I have not abandoned you, as it may seem. There are all sorts of things going on chez Litlove that I am not able to tell you about at the moment but will as soon as I can. Nothing to worry about, we’re all fine, but big changes on the way. I’m just a bit distracted!

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Issue 4 Goes Live

 

And indeed, we are live…!

SNB-logoIssue 4 of Shiny New Books is now available for your delectation. To help you get started here are a few of my favourite reviews written by people other than myself!

Fiction

Harriet’s review of Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

David Hebblethwaite’s review of Bilbao-New York-Bilboa by Kirmen Uribe

Rebecca Foster’s review of Some Luck by Jane Smiley

 

Non-Fiction

Jenny’s review of In These Times; Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars by Jenny Uglow

Rebecca Hussey’s review of Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Annabel’s review of Armchair Nation; An intimate history of Britain in front of the TV by Joe Moran

 

Reprints

Simon’s review of Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf

Lory Widmer Hess’s review of The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam

Karen Langley’s review of In The Twilight by Anton Chekhov

 

BookBuzz

Neil Ansell’s article: The Art of Memoir and Narrative Non-Fiction

Michelle Bailat-Jones’ article: On Writing Fog Island Mountains

Marilyn Dell Brady’s article: Reading Diversity

 

I could have picked so many more, but for now: Enjoy!

Fifty Shades of Torture

andy millerEven though I tell myself to behave nicely, there is something about reading books about reading that makes me very precious. Perhaps it is simply because I have spent so much of my life reading that I struggle to find anything said about the activity which strikes me as new or profound. And perhaps also it is because I used to teach literature for a living, and so bring to reading a schoolmistress’s approach: I like readers to sit up straight, focus and make an effort. Halfway through Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously; How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life, I was itching to change the subtitle to: How I Made An Unseemly Fuss About A Few Classics. ‘It was only reading books,’ he writes, ‘yet in my head I seemed to be engaged in a heroic struggle…’ Let’s be clear, there is nothing dangerous about the reading Miller does, and his life is not saved in any effective way – unless we count jacking in his job as an editor and turning freelance, thus saving himself a commute to London that sounds tedious and tiring.

For yes, the premise of the book is Andy Miller’s shameful secret: he is an editor at a publishing house who has not in fact read a large number of the books he claims to have done. The rot set in at his previous job as a bookseller (at what sounds like Waterstone’s). He grew weary of customers asking for his opinion on books he hadn’t read or had disliked. ‘It was kinder, and cleaner, to answer all such queries with a ‘yes’. The customer rarely wanted the honest opinion of a shop assistant anyway.’ And once you’ve started to lie about these things, it’s easy to keep going. At the time when he began his reading project, Andy Miller and his wife and small son had just moved out of London and to the South coast. In the three years since his son had been born, he realised he’d hardly read anything at all, and given the commute, and demanding jobs and childcare, it was a stretch to fit reading time into the day. However, to ease his sore conscience, Miller put together a ‘List of Betterment’, a series of literary classics that he felt he had to read in order to gain a little more congruence between inner self and outer projection of identity. ‘These were all books, to a greater or lesser extent, that defined the sort of person I would like to be. They conveyed the innate good taste someone like me would possess, effortlessly.’ And they included books like Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice and Beckett’s The Unnameable.

Progress is initially rocky, but encouraging. ‘I would start on a book; after a spell of bafflement or boredom, steady persistence would start to pay off, giving way after several days to hard-won but tangible pleasure, which in turn spread into a blush of accomplishment’. Literature as medicine, then, which you may have to choke down, but which will do you good in the end. Some of his strategies seem self-defeating – unsurprisingly, his attempts to drown out the noisy commuters on his train sufficiently to read Beckett’s The Unnameable – which he does by listening simultaneously to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music – end badly. But then he has the bright idea of listening to an audio book while walking around London, which ends well. It’s all a bit of a struggle, though, with only Anna Karenina providing solid pleasure out of his initial thirteen choices.

