April 14, 2014

On Divergent and self-definition and specialness

In theory, I like heroines who can kill, be morally imperfect, participate in revolts against the state, and movies that have young women hitting stuff and being heroic. A number of YA reviewers I read really like the Divergent series, and it is probably in my best interests for more women-centric action-y movies to exist.

Naturally, therefore, I’m going to whine about how bad the book and movie are. A version of this was in Saturday’s Indian Express.


“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” says Albus Dumbledore to a young Harry Potter. The Harry Potter series often raises this question of choice versus destiny, always coming down on the side of choice; we’re told, for example, that Harry’s position as Voldemort’s nemesis is not so much the result of a prophecy, as of Voldemort’s believing it.

Of course, all of this takes place within a system in which children are divided into school houses based on their abilities. The cunning ones go to Slytherin, the clever ones to Ravenclaw, the brave ones to Gryffindor and the nice ones to Hufflepuff. That Harry himself is given a choice (the context for the quote above) is due to the special circumstances of his past; we’re given no hints that normal children, not the subjects of prophesy, have this level of control over the ways in which they’re to be categorised.

Then there’s Veronica Roth’s Divergent, a movie adaptation of which has recently been released. In Roth’s future Chicago the Hogwarts house system is the policy of an oppressive state. Society is divided into five ‘factions’, namely Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite, each faction composed of those who strive towards the value after which it is named. At sixteen, children take aptitude tests to help them to determine in which faction they wish to spend their adult lives, and once they choose a faction they must stick to it or risk becoming one of the “factionless” who live outside society altogether.

The audience isn’t told how any of this is supposed to work (or, indeed, why the ancestors who named the factions were unable to tell the difference between nouns and adjectives). It’s a fundamentally silly premise, only really there to facilitate the story of its heroine.

Beatrice (eventually Tris) Prior has been raised in Abnegation, where they eat plain food, wear baggy grey clothes and are allowed to look in the mirror only once in every few months. Unable to entirely embrace Abnegation’s selflessness, she isn’t sure she belongs in this faction. Her test results, when she takes them, prove inconclusive. As Tori, the woman who administers her test explains, Tris is Divergent, a rare subset of the population who cannot easily be slotted into a category, and whose deviation from the norm is seen by those in power as dangerous.

It’s Tris’ trainer and eventual lover, Four, who articulates Divergent’s critique of its system. “I want to be brave, and selfless, and smart, and kind, and honest.” It’s never very clear how this oppressive state would derive tangible benefit from preventing any of this. But one way of reading the teenage-protagonist-versus-oppressive-state novel is as a sort of coming of age, a defining of one’s own identity, and a setting of boundaries. Perhaps this is why Katniss in the Hunger Games trilogy is angriest when she is used as a pawn; plots like these literalise a struggle for the right to self-determination, for a physical and moral integrity. It’s fitting that Tris begins her story by leaving Abnegation and giving herself a new name, and the movie makes good use of mirrors, allowing her for the first time to look at herself and claim herself. I suspect Divergent wants to be a story about this claiming of self, and of the right not to be limited by externally-imposed boundaries.

Unfortunately, there’s also the problem of the Very Special Hero. “You don’t fit into a category”, says Tris’ mother, emphasis mine. Just as the Harry Potter books are about the important ‘choices’ of the already-marked-out-before-birth hero, Divergent focuses its argument for self-definition free of categories on a character of whose specialness we are reminded of at every step. Tris can’t be easily slotted into a category, not because people are human and multifaceted (though by having its villain constantly rant about the awfulness of human nature the story nods towards this idea) but because she is part of so rare a subset of humans; later books in the series raise the ways in which she is superior to the level of the genetic. It’s an approach to storytelling that grants full humanity only to the extraordinary. Does it matter that Tris is physically smaller than most of those she has to fight if we’re constantly having it hammered into us that she is fundamentally better than them?

And yet Tris, and Divergent, are underdogs in some ways. Even in the wake of The Hunger Games it’s an uphill battle to get the mainstream movie industry to realise that action movies starring women might be successful, or that stories for teenaged girls needn’t be immediately dismissed. Without closing my eyes to the ways in which Divergent is generic and often silly, I’d like to see the pleasingly ruthless, by no means self-abnegating Tris punch her way into box office success.

I’d also like the occasional Hufflepuff hero, but one can’t have everything.



April 13, 2014

Happy Families redux

Last weekend’s column, drawing rather heavily on this piece on Blyton’s families from a couple of years ago.



A young couple have twin children, male and female. Preferring boys to girls, they care far more for their son than for their daughter, so that even as a toddler the unloved child retreats into herself. When both the children are three years old the son dies, and the parents resent his sister for surviving. They allow her to forget that she ever had a brother, send her to boarding school when she is old enough, and choose never to visit or write, or even to send birthday cards.

There’s still something a bit transgressive about the idea of parents who don’t love their children—it is, for example, the aspect of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin that seems the most discussed. Parents are unlikely to admit even to having a favourite child. Mothers in particular are expected to be the source of magical, selfless love, and made monsters of when they fail to do so. Fairy tale retellings over time morph uncaring mothers into evil stepmothers to soften the blow.

The story above is not, however, from a literary work about damaged children, or if it is it’s an unlikely one. It is from Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl in the School, and the life story of Joan Townsend, the best friend of that book’s protagonist.

