‘I must write. If I stop writing, my life will have been an abject failure.’: Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea

caribbeanclassics-31-1In 1939 Jean Rhys’s second husband gave her a copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, an act that would shape Rhys’s writing life for the next three decades. So haunted was Rhys by the shadowy figure of Rochester’s mad Jamaican wife in Bronte’s novel that she struggled for over 20 years to write this first Mrs Rochester’s untold story. This she finally achieved in 1966 with the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea—her fifth, final and most devastating novel—which tells the story of Mrs Rochester from her childhood in the West Indies to her incarceration in Rochester’s attic in England, a journey from warm tropical lushness to cold that Rhys knew well from her own life. In bringing to life the spectre that haunts Jane Eyre, Rhys gives voice to the woman whose lunacy shapes one of Victorian England’s most acclaimed novels, and brings to centre stage the colonial foundations upon with the British Empire was built.

Set in 1830s Jamaica and Dominica, Wide Sargasso Sea tells the tragic story of Antoinette Cosway, as Rhys names Bronte’s Bertha Antoinetta Mason who married Mr Rochester. Narrated in multiple voices, the novel tells Antoinette’s story in three parts. The first part, narrated by the young Antoinette, tells the story of her life before marriage, of her beautiful mother and the family’s fading fortunes. The second part, narrated by the unnamed Rochester, tells the story of his married life in ‘Granbois’, Antoinette’s mother’s house in the Windward Islands. Rochester finds life there overwhelming: ‘Everything is too much, I felt as I rode wearily after her. Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.’ And his wife disturbs him: ‘The girl is thought beautiful, she is beautiful. And yet …’

The brief third part is told by Antoinette in England: ‘In this room I wake early and lie shivering for it is very cold.’ Here Rochester has renamed her Bertha, which for Antoinette is some kind of magic, a way for Rochester to further reshape her identity and possess her. As Antoinette says: ‘Names matter, like when he wouldn’t call me Antoinette, and I saw Antoinette drifting out the window with her scents, her pretty clothes and her looking-glass.’ For Rhys’s novel, written with the beauty and precision of poetry, is predominately a tale of possession, of love and haunting: ‘She’s mad but mine, mine. What will I care for gods or devils or for Fate itself. If she smiles or weeps or both. For me.’

Dominica

Dominica

Rhys draws on a rich history of early 19th century Caribbean life for her portraits of Antoinette and her mother, in particular on the phenomenon of Creole heiresses who had gone mad as a result of their inbred colonial society, their sanity further tested by their sudden impoverishment following the emancipation of the slaves on whom their fortunes depended and by their beliefs in local voodoo superstitions. The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 of British Parliament originally stipulated emancipation over a seven-year transitional phase to allow a period of adjustment, but this was amended and the slaves were granted full emancipation in August 1838 (although in Dominica, Rhys’s home, slavery ended in 1834). The local planters felt betrayed by the British government, and their loss of free labour and the halving of sugar prices following the introduction of free trade destroyed their fortunes. Many plantation families were ruined, like Antoinette’s, and their estates were bought up by wealthy interlopers from Britain such as Mr Rochester, who knew nothing about island life.

Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams in 1890 in Roseau, Dominica, a Caribbean island that had been sold to England by France in 1805. Her father was a Welsh doctor, her mother a white Creole whose grandfather had owned a plantation and been part of Dominica’s white colonial elite. Dominica is a small, rugged island, densely vegetated and mountainous, with a violent history. As Rhys’s Rochester longingly observes: ‘It was a beautiful place—wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret. I’d find myself thinking, “What I see is nothing—I want what it hides—that is not nothing.”‘

Rhys left Dominica when she was 16 to go to school in Cambridge, England, where her grandfather had gone to university. After a brief term at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, she dropped out to become a chorus girl. In 1912 after a passionate affair Rhys began to write. In 1919 she married the Dutch writer Jean Lenglet and they lived a bohemian life, mostly in Vienna and Paris. They had two children, a son who died at three weeks and a daughter, Maryvonne. When Lenglet was jailed in Paris in 1924 for embezzlement, Rhys moved in with writer Ford Madox Ford and Australian painter Stella Bowen, and Rhys and Ford soon became lovers. (In her autobiography Drawn from Life (1941), Bowen refers to the unnamed Jean as ‘the real Wild One’.)

Ford Madox Ford

Ford Madox Ford

Ford helped to transform Lenglet’s wife Ella into the writer Jean Rhys, editing her prose and giving her the name Jean Rhys. He published Rhys’s first short story in in 1924 in his magazine The Transatlantic Review which published Hemingway, Joyce and Stein, and in 1927 a collection of her stories, The Left Bank, was published under her pen name ‘Jean Rhys’.  This was followed by the publication of her first novel, Quartet, based on her affair with Ford. Between 1928 and 1939 she published four novels, about beautiful, fading women in Paris and London during the 1920s and 30s. In 1928 she returned to England and moved in with her agent, Leslie Tilden Smith, whom she married in 1934. They moved to Cornwall when war broke out in 1939—and Rhys then disappeared from the literary world for nearly three decades.

In 1939, after receiving Jane Eyre from Tilden Smith, Rhys began excitedly to write the missing story of Mrs Rochester: ‘It is that particular mad Creole I want to write about, not any of the other mad Creoles,’ she wrote. She originally called the story Le Revenant (one returned from the dead) but burnt the typescript after an argument with her husband. She then spent the next 20 years labouring over her story: ‘I must write. If I stop writing, my life will have been an abject failure. It is that already to other people, but it could be an abject failure to myself. I will not have earned death.’ Impoverished and isolated in Cornwall, Rhys poured a lifetime of separation and division into her only novel set in the West Indies, eventually calling it Wild Sargasso Sea. She named it after the Sargasso Sea, a free-floating sea in the North Atlantic adrift between the West Indies and the Azores, unique among the world’s seas because it has no coastline.

