The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The night watch sarah watersI haven’t written any reviews for the longest time.  That’s not to say that I haven’t been reading. Nor have I stopped riding the train for that matter, although now my journeys are fewer but longer, so when I do ride the train I tend to use the oasis of the quiet carriage to write for my thesis.  However, the bookshop at my University asked me to write a  recommendation for my favourite LGBT book, either fiction or non-fiction, which brought me back to thinking about the blog again.

The bookshop have been gearing up for LGBT History Month and were planning a display of LGBT books, each of which were to be accompanied by a recommendation from staff and students of the university.  So, once I said yes I had to nominate my favourite LGBT book. How hard could it be? Hmm… well when I got to thinking about it I just couldn’t come up with a favourite.  Most times there is usually something about a book that I just don’t get, don’t like, or makes me feel a bit meh. And really, I don’t read all that much LGBT focused stuff anyway.  Right now most of my reading is thesis focused, when I get the opportunity to read for pleasure I read things that take my fancy more than anything – I am particularly partial to classic and historical fiction, and if there is a lesbian in them that is generally a plus point but there doesn’t have to be one. So, based on my likes I narrowed it all down and it was clear it had to be a Sarah Waters novel – but which one? Well eliminating The Little Stranger, which has no lesbians in it, there could only be one winner The Night Watch.

The brief for the recommendation was what I liked about this book – where to start – this is perhaps my absolute favourite of Waters books, mind you I have yet to read her new offering The Paying Guests yet. The first thing that strikes you when you read The Night Watch is the alternative approach to telling the story. Sometimes, even when a tale is told in linear start to finish mode you still need to know how characters arrive at their present situation, get an understanding of their personal history.  In this book that is just what Waters does by taking you backward through time to discover the loves and lives of the key characters and how they survive, and sometimes thrive, through World War II.  The book is about four Londoners living through the war, but we don’t get their stories from start to finish, instead you start in 1947 and end up in 1941 in a queer approach to telling the tale of queer folk and their relationships.

As with all Waters work, this book is rich in detail, but this one is a little quieter and deeper than her previous Victorian era lesbian tales, and is very much character driven. As you travel backwards through time you discover the histories of each of the characters and learn what makes them who they are in 1947. Another unique aspect is the queerness of all the main characters, both in respect of who they are and their relationships. First we have Kay, a butch dyke, who finds a kind of freedom in war torn London as an ambulance driver; Duncan whose war experience is distinctly different from most young men of his age; Viv, whose love life revolves around a married man; and Helen, whose love life revolves around another woman.  Traveling back in time uncovers the intricate connections between each of these characters, all of whom are living at the margins of normative respectability. By the end we understand how the main four characters have become who they are when we first meet their 1947 selves.

What worked not so well was the character of Duncan. Whereas all the female characters, lesbian or not, were rounded and believable, Duncan appeared to me to be an insipid character who, situated in a different genre of story would surface as a Private Pike type individual. But that might just be my impatient reading of his character, eager as I was to move on to the women’s stories. Of course, it may be that his story needed to be more rounded and filled out a little in order for it to work well. Whether it is my less interested reading of him or the need for him to be more developed, compared to the other male characters Duncan is pale and weak.

However, despite Duncan, the novel is, without doubt, the best Waters I have read to date and the first that I wanted to re-read as soon as I finished it.

Butch is a Noun by S. Bear Bergman

Butch is a nounI read a lot of gender and LGBT studies books, in part because my thesis is lesbian focused.  But I am also interested in the field and what others have to say on these topics too.  I read this book out of interest rather than for thesis purposes because others, both virtual and actual, had read it with enthusiasm and I was curious to find out what the fuss was about.

Butch is a Noun is a collection of essays by a butch concerning hir experiences of being butch.  Overall the book was an interesting read.  However I did find it a little repetitive, particularly around the topics of how gentlemanly, compassionate, and thoughtful the author behaves (and expects other butches to behave) around the women in hir life, shopping, the bathroom problem, how great butch brotherhood is, more shopping, chivalry and so on.  And that was just the thing; that was really all the book was about.  I don’t really know what I expected this book to be, as a collection of butch related essays it works fine, but if a more academic approach to queer theory, gender theory, identity construction and/or deconstruction, or any other type of academic insight is required this is not the tome to turn to. Indeed, if that is what you want a good place to start would be Halbertam’s Female Masculinity. 