Parents in the Blytonverse range from criminally negligent (oh, are you having an adventure again? they ask as their children once again entangle themselves with internationally-operating and well-armed gangs) to the openly villainous. The first of these is generally a narrative necessity; the second is rarer. The books often get dismissed as comfortable stories about comfortable middle-class children and most of the time this is true, yet occasionally something surfaces that makes one wonder if all is really as it seems.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the incident in The Naughtiest Girl in the School is not that Joan’s parents have been treating her badly for years. It is that, when Mrs Townsend explains to her daughter’s headmistresses that she wishes said daughter had died, everyone around her seems to accept this as normal. Even Joan herself understands and accepts her mother’s neglect once she has heard the facts.

Joan is not the only one of Blyton’s fictional children who has a lot to forgive her family. Barney, of the series of novels that begins with The Rockingdown Mystery, is the son of a circus girl and a man whose family, we are told, mistreated Barney’s mother until she ran away taking her child with her. Carlotta, of the St. Clare’s series of books, has a similar family history. Then there’s Margery, also of St Clare’s school, whose father wishes for sons and so sides with Margery’s stepmother (and the mother of his sons) against his daughter until her school friends intervene by writing to him to prove that she is worthy of his regard.

Childhood means not having power. We’re told that one reason baby animals (including baby humans) are cute is in order to make the adults look after them, since they are helpless to look after themselves. Children of all species are reliant on the benevolence of the adult world for mere survival. If they cannot make themselves loveable, they are doomed.

This is all rather more brutal and nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw than one expects from what are, let’s be honest, not very good books. But if you read Blyton’s fictional universe as one in which these truths are known and understood, where your dependence on your parents for survival is not buried in platitudes about loving families (or at least, not so deeply buried that it isn’t widely known and understood), a lot of things begin to make sense. Carlotta earns tips from her formidable grandmother when she is appropriately ladylike. Barney and his father and grandmother find each other and live happily ever after. Margery and her father are reconciled and presumably go home and determinedly act out happy familial relations. Joan forgives her mother—what were her alternatives?


April 3, 2014

March Reading


Arthur Ransome, Missee Lee, The Picts and the Martyrs, Great Northern?: These were the Ransome books I hadn’t read, apart from a quick skim of Missee Lee some years ago. A thing I’ve been discovering over the past couple of months is how little serious Ransome criticism there is; and that little is generally more interested in the early Lake District books. But there’s something about these three later books, and I feel like I may end up as the lone voice in the wilderness championing Great Northern? in particular. I spoke last month about how impressed I am by this series, and that sense has only intensified.

Joanne Harris, The Gospel of Loki: I had hopes for this, brought on by that amazing cover (seriously, illustrating this post with that cover even though these reading round-up posts are never illustrated, because pretty), by the fact that I admire Harris’s writing (and approve of her being a Mervyn Peake fan) and by the narrative possibilities of a revisionist retelling with Loki as narrator. Plus, at a signing/talk by Harris she said that she imagined her Loki being played by someone like Paul Bettany. So it’s a pity the book itself felt so thoroughly unambitious. I’m reviewing it, and a longer piece about it will be on this blog at some point.

L.M. Montgomery, [all the Anne books]: Except the one about the Blythes that was published only quite recently. I needed to reread the first book for a discussion at university, and fell into the series as a result. A piece on Rilla of Ingleside, here.

Angela Thirkell, High Rising: I wrote about this here.

Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock, The Far Distant Oxus: Apparently Hull and Whitlock were friends in school who decided to write a novel in alternating chapters, sent it to Arthur Ransome, and he loved it. It’s great– it does for its landscape what the Ransome books do for the Lake District, it’s a lot rougher around the edges in terms of plot and style; it’s tempting to think of it as really compelling fanfiction, and yet. The characters come across far more strongly as people, and there’s an undercurrent of sexual attraction that runs through it that makes it somehow nothing like Ransome’s work.

Gladys Mitchell, Tom Brown’s Body: Boarding school story murder mysteries are a genre that feels like it was made for me, so I was always going too enjoy this one. One of the things you see quite a lot of in school stories of this time is Asian and African upper-class students attending the same boarding schools as upper-class Europeans (as of course did happen quite frequently)–think of Hurree Jamset Ram Singh in the Billy Bunter stories, for example. The school in Mitchell’s book has an ‘African prince’ named Takhobali (helpfully named “tar baby” by his peers, because there’s a pleasant phrase to read). It was interesting to read this at the same time as Missee Lee, because Miss Lee is another wealthy colonial child sent to English boarding school for her education. And both characters embrace English boarding school life and the assumption that this is great culture; Miss Lee plays hockey and lacrosse, learns Latin, has fixed opinions about marmalade*, but being Chinese (hilarious!) she cannot pronounce her “r”s. Takhobali eats fish pie even when it makes him sick and learns to play rugby but (hilarious!) cannot overcome his barbaric roots and bites people when he’s tackling them. Neither of these things are in fact hilarious.

Ytasha L. Womack, Afrofuturism: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how genre histories are constructed and reinforced and what they exclude, and of the necessity of alternate canons and alternate histories, a result of both my own reading and some of Jonathan McCalmont’s Future Interrupted columns. Afrofuturism is engaged in a similar project, I think. I don’t think Womack is trying to create a definitive text on the subject, I’m sure (knowing nothing at all about the subject) that there’s a lot left out that I’ve missed, and I’d have loved to see a deeper analysis of certain particular examples of Afrofuturism that she chooses–but to ask that this collection be both wider and deeper is to ask for more than a single book could do. But what a single book can’t do a wider intellectual tradition can, and Womack’s book both gestures towards the conversation that already exists and consolidates enough of it to make for an entry point. Sofia Samatar describes it as a “primer” to the field; I think that’s exactly what makes it most valuable. I really enjoyed this, and nominated it for a “Best Related” Hugo award. I hope it makes it to the shortlist, at least.

Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones: The Islands of Chaldea: I’ll be writing about this elsewhere. Enjoyable, and solid, and a satisfying end to DWJ’s career, but not great. Which is probably for the best, in some ways.

Athena Andreadis (ed), The Other Half of the Sky: A big part of my reading this month was dictated by things I wanted to read and think about before the Hugo Awards nomination deadline. I’d been wanting to get around to this anthology for a while; it had some impressive names in the TOC. To the anthology as a whole my reaction was mixed, but there are some good stories, and one of them (Vandana Singh’s “Sailing the Antarsa”) was one of the best things I’ve read so far this year.

Djibril al-Ayad and Fabio Fernandes (ed), We See A Different Frontier: This anthology I loved, even though some of the stories felt considerably weaker than others. I think I’ve said elsewhere that while I understand intellectually the importance of seeing oneself represented, I rarely feel deeply moved by it when I am. WSaDF did something better; I hadn’t realised that a collection of stories working around issues that I think about a lot would feel as invigorating as it did.

April 1, 2014

A.L. Krishnan and Supriya Mitra, Psuperhero

Regular column may have been affected by the first of April, a bit.



When it was announced that Sebastian Faulks would be writing a Wodehouse-estate-sanctioned Jeeves and Wooster book, I don’t think anyone (including Faulks himself, possibly) thought it would go well. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells was published last year, and if the reviews weren’t uniformly terrible, neither were they good. Wodehouse is easy to parody; it seems to be impossible to imitate him well and in a sustained narrative.

Perhaps a Wodehouse tribute needs to be done slantwise if it is to be done at all; unexpected and outrageous, and containing the implicit admission that paying tribute to Wodehouse by recreating Wodehouse isn’t possible. In that case the most successful tributes are the unlikeliest (presuming they are done well); consider the ridiculous and wonderful “What Ho, Gods of the Abyss” section from Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, in which our heroes face a creature from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Or, closer to home, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola, which feels suspiciously like a Blandings novel set in Haryana.

And then there’s A.L. Krishnan and Supriya Mitra’s graphic novel Psuperhero, which feels at once both completely unexpected and completely obvious, and which pays tribute to Wodehouse in part by going back to his sources.

Wodehouse famously based his greatest character Psmith on Rupert D’Oyly Carte, the owner of the Savoy Hotel and proprietor of the D’Oyly Carte Opera company with whom one of Wodehouse’s cousins had been to school. Psmith first appears in Wodehouse’s school story Mike and Psmith as a wealthy, monocle-wearing, too magnificent to be pretentious schoolboy. Unlike D’Oyly Carte, however, he falls upon hard times in the later books, having to (horror of horrors) work for his living in a bank, as a journalist, and eventually as secretary to Lord Emsworth.

None of these events befall Rupert Pirbright (his name a reference to another minor Wodehouse character), the hero of Psuperhero. A suave and superbly dressed man about town, he uses his considerable wealth in charitable causes; a more outgoing Bruce Wayne. By day. By night, he rids the town of the scourge of a sinister cabal of fish suppliers (the original character, it will be remembered, worked for a brief and unhappy period in that industry).

Naturally, this is a superhero story. Pirbright would never wear his underwear over his trousers and reserves capes for visits to the opera; his disguise, in a nod to the superhero canon that made me laugh out loud, is simply to remove his monocle. But the superhero tradition isn’t the only one Psuperhero draws on; comic opera of the sort D’Oyly Carte’s company popularised is frequently referred to. Krishnan and Mitra are clearly part of India’s massive Wodehouse fandom and there are references to this as well, including a minor character who is clearly intended for a version of Shashi Tharoor. And then there are Wodehouse’s own books.

And it’s in this last area that Psuperhero reveals its weakness. Wodehouse wrote over a hundred books, many of them containing great moments that have come to be loved by fans. Krishnan and Mitra make great use of some of these; there’s a little interlude involving a fascist group and ladies’ underwear, and a glorious moment when Pirbright finds an umbrella for a beautiful young archivist. They even almost manage to capture Psmith’s voice. But it is simply impossible within a mere 150 pages to allude to every incident that one loves, and in trying to do so the authors lose control of plot, structure and character. By the end of the book it’s all rather a mess, loosely-connected Wodehouse gags overwhelming the clever central conceit.

It’s a frustrating conclusion, because there’s so much promise in Mitra’s clean lines and Krishnan’s absurd dialogue, as well as in the sheer scope of their joint project. Perhaps if the duo had been more irreverent, or someone had had the discipline to cut out the dross. It’s a pshame, though.



March 26, 2014

L.M. Montgomery, Rilla of Ingleside

(But also other books, to the point that this isn’t really a Rilla column.)