Despite her rumoured death, Rhys was finally discovered in Cornwall by the outside world in 1957. Impressed by a broadcast version of her novel Good Morning, Midnight, the editor Francis Wyndham finally tracked down Rhys and wrote to her, wondering if she had any new work. She replied that she was working on a new novel ‘unlike anything I’ve attempted before’. Sustained by a group of supportive editors and agents, including Wyndham, Diana Athill, Sonia Orwell (George Orwell’s widow) and Olwyn Hughes (Ted Hughes’s sister), Rhys eventually managed to shape from her obsession with Bertha Mason a novel in lucid prose as haunting as it is beautiful. So profoundly did Rhys struggle with Antoinette Cosway’s story that, according to Diana Athill:

It is no exaggeration to say that it nearly killed her: her heart went into failure on the day she was supposed to hand the book to me, and it was two years before she recovered enough to add the two or three little finishing touches without which she would not let us publish it.

Wide Sargasso Sea has been twice adapted to the screen, first in 1993 and again in 2006. When she discovered that Jean Rhys had spent several days in Holloway Prison, English playwright Polly Teale knew she had to write a play about her life. She was fascinated by the fact that this gifted writer had assaulted a neighbour, whom Rhys believed was making too much noise, then bitten the policeman who arrived on the scene to deal with the matter. This story of Rhys’s violent behaviour is eerily evocative of the fictional Mrs Rochester; fittingly, Teale named her play After Mrs Rochester.

Jean Rhys in Cornwal

Jean Rhys in Cornwal

 

 

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‘I feel as fastidious as though I wrote with acid’: Katherine Mansfield and Prelude

334-20141241382_540x360When Virginia Woolf asked Katherine Mansfield for a story for the Hogarth Press in 1917, Mansfield reworked a piece she had begun during the First World War intended to be a novel about her childhood in New Zealand. Renamed ‘Prelude‘, the story Mansfield sent Woolf is based on her family’s move from Wellington to nearby rural Karori. Hand-printed and published as a 68-page booklet by the Hogarth Press in July 1918, Prelude was the Woolfs’ second publication. Two years later it was published in Mansfield’s collection Bliss and Other Stories (1920).

Set in New Zealand, Prelude is a beautifully evocative, lucid story told in twelve parts with a fluid point of view that shifts effortlessly from two little girls, Kezia and Lottie Burnell, to their languid dreamy mother Linda; their romantic energetic father Stanley; grandmother; servant; and longing-filled aunt Beryl. The carefully observed deliberate strokes of Mansfield’s prose were enriched by the 1910 Japanese exhibition in London and Roger Fry’s exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists, particularly the wildflowers of Vincent Van Gogh, which inspired a new sense of freedom in Mansfield. Her story’s discontinuous structure, with its twelve intercut sections, was shaped by the movement of cinema, and its multiple perspectives were influenced by Mansfield’s observation of Cubist painting, especially Picasso’s. Mansfield’s urge to create new forms for the short story was intensified by her sense that following the war, which in 1915 had taken the life of her beloved brother Leslie, nothing could ever be the same again: ‘I can’t imagine how after the war these men can pick up the old threads as tho’ it had never been.’

Wild Flowers and Thistles in a Vase, Vincent Van Gogh

Wild Flowers and Thistles in a Vase, Vincent Van Gogh

Prelude opens abruptly, with the arrangement of baggage, children and two women on a buggy: ‘There was not an inch of room for Lottie and Kezia in the buggy.’ Their mother is willing to forsake her two little girls for her mountainous luggage of ‘absolute necessities’: the girls can stay behind to follow later, the luggage cannot. Immediately Mansfield plunges the reader into the drama of her story. In spare, sharp prose, she vividly evokes the two little girls: ‘Hand in hand, they stared with round solemn eyes first at the absolute necessities and then at their mother.’ Mansfield can evoke whole emotional histories in one sentence, so precise and economical is her writing. As she said of her process: ‘I feel as fastidious as though I wrote with acid.’ Yet from acid she creates stories of haunting suggestiveness. She wanted to ‘speak to the secret self we all have—to acknowledge that.’

In Mansfield’s hands, the material world and the otherworldly merge, and her prose is as adept at conjuring solid substance and landscape as it is at evoking the unformed hinterlands of experience, the half-glimpsed shadowy worlds of dreams, longings and visions: ‘Linda looked up at the fat swelling plant with its cruel leaves and fleshy stem. High above them, as though becalmed in the air, and yet holding so fast to the earth it grew from, it might have had claws instead of roots.’ Mansfield conveys her characters with affection and humour, as well as capturing the subtle interweaving of their relationships. Her portrait of Stanley, the worldly, hasty man of action, is brilliant:

“Oh, damn! Oh, blast!” said Stanley, who had butted into a crisp white shirt only    to find that some idiot had fastened the neck-band and he was caught.

Stanley and his family also come vividly to life in Mansfield’s story of their beachside holiday At the Bay, a companion piece to Prelude.

