Saturday, 31 August 2013

Elizabeth of the German Garden: Jennifer Walker

Elizabeth of the German Garden
by Jennifer Walker
Published by The Book Guild

I was struck, reading this biography, by the number of parallels between ‘Elizabeth’ von Arnim and her cousin Katherine Mansfield.  Both were writers, both lived in permanent exile, and both struggled with questions of identity and belonging. ‘Elizabeth’ was born in Australia to an English father and an Australian mother, christened Mary Beachamp, and brought to England at the age of three, but her father had a habit of wandering around Europe, so she saw quite a bit of Italy, France and Switzerland during her childhood.  Like Katherine Mansfield, Mary Beauchamp was a musical prodigy who played the piano and the organ to high professional standards.  She studied at the Royal College of Music and, on a visit to Italy,  played for Liszt’s daughter Cosima Wagner.

It was here that she met the German Graf (Count) Henning von Arnim who made love to her on top of the Duomo in Florence.  She married him without realising what her life as a member of the ‘Junker’ nobility in Germany would entail, and the level of rigid formality did not suit her temperament.  With her husband’s encouragement Mary left Berlin for their country estate, where she began to create a garden and a book, as well as another persona for herself. ‘Elizabeth’ was initially a fiction, but eventually she signed her letters with that name - even to her family.

The book, Elizabeth and her German Garden was an unexpected runaway success to the extent that all her subsequent books had the author-line ‘by Elizabeth of the German Garden’.  Henning von Arnim features in the book as the ‘Man of Wrath’ - which gives us a glimpse of the state of their marriage.  Before the days of contraception, many relationships were ruined by a woman’s fear of pregnancy and childbirth.  The ‘April, May and June’ babies feature in Elizabeth’s books, but Mary had five children altogether, a boy and four girls.  Two of them were born without the comfort of chloroform, because the Germans didn’t believe in alleviating the suffering of birth.  After her first two, difficult, confinements, Mary insisted on having her children in England, but each birth was accompanied by dread, anxiety and depression.  She told H.G. Wells later that she only had to think about sex to become pregnant and had had to insist that she and her husband were not in the same house to avoid conceiving again.

Between babies, Mary wrote compulsively.  This biography is excellent on the novels that ‘Elizabeth’ produced in regular succession. I sometimes got lost in the discourses on ‘Elizabeth’s’ unfamiliar novels, but they are fully justified in their aim to re-establish Elizabeth’s reputation as an important writer in the first part of the 20th century.  Most people know Enchanted April (inspired by a holiday in Portofino) and Elizabeth and her German Garden, but other novels were more controversial contributions to the literature of the period and have long been over-looked.

Henning von Arnim had debts and money troubles (he was arrested at one point) and soon his wife was the major earner of the family - not easy for a German Junker to accept.  It put a strain on Mary too. She became a workaholic who sometimes neglected her children. One of her daughters, the inaptly named Felicitas, felt uncared for - packed off to boarding school and denied the opportunity to study music as a punishment for bad behaviour.  She died at the age of 16, leaving Mary with a legacy of guilt.

Mary was so committed to her writing that she even took employment as a governess for six months - ‘feeling perhaps that her life lacked the immediate experience of lowly status and poverty’.  For another novel, The Caravaners, she went caravanning - a hilarious progression through the west country with members of her family and friends, begging beds in people’s houses whenever possible.

E.M. Forster and Hugh Walpole came to tutor her children.  Mary, swapping lives between England and Germany, made friends with many members of the English literary scene, including H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell.  When her husband died, she became embroiled in a love affair with Wells, who was married and also involved with another woman at the time.  It was all very complicated.

Mary subsequently married Bertrand Russell’s brother, the Earl Russell, giving herself yet another identity.  She was now Mary Beauchamp, Elizabeth of the German Garden, Elizabeth von Arnim, and Countess Russell.  Author and mother, wife and lover, she had almost as many identities as her cousin Katherine.  Their relationship and the links between them, both personal and literary, are very well portrayed in this biography.  It also fills many of the gaps left by Karen Usborne’s previous biography.