The many times I’ve spoken on this blog about how great Antonia Forest is tend to blur into one another in my head, so I’m not sure if I’ve ever made clear what a huge relief it was as a child to get into Nicola Marlow’s head and discover in there thoughts that were sometimes petty and sometimes callous (and sometimes involved spending a lot of time looking at Jan Scott). The children’s books I was familiar with weren’t very good at introducing one to the idea that other people also had rich interior lives, and the fact that they did, and that those lives included being flawed and sometimes genuinely bad, was a revelation. I don’t want to create an image of my childhood self constantly beating herself over the head for not being morally perfect, but in a different world this could have been my supervillain origin story.

And I wonder how much of the love for Frozen (a film which, in the process of being made, came around to embracing its original villain as its other hero) is simply a celebration of the idea that you can fuck things up epically, hurt people, and still be the compelling/loveable/less annoying one.

Below is a version of last weekend’s column.


Rereading L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside recently, I found myself comparing it to other books whose heroines live through wartime. Rilla is the last book in the series that begins with Anne of Green Gables; its title character, Rilla Blythe, is Anne’s youngest daughter, fifteen at the beginning of the novel. She is also pretty, not inclined towards motherhood or academics, and eager to grow up—all of which seem reasonable traits in a fifteen year old, particularly in the youngest of many siblings. But then World War One happens, and her brothers, friends, and the man for whom she has feelings enlist and go to Europe. War is not conducive to a happy girlhood, and in between reading the news and worrying Rilla also learns to organise, fund-raise, do household work, and even raise a baby whose only blood relative is also a soldier.

During a different, earlier war, the scandalous Lady Barbara Childe grows and changes. The protagonist of Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army and in Brussels before the Battle of Waterloo, Babs upsets everyone by contracting an engagement with an attractive young soldier (Charles Audley, who has previously appeared in Heyer’s Regency Buck). She is entirely unfitted to being the sort of wife she is supposed to be, but when the battle begins and the bodies of the wounded and dead begin to arrive in the city she shows herself to be capable, loyal and in love, and wins the approval of her future sister-in-law, among others. Barbara is very different from Rilla in some ways; she’s socially and sexually more experienced, and is more deliberately frivolous than immature and heedless. Plus 1815 Brussels is far more close to the war than 1915 Prince Edward Island, and so Babs’ encounters with the effects of political conflict are a lot more physical and bloody. But there’s something so similar about these books; the ways in which the women are removed from the action and must piece together incomplete, delayed information, the way in which war work is shown to build or reveals character, even the ways in which the books stand in relation to the others in their respective series.

The popularity of Montgomery’s books can easily seem baffling (as Nicole Cliffe at The Toast has recently shown through extensive quotation, if real people talked like Anne Shirley the natural response would be to back away slowly). One of the reasons I still enjoy them is for the way in which they take people as they are, gently mocking rather than judging or reforming. And certainly Rilla is far less preachy than a number of books for children that expect moral perfection of their protagonists without even the excuse of a war. And yet.

In recent years I’ve read a number of critiques of media for children that focus on the importance of positive role models for girls. Heroines, women who are strong (morally or physically), the sort of women young girl readers can aspire to be.

But I think of Rilla Blythe and Lady Barbara, and I think of another wartime heroine, Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. In Atlanta during the Civil War, Scarlett too must do war work—and is thoroughly bored by it. There’s a lot that is wrong with Gone With the Wind (its racial politics are particularly obscene) but moments like this were genuinely important to my childhood reading. By the time I was reading relatively widely I was resigned to the fact that I probably did not have the basic nobility of character seen in your average protagonist of fiction. The books that mattered to me were the ones in which people were shallow, or cowardly, or petty, or easily bored, not so that they could bravely overcome these flaws by the end of the book, but because that was what people were.  And so though I love Montgomery and Heyer, and find much of Gone With the Wind repulsive, and though Mitchell doesn’t entirely approve of her heroine (and who could?), it’s Scarlett for whom I’m grateful.


March 25, 2014


Some weeks ago, just after I’d watched Her, I had some thoughts. A month later, I’m not entirely sure I can decipher them, and I’m glad as always that this bulletpointsing absolves me of having to have any sustained opinion of anything. Anyway.