Mansfield, 1917

Mansfield, 1917

Mansfield, born Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp in 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand, experimented all her short life with different names, looks, styles of dress—her fluid identity a natural source of her stories’ shifting narrative point of view. Mansfield first left New Zealand in 1903 with her family to study with her two sisters in Queen’s College in London. Three years later she returned to New Zealand, where she had a number of passionate affairs with men and women, and took up music, planning to become a cellist. Although she became a writer, not a musician, Mansfield brought a musical ear to her stories, attending to the length and sound of her sentences, reading them aloud ‘just as one would play over a musical composition’, as she wrote after completing her compact short story ‘Miss Brill’. In 1908, aged 19 and with an annual allowance from her banker father, Mansfield left New Zealand again, never to return.

Mansfield and Murry

Mansfield and Murry

In England, Mansfield married George Bowden in 1909 (he thought she looked like her hero, Oscar Wilde) but left him the day after their wedding to resume her affair with violinist Garnet Trowell (T.S. Eliot warned Ezra Pound she was a dangerous woman). Her first stories were published in 1910 by A.R. Orage, the influential editor of The New Age, London’s first socialist weekly, and then in 1911 in her first collection of stories, In a German Pension. The same year, Mansfield sent a story to John Middleton Murry, editor of the cutting-edge magazine Rhythm, which aimed among other things to ‘familiarise us with our outcast selves’. Murry rejected her story but published the next one, ‘The Woman at the Store’. Soon Murry and Mansfield became lovers, known as ‘The Two Tigers’ for their passionate belief that art must be brutal in order to renew its humanity, and in 1916 they moved to Cornwall, near D.H. and Frieda Lawrence. Mansfield and Murry had a tempestuous relationship characterised by separations, affairs and jealousy, but they remained ardently attached to each other. Mansfield completed the first draft of Prelude when she was at her happiest with Murry, writing opposite him at the same table while he worked on his first book, on Dostoyevsky. After her divorce from Bowden, Mansfield and Murry were married in 1918.

D.H. Lawrence, Mansfield, Frieda Lawrence and Middleton Murry

D.H. Lawrence, Mansfield, Frieda Lawrence and Middleton Murry

Mansfield’s health, always fragile, deteriorated in 1918 when she began to spit blood; she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. From then on, Mansfield travelled constantly on the Continent, unable to spend winters in England, and in 1920 she moved to Menton on the French Riviera. After periods with Murry in Switzerland, in October 1922 Mansfield travelled to Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau to seek a cure for her tuberculosis. Here she died aged 34 in January 1923, on the evening after Murry’s arrival from England.

After Mansfield’s death, Virginia Woolf wrote: ‘When I began to write, it seemed to me there was no point in writing, Katherine wont read it.’ Mansfield was perhaps the only woman Woolf knew who cared as much about writing as she did, and was the only writer of whom Woolf confessed jealousy, for the beauty and exactness of her prose.

Portrait of Katherine Mansfield by American artist Anne Estelle Rice, 1918

Portrait of Katherine Mansfield by American artist Anne Estelle Rice, 1918

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‘I am nothing but literature and can and want to be nothing else’: Franz Kafka and The Trial

0b236ed436e850f1ad7e724801045689‘Somebody must have made a false accusation against Josef K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong.’ This much-quoted opening sentence of The Trial sets the tone—one of cool, lucid observation of increasingly bizarre events—of Franz Kafka’s novel about a senior bank officer, Josef K., who on the morning of his thirtieth birthday, out of the blue and for no apparent reason, is charged with an unnamed criminal offence. The Trial recounts K.’s growing sense of helplessness as he seeks to uncover the truth of his case from a labyrinthine legal machine whose reach appears to be limitless, whose agents are revealed behind every door, from the door of K.’s own apartment to the door of an impoverished painter’s studio in a derelict tenement. As K. observes quietly to the court: ‘There is no doubt that behind all the utterances of this court, and therefore behind my arrest and today’s examination, there stands a great organisation.’

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka was born in 1883 in Prague (then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire) into a middle-class Jewish family. When his two older brothers died in infancy, Kafka became the eldest child with three  younger sisters. He was sent to German schools, where he excelled, and went on to study law at the German University, graduating in July 1906 with a Doctorate in Jurisprudence. Following university, Kafka worked in the law courts before finding a semi-legal position in 1908 in the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, where he worked until 1922 when tuberculosis forced him to retire. For most of his four decades, Kafka lived in his parents’ cramped apartment, working at the insurance office by day and writing by night: ‘Since I am nothing but literature and can and want to be nothing else, my job will never take possession of me,’ he wrote. His father, a merchant, was utterly unable to comprehend his pale, thin son’s complete devotion to so unprofitable and unworldly an occupation as literature.

Felice Bauer and Franz Kafka

Felice Bauer and Franz Kafka

In 1902, Kafka met the writer Max Brod, who was to become his closest friend and literary executor, and through whom in 1912 he met Felice Bauer, a businesswoman from Berlin. Kafka’s non-committal relationship with Felice, conducted mostly via letters between Prague and Berlin, resulted in two broken engagements and coincided with an extraordinary period of creative outpouring. Several weeks after their meeting, Kafka wrote ‘The Judgement’, one of the few stories published in his lifetime, which appeared in 1913 with a dedication to Felice. In the months after their meeting he also wrote six chapters of the novel published posthumously as America (1927) and the story ‘The Metamorphosis’, published in 1915.

In 1923 Kafka moved to Berlin to escape his family and focus on his writing. He died in June 1924 near Vienna, shortly before his 41st birthday, leaving Brod with instructions to destroy his writing after his death. Instead, Brod published and promoted Kafka’s stories, starting in 1925 with The Trial, and Kafka achieved worldwide posthumous fame during the Nazi era, as his three sisters were being deported and killed in concentration camps.