Mary’s marriage to Francis, Lord Russell, was catastrophic.  She knew, even before she married him, that he was controlling and a bully, but she seemed unable to avoid her fate.  He locked her in the house, refused to give her a key to the gate and treated her to violent displays of temper.  Mary had hoped for a soul-mate, someone who would look after her, but found only a tyrant who wreaked havoc in her life and prevented her from writing.  As they both depended on her income (Earl Russell was addicted to Bridge and cocaine) it was essential for her to carry on earning.

It seems incredible now that a strong, independent woman should allow herself to be dominated and bullied in that way.  The marriage lasted only a few months before Mary went to New York to visit her daughter Liebet and began the gradual process of detaching herself. Earl Russell sued the removal firm who took away her possessions while he was in London, but Mary had carefully kept all the receipts and an inventory of the items she had brought from her first marriage. There was a hilarious cross-examination about the origins of a hammock. But it could be established in court that everything belonged to her.  Despite all this, Mary never sued for divorce and remained ‘Countess Russell’ until the end of her life.  Her experiences resulted in a dark novel called Vera, reviewed favourably by Katherine Mansfield.

Mary owned a chalet at Montana in Switzerland, the Chalet Soleil, where she spent many happy months writing and entertaining friends.  Katherine Mansfield became her neighbour towards the end of Katherine’s life and the two women were able to build a relationship which, though fraught with misunderstanding, was underpinned by real affection and respect. It was one of Katherine’s regrets that the cousins had ‘missed each other’ earlier in their lives.

Mary was having a love affair with a much younger man, Alexander Freres Reeves, the illegitimate son of one of her friends and the co-editor of Granta.  She employed him at first to catalogue her library in order to finance his university studies, but the relationship soon deepened.  It was scandalous at the time for a woman to have a much younger lover and ‘Elizabeth’ made it the subject of a controversial novel, Love.

Eventually Mary moved to the south of France, where she created another garden, and her love affair with Freres Reeves gradually burnt itself out as Mary aged.  She was by now over sixty and struggling to come to terms with her changing physical appearance. She had a face-lift and wore a curly red wig to conceal her thinning hair.  Like Katherine, she tried X-ray treatment, not for tuberculosis, but to reverse the signs of aging. The result was a small tumour beside one eye.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, Mary, worrying about the fate of one of her daughters in Germany, went to America to live near another daughter, Liebet.  Mary died there in 1941, shortly after publishing her last book - Mr Skeffington - which controversially dealt with anti-semitism and was a big hit in America, where it was made into a film.

This is an excellent biography, giving much-needed consideration to ‘Elizabeth of the German Garden’s’ literary status and shedding light on aspects of Katherine Mansfield’s life too.  The wider Beauchamp family formed the context in which Katherine spent her early years.  Their views and their prejudices were important influences on the trajectory of her life as well as Elizabeth’s.  Also important is the extent to which Katherine may have been influenced by Elizabeth’s achievements. I personally believe that The Adventures of Elizabeth in RĂ¼gen might have been the book that paved the way for the Katherine’s In a German Pension stories.  Jennifer Walker’s book is a very welcome addition to the field of Mansfield studies, as well as an absorbing read about a fascinating woman.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Death Order by Jan Needle

Death Order

by Jan Needle

Historical Fiction
Published by Endeavour Press Ltd 2013

Churchill once said ‘There are a terrible lot of lies going about the world, and the worst of it is that half of them are true’.  History, as we all know, is a very unreliable narrator and the viewpoint of the story depends on who is telling it.

One of the great mysteries of the Second World War is the flight to Scotland, in 1941, of Rudolf Hess - Hitler’s deputy.  He came, apparently, to sue for peace, but was imprisoned in Britain, put on trial with the rest of the Nazi high command at Nuremburg and jailed for life as a war criminal in Spandau. Though he had never been part of the horror machine that unfolded during the later years of the war, he was never released and died, equally mysteriously, at the age of 93, in Spandau prison. 