But he decides to extend the project to 50 books, having got his reading muscles back in shape again. Though I cynically wondered whether the real inspiration wasn’t the thought of writing a book about what he was doing. He joined a book club and began a blog about this point, neither of which enrich his reading in any way. The book club provides him with the usual disquieting experience of arguing that Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale is a bad book against a solid wall of Maugham defence by the other members, and having his own choice of Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black trashed. The blog is, he says, merely an annoying distraction which leads him to think too much about what he’ll say about the book he’s reading in a post, with again those pesky dissenting voices in the comments. Plus he absolutely can’t understand doing anything for which he doesn’t get paid. The internet is where ‘comment is free, everyone is entitled to a wrong opinion, blockheads write zealously, copiously and for nothing.’ And he bemoans the poor old ‘old media’ those professional critics with their ‘skill in fine phrase-making.’

He really should not have done this. What I had noticed increasingly through the book was the absence of anything of interest said about the books themselves. This is a memoir essentially, 80% about Andy Miller, his life, his experiences and his feelings, and most of the books earn a bare synopsis. When he gave up the blog he turned with relief to a book ‘I could enjoy without having to worry what I might write about it later or what anybody else may think.’ When I thought of all the book bloggers I knew who had said so many intriguing things and all out of generosity and passion about books, I could not help but think that here was a man who was intellectually lazy, essentially, unable to make a profound comment about the literature he’d absorbed, but still wanting to get paid for it.

This was followed not long afterwards by the only epiphany he has while slogging through his list. He absolutely loves Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, and the chapter devoted to it takes the form of a fan letter, for better or worse. Atomised – the most unrelenting representation of the dark side of the male ego – is the book that ‘felt like life’ to him. No wonder he nearly abandoned Pride and Prejudice. But the experience brings him alive, makes him remember why we really read (not just to produce memoirs), brings him in touch with the early death of his father, and seems to provoke way too much discussion about Neil Young and his music.

And finally I understood why I was resisting this book with every fibre of my being. Andy Miller can only read in order to find himself. Ultimately, that’s the point, and that’s why it’s such a slog. Although I would never discourage reading on any grounds, I shudder at such solipcism. I read in order to expand myself, to understand and experience difference. I read to escape the confines of my own mind, not to find them delineated in someone else’s prose.

So let’s be fair here: there are good things about The Year of Reading Dangerously, though you really should not expect any danger to threaten. The essays Miller constructs around the experience of reading are often nicely shaped and thematically interesting. His chapter which compares The Da Vinci Code with Moby-Dick is excellent and original. He is consistently mildly amusing. There are lists in the back that you can have fun arguing with. His description of a 70s childhood rang very true and I enjoyed it. And finally, at the very end, his account of the five times he met Douglas Adams – the author who is his greatest inspiration – provided an occasion where I felt he spoke about books he loved with sincerity and engagement. I wished he had written just about books he loved that reflected the person he is, rather than get muddled up with books that stood for the person he wanted to be, but who he is not. That might be a lesson in reading for all of us.

On Teaching Literature

The following is something I wrote initially for SNB before thinking that it really didn’t suit the magazine at all. And so I thought I might as well stick it up here!

The gradual erasure of literature from UK schools has been going on for some time and now the situation is set to worsen. Reforms to the exam system mean that from 2015 onwards, a new English language exam will make the teaching of literature optional for children up to sixteen years of age. It will be perfectly possible to get through a whole education without ever studying a well-known book in our own mother tongue.

I wonder if this is because the officials who make education policy at government level have an out-of-date impression of how books are taught? For teaching literature can be full of pitfalls. When I was fifteen – a young girl who constantly had her nose stuck in a book at home – I hated the way we did it in school. What I adored was the feeling of being utterly caught up in a different world, lost to the twists and turns of a story. In the classroom we ‘read around the class’ a dull and painful exercise that took all immediacy from the words. Then we chopped the text up into little bits and studied them in a way that removed the natural connection between imagination and emotion. I understood the ambiguity of the stories, but felt too vulnerable myself to appreciate it. I needed a good teacher to stretch my emotional understanding, and that can be hard to do in a class of thirty students, all with different needs. Even all these years later, Shakespeare and Dickens remain two authors I cannot love, destroyed as they were by that old-fashioned teaching process.

When I took up a university post teaching French literature I had to think long and hard about what we’re doing when we ‘teach’ a book or a play or a poem; what do we want out of it, how do we use it, and how best to lead students into an effective understanding? If you don’t ‘get’ literature, it can seem very perplexing and rebarbative. At worst, you can damage a student’s relationship to literature forever; thinking deeply about books can be something they never wish to do again.