Max Brod and Franz Kafka

Max Brod and Franz Kafka

The Trial does not make comfortable reading, as might be expected from a man who believed we ought to read ‘only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading it for? … A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.’ The Trial articulates both K.’s apparent state of paranoia in a world ruled by anonymous bureaucracy and the potent, impeccable logic pitted against him to justify the court’s commonsense-defying behaviour. Like Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, in which the language of the law has become hollow sophistry capable of great destruction, at its most literal interpretation The Trial is a study of the power of words and the impotence of the individual at the mercy of a vast legal system which, through its power to judge right and wrong, ultimately becomes the arbiter of meaning. The portrait painter—whose painting of Justice is reminiscent not of Justice or Victory, but ‘looked exactly like the goddess of the hunt’—explains to K. there is no point hoping to persuade the court to change its opinion, for the court is utterly unresponsive: ‘If I paint all the judges in a row on a canvas, and you argue your defence before this canvas, you’ll have more success than you would have before the actual court.’

But gradually K. begins to understand that his innocence is beside the point—he is trapped in a system in which his every protestation of innocence only increases his aura of guilt: ‘What matters are the many subtleties in which the court gets lost. But in the end it produces great guilt from some point where originally there was nothing at all.’ There is also a mad humour in Kafka’s vision, in the ludicrous antics of the court and K.’s efforts to cooperate with it:

“You are an interior decorator?”
“No,” said K., “I am a senior administrator in a large bank.” This answer provoked such a hearty laugh from the right faction down below that K. had to laugh too.

So rich and open a story is The Trial that it has been all things to all people: a religious allegory; a story of divine justice, original sin, fate, capitalism, a totalitarian nightmare, an impotent son overwhelmed by an omnipotent father; a tale of the absurdity of existence. None of these interpretations is able to encompass the full brilliance of the story itself. The remarkable thing about The Trial is that Kafka has transformed his own experience of impotence and strange thrall to his captors—his parents; his teachers; his fiancee, Felice Bauer; his employers; his society; life itself—and distilled it into a lucid and resonant multilayered parable that has the force and irreducibility of truth.

So acute was Kafka’s vision that almost 100 years after his death the word ‘Kafkaesque’ conveys more vividly than any other word a world governed by impassive agents who may or may not be obeying orders from faceless superiors for no apparent reason. Its evocations of helplessness when dealing with authority are uncannily applicable to almost every dimension of contemporary life, from the detention of refugees on Nauru to the shifting public bodies charged with building WestConnex and automated phone answering services.

Orson Welles surmounted numerous challenges, including running out of money, to bring his nightmare vision of The Trial to the screen, starring Anthony Perkins as Joseph K. It was supposed to be filmed in Zagreb, but finally, fortuitously, one moonlit night Welles discovered the perfect location in Paris—the abandoned railway station of Gare d’Orsay. Welles considered The Trial (1962) to be his best film. although, perhaps unlike Kafka, Welles viewed Joseph K. as ‘a little bureaucrat’ and therefore guilty: ‘I consider him guilty … He belongs to a guilty society; he collaborates with it.’

Anthony Perkins as Josef K. in Orson Welles' 'The Trial'

Anthony Perkins as Josef K. in Orson Welles’ ‘The Trial’

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Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter ‘trod all underfoot and braved all that you might come together’

516HWD3P20L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Sigrid Undset’s medieval trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter is the story of the fiery Kristin Lavransdatter from her girlhood to old age. Kristin is the eldest daughter of Ragnfrid and Lavrans (hence Lavrans-datter), a God-fearing farmer whose knowledge of animals and plants and skill at hunting have made him a wealthy landholder. Like her father, Kristin is beautiful and strong; her soul is deep and attuned to the natural world. She’s also headstrong, intrepid and passionate. Fired by her undying love for the dashing black-haired knight Erland Nikulausson of Husaby, Kristin defies her father, her community and her god to bind herself to Erland, boldly assuming all the dangers and adventures of his turbulent life. As her admirer Simon Andresson says: ‘You trod all underfoot and braved all that you might come together.’

Set in 14th century Norway, the novel opens with Kristin as a young girl of seven, ‘a lily-rose’, setting out with her adored father into the mountains to tend the cattle. By a mountain stream a mysterious woman—’pale with waving, flaxen hair’, dressed in leaf green—offers Kristin a wreath of golden flowers. Kristin’s horse neighs in alarm, alerting her to the danger, and her father rushes to save her from the enchanted wreath. The mountains above Kristin’s home are haunted by fairy people, alive with ancient tales and pagan gods, existing alongside the Roman Catholic Church and priest of the village.

Magnus VII Eriksson

Magnus VII Eriksson

Against a backdrop of violent upheaval—in 1319 a minor, three-year-old Magnus VII, succeeded to the thrones of both Norway and Sweden, causing dissent in Norway—are the lives of Kristin and her family, their loves and betrayals, the dangers of childbirth and war, the devastation of the Black Plague and the consolation of a Christian god new to a land still steeped in Norse traditions. Christianity became firmly established in Norway from the mid 11th century following the death and martyrdom of Christian king Olaf Haraldsson (St Olaf) at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. His subsequent sainthood encouraged the widespread adoption of the new religion.