  • Here is a story about someone who’s vulnerable, whose marriage has recently ended, and who finds companionship and eventually love with an artificially-intelligent operating system, until the AI grows beyond humans and goes away. The “someone” is Amy Adams, and hers isn’t the story Her chooses to focus on.
  • Her spends a lot of time working at uncreepifying the gender implications of its premise; by which I mean the woman who is bought and owned, who does not come with inconvenient things like crying and screaming and having a flawed physical body, and whose gradual independence becomes threatening; the man who owns her. And so we’re told of AI-human relationships where the AI “belongs” to someone else, we’re even told that Samantha is in several such relationships. It’s clearly important to the film that we know that this isn’t an exploitative relationship.And yet this is the story it chooses to tell, not the Amy Adams love story that happens in the gaps left by Theodore’s story, or any of those other romances between computer programmes and people who don’t own them.
  • And so, presumably, we’re meant to feel discomfort, and we’re meant to cringe when Theodore bursts out that Samantha is his. I’m not sure what Jonze is doing with that discomfort apart from just invoking it; look, look how problematic this is but also let us devote more time to this instagram-filtered manpain. The whole thing reminded me of (500) Days of Summer, another film that teeters awkwardly between acknowledging its protagonist’s creepy, damaging view of relationships and sympathising with him over how awful it is that the women he falls for don’t conform to said view.
  • The Amy Adams story would have been better.
  • Perhaps the most sfnal thing about this world (apart from, you know, all the AI romance) is Theodore’s job, with its implications. He’s a professional writer of other people’s personal letters; not in a sort of Cyrano de Bergerac way, but as part of a legitimate company. In a way this is merely a version of a job writing greeting card poems (and here’s another link with 500 Days of Summer; when will someone write that essay?) but it’s more than that. A sort of taken-for-granted willingness to outsource, to commodify one’s own emotions is something that the world of the film takes for granted. To admit that they are generic.It’s there in the “play me a melancholy song” scene that most reviews seem to have quoted, and in the fact that apparently Theodore can have his letters published without asking for permission from any of the people whom those letters were for or about. We learn at one point that Theodore has inserted his own observations into the letters (something about a woman’s teeth I think, though it’s been over a month since I saw it?) and they have become a part of a couple’s understanding of one another; presumably at least in part because some of their communication is through Theodore’s words. And Samantha takes that further; if emotions can be generic then there’s surely nothing surprising about her feeling the same thing for hundreds of people she talks to as well as Theodore. Which is of course the point where Theodore pushes back, demanding his own specialness.
  • Samantha’s thingness is never so clear as in that moment where the operating system cant be found.
  • The women in this world are all constantly feeling inadequate. In the case of Amy Adams’ “Amy” a partial cause is easy enough to find; her awful husband Charles keeps undercutting her and is generally horrible. In Theodore’s account of his own marriage he suggests that his ex-wife Katherine’s family were similar, and that she turned to him because he was different. We’re not told what motivates Isabella, the young woman who volunteers to be Samantha’s surrogate in sex with Theodore, but when he can’t go through with it she shuts herself away, blaming herself for not being good enough and apologising to Theodore and Samantha . And then there’s Olivia Wilde’s unnamed character*, who goes on a date with Theodore and is terrified that he won’t call her back. Perhaps I’m being shallow, but what is this dystopian future where people don’t call Olivia Wilde back?
  • The relationship flashbacks suggest that the real cause of the end of Theodore and Katherine’s marriage is that moustache.
  • The moustache distracted me throughout. It is terrible.
  • Onscreen bodies become crucially important to the background of a the film where one of the main characters doesn’t have one. There’s an early shot in which Theodore fantasises about a beautiful, shiny, airbrushed pregnant woman in a magazine. The ‘real’ bodies have pores and blotchy skin. Some of them (one minor character, a few people in the background) even have skin that isn’t white. Some of them are fat.
  • I watched Her with people who know and love science fiction. I suspect most people in the auditorium were less embedded in the genre; they didn’t laugh when we did. There are some wonderful moments; a dead philosopher is brought back to life by being rewritten, there’s a book club, there’s Samantha overturning Theodore’s world in the blandest of voices, expressing at the most mild surprise that he is surprised. Of course she’s evolving really quickly, of course she read that book in a fraction of a second, of course she’s talking to thousands of people at the same time as him. I’m not sure how many people were sitting there rubbing their hands together and gleefully waiting for the singularity while Joaquin Phoenix was crying onscreen. I think I may have looked a little heartless.
  • I think Her‘s ending might be the thing that makes it a better SF film than the more beautiful Under the Skin (the other inhuman! Scarlett Johansson film I have recently watched), but my dissatisfaction with that film is better saved for a post on it.

*She’s credited on imdb as “Blind Date”. (She comes out of this better than Evelyn Edwards, who gets to be “Mother Who Dated Pricks” and Steve Zissis who is “New Sweet Boyfriend Of” Edwards’ character.)

March 17, 2014

Angela Thirkell, High Rising

I was informed that I would really enjoy Angela Thirkell and I did. I was informed that I would find some of her politics (oh look, random anti-semitism, baiting Irish people and being hideously classist) unpalatable and I did. I’ll be reading more by her, anyway.

Column here.


“We are by no means in Wodehouse territory” claims Alexander McCall Smith in his introduction to Angela Thirkell’s High Rising. By which he means that Thirkell’s characters have normal economic problems to deal with (to be fair, Bertie Wooster aside this is to some extent true for Wodehouse); nor do they “spend their time in an endless whirl of silliness”. This too is debatable. But it’s interesting that McCall Smith should choose to make that comparison because the two authors are similar in ways that he does not, perhaps, anticipate. Both authors’ stories take place at one remove from reality while ostensibly being set in “real” England; Wodehouse’s characters, as Evelyn Waugh has been widely quoted on book jackets as saying, are “still in Eden”; Thirkell’s books are set, less ideally, in the fictional Barsetshire of Anthony Trollope’s novels.

Then there’s the plot, as it appears in the back cover, filled with unsuitable marriages, overbearing secretaries and the need to unite young girls with the men they want. We’re only a pig and a couple of imposters away from a Blandings novel, and it’s a little jarring to realise that the book has us ranged on the side of an unpleasant Wodehousean Aunt.

Laura Morland is a widow and a novelist, who has supported four boys through boarding school, has a house in London and one in the country, and at least one servant (whose irascibility, rather than any financial consideration, is cited as the reason there are no more servants), a lifestyle that Laura herself doesn’t seem to class as particularly wealthy. Laura’s neighbours in the country are a distinguished writer of historical biographies and his beautiful daughter; to this household has been added an attractive secretary whose designs upon her employer are seen as a real danger.