Was the man in Spandau really Rudolf Hess, or was he - as many people claimed - a man called Albert Horn? Did he commit suicide, as the Allies claimed?  Or was he killed to prevent his real identity being revealed to create a Humanitarian scandal of epic proportions.

This is more than a conspiracy theory - of which there are trillions - this is a beautifully researched, well substantiated theory.  Jan Needle has clothed it in fictional form (or should that be factional?) to create a stunning novel. It’s as pacey and compelling as a Dan Brown and much better written.  The central male character - the burnt-out MI6 operator Bill Wiley, and the spy turned academic Edward Carrington - are utterly real.  The female characters - Erica, Hannele and Jane - are intelligent, feisty and equally believable.  There’s some fantastic sex!

But the best thing is the way that this book exposes the lies that governments tell that can’t be found out until the papers are released decades after the events.  The Iraq war, with its sexed-up dossiers and phoney weapons-of-mass-destruction, was only the latest in a long line of cover-ups and propaganda coups.  The Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon came out of nefarious doings in the Vietnam/Cambodian conflict.  We probably shouldn’t believe anything we’re told.  ‘History,’ as Edward remarks in the book, ‘is bunkum’.

Death Order by Jan Needle
originally published by Harper Collins as ‘Butcher’s Bill’

© Kathleen Jones

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behaviour

by Barbara Kingsolver

Fiction, Published by Faber and Faber.

 Whatever happened to Barbara Kingsolver? She is one of my all-time favourite authors - the Poisonwood Bible one of my all-time favourite books.  I read her last novel, The Lacuna, when it came out and was a little disappointed - though it still had some of the old magic on the page.  There were still beautiful passages to admire.

Flight Behaviour promised a return to form - an eco-novel with environmental issues integral to the plot.  But, oh dear, not very far into the novel, I became bored - really bored - and found it difficult to turn the pages.  Eventually, wading through virtual mud, I skipped to the end and found it as predictably dull as the rest of the book.  The only spark of magic was the moment when the heroine walks up into the woods for an illicit meeting with a lover and witnesses the leaves turning to flame.

It's sad to see one's favourite author losing the edge they had, particularly when their message has more relevance now than ever before.  And one does wonder how much authors' work is being influenced these days by what their publishers want from them, rather than allowing them to write what they want.  Please can I have Barbara Kingsolver back?

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

James Martin - The Change Agent, by Andrew Crofts

James Martin:  The Change Agent

by Andrew Crofts


Very few people have made as much money predicting the future as James Martin.  First of all it was computers, then it was the future of the human race in the 21st century.  According to him, we are facing the biggest crisis in human history, but also our biggest opportunity.  We can turn the world into a utopia, or plunge into a terrifying ‘Dark Age’ taking the world’s fragile eco-system with us.

James Martin, who died very recently, was one of those who believed that the crises of population explosion, climate change and water shortage could be solved by technology.  But then, he was a computer buff who lived on an island in Bermuda with computer powered waterfalls, and a dazzling technology controlled house. He believed that eco-affluence was possible and that there is nothing morally wrong with it.  So long as we’re not screwing the planet to get rich, then it’s ok to have more of it than other people.  A few years ago he gave more than a hundred million pounds to fund a multi-disciplinary research institute at Oxford University into ways for the human race to survive the 21st century.

James Martin was currently predicting the ‘Singularity’ - a moment in history when computers will overtake the human mind in capability. We will be able to communicate with computers through thought alone and, as the computers will all be connected to each other in a gigantic international web, we will all be connected to each other, and the way we live our lives will be irrevocably changed.

The economic and climatic catastrophe that is looming on the horizon can be avoided by education of the masses, computer technology, clean energy, birth control and stem cell medicine.  What’s needed is education of the young in order to convince them that it’s all possible and that the future is in their hands.  Particularly women.  When you read James Martin’s work (latest The Meaning of the 21st Century), it all sounds very attractive.