The coming to Christianity was something Undset knew from her own life. On 1 November 1924, two years after the publication of the third volume of the Lavransdatter trilogy, Undset was received into the Catholic Church, having been brought up an atheist. In Kristin Lavransdatter Undset explores the movement towards the Roman Catholic Church not only of Norway, caught between Christianity and its ancient Norse beliefs, but also of Kristin: from the agonies she suffers through her love for Erland and their many children, she increasingly finds comfort in the Church. This is conveyed in the titles of the three volumes of her trilogy—The Bridal Wreath, The Wife and The Cross—which trace out the arc of Kristin and Erland’s love, from their early abandon to erotic passion to Kristin’s growing understanding of her deeper relation to Erland and the essential place of God in her life.

Sigrid Undset

Sigrid Undset

Sigrid Undset was born in 1882 in Denmark to a Danish mother and a Norwegian father. When she was two, her father, a distinguished Norwegian archaeologist, took up a post at the Museum of Antiquities in Kristiania (now Oslo), where Undset grew up with her two younger sisters in an intellectual, atheist household. Her father’s love of old Norse sagas inspired his daughter’s extensive knowledge of Old Norse and Old Icelandic and her passion for history. Undset and her sisters were sent to the first co-educational school in Oslo, but its progressive views filled Undset with unease. Only many years later, after the First World War, was she able to clarify her discomfort, concluding that ‘liberalism, feminism, nationalism, socialism, pacifism, would not work, because they refused to consider human nature as it really is …’ By the 1920s Undset had become convinced from her study of history ‘that the only thoroughly sane people, of our civilisation at least, seemed to be those queer men and women the Catholic Church calls Saints’—and it was then that Undset converted to Catholicism, most unusual in Protestant Norway.

Kristiania circa 1900

Kristiania circa 1900

Following the early death of her beloved father in 1893, Undset left school aged 15. She longed to become a painter but she was forced to earn a living and entered a commercial academy. At the age of 17 she went to work as a secretary for the German Electrical Company in Oslo, where she remained for 10 years. In her scant spare time she wrote a historical novel which was rejected by a leading publisher with the words: ‘Don’t try your hand at any more historical novels. It’s not your line.’

Although she responded to his advice by writing a novel set in contemporary Norway (Frau Marta Oulie, which was published in 1907), Undset went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928 for the very thing she was told she had no talent for—her historical novels. Frau Marta Oulie—which opens with the bold declaration ‘I have been unfaithful to my husband’—caused an immediate sensation in Norway. Following the publication in 1909 of her second novel, set in the 11th century, Undset left her job and travelled to Germany and Italy on a writer’s scholarship.

Sigrid Undset at her desk

Sigrid Undset at her desk

In Rome Undset met the Norwegian painter Anders Svarstad and based her novel Jenny (1911) on their passionate affair. They married in Belgium  in 1912 and returned to Norway, where they had three children. With little help from her unsupportive husband, Undset was left to care for their three children and three stepchildren and eventually she left him and moved with her children to Lillehammer, north of Oslo. Her marriage was annulled in 1924 when she converted to Catholicism. Following the German occupation of Norway in 1940, Undset, a fierce opponent of Nazism, joined the Resistance and her books were banned. She soon left Norway to spend the war years in the United States, where she lectured on behalf of her country and became something of a celebrity. She returned to Norway in 1945 and died of a stroke four years later.

The publication of Kristin Lavransdatter in Norway from 1920 to 1922, fifteen years after Norway’s independence from Sweden in 1905 (after five centuries of domination first by Denmark then by Sweden), gave 20th century Norwegians a rousing tale of their past, with an indomitable heroine and a courageous knight who fought against a king shared with Sweden. The trilogy was an immediate success. Kristin Lavransdatter was published in English from 1923. In 1997 the first volume of a new, updated English translation by Tiina Nunnally appeared. The remaining two volumes of Nunnally’s translation, said to be true to the spirit of Undset’s original, were published in 1999 and 2000.

Considered to be among the greatest historical novels of the 20th century, Kristin Lavransdatter was adapted for the cinema in 1995 by Liv Ullman, Ingmar Bergman’s muse and the star of many of his films. Ullman’s film of Kristin Lavransdatter, featuring Elisabeth Matheson as Kristin and Bjorn Skagestad as Erland, was seen by over half the population of Norway in the year of its release.

Kristin (Elisabeth Matheson) and Erlend (Bjorn Skagestad)

Kristin (Elisabeth Matheson) and Erlend (Bjorn Skagestad)

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‘I will take my anguish and lay it upon the roots under the beech trees’: Virginia Woolf’s The Waves

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By the time Virginia Woolf came to write The Waves, her seventh novel, she was at the height of her creative powers, riding on the success of a period of intense work that had given birth to Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928) and A Room of One’s Own (1929). In 1927, two years before starting The Waves Woolf had written to her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell: ‘I think we are now at the same point: both mistresses of our medium as never before.’ The artistic confidence that accompanied her newfound fame and fortune can be seen in the creative daring and inventiveness she brought to the novel that would be published in 1931 as The Waves.

Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell

Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell

Originally titled The Moths, The Waves was inspired by a letter from Vanessa written in 1927 from the south of France about moths, in particular a giant moth that had banged heavily against the window of their farmhouse. ‘My maternal instinct,’ Vanessa wrote, ‘which you deplore so much, wouldn’t let me leave it’; so, on behalf of her bug-loving children, Vanessa and her companions after many attempts finally managed to kill and set the monstrous moth. Virginia wrote back that Vanessa’s moth story had so intrigued her that she could think of nothing else for hours afterwards and planned to write a story about it.

