20th Century, Classics, Jessica Mitford, Non Fiction, Women's Fiction, Young Adult

Hons and Rebels

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitftumblr_l5sxu3AOVq1qcsp65ord is probably my very favourite memoir (though the devotee of fiction I am, I must admit haven’t read very many). My fondness for it most likely arises from the fact that the book overall very much reads like fiction. It is, in effect, a bildungsroman with so many fantastical elements, flights of destiny and eccentric characters, that it hardly seems true that such people lived- yet the sheer forcefulness of their personalities, most of all its authoress, the indomitable Jessica Mitford- commands belief in their existence as living and breathing figures of history.

Further reading such as Mary Lovell’s excellent biography: The Mitford Sisters and Charlotte Mosley’s The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters reveal that several elements of Hons and Rebels were embellishments and some, outright fiction, yet this revelation, for myself anyway, does not diminish the delights of this memoir- nor the extraordinary life of its author.

Hons and Rebels’ closest fictional precedents are of course, Nancy Mitford’s two most famous novels: The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. These two novels deserve a post entirely devoted to them, so I won’t go into detail here, only to say that the similarity lies foremost on the shared, exquisite rendering of the same famous family: Baron Redesdale and his six notorious daughters.

I have included short biography of each sister below (as they are too fascinating not to mention):

  • Nancy, famed novelist and notorious snob (having also written Noblesse Oblige, a seminal essay on the linguistic differences between U (Upper) and Non-U).
  • Diana, ‘the nearest thing to Botticelli’s Venus’, whose famed beauty obscured a more sinister personality. She was briefly married to Bryan Walter Guinness, of Guinness Beers fame before famously bolted into the arms of Oswald Mosley,  leader of the British Union of Fascists. Their wedding was held in the home of Joseph Goebbels. The chief guest of honour? Adolf Hitler.
  • Pamela, the ‘Rural Mitford’, who for years was the model of domesticity with her husband, the famous physicist, Derek Jackson. Yet she would later divorce her husband a live out her days as the companion of Giuditta Tommasi, an Italian horsewoman.
  • Unity, the most maddening, enigmatic and elusive of all the Mitford girls, whose desire to be different found the most fatalistic source in Adolf Hitler. Unity’s obsession of the Furhrer would lead her to the innermost circles of the Third Reich-as Hitler’s unofficial mistress-and later to tragedy. An attempted suicide on the day that Britain declared war on Germany would lead her to be brain damaged for the rest of her short life.
  • Deborah, whose ambition to become a duchess was perfectly fulfilled when she married Andrew Cavendish and become chatelaine of Chatsworth (the inspiration for Pemberley).

And of course my very favourite Mitford, Jessica (Decca): The eponymous rebel who among many other things would reject her family’s wealth and fascination with fascism by eloping with her cousin (and Sir Winston Churchill’s nephew) Esmond Romily to fight against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, run away to America, open a bar in Miami, become a communist from 1943 and an active figure in the American Civil rights movement, become a famous muckraker- redefining investigative journalism through her seminal essay on the American funeral industry: The American way of Death-at the same time keeping correspondence with some of the most notable figures of the 20th century as Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou,Winston Churchill, Evelyn Waugh and Hilary Clinton among others. At age 76 she also tried her hand at music, releasing an album: Decca and the Dectones.
Only a tiny sliver of of Decca Mitford’s extraordinary life is recorded in Hons and Rebels (she would later write a sequel on her communist days in A Fine Old Conflict). What is recalled in this all too brief memoir though is deeply diverting, funny but also very moving.

Reading this as an adult rather than a child (I really rather regret the fact that my eleven year old self was deprived of this book), what strikes me most is Jessica’s deep fury and resentment at her parents for a sheltered childhood and lack of education, the type of anger that quietly pervades both Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and a more recent counterpoint Lyn Barber’s An Education.  It was in fact Jessica Mitford’s great regret that she never attended university. As someone who often begrudges the fact that she has spent so much time at university, this fact is both deeply moving and heartening.

Nevertheless, Hons and Rebels is generally very funny and deeply entertaining, peppered with figures who appear closer to Wodehouse and Waugh than E.M. Forster. Baron Revesdale (Farve) the most memorable of the lot is as indomitable, peerless and ridiculous as his fictional counterpart, Uncle Matthew. Hons and Rebels is abound with all the hallmarks of great children’s literature: naughty children, secret languages (Boudledidge), running away accounts and a menagerie of animals and above all,  a highly memorable rendering of a momentous period of English social history.

