Aug 2013I’m back firmly into the world of woman-orientated publishing now, with a Bank Holiday weekend not entirely spent working meaning that I’ve got through a slight hump of non-fiction reading (one reviewed here, one to come) and am progressing well again with All Virago / All August. Today we’ve got two books that I bought on my trip to London back in April: both, in fact, from Any Amount of Books, a bookshop on the Charing Cross Road where I will always find something good to buy in the “£1 each or 5 for £4” boxes. I have given one away already, and will pass the other on, but I enjoyed reading both of them. So here we go – a Virago Modern Classic and a Women’s Press biography …

Willa Cather- “Alexander’s Bridge” (Virago Modern Classic)

(02 April 2013)

A quicker read than I expected, with large print and large margins, I was glad that I took the next read along with this one on my train journey to Oxford last Monday! This is Willa Cather’s first novel, and it doesn’t have the self-assurance and complete ownership of place that we find in her later works.

It’s set in Boston and London, like Henry James or Edith Wharton, both of whose books it does resemble, and partly seen through the eyes of the protagonist’s former tutor. Mr Alexander is a famous architect, reaching a physical and career peak in his early forties – or perhaps starting to decline a little – and indeed his bridges begin to show signs of strain and weakness just as his own personality, moral willpower and marriage do, too. The twin temptations of over-reaching known architectural specifications and the bounds of marriage, when he meets an old love unexpectedly and far from home, will surely prove to be his undoing.

The London scenes are interesting and evocative as our hero wanders well-known streets – I’ve only read Cather’s South-Western America novels before, so this was new. It’s a bit patchy, but an interesting read with the shifting viewpoints and rather enigmatic women characters, who seem to stay the same throughout, where the men are very much less solid, in many ways. There are moments of high drama, and this slight read is a good one.

There’s an excellent introduction as usual with Virago books (especially the older Classics volumes), and it’s already found a safe new home.

Lis Whitelaw – The Life & Rebellious Times of Cicely Hamilton (Women’s Press)

(02 April 2013)

Hamilton was the author of the Persephone book, “William, an Englishman” (a harrowing book about WWI) and a friend of people such as Winifred Holtby, so I pounced on this Women’s Press volume when I spotted it.

As befits a Women’s Press book published in 1990, the author is at great pains to make the research and writing process clear (with the word ‘herstory’ somehow hovering in the background) and to talk about the way women’s lives disappear from the record, and it gets rather bogged down in definitions of lesbianism and discussions about whether defining people by their sexuality is relevant and appropriate, and how one can define the subject – all rather earnest and very reminiscent of my Women’s Lit studying days at University. Not a criticism, but just a feature of this kind of book, and this kind of work needed doing at the time (and probably still does).

The author does well with the lack of recorded information on her subject, with her own autobiography glossing over many aspects of her life and work, painstakingly ferreting out details from contemporary accounts and the records of the many organisations to which Hamilton belonged, and cross-referencing information across these and other sources, managing to dig out quite a lot of information about her work with the suffragette and equality organisations, her friendships, and the circumstances surrounding the writing and production of her novels and plays.

it’s a competent book which of necessity sometimes loses the immediacy of one blessed with more primary sources. It is a shame that there are no illustrations, except the one on the front cover, especially as several photographs are mentioned and described in the text.

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Currently reading: Now I’ve finished Cicely and the Virago Book of Women Gardeners (to be reviewed next time), i’m galloping back into the world of fiction with Mary Webb’s rather spellbinding “The Armour Wherein He Trusted” and Susan Glaspell’s Persephone, “Fidelity” on the go at the moment.