Vanessa's portrait of Virginia

Vanessa’s portrait of Virginia

Woolf transformed Vanessa’s moth tale beyond recognition, constructing from it an extraordinary and poignant novel in six voices with prose interludes—a prose poem of great beauty. The Waves is Woolf’s most ingenious attempt to solve the creative problems she had set herself: of conveying in words the flow of experience and identity and the passing of time; of writing the spiritual stuff of existence rather than its material trappings. The novel is composed of the voices—’dramatic soliloquies’ as Woolf called them—of six characters from their earliest childhood observations of the dawning day through to the complex utterances of their middle age. The seventh, silent character, Percival, ‘remote from us all in a pagan universe’, is the one around whom revolve the lives of the six other characters: Bernard, Susan, Louis, Rhonda, Neville and Jinny.

The seven sections, spoken in the six characters’ gradually maturing voices, are intercut with fragments in italics that mark out the phases of the sun as it moves across the sky in the course of a day, the first recording the dawn: ‘The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it.’

While writing the novel, Woolf referred to it as autobiography—and yet she worked hard to take it beyond the personal to express the collective flow of life, to write prose as compact, intensely wrought and rhythmic as poetry. ‘I am writing the Waves to a rhythm not to a plot,’ she said. The result is a novel composed of sentences of exquisite beauty, the accumulated effect of which is mesmerising: ‘I will take my anguish and lay it upon the roots under the beech trees.’; ‘But when we sit together, close,’ said Bernard, ‘we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist.’

Like Jung, Woolf thought the joining of the internal masculine and feminine was essential for artistic creativity: ‘It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilised and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine.’ With its three male and three female voices, The Waves articulates Woolf’s hypothesis. It’s an opera based on her inner creative workings, a symphony of her own various inner male and female voices, and those of her family and friends—her sister Vanessa shaped Susan; T.S. Eliot informed Louis; her beloved brother Thoby, who died tragically young, inspired Percival—as they merge and separate, ebb and flow, are part of Woolf and yet are not her.

The Waves was published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf at their Hogarth Press in 1931 to critical acclaim and commercial success. Leonard considered The Waves the best of Woolf’s books, her masterpiece. Woolf herself was surprised by the response of reviewers and the public: ‘How odd this is—so far most of the low-brow reviewers (whose sense I respect) find the Waves perfectly simple; and it is selling beyond all my other books! Now why?’

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

Woolf was born in London in 1882, the daughter of renowned writer and editor Leslie Stephen, and his second wife Julia Stephen. Julia had three children from her first marriage, Leslie had one, and together they had four more children, so their Kensington house was busy, crowded and intimate. Woolf was educated at home by her father, who was struck by his youngest daughter’s dazzling intellect and verbal brilliance. ‘The greatest disaster that could happen’ occurred when Woolf was 13: in 1895 her mother died and soon after Woolf had her first breakdown. Following their father’s death in 1904 (which provoked Woolf’s second breakdown), the Stephen siblings, now young men and women, moved together from their dark childhood home across London to unfashionable Bloomsbury, where they found unprecedented freedom in a spacious, light-filled, sparsely furnished terrace. Here writers and artists gathered, including Roger Fry and Lytton Strachey, and the notorious Bloomsbury Group evolved. And here Woolf began to write in earnest, devoting herself to journalism from 1904 to 1909 before beginning her first novel.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf

Virginia and Leonard Woolf

An exhibition organised by Roger Fry in 1910—’Manet and the Post-Impressionists’—brought the bold-stroked paintings of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne to London en masse for the first time. The exhibition shook the foundations of the London art world and Woolf later wrote: ‘On or about December 1910, human character changed.’ In her view the change required a radical new approach to novel writing. Three years after her arrival in Bloomsbury, at the age of 26, Woolf had written: ‘I shall re-form the novel and capture multitudes of things at present fugitive, enclose the whole and shape infinite strange shapes.’ With the critical support and encouragement of Vanessa’s husband, Clive Bell, Woolf’s first novel, Melymbrosia, was published in 1915 as The Voyage Out. In 1912 Virginia married Leonard Woolf and two years later they established the Hogarth Press, which succeeded beyond their greatest expectations, publishing T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield, economist John Maynard Keynes and the first English translation of Freud. Dividing her time between the press and her own writing, London and her house in Sussex, Woolf continued to work hard to realise her ambition to reform the novel, producing a novel every three or four years until after The Waves.

After completing her last novel Between the Acts, in 1941, fearing the loss of her creative powers like Bernard in The Waves (‘When I cannot see words curling like rings of smoke round me I am in darkness—I am nothing’), Woolf drowned herself. Leonard, devastated, decided to bury Virginia’s ashes under one of the two elms that grew side by side by the pond in their garden at Monk’s House, Rodmell, which Virginia had named Leonard and Virginia. The memorial on the tree is engraved with the quotation: ‘Death is the enemy. Against you I will fling myself unvanquished and unyielding. O Death!’—spoken by Bernard, his last lines in The Waves.

Monk's House, Rodmell

The garden at Monk’s House, Rodmell, Sussex

 

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‘Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle’ (and btw by 2025 there will be 3 tonnes of plastic in the ocean for every 1 tonne of fish): E.M. Forster’s Howards End

Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Wilcox in Howards End

Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Wilcox in Howards End

I’m thinking about E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End, so beautifully adapted to the screen in 1992, and writing up my copious notes from the Natural Capital Forum in Edinburgh last November. Tragically, they are related. I love this novel for many reasons but especially because of Mrs Wilcox and her garden, her understanding of the power of places and their need to be cared for, and for the passage I quote from in the title of this post, which I return to below. The dangers Forster saw 100 years ago lurking in our accelerating mobility, in our increasing disconnection from the earth, are contained in the grotesque statistic quoted above: by 2025 there will be 3 tonnes of plastic for every 1 tonne of fish in the ocean.

