Thursday 28 January 2016

In media res stat virtus

Ethel Tompson

I am going back once more to what I call "gentle fiction". 

I am a slow thinker and go back again and again to the same thoughts: I must have been a ruminant in a previous life! When some people go straight to the heart of the matter, (no pun intended with this expression), I take circuitous routes and I meander around my topic, finding new issues, relationships and definitions.

I apologize towards some readers of this blog who are devoted readers of "gentle fiction". I am not disparaging the books they love or the way they read them. I try to understand who reads what, how and why. With my sinuous mind, I shall come back to this topic and will refine my assumptions. No criticism is implied: only observation.

I still read blogs to which I have subscribed and belong to the same active reading groups, and I wonder how people can be so strongly engaged with their reading and with one or another writer whom I would consider - and whom I do consider - as secondary. I do not say negligible: no writer is truly and entirely negligible, but really secondary as object of attention. Writers who may be taken up when there is nothing better to read and who may be a hobby but not an absorbing one. And yet, they are absorbing for some. 

This is worth pondering and this gives them an added value.

These writers are usually ladies - not women, ladies, according to the definition Marilyn French gave in her pioneer feminist book "The Women's Room" -, lady novelists of the twentieth century read by ladies born during the twentieth century. The lady novelists are sometimes gentle women, both in the sense of belonging to the social middle class of gentlewomen and that of being gentle, that is understanding, compassionate, well behaved, moderate, mild - all qualities that are slightly evanescent and uneasily circumscribed. And mostly conservative. I am talking here again of lady writers such as DE Stevenson, Angela Thirkell, Margery Sharp, O Douglas, EM Delafield, Joyce Anstruther, Joyce Dennys or Susan Pleydell, for instance - these novelists who have been resurrected by Persephone Press, Greyladies, or smaller publishers.

Exceptions come later with Dora Saint and her "Miss Read" and "Thrush Green" series. There, there are schoolmistresses, depleted spinsters, widows living on a meagre stipend. But even if they seem timeless, they live in the 1950s or 1960s when the great mutation of the Western society has taken place and where women are allowed to work in some "gentle" jobs, and when impoverished gentlewomen live quite normally in cottages. Some of them are not even gentlewomen in the social sense of "middle class". Miss Clare and Emily Davis in the "Miss Read" series have come from the lower class and have reached the status of schoolmistresses through work and merit. They are gentlewomen through their attitude towards life.

The lady readers are younger than the lady writers, born at least one generation after them. Therefore they have never been ladies of leisure but have almost always had a job or have raised their children, mostly without help. They are one cut down the social ladder. This may also be because of the changes that happened in society during the twentieth century. But they are gentle according to the second meaning of the word. They are well behaved, moderate, mild, kind although somewhat authoritative sometimes, understanding and compassionate. I tend to think they are conservative, politically or not.

Gertrude Fiske

Their faculty of "identification-quite-but-not-entirely" seems to be a major point. One can put on the shoes of the heroine - it is usually a heroine, not a hero, as main protagonist - but with a distance left between one's own life and the heroine's life. This is important.

Most of the time, a house plays an important part. Heroines may have to seek a job. Their lives will nevertheless revolve about the notion of home. In Angela Thirkell's novels, no "heroine" is a woman. She is a lady and does not work but makes a home for the family, or will be engaged or married by the end of the book, raises her children, takes care of her husband, sometimes mildly flirts and belongs to community activities and committees. DE Stevenson's protagonists are married or will marry and then leave their job if ever they have one, as do those of Margery Sharp's or O Douglas'. The house and/or the estate that goes with it are seen through women's eyes and not through those of men's as in Trollope, where legal matters are expounded. Here, the relationship with the house is mostly emotional and calls sometimes, rather incredibly, upon the supernatural as in "Celia's House" by DE Stevenson, or in "The Herb of Grace" by Elizabeth Goudge. Dora Saint's Miss Clare lives in her parents’ cottage and keeps it immaculate.

One may see the continuity of the Victorian notions of "The Angel of the house" and of the importance of home, their taming and civilizing effects upon boys and men.

The women engaged with these books are usually home makers themselves. They have or had a job - a number of them are librarians or teachers -, they are married or single through widowhood, or divorced (there does not seem to be lots of "spinsters": they have at the "worst" been partners) and they comment about cooking, gardening, knitting, ailing, sewing, reading, writing, travelling, reading.

Gertrude Fiske

Even though there are lots of engagements, marriages, weddings, births and christenings in the novels, there must be no sex, and no allusion to sex in the novels. There is only romantic love or light flirting led through conversations with esprit.

Readers are very careful about this aspect and firmly condemn all literature mentioning the unspeakable. One cannot say that it is a trait of the British prudishness and reserve. Indeed, readers are manifold and come first from the United States, then from Canada, some from Australia and New-Zealand, and of course from Britain. This adds sometimes to the distance between writer and reader. Distance in time and distance in geography. Both will often lead to a misunderstanding and a misconstruction of the novel that creates a total rewriting of the story in the readers' minds. 

And yet, they all insist on the feeling of reality given by the plots, characters and settings. Details - these novels are full of irrelevant details - are woven with the fabric of the readers' lives. Which is unrealistic in the extreme as, for instance, life in the Midwest in the 1950s has nothing to do with life in the Highlands in the 1930s in middle to high-middle or low-upper classes. It is even more dissonant when it comes to life today in the United-States and life in the 1950s in gentle Britain. 

Nevertheless the "near-identification" phenomenon is great. It allows a search in memories, a re-creation of the past both the dreamed past of an idyllic Britain that never was, and of a life or lives of real families and individuals. 

Gertrude Fiske

The reality of such fiction is denied in the end of each novel (if not before the end) by a conscious twist made by the writer into fairy tale. There is no tragedy in these books. As said above, they almost always end with wedding bells or at least engagements or, less often, by birth or reconstitution of happy families. In this, they are conservative and ideal. They are the prolongation of fairy tales read without the benefit of subtexts created by gender studies or analysis, the prolongation of children books and mostly of girls books such as "The Chalet School". They are a literature of comfort, escapism and reassurance. A number of readers insist on the fact that a "good book" makes good escape (from the tedium of everyday life or its complications?) with "a nice cup of tea", "a chair", and with "curtains drawn in winter".

This reading is legitimate. All readings are legitimate as long as they do not hurt the self and others. However, it is not far from the reading done by the heroine in "Angel" by Elizabeth Taylor - which may be dangerous. And it is certainly not the reading pioneered by references in such matters: Nicola Beauman, Nicola Humble and Alison Light. Moreover, fragile publishers may be deflected from their initial aim to reevaluate neglected fiction in order to enlarge the literary canon and our multicultural vision of fiction. They come to publish texts that had been left aside by some of these lady authors, under readers pressure when such texts would have been better left to academics for the purpose of research only. These texts sometimes called "left in the attic", do more wrong than good to the writers whom they expose with all their flaws.

In fact, a balance should be found between the sophisticated and complex reading made by scholars - a lot might be written about this and its consequences - and the too candid reading for comfort. A balance is sometimes found. But so unfrequently. Between unconditional praise and unconditional denial, in media res stat vitus.

Gertrude Fiske

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