Overall, Butch is a Noun frustrated me.  At times I could relate well to the essays – the release of cutting long hair short or the “no-way” clothing moment., among others.  But, there were other points that felt a touch misogynistic, especially when writing about femmes.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was but it felt that there was a level of protectiveness in the air when Bear was writing about femmes, as if they are weaker than butches.  Whereas, when writing about other butches I felt that Bear was writing about hir equals.  I also felt that the book didn’t cross the Atlantic particularly well with respect to LGBT community insights.  But perhaps this last point is more about my position than Bear’s.  Despite being based in two countries, I live a semi-rural lifestyle in the UK and a very rural lifestyle in Ireland, both of which are miles apart both physically and culturally to any North American urban LGBT community lifestyle.

Reservations aside, in its own way it wasn’t a bad book; it does what it says on the tin so to speak in that Bear does indicate that this is about hir experience and that is all.  For me, the best essays in the book in the book are “I know what butch is” which highlights the many contradictions of what butch is and isn’t but actually is if that is how you define it, and “Faggot Butch” because it resonates more with my life than butch-femme relationships.

Affinity by Sarah Waters

Cover of "AFFINITY (VIRAGO V S.)"
Cover of AFFINITY (VIRAGO V S.)

I finished this Sarah Waters book a while back, in fact it was finished just before Tom died.  However, riding the train to work, reading, and writing – whether for pleasure, procrastination purposes or in fact work – was put on the back burner after Tom died.  My partner and I took time out from work to come to terms with our loss and the big Tom shaped hole in our lives and to start rebuilding our lives together.  Happily the time out for ourselves has healed and renewed us and we are back into our working routines again.  So, it is time for me to get back into the writing habit, even if it is off work topic!

Affinity, the second book published by Sarah Waters is a Victorian gothic horror with lesbian undercurrents. It is unusually written in that rather than being divided up into traditional chapters the book is entirely composed of diary entries that juxtapose the pre-prison life of the villain of the piece, Selina Dawes, against the on-going activities of the protagonist, Margaret Prior, where we meet Selina in the present as a prisoner.  Whilst at times annoying, this style is in fact what encouraged me to continue reading as, via this device, we discover the events that lead to Selina being in prison, watch the relationship between Selina and Margaret develop, and witness an unexpected ending unfold.  And, it is in this approach to the telling of the tale that brings out the atmosphere of suspense and tension which is what drives the reader forward to discover what happens next.

In summary, the story tells the tale of Margaret Prior, a genteel upper-middle class woman, or should I say lady, who is in her late 20s.  Margaret is unmarried and, as is usual and expected in the later half of the 19th Century, living in the family home with her, soon to be married, younger sister and her recently widowed mother.  In the beginning we learn that Margaret is struggling following the death of her father which precipitated a suicide attempt.  As a means of recovery, and to escape the clutches of her mother, a woman who has Margaret’s best interests at heart but would rather she act in a manner fitting the station of a middle class spinster, Margaret becomes a lady visitor to the women in Millbank Prison where she befriends the imprisoned spiritualist medium Selina Dawes.  Over the course of her visits Margaret develops an intense friendship with Selina, which, we learn late in the book, has very much been manipulated by the convict, and of course ends in tragedy.

In keeping with the tension and suspense, Waters leaves more to the imagination than she makes explicit which works for her in many ways.  It is successful as a plot device as it continually presses you to keep reading and discover what happens next.  However she also leaves the reader asking questions about the nature of the special friendship Margaret had with Helen, her brother’s wife; the nature of this friendship is never actually stated, was it lesbian or not? Was it in the vein of a Boston marriage? Although as the two women were not living together independently then that is unlikely.  Are we to imagine a close, romantic friendship between the two women as was accepted and acceptable at the time for women along the way to eventual marriage?  The lesbian desire question is also apparent within the developing relationship between Margaret and Selina.  What is left unstated about the nature of the female relationships in the book works for Waters on two levels.  By not being explicit she does not alienate the much larger straight population from engaging with her novels.  However, despite this approach of not making clear the relationship position between her key characters lesbian readers can read into the situation whatever they will and so Waters keeps both audiences happy. This ambiguity is very much reflected in my favourite quote of the book:

“It is the same with spinsters as with ghosts; and one has to be of their ranks in order to see them at all”  p.59

All that said, a quick and dirty straw poll among those I know who read Waters books seems to divide who likes what with lesbian readers appearing to like the more explicitly stated lesbian novels than those verging towards assumption and guesswork.  Whilst, those of a straight persuasion seem to like her works that have little, or less overtly stated, lesbian content such as with The Little Stranger, which for me was a penance to work through.  I would say that the tensions that Waters set up in Affinity worked much better for me than in The Little Stranger, and yes, this book does work as a gothic horror.  But, and maybe this is more because of personal preferences, for me Waters best offering to date is The Night Watch.