Here in Hons and Rebels, Jessica succinctly encapsulates the insouciance and the excesses of the Jazz age, England’s dangerous flirtation with fascism, the growing malcontent of Western Europe and the outbreak of radical thought, as well as the impending World War. The combative political tension of the period is succinctly expressed and yet satirically figured in Decca’s description of her shared room with her (ironically) favourite sister Unity:

“We divided it down the middle, and Boud (Unity) decorated her side with Fascist insignia of all kinds- the Italian ‘fasces’, a budge of sticks bound in rope, photographs of Mussolini framed in passe-partout; photographs of Mosely trying to look like Mussolini; the new German swastika; a record collection of Nazi and Italian youth songs. My side was fixed up with my communist library, a small bust of Lenin purchased for a shilling in a second-hand shop, a file of Daily Workers. Sometimes we would barricade with chairs and stage pitched battles, throwing books and records until Nanny came to tell us to stop the noise.”

Hons and Rebels pg. 71

Hons and Rebels has also been greatly loved by good deal of notable people. Perhaps solely due to his excellent writing on Jessica Mitford -including a preface to Hons and Rebels– I have begun to loathe Christopher Hitchens just a little bit less. More welcome however was the discovery that Hons and Rebels was also J.K. Rowling’s favourite book as a child and that Jessica Mitford was a personal hero and as well the namesake for Rowling’s first child.

Like Rowling, I’ve begun to regard as Mitford as a great personal heroine, not so much for her politics (for it is clear that she could be as wilfully stubborn and close-minded as her sisters) but her great capacity for wit, her irrepressible naughtiness, her muckraking ways and her deep interest in the sufferings of those less fortunate from her. Most of all I admire her vivid voice, the keenness of her eye and her indefatigable ability to face the vicissitudes and disappointments of life- not retiring to the drawing room, but kicking and screaming.

2015, Reviews, Romance, Theatre

Review: Arms and the Man, Sydney Theatre Company

AATM_716x403Love is in the air – at least on the nib of Bennelong Point better known to us as the Sydney Opera House. How else can you ascribe for the number of romantic comedies currently on offer? If you were to visit the Opera House last weekend (26th-27th September), you could have your pick between three very choice offerings: Cole Porter’s maritime romantic comedy – Anything Goes, Gerwshin’s political romantic comedy, Of Thee I Sing (my review of that show here) or George Bernard Shaw’s wonderfully romantic anti-romance, Arms and the Man, part of the Sydney Theatre Company’s 2016 MainStage season.

Contrary to what Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady implies, Pygmalion – undoubtably Shaw’s most famous play – is not a romance, or at least, a romance between the two people you think it is. In fact, Shaw was so incensed by the notion of a romantic reunion between Eliza and Higgins that he wrote a post-script essay as part of the 1916 edition of Pygmalion: ‘What really happened’. (Spoiler: Eliza sticks with Freddy). In such a way, Shaw and Louisa May Alcott would have got on famously, if only to commiserate on the beast that was 19th century shipping.

Yet audiences were so clamorous for a happy ending that they eventually got it – much to Shaw’s dismay- in the excellent 1938 film adaptation of Pygmalion, which itself became a template for Lerner and Lowe’s famous musical. In many ways, our collective, yet understandable, need to romanticise Pygmalion is a great pity, because it cheapens what is, in essence, a great feminist fable. The whole purpose of Pygmalion is the self-discovery of a young woman, separating herself from the narcissism of Pygmalion/Higgins vision to become a singular, self-reliant individual. It seems sad to me to want to foist a young woman, so full of vitality, on an anti-social grump more than 20 years her senior who, in general, looks upon her most with the fondness of one admiring a prize winning science project. Therefore, if you are looking for a romantic comedy by the inimitable Shaw, Pygmalion will just not do. So why not try Arms and the Man instead?

I do have to warn that looking for romance in a Shaw show is a double edged sword, because even his most romantic plays are often about the upending of romance as it is one. In this particular play, Shaw seeks to dismantle every notion of romance – from the cupid’s bow and arrow variety and beyond. All forms of sentimentality, but especially those bed partners: patriotism and warfare, are particular victims of Shaw’s needlepoint wit. This dismantling comes in the form of the two rivals for our heroine Raina’s affection. Does true love await in the form of Sergius Saranoff, her dashing, moustachioed fiancee – every inch the heroic soldier of her fantasies, or Captain Bluntschli, the unsentimental soldier for hire, who runs from gunfire at every opportunity and keeps chocolates in his pockets instead of cartridges. The audience is never in doubt of who Raina will ultimately choose – but isn’t that half the fun?