Difference in class is never stated as the reason behind the unacceptability of Miss Una Grey. We’re given plenty of other reasons to dislike her—she’s underhand, has an awful temper, is encroaching, is revealed to have a history of falling for her employers—but the weapons employed against her have everything to do with her background. Jokes about the Irish (she is from Ireland) are thrown around lightly to make her visibly uncomfortable, while various social manipulations are brought into play to keep her away. Multiple women band together to prevent an “unsuitable” marriage between two adults, apparently believing a reasonably powerful grown man in dire need of protection.

There’s something a bit distasteful about all of this, and I wonder if this undercurrent is why McCall Smith’s introduction launches into a defense of the book’s politics as being “of its time”. Unfortunately, while it’s possible to love and respect literary works with dubious class, gender or race politics (I thoroughly enjoyed High Rising), the of-its-time defense never makes the work or its defender look good. History is no more homogenous than the present, and by the time this book was published in 1933, many people had figured out that class- and race-based prejudices were wrong.

But there are books in which these unpleasantnesses intrude upon the reader constantly, and books in which she can block them out. If High Rising proves to be one of the latter (as it did for me), it’s possible to appreciate the consistently great dialogue, a reminder that the magical England of these books is populated by supremely witty people. It’s possible to see that characters can be acutely and brutally observed but (provided they are of the right background) treated with affection for their weaknesses. Laura’s affection for her intolerable child, Adrian’s suggestibility, Sibyl’s lack of personality, George’s insistence on talking over everyone in the room; there are moments when Thirkell almost channels Austen. There’s much here that will not stand up to scrutiny and much that ought to make a reader uncomfortable, but at its best High Rising is a fine piece of comic writing.


March 7, 2014

Patricia A. McKillip, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (and also Frozen)

From this weekend’s column.

Once I’d decided this book and this movie had a lot in common, more and more came to seem worthy of comment. I’m thinking for example, of the parallel scenes between Anna and Hans in the movie and Tamlorn and his attendants in the book, where both are about to go into the fortresses of the dangerous women they call family, and both reassure their worried companions that this woman would never hurt them. Of course, Tamlorn’s visit occurs at the end of the book and he knows Sybel well; Anna can’t really make that claim to knowledge of Elsa, to whom she’s barely spoken since the two were young. That Anna turns out to be wrong is one of the things about Frozen that I liked very much;* that we trust people at all is so often portrayed as proof that they will justify that trust, here people can be ‘good’, whatever that means, without necessarily being safe, hurt can be unintentional or even (in Sybel’s case) intentional; we can love people and not want to hurt them, and do so anyway. (In Frozen, less explicitly, this principle is also evident in some of the most terrible parenting ever).



There’s a moment part of the way into the recent Disney movie Frozen, in which Elsa, one of its protagonists, leaves her kingdom after being shunned for her (ice- and snow-producing) powers. What starts off as the flight of an outcast becomes something more powerful as Elsa decides to embrace her powers, accept her apart-ness from her people, and build herself a magnificent fortress of ice in which to live alone. You can’t help suspecting that this spectacular edifice was put in for its impressive 3D potential, but there’s something appealing in Elsa’s remote, cold sanctuary.

Of course, Elsa doesn’t really want to be there; her grief almost turns her evil (and puts her in a sexy dress, which is almost as bad) and at the end she is re-integrated into her kingdom. She’s not, as her sister Anna (who the movie would have you believe is its real heroine) happily paired off, at least.

And recently I read for the first time Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. McKillip’s heroine, Sybel, lives for most of her life in a similar fortress on a mountain (one considerably greener than Elsa’s), with only the titular beasts for company. She does not miss people, never having lived among them. But people arrive, in the form of a child whom she must care for, a king, and an attractive young man, and she is drawn into their world.

There’s very little about the plot of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld to justify the way it lingers (and its winning of the first World Fantasy Award in 1975). But Sybel’s interactions with the world of which she must now become a part have a detachedness to them, a standing apart and commenting on this society even as she tries to seem part of it. Atop Eld Mountain Sybel was cut off from the world; now that she walks in the world she is still remote. Which is not the same thing as unfeeling, as she finds when she first experiences real, terrible anger.

That I watched Frozen and read McKillip’s book in the same month is coincidence, but read together the two work strangely well. Sybel is constantly described in terms invoking the cold; “ice-white Lady” with hair “silver as snow”, “and then you melt and slip cold through my fingers”. And both stories are about anger, though Disney lacks the visual vocabulary that allows us a glimpse of Sybel’s impersonal, almost inhuman wrath.

Eld Mountain is cool and green, the house is of “white, polished stone” and feels like something out of legend, one of those distant images from shared story. At points I’m not sure that The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a novel at all; with its lists of names (Sybel calls the beasts to her with her knowledge of their true names) and abundance of interchangeable princes it would make for a satisfying saga, merciless and impersonal and so, somehow, the better able to speak of the most primal of emotions. Like Frozen’s Elsa, Sybel will be led by her anger into doing something unforgivable—though unlike her, she will do it deliberately and with full awareness of its repercussions. But the narrative, as detached from Sybel’s story as it sometimes feels Sybel is to the world, merely states the fact.  As if this were simply something that happened, as if it wasn’t up to the book, or to us, to redeem Sybel or not.

Frozen ends with Elsa having tamed her powers and returned to her responsibilities as queen. Perhaps this is a happy ending, and conjuring up frozen ponds for her subjects to skate on is more satisfying than architectural marvels of ice. I’m less certain about the happiness of Sybel’s marriage and declared intentions towards motherhood. But once they come down from their mountain sanctuaries, I’m not sure they can go back and that itself feels like a loss.