The essence of Forster’s fourth novel, Howards End, can be summed up in the two words of its much quoted epigraph: ‘Only connect …’ Forster began work on Howards End in 1908, after he’d been reading American poet Walt Whitman, who had ‘started speaking to me’. With the force of revelation, Whitman spoke to Forster of the possibility of a connection between the unseen and the seen, between the soul and the body, passion and prose, art and money. Forster was thrilled: ‘That the spiritual world might be robust — !’ he wrote. The possibilities of a robust spiritual world are teased out in Howards End through the improbably coming together of two quite different families, one robust and one spiritual. The London lives of the Schlegels, sisters Margaret and Helen, are filled with art, literature and soirees with their bohemian friends; their wealth is inherited. The lives of the Welcomes are filled with business; they are committee men, their conversation restricted to sport and politics, their wealth earned, via the Imperial and West African Rubber Company.

The novel opens abruptly with a series of letters from Helen, the more impulsive of the Schlegel sisters, to her sister Margaret, declaring her love for the Wilcoxes, Paul Wilcox in particular. But romantic love is not destined to unite the two families. Instead, an affinity between two women, Margaret Schlegel and Mrs Wilcox, brings the families together in an unlikely fusion that ends in marriage. Margaret and Mrs Wilcox are hybrids: one not pure Schlegel spirit, the other not pure Wilcox matter.

Mrs Wilcox, like her husband, two sons and daughter, understands the value of bricks and mortar, but unlike them she is attend to the spiritual power of her house and the material world. Born at ‘Howards End’, she is profoundly connected to her home, forever wandering across the lawn with handfuls of hay, trailing her long skirts across the damp grass: ‘she seemed not to belong to the young people and their motor, but to the house, and to the tree that overshadowed it’. Howards End and Mrs Wilcox are the great moral core of Forster’s novel; they provide the sacred connection between the earth and the imagination that Forster so valued and that was being lost in a new world so intent on motion:

‘London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilisation which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relationships a stress greater than they have ever had before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!’

Margaret combines a pragmatic acceptance of the importance of money with her knowledge of the central place in life of art and friendship, the sisters’ credo. In what is a heresy to Helen, and ‘horrid’ even to Margaret herself, Margaret begins to wonder if ‘the very soul of the world is economic, and that the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of coin’. Her realisations come from her meeting with two forces: the Wilcoxes and Leonard Bast, an impoverished insurance clerk. She begins to realise that the energy and grit of the Wilcoxes keep the world going: without them ‘life might never have moved out of protoplasm’.

The Schlegel sisters meet Leonard Bast by chance at a Beethoven concert and invite him to tea. Leonard is desperately striving to educate himself, but his attempts at culture are, like Leonard himself, doomed to failure. Leonard’s life, which Margaret would never ordinarily meet, forces her to consider the wealth she and her family take for granted: ‘You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands. It is so firm beneath our feet we forget its very existence.’

The rapid changes and rampant materialism of the Edwardian world in which Forester was writing sickened him: ‘It really is a new civilization’, he wrote in 1908. ‘I have been born at the end of the age of peace and can’t expect to feel anything but despair.’ The times were characterised by a ‘craze for motion’, money and work, and the increasing activities of trade unionists and suffragettes. And a war with Germany was brewing. King Edward VII succeeded his mother Queen Victoria in 1901 and ruled until his death in 1910, a period that roughly spans the years in which Forster wrote his first four novels. Howards End was published in 1910 at the height of a constitutional crisis over the creation of a large number of new Liberal peers requested by the Liberal Prime Minister Asquith. This would have given the reforming Liberal Party the parliamentary power to wage war on poverty, much needed in an era in which 5 million people received over half the national income, while the other 38 million struggled on what remained. In this time of social reform, the first subsidised secondary education was introduced in 1902; the old-age pension in 1908; and the first truly middle-class parliament (in which most MPs worked for a living) was elected in 1906.

Howards End is about this Edwardian England, a world in transition. Here the aesthete Forster deals frankly with the material conditions of his time and the importance of money:

‘The imagination ought to play upon money and realise it vividly for it’s the — second most important thing in the world. It is so slurred over and hushed up, there is so little clear thinking—oh, political economy, of course, but so few of us think clearly about our own private incomes, and admit that independent thoughts are in nine cases out of ten the result of independent means.’

Forster was born in London in 1879 and his father, an architect, died the following year. At four, he moved with his mother to ‘Rooksnest’, a house in the country north of London where they lived for 10 years until their lease ran out. Rooksnest was the model for Howards End, and Forster described it as ‘my childhood and my safety’. After difficult schooldays, Forster went to King’s College, Cambridge, to study classics and met kindred spirits Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes. On leaving Cambridge, Forster—having decided to become a writer—spent a year in Italy and Greece with his mother.

Back in England, Forster published his first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, in 1905, then The Longest Journey (1907) and A Room with a View (1908). But not until the publication of Howards End in 1910 to critical acclaim did Forster become one of the most feted novelists in England. In 1912 he travelled to India, where he found his spiritual home, and returned in 1921. On the eve of the First World War Forster wrote Maurice, a novel about homosexual love, which remained unpublished until after his death. During the war Forster worked for the Red Cross in Alexandria for three years where he met the love of his life, Muhammad al-Adl. While in Egypt he also befriended the Greek poet Cavafy and later persuaded TS Eliot to publish his poems. After the war, inspired by Proust, Forster wrote his last novel, A Passage to India (1924). The year after his mother’s death in 1945 Forster was given a fellowship to King’s College and he moved to Cambridge. He died in Coventry in 1970.

