What with being at Daunt Books Festival and not really having a chance to finish a book, there will be no review this week.
I got the opportunity to listen to a number of interesting events at Daunt, met many lovely people and bought more books than I have space for (and possibly money for). To wit, I have a plethora of notes/content to replace my usual Monday book.
Choosing Your Heroines
Samantha Ellis & Anne Sebba talk to Alex Clark
- Samantha Ellis wrote How to be a Heroine (which I decided I wouldn’t buy, until I picked up the book and then couldn’t put it down)
- Anne Sebba is known for writing biographies of interesting women, her most recent is on Wallis Simpson (which I’m tempted to buy, has anyone read it?)
- Alex Clark is a literary critic
Both Ellis and Sebba began by reading extracts of their books.
Ellis’ love of Wuthering Heights was incredibly endearing. Her book follows her re-reading all the books she loved as a child, to reevaluate their value as Heroines and the messages they were teaching her – had she always chosen the wrong heroine? As someone who adores Wuthering Heights (I prefer it to Jane Eyre) I felt an affinity with the literary conundrum she found herself in.
I was unaware Wallis (Simpson) was born Bessie Wallis, ‘”a name fit only for cows'” (Sebba). Sebba explained that Wallis reinvented herself, any many people’s reactions to her seduction of King Edward was a fear of her sexuality.
Sebba explained that she wanted to look into Wallis to discover another version of her life, the unofficial one we know (American divorcee unapologetically stole the King). “She [Wallis] is a much more nuanced heroine.”
While she agrees Wallis was difficult to like, “she wasn’t a woman’s woman”, Sebba felt she deserved to be understood. Wallis an unfortunate master of her own destiny in marrying King Edward VIII – he threatened to cut his throat if she didn’t – by letting herself be seduced by the jewels and lifestyle. She didn’t love him. “She’s the heroine of her own story” – Sebba.
Clark then asks if heroines were important to Ellis and Sebba. Ellis agreed they were, and explained how her upbringing contributed to this importance. Clark states that to find a heroine you look outside of yourself.
The discussion then moved to different types of heroines, with Sebba arguing that there are heroic aspects to the more traditional roles of women, “it’s not fashionable now to say it’s heroic […] but there are heroic aspects.” She sites Laura Ashley, married to a difficult husband she eventually began a business with. It’s not what we think of a heroine today, “to live vicariously” – Sebba.
“We take from heroines what we need at the time” – Ellis, giving the explain of Scarlett O’Hara. Ellis explains O’Hara is altruistic in caring for a family in part she doesn’t even like, but many people focus on her love aspect of the story. At one point Ellis looked for Spinster Heroines, but they were all miserable. That often we can’t follow heroines beyond marriage, citing Anne of Green Gables. A member of the audience will later mention that characters like Miss Marple are spinster heroines.
“We’re stuck on the marriage plot” says Ellis, and Sebba explains that now women have their own lives and careers we can discuss more than marriage.
Clark asks what sort of message we are giving to our children, and if we still relate to a female ideal of appearance. Ellis and Sebba both agree that predominantly we do.
As questions are then opened up an audience member asks if there is a difference between the women the panelists write and women men write. Sebba explains writer, William Boy, hated Wallis and was not kind to her character in one of his novels. Ellis finds it easier to write women and has found E.M. Forster the best male writer of women.
Another audience member asks if there are any stories that begin with marriage and the plot continues from there. Ellis suggests Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Ellis is writing a book on the Brontë’s – something to look forward to.
The Nature Cure
William Fiennes & Tim Dee
- William Fiennes is the author of The Snow Geese & The Music Room
- Naturalist and birdwatcher Tim Dee latest book is Four Fields
Before the event began I got chatting to the lady next to me, an ex-lecturer and fellow book addict, who recommended The Music Room by William Fiennes. Based on her enthusiasm I bought the novel as soon as the event concluded.
Despite living in the by the sea in a fairly rural area, I’m not much of a nature buff. (And by that I mean I am an introvert who prefers not to go outside.) So this talk was different to most events I’ve attended.