*It almost makes up for the bit where Anna declares that “nobody” really wants to be alone and is by implication proved right.

March 3, 2014

February Reading

I was on holiday for part of last month, and reading Swallows and Amazons things for the rest of it.


Kate diCamillo, Flora and Ulysses: Gorgeous, funny, some reservations about evil, squirrel-murdering mothers (and also about texts that go back on the “evil” bit and decide that attempted pet-murder is excusable) and romance novel hating. But so good.

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Janie of La Rochelle, Janie Steps In: Hm. Based on just these two (I’ve not read the whole series) I suspect the La Rochelle books are better on character and also romance than the main Chalets. I may not be setting a very high bar here, but there’s the bit in JoLR where Janie refuses to give a young man a picture of her friend without said friend’s permission, or the bit in JSI where she advises Nan not to get engaged till she’s met many more men than she already has. Also the messy Chester family dynamics, where parental character flaws fucking up children is seen as a thing that happens sometimes, and no one has to be particularly evil or misguided, and people end up hurt. I’m still unclear on who the minor characters in this series are; at some point I must find and read the other books.

Georgette Heyer, The Toll-Gate: Tall people fall in love, and this is good because there aren’t any other people tall enough for them. Also bank robbery and murder happen. It isn’t Heyer’s best.

Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, Secret Water, Pigeon Post, Peter Duck: I’m always a bit surprised by people dismissing this particular series as Middle Class Children Have Adventures books of the Blyton variety. I mean, sure, all those things are true and it’s important to keep pointing that out, but they’re also stylistically interesting, experimental in ways that very few books quite manage (the closest comparison I can come to for their interplay between the fictional and the real is William Mayne’s The Grass Rope) and in general quite amazing.

P.G. Wodehouse, Service With a Smile, The Small Bachelor, Summer Lightning: I was at Delhi airport and I had a certain sum in rupees on me and a departure gate to get to in five minutes and so I bought three P.G. Wodehouses and read two of them on the plane. As you do. I was happier for it.

James Smythe, The Machine: This is great, I love all its references to Frankenstein, and the ways in which the sense of menace ebbs and flows at first, and then builds up … I’m not sure praising a book for its pacing and its completely unsubtle use of its intertexts is quite as impressive-sounding as I’d like it to be, but I did really like this.

Rakesh Khanna and Rashmi Ruth Devadasan (ed), The Obliterary Journal Vol. 2: Non-Veg: See here.

Edmund Crispin, Love Lies Bleeding: School (particularly boarding school)-set murders are a thing I love very much. And so this, which I also loved very much.

Nicholas Blake, A Question of Proof: Completely different school murder. The first Strangeways book, and before the character is quite as established as he feels in the later books; he also feels younger. Random mental illness-related awfulness, in an of-its-time way that would be quaint if not for its being awful. But Strangeways! Not being awful to women! Solving crime! Chalking moustaches onto statues! 

Sarra Manning, It Felt Like a Kiss, Unsticky: I read the first of these, then because it had the protagonists from Unsticky as minor characters I read that too. Manning continues to give most of her heroes first names for surnames (Unsticky‘s Vaughn does have a reasonable first name but no one calls him it). This time it’s “Curtis”, which is at least better than Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend‘s “Wilson”. Enjoyable, though it was no You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.

Courtney Milan, A Novella Collection: A thing which allowed me to complete my Brothers Sinister reread for this post, and also read a couple of other novellas. 

Mhairi Macfarlane, Here’s Looking At You: I’m sure I had more profound thoughts when I was actually reading this book. I enjoyed it, anyway.

Clara Benson, The Murder at Sissingham Hall: Apparently Benson’s Angela Marchmont books were found and published after her death in 1965, but were presumably written much earlier. Which might explain why this felt so Victorian–in narration, in characterisation, and certainly in the fact that the protagonists don’t seem ever to have read a detective story. 

Christianna Brand, Suddenly At His ResidenceThis was oddly dissonant in some ways–things didn’t feel like they had the import they ought to, or felt like they mattered to much, and this gave the whole thing an air of unreality that I don’t think was caused entirely by its being set in a very different time to my own. I think I’d like to read more Brand. I’m also, in connection with Mhairi Macfarlane’s first book, now pondering the logistics of literary home wrecking.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, The Unforgotten Coat: This does so many things I like; it’s all mixed-media and memory is complex and identity is complex and familiar places can be made alien and afternoons when you’re a child turn into hazy, semi-enchanted, impossible places, and then its treatment of the two Mongolian refugee children who move the plot and disappear … concerned me. It’s a book that might be saying (and undercutting) a lot of things about the portrayal of people from a culture other than one’s own. But I read it as part of an academic reading group and the other brown person in the room also found it uncomfortable, whatever it may have been trying to achieve. It’s also a book whose author explains in the afterword that it was based on a school visit to a class which contained a Mongolian girl, who totally lit up the classroom, and of whom the rest of the children were really proud. As if she were a mascot or the class pet or something–it’s tremendously well-meaning and ill-judged and (I’ve been the only brown kid in a otherwise white primary school class) made me a bit nauseous. The afterword makes me wonder if all the clever things I see in the text itself are things I’m reading into it. I don’t know.