He was an optimist, not a doom merchant - he held out hope.  But I was not convinced.  He may have been one of the greatest brains of the 20th century, but I think he was politically naive.  To implement his proposals there would have to be a political cataclysm so extreme it would confound history.  Human nature is conservative - we are not evolving as fast as our technologies and we are sadly lacking in that evolutionary skill ‘common sense’. Our old instincts have long since been bundled into a cupboard and the key turned in the door. The human animal is living on a fragile construction of falsehoods, and since technology has been our nemesis, I’m not sure we can be relied on to make it our salvation.

And how are we ever going to get the leaders of diverse political systems in Asia, America, Russia, Africa and Europe, to agree to put aside the politics of greed and power?  Looking back through history it seems that only a catastrophe would get them round a table to begin to talk. And once the catastrophe has happened, it might just be too late.

Andrew Crofts went out to Bermuda to stay with James Martin and interview him for this fascinating account of his life and beliefs.  It’s a very well-written book, but I would have liked a more rigorous questioning and discussion of the issues raised, though if I'd been a privileged guest on James Martin's Caribbean island, I probably wouldn't have felt able to ask the questions either!

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling: Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling

The Cuckoo’s Calling

by Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling

Published by Bloomsbury

Crime Fiction

This book hadn’t even stalked across my radar, even though I’m a crime fiction addict, until I saw the controversy about the author.  Shock! Horror!  Robert Galbraith was a sock-puppet - supposedly a debut author with an army background. An unknown quantity who didn't actually exist.  Apparently the book had sold less than 500 copies in more than three months, despite having wonderful reviews, and bookshops weren’t stocking it.  This will come as no surprise to fellow mid-list authors of well-written, well-constructed books who don’t have the benefit of celebrity, a serial following, or their publishers' (strictly rationed) publicity machine, to sell their books.  Then, overnight, someone’s sister-in-law tweeted that the real author was JK Rowling herself in disguise.  Result?  A stampede to the cash tills.  Bloomsbury had to order 300,000 copies from the printers overnight!  It’s a depressing story, unless you’re JKR.

So, I thought, is the book really any good?  I was one of those who couldn’t get past the first pages of the Casual Vacancy, so I was dubious.  I downloaded a free sample onto my Kindle and thought I’d take a quick look.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a good read.  There are plenty of people out there willing to knock JKR - I’m not one of them, but neither am I a slavish admirer.  She knows how to tell a story and construct a plot and she can write persuasively.  Harry Potter was a stroke of genius that hit a nerve at exactly the right moment and created a world of magic that both children and adults could get carried off into.  As a mainstream author her books aren’t in that special category, which is a big problem for her. 

I started to read the Cuckoo in the evening just before I went to bed and when the sample ran out, I wanted to read on and so I bought the book.  Woken by a thunderstorm in the middle of the night and unable to sleep for the crashing and flashing, I kept on reading.  I found her characters believable and appealing.  Cormoran Strike, the private investigator, isn’t original, but he’s good to spend time with - just enough of the rough to appeal to women, but smooth and intelligent when it matters.  The temp who turns up on his doorstep at the wrong moment, Robin, is a woman who believes her life is already mapped out for her, but finds that it isn’t.  The case of the celebrity super-model who falls from a top floor window, takes us into the world that Rowling inhabits - running from the paparazzi, having your phone hacked, parties and night clubs and designer clothes as well as the normal ups and downs of human life.  I found some of the lengthy detail of the criminal investigation a bit boring sometimes, but this is Rowling/Galbraith’s first crime novel, so some leeway is allowed.

This is the literary end of the crime spectrum, with a lot of focus on character, motivation and psychology.  The plot is just a framework to hang it on. It’s not quite in the Kate Atkinson category, but I’ll be reading the next Galbraith. The real crime is the fact that The Cuckoo’s Calling wasn’t getting any attention because it was by an unknown author.

Crime Fiction you might not have discovered yet:
Avril Joy’s Blood Tide
John AA Logan:  The Survival of Thomas Ford