Fiennes explained he was a naturalist without knowing it, he grew up surrounded by nature. He was ill in his youth and I believe spent time bed bound. ‘The sounds of the swifts returning in early May is beautiful’. Birds represented freedom during his illness, ‘it was a fantasy of escape’, not so much of a nature cure. Dee states that birds overhead are like going home.
Fiennes then asks if we are a part of nature of apart from it. He goes on to state that there is a sense of nature being shut off as a mythical place apart from us, “like a National Trust House.” As Dee and Fiennes discuss the nature of nature writing I wonder if it is that we are scared of nature.
Dee explains that what he likes about nature is that “it makes less about me […] not more.” He feels reduced in nature, which I took to mean he feels that life’s worries and difficulties are stripped away and he can more easily see himself.
Perfect Wives or Brilliant Careers: Women of the 1950s
Virginia Nicholson & Rachel Cook
- Virginia Nicholson is the author of Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes
- Rachel Cook is the author of Her Brilliant Career
Both began by reading extracts from their books.
Cook asks Nicholson about the inclusion of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret in her book. Nicholson explains that having a Queen on the throne, not a King, was a big thing. The Queen on one hand was, “a perfect wife” you saw the 50s through her. Margaret, conversely, was the wild child; “Elizabeth and Margaret are like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” Where Elizabeth was the perfect princess, Margaret was the bohemian one. She did the ‘unforgivable’ thing of falling in love with a divorced man much older than she was. “She [Margaret] is a flash point of what 50s women were worried about” said Cook. Interestingly, Nicholson explains, it was the male media who were against Margaret falling in love, not the public.
Nicholson and Cook go on to discuss the early 50s. There were tough standards for women, who had to cook, clean and look good. There were pamphlets on how to get a husband, but not on sex or menstruation. Sex is practically transactional in the 50s – the husband pays the rent, provides a roof, and sex is an exchange for this. I wondered at this point if the repercussions of this are still prevalent today – sex in exchange for basic kindness.
By 1956 things begin to change, with Mary Quant, Rock and Roll and teenagers. It reminded me of Richard Yates novels, where those who were young and married in the early 50s became displaced when things began to change and they failed to change with it.
The floor was then opened for questions.
One audience member asked what happened to the women who could not live up to the 50s ideal. Cook explains that transgressors had a hard time. She explains her books is about 10 subversive women, it sounded rather interesting.
Emil and the Detectives & Other German Children’s Classics
Michael Rosen & Anthea Bell talk to Julia Eccleshare
- Michael Rosen is a children’s author and former Children’s Laureate
- Anthea Bell is a translator of German children’s fiction such as The Parent Trap and Dot & Anton
- Julia Eccleshare is Children’s Book Editor for The Guardian
Technically this was a children’s event, so I wasn’t planning on finding it that interesting. I underestimated the entertaining power of Michael Rosen.
My notes for this event are sparse, mainly due to not knowing much about the topic and also because Rosen made me just wanted to sit and listen.
Rosen begins by chatting about Emil and the Detectives, which he was first introduced to as a child by a particularly wonderful teacher. Bell and Rosen then go on to talk more about the author, Kästner. He stayed in Germany through WWII, his work was banned by the Nazi’s, but regardless he continued to publish and was so loved his books continued to be read.
Interesting fact, apparently Goebbels did not think the German people would take to the book burnings, and was surprised when they did. Kästner went to a book burning and was spotted by the SS as his name was read out, however, due to the popularity of Emil he was relatively untouchable.
Glancing at my notebook I can see I’ve written that the two women sitting next to me at this event were hilarious and I would probably see them at Emily’s Walking Book Club the next day, I did, but more on that Thursday.
Daunt recorded the majority of their events and I believe will be putting these recordings up on their website.
Festival aside, if you get a chance to go to Daunt Books, Marleybone, do. It’s a beautiful building and the staff are lovely.