Illustrating war as an absurdity – not as a noble quest but merely as war for war’s sake – is hardly a revolutionary concept for audiences today. But we only have to think about what the world was like for Shaw when he wrote it to understand the extent of his subversiveness. The play was primarily written in 1894 and is set during the two-week long conflict between Serbia and Bulgaria in 1885, when war still remained unalterably fused with the concepts of identity and honour. This notion of honourable warfare – perceived or real – would be denuded in the trenches of WWI, but it would be not be completely destroyed until the advent of WWII. But in 1894, where duels of honour were still being fought, war would still be as much a playground for the wealthy and the upwardly mobile as for the conflict itself – a petri dish designed to make robust men out of boys. The figure of Captain Bluntschli-a mercenary who chooses his next assignment purely because “Serbia was closer”-shows us how absurd the notion of men fighting for a cause so much removed a general sense of reality. Similarly, the posturing Sergius shows us the pitfalls of mistaking maschismo and self-aggrandism as a form of nobility and heroism.

The above paragraph makes the play sound like serious stuff, too serious to be pleasurable, but it is an altogether delightful play, as is Richard Cottrell’s chocolate box of a production. For one thing, this production of Arms and the Man should be seen if only to be seen. Though I’ve been become much more accustomed to a bare, minimalistic set, it is wonderful to see a play which a proper one- and none so beautiful as this. This  19th century Bulgaria created by the mind of a porcelain maker and fantasist. Almost entirely white, as if blanketed in snow – the revolving set has a magical, Hans Christian Andersen fairytale-ish quality to it. This effect is rather dazzling, amplified by the lavish candy-coloured costumes – bustles in bright blue and green – and intricate period detail. It’s a world that one could easily imagine setting The Nutcracker quite comfortably.

Director Richard Cottrell’s production of Travesties was my first Tom Stoppard play, and so I naturally have very fond memories of his work. His production was the first play I ever went to watch by myself, and it was wonderful. Comedy – most importantly, period comedy – is very much Cottrell’s forte. This particular production felt a little comically broader than the text really needed – specifically within two performances – but Cottrell has a way of letting witty dialogue crackle, prick or float when occasion demands, and this play is especially demanding.

Arms and the Man’s cast is very small, eight to be exact – but in general, they are all goodies. For the impulsive Raina, Andrea Demetriades gives a robustly funny, modern performance. It’s a tricky role to play both an obnoxious, spoiled brat and yet, an incredibly appealing young woman, and I think she acquits herself rather well. Sometimes I felt she played the role too broadly, too childish – a problem I felt was also shaped by Charlie Cousins’ similarly broadly drawn Sergius, who takes to posturing quite literally – but perhaps it’s altogether too much to quibble about the largeness of a performance in a farce. The rest of the cast I can more unequivocally claim as wonderful – particularly the work of Deborah Kennedy and William Zappa as Raina’s parents. I’ve always been a huge admirer of the multitalented Mitchell Butel ever since his performance as Princeton in Avenue Q, and I was not disappointed in his Captain Bluntschli. It’s hard to make a character so prosaic, particularly attractive. In the wrong hands Captain Bluntschli can actually be rather quite dull. The BBC 1989 production starring Helena Bonham Carter shows that this character is not inherently arresting as a – lets say – Mr Darcy.  Yet I think Butel succeeds greatly in this role, exuding a espirit of intelligence – a quiet knowingness – that instantly lets you know why Raina would dub him so quickly and so affectionately, her “chocolate cream soldier”.

While it’s not exactly the transcendently funny production that I was quite hoping for, Arms and the Man is unquestionably enjoyable theatre. With such a dazzlingly beautiful looking production studded with winning performances, it’s not hard to see why Arms and the Man proved to be one of Shaw’s most successful, incandescent and relevant of comedies – as well as blissfully romantic, in its own wry way.

The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Arms and the Man runs until October 31st.

Literature, Women's Fiction

A Visit to the Goon Squad


A Visit to the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Location: Middle bottom, next to Patrick White’s Voss and Look at Me by Jennifer Egan.

Date acquired: 2012. I read it while looking for a job.

It’s unfortunate but I don’t read enough literary fiction – I’ve never much sought stuff under the “Literature” section in Dymocks. I think it’s because there are just too many canon classic that I haven’t gotten to yet that probably deserve my more immediate attention and because I prefer books with High Concepts or a bit more plot.

Furthermore, while It’s definitely a stereotype, I always assume that books that are considered literary are about writers with midlife crises and incipient love affairs. These subjects are not inherently interesting to me. I also don’t like how much of women’s literature- that is literature written for and by women is often marginalised from serious literature and relegated to chick lit (which is a really truly horrid term).