Some of the answers came to me as I studied the interactions I had with my students. At first they were shy about expressing what they thought. Too often they felt that loving or hating a book was the end of the matter. And they struggled to manage their tangled and convoluted thoughts in writing. This made sense: studying literature is primarily an exercise in self-awareness. We are never more fully ourselves than in that private place where we read and – inevitably – judge. To protect that private place (and we do so fiercely), it seems right to insist that a personal opinion is obvious and universal, and to sidestep the challenge of alternative interpretations. And a good piece of literature will not provide the straightforward answers we often long for. Literature is not there to solve the problems of the world, but to give us a startling, enlightening glimpse of them in all their awkward complexity. What we feel about this draws on complicated emotions – some provoked by the story, some from personal history – and expressing either can be difficult to do.

For books do not keep us safe. They shake us out of ourselves, loosen our stranglehold on certainties, get us to walk a mile in another’s shoes. My job as a teacher was initially to unclasp my student’s fingers from their cherished narcissism. If they could put themselves to one side – forget themselves in a book, in the way that can be so wonderful – they could experience literature as a protected arena in which all sorts of troubling or paradoxical situations are contained and worked through. They could discover new ideas, new perspectives, and gain new sophistication in their beliefs.

Other problems arose: the students were quickly frustrated by the length of time their studies took. Couldn’t they watch the film adaptation, which would be so much quicker and less demanding? (No, Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame is NOT an accurate account of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris.) Then they were upset by the troublesome assertion that there were no rules to essay writing, and by the confusion that arose out of differing interpretations. Why was it not so that all interpretations were equally valid? And if there were no rules to organising essays, why were their essays still criticised for structure?

Here they bumped up against the curious combination of creativity and discipline that literature demands. The way it invites us to think all manner of things, but to dismiss the majority in the interests of common sense, logic and emotional veracity. My students had to learn to deduce their conclusions only from the words on the page, not speculate wildly the way all other forms of media encourage them to do. And they had to organise their thought with care and reason to take another person through their argument. These things aren’t easy to do, and they eschew the sensationalism that our culture generally prioritises in stories, to such an extent now that to take the sensible approach sometimes felt wrong and disappointing to them.

This is the thing about studying literature – it stymies both of our main contemporary approaches to knowledge: the test-oriented desire for tickable answers, and the gossipy search for a self-righteous opinion. And so the huge obstacle it presents to the average teenager is the demand for slow thinking, not quick thinking, that pleasurable stab at what ‘everyone’ knows. My students struggled with the open-ended curiosity books required of them, the gentle, patient contemplation, the complete lack of an absolute answer. I told them that learning was most effective when it felt like a trip to a lesser Greek island – a place where there wasn’t much else to do but read and think. They almost preferred their own vision of themselves chained up to a hungry furnace in hell, shovelling in pages of mindless writing while being whipped by pitchfork-wielding devils.

This is why literature is so important. Its study requires very different skills to those demanded by other mainstream subjects. All those issues my students struggled with – self-awareness, creativity, the challenge to established beliefs, the focused contemplation, the juggling of interpretations which had to be backed up by evidence – all exercised their minds in vital ways. And beyond that, stories form the great building block of existence. Whether they are stories we tell about ourselves to create identity, or stories in the news, or stories given to us by the authorities, the form becomes so familiar as to be lost to critique. It’s important to realise how determining stories are, and how we build them to persuade, insist and explain things that are often no more than cherished hopes. We lose a lot of insight if we don’t understand how stories function and the immense underground work they do within a culture.

Teaching literature has changed a lot since I was at school, and teachers nowadays do a fantastic job of finding ways to bring the magic and the subtle power of storytelling to children’s attention. My son, who was only really interested in computers during his schooldays, loved the Shakespeare he studied, and the Steinbeck and George Orwell’s 1984. These were books that if someone had asked me, his mother, I might have said they were too hard for him. But no, with the right teacher, any book is accessible. It gladdened my heart to think this part of him was being nurtured. Literature isn’t an easy option; surely if stories teach us anything, it’s that nothing worthwhile ever came quickly, simply or easily. But they offer us a kind of pleasure that can be intense and long lasting and a way of knowing the world that can’t be gained anywhere else.