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

Rubyfruit Jungle RMBWell I finally got around to reading Rubyfruit Jungle towards the end of last semester.  I’ve possessed a copy for a long while, maybe a few years or 10 (plus), which I bought on the basis of Julie Walter’s character in Educating Rita.  I  liked Walter’s character so my thinking was that maybe I would like the book, the fact that it was about a lesbian may make it even more appealling.  However, the book never quite reached the top of my To Read pile.  A number of reasons were the cause of this.  The main reason, however, was that on a quick dip in here and there it didn’t quite appeal to me.  I wasn’t sure I could relate to it, this being an American lesbian tale, and I’m not American.  Also, the story is set in the late 60s and early 70s.  Now, not that I am against anything set in this time period, but from my personal 70s vantage point of a rural English primary school 60s/70s America is something of an alien landscape.  My idea of 70s America was derived from the cross Atlantic TV that found its way to our house in the form of Columbo, Ironside and the Waltons – not quite the sort of TV that featured lesbians, token or otherwise.

The story is a lesbian coming-of-age novel about Molly Bolt, the adopted daughter of Carl and Carrie.  I am tempted to call it a coming out story, however, Molly doesn’t really come out and she doesn’t have any major amounts of angst or soul searching about her sexuality.  No, Molly is just queer right from the get go.  Molly experiments with sex with another girl when in the 6th grade and then again when in high school.  This lesbian sex is interspersed with sex with her cousin Leroy.  Molly excels at school and achieves a scholarship to go to university where she becomes involved with her roommate.  When their relationship is discovered she loses the scholarship and so cannot complete her studies.  Molly then leaves Florida for New York where she works her way through film school. Along the way Molly’s relationship with her adoptive parents is examined. Molly has a good relationship with her father, who dies while she is in high school, however she has a tumultuous relationship with her adoptive mother, who she calls Carrie. Interestingly when she returns home to film her final piece of work for her film studies course, which is focused entirely on Carrie, Molly seems to achieve something of a peace with her adoptive parent.

So, how did the book get to the top of the pile and finally read?  Well, it was a matter of association, I had just bought Why be happy when you can be normal by Jeanette Winterson which made me think about Oranges are not the only fruit, and of course fruit led to Rubyfruit Jungle – and I thought, let’s get to it and see what it’s like.  Having read it I wish it hadn’t, ok so it wasn’t that bad, I just didn’t like it.  The writing isn’t that great, I found the style of writing very simplistic and, I suppose compared to some of the non-academic stuff I do read it is.  The book also reads very much like a rose tinted fictionalised account of how Brown would have liked her life to have been, particularly when you examine the parrallels between the fictional Molly and and the experiences of Brown.

The book is often hailled as classic lesbian fiction and in many respects it is an interesting account of its historical time and place. Take gender roles and expectations as example, in the late 60s and early 70s generally women stayed home and kept house and if they had to go out of the house to work it was mainly in lower status work they they were employed.  And whilst times were changing, young women were expected to follow suit.  Yes, we see Molly head off to university, however many of her contemporaries at school did stay home and raise families, take Molly’s first love Leota.  With respect to it being classic lesbian fiction, well it is a classic because there are not that many lesbian works out there and it was one of the first to explicitly portray lesbianism, however that is about it.

Overall, it really did nothing for me.  And no, even from the vantage point of the 21st century and a bit of an education behind me, I still couldn’t relate to it.

Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

Notes on a Scandal

Notes on a Scandal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This book was purchased on a whim. I had mainly heard good stuff about this, whether the book or the film, people on the whole seemed to like it. The book was nominated for the Man Booker Prize – so this should be good stuff. I had also heard that it contained vague sapphic undercurrents and that Judy Dench was excellent in the film. So with all these plusses going for it, when I saw it in the Uni bookshop sale just as I was finishing The Unlit Lamp, and in need of the next commuting read, I picked it up.

Disappointment! This wasn’t a fantastic read for me and so was restricted to the home time commute only. Now, despite not having actually seen the film I appeared to be channeling my inner Judy Dench, as the book was read cover to cover in the dulcet tones of Dame Judy. Whether that coloured my view or not I don’t know, but I was underwhelmed by the whole thing and will definitely not put the DVD on my wish list any time soon.

You see, the thing is, I couldn’t get into the style of it. The story itself isn’t too bad.  In nutshell, it is a sordid little tale about a lonely, late middle-aged, single woman, Barbara Covett, her obsession with a younger woman, Sheba Hart, and the younger woman’s involvement with a 15 year old boy, Stephen Connolly.  The chaos this affair brings about and the aftermath of the affair. Both of the women are teachers at the same school that Connolly is a pupil at. However, the story is told by the older woman who has carefully documented the illicit affair, rather than directly by the people involved. We are also made aware in the opening paragraph of the book of how it all ended before we begin to learn how it all began. So the story here is really how we got to where we started from Barbara’s perspective. It was the nature of this storytelling, however unusual and clever, that was lacking for me.