Now and again though I do delve into things written in this century and sometimes even stuff that people are still talking about. For some reason, I was very compelled to read Johnathan Franzen’s Freedom the moment it was published 2010, a book which I devoured and wrote extensively on here. I admire the book greatly, but three years on, I’m not sure if I truly love it and the notion of reading it again feels faintly exhausting. Nonetheless I liked it enough to be very shocked when it did not win the Putlitzer Prize of 2011 (or notably, not even shortlisted) and that a book I had never heard of:  A Visit to the Goon Squad had won it instead.
Freedom is a giant behemoth of a novel that seems like it could have  won any other year (Perhaps it could have won in 2012, where the Pulitzer board deemed none of the books shortlisted of the prize as worthy). But A Visit to the Goon Squad is more mercurial and yes, even more ambitious than Franzen’s attempt at Tolstoy and while I don’t really want to compare the two because both are very compelling and very different, but if pressed for an opinion I would argue that A Visit to the Goon Squad is very much the more interesting, more rewarding of the two.

A Visit to the Goon Squad is not a traditional novel and could best be described as a series of short stories with overlapping characters and narratives. It’s been awhile since I have read the book so specifics elude me but the book begins with a short interlude where a lovely kleptomaniac named Sasha steals a women’s purse and soon jumps from character to character and moves across decades and even genres. A Visit to the Goon Squad elicits a variety of narrative modes: third person, first person, second person, free indirect discourse. The most audacious chapter comes in the late middle and is essentially a powerpoint written from the perspective of Sasha’s twelve year old daughter.

It’s the type of post-modern trick that would make an Arts student roll their eyes over but in Jennifer Egan’s hands it’s one of the most emotionally engaging pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Egan shows how even the most seemingly clinical communication forms: a powerpoint still holds possibilities for narrative and character development. Once I finished this chapter, I felt as if I was witnessing something entirely new and maybe this is a bit much, but I still feel like this must of been what readers in 1925 must of felt when they first read Mrs Dalloway. I feel that despite the 90 year difference, we are all asking the same question: Who is audacious writer – and where can I find more of her?

20th Century, Children's Literature, Classics, Romance, Uncategorized, Women's Fiction, Young Adult

I Capture the Castle


I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Location: Top right next to Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons and The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff.
This book is catnip to me. Published in 1948 it was written by Dodie Smith who is best known for creating The Hundred and One Dalmatians. It features perhaps the most winning narrator in literature: Cassandra Mortmain. These are the first lines of the book:

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea cosy.”

Like slipping in a warm bath or meeting an old friend isn’t it?
I Capture the Castle is about nothing really, in the way that Jane Austen’s novels are about nothing and everything all at once. The plot itself very Jane Austenish, two sisters seeking their fortune and navigating through the hazardous world of eligible (and ineligible) young men. But Cassandra is so delightful a voice that she feels as fresh today as she must have been more than 70 years ago. I love that the book is very literary in it’s own quiet way with many references to Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters and a parody of a Joycean writer and modernist literature that is terrifically clever but never showy or obvious.

I love this book so much that if I find a book with a blurb that mentions similarities to I Capture the Castle, I must buy it. Inevitably it always ends up being a disappointing exercise because no-one can quite recapture Cassandra’s ingeniousness and charm. This is the edition I have and I love it so.

Film, Non Fiction

Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from the New Yorker


Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker by Anthony Lane

Location: Bottom left next to Writers at the Movies edited by Jim Shepard and “Have You Seen … ?” A Personal Introduction to 1000 films by David Thomson

Date acquired: 2004? Not very sure about this one.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the late, great Roger Ebert. While he wasn’t my very favourite film critic (he wasn’t very discerning and tended to like pretty much everything by the end of his career)- he is probably, next to Pauline Kael, America’s most influential film critic in history and definitely the world’s most famous film critic. If Pauline Kael convinced us that film is an art form that can be taken seriously and initiated a Hollywood renaissance, then Roger Ebert showed us that intelligent, accessible conversation about film is not only possible- but entirely necessary for the cultural zeitgeist. Anyone who talks about film on a mass medium- from David and Margaret in At the Movies to the hundreds of thousands of people who blog or post movie reviews online- owe a debt to Roger Ebert.

Another thing that Roger did better than anyone else was the pan. No-one could eviscerate a film so thoroughly as Roger. See, for example his amazing review of Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigalo. But I think Anthony Lane, the author of Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker, is pretty darn close.