February 27, 2014

Two posts about Courtney Milan

I’ve said in the past that I like to think of the regency romance as being set in a sort of fantasy world where things like the slave trade and gross economic inequality don’t exist—because if they do, our protagonists are thoroughly implicated in them. Even if they’re the ‘nice’ ones who think that small poor children should not be forced up chimneys, or that one should be kind to one’s servants, or at least learn their names, or that the slave trade is maybe not that good (standards for ‘nice’ being pretty low here), it’s hard to think of them as sympathetic in any way. Romances that draw our attention to these social realities as part of their elucidation of their protagonists’ characters manage to annoy me far more than ones that don’t mention any of this.

Courtney Milan’s books, though, are in one sense set firmly in the past of the real world. Recently I’ve been reading her Victorian-England-set Brothers Sinister series—I cringe a bit (a lot) at this title, but at least Oliver, Sebastian and Robert (none of whom are actually brothers, though they are related) are left-handed. And also these books are kind of great.

It’s obvious that there’s research involved; specific parliamentary reform acts, medical and scientific developments, social history, all of these are placed at the centre of the various stories in ways that ought to jar with the genre-romance format, but usually don’t. There’s an amusing moment in the afterword to The Duchess War where Milan, describing the radicalisation of workers in 1860s Leicester, admits that they really did not need a pamphlet-writing duke to stir them up, since they were managing quite well on their own. Why is Robert there, then? Because romance novel. It’s a concession I’m willing to grant her (though unlike pretty much every other minor historical change she makes, it doesn’t make 1800s England a better place). Apart from stray moments like this, though, it’s fiction that is solidly grounded in the material reality of its time. More realist than most realist fiction then, despite its basis in a genre one of whose strengths is a frequent departure from reality.

But then there’s the science thing, and I think it might be the most important of all. A minor character in the first few books in the series is Sebastian Malheur, the most reviled scientist in England, a Darwin supporter and a scandalous discusser in public of the sex lives of plants. These minor references are more serious than they might at first seem. As Milan herself says in the afterword to The Duchess War, “[e]very piece of historical fiction alters history in at least some tiny regard”. But this is more than a minor change; putting a geneticist in the same time and place as Darwin (Milan’s drawing on a lot of Mendel’s work, as she explains) could have enormous consequences.

Then in The Countess Conspiracy (spoilers all over this, sorry) we discover that what has been presented as Sebastian’s work so far has been that of his friend Violet Waterfield, who was in no position to publish (or be read, or taken seriously) because she’s a woman. This particular book has Violet discovering the chromosome, considerably earlier than was done in our world. Milan has already suggested, as I say above, that the minor changes she makes in her universe could have larger consequences, and this one is pretty huge.

So that’s where we end the series (I think there is to be one more book, but I’m not sure how far into the future it takes us), with scientific knowledge considerably further advanced than it was at this stage in our own world’s history. And while I’m not convinced that this makes The Countess Conspiracy science fiction (it is definitely fiction about science), I’m willing to argue for it, and I’m pretty sure that any sequel to it would be at least alternate history. Can SF claim Courtney Milan? Probably.


In The Heiress Effect, we are introduced to Anjan Bhattacharya, an Indian student in England. Particularly in the years since RaceFail, I’ve seen a lot of Writing The Other conversations in my various corners of the internet– why it’s important, how to do it, how to react to criticism of how one is doing it. I don’t know if Milan hangs out in the same parts of the internet as I do, but in many ways she’s done everything right; she’s read first-hand accounts of Indian students in 19th century Britain (including Gandhi’s, but she names a few less obvious ones at the end of the book), the 1857 war is namechecked*, there’s even an almost-reference to the Bengal Renaissance. Anjan isn’t only an angry freedom-fighter, though there’s plenty of anger there, he recognises that his own presence in England, studying law, requires a certain amount of complicity; his relationship with Britain is as tied up in his class position and family (and caste, though the word isn’t mentioned) as it is in the fact of being a brown man in 19th century England.

Here’s the thing, though. When Milan writes about, say, anxiety disorders, as she does with Oliver’s aunt Frederica, she doesn’t feel the need to have the character speechifying about it. I assume that this is in part because none of the characters is in a position to speechify; normally, when the books deal with historical fact that doesn’t commonly show up in romance novels there’s a note in the afterword. Anjan, on the other hand, is constantly explaining himself–to Emily he explains that brown people can have complex feelings towards their colonisers, that the British Empire is kind of bad, and that vegetarians exist; to her uncle Titus he explains that Indians don’t all force their wives to commit sati and that Hindus are generally monogamous. 19th Century English people had a number of fascinating ideas about Indians and I’m well aware of this, but underlying all of these authorial choices is what feels to me like an assumption that Indians in books still need to be explained, that their literary presence is an opportunity for a teaching moment. And I’ve read historical novels whose authors have clearly done no research at all into India (*cough Libba Bray cough*) and as long as that sort of thing is seen as normal and acceptable perhaps we do need to be explained (no wonder Anjan falls in love with the first person who bothers to learn to pronounce his name). And perhaps posts like this are proof that You People Will Never Be Satisfied. I’m not, though.


*I know Emily is very sheltered but the only way in which I can account for her not having heard of the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ at all is that her uncle is deliberately keeping the newspapers away from her. Which is plausible, I suppose, but it seems unnecessary unless as an excuse for Anjan to also explain that conflict; another teaching moment.