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‘our friendship has no other purpose, no other reason, than to show you how utterly unlike me you are …’: Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund

Most days it seems the world is going mad. I’m sure I don’t need to enumerate the many reasons why, but yes they include the US Republican presidential candidate, the continuing destruction of vast swathes of the earth from the Great Barrier Reef to the polar ice caps to the expansion of coal mining in the Hunter Valley, as well as crazy-making (if welcome) about-turns like the Turnbull government’s announcement today that ‘climate science matters‘ having ditched it only six months ago. No wonder I can no longer stand the platitudes and sophistry and faux action gushing from corporations, accountants and economists as they purport to address (if ever there were an inactive verb) ‘sustainability’, a word now so capacious as to be meaningless.

So I’ve retreated – or perhaps it’s advanced – into poetry, fiction, gazing at the ocean and plants. I like what Jennifer Percy says about writing at the 2014 Brooklyn Book Festival:

‘I think the actual act of writing itself, the process, is an act of disillusionment. And you should not approach writing with something stable, concrete, theory about the world already in your head, but rather have questions and curiosity and wonder, and be approaching moments of bewilderment and trying to figure things out. Sort of having the world break down in the process of writing, questioning the world. And I think what happens is you approach these moments of clarity where you feel like you’ve really figured things out, and you come across a different moment and the idea you’ve just solidified in your writing then breaks down. And I think we should also be comfortable showing our thoughts having these ups and downs, or solidifying and breaking down, or showing the process of thinking on the page. I think it’s good for readers to show them that struggle and how you can think about a problem complexly.’

The life of Hermann Hesse was a series of crises and new beginnings, and one such crisis struck him during the First World War. The pressures of the war, the stresses in his marriage, and his father’s death in 1916 drove Hesse to physical and emotional collapse. To recover, he went to Lucerne for psychoanalysis with JB Lang, a student of Jung. Based on this experience, he wrote Demian, the novel that brought him international fame, published in 1919 under the name of its narrator, Emil Sinclair.

Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse

In the spring of 1927 having suffered a physical breakdown and spent much of the previous four years at Baden health spa on medical advice, Hesse started work on Narcissus and Goldmund. He’d become increasingly distressed by the crippling effects of industrial civilisation and technology, and preoccupied by what he considered the duality of life, particularly the pull between the contemplative life of the spirit and the life of the flesh he felt acutely in himself. His previous novel, Steppenwolf (1927), explores this pull. In his sixth novel, Narcissus and Goldmund, Hesse returns to this tension but can now sympathetically express both tendencies in himself: scholarly hermit and worldly artist.

978072012912narcissusandgoldmundNarcissus and Goldmund is the story of two young men in medieval northern Europe who bear ‘special marks of fate’—Narcissus, a handsome prodigy admired for his intellect and refinement, and Goldmund, a radiant, golden-haired youth filled with dark secrets, driven by passion and creative yearning. Still in his early 20s, Narcissus’s extraordinary intelligence has secured him a position as teacher at the Mariabronn cloister on the edge of the Black Forest. He’s also gifted with the ability to see into the souls of those around him, able to sense their character and destiny. When Goldmund arrives at the cloister accompanied by his stern father, both father and son determined that Goldmund will train for the priesthood, Narcissus soon intuits that the delicate youth’s destiny doesn’t lie within the Church. A curious, illicit friendship grows between teacher and student, until they become inseparable.

But their friendship is destined to cause pain, to others and to themselves. As Narcissus says: ‘our friendship has no other purpose, no other reason, than to show you how utterly unlike me you are …’ They are opposites, sun and moon—’No road will bring us together.’ Narcissus feels called to show Goldmund his soul’s purpose and in the process breaks both their hearts. Unlike Narcissus, who’s born for scholarship and cloister life, Goldmund belongs in the world beyond. He has a secret bond with wood and stone, an affinity for ‘the flowers and thickets of sprouting leaves that burst forth from the stone of the columns and unfolded so eloquently and intensely’, and his learning lies not in books but in ‘the petal of a flower or a tiny worm on the path’.

Narcissus and Goldmund is told with a fable-like simplicity and the influence of Jung is apparent in many of its themes and motifs. Narcissus acts as Goldmund’s confessor and medieval psychoanalyst, pushing him to crisis point: ‘you’ve forgotten your childhood; it cries for you from the depths of your soul. It will make you suffer until you heed it.’

Hesse was the original teenage rebel. During his life he received thousands of letters and visits from young readers who responded to the confessional nature of his novels and looked to him for spiritual guidance. In 1967 the musician John Kay formed a band in San Francisco and named it Steppenwolf after Hesse’s novel. Born Joachim Krauledat, Kay had escaped post-war East Germany in a daring midnight flight with his mother and arrived in Canada aged 13, dreaming of rock and roll. Steppenwolf’s hit song ‘Born to be Wild‘—which opened cult movie Easy Rider (1969)—defined the generation that looked to Hesse’s novels of teenage angst and rebellion against family and society in their search for their ‘true self’.

I’m over halfway through The Story of the Lost Child, the last book of Elena Ferrante’s extraordinary Neapolitan quartet which I love so much that I’m contemplating going back to the first book and reading all four all over again, straight away, when I finish it. I’ve never felt that urge before with any other book. I’m thinking of Ferrante here because I’m wondering if the friendship between the two girls at the centre of her quartet will, like Narcissus and Goldmund’s, turn out to have ‘no other purpose, no other reason, than to show you how utterly unlike me you are …’

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