Anthony Lane has been writing movie reviews for The New Yorker since 1993 and he is by far and away my favourite movie critic. A English writer by way of Waugh, Anthony Lane always imparts a curious transatlantic, Nancy Mitfordian quality to his reviews. People often find him frustrating because they can never tell if he ever takes his tongue out of his cheek. It is true that his pans always have an element of the mischievous schoolboy in them. See for example his review of Con Air:

“Advance word on Con Air said that it was all about an airplane with an unusually dangerous and potentially lethal load. Big deal. You should try the lunches they serve out of Newark. Compared with the chicken napalm I ate on my last flight, the men in Con Air are as dangerous as balloons”.

One of my favourite pieces of writing is his rumination on the 2010 Eurovision contest. It is perfectly primed piece of faux serious criticism.

But if you do get a chance to grab a copy of Nobody’s Perfect (which I very much hope you do), you will find underneath the gilded Wildean surface is a critic of great sensitivity and open-mindedness. I like that among the hundreds of reviews he could have chosen from, he decided to include a very favourable review of Roger Michell’s 1995 autumnal and quietly powerful  Persuasion (my favourite Jane Austen adaptation). Though a very small picture in every sense, Lane understands and appreciates the film’s melancholic subtlety even though he normally luxuriates in the absurd. I suppose I feel I can always trust the taste of a true Janeite. I adore the end of his review of Persuasion:

“Heaven knows what MGM would have made of Anne Elliot: “On smarting spinster with the longest, loneliest memory that ever snared a saddened sailor! Girls! Take a lesson from this party-hater!” We fancy ourselves perfectly placed to pick up the distress signals sent out by Persuasion, with its tartness and well-trimmed melancholy. That is how we take our Jane Austen these days. If we are wrong, we cannot help it; we cannot conceive that anyone as long-suffering as Jane Austen could also be so funny. Her balance is beyond us; however good a person we may think she was, she was better.”

It is this review that drew me buy this book and it is one of my favourite things to read.

Other peerless pieces in the book: his reviews of Braveheart (as you would expect) and First Knight (surprisingly positive), his profile on Preston Sturges and his absolutely hilarious report on reading all ten of the NYT top ten bestsellers of Sunday, May 1994.

Non Fiction, Uncategorized

A History of Reading

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

A History of Reading Manguel
Location: Top shelf, far right next to When My Brother was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz and Imagining Characters: Conversations About Women Writers by A. S. Byatt and Ignes Sodre.
It has been almost 10 years since I last read this book but I have the fondest memories of it. A History of Reading is part marginalia, part history book, part art criticism, part memoir and part love letter to the distinct and lifelong pleasure of reading. Unfortunately apart from the fact that a young Alberto Manguel once read for the blind Jose Luis Borges (perhaps the most auspicious beginning of a literary career in history), I can barely remember anything about the book apart for the fact that I developed (and continue to possess) a tremendous amount of affection for it.

I don’t remember any of the marvelous anecdotes about how humans have consumed and enjoyed books over centuries but I’m sure if I peeked into the book again I would be delighted all over again.

A History of Reading instills a curious kinship with fellow readers over time and space that feels both intimate and universal. It is the most marvelous paradox: a book about one of the most solitary occupations afforded to humans that imparts nothing as strongly as a sense of belonging and connection. It’s a cliche but A History of Reading really does make you believe that a reader is never truly alone.

Romance, Young Adult

Will Grayson, Will Grayson


Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Location: on my ipod.

Date acquired: Last Monday
I just finished this book today. I actually don’t own a physical copy- I listened to it on audio. This is my third John Green book- all of which incidentally I have “read” on audiobook. I’m not sure exactly why I always seek to listen to John Green as opposed to read his work. I think it’s because sometimes John Green’s voice can seem arch and pretentious on paper but convincing and weirdly heartbreaking when narrated by someone who sounds like a teenager. I feel that the curious combination of John Green +  a talented ( & young-sounding) narrator captures that ineffable mix of earnestness and cynicism that typifies pre-adulthood: the feeling of knowing and unknowing at the same time.

It’s lighter than The Fault in Our Stars (probably my favourite book of 2013) but quietly devastating in it’s own way. Most people prefer the second titular willgrayson of the lowercase letters. But I secretly love the somewhat generic, far more functional Will Grayson. I found his (utterly platonic but completely devoted) love story with his larger than life gay best friend (the improbably named Tiny Cooper) one of the most delightful things I’ve read all year.

I haven’t yet really mentioned David Levithan, who co-wrote the book with John Green. His creations: the second lowercase willgrayson and the fabulous, most surreal high school musical featuring all 18 of Tiny Cooper’s ex-boyfriends are truly wonderful.