Hooray – after a long period of lighter fiction and non-fiction, I managed to get back into some more serious or substantial reads at the end of May. Both are redolent of the 1980s in many ways, that being the decade when I discovered Iris Murdoch, and when “An Irrelevant Woman” is set, and, indeed, was written. The women authors featured have perhaps rather differing concerns, but not every pair of books I review has to be hugely linked, and we need to round off May … plus it’s Mary Hocking Reading Week this week, hence my review of one of this author’s books. Here we go, then …
Gillian Dooley (ed.) – “From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction”
(12 September 2014 – Bought at the Iris Murdoch Society Conference)
This is a book of “conversations with Iris Murdoch” – in effect collecting together the interviews she did with various writers and journalists over the course of her life, with a couple of pieces at the end describing visits to Murdoch in her declining years (I will admit to having read those when I was only half-way through the book in order to get them done and get the upset over with).
It might seem strange for someone who goes on about “The death of the author” and Reception Theory in her research to mine such a book for bits she can use for her research, because what’s more author-centric than picking out what an author had to say about her readers? But I’d already gathered an idea that Murdoch was more on the readers’ side than the critics’, and actually the brilliant quotations I’ve picked up from this treasure trove will give me a nice section on how happy she was if readers got an escape, some joy, a story, or something deeper, out of her novels. Hooray!
I would have read this book anyway, even if I hadn’t been doing research, of course. It’s wonderful to have all these interviews in one place, as they were published all over the place. Some concerns and interests remain through the years, and other opinions change; Murdoch is relaxed with some interviewers and pretty spiky with others, which is entertaining. Different interviews shed more light on her thoughts on psychoanalysis (good in a crisis, maybe a crutch long term), we also find clarification of her thoughts on freedom and goodness, as well as a lovely section on repeated characters in her works and the mention that she went to Iceland and enjoyed the thermal baths, which I didn’t know, as well as discussions of philosophy and literature and various of her books (she does like trying to tell people who the Narrator is in “The Philosopher’s Pupil”, however).
I could go on – but there’s not really space. It’s a very well put together book, with careful bibliographical references, an introductory note to each interview, a good index and an excellent Introduction which pulls together the themes in the interviews. An interesting and useful read, and one I will re-read, too, once I’ve mined it for all of the quotations I’ve marked and got more of my research done!
Mary Hocking – “An Irrelevant Woman”
(May 2015 – loan from Ali)
My friend and fellow blogger Heaven-Ali has been running a Mary Hocking Reading Week for a couple of years now, seeking to reclaim this slightly lost woman writer and get more interest in her. Last year I read the Good Daughters trilogy (search Mary Hocking in this blog to find all of my reviews), although not in the week in question, and this year I got all prepared by borrowing a couple from Ali in advance (I did comb all the charity shops I could find for her books, but just ended up with more books by other people – oops).
“An Irrelevant Woman” takes as its theme the loss of role and identity that women can experience when their children leave the nest and their husband has other interests. Such women have options, such as being more involved in the community (Janet Saunders is not involved in her community), taking a course (she is not interested in taking a course) and other purposeful activities. But Janet starts to slip away, and what is called a nervous breakdown takes hold. What will her children, each with a family role and strong personality, her husband, enmeshed in his writing, her village friend, not liking to bear the burden, and the vicar and doctor, who would traditionally be the ones to save her, do about it? Does she in fact use her collapse to gain herself some breathing space, to claim something of her very own?
The portrayals of depression and darkness, of panic and anxiety, are well done in that way that makes you cling on to the edges of your own reality as you read them (a bit like Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook”). But the overall feeling that I came away with was the heady redolence of the 1980s. The book was published in 1987 and the blurb on the back notes it as being “utterly contemporary”. It is very much so, with it’s concerns and discussions of nuclear threat, Greenham Common, CND, the Women’s Movement, Mrs Thatcher, the Falklands War … I think the book being in a contemporary Abacus edition makes it more so. I might have read this book back then; I certainly read other Abacus books and have them still. It has a strong feeling for me of my neighbour Mary’s sitting room, stuffed full of Viragoes and other books vaguely out of place in our stuffy village. I wonder if this very 80s-ness would make this book not so popular at the moment, when we’re all about the 70s, and whether another decade will see a resurgence in interest in such a very accurate portrayal of the times. Of course, Janet’s situation is very much of her time, too – old at 50, a “traditional” woman of a type that I’m not sure exists now.
The other books I’ve read by Hocking have had a slightly distanced effect (in which she resembles Taylor and Pym), a vague coldness and view of her characters with a cool eye, from outside. This one has the same, which sometimes makes it a little difficult to engage with fully. The idea which comes through of doing small things that will help society is very useful right now, however, and the ending of the book, although obviously carefully arranged, brings some warmth and hope.
An interesting read, so much of its time and reminding me of my dawning of reading proper adult books with adult themes. Quietly intelligent and having something interesting to say about women’s roles (all of the women in the book are strong, all of the men quite ineffectual) and robust about the anti-nuclear movement and “movements” as a whole, there is a lot in this book.