That said, however, I think my real unease is more related to the depiction of the Barbara character. Barbara is painted as being a lonely figure whose only companion until the arrival of Sheba was her cat. This left a nasty taste in my mouth, as if the worst possible thing to befall a woman is becoming an older unattached woman.  For, by society’s rules this means she has failed at the one thing a woman needs to succeed at – a successful relationship. As the story unfolds it is revealed that Barbara had previously been obsessed with another female teacher before Sheba. However I hesitate to describe Barbara as a lesbian as it is not entirely clear whether she is or not as she seemed not only to have a fixation with Sheba but equally she seemed both flustered and then pleased to be asked to lunch by Brian Bangs (another teacher). However, when Bangs reveals that he has a crush on Sheba and wants to know whether Sheba is interested in him Barbara became a woman scorned and to get back at Sheba, who she feels isn’t paying her enough attention, let’s the cat out of the bag with respect to the Connolly affair. If others do read Barbara as lesbian then I am even more perturbed – there are few enough representations of lesbians out there in the media and arts as it is without resorting to a pejorative stereotype.

Meh.

The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I finished reading this book back at the end of April.  It has taken me quite sometime to finish the book. It has also taken me quite sometime to put my thoughts about this book in order too.

I started reading it as “a training it home” read from University.  But as I have only been attending sporadically for meetings it was, at times, picked up quite briefly and then put down again for considerable periods of time.  However, despite finding the book tough going I finally got through the last few chapters away from the train in the cosy confines of Costa doing my Sunday morning church run stint.

The Unlit Lamp was Radclyffe Hall’s first book, however it stands in the shadow of The Well of Loneliness, her most well known novel.  The book is the story of Joan Ogden who aspires to a university education to become a doctor, and to set up home with her governess and subsequent friend, Elizabeth.  However Joan’s dreams and aspirations are thwarted, first by her father who feels it unseemly and unfeminine for a girl to pursue a medical career, and then by her mother whose continual “touch of the vapours” command all of Joan’s time, attention and energy until she has nothing left of herself.

It is one depressing book, and the ending was without doubt not unexpected.  Ok, yes I looked ahead, I always do, half the fun of reading is seeing how the journey pans out from a known beginning to a known end point anyway.  But this ending was always on the cards, whether I had checked out the last chapter or not, in fact I read the last chapter precisely to see if my prediction would be thwarted.  Joan was always going to do the dutiful daughter thing and stay with her mother despite Elizabeth willing and wanting Joan to come live with her and pursue a fulfilling life as a doctor. And, also despite Richard, a mutual friend of both Joan and Elizabeth, desperately wanting Joan to marry him and follow him into the medical profession.  Clearly, although not spelt out, the character of Joan clearly reads as a lesbian so she was never going to marry Richard.  Apparently Radclyffe Hall did not think that Elizabeth and Joan were a lesbian couple. But they read like that, or if not a couple then certainly as lesbians. Or, at least Joan does as Hall paints a clear picture of Joan’s short cropped hair, masculine tailored clothes and ties.

However, it did seem, albeit briefly, that just, very possibly, Joan would leave and pursue her dreams with Elizabeth. But that was not to be the case. Joan remained with her mother, forgoing a university education and the possibility of a career and the future financial security this path would bring.  Instead Elizabeth moves on and tries to forget Joan, marrying Richard’s brother and moving abroad.  Whilst Joan spends her life taking care of her mother when in reality the mother could have looked after herself quite well.  In the end when her mother dies, a middle-aged Joan is left to find a way to make her own way in the world without the skills and training that she might have had to assist her and so has to look to low paid, caregiving work.

The crux of the book is in the battle between Joan’s mother on the one hand and Elizabeth on the other for Joan’s love and attention.  As the story unfolds key episodes from Joan’s life form the cloth with which the women cross swords for Joan’s future.  Each little battlefield bringing with it the possibility that Joan will make a move towards the bright future she longs for, but time and again each drama plays out onto the side of family duty and obligation.

Clearly, through-out the book Joan is marked out as different, with her manner of dress, the career aspirations of her youth and so on.  However there is more there, a lesbian undercurrent that Hall articulates much more clearly in the later The Well of Loneliness, which is apparent in the difficulties that Joan has in her fruitless attempts to leave home in order to live with another woman – why is this such a difficult thing to do if done in all innocence?

Overall I found the book maddeningly frustrating.  The ending was predictable, however the agonising, the miserable lesbian angst just prolonged the agony.