Friday 27 May 2011

Women's novels set in New York

At the florist's we found, among all the little trees and potted plants, a glistening holly-tree, full of red berries and pointed like a spire, easily the queen of its companions. Willa Cather, My Mortal Enemy, 1926

I've been re-reading Willa Cather's brilliant novella My Mortal Enemy. Set in New York it is the story of Myra Henshawe, a woman who has beauty and wealth in her youth but throws away her inheritance to marry the man she loves. She then becomes dissatisfied and envious when she cannot maintain her standard of living and by the time she is in her mid-forties she has become bitter and he is fond of the company of other women. The story is relayed by Myra's young niece who both admires and dislikes her aunt. Myra's conflict between her desire for worldly goods and her passion for art and literature and music is what makes her a sympathetic character.

I spotted Elaine Showalter's A Jury of Her Peers - American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx in the library and borrowed it to find out some information about Betty Smith. Sadly Smith merits less than a line in this account of American literature while of course there are chapters devoted to Willa Cather. Cather is a more literary writer, but it seems odd that the writer of a novel beloved by so many readers does not merit a few pages in the history of American women's writing

Thanks to your recommendations I've ordered Joy in the Morning - the Betty Smith revival starts here!

Sunday 15 May 2011

Sense and Sensibility 200th Anniversary Post (2)

Willoughby, who for two-thirds of the book arouses the readers' detestation as a brutal scoundrel, is shown by a wonderful transition whose suddenness is equalled only by its complete convincingness to be actually an object of sympathy. Elizabeth Jenkins, Jane Austen, 1948

The wild and stormy night of Willoughby's return is one of my favourite chapters in Sense and Sensibility. Elinor is keeping vigil over her dangerously ill sister and the wind is howling around the house when she hears a coach and horses draw up. Thinking it is her mother she rises to greet a grief-stricken and remorseful Willoughby. Such is Austen's genius - what Eudora Welty calls 'fairy gifts' - the heartless and mercenary Willoughby actually arouses our pity and even the cool-headed Elinor is overwhelmed by his charisma and physical attractiveness. I suspect Austen quite likes Willoughby too, as she slyly says:

His wife was not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable; and in his breed of horses and dogs, and in sporting of every kind, he found no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity. Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, 1811

The new annotated edition of Pride and Prejudice is printed on thick creamy paper with beautiful photos and detailed notes by Patricia Meyer Spacks. Some of the annotations seem to state the obvious. Anyone familiar with Austen will know that 'vulgar' means of a low social class and 'dirt' is mud. It is a lovely book, but at £25 I think this is probably one for Austen addicts only!

Thursday 5 May 2011

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn't fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.
Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

It seems a while since I updated my blog but I've been engrossed in a book! I have a weakness for coming-of-age novels and vintage American literature so Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a perfect read for me.

Eleven-year old Francie is growing up poverty-stricken in the Williamsburg district of Brooklyn, New York in 1912. Francie is a bookish child who likes to sit on the fire escape in her tenement flat hidden in the branches of the tree that grows underneath it, reading and listening to the comings and goings of the lively neighbourhood. On a Saturday she visits the library where she is working her way through every single book and has so far only reached authors whose name begins with B. Her mother and aunties are delicate-looking but extremely tough women who have to stretch a tiny family budget. Her father is a lovable and handsome loser who works when he can. Francie and her brother are always hungry. The rhythms and speech patterns of the working class Williamsburg community are brilliantly captured by Betty Smith.

I'll post my final thoughts on this novel when I've finished it but I'd like to read more novels set in early 20th century New York. I'm thinking Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence and Willa Cather's My Mortal Enemy. I was also intrigued by Book Snob's review of Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. As always, I would welcome any other suggestions.